Book Review: The Night Callers

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A version of this review was originally printed in Ethel the Aardvark, fanzine of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

“He reads too many of them awful paperback books.”
– Frank Crisp, The Night Callers, 1961 Panther Books Edition, p64

THNGHTCLLR1961.jpgA number of years ago I endeavoured to tackle a hairy project: to write a book on hack English director John Gilling. Doomed from the start as it was, the task led to some curious surprises. One of those is the low-key 1965 sf film The Night Caller (alternate titles in order of decreasing subtlety: The Night Caller from Outer Space and The Blood Beast from Outer Space), a curious hybrid of post-Quatermass space-age angst and Soho sleaze.

Residing in the Melbourne Science Fiction Club library is a sensationalist paperback reprint of the 1960 source novel, Frank Crisp’s similarly titled The Night Callers. Undeniably different, it is in turns ideal for adaptation into a rip-roaring piece of exploitation cinema, and… curiously old-fashioned.

A strange artefact is discovered in the English countryside. It is sent to Dr Morley, a vaguely defined scientist whose expertise appears to lie in radar and electronics, and his assistant Miss Carson. They are joined in their analysis of the device – which they call a “selenium crystal valve” – by Professor Costain, “director of the Government Radio Experimental Station at Horston Hill”, but Miss Carson soon finds herself haunted by an odd presence. Her concerns are dismissed until they can no longer be, and more direct investigation soon turns to tragedy.

The story picks up four weeks later, following New Scotland Yard police Commander Delabo and his inquiries into the disappearances of various young London women. As his investigation proceeds, the strange goings-on at Horston Hill enter the picture, and Costain is brought in to assist police with their inquiries. Further investigation reveals that the night callers visiting these women may be something other than human.

The film is very much of two halves, building up the research facility angle by injecting military involvement. It gives the film a Quatermass flavour in this section that is absent in the novel. In Crisp’s novel, the opening featuring the trio of scientists instead runs for a third of the overall length, but it still feels at odds with the rest of the piece. It comes across in retrospect as the effort of a writer unused to sf trying to get the back-story out of the way. Whereas Psycho – the most obvious comparison – functions by telling one story from two points of view, The Night Callers feels like two almost completely unrelated pieces. Indeed, other than the presence of one of the mysterious strangers of the title, there’s no real link for the next third of the novel.

Crisp’s style is odd. It’s old-fashioned, opting for long paragraphs of direct, impersonal description to in a sense summarise the action and emotion rather than depict it. This is not a book influenced by the immediacy of storytelling in cinema, despite narrative pretensions that suggest otherwise. Take for instance this description, culled from the end of an otherwise uneventful chapter, of Miss Carson’s return home at the end of a hard day:

Elsie Carson lived with her mother and another unmarried sister in a large ageing house in the London suburb of Walthamstow. It was a chill starlit night when she got home, and as she put her key into the front-door lock she felt sadly depressed. (p34)

Not only is the scene set at the end of the journey, but an entirely irrelevant back story is fleshed out in the space of a single, ill-placed sentence.

With scientific back-story mercifully at an end some 55 pages into the text, the style doesn’t so much settle down as discover a genre that makes it less grating. Here, the novel metamorphoses into a police procedural into something a little otherworldly and with pretensions towards tawdriness. The dry matter-of-factness resonates well with a story of Commander Delabo making his inquiries, hopping from witness to witness and making cold assessments of them all.

It becomes evident as Delabo’s inquiries proceed apace that the structure would have functioned much more cleanly, and the novel retained a greater sense of mystery, had the opening third been inserted later as flashback chapters. Indeed, an ideal opportunity arises when Costain is brought in by the police to provide the background we’ve already gleaned in the opening. As the novel is, Delabo’s assertion that “One cannot guess quite what he [Costain] may have to reveal” (p121) rings painfully hollow.

Characters are defined haphazardly. For instance, it is only in the brief snapshot of Elsie Carson’s home life that her first name is never mentioned. Dr Morley is the only other central character to be granted this simple humanising facet, and both he and Carson are out of the book once it leaves Horston Hill. Yet Crisp’s insistent prose, with its interminable paragraphs that often exist purely to colour a scene, define his characters in other ways. Delabo is painted as methodical and experienced almost to the point of knowing arrogance, but he never comes across as unreachable, comfortable in cracking wise with his subordinate Sergeant Grant. One gets a sense of John Creasey’s DCI Gideon in his manner. Crisp has a lot of time for featured would-be victim Eunice Ames as well. Though she is the focus of only a few chapters, her family life is depicted rather than described, and her inner turmoil as she goes through the motions of knowingly walking into a trap are painted with an immediacy that pushes Crisp’s prose towards a more modern style.

The final significant change wrought by the film adaptation is significant here. Miss Carson doesn’t return in the novel; both she and Professor Morley are referred to but do not appear after the opening section. In the film, however, Carson – there renamed Ann Barlow – takes on a more substantial role, essentially claiming much of Eunice Ames’s involvement in the (markedly different) climax.

It is in these closing scenes that the film again differs from the novel, adopting a more cost-effective yet ironically less cinematic approach. Indeed, this is where the novel really shines, exuding an unusual and effective atmosphere and generating an event-propelled drive that charges confidently towards its climax. The outcome is more philosophical in the novel too, avoiding the trite Cold War era moralising of the film’s ending and arguably transcending the ‘risqué detective’ literary sub-genre altogether for a brief moment.

The novel is an interesting read, though more from a historical perspective. It provides an intriguing snapshot of 1960s Soho, of a literary style very much on the wane, and of an attempt to bring something new to what is otherwise a straightforwardly lurid detective novel. (The cover of the Panther edition gives the genre away: this is risqué police procedural much more than it ever intends to be sf.) Panther’s back cover assertion that theirs is ‘The name that ensures good reading’ is arguably suspect, but as science fiction novels go, this one is decidedly different. Worth a read for fans of the film and for readers who like their sf to overlap with the detective genre.

But expect old-fashioned.

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