The Arcanum

The Arcanum

by Thomas Wheeler


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It is 1919 and the Great War has come to a close. But in the shadows of the world’s major cities, the killing has just begun. In this perilous time, as the division between order and chaos grows increasingly slim, a select group of visionaries have taken it upon themselves to ensure the safety of humanity. They are known as the Arcanum.

In London’s stormy Hyde Park, Konstantin Duvall, the Arcanum’s founder, has been killed in a suspicious accident. Dismayed, the group’s longest-lived member, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, determines to avenge Duvall’s death—and uncover the secret left in his wake. For the dead man possessed the world’s most powerful—now missing—artifact: the Book of Enoch, the chronicle of God’s mistakes, within whose pages lie the seeds for the end of everything.

From the scene of the crime, Conan Doyle embarks on a path that leads him to the sleazy underworld of New York City’s Bowery and a series of deceptively disparate—but decidedly connected—murders. And as he calls upon the scattered members of the Arcanum for aid, he also finds himself embroiled in a story of war as old as time itself. Not of a struggle between countries, but between darkness and light.
Peopled with the twentieth century’s most famous—and infamous—figures, here is an extraordinary tale in which the stakes go beyond the realm of humankind—into the divine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553381993
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.16(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Thomas Wheeler sold his first screenplay at age twenty-two, to Twentieth Century Fox. He has continued to work on major Hollywood features for the last several years. Wheeler lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Christina, and his son, Luca. The Arcanum is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt



A September storm battered a sleeping London. Barrage after barrage of gusting sheets drummed on the rooftops and loosened clapboards. Raindrops like silver dollars pelted the empty roads and forced families of pigeons into huddled clumps atop the gaslights.

Then it stopped.

The trees of Kensington Gardens swayed, and the city held its breath. It waited a few dripping moments, then relaxed.

Just as suddenly, a Model-T Ford swerved past Marble Arch in Hyde Park and buzzed around Speakers' Corner, peals of laughter following in its wake.

Inside the car, Daniel Bisbee held the steering wheel with one hand and patted Lizzie's plump thigh with the other. The five pints had done their work, strengthening his resolve. Lizzie was still wearing her shabby costume from the theater, and pretended not to notice Daniel's nudging fingers ruffling under her skirt. She was a notorious flirt but failed to realize the expectations that would arouse in her suitors.

As he inched his hand to her knee, she babbled on nervously. "And Quigley had the bloody nerve to give me notes right before I'm about to go on, completely shattering my concentration. And you know his breath is simply dreadful. I've no idea what he eats but there's something unhealthy about the man. And where do they find these pitiful crowds? They didn't laugh at all."

Daniel smiled, giving the impression that he was listening, but his attention was focused on moving his fingers another five inches up her thigh. He crept like a spider into her skirts but she pulled him back with a shy "Danny," while another round of giggles erupted from the backseat.

In the back, Gulliver Lloyd pawed Celia West—a less pretty, less talented actress than Lizzie, but one who still drew the boys by offering the carnal treasures Lizzie so coyly protected.

What Gulliver lacked in height he more than compensated for with his unflagging persistence. Also, being rich didn't hurt. Celia fended off his pinches and pokes in a gentle wrestling match.

"You're horrible, stop it," Celia teased, then slapped Gulliver on the arm when he relented.

Gulliver snuck his hands around Celia's waist, then swiftly brought his lips to hers and kissed her before backing away.

Celia touched her lips. "You're terrible, Gully." And she dropped her chin, gazing up at him with eyes darkened by mascara.

Up front, Daniel Bisbee clenched his teeth.

The four actors were halfway through the run of Purloin's Prophecy, a new play at the Leicester Playhouse. Daniel and Lizzie played the lovers, yet somehow, Celia was Gulliver's fourth conquest of the run. And that wasn't right. Daniel's upbringing in the tenements on the East End had bred a competitiveness in him. Gully got everything he wanted because he was rich. Even Daniel's excitement at driving Gully's new car was dampened when he realized he'd become nothing more than an unpaid chauffeur.

Anxious breathing and rustling clothes replaced the giggles. Daniel looked over at Lizzie, who was blushing furiously.

He swigged from a cracked leather flask and pushed on the accelerator, skidding onto Piccadilly. Lizzie grabbed the door handle.

"Slower, Danny, please."

Daniel spun another turn, thumping a curb in the process.

"Oi, Dano! A lighter foot, if you don't mind," Gulliver groused from the backseat. His hand was wedged between Celia's breast and her corset. This was a delicate moment and he wanted nothing to upset his venture.

"Drop me off. It's late," Lizzie said to the window, her breath fogging the glass.

The model-t skidded around the corner eighty meters from the museum gates. The British Museum was closed for the night, its windows darkened. It was a solid, squat building stretching three square blocks, guarded by towering firs. Its small windows were barred, its tall gates sharp. The only visitor at this late hour was a fog that rolled in from every intersection, peculiar ground clouds that surged forth like a massing army, wisping about the buildings, misting the windows, choking off the rain-glimmered air. Shreds seeped through the fence and seized the interior grounds.

Then, somewhere in the darkness, glass shattered and an alarm bell started clanging.

Fog surrounded the car. Beyond the windows, nothing was visible save tendrils of twisting air. Lizzie pushed her foot on an imaginary brake.


Daniel Bisbee tapped the low-speed pedal as the road disappeared before his eyes.

"What's all this, then?"

Lizzie later told the police that her first thought was "snow angel." Her wealthy grandparents once took her skiing in Switzerland with her two younger brothers, and they learned to make snow angels in the deep drifts. The gray blot in the fog was in the shape of an angel, with wings outstretched. But soon those beating wings made her think less of beauty and more of panic. And as the fog peeled away, the feathery wings melted into mere arms, waving frantically.

"D-Danny?" Lizzie said.

But there wasn't a chance.

A body erupted out of the fog. Lizzie's hands slammed the dashboard as she screamed. Daniel Bisbee crushed all three brake pedals with both feet and spun the wheel, but the body had already collided with the hood and was somersaulting over the windshield. The sounds of crunching metal blended with the snaps of human bone. The Model-T surged over the curb, skidded on the grass, and chimed off the steel fence, while the body slapped onto the wet pavement and rolled to a halt.

Lizzie buried her face in her hands and screamed.

"Dan, jesus god—"

"Was it a man? Was it a man?"

Daniel couldn't think over Lizzie's screams.

Gulliver turned to the back window. "Oh, by Christ, Dano! He's in the road!"

"I didn't—" Daniel stared at the windshield, now crunched inward in the shape of a body. A clump of white hair had torn off on impact and was stuck to a crack in the glass.

Celia shook Gulliver's arm. "Is he dead?"

"Lizzie, open the door." Gulliver shoved at her seat.


"Lizzie, for Christ's sake." Gulliver scrambled over Celia as Daniel stumbled out into the street. The two men sprinted toward the body, their path marked by a wide swathe of blood.

The body was bent at impossible angles, a lumpy mound on the road.

Daniel and Gulliver circled it warily.

"By Christ, Dano. By bloody Christ." Gulliver ran his hands through his hair.

Daniel could tell, from the white hair and beard, that he had hit an old man, over six foot, with thick arms and a wide back, still fit. But now one arm seemed twice the length of the other due to a graphic dislocation. A shoulder blade erupted through the skin like a white shark's fin. And the old man's right knee had buckled in the wrong direction, making him appear like a blood-soaked marionette dropped from a player's hand.

Daniel's guilt brought him to his knees. He touched the old man's hand. His face was mashed into the pavement.

"S-s-sir?" Daniel gave the fingers a squeeze.

A groan emerged in reply.

"That was him, Dano. He's breathing!"

Daniel peeled the body away from the pavement. Half of a stripped face flopped in his lap.

Gulliver wheeled back.

Most of the old man's face was still on the pavement. His surviving eye blinked. Where the flesh was pulled off, Daniel could see the muscles of the old man's jaw working, dripping blood onto his beard. A large hand took hold of Daniel's biceps. Daniel attempted to back away, but the old man held him firm, lifting his head a few inches from the pavement.

"He's in—"

"Gully, get 'im off!" Daniel cried, trying to pry the old man's fingers from his arm. "Agh, Gully! He's—"

"He's in my mind," the old man shouted.

Gulliver tried to pull Daniel off, but stopped when he heard the words.

"What'd he say?"

The old man yanked Daniel closer. Daniel could smell blood and tobacco on his breath. And death. The old man hissed: ". . . warn . . ."

"Oh God—" Daniel again tried to pull away.

The old man suddenly let go and Daniel scuttled back into Gulliver's arms. The old man's head lolled to the side. The good eye stopped blinking. He stared at nothing.

His last word, "Arcanum," echoed through the silent streets, punctuated only by the girls' muffled sobs.

The clouds suddenly parted for the full moon, which cast a white glow on the street and washed over the old man's ruined features.

Despite the light, no one noticed the glint of a blue monocle in the shadows. There was another witness. And in a swirl of a black topcoat he was gone, leaving behind only the hush of the retreating storm.


The paper before him was blank. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could not concentrate, distracted by the metronomic tick of his grandfather clock. He tapped his shoe on the snout of a Bengal tiger-skin rug splayed out at his feet and surveyed his surroundings, scanning the evidence of a life fully lived.

The billiards room of his Windlesham estate ran the length of the manor and substituted as a ballroom and Doyle's writing office. His wife, Lady Jean, kept a piano and a harpsichord in the corner by the redbrick fireplace. The lion-toed billiards table counterbalanced the room at the opposite end. The walls were ornamented with an eclectic array of Napoleonic weapons and a stag's head with an impressive six-foot rack. Doyle's gaze drifted past the bust of Sherlock Holmes in his deerstalker cap, and settled wistfully on a Sidney Paget portrait of young Kingsley Doyle in his Royal Air Force uniform. The boy's rounded face could have been a mirror of his own at that age. Doyle looked at his hands and counted the blotching age spots. He glanced back again at the portrait until he felt a chamber of welled-up sorrow creak open in his chest. Then he turned once more to the empty pad of paper.

The phone rang: a dull jangling that never failed to distract. He found Bell's contraption grossly intrusive. Not answering seemed boorish, but Doyle could never predict when a visitor might arrive unannounced into his office, demanding his attention even if he was writing. It was technological rudeness; a harbinger of things to come. Doyle glared at the phone from across the room, rapping his fountain pen on the arm of the chair.

Then the floorboards creaked as he crossed to the mantel and plucked the receiver from its post, holding the body of the phone in his other hand.

"Yes? Hello?" Doyle tended to shout into the telephone.

"Arthur?" The voice was deep, rich, and unmistakable even across the crackling phone lines: the Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill—a friend of Doyle's since the Parliamentary elections of 1900.


"There's news, I'm afraid. Bloody awful news." The phone lines were quiet save for static. "Konstantin Duvall is dead."

A single droplet of ink struck the floor. Doyle ran a hand over his walrus moustache and closed his eyes. His shoulders sagged. He placed the dripping pen back on the table. "When?"

"Last night, they say. Clipped by a motorcar. In the fog."

"My God." Conan Doyle felt his emotions hiss away into the recesses of his heart, leaving only nausea. But after sixty-plus years, this, he knew, was only a precursor of the tidal rush of grief to come.

"Did he have any family, Arthur? Of all of us, you knew him best."

"Honestly, I . . . I don't know."

"I'll have the Yard look into it, but I suspect they'll have no better luck than I will. We may have to put something together. Small, of course."

Doyle was reeling. Bits and shards, pictures, words, a rush of thoughts had broken free. He grasped for useful information. "He spoke once . . . of wanting to be cremated. From his days in the Orient."

"Eh? That's something, then. We can accomplish that. It seems unbelievable. Unbelievable . . ." Churchill allowed the silence to loom. He was clearly waiting for information he knew Doyle possessed. The good doctor, however, was lost, for the moment, to the past. Finally, Churchill pressed on. "What on earth was he doing at the British Museum? And at that absurd hour?"

Doyle hesitated, then lied, "I have no idea."

"Bollocks," Churchill answered. "There's much you've left unsaid of your business together, Arthur. Reams left unsaid. Now, I've been straight with you about Duvall, and I would appreciate a portion of the same courtesy in return. Someday quite soon, old boy, I want to know what you chaps were up to."

Doyle sighed. "Honestly, Winston, we've been over this—"

But Churchill cut him off. "Duvall was an important man, but only you seem to know how important. At some point, you've an obligation to your country, your king, and to me to tell us what you know. In the meantime," Churchill's voice softened, "I'm very sorry. I know he was important to you. He lived well. That's all we can ask in the end. To live well. I'll ring you later."

"Yes, Winston. Thank you for calling."

The line went dead. Doyle recradled the receiver, finding it difficult to swallow. It was the secrets, held for thirty years now, surging forth to overtake the present. But he held on to the mantel and fought them off, locking them back where they belonged.

Lady jean doyle was trimming the roses, in a white dress with long sleeves and a yellow hat. Her fair skin was susceptible to the sun but she enjoyed gardening—especially when she could watch their young daughter ride her horse along the green bluffs of Sussex Downs. The Doyles' estate at Windlesham was the picture of tasteful grandeur: a redbrick mansion of thirty-two rooms guarded by a ring of 300-year-old maple trees.

But moments of beauty like this had grown rarer of late, making Lady Jean doubly thankful for each one. The recent past had tested the Doyles' mettle with a harrowing string of deaths. Aside from the loss of their adored Kingsley, Doyle's brother Innes had died of influenza. And Jean's brother, Malcolm, perished at the Battle of Mons. Recovery—if it was to happen at all—would be painfully slow.

Worse still, the Doyles' recent crusade on behalf of the Spiritualist Movement had sent unintended shock waves through the British press, and set off a firestorm of ridicule. Enemies and admirers alike had declared Doyle a rube, as gullible as Sherlock Holmes was skeptical. There seemed no reprieve from the insults and jibes, but Doyle soldiered on, watching his reputation crumble, like a man burdened with secret knowledge.

As indeed he was.

Yet, even knowing this, it had still shaken Lady Jean to see her dear Arthur—her robust champion—age before her eyes. Now even the natural escape of writing was lost to him. He would sit in his normal spot in the billiards room, in his creaking swivel chair—the birthplace of scores of novels—frozen like a statue, staring at the page. Grief had wrung him dry and Lady Jean feared the strain of it was killing him.


The Arcanum: The Hidden History
by Thomas Wheeler

I fell in love with the idea of a story set in the early twentieth century during the peak of the Spiritualist Movement. Other projects had led me to research this era and I couldn't stop. Everything drew me in: The music, the customs, the politics, the scandals, and the people, of course. This was a fascinating time: the world was transforming technologically at a pace unmatched in the history of man. The advent of telephones, automobiles and airplanes compressed time and fueled the acceleration into a new and frightening twentieth century. It seems evident that the Spiritualist Movement was a reaction to this unsettling progress. I saw enormous opportunity for comparisons with our own pre-millennium anxiety that seemed to be giving birth to a culture of conspiracy and renewed superstition. I thought a great supernatural tale could be told that would speak to some of these ideas while standing alone as a terrifying ride into a world of séances and shadows.

My efforts to invent a character that would embody the essence of the times and fulfill the needs of a noirish-adventure hero were falling flat. My sensibility was leaning too modern. Besides, who could you invent that would have the physical attributes of Houdini, the sleuthing skills of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creepy intellect of H. P. Lovecraft, and the otherworldly skill-set of a Marie Laveau? And obviously, that was my breakthrough. Since all my reading and research kept leading me back to these icons, why not simply cast them? From there, it was no turning back.

My brain spilled over at the possibilities. It was almost too much.Because the age is so rich with fascinating personalities, just choosing was agony. Luckily, there are more Arcanum adventures left to be told, because the first roster was too unwieldy. It took months and drafts of outlines and copious notes and false starts until I narrowed it to our beloved four and their enigmatic leader—Konstantin Duvall. The notion was always that Duvall would be the mind behind a secret society comprised of some of the most well-known names of the day, and they would call themselves The Arcanum. And with the image of an angel feather under glass in their Hall of Relics to guide me, I knew I had the components for something special.

Two years later I was still wrestling to get it right. Something wasn't working. Establishing tone was difficult. Finding the voices was challenging. The supernatural elements were overwhelming everything else. The whole thing was feeling, frankly, a little campy and silly, and I was ready to abandon it altogether. Luckily, I unloaded my woes on my wife and brother, whose minds I rely on often to untangle myself from these kinds of messes. The advice that followed and my own ruminations after taking some time off led me to the most fulfilling writing experience of my life.

One of the first problems I identified was my protagonist. I had chosen to tell the story through the eyes of a young reporter stumbling onto the existence of The Arcanum. This character seems to have been a reflection of my own apprehension as a writer, because it kept me at a distance from the people I wanted to talk about—The Arcanum themselves. My approach had turned them into superheroes. They weren't real. They showed up in puffs of smoke. Eliminating the reporter thrust me right up against The Arcanum: Houdini, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft, and Laveau. And suddenly, I was intimidated. To find their voices I dove back into their biographies with renewed intensity. It took a while, but gradually I began to know these icons as people. I also discovered that, for me, their lives became most interesting as their fame ebbed, as their losses mounted, as society turned on them. In other words, I wasn't as interested in them in their prime. It must be because our flaws and our setbacks test us, define us, and reveal us, and it certainly did that for me. This dovetailed quite elegantly with a suggestion my brother made during one of our marathon discussions about the story and my struggles with it. I remember quite clearly when and where the conversation took place because of its impact. He simply asked: "Why can't it be their last adventure?"

There it was. The Arcanum would be a memory. Our heroes would be scattered to the four winds. Their history would be ugly, fraught with betrayals and scars. Furthermore, they would each be struggling with their own real histories. Conan Doyle would be weathering a public crucifixion over his championing of Spiritualism as a religion. Only those of us privy to the secret of The Arcanum would understand why. Houdini would be pouring boatloads of his own fortune into the burgeoning film industry with mixed results, to say the least. His ego would be a huge obstacle to Conan Doyle's efforts to reunite The Arcanum. Lovecraft, The Arcanum's youngest, would have been abandoned by the others and left to his nightmares, losing the war to keep his sanity. And Laveau would be lured back by the mystery of Duvall's—her former lover—death. Without Duvall's leadership, The Arcanum would be rudderless, having to find their way in the occult world all over again.

The rest, as they say...

There would be other leaps forward, many stumbles back, but nothing that quite shaped the story like these early decisions. Aleister Crowley was a revolving-door character, as vexing to me as he was to the world that judged him. I knew I wanted to use him but couldn't figure out how. He wouldn't work as a member of The Arcanum. Yet, casting him as the villain felt wrong, too. So, I played to the enigma. He finally nestled quite comfortably as the twisted mentor to Lovecraft and as Duvall's life—long adversary, someone caught up in the same events but whose actual role would remain a mystery.

This "last" adventure of The Arcanum was only their first to be told. There are countless shadows yet to explore in this old house, adventures dating back centuries and generations of membership left to reveal.

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