Hell! Said the Duchess – Michael Arlen
Valancourt Books – 2013 (Originally published 1934)
Valancourt books is one of my favourite publishers. Sometimes, if I’m not sure what to read next, I’ll browse their catalogue with the near certainty that whatever I pick will be entertaining. That is how I first heard of this novel. A little research told me that in 1983 Karl Edward Wagner listed Michael Arlen’s Hell! said the Duchess as one of his favourite supernatural horror novels ever. Not only did the book come highly recommended, bit it’s also nice and short.
This is the story of Jill/jane the ripper, a female serial killer in London. The main suspect is Lady Dove, a shy noble woman.
The first thing that struck me was the jovial tone of the narration. I had just finished reading a collection of Saki’s short stories, and this felt quite similar. There’s lots of clever little jokes. The story does involve several murders, but, given the book’s reputation, I spent a large portion of the book wondering when the supernatural horror was going to kick in.
This is an enjoyable book, and while it does get a bit spooky towards the end, I wouldn’t really call it a horror novel. It had been out of print for almost 50 years when Wagner put it at the top of his list, and I reckon he was trying to be kvlt by listing this obscure forgotten novel as one of his favourites. It’s a fine, fun book, but it’s not scary.