Monday, October 06, 2008


Secret Services: The Guardians

In tackling the subject of "secret services," teams that investigate the occult and strange, there might not be a better place to start than with one of the earliest examples of the idea I've come across. Since the earliest days of the horror and science fiction genres in their modern forms, there have any number of characters who investigate the unknown--from William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki and Algernon Blackwood's John Silence, to Nigel Kneale's Professor Quatermass and Kolchak: The Night Stalker--but what I'm interested in here are teams, not individual investigators. And the earliest team of occult investigators I've come across are The Guardians.

I have the Groovy Age of Horror blog to thank for introducing me to The Guardians, a series of novels published by Berkley Medallion in the 60s under the housename "Peter Saxon." (Only after reading about it on the Groovy Age did I remember an early 80s interview with Chris Claremont, in which he discussed how the duel on the astral plane between Gideon Cross and an aboriginal shaman served as the inspiration for the psionic duel in "Psi War," which John Byrne illustrated in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #117.)

The Guardians were a team of occult investigators based in London of the swinging sixties. As the back cover blurb of the first volume in the series, The Killing Bone, puts it, "Sorcery, Voodo, Satanism, Witchcraft, Necromancy, Vampirism... wherever and whatever the agents of occult Evil are, THE GUARDIANS are there to combat them with their own more-than-mortal powers." First published in 1968, the Guardians are an independent team, not part of any government agency, clandestine or otherwise, but their basic setup prefigures many of the government-backed secret services that would follow.

In particular, the Guardians sets the standard for later secret services in being composed of quirky individuals with their own powers and short-comings. Not a million miles away from DC Comics' Doom Patrol and Marvel Comics' The X-Men in that regard, both of which featured teams of superpowered individuals brought together by mysterious wheelchair-bound figures; both comics first appeared in 1963, five years before the publication of the first Guardians novel. I don't know enough about the circumstances of the Guardians' creation to say there was any direction influence, but the team functions very much like a comic book super-team, recast in pulp-occult terms. (This may not have been the first time this was done, for all I know, but it most definitely wasn't the last.)

I'll quote Curt Purcell's description of the characters from the Groovy Age blog:
GIDEON CROSS: The founder, the oldest member, and the most powerful in his occult talents. He is the only member who actually lives in their building, in top-floor chambers that are strangely insulated from the bustle of modern London just beyond the windows. He almost never joins the Guardians in the field, and sometimes even declines to volunteer knowledge that might prove valuable on a case. But when circumstances force his hand and leave him no choice but to intervene . . . whoa! I don't think any of the others actually like him, and most feel a vague distrust of him--an uneasy uncertainty about his motives.

STEVEN KANE: The leader. Picture a man who would look like a "Steven Kane," and you've got him: dark hair and eyes, athletic and fit, a bit taller than average, refined but with a touch of ruggedness. He's generic enough to invite easy identification from a mostly-male popular audience, but individualized enough to sustain interest throughout the series. Formerly a professor of anthropology, he has modest psychic abilities, and a wide-ranging knowledge of the occult.

FATHER JOHN DYBALL: The obligatory priest, "Anglo-Catholic." Of course he handles the exorcisms, and his prayers are as spectacularly, ridiculously efficacious as they must be in a high-octane horror-action series like this. His stint as the chaplain for a commando regiment gave him the training and toughness to pull his own weight when the rough stuff starts.

ANNE ASHBY: Dark lady, femme fatale. I think that's her on the cover of
Dark Ways to Death. At least that's how I like to picture her! Of the active members (that is, not counting Cross), she's the most formidable psychic, and her jewelry consists of artifacts that enhance her natural powers. Naturally, she also kicks ass with martial arts. She has some weird connection with Cross that disturbs the other Guardians. A sexual relationship is hinted at, though she professes a distaste for him. He and she may even have known each other in previous incarnations--and he may have burned her as a witch in one of those!

LIONEL MARKS: This rotund gentleman rounds out the group with his superb talent for mundane investigation. He can get the facts on anyone, tail them anywhere, work his way into their circle, and figure out in his own world-weary manner what makes them tick. He's the most hardheaded and "normal" of the bunch, with no psychic abilities whatsoever. Still, he's one of the best at what he does, and the Guardians couldn't do without him.

I've read only the first of the Guardian novels, The Killing Bone, and found it surprisingly good. A clean narrative style and clever characterization rises the text above what its more humble pulp roots might suggest. And the covers by Jeff Jones are particularly striking. I've been meaning to hunt down the other three novels in the series, and after diving back into all of this occult investigator stuff the last few weeks, I may just do so, sooner rather than later.


Ooh! A reason to haunt the dark corners of the used bookstores. Thanks for this. Actually, this whole series of posts. Pre-emptive thanks. I'm looking forward to more secret group goodness.
Thanks, Mark! Next up are looks at a British TV series and a role-playing game, respectively, in two posts tomorrow.

Never heard of this one. :)
You're quite welcome, of course. And I didn't realize until seeing your post on the Superprose site that there were six volumes to the series instead of four. I've got more hunting to do, looks like!
Good luck!

One I will have to keep an eye out for locally now that I know it exists. One of those covers looks vaguely familiar, so it is possible I have seen one.
Just FYI -- There are actually six novels in the series, not three:

1. Killing Bone
2. Dark Ways To Death
3. The Haunting of Alan Mais
4. Vampires of Finistere
5. The Curse of Rathlaw
6. Through the Dark Curtain

I'm still hunting for a few of them -- some are pretty easy to come by in the US used-book market, but a couple never seem to pop up.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?