The Repairer of Reputations: The Slayer of Souls by Robert Chambers
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
The Slayer of Souls (1920) only adds to the disappointment that Mr. Chambers has fostered in his critics.
One of his few 'occult romances', The Slayer of Souls has all the right pieces to make things interesting - an escaped temple priestess, a complicated esoteric mythos that harkens back to evil, extra-terrestrial elder gods and a sinister, world-spanning psychic conspiracy.
Alas, evil, extra-terrestrial elder gods do not a proper Lovecraftian short story make (if only Dunsany had realized this as well). The Slayer of Souls is simply wacky hijinks, with fluttering lashes, manly 'secret agents' and conniving non-Aryan villains armed with ludicrous accents. The format is equally unsettling - a series of short scenarios that are repetitious, ill-connected and, worst of all, boring.
In fact, the most Lovecraftian element is Mr.Chambers fulfillment of one of Lovecraft's personal fantasies - binding together capital-E-evil with all of the dark-skinned, Jewish and/or liberal causes of the day. In one passage, we learn that:
The Hassanis are a sect of assassins which has spread out of Asia all over the world, and they are determined upon the annihilation of everthing and everybody in it except themselves!
In Germany is a branch of that same sect. The hun is the lineal descendant of the ancient Yezidee; the gods of the hun are the old demons under other names; the desire and object of the hun is the same desire - to rule the minds and bodies and souls of men and use them to their own purposes! Anarchist, Yezidee, Hassani, Boche, Bolshevik - all the same - all are secretly swarming in the hidden places for the same purpose! (73)
This theme continues through the book - linking worship of elder demons with Germany (and this predates World War 2), Bolshevism (and this is generations before the modern Cold War) and worse. Later, Chambers dramatically reveals:
Over the United States stretched an unseen network of secret intrigue woven tirelessly night and day by the busy enemies of civilisation - Reds, parlour-socialists, enemy-aliens, terrorists, Bolsheviki, pseudo-intellectuals, I.W.W's, social faddists and amateur meddlers of every nuance. (113)
Nyarlathotep has nothing on the social faddists and even mighty Cthulhu bows before the superior evil of the parlour-socialist.
Fortunately, the last line of defense is a group of volunteer 'Secret Servicemen' and a young woman, Tressa Norne, escaped sorceress from the Yezidee temple. The Secret Service are a willing - and surprisingly inept - lot of gentlemen scholars. Their contribution to the battle against Evil is to serve as social chaperones to Ms. Norne, who single-handedly takes out the greater part of the Yezidee brotherhood while the Servicemen flutter about uselessly in the background.
Tressa's considerable occult powers consist of astral projection, snake-summoning and an uncanny ability to make romantic matches between her temple sisterhood and the brawny young men of the Secret Service. By the end of the book, the Yezidee threat seems little more than a fraternity theme party - a shameless excuse for the Secret Service to be introduced to lithe young temple priestesses.
Further compounding the frustration, The Slayer of Souls sneaks in a few, brief moments of fantastic brilliance. In one macabre passage, one of the more competant Yezidee overlords labors, deep in the swamp:
Tiyang, looming ape-like on his haunches in the deepening dusk, moulded and massaged the Ginseng roots, one after another. And one after another, tiny naked creatures wriggled out of his palms between his fingers and scuttled away into the herbage.
Already the dim lawn was alive with them, crawling, scurrying through the grass, creeping in among the flower-beds, little, ghostly-white things that glimmered from shade into shadow like moonbeams. (245)
Of course, for every legitimately eerie passage like this, there are sixteen in which Tressa rambles incoherently about her childhood in the Yian province, while a strapping young Serviceman contemplates her ruby-red lips.
Perhaps The Slayer of Souls comes as such a disappointment because, at first glance, it is adorned with the trappings of a genre classic. But even taken as a pastiche, this fares poorly indeed. The badly-assembled narrative leaves the book awkwardly poised halfway between a short-story collection and a serialized soap opera, and the horror elements are buried beneath layers and layers of syrupy goo. The elements of the book make it one of the closest to The King in Yellow, but the quality makes it one of the furthest away.
[The Repairer of Reputations is our protracted attempt to redeem the forgotten & derided works of Robert W. Chambers. We'll chalk this one down as a failure.]