Gallagher’s gothic mix of murder and supernatural is tied to a failed Amazonian expedition and to the bloody deaths of two little girls in Southwestern England. A noxious killer who may not even be human prowls the lonely Arnmouth moors, using terror to advance the agenda of Sir Owain Lancaster, who seems to be gradually losing his mind.
Sir Owain has recently written a notorious book, purported to be an account of an ill-fated expedition somewhere in the region of the Amazonian basin. The publication, however has caused a scandal, leading to the destruction of Sir Owain’s reputation and forcing him to retreat to the isolation of his country house near the remote, onetime fishing village of Arnmouth.
Sit Owain is convinced that “rampaging creatures” have followed him back from his tragic trip.
Only Sebastian Becker - recently returned to England with his wife, Elizabeth, and emboldened with the pure pulse of the detective - is capable of getting to the truth behind Sir Owain’s rumored insanity. Living in London, Sebastian is employed as a special investigator to the Masters of Lunacy. Over the past few months, the Department has become increasingly concerned over Sir Owain’s competence to manage his own affairs.
Sir Owain’s deteriorating mental state is a significant part of the reason for Sebastian’s visit, but something is definitely amiss when the investigator learns of the horrific fate of two missing girls. When the two lifeless bodies, "like white china dolls," are pulled feet-first from a scrub-filled gully, local police Inspector Stephen Reed enlists Sebastian to help with the investigation. After Sir Owain’s concerned appearance at the temporary mortuary and his assertion that the victims
were “torn by beasts,” Sebastian and Stephen are anxious to find something - anything - which might illuminate the dastardly crime.
On a closer examination of the scene, a varnished wooden box is found and is thought to be a moving-picture Birtac camera. While Stephen is sure the murders are tied to the story of Grace Eccles and Evangeline Bancroft and the time when they were lost on the moors a good few years ago, Sebastian works to track down someone with the expertise to crack the code of the camera. He also enlists Evangeline’s help to talk with Grace, now rendered almost destitute by Sir Owain’s personal physician, Dr. Hubert Sibley, whose strange, controlling behavior adds yet another layer of sinister intent to the proceedings.
It soon becomes clear the murders are just one episode in a much larger dramatic scenario. Evangeline and Sebastian are convinced that Owain is conjuring his dead loved ones, but where does truth end and fantasy begin? From the gruesome child murders to Sebastian’s continuing concern over the survival and security of those he loves, a devastating personal tragedy shows that “misfortune strikes where it will.”
London is chilled by a brew of river and coal smoke and horses and fog, the courts and alleys and tenement blocks of Southwark always squalid. Now there are four young girls, separated by time: two survived, two are gone - all “torn asunder by the beast of the moor.” Meanwhile, the extracts from Sir Owain’s
The Empire of Beasts fill the pages with a Conradian sense of terror: we finally see how the explorer’s material proof of the value of science sought to triumph over the rational.
Filling his tale with twisted carnival freaks, devious villains, and a beastly shadow-child that lives in all kinds of supernatural forms, Gallagher’s horror thriller moves into a fully-fledged violent nightmare while Sebastian continues to stand tall, the author's titular hero determined to protect the innocent against the noxious machinations of men.