By Edgar Jepson (Midnight House; 1910)
This relic of early twentieth century horror was, upon its 2002 reissue by Midnight House, sold as a neglected masterpiece. Well, I definitely wouldn’t say that, but will concede it’s a powerful piece of work worthy of Arthur Machen.
The British Edgar Jepson, an extremely prolific writer of mysteries and mainstream fiction during the late 1800’s/early 1900’s (and the grandfather of author Fay Weldon), was apparently a close friend and admirer of the aforementioned Machen, whose influence is evident in THE GARDEN OF 19 (original title: #19). An inspiration to the late Aleister Crowley, it’s a deeply ominous piece of work that utilizes the power of suggestion and the ever-present specter of the unknown to its advantage–even if these days it seems a mite too low-key and repetitive for its own good.
The first-person protagonist is John Plowden, a distinguished lawyer who moves into a house at #20 Walden Road. What he doesn’t initially know is that the abode has been abandoned for the past six or so years, as have numbers 16 and 18. It seems that only #19 has remained occupied during that time, housing Woodfell, an eccentric world traveler, and his attractive nephew Pamela.
On the first night of Plowden’s stay, weirdness becomes apparent in the form of a dimly glimpsed creature he spots running from the garden of #19. That, it transpires, is only the beginning of an escalating succession of odd occurrences involving Woodfell and his garden. Said occurrences include an odd ceremonial rite performed in the company of several of Woodfell’s equally eccentric companions, and an eerie dance Plowden spies Pamela perform one night.
Plowden falls in love with Pamela and she reciprocates, which allows him an entrance into Woodfell’s inner sanctum. Plowden learns that Woodfell is seeking to invoke the Great God Pan through his bizarre garden rituals, and the preparations for the invocation are nearly complete. Woodfell claims to have gleaned the information for his rituals during his extensive travels, and now needs a human sacrifice to finalize his plans.
That sacrifice Woodfell gets in the form of a female co-worker of Plowden’s, leading to…well, more of the same. Herein lies the book’s central problem: it essentially recycles identical plot points over and over, leading to an ambiguous resolution that’s less than entirely satisfying.
Yes, the author weaves a powerfully ominous spell that’s difficult to shake off, with a palpable sense of tension that’s all the more effective because we’re never made aware of precisely what it is that’s transpiring in the garden of 19. This makes for a memorably atmospheric work, but from a narrative standpoint a decidedly unsatisfying one.