The Curse of the Masterman Collector


It’s a rare occurrence when a bibliophile is taken completely by surprise when they set out to collect a particular author. As an example, if one decides to collect the Pelan List as was featured in my long-running column in Cemetery Dance they are warned from the get-go that the list is a dynamic document and once a book goes out-of-print and exceeds the ceiling price of $50.00 it gets dropped from the list and is replaced by another title. This list had a very specific purpose, it was intended to be useful to both the novice and the experienced collector as a method to build a substantial collection without breaking the bank and at the same time getting a good overview of the genre with the intent of exposing the reader to a wide variety of horror that might serve as a jumping-off point to assembling a collection in line with the reader’s tastes.

An earlier list and one I’ve heard numerous collectors chase after is Karl Edward Wagner’s three lists of the thirteen best horror novels in the categories of supernatural, non-supernatural, and science-fictional horror. Without some understanding of the thinking behind the list(s), Karl’s selections seem to be idiosyncratic at best and downright bizarre at worst. Having had a chance to discuss the list(s) with Karl, I can safely say that I don’t think anyone (least of all Karl) thought for a second that these were the thirty-nine best horror novels. What they were (and are) thirty-nine books that every horror fan should read in order to get a feel for just how broad the genre really is. Karl utilized his column in The Twilight Zone Magazine as a bully pulpit to call attention to books that otherwise might be overlooked by even a very well-read fan.

As an example, I’ll cite John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron and Michael Arlen’s “Hell!” Said the Duchess as two volumes that would likely escape the notice of modern collectors. By that same token, the British thrillers by authors such as R.R. Ryan, Mark Hansom, and Walter S. Masterman would by virtue of their scarcity unlikely to be read by any save those readers diligent (and wealthy) enough to seek out all the titles listed in the Bleiler Checklist.

Walter S. Masterman’s books reflect the titles included on the Wagner lists in a very interesting manner . . . The Wagner lists can be broken down into three groups: the first, books that are extremely common and inexpensive; the second, books that can be found with some effort and a ready checkbook, and the third group being books that are so scarce that even a collector with considerable resources and contacts throughout the rare book world may only see copies once or twice during their lifetime. The Masterman titles on the Wagner lists (The Flying Beast and The Yellow Mistletoe) fell into the second group until the Ramble House reissues made them readily available in both hardcover and trade paperback.

Within the Masterman oeuvre we have his series of novels featuring Sir Arthur Sinclair, a sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond . . . Sinclair is a brilliant detective, but also a man of action and thus fits in well in both the “impossible crime” venue and the more fantastic scenarios such as those in novels such as The Yellow Mistle­toe. Of course the Sinclair novels fall into the same sort of grouping, the common, those needing a bit of effort to locate, and the near impossible . . . The Curse of Cantire falls into the third category. When three of the most rabid Masterman collectors (myself included) have been chasing after this book for thirty years and coming up empty, one has to consider this a rare volume indeed.

As to the novel itself, many of the familiar Masterman tropes are here . . . A decayed estate replete with secret passages and a family curse, legends of a sinister figure (the Black Abbott) who has haunted the family for generations, and of course the grisly murders that a Masterman fan has come to expect. As much as I’d like to be able to tell you that this is a “lost” fantastic novel with futuristic flying machines, lost races, and mad scientists along the lines of The Flying Beast, The Border Line, or The Yellow Mistletoe; such is not the case; instead, we have a clever mystery novel that echoes his much earlier volume, The Green Toad. There are certainly hints of supernatural occurrences, are they legitimate manifestations of a vengeful force reaching from beyond the grave to strike at the living, or the work of a clever criminal hoping to terrorize his victims? Well, that would be telling . . .

I can say this much, The Curse of Cantire is a fine installment in the Sir Arthur Sinclair stories, and thankfully not the last appearance of this great detective. Masterman wrote four more novels and I believe that at least two feature Sir Arthur, and for those wondering what becomes of Sir Arthur after the last chronicle by Masterman, he does make a cameo appearance in my forthcoming novel. The Six-Fingered Hand. Some months ago (in the introduction to The Border Line), we made the promise that more Masterman volumes would appear from either  Ramble House or Dancing Tuatara Press; now that one of the rarest of these titles has surfaced, we can be optimistic that coming months may see the remainder of his works brought back into print.


John Pelan

Midnight House

Gallup, NM 2010