HELL! SAID THE DUCHESS by Michael Arlen (1934, Doubleday)
“#1: Hell! Said the Duchess. An unexpectedly chilling tale of demonic possession by this most charming author.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels”(Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
Michael Arlen (born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, 1895-1956), was a writer of novels in Great Britain during the early part of the 20th century. He’s known as the originator of the “Falcon” detective series and many humorous novels involving the tribulations of the English upper classes. Resembling something out of Bright Young Things, he cut quite a figure in proper society.
Which makes Hell! Said the Duchess all that more bizarre. Imagine, if you will, a Pre-WW2 British novel of manners with characters named Major-General Sir Giles Prest-Olive and the Hon. Basil Icelin. Have scenes where riots are halted to allow a baby carriage and a nurse to cross the barricades. Also include high-born English women whose honor is questioned. Add some bumbling detectives. Sounds like an Evelyn Waugh work, doesn’t it?
OK, now mix in a serial killer named “Jane the Ripper”, who is identified by her exotic perfume. Ad a bizarre alternate universe England in 1938 where Fascist Oswald Mosely is the war minister. Toss in a mad scientist in drag. Now we should be in Charles Birkin territory. But we’re not.
Hell! reads as the shotgun wedding of a P. G. Wodenhouse and Dennis Wheatley. We have droll humor and conspiracies. Police inspectors concerned about the lower classes being stirred and a satanic killer. Most of the novel is humorous, until the final thirty or so pages where it turns into something dark and deadly. I can’t help but wonder if, while deciding to close the book, Arlen took up his pen and thought:”Let’s give those Bertie Woosters some real nightmares!”
The novel begins with an account of Duchess Mary Dove. Much beloved of her staff and people, she has had scandalous rumors tossed about lately concerning her nighttime activities. Although she claims to be retiring at 10 PM sharp, various people have seen her hanging out with the lower classes in gin mills and coffee shops well into the morning hours. A detective is brought in to investigate. Scotland Yard intervenes. Could she also be the same “Jane the Ripper” who’s been cutting up young men around London? Might this be an attempt to stir up the working classes against their betters by communists and anarchists?
As I have said before, 4/5 of this book resides in the chuckling smart set territory. But the final section is as dark as anything Arthur Machen could conceive. And I think this is why Hell! has resonated with aficionados of horror fiction for so long.