When it comes to the best and brightest in deftly crafted supermarket literature, it’s hard to beat “What Rough Beast” by H.R. Knight (2005, Dorchester Publishing, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 374 pages).
This latest addition to the decidedly quirky world of supermarket paperbacks has everything one could ever wish for when it comes to fast-moving fiction from the neighborhood grocery store.
Set in Victorian England, “What Rough Beast” is an enticing blend of murder, mayhem, mystery and mythology.
Perhaps best of all, the novel stars the improbable but intriguing crimefighting team of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes – and American escape artist Harry Houdini.
This has got to be one of the best supermarket paperback pairings to come along since the mid-1990s, when another author – his identity now hopelessly lost in the recesses of my somewhat fallible memory – teamed Edgar Allan Poe with Davy Crockett to solve a grisly murder in 19th-century America…
As our tale unfolds, Sir Arthur and his newfound friend, Houdini, are embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with a questionable character named Maximillian Cairo (not to be confused with Joel Cairo, who’s somebody else’s villain).
Cairo is a shady spiritualist and pornographic poet who, Conan Doyle and Houdini believe, is using seances to bilk the grieving and gullible out of their money by contacting spirits of dead loved ones.
When the pair reveal some of Cairo’s shoddy tricks, the troublesome fellow offers to show them the true scope of his occult powers.
This is where things get more than a little dicey for our heroes.Conan Doyle and Houdini impetuously take Cairo up on his offer and, joined by some of their fellow seancegoers, meet the occultist in a dank stone cellar.
Cairo proceeds to draw a protective septagram on the floor, then gets naked and summons a shape-changing horror from the darkness. Sometimes it’s a goat-man, sometimes it’s an alluring young woman and sometimes it looks like a bulging, heaving glob of animated mucous.
Unfortunately, Houdini decides to intervene, breaks the protective septagram, temporarily kills Cairo and sets the bulging, heaving glob loose.
When Cairo is revived from death – he’s a tough little critter – he warns the gathering that Houdini’s bungling may have set free none other than the spirit of the ancient deity Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, inspiration, excess, debauchery and violence.
Worse, Cairo warns, the god may already have taken possession of one of their bodies so he can better attend to debauchery and violence.
Conan Doyle and company are at first skeptical, but soon the evidence begins to pile up in the form of – you guessed it! – inspiration, violence and debauchery.
And the madness is spreading from their small group to all of London, which is being swept by drunken orgies and violent confrontations.
How will Conan Doyle and Houdini save Victorian London from the ravages of Dionysus?You can pick up the answer for just $6.99 in the paperback aisle of your favorite supermarket. You might first, however, want to learn how to draw a protective septagram…
Originally published May 15, 2005