Casefiles of The Royal Occultist Volume 1: Monmouth’s Giants
I think it says a great deal about publisher 18thWall Productions that they’ve become one of my favourite publishers to review titles from, despite the fact that I hadn’t heard of them until the middle of 2019. Although 18thWall publish in several different genres, it’s their occult and supernatural horror titles that attracted my interest last year, and led to them becoming one of the few publishers that I’ve decided I’ll review anything that they send my way. Why is that, exactly? Well, it’s because they’ve made a deep and lasting impression on me, both as a reviewer and a reader, due to the consistent high-quality nature of the novels and anthologies that they release, as well as the high calibre of new and veteran authors that they source for their publications. That includes veteran writers like the supremely talented Josh Reynolds, and Jon Black, a new author who specialises in occult and supernatural horror and is one of the rising stars of the horror genre.
But it’s not just the authors they publish that makes 18thWall stand out so much – it’s also the frankly stunning quality of the production values of the books themselves. In a crowded and heavily competitive genre where the quality and composition of a piece of cover art can decide in an instant whether a reader will pick up a title or pass it by without a second thought, each of 18thWall’s titles are granted a fantastically expressive and memorable piece of original art. Quite frankly they surpass nearly all other horror publishers I can think of, and are a clear demonstration of the investment and commitment that 18thWall put into each of their publications, and the passion they have for their craft. You need only look at the covers for recent titles from the publisher, such as Gabriel’s Trumpet by Jon Black, or the Sockhops & Séances anthology, to see what I mean.
There’s a very specific reason that I’ve gone into greater detail than usual about the quality of the artwork commissioned by 18thWall Productions, and the quality of their publications: it’s so that I firmly establish that in your minds, as a reader, as a basis for my next statement, because otherwise it might seem too hyperbolic. Because you see, with their latest release, 18thWall have somehow exceeded their own high standards and produced something that moves into the sort of quality I only expect from publishers like Dark Regions Press, who specialise in the creation of phenomenally impressive (and phenomenally expensive) collector’s editions. That release is the Casefiles of The Royal Occultist Volume 1: Monmouth’s Giants, a volume that collects together the first tranche of Josh Reynolds’ peerless Jazz-Age occult detective stories that feature the titular Royal Occultist.
A title passed down the centuries to a number of post-holders, both famous and infamous, the Royal Occultist is always an incredibly talented, knowledgeable and deadly magical practitioner who deals with all of the supernatural, occult and otherwise unnatural things that would threaten Great Britain and her Empire. It’s a post that comes with certain advantages, such as a nice house in London and a great deal of influence, but also tends to be one that doesn’t often see the holder retire with a nice pension, even if they manage the unlikely feat of living that long. By the early 1920s, the Royal Occultist is one Charles St. Cyprian, a seemingly-fastidious Bright Young Thing who has greater depths than he lets on, assisted by his apprentice-cum-assistant Ebe Gallowglass, a mercurial woman with a predilection for guns and sharpened blades.
The stories contained in the collection are fantastic, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but I really need to talk about the book itself. Its design is nothing less than exquisite, with a level of detail and care that you usually only see in extremely expensive and high-end special editions. The cover art alone is absolutely stunning, illustrating one of the many hair-raising car chases that St. Cyprian and Gallowglass tend to get into during the course of their adventures, with the illustrator perfectly blending the action with the Art Deco imagery of the period. Usually that would be enough for 18thWall, but this time they’ve gone several steps further and actually taken that imagery as a theme for the internal illustrations: each story has a gorgeous illustration of a gun that frames the text, which itself is centred in the middle of the pages to give it a classier effect. Even the font itself is period-appropriate, which is something I’ve not even seen consistently in collector titles! It all comes together to create something that is more than just a book – it’s a genuine treasure, and one that deserves to be admired as much as it’s read. While I was lucky enough to get an electronic review copy, I can only imagine how good this would look as a physical copy on a bookcase, and I hope to one day own a copy myself.
[Given the length of this review already, and my usual policy on not reviewing every story in an anthology or collection to avoid spoilers and time-wasting, I won’t do some comprehensive overview of the stories. Instead I’ll just focus on the stories I particularly enjoyed, especially as I’ve read many of them previously when they were originally published. As a bonus to each story, however, Reynolds has provided an Afterword for each tale that gives insights into his writing process and inspiration for the Royal Occultist universe in general. I love it when publishers and authors collaborate to do this, giving you a rare and informative glimpse of the writing process.]
The collection brings together the Royal Occultist stories based on their fictional chronology, and not their publication date; while this means I’m going to be waiting for the next volumes to revisit some of my favourite tales, this does have the advantage of seeing St. Cyprian from the very beginning of his role as a Royal Occultist. That starts with the titular Monmouth’s Giants, which sees William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective character Thomas Carnacki attempting to banish something occult and large underneath London’s Guildhall. He’s interrupted by the arrival of some drunken Bright Young Thins, including a certain Charles St. Cyprian, who quickly sobers up when they both realise that the Giants are interested in the young man for all the wrong reasons. It’s a great story, and serves as an excellent showcase; both for the characters of Carnacki and St. Cyprian, and Reynold’s deeply atmospheric, engaging and action-packed style of writing that characterises the Royal Occultist series as a whole.
The Charnel Hounds places Carnacki and St. Cyprian in the trenches of the First World War, hunting down ghouls that are feasting on corpses and menacing British troops when they do so. Reynolds has a knack for portraying trench warfare, as demonstrated in the novella The Beast in the Trenches for the Warhammer Horror triptych The Wicked and the Damned, and he shows the same insight and writing skill here. The Hounds are genuinely terrifying creatures, and the First World War is a fascinating period that doesn’t get enough of a look in with occult detective fiction; I’d like to see the author return to the concept of a squad of British soldiers fighting the occult in the Flanders mud. It’s also another opportunity for Reynolds to introduce more elements of background mythology for the world of the Royal Occultist; I find these little glimpses one of the best parts of the St. Cyprian stories, as they really add depth and intrigue to the world the stories are set in.
The Unwrapping Party sees the introduction of Ebe Gallowglass, St. Cyprian’s mysterious apprentice who’s handy with knife and pistol, and acts as an irreverent and often sarcastic foil to St. Cyprian’s more serious demeanour. She’s one of my favourite characters in the series, someone grounded in the realities of occult combat and able to keep St. Cyprian alive until he can unleash the correct sigil or counter-spell to put down a beastie, ghoul or – as in the case of this particular tale – a particularly vicious mummy. This was the first Royal Occultist story I ever read, and it remains one of my favourites despite all the others I’ve read over the years; it has the perfect balance of characters, action and a wonderfully imaginative villain/occult creature in the form of recurring foe the Black Pharoah, Nephren-Ka. There’s even more world building, this time probing the various aristocratic occult societies that existed just after the First World War, many of which actually existed, and several of which have links to the Royal Occultist novels.
The Door of Eternal Night is a novella, and one of the more unusual entries in the series, indicated by the dedication to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini; Doyle and Houdini star prominently in the novella, approaching St. Cyprian with a devilish problem they’ve encountered. Houdini believes he’s been conned by an elaborate trick disguised as an occult incident, whereas Conan Doyle firmly believes it’s a supernatural incident that St. Cyprian needs to investigate. This is a particularly enjoyable tale, as the forces of mysticism and scepticism openly clash in the forms of the famous author and the famous performer, creating an enjoyably chaotic blend of elements that Reynolds then forges into a thrilling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and reflective tale.
There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the Krampus mythology in the horror genre; I’m not entirely certain why, but a host of authors have written short stories, novellas and even novels based around the mythological creature and its connection to Christmas. They’ve been of distinctly variable quality, but Reynold’s Krampusnacht (the very first Royal Occultist story published) is at the very top of the pile thanks to his skill and imagination, deftly weaving the Krampus into the Royal Occultist universe. Christmas in 1920, and St. Cyprian finds himself the unwilling recipient of an old chum, whose dabbling in the occult has attracted the attention of the aforementioned creature, and is forced to devise some festive-themed sorcery and occult practices to try and save his friends life (and soul).
The Faceless Fiend is one of my favourite Royal Occultist stories for a few reasons – the humour is dialled up a few more notches than many of the other stories, and it has a darkly hilarious villain that comes straight from 1950s B-Movies; combined with the usual excellent writing, that results in a short but memorable tale that sees St. Cyprian and Gallowglass faced with a locked room mystery, and a victim missing a brain. It’s followed up by Iron Bells which sees St. Cyprian summoned by the Minister of Transport in order to deal with whatever derailed a Tube train and killed fifteen passengers. The London Underground features in several Royal Occultist stories, and they’re some of the best in my opinion; there’s something about the claustrophobic, warren-like maze of tunnels that plays to Reynold’s strengths as a writer. And there’s also my favourite occult government agency, the London Tunnel Authority, who wage their own ceaseless war against ghosts and ghouls to keep the trains running on time. It’s a short but multi-layered story that sets up a lot of background detail for future storylines, and features perhaps the most terrifying enemy the Royal Occultists – the entire lineage – has ever faced. Then there’s the unsettling blend of mythology and misogyny that forms the basis of The Wedding Seal, a chilling tale quite unlike other Royal Occultist stories, and which packs a distinct and unforgettable emotional punch.
Fane of the Black Queen is an entirely new Royal Occultist story, and as such one I was eager to dive into when getting this collection. It’s notable for being a Gallowglass-centric story, as she has to deal with the fallout of St. Cyprian’s disappearance. This really is the best story in the collection, tensely written and with a complex atmosphere of mystery, suspicion and confusion as Gallowglass investigates her colleague’s disappearance. It’s also a very different take on the Royal Occultist as a concept, with less humour and harder edges, and Gallowglass far less enamoured with pretending to be a member of the aristocracy and trading quips with villains. She’s much more ruthless in her viewpoint and actions, and happy to take on villains with blade and gun as much as books and spells. As Reynolds says in his afterword to the story, Fane of the Black Queen points towards what the Gallowglass stories will look like when she becomes the Royal Occultist.
Casefiles of The Royal Occultist Volume 1: Monmouth’s Giants really is a triumph for both Josh Reynolds and 18thWall Productions. The stories themselves are amongst the best that have been written for the Royal Occultist series, and perfectly demonstrate the multifaceted manner in which Reynolds has developed the Royal Occultist universe as a distinct and memorable setting over a number of years. It’s a vibrant, detailed and original world that’s chock full of esoteric and occult groups and activities, creating a secret supernatural world that operates alongside the events lodged in history books, accompanied by a diverse cast of engaging, fleshed-out characters who are obviously far more than the tropey, two-dimensional types that so often inhabit the occult detective genre. In addition the collection itself is a gorgeous publication, more akin to a work of art than just a book, with a fantastic piece of cover art, delightful internal illustrations, and a general sense of passion that so rarely comes across in titles from publishers these days. One day I will own a paperback copy for my bookshelf, and I can only hope that it is joined by further volumes before too long.