A spectral figure clothed in tatters, wearing a hood-like mask with rough-cut eyeholes and a line of stitching for a mouth, rides like the wind on a dazzling white horse along a sandy beach. The moon shines bright. As this creature of nightmare gallops faster and faster, the haunting theme music begins to sound and a voice sings out “Scarecrow . . . Scarecrow.” And then it comes, that hideous, unforgettable laugh.
Oh, to be 10 or 12 again, when Walt Disney presented the three-part television serial “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”! By day, Dr. Syn — yes, Syn — is the pious minister of Dymchurch, but at night he disguises himself as the macabre masked leader of a smuggling band, a late 18th-century version of Robin Hood, thwarting the king’s excise men and helping the poor. As usual, of course, Disney softened and recast the character of the Scarecrow. In the original 1915 novel, “Dr. Syn,” by Russell Thorndike, the protagonist turned out to be the supposedly long-dead and infamous pirate Captain Clegg.
I mention “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” because American readers today are more likely to remember Dr. Syn than his creator, the multitalented brother of the English actress Sybil Thorndike. Russell Thorndike himself trod the boards for many years, starring in the English premiere of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and in later life regularly hamming it up as Smee in Christmas productions of “Peter Pan.” But his youthful historical novel about Romney Marsh proved so popular that in the 1930s he resurrected its memorable hero-villain for a further half-dozen tales of piratical adventure. Yet even before then, in 1927, Thorndike had already brought out a strange, fantastic thriller with a tangential link to Dr. Syn, “The Slype.”
A slype is a narrow passage between buildings. One dictionary defines it as “a secret path, covered way or passage. A space very frequent in Abbeys, intervening between the transept and the entrance to the chapter-house.” It often led to the cemetery. In this case, the slype is the reputedly haunted alley, flanked by 30-foot-high, 6-foot-wide walls, that adjoins the great cathedral of Dullchester, near the southern coast of England.
Our story begins — and this leisurely, old-fashioned novel is one in which a narrator might say just those words — with Daniel Dyke returning by rail to Dullchester, where his father had been a minor canon. After serving in World War I and then seeing a bit of the world, Daniel is hoping to launch himself as a writer. At Arrowford Junction, a new passenger just barely catches the train, then settles into a corner seat near the would-be author:
“At first Daniel thought that his travelling companion must be an eccentric tailor, for the handkerchief pocket of his great coat was full of pairs of scissors, while the coat itself was covered with buttons of all sizes and descriptions. It was a long coat reaching to the ankles and much too heavy for that hot autumn afternoon. From the side pockets innumerable rolls of paper were sticking out, and on the outside of the scissor pocket was pinned a very startling silhouette cut in paper of a gibbet with a man hanging therefrom.”
This is our first glimpse of the Paper Wizard, a street performer who cuts “sillywets” or anything you want “with a pair of scissors and a very little fuss.” He is, of course, much more than he appears.
In the book’s second chapter, Thorndike introduces his characters, essentially the entire ecclesiastical staff of Dullchester Cathedral, from Dean Jonathan Jarndyce Jerome on down, as well as the church’s benefactor, Mr. McCarbre; an old spinster who always wears a heavy veil; the Dean’s lovely granddaughter Jane; and, not least, Boyce’s Boy. Resembling an urban Huck Finn, this last is a smart-alecky street urchin who knows most of the town’s secrets and can move through its darkest corners like a shadow.
Almost immediately, Thorndike — knowing that he has lots of other surprises in store for the reader — reveals that in his youth the rich McCarbre had poisoned a soldier friend in Burma to gain possession of a small manuscript book, one that “pointed the way to a famous treasure, which had long ago been lost.” That treasure, it would appear, is located somewhere in Dullchester.
Unfortunately for McCarbre, the soldier’s servant — named Flagget — learned the truth of his master’s death. Fleeing from blackmail and the threat of exposure, McCarbre escaped to America and there legitimately made a fortune.
Now he has settled in Dullchester where, racked with remorse, he tries to salve his guilty conscience by giving huge sums for the upkeep of the cathedral. In the meantime, Flagget has been on his trail for more than 30 years.
On the day that the Paper Wizard arrives in Dullchester, the shrewd, kindly Dean escorts Mr. McCarbre to the unveiling of a stained-glass window he has paid for but not seen. After one glance, the rich old man screams and faints dead away. The window depicts a beatific young soldier lying dead. Taken home, McCarbre hallucinates and raves — and every word is taken down by the odious Dr. Smith.
Shortly afterward, inexplicable disappearances begin. A minor canon vanishes in the middle of the night, then another. Even a windup toy and the Dean’s pet speckled pig go missing. All this would be quite farcical, were it not for Dr. Smith’s lascivious interest in Jane, with whom Daniel Dyke has fallen in love, or the rumors of a drug-smuggling ring, white slavery and a mysterious “Chinaman” with an exceptionally fast boat. And what about the unearthly screams now regularly heard in the Slype? Boyce’s Boy always seems to be nearby.
Meanwhile, over all this melodrama and hugger-mugger looms the great cathedral, a building in which its own caretaker refuses to be left alone at night. Who can blame him? “The Slype” can take an honored place with John Meade Falkner’s “The Nebuly Coat” and Walter de la Mare’s “All Hallows” in that sub-genre of sinister fictions set around ancient churches.
Nonetheless, the chief influences on Thorndike’s novel are obviously Dickens and G.K. Chesterton. The Paper Wizard, the buffoon policeman Sgt. Wurren and the doddering Hebraic scholar Canon Cable are just the sort of grotesque characters one might find in the former’s novels, while the wisely playful Dean and all the inexplicable disappearances call to mind the latter’s madcap philosophical thriller, “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
Still, Thorndike has his own storytelling flair: One canon’s badly dressed wife “had mild eyes, with a long, curved, thin nose which gave her the impression of being a carrion crow converted to a diet of birdseed which was upsetting her digestion.”
There are plenty of puzzles and satisfying twists in “The Slype,” making it an ideal novel for a couple of lazy spring evenings. Valancourt Books — which specializes in reprinting the unusual and neglected — also publishes Thorndike’s 1947 collection of linked stories of the supernatural and occult, “The Master of the Macabre.” I’m saving that one for Halloween.
Dirda writes for Book World in the Style section every Thursday.
By Russell Thorndike
299 pp. Paperback, $17.99