Book Review: The Last Temptation of Dr. Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert

The Last Temptation of Dr. Valentine is a fitting end to the trilogy and a rare sequel that manages to equal and even surpass what has gone before.”

The Last Temptation of Dr. Valentine by John Llewellyn Probert - coverA few years ago—2012 to be precise—an exciting novella called The Nine Deaths of Dr. Valentine by UK horror writer John Llewellyn Probert was published through a small press called Spectral Books. It was an homage, affectionate and knowing, to the films of Vincent Price, in particular, those marvellous horror pictures he was so renowned for and associated with. In fact, it superficially followed the plot device of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Doctors are being killed in inventive and horrific circumstances and the main suspect is someone who apparently died years previous; the eponymous Dr. Valentine. So popular was this book that a sequel soon followed. The Hammer of Dr. Valentine widened the scope of kills to films produced by the famous Hammer Studio, and the deaths to journalists and writers involved in producing stories about the first set of murders. Both books were chock full of Probert’s trademark wit and humour, and exhilarating prose. Unfortunately, Spectral Press went into liquidation before any further volumes could be produced. But happy days, Black Shuck Books have stepped up to gift us with the latest installment.

Before we begin, a word; it is not necessary to have read the previous two books before reading this one, but as both are still available, and the experience is far greater for having done so, This is Horror advises everyone to seek them out.

Bristol—once the scene of a series of bizarre and horrific murders—now plays the setting for their recreation. For a US film company is descending on the city to make a movie about the Dr. Valentine story. Yet someone does not wish this film to begin production. And so begins another series of grisly yet spectacular and elaborate murders, based on scenes from ‘classic’ British horror pictures. The novella opens with a scene on a train, and the lead-up to the first killing, that of the movie’s location scout. Yet unlike the previous two books, we do not immediately witness the killing of this hapless individual. It’s a canny move by Probert, and in showing us the prelude to the murder instead of the murder itself, he makes it all the more suspenseful and shocking when we are finally exposed to the carnage. This is through the medium of the police investigation. And it is here we meet a character from the first book, Jenny Newham, who is the first to suggest Valentine might be back. Soon after, when the connection to the film is discovered, Jeffrey Longdon—the lead investigator from both previous cases—is pulled from retirement and reinstated. Thereafter, it’s a race against time—and theatrical, intricate deaths—to try and find Valentine and stop him.

It’s clear that Probert had a blast writing this novella. The writing is a joy to read, fast-paced and full of wry, sardonic witticisms, with characters who live and breathe and leap from the page. It’s wonderful re-visiting these people and the sheer inventiveness of the killings tops even the previous installments. And yet this is no mere death-fest; it does not emulate the stylings of the Saw or Final Destination franchises, where the deaths are the main spectacle with little to no empathy. Instead, Probert gives us rounded people to either love or hate, or even a mix of both, and firmly positions Valentine in the role of villain. Not one who is cartoonish or one-dimensional, either, but one who is clearly unhinged in the way a true psychopath is. Yes, it’s fiction, but despite the outlandish set-pieces, there is the lingering sense that this could actually happen. Moreover, one scene in particular had this reviewer seething at Valentine for the first time over the three books. And this is was entirely down to the skill of Probert who gives us victims we can be sympathetic towards. In the previous novellas, the murdered tended to have few redeeming qualities, and came off as quite unpleasant. Not all in this one are (though a few most definitely are). And it makes for genuine, gut-churning reading, because suddenly we genuinely want these people to survive, for Valentine to be stopped. As for that, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. For whilst the police in this one are not the bumbling coppers we often see in the types of films this book references, they are up against a formidable opponent.

As to the films referenced, this time Probert has decided to take as his inspiration some of the more obscure British horror films (though a few are justifiably famous). Part of the fun of the Valentine books is trying to spot which films and scenes the deaths have been modelled on. And it must be said, this time around it’s a little more obscure for the casual or uninformed viewer (though not to the seasoned horror fanatic, no doubt). As such, no spoilers will be given here, though there is an extensive list in the final pages of the book for those who wish to track these films down.

The Last Temptation of Dr. Valentine is a fitting end to the trilogy and a rare sequel that manages to equal and even surpass what has gone before. Probert clearly has both a deep knowledge and love for the films he honours. It’s a testament to his skills as a writer that he is able to weave these set-pieces into a narrative that is logical, compelling, and downright entertaining. The writing is perfect; pacy, detailed without sacrificing momentum, and very, very sharp. He plays with humour at the right moments but is able to switch gears when necessary, giving us more serious passages as required. And there are a handful of genuinely chilling moments. Yet it all gels magnificently. Though the book ends on an open note—one which points to some wonderful possibilities as to where the series could go in future—if this is to be the end, it’s a fine one. Dr. Valentine is wonderful creation, a villain deserving of his own film or TV show, and if there’s any justice in this world, this novella will find its way onto many a reader’s favourite lists. A simply exemplary piece of story-telling—macabre, and gleeful with it—and a fantastic example of John Llewellyn Probert’s skills as a writer.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Black Shuck Books
Hardback, Limited signed and numbered: 206 (pps)
Release Date: 20 October 2018

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