A Yankee Sherlock Van Helsing?
Crime and mystery have always held my interest closely; and I have studied the subject most carefully from the scientific, the analytic, the human, and every other point of view.
So says Lincoln Osgood, protagonist and chief narrator in Gerald Biss‘s novel The Door of the Unreal (1919). There’s a Sherlock Holmes-ness to the statement, and lest readers fail to see Osgood as such, Biss makes it very clear. When the character arrives in the town where motorists are inexplicably disappearing, he “immediately became the cynosure of all eyes — a figure of mystery, the latest importation from Scotland Yard, an unofficial Sherlock Holmes or what not!” And some pages later, it’s implied that Osgood is “some Sherlock Holmes . . . sent from Heaven.” Not a subtle writer, this Gerald Biss.
Yet Osgood is far more open to possibilities than grumpy ol’ Holmes. Osgood accepts the fact that some culprits are supernatural — and he knows just what to do when they are! This is because, as a man of leisure with a love of travel, he calls upon his experiences in rural Eastern Europe and Russia to help him solve a mystery in England, one stumping the finest detectives of Scotland Yard. As in the novel Dracula (1897), a clear influence on The Door of the Unreal, modern-day Brits are simply too, too modern-day to recognize threats easily identified by those from the regions of the Continent mislabeled as “backward.”
Curiously, though, Osgood isn’t from the Continent as is Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, from whom he inherited a stalwart sense of mission and the leadership skills needed to succeed. No, Osgood is American! It’s an interesting choice for a British author, but while Osgood is an outsider, he’s also decidedly Anglo-American. In fact, the novel is annoyingly Anglocentric and xenophobic. The historical context of post-war England begins to account for this nationalistic feel.
The Culprit Also Melds Characteristics
The general category of the supernatural culprit is another intriguing element of The Door of the Unreal. This novel is historically important because it is one of the key examples of werewolf fiction in early 20th-century fiction, standing beside Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s 1922 occult detective novel The Undying Monster. I don’t feel that I’m giving too much away by revealing this because that lack of subtlety that marks Biss’s writing gives it away, too. Even the advertisements for and reviews of the novel didn’t hesitate in mentioning the story’s werewolves.
Not with a Howl but a Whimper
Knowing there’s a werewolf is afoot — apaw? — isn’t a weakness of this novel. Consider Dracula: readers know very early on that the title character has more than a few unsavory habits. Nonetheless, Biss’s book ain’t Dracula. Instead of the chase across Europe in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Biss employs an ambush to defeat the enemy. The novel’s pacing is fine at first. When we prepare for the ambush, though, there’s a lot of stiff-upper-lip, brandy-toasting male bonding. Pages of it. Chapters of it. This is instead of the story speeding to a gallop and then crashing into things gone terribly wrong and then picking itself up and dusting itself off and then getting back on the path and finally speeding to a gallop again.
In fact, when the ambush finally does occur, everything goes remarkably smoothly. True, that’s good for the characters — but it’s pretty disappointing for the reader.
In the end, Osgood is well situated for more occult adventures, and it would have been nice to learn more about his background or more about who exactly he is. Unfortunately, Biss never returned to the character. In fact, the author died only a few years after The Door of the Unreal was published. It’s too bad because — despite its shortcomings — this novel actually does have a lot of promise to it.