The Devils of Herbert Asbury


Can there be many readers who haven’t seen or at least heard of the film, The Gangs of New York, with its bravura performance by the great Daniel Day Lewis? Despite the fact that the story as originally written was so badly butchered that that the screenplay qualified as an “original” work, the film did serve to bring about at least a minor resurgence of interest in the works of Herbert Asbury.

Asbury developed quite a reputation as a true-crime writer, in fact it could be said that Asbury was a founding father of the genre, with The Gangs of New York dating back to 1928. However, it is Asbury’s earlier career that interests us . . . His first major literary effort was a biography of Francis Asbury, the early Methodist leader, with whom Herbert claimed kinship. While this claim is doubtful, there is no disputing that the book was an excellent example of scrupulous scholarship that set the standard for Asbury’s later works.

As a free-lance writer in the 1920s, Asbury tried a number of things before finding his niche as America’s Dean of True Crime. In addition to the biography of Bishop Asbury, there was a book of cocktail recipes (just in time for prohibition), a scathing denunciation of Carrie Nation, and the story that first put him on the map, the tale of a prostitute published in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury. What made the story stand out was that it purported to be true and contained the shocking information that the lady of the evening took Protestant customers to the Catholic cemetery to do the deed and conversely led her Catholic clients astray in the confines of the Protestant cemetery. Needless to say, the readers of 1926 were outraged with the resultant banning of the issue catapulting Asbury and Mencken to celebrity, just as the outrage over Jurgen would make James Branch Cabell a household name and fury over C.M. Eddy’s “The Loved Dead” stir up sufficient interest in Weird Tales to keep the magazine afloat.

Asbury’s first novel is certainly in keeping with this lurid tone . . . The Devil of Pei-Ling is almost Mark Hansom-ish in that the antagonist is causing havoc from beyond the grave, but the novel is far more lurid than anything Mark Hansom came up with, as it is replete with bloody ropes materializing from thin air to strangle victims, gouts of blood splattering the scenery, and giant toads the size of housecats.

All of these manifestations can be traced to the murderous Silvio, an arch-criminal hanged for his excesses. However, Silvio was a devotee of the demonic Kuei of Pei-Ling, an idol which grants him vast powers with which to seek vengeance on those who condemned him to death. Written at a break-neck pace with horror piled upon horror, this is a supernatural thriller that deserves to stand alongside the works of J.U. Nicolson, R.R. Ryan, and Mark Hansom as a minor classic of the form.

For some reason, this book has been overlooked by all critics, save for myopic comments made by Everett Bleiler in his survey of supernatural literature. While Mr. Bleiler’s scholarship is without peer, his taste in supernatural horror is in a word “stuffy”, and anything published after 1900 for the mass-market generally gets short shrift from him. As I’ve been making a pretty good living for the last thirty years publishing books that Bleiler disparaged, I can only conclude that there are a pretty good number of people that share my taste and my opinion that the first job of fiction is to entertain.

Bleiler praises Asbury as a “capable, sophisticated writer” and then immediately says “it is not probable that he was serious when he wrote this horror.” A freelance writer not serious? It seems to me that at the time (1927) Mr. Asbury was in no position to fritter away the time necessary to write a novel if he didn’t in fact expect to get paid for his time. That is what we writers do: we write things that we hope/expect to get paid for. Now as to what Bleiler means by being serious I have no idea . . . If he means that Asbury probably had a blast writing the book and piling horror upon horror, then I concur . . . I can’t think of any work of mine that was more fun to write than my collaborations with Edward Lee that involved both of us sitting at my kitchen table playing “can you top this?” as we came up with outrage after outrage . . . If there wasn’t a measure of enjoyment in it, I can’t imagine anyone voluntarily choosing to write for a living . . .

If by “not serious” Bleiler means that Asbury didn’t really believe in demon-possessed idols, giant toads, and bloody ropes appearing from nowhere, then again, I would concur . . . However, do I think that the author made every effort to tell a compelling story that would make readers plunk down their hard-earned coin to own the book, well, the answer is “yes, of course.” I think that Asbury was still trying to find his niche and having an interest in the supernatural (he later edited an anthology of stories from Weird Tales), and with the tales of Sax Rohmer, Edmund Snell, Thomas Burke and the like achieving popularity the idea of a thriller with an Asian menace seemed like a very good idea for a commercially viable project.

I don’t know how successful The Devil of Pei-Ling was when initially offered for sale, bit it’s pretty clear that the success of The Gangs of New York was sufficient to get Asbury to turn away from fiction and concentrate on factual accounts of lurid crime for the rest of his career. Rather sad, as I’ve always thought highly of The Devil of Pei-Ling and wished that Asbury had found time to author additional thrillers over the years. At any rate, I’m pleased that we’re able to restore this minor masterpiece to in-print status where it can be placed on the shelf alongside other neglected thrillers such as those by R.R. Ryan, Mark Hansom, Eugene Thomas, Ronald S.L. Harding, Arlton Eadie, and the rest of the DTP line.

John Pelan

Midnight House

Gallup, NM

On my 56th Birthday