Cast your mind back to Germany, 1907. As he is everywhere else, Sherlock Holmes is a remarkably popular fictional character so when you see for sale a new story magazine called DETECTIVE SHERLOCK HOLMES UND SEINE WELTBERÜHMTEN ABENTEUER (translated as SHERLOCK HOLMES’ MOST FAMOUS CASES), you just have to take it home.
I suppose that unsophisticated readers believed they were buying a new collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but unfortunately, his attorneys were not among that number and so, in order to avoid a lawsuit, the magazine changed its name after the 10th issue to AUS DEM GEHEIMAKTEN DES WELTDETEKTIVS (THE SECRET FILES OF THE KING OF DETECTIVES). The great detective was still named Sherlock Holmes, and his Watsonesque sidekick was named Harry Taxon.
Several of the original German series were translated into French, and by 1927, the stories were being translated into Dutch-Flemish and published as HARRY DICKSON DE AMERIKAANSCHE SHERLOCK HOLMES (HARRY DICKSON, THE AMERICAN SHERLOCK HOLMES). The “American” part derived from the fact that Harry was born in New York.
In 1928, Belgian author Jean Ray (real name: Raymundus Joannes de Kremer), best known then and now for his horror stories, began translating the tales into French. When Ray grew tired of dealing with second-rate plots and prose, he began writing his own Harry Dickson yarns.
And that brings us, at last, to HARRY DICKSON, THE AMERICAN SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE HEIR OF DRACULA, Black Coat Press’ edition of four of Ray’s Dickson tales — three novelettes and one short story — translated by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. The yarns first saw print between 1933 and 1937, and you would be hard-pressed searching American pulps of that era to find more rip-snorting barn-burners than these.
Dickson has at least as much in common with psychic detectives like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Karnacki as with the scientific detectives that followed in Conan Doyle’s wake. Robert Downey Jr.’s recent outing as Holmes bears more resemblance to Dickson than he does to the traditional representations of the Sage of Baker Street.
In “The Heir of Dracula,” Harry and his assistant, Tom Wills, do battle with the red-eyed vampire in a haunted house near Hamburg. Harry is drawn into the case when a murderer named Ebenezer Grump is about to be guillotined and pleads with the great detective to complete the execution as quickly as possible, because if he doesn’t die soon, something worse than death will overtake him.
In “The Iron Temple,” Harry and Tom are back in London and have to deal with some monster that fell from the sky in what appears to be a spaceship. Its appearance is so terrible, it can kill with a glance — and then something else arrives that is so much worse, it can kill the monster.
The last novelette is “The Return of the Gorgon,” in which a mad sculptor uses human beings as the building blocks of his art. The sculptor is Matthew Jarnes, and here, he has captured a journalist named Renders. He’s placed Renders into the body of a sculpted centaur, with the man’s head protruding from the centaur’s neck:
“’Be careful!’ advised Jarnes. ‘That mixture of boiling plaster and melted wax must be delicately poured over the head of our Fallen Centaur. First, it must fill the hole around its neck, then slowly cover his head. We’ll keep the eyes for last in order to preserve their purity of expression of unimaginable fear. Yes, my friend,’ he added, speaking to Renders, ‘you’re going to die, horribly so! The expression of sheer terror that I see on your face will be preserved faithfully in stone for all posterity to marvel at!’”
Ah, but how does Jarnes fix that expression just the way he wants it? “(I use) a mixture of talcum powder, camphor, plaster of Paris and soap powder. It immediately congeals inside your mouth, stops you from screaming, and freezes your face into an expression of unbearable agony — which, in your case, will not last long. I call in a pain fixer!”
Paging Dr. Roth. Dr. Eli Roth.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn you that even the most supernatural of the tales could have a weird-menace, SCOOBY-DOO ending. I’m not saying they all do, but if last-page explanations that include that chance make you angry, well, prepare to lose a bit of your temper.
I think the stories are fun with an over-the-top, Saturday-matinee-serial, monster-kid joie de vivre that some of us just can’t seem to outgrow. The tales clip along at a speedy pace, the plots are outrageous and the characterizations are pure pulp — and I mean that as a compliment. I’ll read more Harry Dickson, if Black Coat Press decides to give me more, but I’d really like to see them publish some new translations of Ray’s original horror stories.
Black Coat Press specializes in new translations, many by Brian Stableford, of 19th- and early 20th-century French pop literature. Sitting on my end table right now is Gustave Le Rouge’s VAMPIRES OF MARS.
I gotta go. See you later. —Doug Bentin