The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermilion by Robert Isenberg is a collection of stories which describe incidents of the weird and unusual. These incidents are investigated by Elizabeth, a self-styled “uncannologist” with the aid of assistant Maude. Initially, the stories don’t seem to be connected but this is not true. It is just that the development of each story is slow, complete and well done. The reader who sticks with the novel will be pleased as clues appear to hint at how the parts are connected.
Events take place in the 1920s. Isenberg entertains the readers with the depiction of daily life. There was prohibition but Elizabeth likes her alcohol both at home and during her travels while staying at hotels. She carries her own marijuana; it is not clear where she purchases supplies. The description of Union station in New York is colorful. Maude’s amazement at revolving doors describes a time when people were more easily amused. (loc 2677).
I was mesmerized by the way this story captured my attention from the very beginning. I changed my mind more than once as to what kind of story it was. In the very first chapter, Elizabeth is on a dirigible flight with former classmate Royce and his friend Albert. Elizabeth had only accidentally met Albert and, when learning that he was going on the same dirigible flight with her, gave him urgent warnings not to go. Elizabeth had to go; she was on a mission in her role as an “uncannologist.” We know something will happen, but I wasn’t expecting a vampire slaughter. Elizabeth and Royce escape; Albert remains on the burning dirigible as, not for, dinner. We will meet Royce again later and I was happy to see him again as a unifying device for seemingly unrelated tales.
After the dirigible escape, we move to the second story. This is where Elizabeth will meet Maude, her Dr. Watson. Maude has a backstory which deserves to be explored in a sequel. An educated, cultured person who had been a well-known photographer’s model, she had been trapped into working as an orderly at a mental hospital where she fed the parts of dead patients to zombies. After meeting Elizabeth and describing her disgust, she was happy to discover that Elizabeth wanted to hire her as an assistant. In return, Elizabeth would help her resolve the problem of zombies and help her find her missing friend Helen. That is her job as an uncannologist (comes from the word uncanny).
Elizabeth has acquired a reputation as sort of a detective who can solve problems that occur in the paranormal world. After dealing with vampires and zombies, Maude and Elizabeth move onto a case of a bootlegger whose supply convoys are disrupted by some sort of creature every month on the same day and at the same place. There is a well-developed surprise in this section.
In the next chapter, we meet Dr. Vermilion. For the rest of the book, readers will meet this entity in various disguises as he builds various plots that act in concert toward an end goal of the development of the perfect weapon to bring on a world apocalypse. From this chapter on, we will meet some well-developed, but still incomplete, characters. That is OK because it leaves room for sequels. Sandor deserves a book. Maude deserves one. Dr. Vermilion deserves further exploration. Constance Violeta deserves a book both about her backstory and possible future.
This novel has an ending. It stands by itself as a novel. There are surprises; some of them are cliffhangers. I hope Robert Isenberg goes on to entertain us with more stories about these characters.