I first discovered the existence of The Guardians series via the book Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix. That book is a delicious dive into the world of 1970s and 1980s horror fiction, and much of the blame and praise from my current fascination with the novels produced during that period can be laid at Mr. Hendrix’s feet.
Hendrix described The Guardians series as books about “square-jawed, tweed-and-blackbiar-pipe types investigating haunted houses, underwater vampires, voodoo cults, and Australians. Sort of like Scooby-Doo, only with more orgies.” If that’s not enough to sell you on the series, I can’t help you. The books were published between 1968 and 1970, and consist of six novels written by “Peter Saxon,” an in-house pen name at Mayflower Books (a publishing firm I’m certain will make future appearances here). “Peter Saxon” was, in truth, pulp fiction authors W. Howard Baker, Rex Dolphin, Wilfred McNeilly, and Thomas Martin.
Dark Ways to Death was, I believe, the first Guardians novel published, but I’ve seen information disputing this. It gets a little murky, as the series was released by different publishers in the UK and the USA. The US publishing house, Berkley Publishing Corporation, released the titles with numerical notations, while the UK publish houses listed two as unnumbered, but four numbered. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much as, in true pulp fashion, you don’t really need to know much backstory and the book eventually clues you in to anything you might have missed. My assumption it’s the first is based on the statement on the flyleaf of my copy of Through the Dark Curtain that “The first novel in this series featuring the Guardians and by the same author—Dark Ways to Death” But my copy of Dark Curtain was published by Zenith Publications and is undated.
Okay, enough background. So, what’s the novel about?
Voodoo, my friends, voodoo. Dark Ways to Death is centered on the Guardians’ most current threat from the Left-Hand Path, that assorted collection of black magic practitioners and other occult menaces, in its guise as a sect dedicated to the Feathered Serpent, Dambalawedo. The cult meets in the abandoned tunnels of the Underground, luring sacrifices from the West Indian community of London, all the while planting their seeds for further conquest and corruption of the world. The Guardians get drawn into the cult’s plot via a three-fold collection of leads involving a West Indian immigrant who is in danger, a British Colonel’s out-of-control daughter, and a kidnapped cat. All three avenues of investigation lead back to an obeah in Knotting Hill Gate and, before you know it, we’ve got astral combat, a group of decadent British nobles out for a good time, an investigative reporter, the living dead, and gunplay.
As you might imagine, a pulp novel written in 1968 that focuses on voodoo cults in Swinging London isn’t the most culturally sensitive piece of literature, and some readers will undoubtedly be turned off by the casual racism that permeates the book. This is a factor I’m sure will make its appearance in many of the books I’ll be exploring. Like Lovecraft, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but also view it through the prism of where we were culturally at the time it was written. It could be a lot worse, in truth, and many of the non-Caucasian characters are portrayed with just as much depth as the protagonists. Which is a backhanded compliment given we’re dealing with pulp novel protagonists to begin with.
I’m not going to review Dark Ways to Death, nor will I likely be reviewing future novels. I’m collecting and reading these books because I dig their aesthetic, both as works of fiction and as physical artifacts. My sole baseline for “Is this a good book?” is entirely based on my enjoyment of reading it and if there’s anything I could steal for gaming purposes. In the case of Dark Ways to Death, the answer to both questions is “Yes.”