The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey: Volume One
I’ve been a fan of author Paul Leone ever since I read his Alternate History triptych In and Out of the Reich, recently published by Sea Lion Press and reviewed on this very blog earlier in the year. I’m on the record as believing that the alternate history genre as a whole is dominated by stale, unimaginative and deeply clichéd stories based around a tiny handful of scenarios (Confederacy Victorious; Third Reich Victorious; Cold War Turned Hot), so for an alternate history author to produce something striking and original based on one of those scenarios is quite frankly someone to watch closely. Leone easily achieved that with In and Out of the Reich, delivering three stories that provided an unflinching, often uncomfortable and yet deeply entertaining examination of a continent dominated by a bloated, militarised and slowly-decaying Third Reich. The triptych was extremely well written, with a sharp eye for detail and some excellent characterisation, and I decided to keep an eye on Leone and see what else he produced. When he contacted me to discuss his upcoming Occult Detective collection, The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey: Volume One, I positively jumped at the chance to not only review the collection, but also conduct my first-ever cover reveal and author interview for The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer. The cover for the collection is an absolutely stunning and elegant piece, illustrator Jackson Tjota knocking it out of the park in portraying protagonist Zillah Harvey and evoking the atmosphere of the stories contained within the title. With a back-cover blurb that promised an encounter with a certain infamous Victorian serial killer, a pleasing variety of locales, and a brace of occult monsters and creatures for Zillah to face off against, I couldn’t wait to dive in and start reading.
Containing a total of thirteen stories, the collection opens with The Mystery of the Dying Woman which deals with Zillah’s origins and the brutal, near-death experience that leads to her supernatural powers manifesting. From the very start, Leone provides us with a distinctive protagonist through the emphasis on Zillah’s unusual (and amusingly sourced) Barsetshire accent, as well as her working-class background as a factory worker in the slums of late-Victorian London. Walking back to her tenement one evening after another shift at the factory, an innocent attempt to render help to someone in a slum alleyway leads to Zillah experiencing a brutal and unexpected encounter with no less than Jack the Ripper himself. However, before the madman can do more than stab her and leave some vicious scarring, the intervention of two mysterious strangers drives the Ripper away and leaves Zillah to ascend to an ethereal version of London that seems to be a patchwork of historical periods. Once there, she has her first encounter with the innumerable spirits that she is now able to commune with, as well as an eerie and terrifying presence that seems to inhabit her and seeks to control her completely.
Leone does a marvellous job of weaving an atmosphere of confusion and bewilderment as Zillah comes to terms with her strange and unearthly powers, as well as the mysterious passenger lurking at the back of her mind (and possibly soul as well); in the process, Leone crafts one of the most striking and imaginative origin stories for an Occult Detective protagonist that I’ve ever come across in my extensive reading of the genre. It really pulls you into Zillah’s world, and the unique combination of character, setting and situation is then artfully blended together by Leone to form the framework for the rest of Zillah’s adventures contained in the collection. We then segue into The Mystery of the Savant Club, as Zillah recovers from her initial encounter with the occult, and discovers more about the mysterious strangers who saved her from a serial killer, and the being that inhabits her and seeks to dominate her body and soul. We’re introduced to the key members of the Savant Club and the luxurious interior of the club and its many benefits to members (a first-class occult library, a wonderful wine selection, excellent upholstery) but also the downsides of Zillah’s new existence; not just the sneering condescension of her alleged betters in the club, but also the social consequences of ascending class barriers and thereby abandoning her friends from the factory. Clearly innately familiar with the tropes of the genre, Leone deftly inverts or reinterprets them as the story progresses, making the narrative all the more engaging as a result. It all ends with a terrifyingly vivid séance that further demonstrates Zillah’s ability to communicate with spirits, while simultaneously demonstrating that she is not alone in her body; someone or something is trying to possess her.
Having set up Zillah’s character and circumstances in the first two stories, Leone then throws our protagonist into a series of encounters with the supernatural as her ‘spiritual consulting’ business begins to prosper. In The Mystery of the Carpathian Client an encounter with a unsettling Transylvanian noble, who possesses a particularly impressive and intimidating stature, leads to Zillah conducting a séance that results in some chilling revelations for client and medium alike, as well as a subtle and deeply intriguing link to no less a classic of the gothic horror genre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is followed by The Mystery of the Daemoniac, which sees Zillah investigate the gruesome murder of one of her former factory workmates, the crime scene eerily similar to where Zillah almost lost her life. This is the first time that one of her cases becomes personal for Zillah, not only from the loss of a friend but also the creeping realisation that something terrible is also inhabiting her body and soul; not only must Zillah deal with these thorny issues, but also the question of how they’re linked to the creepy inhabitant of a local asylum she’s summoned to visit.
The Mystery of the Barrow sees Zillah visit the grounds of an ancient Abbey and the countless spirits inhabiting the area, and encounter a strangely virile and intensely charismatic aristocrat, his young ward and her governess. Struggling with difficult, haunting dreams and the cryptic murmurs of the dead around the Barrow, Zillah and her hosts must contend with the powerful, ancient force released from a recently-excavated Barrow on the Abbey grounds. The Mystery of the Consulting Detective, features no less a personage than the Consulting Detective of the age, Sherlock Holmes, who visits Zillah to discuss that most famous of Holmes’ unsolved cases – the disappearance of James Phillimore, who stepped back into his house to grab an umbrella, and was never seen again. It turns out that Phillimore was a regular attendee at Zillah’s séances, and that his mysterious absence appears to be connected to her in some manner. This leads to Zillah and Holmes investigating the man’s disappearance and possible kidnapping by an obscure occult sect, while they constantly bicker in a darkly amusing manner about their respective skills and what generates them; Leone obviously had a great deal of fun writing this tale, deftly juxtaposing the cold, ruthless logic of Holmes with the spiritual insights and powers of Zillah. It’s a highly entertaining and cleverly-plotted story and one of the best in the collection as a result.
Moving towards the middle of the collection, The Mystery of the Good Man’s Bride has Zillah travelling to a remote part of Ireland to investigate the disappearance of a maid, only to become enmeshed in the machinations of the surly, suspicious locals and whatever fell power lurks under the surface of the remote island and its surrounding waters, so strong it’s able to dispel even the slightest trace of spirits from the area. This tale gives Leone a chance to exercise his descriptive muscles, really bringing the verdant, damp and saltwater-soaked Irish scenery to life and giving the plot itself an underlying vibrancy as Zillah attempts to locate the lost maid. The Mystery of the Red Bacchanalia then sees the medium visit London’s vibrant West End to take in a new play – the bohemian-sounding The Vampyre – only to find an innocent diversion resulting in a strange cast, a horrifying crime scene, and a certain type of occult monster obsessed with blood lurking in the sewers underneath the streets of London. The Mystery of the Horrifying Homecoming begins with Zillah receiving the distressing news that a distant relative has died, followed by a journey home which – as the title rather hints at – not only goes very poorly but inevitably involves matters of the occult and some surprising revelations about the force nestling inside of her and desperately struggling to control her heart and soul. From there, The Mystery of the Ebony Idol has Zillah herself summoned to a crime scene to consult on one of the most unsettling murders I’ve ever seen described in the Occult Detective genre, and from there investigating the links between a blood-soaked lodging in London, a distant tribe in the Andaman Islands, and the titular ebony idol.
In The Mystery of the Golden Hunt, an attempt to take a break from occultism, spirits and the demands of the Savant Club goes disastrously wrong for Zillah when a visit to meet an old friend in the countryside coincides with the death of a local after a grisly encounter with a wild boar. Soon it becomes clear that Zillah’s invitation was anything but casual, and she rapidly becomes entangled with the ancient, pagan entities known as the Golden Hunt that ends in an encounter equal parts terrifying and mystifying. The penultimate tale, The Mystery of the Templar Church, follows Zillah as she crosses the Channel and visits France as she undertakes an excavation of an ancient Templar church in the company of French aristocracy. But while the original Templars may have been excommunicated and expunged in the Middle Ages, their legacy still remains, and Zillah is forced to confront it in a series of potent and horrifying dreams, as well as contend with the hidden motives of her French benefactors. Finally, the collection concludes with The Mystery of the Buckinghamshire Burial, in which a Savant Club-sponsored journey to another excavation site, this one an ancient barrow in Buckinghamshire, leads to an encounter with a reclusive member of the Savant Club’s inner circle and the mysterious, immensely powerful woman who haunts both Zillah’s dreams and her waking hours.
The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey features consistently high-quality writing and intricate and carefully considered plotting, supplemented by a cast of deftly described and memorable characters, as well as a clear demonstration of Leone’s ability to generate a chilling atmosphere that thoroughly permeates each story, slowly becoming more oppressive and stifling as Zillah’s adventures increase in complexity and danger. Zillah Harvey also makes for an engaging protagonist to follow through the stories, with Leone able to imbue her with a striking personality that develops in fascinating and unexpected ways as the stories progress, as well as mysterious and hidden depths, giving her a weight of character rarely seen in collections like this. Added to this, there are several other notable elements that make the collection stand out from among its many competitors. Firstly, Leone clearly possesses a vivid imagination that is deftly merged with an innate understanding of how to utilise occult imagery to best effect, in a manner that while it makes use of genre archetypes, is also infused with a great deal of originality and vitality.
Secondly, there’s a pleasing amount of dark humour that permeates the stories, particularly as you move through the collection and Leone becomes more familiar and confident with his creations; several stories had me smirking or chuckling at some witty aside or amusing call-back to a previous tale, adding just enough lightness to ensure the darker themes that emerge from the narrative don’t overwhelm the reader completely. Thirdly, there’s Leone’s rather fascinating decision to emphasise the different regional accents of the characters in the areas that Zillah visits; while it can take a little getting used to, it’s a highly effective technique that makes each story seem a little more distinctive, and the cast of characters often as memorable as Zillah herself. Finally, perhaps the most impressive element of the entire collection is Leone’s ability to weave an overarching narrative across all of the stories in the collection while also ensuring that each tale is self-contained and entertaining in of itself. That’s not something you often see in collections like this, as many of the stories have usually been written for a variety of anthologies, collections and magazines over a period of time and only brought together for the collection itself; The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey greatly benefits from many of the stories being written exclusively for the collection and thereby allowing a more cohesive narrative to emerge.
The publication of The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey: Volume One is nothing less than a triumph for author Paul Leone, and provides ample proof that a fresh, innovative and skillful new voice has emerged within the Occult Detective genre. Leone has blended together memorable characters, engaging plots and a quietly chilling and oppressive atmosphere in order to create a deeply compelling and highly enjoyable collection of short stories, one which I have no hesitation in recommending to any fan of the Occult Detective genre, or gothic horror in general. While this would appear to only the beginning of Leone’s foray into the genre, I strongly believe that before long, his name will be discussed in the same breath as the modern greats of the Occult Detective genre – authors like Meikle, Reynolds, Beard and Linwood Grant.