Monday, February 06, 2023

Ghost Hills - H. Bedford-Jones

GHOST HILLS, originally serialized in four issues of THE CAVALIER in July and August 1913, is one of H. Bedford-Jones’s earliest novels. The fact that it’s featured on the cover of the issue containing the first installment is an indication that even this early in his career, Bedford-Jones was a popular author and was considered a draw for the readers.

This yarn is a Northern, set in the Canadian wilderness close to the Arctic Circle where the landscape is covered with snow and ice year ‘round and during the summer, when this novel is set, the skies are ablaze with the Northern Lights around the clock. Most of the action takes place in a desolate wilderness known as the Empty Places, which is haunted by the Silent Ones, and to get there, you have to travel through the forbidding Ghost Hills of the title.

This setting gives Bedford-Jones plenty of opportunities for vivid, eerie descriptive passages. His protagonist, footloose American Barr Radison, has come to Canada and thrown in with Tom “Take-a-Chance” Macklin, an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company who ventured into the far north to find out the source of some rare black and silver fox pelts. They run into a jovial (but still sinister), seemingly half-mad giant Scotsman, Macferris Montenay, who’s in love with the beautiful daughter of a man who runs an isolated trading post. Of course, Radison falls for her, too, which gives Montenay one more reason to hate him. Montenay already thinks Radison is a threat to his plans because he believes the American to be descended from old Pierre Radisson, a famous explorer who vanished somewhere in the Empty Places two hundred years earlier. (This story is set in the early Twentieth Century, roughly the same time as Bedford-Jones wrote it.) According to an old prophecy, one of Radisson’s descendants will show up and claim the empire that Montenay is trying to build.

That’s a lot going on, and Bedford-Jones mixes in a feud between two Indian tribes as well. Naturally, each tribe takes sides in the rivalry between Radison and Montenay. And then there’s an evil half-breed with his own agenda.

Despite all that plot, GHOST HILLS has some pacing problems, as too many pages in the first three-quarters of the book are spent tramping around the snowy wilderness. It’s very well-written in places but doesn’t really get us anywhere. The final quarter of the book is mostly terrific, though, as all the strands of the story come together in a series of suspenseful action scenes culminating in an explosive battle. I say mostly terrific because the ending is something of a letdown again with too much of the action taking place off-screen.

This early in his career, Bedford-Jones’s prose is more old-fashioned and not as smooth as it would be at the peak of his career in the Thirties and Forties. Even so, GHOST HILLS is an entertaining yarn with some good characters and some really creepy, well-done scenes. I guessed the secret of the Silent Ones pretty early on, but that revelation late in the book is still very effective. If you’ve never read Bedford-Jones, this probably wouldn’t be a good one to start with, but if you’re already a fan like I am, I think it’s well worth reading. You can find various e-book editions of it on-line, as a stand-alone book and as part of Bedford-Jones collections, and it’s also available as a handsome trade paperback from Altus Press, part of the H. Bedford-Jones Library.

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