By Michael Arlen (Valancourt Books; 1934/2013)
A once-shocking curiosity from 1930s England, HELL! SAID THE DUCHESS is now largely forgotten. It has, however, generated some renewed interest due to its inclusion in Robert Karl Wagner’s “Best Supernatural Horror” novels listing in the renowned Twilight Zone Magazine “Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf” piece, which appears to have been the primary impetus behind this 2013 reissue.
A short (98 page) tale of a voracious sex murderess, the novel is related in a jaunty and refined tone that dramatically offsets its depraved content. Aside from that, unfortunately, there’s really not a lot here to interest those of us who don’t happen to be easily scandalized 1930s-era Brits.
The subject is a succession of murders embroiling London whose perpetrator is dubbed “Jane the Ripper” due to her penchant for mutilating men after having sex with them. Suspicion for the killings falls on Mary, the mild-mannered Duchess of Dove. We’re given a lot of background on this woman and her immaculate nature, with the mere inkling of her as a sex killer being apparently inconceivable.
Of course any reader/viewer of THE EXORCIST, and the countless other demonic possession-themed potboilers that followed in its wake, will quickly intuit what’s happening with the duchess, thus rendering the bulk of the novel, which is taken up with a protracted investigation into the killings, quite monotonous. Along the way the author makes a number of points about England’s socio-economic status in the 1930s–yet another aspect that dates this novel.
Then we have the climax, in which the supernatural overtones are made explicit, and which must have been quite a mind-blower back in 1934. But the pyrotechnics on display here, like most everything else in HELL! SAID THE DUCHESS, won’t get much of a rise out of modern readers.