THE BLACK ABBOT (1897) – Balladeer’s Blog’s month-long celebration of Halloween continues with another neglected work of horror – this one penned by Robert W Chambers, author of The King in Yellow, which I reviewed HERE
The story – also known as The Black Priest or The Messenger – is set in 1896 in the mysterious Brittany region of northwest France. Richard Darrel, a wealthy American knickerbocker (upstate New York gentry) has bought a Breton estate with assorted household staff. He lives there with his beautiful (of course) wife Lys, a native of Brittany.
Landscaping work near Richard’s estate has uncovered thirty-eight skeletons: men killed in a battle between English invaders and Breton defenders back in 1760. A bronze cylinder in the mass grave holds a delicate parchment with a message written in human blood at the time of the burial. The writing is in the ancient language of Brittany, which only the clergy of the 1760 time period were literate in.
Our American hero senses that the local authorities are withholding vital information from him. He is also intrigued by the revelation that there were thirty-nine men buried in the pit but only thirty-eight skeletons have been found.
The story gets even more intriguing from there, in typical R.W. Chambers style. The skull of the missing dead man is found. It belonged to Abbe Sorgue, a Breton priest who supposedly betrayed the nearby fort to the British attackers. Legend held that for his treachery the priest was branded on the forehead all the way through to his skull. A skull has been found with an arrow-shaped burn on the forehead, obviously the dead traitor.
That skull keeps mysteriously showing up, no matter how many times it seems to have been disposed of. Eventually the Mayor of Saint Gildas confides in Richard that part of the scroll made reference to a link between the Black Abbot and the American’s wife.
Very soon the workmen involved in disturbing the Black Abbot’s remains start turning up dead and Richard finds a superabundance of coincidences tying his wife’s Breton family to the Black Abbot. When that undead villain begins terrorizing the American’s now-pregnant wife he researches what history can be learned about Abbe Sorgue, the Black Abbot himself.
Mysteries within mysteries are unearthed as our protagonist realizes the late Abbe Sorgue may actually be a fallen priest from the time of the Third Crusade, a priest who turned to the dark arts. Betraying the fort near Saint Gildas may have been just the final act of villainy in a career of evil that spanned Sorgue’s centuries-long life. A paramount question: how did the Bretons succeed in killing the Black Abbot in 1760 and can the same method be used to end his renewed reign of terror?
Alas, the supernatural menace intervenes to damage the portion of an aged text revealing how to destroy him. In typical dramatic fashion the undead Sorgue succeeded in overcoming Richard and committing that act of vandalism mere moments before our hero could learn his secret.
I won’t spoil the whole tale, which I consider one of Chambers’ most entertaining. Richard and Lys are a romantic couple that make the reader like them and genuinely root for their survival.
The Black Abbot makes for a nice change of pace in a monster: he’s a skeleton with a body made only of blood … black blood with yellow corpuscles according to the local coroner. He wears black priest’s robes plus a leather mask and among his supernatural abilities the fiend can pass through glass windows and see through the eyes of Death’s Head Moths. +++
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