Someone had scrawled $1.00 on the cover in barely-legible whitish-grey, but the used book store charged a quarter. It's long out of print, and copies go for somewhat more online.
A nearly-nude woman contorts her body in the dance and grimaces at the viewer. Demons emerge from the "Stygian blackness"(84) and surround her: a lascivious dragon that lacks hind legs, a wild-eyed devil-goat with finny wings, and other critters straight from Jack Chick’s fever dreams. Their faces bear goofy, cartoony expressions, and they consequently look less like the legions of hell than Wednesday Addams’ stuffed animals. "A SPINE-CHILLING NOVEL OF RITUAL MAGIC," proclaims the cover, by which this book desperately wants to be judged.
The Strickland Demon
, the second book written by Jack D. Shackleford
line, appeared in 1977
, but it feels slightly older. It echoes dime novels
of the past and a certain mindset that reached its apotheosis around 1970
, informed by the horror films of Hammer studios
, the mainstreaming of alternative lifestyles, and the popularity of occult topics. The biographical note describes Shackleford as a practicing "traditional witch
," and he’s writing for a world which saw witches
simultaneously as members of an ancient Pagan tradition and
people with actual supernatural powers.
The plot involves a young couple who arrive at "Spinney," the husband’s ancestral home in England. For generations, the head of the family has performed a secret ritual, the details of which are passed on in private. Unfortunately, the master of the house died unexpectedly, and heir Mark Strickland has no idea what the ritual might be. He and beautiful wife Shirley quickly learn that the ritual holds back an eldritch horror, which will stalk the land and cause much harm unless they can learn the particulars and perform them on Lammas Eve.
The Stricklands seek help from an aging but spry British solicitor, a local witch, a satanic bookshop owner, and a pair of devoted, devout servants. The owner of the occult bookshop looks like Mephistopheles; his "eyes—- insolent, arrogant eyes—- were yellow" and he associates with "a massive, light-skinned Negress wearing gold pants and a red peasant blouse, a bald, heavy-set elderly man with sharp, cold blue eyes, a slender girl with vivid red hair who wore spike-heeled silver shoes and a skin-tight black suit of soft leather" (126). Whereas the frequently skyclad white witch has a key role to play in the story, the Satanist provides brief, dubious advice and his friends, cheap exoticism.
The story makes a number of sexual references and presents rituals of sexual magic as essential to the plot. Of course they are. Still, the scenes of sexuality are comparatively tame and aimed at people who find the mere thought of non-traditional practices shocking and titillating, a sort of occultic Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
Shackleford is a competent writer and obviously familiar with Lovecraft, but nothing unpredictable or original occurs. We learn the backstory through direct exposition. Clues fall readily into place. The resulting book is easy to follow, but not terribly suspenseful.
Characters have been given varying motivations and physical descriptions, but their depiction lacks any psychological depth. Dialogue, often written in complete, well-constructed sentences, does little to differentiate the players. The general approach to storytelling and characterization can be seen in the following conversation:
"I know, of course, of the existence of this so-called "secret," he said judiciously. I know also that it has been in the family for many generations and that it is supposed to be of a terrible nature. However, your father never divulged any information. My own father also made inquiries of your grandfather but I understand he was told to mind his own business. I can tell you that your father treated the matter seriously but little else, I’m afraid."
Mark looked at the solicitor thoughtfully.
"As you know, Mr. Murdoch, my father was a careful man. Which is why I find it surprising that he took no precautions to ensure that this secret would be passed on to me. I do realize that he didn't expect to die so suddenly, but all the same...."
"I quite agree. It was a most uncharacteristic oversight on his part. He did know that you were planning to return to England with Mrs. Strickland?"(25)
The novel holds some interest as an historical curiosity. Those interested in the process by which once-fringe ideas and obscure learnings penetrate the pop culture mainstream may find The Strickland Demon worth reading. Unlike the better horror tales, which touch the reader regardless of his or her real-world beliefs, it would likely be frightening only to someone who imagines that eldritch horrors might actually lurk in dark places and that cheesy rituals can work real magic.
But I found it difficult to turn down so monumentally tacky a cover for a mere twenty-five cents.