Hello! Welcome to Thrift Store Finds, where I dive deeply into the murky waters of horror paperbacks and come up with some treasure to share. This week’s booty contains spoilers, because after going on this ride I think it’s important to spare you the trip.
As a frequent consumer and reviewer of horror novels, I try to go in with as few preconceived notions as possible. Half of the joy is the moment of surprise that comes when you realize the book you’re reading is really about literally nothing or ghoulish sex monsters with hinged penises. It’s fun.
But when I pick up a book with the word “devil” on the cover and with this title treatment:
I’ll be honest, I start to set a few internal expectations. I can’t help it.
So imagine my surprise when I finished John Burke’s (a.ka. Jonathan Burke, J. F. Burke, and Robert Miall) The Devil’s Footsteps (1976) without encountering the devil once.
No devil, you say? Then what the hell is it about? I’m glad you asked.
It’s 1885, and photographer Bronwen Powys is on a working holiday in the village of Hexney. She’s come to the town to continue her late father’s work capturing the beauty of the countryside. While navigating the politics of prickly locals, Bronwen befriends a fellow traveller, magician and skeptic Alexander Caspian.
Caspain has come to town to investigate the appearance of mysterious footprints making their way toward the center of town. “Roughly triangular, eight or nine inches long,” the prints don’t look animal and they don’t look human, in fact “they looked like nothing so much as the imprint of a distorted, magnified eels tail.”
So that would be super weird on its own, but Caspian doubles down on the creepy factor when he shows Bronwen his map of Hexney. The town’s landmarks create a giant pentagram and the footprints are on a direct path to complete the five-pointed star. Combine that with the fact that these same footprints were reportedly seen in Devon around 30 years ago, and you’ve got a real supernatural mystery on your hands.
Of course, skeptic Caspian insists there must be a logical explanation, while believer Bronwen isn’t so sure. You see, she’s psychic because everyone was psychic in books written in the 70s, and she’s pretty sure Caspian is too. In fact, they start conversing telepathically soon after even though he keeps denying it because plot.
After witnessing the villagers take part in a culty Samhain ritual, Bronwen and Caspian decide to leave Hexney and never come back. So that should be the end of that.
Shocker, it’s not.
Turns out the villagers have “chosen” Bronwen to be part of their Guy Fawkes Day ritual, and she’s compelled to return. But not before psychically calling out to Caspian to meet her there.
When the two meet up in Hexney, everyone in the town is walking around like zombies preparing for the big day. It’s pretty obvious by now that whatever they’re planning will involve a sacrifice, so Bronwen and Caspian try to leave. Unfortunately all the exits are blocked by an icy forcefield (typical), so the pair go back to the inn and have the least sexy psychic sex scene ever. Try this on for size:
“Their minds as naked as their bodies, they explored each other without impatience, savoring the nuances of the congressus subtilis.”
After spending all night brain banging, Caspian reveals that he actually has known about magic all along. In fact, he was supposed to be born in Devon the night the footprints were reported 30 years ago. Conveniently, his mom got trapped in a snowstorm so she gave birth somewhere else. Whatever is skulking around Great Britain has it out for him, and the villagers know it.
The only way to defeat the creature, Caspian says, is to decide not to believe in it (???). After all, not believing in stuff has worked for him his whole life, so why wouldn’t it work now?
Up to this point, the story follows a fairly traditional structure. Dialogue makes sense; settings are described so that you understand what you’re looking at; and motivations are pretty clear. But then, about 15 pages from the end, I think Burke dropped acid.
Drugs are the only logical explanation for the incoherent insanity that ends this book. Every action is so obscured in metaphor and passive voice, I couldn’t have deciphered what was going on if I was at knife point.
So here’s my best guess. The villagers light a bonfire, tie up the local outcast, and gut him as an offering. This makes the “Great Mistress, Mother of Sea and Earth and Under-Earth” appear. The villagers try to feed Caspian to her, but he says “no” so it doesn’t happen.
I think, but you tell me. Here’s an example of a typical sentence in this climactic scene:
“And out of the welter of dark and light, dancing shadows and genuflecting bodies, out of earth and sky and soil and mud, the vast and impossible chimera reared free of the footprints and flowed around the green, a tide of viscus runnels diverging and rejoining, splashing up and over crouched and standing figures, spurting up higher to fall again, to fall in palpitating greed on upturned faces, flowing on over stake and fire and the bloody carcass which sagged from the pillory—feeding without consuming, yet growing each second on what it sucked up, drawing its worshipers into a vast, fetid embrace.”
See what I mean. This single sentence is 102 words long, and as far as I can tell means nothing. Or it means everything. Either way, I give up.
The Devil’s Footsteps is a strange little novel that promised classic satanic 70s insanity and served up a forgettable, tepid psychic investigator mystery. With bland characters and lazily structured magic, the only scares come from the writing style’s maddening commitment to the passive voice: “A stark black pillar beside the alter moved and became the priest.”