Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Review: "Occult Detective Magazine" Issue 7

GRANT, John Linwood, & Dave BRZESKI, “Occult Detective Magazine #7, Spring/May 2020”, Cathaven Press, Peterborough UK, 2020.

Given that postal services across the planet are clogged at the moment, I sent off my order for this without really expecting to see it anytime in the short term. Consequently, it showed up unexpectedly and – even better – at a point when I really needed the time to just chill out and lose myself. A day spent picking slowly through a copy of Occult Detective Magazine (ODM) is definitely a day well spent. And this issue certainly doesn’t disappoint!

The first cab off the rank – “Uxmal” by Debra Blundell - was guaranteed to delight me. An agent of the shadowy “Smoke Throne” cabal, overseeing the Yucatecan dominion, goes to the city of Uxmal to investigate the overnight appearance of a strange pyramid in the heart of that conurbation along with its new, dwarfed king. He takes with him his adopted family of investigative agents in order to get to the bottom of things and mayhem (of course) ensues.

For various reasons, I have recently been devouring everything I can lay my hands on about the Maya civilization and reading this tale was like ticking off boxes in my newly-acquired knowledge set. Everything here resonated, everything rang true, in ways that the ‘Holmesian-Victorian pastiche’ form of occult detection often does not. There was no extensive ‘info-dumping’; there were no laborious descriptions of the obscure; there was no soap-box delivery of required knowledge: bliss! Even the difference between chultuns and cenotes as regional water-sources was effortlessly conveyed as an essential clue, without breaking the narrative. There was a moment when a prophecy was delivered – an injunction for our main character to do a specific thing when a certain set of circumstances occurred – and my heart sank a bit. Often whenever something like this happens, the remainder of the story becomes a simple train-ride to the inevitable; however, Ms. Blundell throws in a well-planted twist that saves the moment from being an ending with fizz and turns it into one with bang. This was a truly excellent piece – everything was handled with precision, knowledge and grace – and it was the perfect way to kick things off.

A more total change of pace could not be asked for in turning to the next story. With Paul St. John Mackintosh’s “Ghost in the Machine”, we encounter an insurance company investigator sent reluctantly to check out an instance of ghostly manifestation at an Edinburgh server farm, a circumstance that the computing firm involved most definitely bought insurance against. Here, corporate cynicism and wry Scots humour sits with nice contrast alongside the traditional notions of the Scottish ghost. Our detective discovers that the head programmer’s spirit spontaneously regenerates each night as a species of code within the operating system, continuing the work that he did before his untimely demise. Wrangling corporate lackeys and Scottish Society for Psychical Research boffins, our investigator is suddenly forced to acknowledge an actual haunting and to deal with it… without forcing his own company to pay out on the claim.

This is a well-executed story and remarkable for the way that it convinces the reader of the way in which an insurance agency might well suddenly be offering policies against spectral intrusion. If there was a criticism it lies with one character, the setting on whose Scots brogue increases from ‘barely noticeable’ to ‘almost incomprehensible’ by the tale’s end. A re-write might find the sweet spot between these two extremes but for now, this is a great yarn.

A common criticism of the occult detection story is that, often, they aren’t particularly scary. Yes, horrifying things happen, but the raison d’être of the detective is to explain, whereas fear lies in the unknown, so rarely does the emergence of a truly chilling narrative arise from the premise. This next story - “Pause for Station Identification” - is one time that it does.

I have heard a lot about Jonathan Raab’s Sheriff Kotto fiction but have never read anything of it myself – I think this pairing with Matthew Bartlett is an excellent introduction. Borrowing concepts from “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Ring”, this story has Kotto and his deputy Abraham Richards settle in at the Sheriff’s Office to watch some filmed footage. The imagery on the tape is raw and inexpertly spliced - allowing the writers to indulge in some experimental and edgy narrative techniques – and slowly winds its way towards a chilling conclusion. Our heroes are bent on learning the whereabouts of a bunch of missing students, following a strange circulating cassette tape, which leads them to Cold War numbers stations transmissions, the FCC, and finally to a remote radio broadcasting outfit in a hilly forest where an evil plot is uncovered. The creeping horror is revealed – not just by the terrifying imagery on the tape and its delivery – but by the fact that neither of the two men viewing the footage have experienced the events on display, and yet they are patently involved in the action. Is it a warning? A premonition? They both decide to contemplate things in the secure haven of insobriety…

I have read a few pieces by Aaron Vlek in the pages of Occult Detective Quarterly and Occult Detective Magazine (“Baron of Bourbon Street”, ODQ#1; “The Case of the Black Lodge”, ODQ#4) and, to be honest, I find them a bit bloodless. Ms. Vlek has a tendency to write her action off-stage, as it were, and is generally content to have it described by a character to others within the narrative frame, almost like watching a stage performance where the characters speak about world-shaking events happening elsewhere. Action is always at a distant remove in these stories, although the quality of the writing is generally quite high. Having gotten several of these stories under my belt, it feels a bit like standing on the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral with a snifter of brandy and looking out across an Edwardian London peppered – not with gentlemen’s clubs – but with arcane, endlessly-battling, occult lodges. Flames burst upwards from Bloomsbury; strange lightning flickers over Mayfair… In this story, “The Case of the Signet Ring”, again, direct action takes a back seat to extended narration as Aleister Crowley (whom I loathe) has a little attempted fun at the expense of our occult sleuth, Geoffrey Sykes Vermillion.

The conceit here is that Crowley sets up a spooky story about the dead husband of a young widow and an arcane ring, trying to draw Vermillion into taking the case on board. We see the steps taken to establish the joke before an inevitable conclusion wherein Crowley explains the gag – saying, “I got you!” -  and Vermillion reveals how he saw through it all along and says, “oh no, you didn’t!”. Tiresome really, and the moreso because it involves that loathsome waste of good skin, Crowley. I was left wondering at the end why these events had happened at all? And to what purpose?

(There’s also a classic problem here of the late-Victorian pastiche model falling over abruptly due to an incorrect piece of information. Our supposed widow comes to Vermillion’s home, bangs on the door, and demands entry; Vermillion’s butler tells him that she awaits without and is asked to admit her; she immediately confronts Vermillion and proffers her calling card. Boom! Wrong. Calling cards have an intricate and well-defined usage and this is way off-piste. While it’s believable under certain circumstances that the ‘widow’ would stand her ground at the front door and demand entry, in this situation she would have given her card to the butler for him to announce her presence to his master. Ordinarily, cards were left with servants who would place them on a tray to be brought in with the day’s mail so that the occupants of the house would know who had called and to whom they should address responses. Further, in this case, a widow would also have handed over her dead husband’s card – suitably marked, or re-printed, to indicate his demise – along with her own, if indeed she had her own cards; otherwise she would have written her name upon one of her dead husband’s. Under NO circumstances would a woman of any social standing give her card directly to a man not of the servant class! To do so implies that she’s not the lady she claims to be. I know I’m a ‘calling-card tragic’, but this kind of stuff is crucial to building realistic pastiche narratives. In contemporary fiction of the period, these niceties are often overlooked in order to facilitate the action – in this instance, for example, it would be understood that the card had been passed to the butler who then announces her - and the readers of the time would have factored this in as a fait accompli. Bringing up calling cards is deadly for the modern writer: yes, they had them back then, but if you don’t know how they worked, then don’t use them.)

Where were we? Oh yes – “Carry On Carnacki” aka. “The Thing in the Bedroom” by David Langford. This is the tale – told to a bibulous audience at a seedy pub - of a haunting at a grotty British seaside B&B, haunted by the separated member of a previous tenant lost in a slamming door accident, resolved by a cross-dressing occult detective (our narrator), all to facilitate a pithy comment by a beery listener, viz. “Well, bugger me!”. Have I mentioned before how tedious these shaggy-dog tales are? Oh yes, that’s right: I have.

At first I thought this might have been an offering by Rhys Hughes who gave us “The French Lieutenant’s Gurning” in issue 4 of ODQ, but the Benny Hill levels of humour stood against him in that regard (the actual author is the one provided – I’m guessing – on the publication details page). This has been written by someone with a solid and working knowledge of William Hope Hodgson’s oeuvre (especially the Carnacki stuff), but with the puerile sense of humour of a fifteen-year-old. It hits all the marks and lampoons them mercilessly. All that was needed was a smirking Kenneth Williams at the end to say “oo! You are naughty!”. It’s obviously someone’s idea of a good time; not mine, particularly.

After the African prose-poem of the previous issue (“Komolafe”, ODM #6) I went into this next piece – “The White Sickness” by D.J. Tyrer - with high expectations; sadly, they were not met. There’s a lot of flavour here and good local colour, exploring the nature of tribal witch-hunters in Africa – lots of the technical jargon is handled quite neatly in telling the reader what’s taking place. Unfortunately, the story runs on rails to an inevitable conclusion: at no point was I wondering if things might not turn out alright; it was always a done deal. There are several clunkily-inserted moments of self-doubt for our detective here and there, but they are almost immediately resolved by some deus ex machina moment that gets things rolling again. A couple more re-writes and this might polish up into something of real interest…

I confess, I’ve watched wa-a-a-ay too many episodes of “Arrow”. The moment I saw the name “Smoake” in the title of this next piece, I thought I was about to read an occult detective spin-off from the TV show starring the Green Arrow’s IT-partner, Felicity Smoak – but then there’s that extra ‘e’ in there… Turns out, I was wrong, and this story could have no other title but the punny one supplied. I rolled with it…

“Smoake and Mirrors” by Nancy A. Hansen is a story in the career of Chandra Smoake, an occult detective of mixed American/Sub-continental heritage, who drives a succubus from the home of a fretful housewife. The demon uses a wide array of mirrors – supplied by the home keeper’s husband, a furniture dealer who claims the pieces that his clients have defaulted upon in payment – as portals to move around the house, and our detective has her work cut out to isolate and purge the pest.

For the most part, this works very well. There is some powerful imagery, a good sense that the exorcist might not be up to the task at hand, and some suitably icky moments involving swarms of blowflies and oozing ectoplasm. My main issue was in trying to pin down exactly when this story was set. Establishing the fact that the housewife’s husband would be racially-intolerant of Chandra’s presence should he walk in upon the magical happenings didn’t help – that’s as true today, sadly, as at any time in US history. The slang terms used by Chandra’s erstwhile assistant didn’t help either (and only caused me to wonder if perhaps Chandra’s English was a second tongue), while the behaviours of the housewife and her demonically-obsessed daughter – given the generational-divide – only obscured things further. Even the clothing descriptions didn’t help. I spent too much time looking for clues on this matter rather than letting the story roll over me. If at some point Ms. Hansen had just said ‘it’s the 1950s’, say, or referenced a headline, or current event, I could have let the issue slide and gotten on with things; as it is, I was constantly distracted.

(Something as innocuous as this can absolutely kill a story. For a comparison, Kiwi crime fiction queen Dame Ngaio Marsh wrote the adventures of a sleuth named ‘Roderick Alleyn’. At no point in her life did she reveal how this name is pronounced – some thought it was ‘Allen’; others ‘AWL-en’; still others ‘a-LAIN’. She didn’t clarify things, and, after her death, her literary society announced, in their expert opinion, which pronunciation was ‘correct’, instantly dividing the readership into rancorous camps. Personally, I don’t read her books because, the moment I start, I also begin wondering which version is right – and I inevitably put the book aside in annoyance. And I’m sure I’m not the only one…)

In “The Spirits in the Air” by Aidan Hayes, we don’t have to worry about names at all. We meet an unnamed journalist who can see spirits in the world around him, not only of dead people but of animals whose flesh has been served up as food, or as leather clothing. He has arranged to meet a nameless young woman in a diner – magically enhanced to keep chicken spirits to a minimum – and to enlist her as his new student, learning how to negotiate a world overrun with the dead (pro-tip: don’t tell anyone your name, not even your prospective teacher of the arcane arts). There’s nothing dramatic about this piece: the two characters talk and swap observations, warily circling each other conversationally in order to avoid any lurking traps, or hidden agendas. Finally, the girl agrees to taking on her new mentor and the stage is set for shenanigans down the line in later narratives. It’s a good introduction to a fascinatingly nuanced, spirit-populated world, with possibly more instalments waiting in the wings. I wonder how long he can go before he has to reveal someone’s – anyone’s – name, however…

The next story is where things get GOOD (again!). “Mama G” by Tanya Warnakulasuriya is the bomb – a snappy, engaging, entertaining, supernatural romp with all the bells and whistles, cunningly plotted, pleasingly retailed, and full of colour and interest. I haven’t seen magic and mental illness conflated with this much skill or sensitivity since Simon Avery’s “Songs of Dwindled Gods” in ODQ#4 (also amazing) or in Matt Wagner’s “Mage” comics before that. This is the story of a homeless woman living in London around the time of the Brixton Riots and conversant with the West Indian folklore of the Windrush Generation. She acknowledges her mental issues and uses her medication to create a metaphoric light around her to keep demons at bay. These creatures emerge into the world through an internal “tear” in our heroine’s soul, crossing over to cause harm to others, and a particularly nasty one sneaks out to start killing children in the Brixton neighbourhood, taking the form of her recently-deceased guardian Mama G.

Helping her in her quest to vanquish this entity are assorted angels – particularly the multi-faceted Jacob - and a steadfast companion dog named Tom, once owned by Mama G. Along the way we meet Rasta boys and street cops, earnest priests and effusive coffee shop proprietors, who all engage with our heroine in pursuit of her quest. I don’t want to say too much about this story – I don’t want to spoil it for anybody – but I urge you to read it!

“…And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.”

-Matthew 4:6

“Dash Thy Foot” by Julie Frost takes us back to the Chandleresque gumshoe narrative tropes that are a regular hallmark of the occult detective world. The title of this story bugged me so I looked it up – it’s from  that point in the Bible when Satan is tempting Jesus and he effectively says, ‘don’t worry about anything that I might do while talking to you - no angel will ever let you come to any harm’. The story involves a trademark private detective, down on his luck as usual, who is hired by a mysterious ‘bombshell dame’ to serve Satan with a legal summons. He, of course, thinks it’s a joke, but after being supplied with a mystical GPS device to get him where he needs to be, he realizes, at the point where he enters Hell and confronts the demon Gaap, that it’s all legit.

Of course, the moment he walks into Hell is the also the moment when his guardian angel appears beside him to ensure that he receives safe passage. This fellow – Khatuliel – is there ready to bear our hero up lest he dash his foot against any Hell-formed stones.

This is a good romp that has some interesting moral quandaries at its heart – it turns out that Gaap arranges to confront our hero with the soul of the killer who mutilated and murdered his mother, and offers to let him torture the name of his accomplice out of the revenant. With Khatuliel warning him of the possible damage of his own soul in doing this, the private eye weighs the situation up and makes a crucial choice... The private dick tropes fly thick and fast in this tale – even the dame with the legal papers was named “Jessica” just to short-cut the Jessica Rabbit stereotype – but it never overshadows what this story is trying to achieve; it’s a case of the author using the format rather than being in slavish devotion to it.  A solid tale.

In “Beyond the Faded Shrine Gates” we meet Brandon Barrows’ dogged Japanese demon-hunter, Azuma Kuromori, at an early stage prior to his career and before he was aware of the supernatural influences that affect the world around him. A rebellious and angry child, he defies his father’s wishes and enters an abandoned temple near his home village only to encounter Things Better Left Alone.

I’ve read a couple of Mr. Barrows things in the past (“The Arcana of the Alleys”, in ODQ#2, and “Shadow’s Angle” in ODQ#5) and I’ve found them somewhat wanting. The first story is a faux-Carnacki tale which completely fails to resemble the work of William Hope Hodgson while the second one – an Azuma story – I found totally unconvincing in its essentials. This present story is a little better – it at least sets itself in a reasonably definite Japanese setting – but in no way does it read like it was written by, or about, Japanese people. There is a complete lack of cultural identification – be it Victorian English or Modern-day Japanese – in any of these tales. They all read like the action-movie inspired stylings of an American guy in his 20s or early 30s as much as they read like anything. That being said, the writing is polished, the plotting is solid and the stakes convincing; they just don’t seem real. If this isn’t an argument to support the “Write What You Know” chestnut I don’t know what is…

The last story in this issue is “A Night in Gorakhpur – A Tale of the Occultress” by Colin Fisher. In it, retired military man Makepeace Sinclair tells a late-night colleague about a strange event that took place in his youth when he was the Governor of East Punjab. He offers a story about a séance that took place there, to entertain a coterie of visiting Brits and Yanks, and of a strange woman who defied protocol mid-way through the event to unmask a supernaturally evil undertaking.

This story is loaded with myriad tiny details – of place, of time, of culture – that quickly consolidate as an entertaining whole. The point-of-view of the clueless Sinclair is perfect for relaying the seemingly sinister machinations of the Occultress as she moves to unearth the villains before they do harm. There is palpable menace in the action and in the framing device of the older Sinclair talking to his visitor. I was left wondering somewhat at the end as to why the Occultress appears in the modern setting and just who it could be that she had come to vanquish – Sinclair or the listener – and it left me a little unsatisfied. That, however, is my only quibble: an excellent story, else.

I should also take time to salute the artists while I’m here. From the front cover to the back, there’s a wealth of good quality visuals all resonating nicely with the accompanying writing.

The reviews and articles have a lot to offer as well. There’s Steven Philip Jones’ evaluation of Dirk Pitt – a character created by the action/thriller writer Clive Cussler, who died earlier this year – as an occult investigator and, in a similar vein, Dave Brzeski sums up the shortcomings of Grimm: Ghost Spotter/Doctor a character from the Golden Age of American comics. Then Bobby Derie muses upon whether Robert E. Howard might have ever read a William Hope Hodgson story and what the likelihood of that might have been by trawling through his extensive correspondence with other members of the Lovecraft Circle. Finally, there are as usual a slew of entertaining reviews on current works available in the sub-genre: I definitely pore through this stuff – a lot of my stock purchasing for the bookshop where I work has benefited from the finds I’ve made here!


The term “Occult Detective” is a surprisingly broad umbrella that can cover a huge amount of genre and literary territory. There are common tropes and mainstays to which writers can turn their hands for various effects and a huge scope to transform a narrative into something that can transcend the Genre Fiction tar-brushing. Every issue of this magazine contains works that are pure magic in terms of range and execution and that trend doesn’t seem likely to stop. There is the occasional dud, or story that just needs a bit more polish, but that’s inevitable with these kinds of efforts.

Of note, now that we’re at issue number seven, is the notion that many characters in these stories seem to be part of a greater whole and that what we’re seeing is just a fraction of the potential that can be found in a collection of stories focusing on these players and the stages upon which they strut. I mentioned above that Ms. Vlek’s world, in which she sets her Geoffrey Vermillion narratives, is a case where the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts; that might also hold true for Mr. Hayes' unnamed characters from this issue, or of Mr. Fisher’s daring Occultress. It’s certainly been the case in earlier issues with Melanie Atherton Allen’s Simon Wake stories, Tim Waggoner’s Ismael Carter adventures against the encroaching Shadow, or Edward M. Erdelac’s John Conquer series. Other stories here are perfect as they are – “as an orange is final; as an orange is something that nature has made just right”, which is how Truman Capote would have it – such as “Uxmal”, “Mama G” and “Dash Thy Foot”. The great thing about a journal such as this one is that it showcases talent emerging out there in the wild and lets avid readers seek out more of the same.


Chapter Listing:


“Uxmal”, Debra Blundell

“Ghost in the Machine”, Paul St. John Mackintosh

“Pause for Station Identification”, Jonathan Raab & Matthew M. Bartlett

“The Case of the Signet Ring”, Aaron Vlek

“The Thing in the Bedroom”, “W*ll**m H*pe H*dgs*n” (David Langford)

“The White Sickness”, D.J. Tyrer

“Smoake and Mirrors”, Nancy A. Hansen

“The Spirits in the Air”, Aidan Hayes

“Mama G”, Tanya Warnakulasuriya

“Dash Thy Foot”, Julie Frost

“Beyond the Faded Shrine Gates”, Brandon Barrows

“A Night in Gorakhpur – A Tale of the Occultress”, Colin Fisher


Sebastian Cabrol, Mutartis Boswell, Luke Spooner, Bob Freeman, Autumn Barlow, and Russell Smeaton


“Dirk Pitt: Occult Detective?”, Steven Philip Jones

“Conan and Carnacki: Robert E. Howard and William Hope Hodgson”, Bobby Derie

Cold Cases: “Grimm: Ghost Spotter/Doctor”, Dave Brzeski


“Soul Breaker”, Clara Coulson by Dave Brzeski

“Vigil (Verity Fassbender, Book 1)”, Angela Slatter by Julia Morgan

“Wicked Innocents”, S.H. Livernois by Dave Brzeski

“Punk Mambo, #0-#5”, Cullen Bunn, et.al, by Dave Brzeski