Public Domain Spotlight: The Eyes of Doom

Just as last week’s story, “Monkeys”, was our first foray into mummy fiction, this week we’re tackling another spin on a classic horror archetype, the occult detective. Enter: Shiela Crerar, Psychic Investigator.

Shiela Crerar is the creation of English writer and actress Ella M. Scrymsour, about whom little appears to be known; Bear Alley has a good run-down of what’s known of her life here. Shiela appeared in six stories, all of them published in The Blue Magazine between May and October 1920. They languished there in obscurity until they were collected and reprinted by Ash Tree Press in 2006 as Shiela Crerar, Psychic Investigator. Today there seem to be a few editions of the stories available, under variant titles like The Adventures of Shiela Crerar, Psychic Detective and Shiela Crerar, Psychic Detective: Stories from The Blue Magazine. Mike Ashley also included the third Crerar story, “The Room of Fear”, in his 2020 anthology Fighters of Fear: Occult Detective Stories alongside tales of such genre stalwarts as Thomas Carnacki, Flaxman Low, John Thunstone, and Jules de Grandin.

“The Eyes of Doom” is the first Shiela Crerar story (The Blue Magazine, May 1920), and also relates Shiela’s origin story. An orphan, Shiela is raised by her Uncle John at his estate, Kencraig, in the Scottish Highlands overlooking Loch Lubnaig. One day, though, returning from picking berries in the woods, she finds him dead of heart failure. Left penniless, Shiela refuses to sell the estate; she leases it and, with only a hundred pounds to her name, moves to London to find her way in the world.

Shiela finds cheap lodging “in a road derisively called Air Street” but is unable to find work. As her money dwindles, her troubles weigh on her and she becomes despondent and homesick.

She had no money to spend on amusements, and as she walked the streets of the great city she saw visions of the long ago. She wandered in Lincoln’s Inn, and saw the passing of sedan chairs; watched gallants, with silken coat and jewelled sword, bend low before their lady loves. She sought out ‘old London’, and lived alone in the seventeenth century. Always psychic, her gift seemed trebled in her sorrow and loneliness, and her only friends now were the dim ghosts of the past.

One day, sitting in the gardens on Lincoln’s Inn, she notices an old man in a dark suit and tri-corner hat sitting next to her.

‘You are sad and lonely, little lady,’ he said suddenly. ‘Why not help those that are sad and lonely too? You have a gift – a most wonderful gift of sight. Use that sight for your own benefit and the benefit of mankind. I promise you, you will not fail.’

The figure then vanishes, and Shiela, dazed but freshly resolved, places an ad in The Times:

Lady of gentle birth, Scottish, young, penniless, possessing strong psychic powers, will devote her services to the solving of uncanny mysteries or the ‘laying of ghosts’. Offer quite genuine. Reply, with particulars and remuneration offered, to S. C. c/o Mrs Barker, 14b Air Street, Regent’s Park, London.

Two days later a letter arrives from a Lady Kildrummie, proposing to hire Shiela to “try to solve, and perhaps lay for ever, the very unpleasant mystery known as the ‘Kildrummie Weird'”. Included is ten pounds to cover Shiela’s expenses on the trip to Arrochar, and Shiela is delighted to be returning to her beloved Highlands. The next day she sends a reply and hops on the train, and is met at Arrochar station by a ruggedly handsome fellow by the unlikely name of Stavordale Hartland. Stavordale is Lady Kildrummie’s nephew, sent to pick Shiela up and bring her their estate, Dunfunerie, “on the Argyllshrie side of Loch Long”. There, Lady Kildrummie welcomes Shiela with open arms – her late husband was best friends with Shiela’s uncle – and relates to her the tale of the Kildrummie Weird.

The haunting takes the form of disembodied eyes that appear and vanish around the house, mostly in the west wing. They appear every twenty-three years, and drive those who see them to madness and eventually suicide over the course of about six months. This was the case with Lady Kildrummie’s brothers-in-law, who saw the eyes and killed themselves in 1874, and her eldest son Diarmid, who drank cyanide in 1897. Now in 1920, the eyes are appearing to Lady Kildrummie’s younger (and last surviving) son, Duncan. Despite being a decorated soldier with a reputation for being “a regular dare-devil”, Shiela finds Duncan a nervous wreck, obviously exhausted, twitching and flinching at every sound. Still, he refuses to leave Dunfunerie, despite his mother’s pleas.

That night Shiela wanders the halls of Dunfunerie, looking for anything unusual, and finds herself locked in the chapel. Not wanting to wake anyone up to come get her despite the bitter cold, she sits down in one of the pews – and her gaze suddenly meets that of a pair of mournful eyes.

And as she met the piteous gaze she became suddenly conscious of the fact that the eyes were not framed by a face! She rose with a startled exclamation of horror, and turned away, but to her right another pair of eyes appeared, eyes this time that were mad with hate; eyes so filled with loathing and malevolence that Shiela backed away from them in fear. But now the whole chapel seemed filled with the ghastly sight. Eyes with expression, eyes without! Eyes kind, eyes cruel! Eyes imbecile, eyes fanatical! Eyes with every expression in them that man could conceive.

All the eyes but the first, mournful pair quickly turn hostile, and their unseen bodies drag Shiela to a turret in the partly-ruined, barred-off west wing. Shiela is overcome with terror and blacks out after trying to attack the apparitions.

Shiela wakes up back in her room. Her cries are heard by Lady Kildrummie, who joins her and soon realizes that Shiela has been blinded. Her sight returns in the morning and she is able to tell Lady Kildrummies about her experiences; the Lady is skeptical, but when they unlock the door to the west wing, Shiela is vindicated.

The floor, thickly coated with the dust of ages, was marked by freshly made footprints – footprints of long, pointed boots that crossed and recrossed each other – and among the old-fashioned prints were some made by a little, light modern shoe.

The next night Shiela is again dragged to the tower, but this time she senses that the eyes are trying to tell her something – unfortunately, frightened and on the defensive, she is “not in a fit psychic state to understand them.” The eyes again turn hostile, and Shiela again wakes up blind in her room.

This process repeats night after night as the Weird becomes more and more bold in tormenting Duncan, even appearing in the day when other members of the household are present. Even when Lady Kildrummie and Stavordale agree to stay up with Shiela, she is dragged away to the tower by the Weird while they remain paralyzed in the library – and all three are blind when Shiela is returned to them. Stavordale tries to convince Shiela to give up on the mystery for her own safety, but she refuses, determined to save Duncan.

One day Shiela agrees to stay by Duncan’s side while his sleeping draught takes effect, but she is again dragged to the tower. This time, though numb and unable to move, Shiela is able to perceive what the Weird has been trying to tell her.

As she watched, the eyes suddenly materialised into men. Gradually their bodies appeared until twenty-two men in doublet and hose stood before her. Their garments were of silk and velvet – rich, costly, gay. And the twenty-third of that ghostly company was a girl, almost a child of not more than fifteen years. Her hair was unbound and her face distorted with grief, and she clung piteously to a black-bearded man of middle age. A ghostly play began, and all the while Shiela watched with increasing horror. Others appeared on the scene – men in kilt and plaid, with dirks drawn, dirks red with blood.

The kilted men captured the men in doublets and the girl, and one by one, put the men’s eyes out with hot irons – the girl trips and dies, apparently from the fall, while being dragged to the brazier of coals. The killers then throw their bodies in a shallow mass grave under a chestnut tree – “the giant tree, the pride of Dunfunerie”, which was never mentioned previously. They even refuse to allow a passing monk to pray over the bodies, driving him off and jeering even as “he cursed them on the Holy Book”. The scene fades away and Shiela once again sees the eyes – now full of gratitude, knowing that she understands them.

The next day Shiela leads a party to dig up the mass grave under the chestnut tree, and the bones are laid to rest properly.

Reverently the bones were placed in an empty stone sarcophagus in the little chapel, and reverently the minister spoke the prayers for the dead. And as the last amen was said, Shiela heard an unseen choir burst out in song. It was the ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’.

Six weeks later, Duncan is once again fit as a fiddle, and Shiela explains her theory of the haunting – the twenty-three ghosts had been imprisoned in the turret room and murdered by the Kildrummies’ ancestors, “perhaps for religious reasons”, and as their were twenty-three of them, they returned every twenty-three years to request a proper Christian burial, turning hostile when they were not understood. Lady Kildrummie bids Shiela goodbye, and an unusually reserved Stavordale accompanies Shiela as far as Glasgow.

But the twists keep on coming – Stavordale proposes to Shiela at the Glasgow terminus, asking her to give up her dangerous ghost-hunting to be his wife. Shiela gently declines, as she feels that she has been given a mission and that it is not yet complete. Before she can give an answer as to whether she even returns Stavordale’s feelings, though, the train pulls in and she is bustled aboard, on her way to her new lodgings in Edinburgh. Stavordale, meanwhile, resolves to wait until Shiela is ready to pursue a relationship – “like a knight in the ‘days of long ago’, the wish of his lady was his law.”

Dramatis Personae

  • Shiela Crerar is our protagonist, a Scottish psychic-for-hire “of gentle birth”. She was orphaned at a young age, but we’re only told that she lived with her uncle for twenty-two years; it isn’t clear (at least in this first story) whether she’s actually twenty-two years old, or if she as orphaned at three and is now twenty-five or something like that. She loves life in the Scottish Highlands, and is particularly attached to Ben Ledi, a mountain near Loch Lubnaig, which she personifies as “a rough but courteous Bruce, with shaggy locks and tartan kilts flying in the wind.” In “The Eyes of Doom” Shiela is pretty green around the gills as a ghost hunter, but makes the best of it and is determined to see the job through the end, no matter the cost to herself. Shiela was apparently “always psychic”, a trait amplified by the misery of her time in London, during which she immersed herself in the echoes of the city’s history and lived among the dead more than the living. Her main psychic talent seems to be perceiving and communicating with spirits, but she has a way to go towards honing it; it took her weeks to understand what the Kildrummie Weird was trying to tell her, and even then it may have been less a case of her fine-tuning her powers to understand them than them simply brute-forcing their way past her mental defenses. Shiela is described as “obstinate” and “always venturesome”, though she seems to have a slightly snobbish streak as well, as seen in her interactions with Mrs. Barker. Physically, she is  “a petite maid, with nut-brown hair and grey eyes”. She seems amenable to Stavordale’s affections – she certainly finds him attractive, even mentally comparing him to Ben Ledi, “the greatest compliment she could have paid him” – but isn’t ready to settle down, as her work as a Psychic Investigator is only beginning.
  • John Crerar, a.k.a. Crerar of Kencraig, is Shiela’s uncle and guardian, who raised her and tragically dies of heart failure at the beginning of the story. John apparently “idolised” Shiela, and their life together was idyllic. Still, he kept certain things from her; she didn’t seem to know that he had mortgaged Kencraig, and she didn’t know the Kildrummies even though the late Laird Kildrummie was John’s “greatest friend”. Kencraig is said to be a “smallish house for a laird”, so I guess John was a laird as well, though that wording seems a bit ambiguous to me.
  • Stavordale Hartland is Lady Kildrummie’s nephew who picks Shiela up at the Arrochar station. He is “A tall man in the late thirties” and “a handsome man, rugged, strong, in a kilt of the Cameron tartan, his mother’s clan” with a “pleasantly tuneful” voice. He seems rather smitten with her at first sight, given “the wholesome admiration in his eyes” which “could do nought but please her.” Stavordale plays support throughout the story; he chases after Duncan when he flees the house and is said to have “attached himself to Shiela” during her investigation, which she finds helpful and comforting. He tries to help her by staying up with her and Lady Kildrummie in the library, but ends up immobilized and blinded by the Weird as well, and the next night tries to convince Shiela to give up the investigation. Stavordale proposes to Shiela at the Glasgow train station; she turns him down, and though he remains hopeful that she does care for him, he resolves to honour her wishes and wait for her to be ready – “impatient though he might be”.
  • Lady Kildrummie is the owner of Dunfunerie, a widow of indeterminate age but a warm and welcoming disposition. She sees Shiela’s advertisement in The Times and hires her to investigate the Kildrummie Weird. Her late husband, who is never named, was a friend of Shiela’s Uncle John, and so she makes Shiela doubly welcome in her home. After Shiela’s traumatic first night in the turret, it’s Lady Kildrummie who personally checks on and comforts her. She’s initially skeptical of Shiela’s experience, but once she sees the footprints in the west wing, she comes around.
  • Duncan is Lady Kildrummie’s younger son. He is a twenty-six year old war veteran who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and “been mentioned several times in despatches”, as well as being regarded (by his friends, at least) as a “regular dare-devil”. He’s been tormented by the Kildrummie Weird for a while by the time Shiela arrives at Dunfunerie, reduced to a twitching, sleep-deprived wreck, forced out of the house for hours at a time by the haunting. At one point, Stavordale finds him just staring at the Loch with “a look of madness in his eyes.” He refuses to move out of the house, though whether from pride, stubbornness, or loyalty to his mother is not specified. Dr. Graeme prescribes him a sleeping draught to help him get some rest. Luckily, Duncan fully recovers after the ghosts are laid to rest.
  • Diarmid was Lady Kildrummie’s eldest son. He killed himself by drinking cyanide in 1897, after being haunted by the Kildrummie Weird. He had been dabbling in photography, in which cyanide used to be used in parts of the development process, and so his death as ruled an accident.
  • Dr. Graeme provides medical services to Dunfunerie; it isn’t clear if he’s retained as part of the household or is simply the local physician. He looks over Shiela the first time the Weird blinds her, and later prescribes Duncan and sleeping draught.
  • Coinneach the Strong was an ancestor of the Kildrummie family from “the latter part of the sixteenth century”. Lady Kildrummie says that the Weird has haunted the family since Coinneach’s time, so it’s possible that the twenty-three murders were committed on his or his predecessor’s orders.
  • Mr. MacArthur is Uncle John’s attorney. He’s the one who breaks the news to Shiela that she’s now broke. He advises her to sell the estate in order to pay off the mortgage and “fit herself to take her place among the workers of the great world.” Needless to say, she does no such thing.
  • Mrs. Barker is Shiela’s landlady in London. She’s apparently friendly and well-meaning enough, but Shiela, seemingly used to more genteel company, finds her a bit vulgar and off-putting.
  • A rich American widow leases Kencraig from Shiela. We don’t learn much anything else about her in “The Eyes of Doom”, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned up in the later stories.

I haven’t read all of the Shiela Crerar stories yet, but “The Eyes of Doom” is a serviceable first entry. It moves quickly (sometimes too quickly), and certainly can’t be accused of dragging, even though a fair bit happens. A lot of events are fairly quickly glossed over, which is both to the story’s benefit and detriment; as I said, it doesn’t drag, but on the other hand there is so much potential in some of the stuff that Scrymsour brushes past in the rush to Kildrummie and from there to the resolution. Shiela’s time in London in particular stood out to me – I quoted above the only paragraph that really deals with this, but seriously? Falling in grief and economic anxiety, losing yourself among the literal ghosts of a strange city, wallowing in the past because the present and future seem so unbearably bleak? One paragraph! I don’t even like super depressing stuff and that sounds like an amazing short story all on its own – and what a lift we would get then, when her fortunes turned around and she found her calling!

The prose is, as Josh Reynolds tactfully put it, “utilitarian“, but the story is a fun read. It moves quickly and gets the point across, the action is exciting, the supernatural is creepy, and you root for heroes easily enough. But on the other hand, there’s not much to those heroes, the introduction is rushed, and there’s odd moments of melodramatic waifery – “Shiela couldn’t find work” is phrased as “no one wanted her”, and her physical description actually ends with “…grey eyes that looked all too trustingly at a cruel and heartless world.” Which never comes into play! No one seems to deal with Shiela on anything other than the level, unless the later stories have some really shocking revelations about Stavordale. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, but a lot of what we are told would be great if it were shown. Show us more of Shiela’s despair among the ghosts of London. Show us her trying to find work, and A Cruel And Heartless World betraying her trust. Show us her psychic power increasing in her sadness – maybe even driving herself deeper to lose herself more fully in the past. Show us more of Shiela and Stavordale bonding at Dunfunerie, and more of Shiela dealing with the trauma of being abducted and blinded by ghosts every night while trying to spare a friend the loss of another child. Show us Shiela developing her powers to finally communicate with the Weird and find out what they want. Dwell on it, wallow in it, get inside Shiela’s head and show us what she really thinks about all of this. Yes, this is a call for old-timey occult detective angst fic. We all want it, and I’m the only one brave enough to admit it.

Well anyway, the other neat thing about Shiela that others have noted – Reynolds sort of alludes to it in the article linked above, and Mike Ashley talks about it in his introduction to “The Room of Fear” – is that while most of the better-known early occult detectives like Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and Flaxman Low just sort of appear fully-formed in their tales, already experts in the occult with established reputations and backstories at best hinted at, we actually get to see where Shiela comes from, how she gets into the business, how she learns and develops her knowledge and abilities (though again, a lot of this is skimmed over). It helps to make her more relatable and gives us a glimpse into what early investigations by other occult detectives may have been like. The Shiela Crerar we got on the page was A-OK in my book, and the Shiela Crerar I was able to infer while reading it was even better. I’m a fan.

This is the part where I do the writing prompts? Most of the prompts are in that rant a couple of paragraphs up. The only other ones I have are the usual “what if she met X?” ones. Luna Bartendale, the more seasoned psychic investigator from Jessie Kerruish Douglas’s The Undying Monster, seems like a she could be a good mentor figure to Shiela, but then I haven’t finished The Undying Monster either. I dunno, Carnacki’s always a safe bet with this sort of thing.

“The Eyes of Doom”, and the other five Shiela Crerar stories, can be read online at the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library here.

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