Simon Ark

(creator: Edward D Hoch)

Edward D Hoch
Simon Ark was featured in Hoch's first published story,Village of the Dead (1955), included in the anthology reviewed below. In this first story, "He was not old, and yet his face had tiny lines of age to be seen if one looked closely enough. In a way he was perhaps a very handsome man." By the time of The Unicorn's Daughter (1982), "he would have passed for a reasonably vigorous seventy-five". In fact, he claims to be some 2000 years old, a Coptic priest who travels the world looking for Satan. In one place, the narrator seems to accept Simon's claim that "He knew Saint Augustine, personally - which would make him well over 1,500 years old." Yet elsewhere the narrator will say no more than, "I almost believed him." The author himself, in his introduction, answers the question, "Is Simon Ark really 2000 years old?" with the single word "Perhaps".

Simon has very little to say about himself, but he tells a priest about "A strange Coptic priest in the first century after Christ who wrote a gospel glorifying the Lord. The words were devout but hardly divinely inspired. The Fathers of the Church denounced it as a fraud, and the Coptic priest lost everything. He was in a unique if impossible situation - his writings had been holy praises to God, worthy of a place in Heaven, but the deceit he'd used in circulating them as a fifth Gospel made such a reward impossible." So "he was doomed to walk the earth for ever, until such time as God would decide his fate." Could this be "the strange secret of Simon Ark"?

Yet, despite all the supernatural themes, there are always mundane explanations to the crimes, and it is these that Simon uncovers. He himself says that he is no detective but "simply an investigator; I make a hobby of investigating any strange or unexplained happenings in the world." The narrator explains that Simon "found evil everywhere, because there was evil everywhere, and I knew that someday he would have his wish; someday he would confront Satan himself." But, although he has "pursued Satan and his works for many centuries", and sees him in many guises, he never quite gets round to battling with him face to face.

He is a "tall and heavy-set" man who seems always available when required, and certainly has remarkable powers in persuading the police whether it be in the USA, the UK or even Brazil to let him into their confidence! But he emerges as an enigmatic figure, very useful for the author, but not, of course, a real person. But take him out on a case, and "the casual expression was gone from his eyes. Now they were hard and bleak, and very dangerous; and I knew that he'd already seen something we'd missed ...."

Edward D(entinger) Hoch (1930-2008) wrote over 900 short stories as well as several novels. Hoch (pronounced hoke) was born in Rochester, New York and educated at the University of Rochester. He served two years in the US Army. He worked as a librarian, publisher and public relations officer before becoming a full-time writer in 1968. His first story (it featured Simon Ark) had appeared in 1955. He had the reputation of being the only full-time writer who could survive solely from the sale of short stories. He was a practicing Catholic.

He also published magazine stories under the names Stephen Dentinger, R. L. Stevens, Pat McMahon, Anthony Circus, Irwin Booth, R. E. Porter, Mr. X and Ellery Queen. In 2001 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, the first time a Grand Master was known primarily for short fiction rather than novels. He died at home in Rochester of a heart attack in 2008, aged 77. His wife was his only immediate survivor. His huge output had included numerous Simon Ark stories, and these can be found in three anthologies: The Judges of Hades (1971), City of Brass (1972), and The Quests of Simon Ark (1984) that is reviewed below. He also wrote seven stories featuring Father David Noone.

The Quests of Simon Ark (1984)
The Quests of Simon Ark contains what the author chose as the best 9 of the 39 Ark stories that had so far been published. The very first one, Village of the Dead, published when the author was 25, is one of the most interesting. Like all the later stories, it is narrated by a reporter (who in subsequent stories becomes an editor at Neptune Books - and eventually even commissions Simon to write the definitive work on Satanism in ancient times, although we are told it did not sell very well!).

This first story describes how "Seventy-three people, the entire population of the village of Gidaz, had committed suicide by walking off the edge of a cliff. Why? What had driven them to it? That was the question we all wanted to answer. But there was no answer." Not until Simon Ark introduces himself. It is he who finds the charred remains of a copy of The Confessions of Saint Augustine. "A truly remarkable book," he tells the young reporter. "Did you ever read it?"
"No, I'm not a Catholic," I replied.
"Augustine wrote for all men," Simon said slowly; "this is a very interesting discovery." And he gets a girl who used to live in the village to tell him about the arrival of Axidus, an evil man with a white beard and a white robe who had persuaded the villagers to follow him. He is, according to Simon, "also from the past. I knew him long ago, in North Africa, as Saint Augustine did". The narrator goes off to the library to look him up (it was long before the days of Google!) and discovers that he had been the leader of an insane band of outlaws whom Augustine had spent much of his life fighting.

But, as it turns out it was not this Axidus at all, but merely a local who had had his own motives for wanting to drive the entire community to suicide. This combination of apparent supernatural happenings with eventual very down to earth explanations of what had actually happened is used in all the stories - and it makes for strong story-telling.

The way in which Simon never has any trouble in getting all the information he wants from the police passes belief (he even persuades the English police to let him dig up Stonehenge!), as do the bizarre settings of some of the stories, involving devil worship in one, and a whole room of self-crucified men in another, and the remarkable coincidences that occur, as when two of the narrator's fellow employees at Neptune Books turn out to be closely implicated in the cult that is being investigated. Even the author must have thought that that required some explanation so he explains that "These seven people believed in the old Roman and Greek gods. They established their commune in a place called Olympus and took the names of mythical creatures. It was not coincidence but a logical choice that brought them to a publisher named Neptune Books." Good try!

The nameless narrator, intended by the author to be a "Boswell/Watson figure" has little chance to come alive as an interesting person, although we can sympathise with his wife who has taken an increasing dislike to Simon and wishes her husband wouldn't keep going off on these dangerous trips with him. The narrator is nothing if not calm and collected. When someone jumps through the window of his office and crashes onto the street twenty-eight stories below, it is he who has to deal with the police, and get plywood fitted over the window, but is described as no more than "a bit unnerved". He'd obviously got used to all these sudden deaths.

The author is a very accomplished storyteller and most of the stories hold the interest, helped along by the author's humor: it is a rich old lady, who fancies herself as a witch, who bids Simon good-bye with the words, "Perhaps we can talk again sometime - about a mutual acquaintance."
Simon lifted himself to his feet. "And who might that be?"
"Why, Satan, of course."

As the author points out, if there is a single theme that runs through all these stories, "It is that of a quest. Sometimes it is a quest for a missing book or manuscript, or a lost treasure. Always, in the mind of Simon, it is a quest for Satan and his works. These stories are not fantasies, however, and the solution to the mystery is always rational." So it is up to the reader to enjoy the stories either "as pure detection or as semi-fantasy." Take your choice.

The Wikipedia and Gadection sites are informative and there is an interview with Hoch on the Mystery File site. There are obituaries of him on the Guardian and New York Times sites, and there are numerous other mentions.

Used (if expensive) copies of the The Simon Ark anthologies may be found.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Quests of Simon Ark cover
This is the author's choice of the best of the Simon Ark stories, with a suitably enigmatic cover.
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