Angus Hall | Ace Books | 1969 | 156 pages
Vying for a promotion to a major London station, Barry Lambert, an ambitious young television journalist, agrees to “babysit” a difficult charge, fallen former horror star, Paul Harvard Toombs. Traveling to England to resuscitate his crashed career for British TV, Toombs stars in a new series based on his famous character, Dr. Dis, a gothic horror villain clad in a black opera cloak who chases after the magical secrets of immortal life. Toombs’ own life was nearly destroyed by a scandal involving black magic in the United States, when a young actress was killed following a ritualistic orgy that he attended.
The vulgar, hirsute Toombs quickly falls into the company of Lady Magda, reputed witch and mistress of Golgotha Abbey. Philippa Ewell, a young sculptor living at the Abbey, tips off Barry that Toombs plans to attend a Black Mass with Magda, and offers to smuggle him into the ceremony to observe. Hiding in a recessed compartment in a cave behind the Abbey grounds, Barry witnesses a satanic ritual and orgy, with Philippa herself playing the role of mock sacrifice. Barry dismisses the occult rite as sexual shenanigans—until Philippa’s decapitated corpse is found on the altar of a local church.
Although driven by the central mystery of the ritual murder, Devilday is not the “high-tension thriller” teased on the book’s cover. Barry’s fiancée, Julia Wilson, even remarks that Toombs is the obvious suspect, so he is probably not guilty. A license plate of a car leaving the scene of the ritual points to a possible greater conspiracy, but the story never reaches for a Wicker Man scenario, with the entire village being implicated in the crime.
Told from Barry’s perspective, the book functions best as a character study, with Toombs’ bombastic presence looming over the entire proceedings. His sinister persona and dubious philosophy–providing a guilt-free pass for all behavior to a chosen few—are watched over by Barry, whose own sense of morality is limited by his drive for success in the television industry. Toombs’ ex-wife and the young president of the Dr. Dis fan club are other characters that fall into orbit around the former horror star, motivated by their own personal desires.
Allowing time for meditations on celebrity, the judicial system, drug law, morality, and reincarnation, Toombs’ detached sense of impunity is eventually shattered by the arrival of Anders Sthen, a Danish psychic detective following the case. Sthen possesses a physical trait arguably more remarkable than his psychic ability, and on par with Toombs’ own oversized presence—a blubbery, hypertrophied head of an infant. This baby-headed man in a suit zeroes in on Barry, and through him to Toombs, ending all the philosophical musings and driving the story to its conclusion.
The novel was the source material for Jim Clark’s 1974 film, Madhouse, starring Vincent Price. However, other than a series of murders that are seemingly perpetrated by Price’s horror icon alter ego, Dr. Death, the film has little in common with the book, stripping away all the occult and philosophical content.