Ray Bradbury in his Zen in the Art of Writing mentions his journey as a writer, and how he needed to write away from the imitation Poe “locked in a tomb with a dead body” style stories of his youth. Once he did that, he believed he’d begun to mature as a writer. Many years later Jessa Crispin in her introduction to Mary MacLane’s 1902 teenage memoir I Await the Devil’s Coming talks about how boys get the benefit of boundless desire and can dream lives of rage, passion, and violence. Girls are refused this luxury and made to feel wrong for having those same desires. Everil Worrell’s “Leonora” is very much absolutely no doubt about it a “locked in a tomb with a dead body” story, and I get why Bradbury would want to get away from it. At the same time, it’s also very much in MacLane’s teenage girl’s desire territory..
All of this is a long way of saying I love “Leonora”. It’s morbidly giddy and scratches that itch I have for old EC Comics, sitting squarely at that intersection between very morbid, but also kind of horny.
So sit back, grab your decadent dessert of choice, and get ready for our first brush with Everil Worell.
“Leonora” by Everil Worell (January 1927)*
An institutionalized teenage girl writes in her diary. She suffers from some mysterious illness and fears the night when the monsters lurk outside her window. But she wasn’t always like this. She used to be a sweet young farm girl. Her best friend lived a quarter mile away down a lonesome road. Many a time they would visit each other and walk back through the desolate countryside without a second thought. Then in October Leonora turned 16 and coming home one night she met a stranger at the crossroads.
Our stranger’s sitting in the shadows of a sinisterly sweet car that moves without the slightest sound. I imagine it looking something like this 1929 Stutz Model M LeBaron. That is absolutely the sort of car an undead lich would drive to seduce teenage girls. He has honeyed words for Leonora, but she keeps coy only admitting she comes this way on the nights of the full moon. That’s enough for Mr. Sinister and he bids Leonora adieu.
Welp, Leonora’s now hooked. And despite being too afraid to show at the crossroads at the next full moon, the second month makes her rethink the decision. After all mystery and romance were fine things, weren’t they? You see there was just something about him. He was unlike anyone she knew. So shadowy. Much sinister. Her curiosity gets the best of her, and on the December full moon she is heading to the crossroads. When the stranger asks Leonora to ride with him, she refuses. But that’s fine. Another night, he says and bids her goodnight.
It’s not until March that Leonora works up enough courage to go back. Had the stranger been there those past months? Would he be there this month? Leonora’s curious to know. Of course, the night is stormy and the countryside still barren from winter. At a quarter to midnight, Leonora sets off for the crossroads. When she arrives the stranger’s waiting with the car door open for her.
“We ride tonight, Leonora. Why not? What else did you come out for?”
And so, she gets in the car, and they drive over hill and dale. The whole time Leonora’s trying to get a good look at the stranger. He’s always kept himself hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and scarf. But he has pale features, high cheekbones, deep sunk eyes, and a smile. When he tells her they are almost home, she thinks he means her house, not his.
At this point institutionalized Leonora interrupts her account to howl at the hideousness of Them. And how she’s not mad and wishes her ailment was something as prosaic as leprosy. She knows not whose skeletal hand it was that she was found gripping. Only that the stranger had no house, but a grave.
There is little more to tell, and her account ends soon after. A doctor gives a post-script rationalizing Leonora’s delusion using words like autohypnosis and the impressionable nature of teenage girls.
Like I said, this story is a giddy mess of sensation and detail. Stormy nights, barren crossroads at midnight, and a long sinister black car. It has that Weird Tales flavor of the madman’s diary and a heap of Gothic tropes. Worrell’s other stories will get even more feverish as we get deeper into the book. This one’s definitely a treasure. Sure, it’s a dark id-flavored treasure, but still, it’s a treasure all the same.
Next week, more corpses!
* Leonora has a long history as a name in Gothic literature. Even before Edgar Allan Poe slipped it into his poetry, Germans were using it in tragic stories about young women and their undead lovers. This makes Worell’s story something of a modern for her day fairy tale retelling
Here we are in the first installment of this year’s book club. A quick note: there will be spoilers throughout the whole series. On the other hand, maybe that’s why you’re here. You want me to read the book, so you don’t have to. That’s fair.
The first book we’ll be looking at this year is The Women of Weird Tales: Stories by Everil Worrell, Eli Colter, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Greye La Spina with an introduction by Melanie Anderson. It is the second book in Valancourt Books’s Monster She Wrote series, and the stories in it range from the 1920s to 1940s.
It must have been wild to see Weird Tales sitting on a newsstand back in the day. The stories collected in this book regularly play chicken with necrophilia, murder, and torture, but there the magazine was sitting right next to the evening news. Or so I imagine. Maybe they had a top shelf for all the smut adjacent magazines from the 1930s, you know the ones with weightlifters and beauty pageant models on the covers. The stories here are feverish and lurid in the best ways. Vampire children, soul extraction devices, misplaced desire (AKA the “they are dead but they’re still hella sexy” genre), and the occasional classic elder god from beyond space and time come to feed on humanity. Fun stuff!
Anderson’s introduction gives a good overview of Weird Tales as both a magazine and an institution. She also counters the persistent myth that women didn’t write for the pulps, or if they did, they needed to use male pseudonyms or mimic the style of male writers. Instead, she traces the different style and authors each of the magazine’s editors published, highlighting how popular the writers collected in this book were with the magazine’s original readers.
Everil Worrell worked as a stenographer and secretary for the US Department of the Treasury. Her work was still being adapted by Rod Serling in the 1970s. Mary Elizabeth Counselman was a writer, poet, and teacher who taught college in Alabama. Eli Colter was the pseudonym for May Eliza Frost who had a career writing across multiple genres. And lastly, Greye La Spina was from Massachusetts and worked as a photographer and stenographer in New York City before settling in small town Pennsylvania. It’s Greye La Spina’s “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” from January 1925 that we’ll be looking at this week.
“The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” by Greye La Spina (January 1925)
Filippo and Giuseppe are a pair of scientists. Elena’s Filippo’s wife and lab assistant. Giuseppe’s stopped by Filippo’s lab to check out his latest experiment. It’s a series of glass globes and bells designed to capture the souls of the deceased. (In my head, I imagine this as a sort of soul-juicing machine.) Giuseppe’s also there because he has the hots for Elena. Filippo recounts how he and Elena have been trying to capture a human soul, but it’s so hard to find people who will agree to die for science and the authorities aren’t being helpful.
Now Elena is devoted to Filippo. In fact, she is obsessed with him. She might be his lab assistant, but she assists in gowns and is always trying to allure him with “loveliness of her splendid body”. Despite that, she might also be dying. There are mentions of her fever-flushed face and the fact that she appears to be wasting away. Giuseppe’s concerned about this. But Filippo, of course, notices nothing. He is all about the mind and not the pleasures of the body.
Elena realizes that whatever soul ends up in the machine, it’ll be worshipped by Filippo, so she offers herself. Giuseppe’s shocked, but Filippo is excited. Giuseppe does his best to put a stop to things but neither Elena nor Filippo listens to him. Instead, Filippo calls the authorities and local scientific community to come by and see the experiment. He brings Elena over to table under the machine and prepares for the juicing. But first Elena wants to smooch for a bit, which they do in front of Giuseppe who is still saying things like “This is infamous.” And it is. But no one cares.
While the scientific community and authorities arrive outside, Filippo stabs Elena with a knife and zoop her soul gets sucked into the machine. Filippo triumphantly lets the authorities in, eager to show them his wife’s soul in its glass tomb. But poor Filippo got so distracted by the smooching that he forgot to close some valve and instead of capturing his wife’s soul, he’s instead let it leak away into the ether. All the authorities see is an infernal machine, a dead woman, a knife wielding husband, and a shocked scientist. Arrests get made. Filippo’s last monolog is basically a condemnation of his wife for distracting him. His remorse is not that he killed her, but that he could not resist her kiss. The end.
I don’t think anyone would call this a good story. That said it’s certainly delicious in a lurid way—full of mad science, all-consuming desires, and shocking crimes. This will be a common theme I’ll keep coming back to throughout this series: the pleasure of lurid fiction. Many of the stories in this book lean into the bad thoughts, obsessiveness, and cruel bits the id likes to throw up for laughs. And that’s their charm. They aren’t simply giving vent to fear but depicting fear and horror as seductive. It’s maybe that quality that makes them “weird”. The fact that we don’t know where to stand as we read them.
Next week, DEATH.