"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Compleat Crow by Brian Lumley: Review and notes

The Compleat Crow

By Brian Lumley


As with most "The Adventures of..." short story collections, The Compleat Crow's contents are very mixed in quality. Some, whether ambitious or more jocular, achieve their goals beautifully:

"Lord of the Worms"

"An Item of Supporting Evidence"

"Billy's Oak"

"Darghud's Doll"

"De Marigny's Clock"

The rest of the stories can be skipped. They are marred by errors in aesthetic judgment, or just leave a bad taste. Some of this is due to poor execution, where Lumley seems to be forcing the pace or throwing away a poorly prepared ending.

Inception (1987) 

....the vicar took the crucifix from around his neck and hung it from the hook over the font, held out his arms for the child. He'd done it all a thousand times before, so that it was difficult these days to get any real meaning into the words; but of course they had meaning anyway, and in any case he tried.

     And at last all was done. The vicar dipped his hand into the water, sprinkled droplets, made the sign—and the church seemed to hold its breath…

     But only for an instant.

     Then the five-sided room came alive in a glow like burnished gold (the sun, of course, moving out from behind a cloud, burning on the old windows), and smiling, the vicar passed the child in his christening-gown to his father.

     "So there we have you," said the proud, handsome man, his voice deep and strong; and he showed the child to his mother.

     A rose of a woman, she gazed with love on the infant, kissed his brow. "Those eyes," she said, "with so much still to see. And that little mind, with so much still to fill it. Look at his face—see how it glows!"

     "It's the light in here," said the vicar. "It turns the skin to roses! Ah, but indeed a beautiful child."

     "Oh, he is!" said the mother, taking him and holding him up. "He is! So pure, so innocent. Our little Titus. Our little Titus Crow…"


Lord of the Worms (1983) 

"Lord of the Worms" is the best conceived and executed story in the collection.

Recently demobilized Titus Crow finds employment with occult magus Julian Carstairs. (Carstairs is too effete to be an obvious stand-in for Crowley).

....Wednesday the 9th of January, 1946, was that day, and Crow found the address, "The Barrows,"—a name which immediately conjured mental pictures of tumuli and cromlechs—at the end of a wooded, winding private road not far from the quaint and picturesque town of Haslemere in Surrey. A large, two-storey house surrounded by a high stone wall and expansive gardens of dark shrubbery, overgrown paths and gaunt-limbed oaks weighed down with festoons of unchecked ivy, the place stood quite apart from any comparable habitation.

     That the house had at one time been a residence of great beauty seemed indisputable; but equally obvious was the fact that recently, possibly due to the hostilities, it had been greatly neglected. And quite apart from this air of neglect and the generally drear appearance of any country property in England during the first few weeks of the year, there was also a gloominess about The Barrows. Something inherent in its grimy upper windows, in the oak-shaded brickwork and shrouding shrubbery; so that Crow's pace grew measured and just a trifle hesitant as he entered the grounds through a creaking iron gate and followed first the drive, then a briar-tangled path to the front door.

     And then, seeming to come too close on the heels of Crow's ringing of the bell, there was the sudden opening of the great door and the almost spectral face and figure of Julian Carstairs himself, whose appearance the young applicant saw from the start was not in accordance with his preconceptions. Indeed, such were Carstairs' looks that what little remained of Crow's restrained but ever-present exuberance was immediately extinguished. The man's aspect was positively dismal.


     ...."And what are your interests, Mr. Crow?"

     "My interests? Why, I—" But at the last moment, even as Crow teetered on the point of revealing that he, too, was a student of the esoteric and occult—though a white as opposed to a black magician—so he once more felt that chill as of outer immensities and, shaking himself from a curious lethargy, noticed how large and bright the other's eyes had grown. And at that moment Crow knew how close he had come to falling under Carstairs' spell, which must be a sort of hypnosis. He quickly gathered his wits and feigned a yawn.

     "You really must excuse me, sir," he said then, "for my unpardonable boorishness. I don't know what's come over me that I should feel so tired. I fear I was almost asleep just then."

     Then, fearing that Carstairs' smile had grown more than a little forced—thwarted, almost—and that his nod was just a fraction too curt, he quickly continued: "My interests are common enough. A little archaeology, paleontology…"

     "Common, indeed!" answered Carstairs with a snort. "Not so, for such interests show an enquiring nature, albeit for things long passed away. No, no, those are admirable pastimes for such a young man." And he pursed his thin lips and fingered his chin a little before asking:

     "But surely, what with the war and all, archaeological work has suffered greatly. Not much of recent interest there?"

     "On the contrary," Crow answered at once. "1939 was an exceptional year. The rock-art of Hoggar and the excavations at Brek in Syria; the Nigerian Ife bronzes; Bleger's discoveries at Pylos and Wace's at Mycenae; Sir Leonard Woolley and the Hittites…Myself, I was greatly interested in the Oriental Institute's work at Megiddo in Palestine. That was in '37. Only a bout of ill health held me back from accompanying my father out to the site."

     "Ah!—your interest is inherited then? Well, do not concern yourself that you missed the trip. Megiddo was not especially productive. Our inscrutable oriental friends might have found more success to the north-east, a mere twenty-five or thirty miles."

     "On the shores of Galilee?" Crow was mildly amused at the other's assumed knowledge of one of his pet subjects.

     "Indeed," answered Carstairs, his tone bone dry. "The sands of time have buried many interesting towns and cities on the shores of Galilee. But tell me: what are your thoughts on the Lascaux cave-paintings, discovered in, er, '38?"

     "No, in 1940," Crow's smile disappeared as he suddenly realised he was being tested, that Carstairs' knowledge of archaeology—certainly recent digs and discoveries—was at least the equal of his own. "September, 1940. They are without question the work of Cro-Magnon man, some 20-25,000 years old."

     "Good!" Carstairs beamed again, and Crow suspected that he had passed the test.

     Now his gaunt host stood up to tower abnormally tall even over his tall visitor. "Very well, I think you will do nicely, Mr. Crow. Come then, and I'll show you my library. It's there you will spend most of your time, after all, and you'll doubtless be pleased to note that the room has a deal more natural light than the rest of the house. Plenty of windows. Barred windows, for of course many of my books are quite priceless."

     Leading the way through gloomy and mazy corridors, he mused: "Of course, the absence of light suits me admirably. I am hemeralopic. You may have noticed how large and dark my eyes are in the gloom? Yes, and that is why there are so few strong electric lights in the house. I hope that does not bother you?"

     "Not at all," Crow answered, while in reality he felt utterly hemmed in, taken prisoner by the mustiness of dryrot and endless, stifling corridors.

     "And you're a rock-hound, too, are you?" Carstairs continued. "That is interesting. Did you know that fossil lamp-shells, of the sort common here in the south, were once believed to be the devil's cast-off toenails?" He laughed a mirthless, baying laugh. "Ah, what it is to live in an age enlightened by science, eh?"

I won't spoil the plot of this thriller novella. Suffice to say, it does not stint.


The Caller of the Black (1971)

     ....The police had discovered, clenched in one of Symonds' fists, the crushed fragments of what was thought to have been some type of card of very brittle paper. Upon it were strange, inked characters, but the pieces had proved impossible to reconstruct. The fragments had been passed over as being irrelevant....

Lumley here gives the reader a condensed, stuck-in-low-gear "Casting the Runes." Crow must exact revenge against a discount bin Karswell named Gedney.

....The bait was taken; all that remained was to spring the trap. And if I were mistaken?


The Viking's Stone (1977) 

A brief but exhausting imitation of a Holmes-Watson adventure, but with occult plot. The story is narrated by Crow's Boswell, De Marigny:

....Crow.... is one to whom, in his unending search for mysteries and discoveries of marvels, the occult has been simply a passage down which his wanderings have taken him; where he has learned, on more than one occasion, outré things unheard of in the more mundane world of ordinary men. Crow may, in that sense, be called an occultist—but so is he a most knowledgeable man and something of an expert in many fields....

The adventure they are on this time is to save an archaeologist who has "gone too far."

...."You see, de Marigny," he went on after a brief pause, "unlike us Sorlson sees little to fear in this sort of thing. He laughed at me when I let it slip about the stone and its curse three months ago. In fact he made it clear that he thought I was pulling his leg about the stone's very existence…Or so I thought! But in truth he must have known something of Ragnar Gory-Axe before; and then, when I told him of your book…Well, no matter how slim the chance, Sorlson obviously thought my story was at least worth looking into."

Eventually Crow, De Marigny, and Sorlson find themselves in a London-bound train, and outside the window a Viking warship and its skeleton crew can be seen in hot pursuit.


The Mirror of Nitocris (1971)

Ugh, another De Marigny-narrated tale. He buys a mirror with a sinister reputation:

     ....For of course the legends and myths I had heard and read of it were purely legends and myths, and nothing more; heaven forbid!         

    With my ever-increasing knowledge of night's stranger mysteries I should have known better....


An Item of Supporting Evidence (1970) 

...."But for God's sake, man—there must have been thousands of small skirmishes which never got chronicled! You see, that's the whole point, Mr. Crow; you talk about these things in exactly the same way in which you wrote about them in that damned story of yours—as though you believe in them conclusively! As though you actually believe that a great, murderous, lunatic thing was called up from hell by the barbarians to do battle with the Romans! As though you have definite proof—which you haven't. No, you shouldn't have done your story as an historical document at all. God only knows how many poor, deluded little lore-swallowers you'll have galloping all over Briddock and Housesteads, awesomely trembling at the thought that they're perhaps treading the same ground upon which the Romans did fearsome battle with the hideous Yegg-ha!"

     While he sat there fuming I poured more brandy into his glass and grinned at him. "Well, I've obviously made a literary enemy! I'm sorry about that because it was my intention to ask you to illustrate my next book. But anyway, tell me—have you ever seen that horrible, ten-foot chunk of granite statuary in the Roman Antiquities section of the British Museum?"

     "Yes, I have; from Limestone Bank, I believe. A stubby-winged thing much similar to the God in your story, with defaced features and…" He checked himself. "Just what are you getting at?"

     "Try to think, Mr. Davies—didn't you find it funny that the features of that statue were so cleverly, so smoothly, er, defaced? Why! If one looks at it at all closely it almost appears as though it wasn't intended to have any features…"


Billy's Oak (1970) 

A droll little supernatural stinger of a tale. It begins with this fine bit of throw-away business:

....Apparently Mr. Crow was attempting a translation of the fantastic hieroglyphics on the weird clock's face. Even as I got up and crossed the room to have a closer look at that device it was obvious to me that the intervals between its loud ticks were quite irregular; nor, I noticed, did the four hands move in consonance with any time-system with which I was at all familiar. I could not help but wonder just what chronological purpose so curious a timepiece served.

     Crow saw the bewilderment on my face and laughed. "It puzzles me to the same extent, Mr. Dawson, but I shouldn't let it bother you. I doubt if anyone will ever truly understand the thing; every now and then I get the urge to have another bash at it, that's all, and then I'm at it for weeks at a time, getting nowhere! Still, you didn't come round here tonight to get yourself involved with de Marigny's clock! You're here to have a look at a book."

     I agreed with him and commenced to outline my plan for including a mention or two of the Cthaat Aquadingen in Forbidden Books! As I spoke he moved the occasional table from its position near his desk to a place nearer to where I had been seated beside the fire. This done he slid back a panel, hidden in the wall to one side of the fireplace, and took down from a dim shelf the very volume in which my interest was seated. Then an expression of extreme loathing crossed his face and he quickly put the book down on the table and wiped his hands on his dressing-gown.

     "The, er, binding…" he muttered. "It's forever sweating—which is rather surprising, you'll agree, considering its donor has been dead for at least four hundred years!"

     "Its donor!" I exclaimed, glancing in morbid fascination at the book. "You don't mean to say that it's bound in…?"

     "I'm afraid so! At least, that copy is."

     "My God!…Are there many copies then?" I asked.

     "Only three that I know of—and one of the other two is here in London. I take it they wouldn't let you see it?"

     "You're very shrewd, Mr. Crow, and perfectly correct. No, I wasn't allowed to see the copy at the British Museum."


Darghud's Doll (1977)

An amusingly cold-blooded colonial anecdote.

     ...."Imitative or sympathetic magic," he mused, frowning as he cocked his head on one side in contemplation. "Well, I'm afraid you're out of luck, Dawson. I do know of a few cases, yes, and one in particular which I suppose you could say is rather well authenticated—but you must realize that in many such cases there exists more than an element of chance. The simple truth is that unless the evidence is one hundred percent conclusive…then the phenomena of imitative magic are usually purely coincidental.

     "But anyway," he quickly continued after a moment's pause, "at a loss as I may be in that direction, I can probably supplement your list of source-books. Let me see now…Yes: you could try McPherson's Primitive Beliefs in N. E. Scotland, and Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstitions. Then you might find Oman's Cults, Customs, and Superstitions of India useful, or, perhaps, Dr. E. Mauchamp's La Sorcellerie au Maroc. And then there's—"

     "Hold on a minute there, Titus!" I cried, rudely breaking in on him. "You changed the subject a bit fast there, didn't you? Come on, now, what about this 'well-authenticated' case you mentioned? Is it something I shouldn't know about?"


De Marigny's Clock  (1971)

Crow's bungalow is robbed in the small hours by Joe and Pasty, professional small-time housebreakers straight out of a Harry Enfield sketch.

In their hunt for valuables, the crooks' attention falls on De Marigny's Clock:

....Titus Crow had never been able to find even a keyhole; and while the clock weighed what it should for its size, yet when one rapped on the lower panel the sound such rappings produced were not hollow as might be expected. A curious fact—a curious history altogether—but the clock itself was even more curious to gaze upon or listen to.

     Even now Joe was doing just those things: looking at and listening to the clock. He had switched on and adjusted the reading-lamp so that its light fell upon the face of the peculiar mechanism. At first sight of that clock-face Pasty had gone an even paler shade of grey, with all his nervousness of a few minutes earlier instantly returned. Crow sensed his perturbation; he had had similar feelings while working on the great clock, but he had also had the advantage of understanding where such fears originated. Pasty was experiencing the same sensations he himself had known when first he saw the clock in the auction rooms. Again he gazed at it as he had then; his eyes following the flow of the weird hieroglyphs carved about the dial and the odd movements of the four hands, movements coinciding with no chronological system of earthly origin; and for a moment there reigned an awful silence in the study of Titus Crow. Only the strange clock's enigmatic and oddly paced ticking disturbed a quiet which otherwise might have been that of the tomb.

     "That's no clock like any I've ever seen before!" exclaimed an awed Joe. "What do you make of that, Pasty?"

     Pasty gulped, his Adam's apple visibly bobbing. "I…I don't like it! It…it's shaped like a damned coffin! And why has it four hands, and how come they move like that?" He stopped to compose himself a little, and with the cessation or his voice came a soft whispering from beyond the curtained windows. Pasty's eyes widened and his face went white as death. "What's that?" His whisper was as soft as the sounds prompting it....


Name and Number (1982) 

Titus Crow versus numerological anti-Christ.

"No man has my number, Henri," and he smiled. "Did you know that there's supposed to be a copy of the Necronomicon buried in a filled-in bunker just across the East German border in Berlin? And did you know that in his last hour Hitler was approached in his own bunker by a Jew—can you imagine that?—a Jew who whispered something to him before he took his life? I believe I know what that man whispered, Henri. I think he said these words: 'I know you, Adolf Hitler!'"

"Name and Number" is a flashback tale, beginning among the ruins of Crow's demolished suburban bungalow. The narrator notes "....dark forces did indeed destroy Blowne House. In so doing they effectively removed Titus Crow from the scene, and as for myself…I am but recently returned to it."  From there, the tale of Crow's battle with Mr. Sturm Magruser V. begins.

The bad taste of pulling Hitler into a horror story is only the signal error in taste and style Lumley makes here.


The Black Recalled (1983)

This is a clever and Ouroborosian way to end the collection. It harks back consciously to "The Caller of the Black." Ben Gifford and Geoffrey Arnold, two acolytes of that story's villain, Gedney, make a midnight visit to the remains of Crow's demolished bungalow.

Most of the story's heavy lifting is done trying to fit more of Crow's career into a mythos context. Still, the tone of early paragraphs is worth preserving.

....they stood on the weed-grown gravel drive before a shattered, tumbled pile of masonry whose outlines roughly suggested a once-imposing, sprawling dwelling. A cold November wind blew about the two men, tugging at their overcoats, and an equally chilly moon was just beginning to rise over the near-distant London skyline.

     "Remember him?" Gifford answered after a moment. "How could I forget him? Isn't that why we chose to meet here tonight—to remember him? Well, I certainly do—I remember fearing him mightily! But not as much as I feared this chap," and he nodded his head toward the nettle- and weed-sprouting ruin.

     "Titus Crow?" said Arnold. "Yes, well, we've all had reason to fear him in our time—but moreso after Gedney. Actually, it was Crow who kept me underground all those years, keeping a low profile, as it were. When I picked up the reins from Gedney—became 'chairman' of the society, so to speak, 'donned the Robes of Office'—it seemed prudent to be even more careful. Let's face it, we hadn't really been aware that such as Crow existed. But at the same time it has to be admitted that old Gedney really stuck his neck out. And Crow…well, he was probably one of the world's finest headsmen!"

     "Our mutual enemy," Gifford nodded, "and yet here we pay him homage!" He turned down the corners of his mouth and still somehow summoned a sardonic grin. "Or is it that we've come to make sure he is in fact dead, eh?"

     "Dead?" Arnold answered, and shrugged. "I suppose he is—but they never did find his body. Neither his nor de Marigny's."

     "Oh, I think it's safe to say he's dead," Gifford nodded. "Anyway, he's eight years gone, disappeared, and that's good enough for me. They took him, and when they take you…well, you stay taken...."

Crow, never appearing, still gets the last laugh on Gifford and Arnold.


Titus Crow: Clubland Hero?

The term "clubland hero" is defined simply by David Salter:

....The Clubland Heroes lived their privileged lives, usually with private incomes and servants, in London's West End clubland, from whence they set out in expensive, high-powered motor cars to confront extraordinary, eccentric villains, often abroad, or in Buchan's case in Scotland. All were members of clubs in St. James's Street and Pall Mall....

The clubland hero novels were written by, among others: Dornford Yates, H. C. McNeile,  and John Buchan. (Their pastichist today is Kim Newman in his Diogenes Club stories.)

The clubland hero is a middle class vigilante with a nodding acquaintance to the state/military. All were officers, all had a "good war." Drummond and Hannay were officers, Leithen something big in government.

I find no record of Titus Crow being a club member. Lumley's introduction to The Compleat Crow says only:

....During WWII, as a young man, he worked for the War Department; his work in London was concerned with cracking Nazi codes and advising on Hitler's predilection for the occult: those dark forces which Der Führer attempted to enlist in his campaign for world domination. 

     Following the end of the war, and from then on right through a very active life which encompassed many "hobbies," he fought Satan wherever he found him and with whichever tools of his trade were available to him at the time....

In "Lord of the Worms" we learn:

....he had used the skills of the numerologist and cryptographer to crack the codes of his goose-stepping war machine. In both endeavors there had been a deal of success, but now the thing was finished and Titus Crow's talents were superfluous.

The word "superfluous" recalls the opening of H. C. McNeile's Bulldog Drummond (1920):

....'Demobilised officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential. Would be prepared to consider permanent job if suitably impressed by applicant for his services. Reply at once Box X10.'

Crow is not quite as gauche and arrogant as Hugh Drummond. In a way, he might be closer to one of Dennis Wheatley's musketeers. Because he is a veteran of 1939-1945 and not 1914-1918, he is certainly less inclined to hare off on his own than Chandos or Drummond. Like Leithen and Hannay, though not as socially exalted in position, he knows his mundane earthly masters ultimately reside in Whitehall.

"Occult detective," or any branch of the "private" detective profession, is part of that great bourgeois literary utopia: the vigilante. Crow takes things into his own hands and fights his singular battles outside the purview of the law, as much a 'John Macnab' as his genre predecessors, clubabble or not.


15 June 2020


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