Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965) is hardly known in this country, but in England he was for many years its most celebrated ghost-hunter. In books such as “Haunted Houses of London” (1909), “Byways of Ghost-Land” (1911) and “Rooms of Mystery” (1931) he presented lively accounts of every sort of paranormal activity. He was also prolific: Besides ghosts, he wrote about werewolves and banshees, strange cults and secret societies, curses and spiritualism.
Although he found financial success with his “nonfiction,” O’Donnell actually began his career as the author of occult thrillers, his first published works being “For Satan’s Sake” (1904) and “Unknown Depths” (1905). He continued to write fiction occasionally throughout his long career, with some of his stories appearing in Weird Tales magazine. “The Sorcery Club” (1912) — now reissued in this special edition from Ramble House — is usually regarded as his best novel. Dennis Wheatley, author of those over-the-top satanic romances “The Devil Rides Out” and “To the Devil — A Daughter,” thought highly enough of the book to make it the sixth selection in his 42-volume Library of the Occult.
“The Sorcery Club” opens in San Francisco when a hungry, unemployed clerk named Leon Hamar takes shelter from the rain in the doorway of a secondhand bookstore. Accidentally knocking an old book onto the wet pavement, he is forced to buy it. Not a reader, Hamar immediately tries to rid himself of this unwanted acquisition but seems strangely unable to do so. Later, in the company of two pals, Ed Curtis and Matt Kelson, he looks more carefully at what turns out to be an account of how one Thomas Maitland discovered the secrets of Atlantean magic.
In his memoir, Maitland actually outlines the multistage procedure needed to summon the dark gods of lost Atlantis and, through them, become initiated into the Black Arts. Out of work and utterly desperate, Hamar, Curtis and Kelson perform the necessary and often cruel rituals. When the last part of the ceremony is completed, “all three became conscious of living things around them — things that moved about, silently and surreptitiously and conveyed the impression of mockery.”
Soon these shadowy creatures coalesce into “a cylindrical form, which grew and grew until it attained a height of ten or twelve feet, when it remained stationary and threw out branches. And the three men now saw it was a tree — a tree with a sleek, pulpy, semi-transparent, perspiring trunk full of a thick, white, vibrating, luminous fluid; and that it was laden with a fruit, in shape resembling an apple.” Eventually, this entity — they call it the Unknown — speaks to them, though “a certain variation in its tones, a rising and falling from syllable to syllable, led them to infer that the voice was not the voice of one but of many.”
The trio of would-be sorcerers then learns that in seven stages over the course of 21 months they will be granted various magical powers. These range from divination and the ability to levitate to techniques for inflicting or curing deadly diseases. Every three months, however, each stage’s supernatural gift will be replaced by a fresh one. If the friends remain in harmony as a group and if none of them marries during the probationary period, and if they use their sorcery only to benefit themselves or to cause deliberate evil to others, then at the end of the seventh stage they will be permanently invested with all the powers they have experienced successively. But if they violate any aspect of this pact, the consequences are unimaginably horrific.
While O’Donnell’s supernatural entities are original and frightening, his would-be adepts are flatly depicted as period stereotypes: Hamar is the clever, villainous Jew interested only in money; Curtis is pure appetite, fixated on sumptuous food and drink; and Kelson is a ladies’ man, drawn to any pretty face and blessed with a smile that enchants both shopgirls and dowagers. At first, the three men — having been granted their initial powers — use them to blackmail adulterous wives and to win huge sums at the card table. These episodes are both comic and satirical in a light, Ambrose Biercean mode: No one is as virtuous as he or she appears. However, the ambitious Hamar soon decides the three should leave California and expand their operations to London.
There, they establish the Modern Sorcery Company Ltd. To prove their bona fides, the partners interrupt a famous magic show, reveal (a la Penn and Teller) how the illusions and tricks are done, and then dazzle the spectators with their own far more amazing, indeed supernatural abilities. More ominously, Hamar notices that Gladys Martin, the virtuous daughter of the master illusionist they discomfit, is extremely beautiful and would make a splendid plaything. Gladys, of course, scorns him, and Hamar resolves to win her “body and soul.”
From this point on, “The Sorcery Club” yields much of its earlier jauntiness and yankee humor to an increasingly savage depiction of human venality. Contemporary society appears to consist almost wholly of whited sepulchres — hypocrites, liars and money-hungry me-firsters. Numerous tensions also develop among the partners, especially after an attractive but mercenary secretary catches Kelson’s eye. Needless to say, Gladys Martin seems almost certainly doomed, unless a dreamy young painter, who has fallen in love with her, can somehow manage to rescue the young woman from Hamar’s clutches. Thematically, the novel ultimately reveals how its various characters respond to the opposing claims of self-interest and self-sacrifice.
By turns melodramatic, slapstick, sentimental, racist, misogynist, embarrassing and horrific, “The Sorcery Club” is hardly a great novel of the supernatural. It lacks the artistic seriousness, power and conviction, as well as the stylistic excellence, of such masterpieces as Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” or John Meade Falkner’s “The Lost Stradivarius.” Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the tawdry realism of the rituals and magical protocols O’Donnell describes (complete with footnotes). These, one feels, are just the formulas and ingredients that fin de siècle occultists would employ in their satanic negotiations.
As a plus, this 2014 edition of “The Sorcery Club” reproduces the eerie black-and-white illustrations of the 1912 original (now a $1,000 book). The artist Phillys Vere Campbell was the sister of Marjorie Bowen, one of the most admired practitioners of supernatural fiction (her novel, “Black Magic” was number 13 in Wheatley’s occult library, although she is best known for such short stories as “The Crown Derby Plate” and “The Avenging of Ann Leete”). Further enhancing this new Ramble House reprint are an introduction by eminent horror scholar John Pelan and a brief afterword by the book’s cover designer, Gavin O’Keefe. Still, be warned: “The Sorcery Club” may seem an example of dated turn-of-the-century diabolism, but I wouldn’t try any of its weird invocations at home.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE SORCERY CLUB
By Elliott O’Donnell
Ramble House. 291 pp. Paperback, $20