DW states in ‘Drink and Ink’
Successful as my Gregory Sallust stories had proved, I felt that after three in succession I must give him a rest; so the next story would feature the Duke de Richleau and his friends. As the German U-boats had begun to inflict serious losses on our shipping I took for a theme that the Germans were receiving information on the astral plane about our convoys from a powerful witch doctor in Haiti. Then I sent the Duke and his friends out to the West Indies to deal with the situation.
In April (1941) Strange Conflict was published. How, during that winter, with Total War, After the Battle and all these other activities on my hands, I had ever managed to write it I cannot now imagine; but, of course, for many months I had been working fourteen hours a day, Sundays included.
I was also now writing ‘The Sword of Fate’, when I could get a few hours from my war Papers.
In September Christina Foyle took ‘Strange Conflict’ for her book club.
…on the first reading (I) felt that the novel did not compare favourably.
Over the years and several readings later, I feel that the story is as compelling as DRO.
While I would completely agree with anyone (everyone ?) who says that 'The Devil Rides Out' is DW's classic Black Magic novel, Strange Conflict remains my favourite.
I chose to begin this review of ‘Strange Conflict’ with the above two extracts from previous posts of Nick & Charles as I feel these are major points relating to the second of DW’s Black Magic novels.
I have read the book once before and I recall enjoying the book at the time.
But that was all!.
I think I was a little unfair with it, probably because I was so affected by ‘The Devil Rides Out’ that I felt that ‘Strange Conflict’ could never compare. I almost felt it to be an imitation of a masterpiece??
I resolved to read it again.
The story begins with dinner at eight o’clock and coffee not being served till after ten. Sir Pellinore is a worried man. He can’t understand how the Germans seem to know the exact movements of the English Naval fleets.
Having asked all the relevant questions, the Duke decides that supernatural forces are involved – Black Magic.
Sir Pellinore believes that the Duke has totally flipped!!
But the Duke persuades Sir Pellinore otherwise. Trust me, I’m a duke!!!!
The Duke assembles the remaining musketeers together and at Richard Eatons request they all travel to Cardinals Folly, Kidderminster, Worcestershire.
Marie Louise Heloise Aphrodite Blankfort De Cantezane de Schulemoff greets them at the site of their previous black magic battle in ‘The Devil Rides Out’.
The Duke, and then subsequently the remaining four occupants take turns in Astral travel to determine who is causing these problems to the Royal Navy.
The trips and the morphing are excellent. The Duke changed from a Dragonfly to an Eagle, the enemy changes from a Beetle to a large black bird, Mary Lou becomes a fly then a queen wasp and then hides in corners among the girders so that the large bird couldn’t get at her. (I thought that astral forms could enter through any solids – so how would hiding in a corner save her???)
Anyway, I kept asking myself, “What would I have turned myself into!!”
I think this is the bit that really excites me – the thought that this can actually be done…..can’t it???
We all know that DW was a keen believer in reincarnation.
Chapter six gives an insight into various aspects of this belief, for example;
“When you are reaching the end of your earthly lives having little else to learn.
It is then granted to you to select such incarnations as will enable you to master those last lessons most rapidly – just as an advanced student at university is allowed considerable latitude in the choice of the subjects he wishes to take and his hours of work.
Our Lord, for example, took the extreme step of electing to bear the pains and penalties of his last three lives in one incarnation. In the short space of thirty years he paid off every remaining debt that he had incurred during his many lives” on this, the material plane and with an unsurpassed display of fortitude supported all the resulting suffering so that he might free himself from the flesh forever.
The Duke manages to determine that the island on which the enemy magician is based on is Haiti. They travel to the island with the daughter of a man that Sir Pellinore knows;
Philippa Ricardi is a mute and so has to write every thing down on a board.
She is also an octoroon (an offspring of one eighth Negro blood)!!!!
On the last leg of their journey the privately hired plane is forced into the sea by supernatural forces.
Simon and Philippa are sent off in the inflatable life boat to get help. The others have to survive a shark attack and the blistering sun. Help eventually arrives in the shape of a ‘Doctor Saturday’ on his manned launch.
Dr Saturday (Baron Samedi) offers accommodation at his house and tells them all about the voodoo activities on the island.
The Duke secretly sends Rex and Richard to Jamaica to replace the impedimenta lost in the plane crash. In the meantime the Duke and Marie Lou endeavour to keep themselves awake until Rex and Richard return for fear of Astral attacks.
During this period Marie Lou takes a little walk outside to try and keep herself awake. She happens to catch a glimpse of the inside of the apartment of Dr Saturday. On his wall is a large scale map of the North Atlantic.
Dr Saturday is the enemy magician.
Simon and Philippa re-appear from their boat trip. Simon tries to keep the Dr talking so that the Duke and Mary Lou can catch up on their sleep.
The Dr tells them about the Cochon Gris and the ceremonies they perform. www.mysteries.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/2,10.htm
‘Dr Saturday’ concludes, “I have amused myself by talking to you for long enough, Mr Aron. I am now going to bed and to sleep. When you wake your friends and they renew their struggle to escape meeting me upon the astral they may gain a short respite from the interest which I’m sure they will feel if you repeat to them what I have told you about Zombies – particularly the story of the beautiful Haitian girl who was sent to France. I was the Bocor in that instance, and in order to keep a watch upon you all, through her, during your journey it suited me very well to bring her back to Haiti.”
For a moment Simon did not catch the full implication of what Doctor Saturday had said, then his heart stood still. He slowly turned his head and stared at Philippa.
Simon decides to attack the Doctor and throws an oil lamp at him, which only succeeds in setting fire to the house. Philippa is severely burned in the fire.
Rex and Richard return from their trip with the impedimenta required for any further occult battles.
The hospital doctor informs the Dukes party of Philippa’s death. He also tells them that a nurse in the hospital felt certain that she recognised her as Marie Martineau. The hospital had called Mr & Mrs Martineau to the bedside. The parents accused the Duke and his party of being grave robbers. The Duke didn’t know whether to believe that they were Philippa’s real parents or not.
However the Duke decided that even if they were her parents and they gave Philippa a good burial it would be no protection from Dr Saturday calling her back 24 hours later.
The Duke and his associates then grab the body and make a run for it to a boat and crew that is waiting in the harbour. They speed off in their boat.
Four boats including a gunboat give chase and manage to sink the fleeing craft complete with the recently gained impedimenta; but not before the Duke carries out an astonishing ritual to free Philippa from being a Zombie. (You must read it) - and then buries her at sea.
On their return to dry land, the group are imprisoned and subsequently poisoned.
Rex, Simon, Mary Lou and Richard together with the Dukes unoccupied body are buried in a graveyard and dug up again and taken to a nearby church to be turned into Zombie workers for Dr Saturday. The Duke looks on from the astral unable to do anything.
From this point on the Astral battles commence in earnest with Dr Saturday and an invoked Pan who seemed to be quite ‘nice guy’ until he materialises in all his awful glory.
If you haven’t read the book yet – read it. If you have read it – read it again.
Page 12 – The Duke tells Sir Pellinore , “All three of them (Rex Van Ryn, Richard Eaton & Simon aron) were with me through the Polish campaign. What we did there is far too long a story to tell now, but I’ll give it to you some time. We got out by the skin of our teeth in a manner which was most inconvenient for certain persons; but that was entirely there affair for trying to stop us”.
Did I miss a book between The Golden Spaniard and Strange Conflict??? Polish campaign???
Page 16 – “The Duke had never been seen in a Bowler hat or wielding that emblem of English respectability, an umbrella.
Instead, when he walked abroad he carried a beautiful jewelled Malacca cane.
In peace-time he drove about London in a huge silver Hispano with a chauffer and footman on the box, both dressed like Cossacks and wearing tall, grey, astrakhan papenkas. (A coat perhaps?)
Page 40 & 117 – This is ‘Total War’. This use of the term carries on from ‘The Black Baroness’.
Page 43 & 45 – (Richard) “The Blacks
are getting information into Germany by occult means”.
can’t possibly know that we intend to go out against them.
Why do they only use the term ‘Blacks’ . Are there no bad whites on the Astral???
Page 102 – “What happened”, asked Rex. “When Simon got back he told us that he’d to run out on you (on the Astral) while you were mixed up in some sort of set-to with a wooglie….”????
Page 187 – (Duke) Its all Lombard Street to a China orange* that most of his (Dr Saturday’s) house boys are devotee’s of the cult.
* 'Lombard street to a China orange' is a phrase which means very badly stacked odds. (Lombard Street signifying wealth of the Italian Lombard merchants in London and China orange poverty and want)
Page 236 – The café keepers were taking down the *gimcrack shutters of the bars along the water front.
* Gimcrack - showy but of poor quality; worthless
* Gimcrack (1760-?) was an English thoroughbred racehorse sired by Cripple, a son of the Godolphin Arabian.
Page 278 – In spite of his fears and suspicions de Richleau could not help feeling himself warm towards this candid and sympathetic young man (Pan). After all, when one thought about it a little it was perfectly clear that Doctor Saturday had indeed committed a most stupid blunder. The Duke, although nominally a Christian, was-apart from his unshakable belief in the old wisdom which teaches that each man carries God within himself – a pagan at heart.
Strange Conflict is awash with the regularly used upper class terminology of the day.
I happened to be talking to one of my son’s the other day and I said, Its awfully cold in here. Awfully?????… he said!!!!
The book however is awfully, perfectly, frightfully, terribly good.
Having read the book again I willingly concede that it is an excellent story in its own right with much more to it than I remembered.
Is it better than The Devil Rides Out? – I don’t think so - but I’m biased.