Forgotten Master of the
Macabre – H.B. Gregory
There are any number of books that get touted as “rare” or scarce”; words that get tossed around far more often than is seemly. Among knowledgeable booksellers, the definitions are quite a bit different from what you might expect . . . “Rare” would be a book that a resourceful bookseller or collector might see once every ten years or so. “Scarce”, now there’s a word that if used correctly signifies something very special indeed . . . A book that a resourceful collector with a huge list of contacts with similar interests and a great deal of expertise may see only once in a lifetime! The books that often get described with these terms are usually just “uncommon” or as is more often the case, “expensive”.
The original edition of this novel is genuinely “scarce”; whereas something like Lovecraft’s The Outsider & Others is merely “uncommon” and most certainly “expensive”. Just as an aside, to demonstrate the point that Arkham House titles don’t qualify for the “rare” or “scarce” designation, I used to have a standing wager with friends that if they gave me a blank check to work with I could put together a complete set of Arkham House books within thirty days (and that was pre-internet!) Conversely, if one attempts to assemble “The Wagner List” we’re looking at a much more difficult feat, (some would say impossible, thanks in large measure to H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary.)
My colleague Dwayne Olson discusses the Wagner List in the article that follows, and was originally used as the introduction to the Midnight House edition of Dark Sanctuary. However, in the decade since several events have occurred which allows me to cast some additional light on just how scarce the first edition of Dark Sanctuary really is . . . To start with, in 2005 I received an e-mail from Harry Gregory’s daughter! As it turns out, the Gregorys were delighted to see a new edition of the novel and while quite elderly, Harry Gregory was still sharp as a tack and had very clear memories of his foray into supernatural fiction. He was gracious enough to grant an interview, (originally published in Allen Kozsowski’s wonderful magazine Inhuman, and reprinted here as an afterword.)
The genesis of the novel was in large part an answer to H.P. Lovecraft and his penchant for “indescribable, unspeakable horrors”, eschewing the idea that the menace is more terrifying if left entirely to the imagination, Gregory shows us the demoniacal entity and still manages to maintain the mystique and impart a genuine feeling of dread. No mean feat, as I can tell you as a writer who has used both extremes that what I leave to your imagination is bound to be far more terrifying than what I describe on the printed page. It takes exceptional control and very precise prose to fully describe a monster and do so effectively. Some examples that come to mind are Long’s “Second Night Out”, Brennan’s “Slime”, and Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost”. That puts H.B. Gregory in pretty illustrious company, quite an achievement for a first novelist with no previous experience in writing weird fiction.
The setting of the Gregory’s honeymoon proved influential in the development of the novel; but I’ll not say too much more on that for fear of stealing Harry’s thunder in the interview that follows the novel. Suffice it to say, one of the books strengths is the strong sense of place that Gregory is able to infuse in his descriptions of Kestrel and Pentock, which are not quite as imaginary as his disclaimer would imply . . .
A devout Christian, Gregory also dismisses the Lovecraftian view of an indifferent and amoral cosmos and makes his novel a very clear-cut struggle between Good and Evil. He does so without being trite or the slightest bit preachy, but there’s no doubt that the author subscribes to a belief that Evil is a very real force and can only be overcome by a powerful reliance on the forces of Good.
There’s little doubt that had the book even marginal exposure it would have been lauded as a classic in the genre. What happened to the book and its subsequent resurrection is a bibliographic miracle, in itself almost so fantastic as seem the stuff of fiction.
The publishing house of Rider was well-known for their books dealing with all aspects of theology and frequently delving into fiction, so Dark Sanctuary was a natural. Unfortunately, the company also favored tiny print runs and only 400 copies of the book were produced. Four-hundred copies is generally still enough to ensure that a book achieves a certain immortality, as at least a handful of copies will fall into the hands of collectors, some of whom may correspond about it or even get reviews published. Dark Sanctuary wasn’t so lucky . . . According to the author only review copies and “Colonial pre-orders” had shipped when the Blitz began and the warehouse holding the rest of the copies (and many other books) was burned to the ground. The author recalls the publisher asking to borrow one of his two author copies in pursuit of a foreign language sale . . . He never got it back . . .
The number of papers that reviewed Rider publications can be counted on the fingers of two hands. The number of “Colonial pre-orders”, which would have included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India was likely about the same number. That a copy found its way into Karl Edward Wagner’s hands was little short of miraculous . . . One of my mentors in book collecting as well as editing, Karl told me a trick he’d learned for discovering interesting supernatural titles . . . (In fairness, I think Ramsey Campbell also commented on this, so I’ll give credit to both gentlemen). Obviously, if an author has written an interesting book, it behooves one to look into the rest of that author’s output. Karl applied the same logic to publishers, reasoning that if a publisher offered one supernatural thriller, they were likely to have published others . . . Then it was all down to finding other titles from the same time frame (when the same editorial staff was likely in place) and tracking down promising-sounding titles . . . (this last can’t always be relied on, as some great books have been cursed with awful titles, The Dumpling, anyone?)
Armed with the knowledge that Rider had been home to Warrington Dawson’s The Guardian Demons and Furze Morrish’s Bridge over Dark Gods, on one of his many trips to England, Karl had his eye out for Rider titles and discovered a copy of Dark Sanctuary. The book so impressed Karl that he listed it as one of the thirteen best supernatural horror novels in his column in The Twilight Zone, but frustratingly enough to collectors, very few were lucky enough to find a copy of their own. After all, it can reasonably be assumed that only about two-dozen copies were distributed and likely only about half of those have survived into the present. One such copy made its way onto the hands of D.H. Olson, who discusses the book and Rider & Co. in the article that follows.
It so happened that when Dwayne mentioned the book to me, I was pretty much set on Midnight House just publishing short story collections, and wasn’t keen on deviating from a formula that had been working very well, however, there was a new publisher who had just started up by publishing another fabulous rarity and was looking about for his next project . . . Dwayne had brought a Xerox of Dark Sanctuary to a convention where both the other publisher and myself were exhibiting our wares, so we approached the other publisher on the last day of the convention as he was disassembling his table and told him the story of Dark Sanctuary and offered him a xerox copy . . . Much to our surprise, he seemed unimpressed by the book’s story and to our shock left the Xerox on his table when he left . . . Then and there I decided that there were enough great “lost” supernatural novels to make it worth expanding the horizons of Midnight House and promptly published a new edition of Dark Sanctuary a couple of months later.
Dark Sanctuary proved to be one of Midnight House’s best-selling titles and all of our copies have been gone for a number of years. However, two editions of this excellent novel still comprise less than 500 copies in circulation. That fact, taken with the new information about the novel available from no less than the book’s author makes the idea of a new edition quite compelling.
It’s not often that a novel is published with so much editorial apparatus, (two introductions and an interview with the author), but I think that after reading it you’ll agree that Dark Sanctuary is a classic of the genre that merits such special treatment. For my own part, I’m honored to be able to do my bit to keep this amazing work alive.