For some time now the literary world has been speculating upon the delay between Sidney Shield’s 14th Gothic novel and the appearance of his long overdue 15th. The reasons being bandied about are quite preposterous, especially the more macabre ones, though Mr. Shield is not displeased by the latter. As personal secretary to the author, I have been authorized to give an explanation on his behalf. I hasten to add that the words used are my own.
When Shield sat down to write the 15th in his distinguished series of Gothic novels, the words would not flow thick as blood as they did so readily in the previous 14. This despite the fact that the phials of laudanum, the tinctures of arsenic, the various exotic poisonous herbs that had deliciously ended the lives of many an erstwhile character – as well as the clarets in which to immerse them – were all arranged neatly on the shelves of his mind, waiting patiently to be put to (ill) use. Together with the secretive butlers, martinet earls, mysterious uninvited strangers that were prone to turning up (and being done in), the barely suspended chandeliers – and of course the vaguely scented letters written in a cryptic hand. Absent, however, was the crucial ingredient; the proper setting for their use. Its absence is attributable to an absence concerning the author himself; for when Shield sat down to begin writing number 15, it was not at his English country estate at Langley-on-Thames but at a bungalow (of approximately the same dimensions that had housed the gardener in the rear of Langley) in Savyon, an exclusive suburb of Tel Aviv.
The reasons for Shield’s decision to reside in Israel needn’t concern us here. If a bit of conjecture is not amiss, we may surmise that he was tired of drafty rooms and damp weather which, however conducive they were to writing his works, were less salubrious as far as their author was concerned. And perchance lacking ideas for his latest novel, he may have sought the infusion of exotic source material to spur his efforts.
Alas, although Shield’s health did improve in the Levant (I have never seen him looking better), his creative processes declined. In short, his Gothic novel wouldn’t write itself in Israel. No slight is intended to that gallant little nation. It is simply that flashing lightning and driving rain, moors and heaths (threatening of course) and baying hounds muffled, but never silenced, by the fog – all were missing: the clear, bright Israeli sun drove them away as surely as the beam of light from Lord Fiffington’s electric torch drove away the bats from the terrified Samantha Paddington (soon to be Lady Fiffington) in Shield’s 3rd novel, Bats in the Belfry. (Of course, as every reader knows, Samantha wasn’t really frightened, having learned that bats were harmless from Miss Finchley, her kind but firm governess, though she never let on to Lord Fiffington, which is precisely how she became Lady Fiffington.)
Israel was especially not conducive to ghosts – at least not our English variety which prefer the dark stormy milieus of ancient manor houses where their cries, moans, and so forth can be readily confused with the wind howling outside. Robust climes and outdoor living are anathema to such specters, and manors are lacking, so that it is small wonder they chose not to emigrate. Not that Shield actually quite believed in ghosts; however, he drew them forth, metaphorically speaking, from his surroundings. With his new surroundings, this was no longer possible.
Still Shield tried. I can attest to this personally, having seen him on more than one occasion, pen suspended (the canard that he writes his novels with a raven quill I herewith quash once and for all). The difficulty was that it rarely descended to paper, and when it did, the results were disappointing. The best Shield could do with his malevolent butler was to transform him into a mildly surly waiter. His pale, sometimes trembling, heroine became pacified – her worst worry the rising cost of food. Even the strange – some said bewitched – child whose frightening clairvoyance might have been thought to remain intact (she was, after all, younger and presumably more resilient to change) gave way to be replaced by a somewhat serious but not markedly so, member of the Girl Scouts, akin to our Girl Guides.
The less sentient ingredients hardly fared better. The creaking gates and banging shutters, even when present, became, rather than something ominous, merely a nuisance (the closing of the more common single vertical shutter, however, imparts a wonderfully grating clatter, but it is not sustained); the mysteriously empty room an impossibility in a country where unused rooms became ‘villas’ and if there is an eccentric inhabitant thereof, he is tolerated so long as he pays the rent. As for escutcheons to be besmirched – there hadn’t been the remotest hint of an escutcheon anywhere in the country since the British mandate. Things were woeful indeed, but not in that sense of the word that Shield would have preferred.
In desperation Shield tried to write, if not a Gothic novel, at least a mystery, admittedly a poor stepchild, but better the half-loaf than nothing – set in a kibbutz, one of those communal living farms so prevalent in the country, somewhat smaller than our estates, yet perhaps the closest thing to one he could find. There was, of course, nothing of exceptional value to turn up missing, such as the much coveted “Stone of Katmandu” which in Shield’s 8th novel was to leave so many murders in its wake. The best he could come up with was a disappearing artifact (from the Canaanite period) unearthed in the laying of a new pipeline to the kibbutz dining room. Needless to say, he abandoned this effort.
One day the idea came to him to overlook the absence of manor houses by setting the scene of his novel in a cave. This would provide the requisite pervading sense of evil that has become his trademark and things could proceed smoothly, but Israeli caves are not dank do much as dry, and the scribbling on the walls by the various visitors (“Moshe ’88” is typical of their literary merit) seemed hardly the proper backdrop to derring-do. Moreover, as Shield explained to me pathetically, no earl worthy of his title would condescend to live in a cave. The only thing melancholy Shield could conjure up was his mood, and even that he had difficulty sustaining in the benevolent Israeli climate. Without his melancholia, inspiration was lacking, and pessimism (quite a different thing) took hold.
His situation had become so desperate that Shield felt very much like the police inspector in his 9th novel who had muddled too close to the murderous – and what is perhaps even more unforgivable, though not unexpected – cruel viscount (whom he was eventually to bring to bay after a merry chase across the heath) and found himself locked into a subterranean vault with the water rising to his waist. Shield’s usual ironic touch was present: a leaking barrel of claret from the adjoining wine cellar flavored the water, in addition to turning it a discomfiting red. Its presence, however, allowing some feverish speculation by the police inspector as to the difference in viscosity providing a means of escape, from which he was absolved by the timely arrival, with its attendant freedom, of a servant girl who had taken a fancy to him and had her own grudge to settle with the cruel viscount. She had been the victim of a cruelty so perverse as need not be repeated here. (I am sure you all recall it from chapter 5 of the aforementioned work; hint: you will remember that the viscount possessed the largest collection of darning eggs in Northern England.)
But we are going far afield. The truth of the matter was that there was no servant girl to rescue Shield, and left to his own devices he had been singularly unsuccessful. It was in this frame of mind – at the end of his tether, as he himself phrased it to me in recounting his feelings at the time – that he reached his decision. One I shudder to reveal even now but for the demands of a factual record: nothing less than to turn to the writing of tourist brochures. Think of it! The closest parallel I can think of, if you will permit the anachronism, is Michelangelo climbing down from the finished Sistine Chapel paintings and turning his hand to illustrating greeting cards. However, at this very moment when he, Shield, was at the nadir of his career, this darkness at noon, if I may borrow a metaphor from another genre, he seemed to undergo – I can think of no other word for it – a transformation. It would be presumptuous, as well as violating a privacy (it is no secret that Shield and myself are on intimate terms), for me to attempt to describe the precise psychological thought sequence that led to it. Perhaps it was initiated by the cloud which at that moment providentially passed over the sun, causing a quickening of his heartbeat and a nostalgia for gloomy England which veritably visibly crept over him (then, too, he may have thought of the total eclipse in novel 10 during which the four surviving members of Clan MacRuff were reduced to one, the clan only saved from total eclipse – note the use of symbol here – by the timely discovery of the tampered-with bagpipes); or perhaps it was the fish and chips he had for lunch imparting a sense of déjà vu that was a catalyst. Suffice it to say, it did come about which, after all, is the pertinence for us, his expectant public, for he suddenly seized my hand (an act unusual for Shield, a very private person), which touched me deeply; nevertheless, despite the emotion of the moment, I had the presence of mind to note quite clearly that the hand that gripped my own was his left hand (the apt sinister hand, if you like), the same with which he had written his novels, a gesture I took, and rightly so, as a hopeful sign. This was confirmed when he leaned over toward me and said (I will never forget the words), “I’ve got it!” I waited, silent despite my profound curiosity for him to explain further. “It’s a little different,” he added. “Ah, something novel,” I said, attempting a little levity in keeping with the changed mood of the moment. He did not respond to this remark, which I can only attribute to his mind being elsewhere since he has, as we all know, such a finely honed sense of humor. An example being his entitling chapter 8 of novel 10 dealing with the aforementioned bagpipe-tampering: “A Discordant Note.” And in novel 6 Shield punned deliciously – you remember – the “stroke of midnight” reference, where Midnight was also the name of the cat that, at the precise moment the clock tolled, was being stroked by Lord Wittington.
Shield’s decision (unlike him, I will not keep you in suspense) – the same marked by the previously mentioned “I’ve got it!” exclamation – was accompanied by a certain tingling sensation at the base of his spine, as he later explained, not unlike that perceived by the governess in his 7th novel ( the same who had so diligently instructed Samantha in the 3rd, a reappearance that “was like an old friend returning,” as the President of the Shield-Fanciers — a club devoted to Shield’s works – so aptly phrased it), upon her first sighting Weatherley, the looming manor that was to be the scene of so many dark moments for her before she was rescued by the rightful heir to Weatherley and became mistress both to him and Weatherley. Be that as it may, Shield arrived at his decision. And having arrived, he acted – with the same boldness, nay, audacity – that characterized the action of Percy Hartington, the intrepid clerk who in the 4th novel used a quill pen he had absconded with in a fit of pique on being “discharged” from Smythson & Sons (the theft the first and last “dishonest” act in his life), to good advantage in dueling with the Hungarian impresario and sending him over the cliffs, the latter emitting a high-pitched cry that even the French diva who witnessed the unfortunate scene was forced to admit enviously she had never been able to match. She, however, more than endeared herself to us by her awed statement which closed the novel: “The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.”
But I have kept you in suspense long enough. Shield’s decision was – but first permit me to interject here a personal note of gratitude for being permitted by Mr. Shield to take the announcement. I consider it ample reward for being his personal secretary for 15 years – one for each novel as it turns out – as well as Secretary of the Shield-Fanciers. The 15th novel (yes!), will take place in the various palaces of King Herod and detail the many murders and intrigues of this too-neglected king, a ruler whose melancholia makes Hamlet seem like Falstaff. Here is a subject worth waiting for! – one in which parricide, fratricide, matricide, and a host of other –cides threaten to – and (no pussyfooting here) do – erupt. (Tentative title: Murder in the Family.) Picture the demented monarch – plotting and plotted against – pacing the polished halls of a palace in Jerusalem that puts the English manor house to shame. A story with all the excitement of a tremor coursing up a spine. This, I confidently predict, will be Shield’s definitive work. Think of it: Shield’s strong, sure Gothic hand venturing into the historic field, blending the two. A seminal work that heralds a new type of literature: the Historigothic. Josephus has given us the bare bones; Shield will put flesh on them. But it will require all the honed deductive skills at his command to solve what Josephus left unsolved. Did Herod’s sister, Salome, as rumored, send the picture of Mariamme, Herod’s passionately loved wife, to Mark Anthony, at the same time accusing Mariamme of having sent it? Or did Mariamme actually send it, looking for bigger empires to conquer? (The result was Herod’s immediate order for Mariamme’s execution, his remorse afterwards, and his torment, which were to lead to a brace of murders).
And what connection had the subsequent mysterious goings-on at Herod’s hilltop palace-fortress Herodian (named for himself, more prideful than Agamemnon) a few miles from Jerusalem? Who was it that ran out the back door and whose footsteps could be heard on the marble stairs (all 200 of them) leading down the hill, shortly before Herod ordered the execution of his sons by Mariamme, Alexander and Aristobulus. Were the footfalls those of a man ? – Antipater, Herod’s son by his first wife whom he had divorced to marry Mariamme; or a woman?—Salome, Herod’s sister. For both Antipater and Salome had intrigued against Alexander and Aristobulus. And Antipater had intrigued against his father, as well (“hardly surprising,” says Shield, “in view of his name”), for which efforts he was later executed at Herod’s order. Salome’s participation in his plotting against Alexander and Aristobulus was obtained, Josephus tells us, because Antipater “coaxed and prodded her as if she had been his wife!” Shield were certainly shed some light on this relationship. Salome, however, was not without reasons of her own, alienated as she was by her son-in-law Aristobulus, who went about sneering at his wife, Salome’s daughter, for her humble origin, lamenting that he had married a commoner and his brother Alexander, a princess. Salome also detested Alexander’s wife, Glaphyra, who vaunted her noble lineage and lorded it over all the ladies at court, disparaging the low birth of Herod’s sister and wives chosen “for their looks, not their parentage.”
But the pot has only begun to boil. For Antipater has further enlisted Pheroras, uncle of Alexander and Aristobulus, in his plotting against his brothers. The same Pheroras who was once accused of trying to poison his brother, Herod, and was later to be accused of a new attempt. On this occasion he had wisely put the drug in his wife’s hands, and she, being discovered and brought before Herod, told all (her husband had in the meantime died a natural death, worthy of mention for this singularity alone), indicting on Antiphilus, in the hire of Antipater. (One of the mysteries within a mystery is why so many of these people’s names begin with the letter A. Shield has an intriguing theory, but we must await his novel to learn it). To return to Antiphilus, he had been sent by Antipater to Egypt to fetch the poison from a pharmacist brother of his (Antiphilus) in Alexandria. Meanwhile, new evidence appeared concerning the death of Pheroras – apparently not natural at all (for which every Gothic novel fan will emit a sigh of relief). It seems that two days before he succumbed, his wife’s mother and sister had called on an Arab woman with a knowledge of drugs to prepare a love-potion for him (Shield hopes to delineate the passion-as-leitmotif and quest-for-power streams in all these doings); instead the woman had given him poison at the instance of Syllaeus, the Arab who wants to marry Salome, and vice-versa. But before you point to her as the culprit either in this poisoning or the one to be undertaken against Herod (possible motive: his refusal to let her marry Syllaeus), one Bathyllus (somebody’s alphabet was improving) confesses he was working for Antipater and had brought another concoction, a “noxious compound of the poison of asps and the secretions of other reptiles” (shades of Shield in novel 5 wherein the unearthed Siberian brontosaurus was pinpointed as the source of the “unknown substance” that ended the life and scientific career of Sir Sidney Keys as he was negotiating the steps of the British Museum) – so that if the first drug proved ineffectual, Pheroras and his wife would have a second to bring to play against the king. All this careful planning, alas, went awry when Pheroras became poisonee before he could become poisoner.
What should we make of the asp concomitant in the ‘noxious compound’? Was this evidence of Cleopartra’s fine Egyptian hand rather than Salome’s involvement in the plot? What would be her motive – a political murder so as to add Herod’s territory to Egypt or a plot to cast suspicion on Salome when the plot was discovered? Or should we look to Caesar’s wife, Livia, motivated by hopes of aiding Salome’s marriage by removal of the king together with his objections to the marriage, or gaining the favor of Syllaeus, Herod’s enemy, and thus duplicating Mark Anthony’s romantic interest in the East?
Shield is the only one capable of unraveling these threads, of dealing with this charged period when (as Josephus puts it) “the ghosts of Alexander and Aristobulus were prowling around the whole palace, ferreting out hidden things and bringing them to light, and dragging those most remote from suspicion before the inquisition.” A historian, Josephus, has given us some of the facts; only a Gothic novelist, Shield, can tell us what really happened.
Banner image : Theda Bara (Salome) & G. Raymond Nye (King Herod) in Salome – cropped screenshot -By film screenshot (Fox Film Corporation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons