These books aren’t high art, but I’ve always believed that lowbrow art has a right to be respected on its own merits. Often they get dismissed too quickly, leading to some really interesting storytelling getting overlooked. Here, my plan is to dive into the stories, look a little bit at the writers, and argue why I think these stories are worth a second look.
I’m going to start this series with one of my favourites; The Devil’s Rider by Alex R. Stuart.
The Devil’s Rider
Right from the opening lines of The Devil’s Rider, there is a beautiful oddness to Stuart’s writing.
“Dark side of a strange Christmas midnight at the crossroads.” (pg7)
This first sentence feels so off kilter, placing the story in an almost transient location and time, especially considering the folklore surrounding crossroads.
It goes on;
“The wet black tarmac cross plastered horizontal over the buried London earth.” (pg7)
For me, this echoes a lot of themes that emerge in later horror, particularly folk horror, that just below the civilised surface of the world there is something older and darker waiting to emerge.
While I don’t want to carry out a line by line analysis of the book, it’s interesting to note the symbology of the cross on the ancient land, holding something back.
The opening of the book sets a very specific tone – a claustrophobic sense of time and place pressing in, even as Johnny (the main protagonist) races from the police.
It’s this sense of pressure that I find one of the most distinctive elements of Stuart’s writing. The second, in The Devil’s Rider is the way he uses the occult.
Alex R. Stuart AKA Alex Stuart AKA Richard A Gordon
Alex R Stuart was a pen-name used by the Scottish writer Richard A Gordon. Born the son of a Scottish Laird (a title he refused), he changed his writing name several times, first to distinguish himself from the writer of the Doctor books, then adding the R after complaints from Violet Vivian Stuart, who wrote historical novels under the pseudonym Alex Stuart. (I’ll use Gordon for the general discussion of his work, and Stuart when discussing his biker books.)
As well as his work for NEL, there are two aspects of his work worth highlighting.
In the 1960’s Gordon had several stories published in science fiction magazines, including New Worlds (edited by Michael Moorcock), Science Fiction, and Vision of Tomorrow.
In Bearalley’s excellent obituary, Gordon is quoted as saying, “The label ‘science fiction’ is used to cover many different approaches to storytelling, most of which have little to do with ‘science’ as such, save in a romantic, generalised way. The thrust of my own work has typically been occult or mythic in its main concern, and can be defined as science fiction only insofar as it has been characterised (I hope) by that ‘sense of wonder’ which romantically typifies the genre as a whole.”
The second period of interest, comes many years after Gordon’s work for NEL. In the 1990s, following time in a Welsh commune, Gordon wrote a guide to the paranormal, as well as The Book of Curses: True Tales of Voodoo, Hoodoo and Hex (under the name Stuart Gordon – the man did like a pseudonym).
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not sure whether Gordon’s work on the biker books inspired an interest in curses, or whether his interests inspired the story.
What is clear is the role that hexes plays in The Devil’s Rider. The scene where Sam, the leader of The Sons of Baal, curses Johnny’s bike is interesting for several reasons. Johnny challenges Sam’s authority by arguing that they should go out on their bikes rather than sitting around the basement.
(By Trampus – Mundo Gráfico, 15 de julio de 1914, página 21. Disponible en la Biblioteca Nacional de España, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27814580)
Sam tells Johnny about the curse of Archduke Ferdinand’s car, and how following the presumptive heir’s Sarajevo assassination, the Gräf and Stift double phaeton automobile was connected with the death of several owners.
When they head out on the run to Trafalgar Square, Johnny thinks its bullshit, but is freaked, and when he comes to a junction, runs a red light, hits a woman crossing the road, and he blames the curse on Sam. Yet, the way the hex plays out is an interesting study in the mechanism of creating curses. By planting the seeds of doubt in Johnny’s (albeit amphetamine coasting) mind, Sam creates the circumstances for Johnny to fulfil curse himself. He is off kilter, on a bike on a wet winter night, angry and not paying attention. In this way, even if Sam doesn’t have the power to actually hex Johnny, he manages to affect his mood enough for Johnny to cause the accident himself.
I really think what we’re seeing here is Stuart’s interest in hexes manifesting in his storytelling.
“Rasputin was one thing —
But an Assyrian warrior-priest was another —” (pg13)
This is another really interesting aspect of the book. Rather than some throwaway Satanic cult or witches coven, so typical of pulp seventies novels (this time was one of the peaks of interest in witchcraft via personalities like Alex Sanders, as well as a rise in popularity of occult novels by Dennis Wheatley), Stuart centres the story around Babylonian myth and history.
Johnny Sutton has heard about a new club (or ‘one man’s ego trip’) called The Sons of Baal, and when he hears the main guy claims to be an ancient priest of the god Baal his interest is piqued enough to seek them out.
It’s not obvious when Johnny meets up with the club which Baal is being referred to, the text pointing out that Baal is a Canaanite word for lord, used as an honorific in names such as Bel-Marduk, the Mesopotamian Son of the Sun. It becomes clear once again how well researched the book is, when Sam starts to describe his past life in the 7th century BC, life in Nineveh, the temples of Ishtar and Nabu, the Palace built by Sennacherib, and the brutality of the treatment of rebels, with prisoners flayed alive and impaled on spikes. Sam also talks about Ish when she lived this previous life, and how she served in a temple in Babylon.
The main antagonists, who operate through Sam, are The Nine, often described as appearing in a diamond formation. In The Devil’s Rider, Stuart doesn’t use any other name for them (though they could be the nine deities of Babylon, who are mentioned by name throughout The Devil’s Rider), but it’s worth noting that in Chaldean numerology nine is considered a sacred number, and not used in numerology charts. Throughout the story there are also several uses of multiples of nine.
“Time running out. The Son’s of Baal all sense it, though nothing’s been confirmed. It’s getting so they’re almost telepathic, strung up on the high beam of Sam’s activities. Sixty three people here.” (pg101)
“The sun comes in nine minutes.” (pg131)
“It’s almost nine p.m.
There are nine people in the room above Holland Park.” (pg86)
While I hesitate to read too much into the use of other numbers throughout the story, there is a section where events happen around the hexed bike on the 24th of March and May. A couple of references I’ve seen suggest that in Chaldean numerology the number 24 is associated with assistance from government, rulers or superiors, which would fit with Sam’s relationship with The Nine.
Stuart’s interest in this is made explicit earlier in the book. Freelance journalist Patrick Goffman was commissioned to write an article about gematria, and in a bit of an info dump, the theory behind gematria is laid out.
This use of Babylonian myth is a very conscious choice by Stuart, as can be seen during an exchange between Johnny and Sam where the former makes a joke about being one of the ‘Cthulhu gods’, and Sam dismisses it out of hand, warning Johnny to distinguish between fact and fantasy.
While a lot of the themes Stuart talks about could fall under Forteana, he also makes a couple of references to specific phenomena, firstly talking about Men In Black as alien or parahuman mimics, appearing in folklore as demons.
Later in the book, two police officers are talking and one says,
“There’s all that UFO stuff we’ve got under wraps.” (pg117)
He also includes a major thread about the power of true names, something that appears many times in folklore. It has been suggested that one of the reasons the Babylonian god Marduk had up to fifty names, was so no-one could know all of them and control him.
The final scenes of the book play out at Stonehenge, and from our perspective that makes complete sense. Stonehenge as a monument has had a major role in the counterculture for decades, particularly as a place at the centre of tensions between that counterculture and the state. Yet at the time Stuart was writing The Devil’s Biker, Stonehenge didn’t really occupy that role with the same significance. While there is no question that its importance has ebbed and flowed in the public consciousness, at the time Stonehenge was not the same focal point. The Stonehenge Free Festival did not start until 1974. (Though there are some accounts that suggest there were gatherings as early as 1972, these do not seem to have been anywhere near the same scale.)
This is also clear in Stuart’s description of Salisbury plain, focusing on its role as a site of military camps rather than as a sacred landscape, which is the narrative that has come to characterise the area.
Therefore, Stuart is slightly ahead of the curve here with anticipating the role of the stones as nexus of the counterculture.
Two last things I want to note. Firstly, Stuart includes an Afro-Caribbean biker. Black Bob is introduced as just another biker, with his background coming up when Ish asks whether his father was from this part of the world (London).
“Were his fathers born in Trinidad?” comes her weak questioning voice from a distance, provoking his response –
“They got shipped from Africa by heroes like Drake and Hawkins!” (pg93)
While Bob isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (he is one of Sam’s lieutenants), and very occasionally Stuart falls back on descriptions that feel uncomfortable to modern ears, it’s interesting to see someone of Trinidadian descent included as a character in a book from a genre not really known for equal representation.
Stuart also makes it clear that The Devil’s Rider takes place in the same fictional version of England as his Little Billy trilogy, when he talks about an earlier incident where four infantry companies went into a rock festival after a chapter of bikers.
Although part of the biker book genre, The Devil’s Rider feels very different.
The story is not focused on violence in the same way as, say, the Chopper trilogy, and does not feel as salacious.
It’s clear that when it came to the occult/mythological aspects of the story, Stuart was very well read, and these elements give the book a very off kilter feel that I feel has its own beauty.
Throughout, Stuart manages to keep an almost claustrophobic sense of pressure (something he manages to do elsewhere, for example in The Bikers).
It also needs to be pointed out that I get the feeling The Devil’s Rider and The Bike From Hell might have been written as one novel then split to better fit the New English Library format.
At times the storytelling is uneven, perspectives changing often, and very dense description, but pulp biker novels are not where you expect to encounter vivid descriptions of ancient Babylon, or discussions of Chaldean numerology. If you want something different from endless biker and skinhead rumbles, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this forgotten curiosity.