Part of why I love writing this blog is rediscovering classic weird fiction that has been lost through misadventure and misfortune. Happily, others share this interest, and some of them are in an even better position to do something about it!
Over the past week, my favorite publisher Valancourt Books released two new editions of classic horror novels by British author John Blackburn. The novels are excellent, but these are of personal significance to me: I wrote new introductions for them!
Most people today have probably never heard of him, but in his time John Fenwick Blackburn (1923-1993) was an incredibly prolific, successful, and well-reviewed author of novels that ran an unpredictable spectrum from science fiction to mystery to espionage thriller to horror. This was encapsulated in one review of Bury Him Darkly: “A John Blackburn special, this novel of suspense, horror, occult, science fiction, or mystery (the reader’s choice) lives up to the author’s usual standards of excellence.”
Blackburn lived a rather eclectic life, pursuing a number of roles and jobs, before settling down as the manager of a bookstore in London. While there, he penned his first book, A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958), a thriller about an unnatural plague that starts in the Soviet Union and threatens to overwhelm the world. The success of this novel led Blackburn to take up writing full-time, though he and his wife managed an antiquarian bookstore on the side. Over the course of his career, he penned some 25 books, the last in 1985.
I’m not sure why his books seem to have fallen out of popularity after his death. Perhaps his lack of direct heirs left nobody immediately prepared to champion them; perhaps the Cold War and Nazi threats depicted in many of the novels felt out of date after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Today, however, the books seem marvelously fast-paced and filled with enough twists and turns and red herrings to keep one reading from the very first page. Because of Blackburn’s tendency to straddle genres, and to hold his secrets close to his chest until near the end of his books, one never really knows what to expect. However, one is rarely disappointed.
Broken Boy, one of Blackburn’s earliest, begins with the seemingly straightforward murder of a prostitute. When the supposed prostitute turns out to have been a former Soviet agent, General Kirk of the British Foreign Office gets involved in the investigation. According to the testimony of reliable witnesses, however, the murder could not have possibly happened! Kirk’s investigation leads to a sinister conspiracy connected to an even more sinister and bizarre ancient secret, tied to the question: “What is Broken Boy?”
Bury Him Darkly is an even stranger story, and already one of my favorite weird novels of all time! Two hundred years ago, an eccentric and decadent artist/scientist named Martin Railstone died after a mysterious period of genius in the last decade of his life. He was buried with all of his final works in a custom-built vault that has remained untouched through the centuries, and according to Railstone’s bizarre last will only a non-existent relative of his may legally open it. Now, with the tomb threatened to be submerged forever from the completion of a new dam, an odd assortment of admirers and scholars of Railstone have banded together to unlock its secrets, each with his or her own idea of what lies within. What is waiting for them in the tomb is more unusual — and more horrible — than any of them can possibly imagine.
There’s lots more information about Blackburn and the background of his books in the introductions that I wrote — but I’ll save that for those who read them! I’m tentatively planning to write introductions for more of Blackburn’s work for Valancourt, and I’ll announce those titles when they appear.
Postscript: Here’s an interesting post by the artist of the new Broken Boy cover, Dave Flora, and his thoughts on creating it!