Monday, January 3, 2022

Arthur Conan Doyle and Souls in Hell

In December 1923, the publisher Nicholas L. Brown issued a novel (dated 1924) Souls in Hell: A Mystery of the Unseen by John O'Neill. It is the only novel by its author, and his only known publication. Nicholas L. Brown was a bookseller in Philadelphia and New York, and a part-time publisher from about 1916 through 1932. I have written more extensively about Brown at Lesser-Known Writers

One of the things that calls attention to O'Neill's novel is that the dust-wrapper has a blurb by Arthur Conan Doyle, noting Souls in Hell "is remarkably fine. It took up two days of my time but it was well worth it--the posthumous experiences reach a height which has very seldom been attained in modern literature. A good story--a fine book." Of course this is not Doyle the ratiocinator speaking, but Doyle the spiritualist. 

Turning to the book itself, what does it offer the modern reader?  Well, it is, as Doyle suggested, a novel of the afterlife. It centers on a vain and louche actor named Karl Benton, who crosses paths with a young war hero Jack Waller.  They have a small skirmish on a ship, but encounter each other again at Jack's sister's house, where Benton is collaborating with the sister's husband on a play. Jack's sister Kitty Cogan and Benton also have a past, a long ago series of student-and-teacher encounters that nearly became the ruination of the sister's maidenly honors. After their second encounter, Benton ends up dead by gunshot. Jack is on the scene, and found to have a recently-discharged handgun in his pocket. Thus he gets put on trial for murder. 

As a mystery this novel is pretty dire. The casual coincidences that move the plot to its end are too silly to be taken seriously. And the writing is at best prolix. Yet the other thread of the plot follows Benton after his death, when he has a Helper who at length begins to instruct him about how he can save his soul. Here the book comes to diabolic life.  For one long chapter (the book has 28 numbered chapters, but confusingly there are two successive chapters numbered 22, and it is the first chapter 22 that is of special interest), Benton wanders in the dismal afterlife and encounters a thing that assails him: "On all sides, blotches of corruption leered and fastened on him--feeding on his flesh! Transparent, livid-colored, creeping things that wormed into his nostrils and ears. Foul, eel-like things trailed over his eyes, and forced their slimy way between his lips" (p. 257). These lead Benton to various temptations and (as the author phrases it) "an apotheosis of carnality" (p. 264). This chapter of some thirty-odd pages, plus surrounding pages of descriptions which include the author's occult expositions, make the book worth reading.  One feels that the author should have written pulp horror, and could have been successful at it. 

And the main thread of the book is not without psychical relevance, as Jack and his sister are defined as being Irish, which apparently gives them privileged insight into the uncanny. And other characters have important interests in such "higher" stuff, and their perceptions and experiences are in the end important to the resolution of the plot.

So who was the author?  He was not easy to track down, but this John O'Neill was born in Dowlais in South Wales on 7 September 1869. He arrived in New York, from Le Havre, France, on 16 June 1895. On 1 July 1899, in New York, he married Henrietta Bertholf, who was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1872.  They had two children, Harold Henry O'Neill (1901-1967), and a daughter Elizabeth, born in 1909, who apparently did not live long. O'Neill worked, according to census records, primarily as an artist. Souls in Hell was apparently his only published fiction. Though I have found no official death record or obituary, O'Neill apparently died  between 1936 and 1940. By the time of the enumeration of the 1940 U.S. Census, his wife listed herself as widowed. (There are hints on his naturalization application that he used the pen-name of "Waller Evans" or "J. Waller Evans" before coming to the U.S., but I have found no instances of such usage.)

Souls in Hell was published in England in 1926 by Methuen under a new title, As We Sow: A Mystery of the Unseen.



  1. Intriguing write-up, Doug. Being interested in both Conan Doyle and the spiritualist vogue, I'll keep an eye out for this novel. Those blotches of corruption sound a lot like the evil twins of the ectoplasm so often produced by the era's mediums. --md

  2. Not that this has anything to do with this post, Doug, but Barbara was asking about you the other day. Cheers, RonKO

  3. Hi to Barbara, and to yourself. I don't have your email address anywhere, but mine is visible via my blogger profile. Drop me a line sometime and let's catch up!