Written by John Llewellyn Probert
Published by Spectral Press
Two years ago, the eponymous villain of John Llewellyn Probert’s deliriously great The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine (review) unleashed a murderous swathe of Vincent Price-inspired mayhem targeting members of the medical profession.
Things have been quiet since then… but that isn’t to last. Now he’s back, and as imaginatively resourceful as ever, in the sequel novella The Hammer of Dr. Valentine.
Drawing the ire of the well-dressed, well-spoken, but utterly maniacal murderer on this occasion are a group of journalists guilty of spinning sensationalistic stories about his previous exploits and twisting his character in tabloid news rags. One by one, they’re picked off in increasingly elaborate fashion while the hapless police – soon joined by a weary and beleaguered DCI Longdon, who had hoped to never encounter a case, nor opponent, like this again – try desperately to get a step ahead of the killer’s plans.
Whereas Valentine previously themed his executions on various films starring Vincent Price, this time he’s widening the scope with an approach that chooses iconic moments from the veritable grab-bag of classic Hammer productions – and the result is a series of set pieces that are equal parts gruesome, imaginative, and lovingly ridiculous.
Take, for example, the opening sequence of the tale in which a fully grown man is catapulted from a cliff in Wales, only to plummet – his trajectory painstakingly calculated – into the valley below… where he is impaled between the shoulder blades by a cross stolen from atop a cathedral and planted, perfectly angled, at his final destination.
As previous, Probert seems to be having great fun letting his imagination run with his death sequences – and that sense of sheer enjoyment translates perfectly through his writing. It’s all utterly ridiculous, sure, but by gum you’ll believe that the nutty Dr. Valentine really has no qualms about going to the efforts that he does in order to pull off his homicidal traps.
A man with unlimited resources, and the ingenuity to use them, the villain is the centrepiece here. Every time he turns up in various guises to animatedly coerce his prey into making the last big mistake of their lives, you’ll be grinning ear to ear and letting out many a macabre chuckle at his theatrical nature and verbal foreshadowing. He’s a gentleman, a showman, a flamboyant eccentric – and absolutely, completely insane. In other words, he’s utterly fabulous. Hell, the last time we saw him, he was escaping the clutches of the law riding in a hot air balloon shaped like a giant raven. Come on!
The victims are a rather unlikeable bunch in comparison, with most of them lured to their deaths by the simple manipulation of their own overwhelming hubris and self-serving drive. Aided by his new female accomplice, Valentine really has very little trouble getting his targets just where he wants them. This would normally be an obvious negative, but that really isn’t the point here – the deaths are played more for devious, hand-rubbing glee than they are for palpable horror.
Counter-balancing it somewhat, though, is sympathetic film journalist John Spalding, who sits front and centre alongside the police as he assists in the investigation via his knowledge of Hammer’s output. It feels rather telling of Probert’s own opinion when all of those in Valentine’s crosshairs are unlikeable, self-absorbed media sycophants who, for all you learn of them, might as well deserve what they get – except for the film journo. Don’t fall into the tabloid trap, kids!
Just like he did with his previous book, Probert opens up something of a little game for Hammer fans in The Hammer of Dr. Valentine, letting you try to guess just which particular film is being referenced in each murder setup and each plot twist. If you’re an enthusiast of the legendary studio’s catalogue, you’ll have a wild time with seeing just how many you can pick out. All answers are given by the end, along with a couple of jibes towards some of Hammer’s lower quality produce, and Probert also includes a few pages at the end of the book where he gives his personal assessment of the films chosen to make an appearance here.
The Hammer of Dr. Valentine speaks with reverence for its inspiration on every page, even as it harnesses that to create something as far-fetched and gloriously over-the-top as it is. It works, and it works wonderfully. Some of the madness here makes it seem, as unlikely as it is, that Probert was somehow restraining himself with the previous novella – but here, he’s cut loose, kicking back and letting Valentine play with abandon inside his own playground of terrors.
Buy a ticket; take the ride. It’s one of the wildest and most satisfying that you’ll have had in a while – especially if you’re a Hammer fan.
Probert teases that we might just be seeing more of his mischievous mad genius in the future – albeit relocated to more… shall we say, ‘cultured’, climes – via a particularly great little nugget that will mean something to horror aficionados who pick up on it. At this point, the fact that the wait for it has now just begun feels like being caught in one of the mad doctor’s punishing schemes!
Encore, Mr. Probert! Encore!