The Deadly Grimoire
Once again I find myself reviewing an Arkham Horror novel and being deeply impressed by the way in which publisher Aconyte Books are developing the setting. Under the sure hand of editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, Arkham Horror is shaping up to be one of the most impressive brands being developed by Aconyte, as well as the gold standard to which all tie-in fiction should aspire to and hope to eventually match. Because not only is Aconyte gathering together some of the most impressive authors in the horror and science-fiction genres to write novels in the series, but they are clearly being given the latitude and freedom to develop the licensed setting in ways that I haven’t seen before. The novels written by Rosemary Jones are perfect examples of this – her first Arkham Horror novel, Mask of Silver was a superbly-plotted, intensely atmospheric and deeply unsettling tale of arrogance, ambition and greed blended together with certain elements of the Lovecraftian Mythos that the setting relies upon; yet at the same time, this was a novel that was allowed to blend that occult horror together with the very real and entirely human horrors of racism, xenophobia and social discrimination against Chinese-Americans, as well as women attempting to forge their own path in the early decades of the 20th Century in the United States. It weas an absolutely phenomenal novel that I thoroughly enjoyed both reading and reviewing, putting Rosemary Jones firmly on a radar as an author to watch, and I was overjoyed when it was announced that Aconyte would be publishing another Arkham Horror novel that she had penned – and not just another novel, but a direct sequel to Mask of Silver. The cover for The Deadly Grimoire was another eye-catching piece of Art Deco art that has become the calling card of the series, and Daniel Strange has outdone himself to create by far the most impressive cover of the Arkham Horror series, and perhaps even all of the series published by Aconyte Books. The back-cover blurb promised action, adventure and chilling horror as several key figures from Mask of Silver returned, venturing back to the town of Arkham in an attempt to uncover the secrets of what happened in the deadly, flame-filled climax of early Hollywood film-making seen at the end of that novel. I was deeply intrigued, already invested in the stories, character and author, and couldn’t wait to see what Rosemary Jones and The Deadly Grimoire had in store for me as reader and reviewer.
Intriguingly, the novel opens with a brief letter from protagonist Betsy Baxter – the titular Flapper Detective from the novel’s cover art – to someone named Jeany, both a close confidant of Betty and also the narrator and protagonist of Mask of Silver. In between harmless, run of the mill gossip about the still-nacent film industry, we discover two key facts that will set the novel’s narrative in motion: Betsy is now a popular and successful actress with her own film series; and stagehand Jim, who was thought to have perished in the mysterious and disastrous fire that claimed the lives of many of the cast and crew on the doomed Mask of Silver film set, is not only alive but now conscious. Betsy, who only barely survived the flames and other – less explicable – dangers, is determined to question Jim and find out what happened to her friend and beau Max, studio accountant and right-hand man of director Sydney Fitzmaurice. Max disappeared as the film set and mansion it was housed in went up in flames, but no body was found, and Betsy wants answers that only Jim can provide. But her journey to confront her mysteriously returned colleague is anything but simple. When a rare and cursed occult tome is accidentally sold to an academic professor and a violent gangster, and then disappears altogether, the Flapper Detective soon finds herself enmeshed in the most dangerous and realistic plot of her life yet – involving disappearing people, hijacked aircraft and the real truth behind the fire that claimed the lives of her friends. Only by teaming up with an ace female pilot, and a mysterious bookseller, can Betsy have even a slight chance of surviving the perils of Arkham in general, the attention of the Deadly Grimoire, and hopefully uncover the true reasons for the disappearance of her friends on the set of Mask of Silver.
Jones once again provides a fast-paced and deeply compelling narrative as Betsy bull-headedly strives into the morass of chaos and corruption in the midst of Arkham and Innsmouth, and her skillful prose is immediately put to work in not only developing both the overarching Arkham Horror setting, but also connecting it to the wider developments in the United States as the Jazz Age progressed – something that has always been something of a weak point of the entire Arkham Horror setting due to the insular nature of the boardgame and role-playing game. As the novel progresses, we get some fascinating insights into the wider process of producing films in the 1920s, and in particular the complexities and inherent dangers of performing the thrilling stunts that we take for granted in a 21st Century of computer-generated graphics and immaculate safety standards. An early chapter in The Deadly Grimoire involving a filmed piece of wing-walking is genuinely enthralling, both for the thrilling sequence itself, but also for the detailed look at the technical requirements for filming something so radical only a few years after films started to be made. This is a key part of The Deadly Grimoire, and Mask of Silver before it, and Jones’ research and dedication pay off in spades. The same is found in the logistics and mechanics of both flying and maintaining those early aircraft, particularly in an era when knowledge was passed along word of mouth than in technical manuals, and female pilots and mechanics were discriminated against, dismissed or even openly mocked. It’s a genuinely fascinating and little-known subject, and Jones does these early pioneers a great service by informing readers about them and their achievements. These chapters are joined later on in the novel by subtler strands of history that Jones combines with the overarching Mythos narrative of deadly tomes and greedy gangsters and shady physicians seeking profit and glory through exploiting their forbidden knowledge. Jones’ knowledge roams everywhere from voting rights and discrimination against women and minorities, to the early female pioneers of flight and stunt-flying whose names and achievements have been lost to time, and even the role of postwomen in the aftermath of the Great War. Taken altogether, these additional elements are subtly blended into the wider plot, and add an extra dimension to the tale (apart from the usual Lovecraftian non-euclidian ones that Jones also provides) as it progresses.
That excellence extends to the small cast of characters found in The Deadly Grimoire, who are just as three-dimensional and nuanced as those in its predecessor. Betsy really clicked as a protagonist, even moreso than Jeany did in Mask of Silver, and I enjoyed the way in which Jones portrayed her as a driven actress determined to prove her worth in the early days of Hollywood, yet also trying to care for the staff of the mansion she owns by setting up saving schemes, or trading dry sarcasm her butler Farnsworth. And her death-defying stunts on the sets of the various films in The Flapper Detective films provides a solid basis for her acrobatic abilities when facing the occult and human perils throughout the novel. I also appreciated how Jones developed her character in the aftermath of the events of Mask of Silver, making her more independent and determined not to blindly follow the whims of a film director or businessman. I also enjoyed the sense of friendship and camaraderie that Jones developed between some of the characters, especially those between the women behind the camera and those in front – particular director Marian, and the fearless Winifred Habbamock, ace stunt pilot and someone not unfamiliar with the occult strangeness to be found in – and above – Arkham and its surroundings. Winifred in particular is a character that I hope we see more of in the sequel (there had better be a sequel!) because she’s an intriguing, multi-faceted character who would make an excellent protagonist for her own book. The supporting cast is just as varied and sterling – bookseller Tom Sweets is a quietly amusing character – a slightly pompous scion of a family who made their money sourcing occult tomes who finds his real calling in life by becoming the ‘advance man’ for Betty and Winifred; and Jim, one of the members of the Mask of Silver film crew makes a welcome return, giving us a fascinating insight into a character rarely seen in Lovecraftian fiction: the individual who has encountered something inhuman and survived – physically and least partially mentally. Jones’ skill at characterisation fortunately also extends to the novels antagonists, particularly Miss Nova Malone, gangster and criminal mastermind; a deeply untrustworthy woman ready to shed blood if required, and yet also a deeply compelling and even somewhat admirable character with her far-sighted social views on what Innsmouth and its people require in order to truly prosper. There’s also the arrogant and overbearing Doctor Ezra Hughes, with his overbearing, arrogant and deeply misogynistic bearing and obsessive interest in mirrors and glass panes that can show hidden truths. Jones has deftly crafted sinister characters in her previous works, but the obsessive Hughes and his ‘oceanic therapy’ is especially unsettling and memorable.
Populated by a carefully-crafted cast of characters, an atmospheric and often chilling plot, and filled with some superbly cinematic and tension-filled action sequences that thake their cues from the stunts found in those early Jazz Age monochrome, silent movies, The Deadly Grimoire is not only a superb addition to Aconyte Books’ Arkham Horror series, but also the best book that Rosemary Jones has written yet. Jones manages the devilishly – or should that be squamously – difficult job of crafting a novel that works on multiple levels: as its own stand-alone occult horror novel, as a sequel to Mask of Silver that further develops the plot and characters of that novel, and also as a work of Lovecraftian fiction that further expands on Arkham Horror as a setting. Artfully constructed and painstakingly researched, and imbued with an energy and imagination that demonstrates Jones’ complete mastery of the Arkham Horror setting, The Deadly Grimoire was one of my favourite reads of 2022 – and I cannot wait to see what she and Aconyte Books come up with in their next collaboration.