THE WOMEN OF WEIRD TALES 01: “ASSERVATED THE DOCTOR, MUSINGLY”
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.
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