Monday, July 20, 2009

Mark Hansom

One writer of supernatural thrillers who remains unidentified is Mark Hansom. Hansom wrote seven novels for the publisher Wright & Brown between 1934 and 1939. The novels are fairly crude but quite entertaining and invariably include sorcerers, magicians and Black Magic, as well as the inevitable girl in distress.

The accepted wisdom is that ‘Mark Hansom’ was a pseudonym, as no eligible person with this name has turned up in genealogical records. The 1911 English census website, now complete and which allows a free name search, has no Mark Hansom though there are several dozen Hansoms listed.

The usual way of tracing author identity is via publishers' records. Unfortunately, the records of Wright & Brown were destroyed along with its offices in 1940 during the Blitz. Ward Lock went up with it. W&B survived the war and continued to publish popular novels, particularly romance, until it wound up in about 1969/70. No one seems to know the whereabuts of the W&B archive following its dissolution and it may have been dumped or destroyed, a great shame if true. A number of W&B authors moved on to Robert Hale, but inquiries there revealed no connection between the two publishers.

Interestingly, all of Hansom’s books were reprinted by Mellifont, which specialised in cheap, abridged reprints. A Canadian book seller has a copy of the Mellifont The Shadow on the House for US$550, a fair whack for a 96 page abridgment. Mellifont had offices in London and Dublin – its entry in the 1953 Writers and Artists Year Book says, “Cheap editions of novels…also cheap edition rights of books previously published.” I’ve no idea if a Mellifont archive survives somewhere, or who, if anyone, acquired the company. Interesting that all the Hansom books were reprinted by Mellifont, at least one as late as 1951. Perhaps he/she was hard up and sold the rights cheaply?

Anyway, without contracts or letters or other documentation Hansom seems doomed to obscurity. Can we tell anything about him/her from the books? Not a lot, I think. He may have been well educated. Hansom includes a Latin quote in Beasts of Brahm, a fun horror tale reprinted by Midnight House in 2001. Arthur and Jeremy break into the evil Count’s house and find a book from which Jeremy reads: "Cum animi e corporum vinculis, tamquam e carcere evolaverint", which is from Cicero's Somnium Scipionis: “Immo vero inquit hi vivunt, qui e corporum vinculis tamquam e carcere evolaverunt.” He had a liking for black magic plots. Probably English.  He knew London well, and was acquainted with the theatre scene.

Why did he stop writing in 1939? Called up to fight? Possibly, though it may well be that he was cut from the W&B list as a result of war time paper restrictions. There is at least one Mark Hansom story in a popular magazine of the day, so he must have had a certain popular profile.

Ascribing authorship is a fun game to play over a pint, but in reality a complete waste of time. So let’s have a go. Are there any obvious contenders? There were dozens of thriller/mystery writers around at the time who churned out novels for W&B, Herbert Jenkins, Jarrolds, Ward Lock etc etc for the circulating library market. What about E. Charles Vivian, born Charles Henry Cannell in 1882? He wrote a celebrated series of supernatural thrillers for W&B under the name Jack Mann - there were 8 Gees novels published between 1936 and 1941. Vivian wrote an Inspector Head novel called Shadow on the House, which was published in the same year as Hansom’s The Shadow on the House. Was he playing games? It’s possible, but the learned opinion of experts is that Hansom’s writing style is less polished than Vivian's.

Who else? The execrable Sydney Horler? Walter S. Masterman, author of some off-beat thrillers? The equally mysterious "Rex Dark" whose Wright & Brown career coincided with Mark Hansom's and whose books were similarly reprinted by Mellifont?  Alan Grant (Gilbert Alan Kennington) of It Walks in the Woods (1936) fame, which was also published by Mellifont. The prolific John Robert Stuart Pringle, who wrote crime thrillers under the name Gerald Verner, amongst other pseudonyms, under which name he edited the anthology of witchcraft stories, Prince of Darkness? Certainly, one of his pseudonyms was "Nigel Vane", which is playfully self-referential, as is "Mark Hansom".  J. Jefferson Farjeon, whose short stories and novels appeared in many of the same places as Hansom's, such as the Australian Woman's Weekly and the Weekly Times, and who published some novels with Wright & Brown? Brenda Cecilia Hopwood, who under the name Patrick Leyton wrote mystery thrillers like Haunted Abbey? Gilderoy Davison, who wrote the Twisted Face novels for Herbert Jenkins? Gret Lane, Francis Duncan, Wyndham Martin, etc etc?

What about Frank King (1892-1958), a doctor from Halifax who turned to writing in the late 1920s? One of his early books was The Ghoul (1928) which was turned into the classic Boris Karloff film in 1933. He also wrote Cagliostro: The Last of the Sorcerers (1929) and the ‘creepy’ Terror at Staurs House (1927). Later he turned to rather innocuous detective stories featuring “The Doormouse”, a Raffles style private detective. He was educated at Rishworth and Bradford schools before studying medicine at Leeds University. He also wrote for Windsor, Story Teller, Cassells, New, Passing Show, amongst others magazines. An interesting guy, worth reading. Is he Mark Hansom? Probably not. In all likelihood Hansom is a complete unknown, someone who turned to writing to make a quick buck in straitened times and managed to do okay for a short period before the war intervened.

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