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Introduction to Mark Hansom's
THE WIZARD OF BERNER'S ABBEY
by John Pelan
The Wizard of Wright & Brown
Welcome! Since you’ve tracked this book down, we have to assume that you are familiar with either (a) the work of Mark Hansom, (b) my work as an editor when it comes to bringing obscure works of mystery or the supernatural back into print, or (c) you were browsing the Ramble House site and saw Gavin O’Keefe’s remarkably cool cover for this book and decided to take a chance on it.
This volume is the third Mark Hansom title to be released by Dancing Tuatara Press and the fourth of his seven novels to be resurrected under my editorship (the fourth, The Beasts of Brahm was published by Midnight House and is still available, e-mail email@example.com for ordering information.) If this is your first Mark Hansom book, you’re starting with the book I consider the most typical of his novels and in many respects, one of his best. There’s some difference of opinion on this, of course. The late Karl Edward Wagner cited Hansom’s first book, The Shadow on the House (also available from Ramble House) as his best book, naming it one of the thirteen best non-supernatural horror novels. However, even this is open to debate as Karl admitted to me that at the time he composed his list, The Shadow on the House was the only Hansom book he had encountered at the time. Karl later went on to acquire all of Hansom’s novels, but I never did get a chance to find out whether or not he had revised his opinion.
While Hansom’s first novel was a masterpiece of psychological horror, with his two 1935 novels, (The Ghost of Gaston Revere and The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey) Hansom leaped into the supernatural genre with both feet. In both books Hansom uses a motif that became his hallmark: the antagonist perishes early on in the story only to prove far more baleful an influence from beyond the grave. In The Wizard of Berner’s Abbey, we learn enough of Paul St. Arnaud and his experiments using the power of the human will to know that he’s a formidable individual and the hero of the piece, a young medical student would seem to be horribly overmatched. Then to our surprise, St. Arnaud collapses from pneumonia and dies and would thus seem to be incapable of inflicting harm or even annoying anyone . . . But then we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we?
I can’t reveal much more without spoiling things, so I’ll leave it to you to find out whether or not Paul St. Arnaud is a wizard capable of enforcing his will on the living from beyond the grave, or a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. Suffice it to say, there are a number of surprises and Hansom’s pacing makes the book a real page-turner.
Added to this volume is a bonus, the first publication since 1939 of Hansom’s only known short story, “Monk’s Tower”. Once again, Hansom defies convention; whereas most authors begin their career’s writing short fiction before tackling a novel, Hansom ends his career with a short story. Whether this was intentional or not is unknown as we shall see . . .
So who was this inventive and vastly entertaining author, and why did he stop writing in 1939? The fact of the matter is that no one really knows for certain . . . Even though I was responsible for his entry in the encyclopaedia Supernatural Literature of the World, I was unable to include more than a brief bibliography and some conjectures as to what may have become of him . . .
We do know that “Mark Hansom” was a pseudonym; there are no records of a person with that name being born (or dying) in the United Kingdom that could possibly have been the author. The man writing as Mark Hansom began his career in 1934 and his career ended almost to the day that Great Britain entered the Second World War. Assuming that he was a young man in mid-to-late twenties at the time it’s not at all unreasonable to think that he may have died in the service of his country.
Another possibility is that “Hansom” was the pseudonym for another author working the field, or possibly someone employed in some capacity at Wright & Brown. What suggests this possibility is the program of reprinting abridged versions of his novels undertaken by Mellifont in the 1950s. Certainly it’s possible that a contract was entered into by his heirs, but considering the extensive revisions done it would seem more likely that Mellifont had a living author to work with.
There have been a few theories as to the identity behind the pseudonym, and please keep in mind that it’s much easier to poke holes in other scholars work than it is to come up with one’s own hypothesis. Richard Dalby proposed that “Mark Hansom” was yet another pseudonym for Charles Cannell, better known to most of us as “E. Charles Vivian” or “Jack Mann”. There are some fairly obvious flaws in this line of thought, not the least of which is an extreme stylistic difference. Now Cannell was able to vary his style, the “Gees” novels are quite unlike his work as “Vivian”. However, one central motif that runs through all of his and that is a fascination with aviation. If Cannell’s characters need to get from point A to point B by air, Cannell gave you a through description of the type of airplane involved, details of its capacity, mechanics, etc. If Hansom needed to move people about, a cursory line or two would be the extent of his description. Another point of difference is that Hansom seemed very well acquainted with the lifestyle of the upper class, so much so in fact that I strongly suspect that he was a member of it. There doesn’t seem to be much of this class-consciousness in any of Cannell’s work. There are other differences, but just on the strength of these two points I would be inclined to reject Dalby’s theory.
A number of people have put forth the idea that “Mark Hansom” was the same person masquerading behind the rather obvious pseudonym of “Rex Dark”. On the surface, this seems quite a bit more plausible as both authors were active at almost exactly the same time and both stopped writing (at least under these names) at almost exactly the same time. However, while the similarity in careers (Hansom: 1934-1939) and (Dark: 1936-1940) on which this theory is based seems to me to be the strongest argument against its viability. The idea that an author energetic enough to churn out seventeen novels in seven years would just seemingly vanish is enough to raise eyebrows. This line of reason would certainly be in keeping with the theory that the author perished in the early days of WWII.
On the surface this looks pretty plausible; the only rebuttal that I can offer is based on numerous readings of the Hansom novels and reading two of the Rex Dark books. (Whoever he was, “Rex Dark’s” novels seem to be almost as elusive as “Mark Hansom’s). All I can say is that the stylistic differences seem very pronounced. Unlike the case with Cannell I can’t easily point to one or two items, it’s more of a case of a pronounced difference in sentence structure, dialogue, pacing, plotting. To me, it’s much like placing a story by M.R. James next to a tale by Lovecraft; one needn’t be a literary detective to readily ascertain that two different people wrote the stories. The comparison of “Mark Hansom” and “Rex Dark” seems to be equally obvious.
So there we are, we can say pretty definitely that we know who “Mark Hansom” wasn’t, but we aren’t left with any but a few tantalizing clues as to who he may have been. I’m pretty solidly convinced that he was likely a young man of the upper class, (his references to the first World War are those of a man too young to have been directly involved). Very likely Wright & Brown employed him in some capacity; (the publishing business was deemed suitable for young men of the upper class to get a taste of the business world before returning to manage the family’s affairs. An example would be Sir Charles Birkin putting in a stint at Philip Allan as an editor.) Equally likely is that he was killed in the war. I’ve previously considered the idea that he survived the war and wound up working with Mellifont based on their reprinting of his work, but the abridged editions are so ham-fistedly done that I can’t imagine a living author condoning the messes that were made of the two novels that they butchered (The Shadow on the House and The Ghost of Gaston Revere). Also, the more I investigated, the more books from Wright & Brown I discovered having been picked up for reprint by Mellifont, so the case of Mellifont reprinting Hansom and Dark was far from unique.
Perhaps at some point we’ll discover the identity of the man (or woman) behind the Mark Hansom name; in the meantime we have seven exciting novels to enjoy!