The Dell paper back edition:
‘Black magic — and a modern sorceress!’
That ghastly green: I love it.
Last week’s film Back from the Dead was based on this mid-century Gothic thriller and scripted by the author, who certainly streamlined the narrative — perhaps a little too much. By coincidence (or due to us both being pals with Steve Bissette) Kim Newman also read the book this week and wrote up the film here.
There is of course a lot more context in the novel, though not in everything. Miranda, the sister whose body gets snatched is little more than a cipher of the perfect woman, seen through her sister’s eyes: pretty in a healthy sort of way, untroubled, direct, loving. The ghastly dead ex Felicia is mostly defined by her sensuality. Anything sensual is bad. Father Reynaud (Maitre Renault in the film, but this is much more foxy and medieval) is also a sensualist.
Good people are sunny and untroubled, as well as vaguely ‘religious’ — Christian but not in any real definitive way, or chapter and verse quoting. The sort of all-purpose ‘we all believe the same things, right’ morality of mid-century Americana. I want to link this to post-war cynicism and ‘get along, just conform’ fifties straightjacketing but I haven’t done the work (and may not: after all, this was picked up as a possible analogue to what I am working on). But along with the unsurprisingly overwriting of satanism and witchcraft as if there were no difference, it’s not uncommon, and while California cults (this takes place in Carmel) are more associated with the 60s, remember that occultist Jack Parsons exploded himself in 1952. By the sixties his widow Marjorie Cameron was going off into much different and more witchy directions than the OTO.
Instead of devout reading, Katy mentions wrestling with Proust, their mother reciting Byron’s The Dream to the sisters as children (oh dear, opening up those sensual proclivities!), as well as the mystical musical cue being the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto (surely not the 3rd movement from the 2nd Symphony unless Eric Carmen had a more devious purpose…). I must say the film’s weirdly thereministic tune was much more appropriate.
And while we do have the satanic cult around the defrocked priest looking for nubile followers, we also have a Black Phillip precursor guarding the remote cult shack and vaguely LeVay-esque naked altar shenanigans. But the fascinating thing is the actual mystical technology comes via Felicia’s mother’s studies in India and not via ‘black magic’ as typical. Like Conjure Wife and its appropriation of voudon, and its 1962 film version which uses Caribbean magic traditions, it’s also an analogue to The Razor’s Edge and the search for ‘authentic’ magic/spirituality in the looted colonial nations. This will be expressed better in my presentation at PCA I hope.
Obviously this is all just rough musings: there’s also a literal ‘you just don’t know you’re beautiful’ moment and true to gothic, an incest subplot. It’s a cracking read despite all the inevitable ‘I’m just relieved a big strong man can take care of me’ moments because spunky Katy does do pretty much all the sleuthing and getting into danger, right up until the end when it takes a village to stop the cult. Deffo would read more.