Book Review: The Dead Riders by Elliott O’Donnell
Burke Blake is at loose ends in China when he hears of an expedition to the Gobi desert, reputedly near the site of Genghis Khan’s tomb. He invites himself along on the journey to try to steer it into treasure hunting. Several misadventures later, Burke and several other treasure hunters find themselves captured by the lost cult of Lovona, who worship Dakoalach, or as Westerners say, Satan. Burke barely escapes with his life, but two years later in England discovers that the Lovonans might be just as world-spanning as they claim….
Mr. O’Donnell (1872-1965) was a self-proclaimed expert on the supernatural, best remembered for his books of “true” ghost stories. He had a long writing career; this book was published in 1952 and this paperback reprint is from 1967. One thing that comes through in the story is the amount of research he’d done to namedrop relevant real-world people reputed to be black magicians and Satanists (except Aleister Crowley, perhaps as a slight to the other man’s reputation) and cites (out of date) newspaper articles as background to the events.
We’re in tight third-person with Burke Blake, so much of the narrative is colored by his personality, which is that of a self-centered jerk who assures himself he’s not a misogynist even as he is odiously sexist towards the women he associates with. It doesn’t bother his conscience in the least to consider diverting an archaeological expedition into a treasure hunt, and he spares nary a thought to others in danger when he is escaping captivity.
He’s also rather thick; when he discovers that a country house might be being used for Satanic rituals, it doesn’t occur to him to find out who owns the house (even after his government contact suggests doing so!) or make inquiries in the neighborhood. Burke also completely whiffs guessing the mastermind of the villains, someone all but the dimmest of readers will suspect the moment the character shows up.
Oh, and he’s casually racist and classist as well. This last rebounds on him towards the end when he discovers that other people don’t consider him as socially elevated as he himself does. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a good thing that women are attracted to him for no apparent reason, as it’s actually them that provide the plot’s forward momentum. I leave it as an exercise to the reader if the author actually meant for Mr. Blake to be this awful, or sincerely believes this is the sort of fellow one should admire.
Admittedly, after recently finishing Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, any ordinary horror novel would have paled, but this one is particularly non-scary. Part of it is that Mr. O’Donnell clearly had not updated his writing style from the early 1900s, which gives the story a feeling of happening in a setting divorced from 1950s culture–the denizens of the English part of the story seem to be much more in tune with earlier social norms. The pacing is stodgy, with no Satanists showing up until chapter 15.
Despite the claim of a Lovona priest that “we are super-magicians and are acquainted with and can perform all manner of things outside the pale of Occidental Science”, the supernatural aspect of the book is distinctly lacking. The magic show they put on to impress Burke with their powers consists of hackneyed stage tricks, and everything in the book that is attributed to magic could easily be explained as sleight of hand or smoke and mirrors. Except the very last page, but by then it’s rather too late.
The English branch of Satanists turn out to be rather underwhelming as well. Burke hears rumors of drug smuggling and “white slavery” being backed by the Satan worshipers, but nothing is shown on page. The villain does apparently have a collection of nude photographs, but we never see that either. What we do see is a rather mundane prayer ritual in fancy robes, and a performance of slightly racy dancing. Satanism in this book seems to have rather more in common with real-world scam cults that want your money than all-out human sacrifice and sex orgies. The cult does, for some reason, have a waxworks collection that looks extremely sinister, but is not as I had hoped real people murdered and coated with wax.
There is torture in one chapter, conveniently titled “Torture”, which the easily triggered can skip.
Overall, this is a poorly-paced book that is unintentionally hilarious in places; I’d only recommend it to completists who collect any book that has Satanists as the villains (I know you exist.)