1. ALEISTER CROWLEY
Our main concern is Aleister Crowley, the rest of our characters are fictional and are therefore resilient enough to look after themselves (just as they have for the decades before I got my grubby hands on them). However, it takes very little reading to realise that the public face of Crowley was often as fictional as Holmes, and I therefore have no issue with doing what I like with him. That said, it would be extremely unfair not to point out – for the few that may need it – what is utter fabrication. Crowley very successfully created his own notoriety: he doesn’t need my help.
For many years it was de rigeur to paint Crowley as a villain. Indeed, the Daily Express did label him – as Watson himself points out – “the wickedest man in the world”. This is blatant nonsense, he was contentious, bigoted and perhaps a little mad but he was certainly never truly wicked. Nonetheless he excited a great number of authors, being the inspiration behind such creations as Mocata in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, Somerset Maugham’s Oliver Haddo and, indeed, Julian Karswell (ahem) in MR James’ Casting the Runes (but more on him later).
Later biographers redressed the balance, many of them painting him in an extremely positive light as a philosopher and author rather than scoundrel. It is perhaps this renaissance that saw him placed on 2002’s “100 Greatest Britons”, a poll compiled by the British Broadcasting Corporation. He ranked 73rd, four places ahead of popstar Robbie Williams. In fact, making him the villain these days is more surprising than casting him as the hero. Like us all, I suspect he could be a little of both and rarely all of either.
Mathers was a contemporary (and they often did not see eye to eye). He did buy Boleskine in order to practice the Abramelin Ritual. He apparently summoned all manner of forces into existence and then, due to personal circumstances intruding, failed to complete the ritual and banish them. There are those who believe Crowley contaminated the house with evil in so doing. It’s difficult to comment as, like Holmes, your own beliefs get in the way of assimilating the information. As a case in point: in a documentary on Crowley’s time in Boleskine, paranormal writer (and author of The Space Vampires filmed by Tobe Hooper as Lifeforce, one of the finest bad movies ever made) Colin Wilson states unequivocally that Crowley discovered magic worked. I would qualify that as: “Crowley discovered magic worked for him” because I don’t believe in magic (or, as Crowley always said, wishing to differentiate from stage illusion and Telstar romantic mail order LPs, Magick). But then I’m a rationalist who finds himself writing about things he doesn’t believe in, the theme of the book as I’m sure you now realise.
2. FICTIONAL THEFT
So we come to the fictional characters that I have appropriated. Or, as some would say “nicked”. The game of using old literary characters is not a new one and I hope that I have played by the rules by bringing something new and interesting to them (otherwise it’s rather like a bland cover version, a waste of everyone’s time).
Carnacki was the first to offer his services. I have long been a fan of William Hope Hodgson’s original collection of nine stories. They offer innovative takes on haunting, though, as here, Carnacki sometimes finds that he has been presented with a hoax rather than a genuine example of the supernatural. If one thing is lacking in Hodgson’s stories it’s in the character of Carnacki himself. He is rather two-dimensional. It is fiction of ideas rather than personality. Hopefully I’ve altered that. I’ve also built up on a couple of Hodgson devices, the Electric Pentacle is more extensively described and used here than it ever was in the original. Other trimmings, the tattoos, cufflinks and affectation towards cookery are all my own.
Dr John Silence was created by Algernon Blackwood, whose weird writings were much enjoyed by the more famous HP Lovecraft. He is probably most well known for his story The Willows. In the sort of perfect twist authors love, Blackwood himself was a member of the Golden Dawn, albeit after Crowley’s time. Like Carnacki, the character of Silence was secondary to a fiction of weird concepts and dream imagery. His animal companions, Smoke and Flame, do appear in the very first Silence story, A Psychical Invasion, though they are the real-live contemporaries of the elemental spirits seen to fight here.
Julian Karswell is the villain in the MR James story, Casting the Runes. He is a man singularly incapable of taking criticism (something I play with here) marking his literary enemies for death using scraps of paper with runes on them. James is the absolute master of the supernatural tale and I couldn’t resist bringing a little of him here. The story Karswell tells of the maze in his home owes a debt to another James story, that of Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance. In this book, Karswell is played by actor Niall MacGinnis, who took on the role for the only big screen adaptation of a James story, 1957’s Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US). The appearance of the demon in smoke during the Battle of Boleskine is also a nod to the movie, alongside a particularly cheeky joke I play with the dialogue. Fans of Kate Bush will spot the hidden reference.
I hope that any readers not familiar with these other stories will hunt them out. Hours of writing far superior to mine lie ahead of those that do. I also heartily recommend the audiobook recording of Casting the Runes by Andrew Sachs available from www.textbookstuff.com
3. THE CANON
Finally let’s look at Holmes and Watson. There is a habit amongst writers of new Holmes fiction to concentrate on emulating Conan Doyle’s style. From the word go I decided not to be too slavish about this. Guess what: Conan Doyle didn’t write this, I did. That’s not to say I didn’t want to get the characters right and add a novel to the countless masses that I felt worthy of consideration, but I’m a storyteller not an impressionist. I wanted to write the sort of fullblooded romp that Conan Doyle would approve of (action and effect over logic and style if I’m unbearably honest). I also wanted to relish these two glorious leading men and enjoy them for all they were worth. They have brought me pleasure since I was a child and there’s something quite breathtaking about getting to control them for a while.
Langdale Pike is also a creation of Conan Doyle’s, though we never meet him. Here I have taken the liberty of imagining him to be personified by the wonderful Peter Wyngarde as was the case in Granada’s TV adaptation of The Three Gables in 1994.
I have taken care to adhere to the character’s chronology while allowing myself the odd self-indulgent joke at Conan Doyle’s inconsistencies (the notion of Holmes, a man who loathed the countryside later retiring to keep bees, for example, the contradiction of which confused my noble editor no end). The fluctuating state of Watson’s marriage is here given a more pleasing solidity, I wanted the man I cared for to be allowed the luxury to grieve. Nobody who has ever loved could fail to cheat him of that.