We have entered the Virgil Finlay era. Look at this cover. Isn’t it great?
Imagine seeing that on a newsstand. I am going to go out on a limb and assume the issue had a reprint of Everil Worrell’s “Vulture Crag” in it. So, technically, this is our second story that received a cover illustration. It’s just not the story we’re here to talk about right now.
“Web of Silence” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (November 1939)
The scene is Everytown, USA. Sinister things are afoot. Threatening letters have appeared. They are triangular. The script oddly “foreign”. The letter writer, a Dr. Ubique, foretells disaster on a given day at a certain hour. They demand money. At first the town leaders laugh this off as a harmless crank. But then the day and hour arrive and the disaster strikes: Silence. Silence so deep so impenetrable that the whole town comes to a standstill. And that’s the story. What we read is the day by day as people try to go about their lives in the zone of silence. There are tragedies and misunderstandings, comic scenes, and lots of confusion. In a neat touch outsiders start visiting the town as tourists and the highways get gnarled up as people travel into and out of the “sound limit”.
This is one of those odd disaster stories where something bad happens, but it’s not too bad and no one is to blame really. Even when Dr. Ubique reveals himself (a foreign scientist), he admits his letters were all a prank. He’d learned about some rare metals beneath the town and predicted how they would interact with certain approaching environmental conditions (cosmic rays from a nova). He wasn’t the cause, but only the observer. So you can’t blame him. Here’s your money back. Thank you very much and sorry for the trouble.
Overall this story’s fairly ho-hum and never goes full throttle. I mean “The Week It Got Really Quiet” isn’t much of a catastrophe, is it? But what it does depict is some of that 1930s sensawunda. The world is full of scientific marvels and natural laws we barely understand, and they are occurring directly beneath our feet and above our heads. Our Dr. Ubique is both mad scientist and harmless eccentric. In the end nothing will be irreversibly broken and everything will be okay.
Honestly, I felt a bit cheated.
If you’re a Philip K. Dick fan your eyes will likely have lit up at the name of Ubique. Not that there are many connections between this story and Dick’s novel Ubik, but it shows he had no problems reiterating on decades older work. What I am saying is no one should feel ashamed for riffing on old stories. Philip K. Dick did it all the time.
A story I have absolutely zero memory of reading. I must have, because I finished the book, but what this particular story was about I have no clue. I guess we’ll find out next week, won’t we?
We have entered 1930s era Weird Tales. Gone are the fever dreams of Everil Worrell. The next set of stories have a much different and more recognizable tone. In a less charitable mood I might even describe them as “meh”.
However, the covers, as you can see, remain saucy.
“The Black Stone Statue” by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (December 1937)
My name is Very Successful Artist. I am writing this first hand account of how I became so successful. It all started in my rooming house where I encountered my long missing friend, Famous Explorer.
Now, as you can imagine, I was surprised to find Famous Explorer in such a low boarding house with such a meddlesome landlady. She spoke in this dialect of English that uses many apostrophes when I transcribe it. Overall, she was awful and wouldn’t even allow her boarders to keep a radio. I bring this up because there was a high-pitched sound coming from Famous Explorer’s room. Now I managed to corner my friend and through some arm-twisting I got him to relate his story. I will now pause my first-hand account to let Famous Explorer give his first-hand account of what happened.
Hello, my name is Famous Explorer.
I was deep in the jungles of South America. It was exactly like all those pictures of jungles people show in those movie serials. One day, my assistant, Ethnic Stereotype, went missing and I had to go find him. When I did find him it was in this strange part of the jungle where everything had been transformed into vividly detailed black stone. Needless to say he had been transformed as well. Poor, Ethnic Stereotype. Now it turns out in this jungle was this very beautiful snail-slug-orchid-thing and it turned everything it touched into this black stone. It also makes a high-pitched sound. Believe you me, it took all manner of derring-do to not get turned to stone myself, but I managed to capture the thing. Now I’ve brought it back to civilization where I plan on exploiting the thing for industrial purposes.
Very Successful Artist has pushed me on top of the snail-slug-orchid-thing. I am now dead.
Yes, that is correct sirs, I, Very Successful Artist, turned Famous Explorer into a statue and stole the snail-slug-orchid thing. I did the same to the landlady and a bunch of other people. All my statues have been created using the snail-slug-orchid thing. My whole career is a sham. I am going to throw the snail-slug-orchid thing into the ocean and kill myself now.
Thank you and goodbye.
Very Successful Artist
And there you have it: “The Black Stone Statue”.
It was okay, very much the ur-cliché of a cliché. I feel like this strange creature that transforms/mimics things was a staple in a Philip K. Dick’s work. I don’t know if he took the idea from this Counselman story, but it’s not hard to imagine that he did. Which is fine. He ran with it and made it his own.
A web of silence.
Have you ever spent a night in a hospital?
Confined to your bed with nothing but that empty quiet to listen to and the faint repetitive sound of some life-assisting machine? And there in that quiet somewhere you hear someone walking, their soles scratching slightly across the tiles as they come closer to your door.
That’s not a doctor.
“The Gray Killer” by Everil Worrell (November 1929)
Hey! Look at that. The first of the stories from this collection that have gotten a Weird Tales cover illustration. Overall it’s pretty bland and fails to convey the story’s claustrophobic dread. It also posits some sturdy hero leaping in to save the victim when that’s far from the case.
The year is 1928. Our heroine’s name is Marion Wheaton. She’s in the hospital because she stepped on a nail and got blood poisoning. We are reading her diary where she has set down the terrible things that befell her. Worrell conveys the loneliness and confinement of being laid up in a hospital bed really well. We learn a bit about the ward and the other tenants: an injured man, a sick child, a cancer patient, the nurses, and others.
As Marion lies awake one night, she hears a shuffling, slithering step in the hall. She stares in dread at her doorway where she can see into the hallway beyond. Slowly, a figure emerges – a man dressed in gray and whose face in the dark even looks gray. Marion’s afraid of him at first, but he introduces himself as Dr. Zingler and does his best to calm her. He’s rather grim and hungry looking, but Marion makes an effort. When she explains what’s wrong and how her foot pains her the Doctor asks if she’d like an injection. This being an Everil Worrell story Marion hopes the needle contains morphine, but when Zingler produces it the medicine within is a viscid, slimy, yellowish-white foul-smelling gunk. No way is Marion letting Zingler put his filthy medicine inside her veins! She makes a fuss and the Doctor tries to shame her. If she’d rather stay in pain, he says, there’s other patients who would be happy to receive his injection. He goes across the hall to the cancer patient’s room.
Later when Marion talks to the nurses she brings up Dr. Zingler. The nurses however have nothing special to say. They like the Doctor and think he’s all right. A real dreamboat. Marion plays her cards close to her chest and doesn’t voice her own opinions. It’s not until a bit later when Dr. Rountree visits that a shock reignites her curiosity. Rountree says the cancer patient across the hall has miraculously recovered! How can this be? Marion tells Rountree about Zingler’s visit and how that doctor went to give the patient an injection. Rountree’s a little puzzled by this but takes it in stride. Nothing out of the ordinary, except Zingler should get the nurses to do the injections otherwise patients are likely to expect to have their faces washed by the doctors. Marion takes all this in, including the miracle cure, but she’s still glad she didn’t get a dose of Zingler’s medicine.
Night comes. Marion’s foot still troubles her. She can hear the injured man down the hall and why won’t anyone give him something for the pain? Why isn’t anyone helping him? Only then she hears that slithering tread in the hall and realizes Dr. Zingler has arrived to take care of the man. After that there’s silence. In the morning Marion learns the man has been miraculously healed.
What was in that needle Dr. Zingler gave his patients?
Days pass. Marion’s foot is healing. The boy down the hall who had the difficult tonsillectomy has healed rapidly and once more all the nurses are amazed. As Marion hears of each of these recoveries, she grows more and more afraid. The nurses start to wonder about her nerves and think she might be approaching a nervous breakdown. Then the story takes a turn.
That boy? The one who got his tonsils taken out. He’s found dead and dismembered, his body draped over the operating room’s skylight. Worrell dials the lurid up to eleven here and goes into a few paragraphs of bloody, impaled on a hook, murdered child descriptions. It’s pretty grisly.
Marion snaps and starts talking about the evil Dr. Zingler and his dirty needle full of stanky drugs. It takes all of Dr. Rountree’s urging to soothe her. Why does she hate Zingler so much? All her raving does is destroy her own reputation. Etc. Etc. End result they giver her sedatives. And maybe during one of the nights she’s knocked out Zingler sneaks in with his stank needle, and she screams loud enough to drive him away. Things are hazy, and Marion tries to get the doctors to lower her drug dosage. It’s now a struggle to get out of the hospital before Zingler gets her.
And babies go missing, and patients who were miraculously healed show up again suffering from the advance stages of leprosy! And a strange altar has been found on the hospital roof!
What the Elder Gods is going on!?!
On the last night, Zingler takes Marion and drags her to the roof where she will serve as bait for the blasphemous gods from beyond the stars that his species worships. Yes, the gray doctor is not only a mad fiend, but an extraterrestrial from the planet Horil!
Next we get a cascade of found documents: a nurse’s confession, Dr. Rountree’s statements on the events and Marion Wheaton’s character, even the Zingler-killer’s confession is there. He’s not really Dr. Zingler but an exiled alien priest on earth who worships the “Devil-God of Space”. We get the Gray Killer’s creed and exposition all about life on his home planet of Horil where everything is evil and leprosy is used to make food taste better. All is explained, and we learn how Marion was saved.
A happy ending? As much as such a story with children impaled on fishhooks can be.
It’s easy to read “The Gray Killer” and see some of the seeds for “The Call of Cthulhu”. Except Lovecraft likely tsk-tsked Worrell’s sensationalistic breathless style. Diaries, doctor reports, found documents? It’s all Wilkie Collins territory updated with a lurid pulp style, and one that seems to have been Worrell’s signature. Sadly, this is the last Worrell story in the book. No more oddly intriguing heavy breathing. Next week, we enter new territory: stories that Philip K. Dick absolutely read and riffed on.
Until then, mind the Devil-Gods.
Now comes the good trash.
Last week’s Everil Worrell story was a bit of a bust, but this week’s story (and next week’s) has her back playing to her lurid, morbid best. They are exactly the sort of stories I imagine when I think of weird pulp fiction: pure id mixed with feverish psychological drama all blended to a frothy mess that is both inviting and intoxicating. Does it need to make sense? No. All it needs to do is get under your skin and make you squirm. This week’s story is one of those with strong torn-from-a-tabloid’s-headlines qualities.
And so, with copious exclamation points…
“The Rays of the Moon” by Everil Worrell (Weird Tales, September 1928)
Our nameless narrator is a medical student and he’s in a graveyard – because he needs a cadaver!
He is a madman and a genius, you see, not at all like those other medical students giving their lives to help humanity. No way. Our narrator and his buddy, Browne, are geniuses, and they know humanity ought to give up their lives to serve them! So our boys get into the murder business to fuel their research, but it doesn’t go well and the buddy accidentally kills himself when his hand slips during an incision on one of his victims and he accidentally poisons himself. But our narrator hardly cares. At the time of the story’s start he has only one love in the world, morphine drugs! He used to have another love: a nervous high-strung girl he was courting, but when she “pledged” her affections to him, he promptly dumped her. The girl had a brother, and he begged our narrator to make a better end of the relationship, but no doing. Our narrator has no time for simple sentiment. He tells the brother that any girl who would kill herself over a break-up would be better off dead than alive.
And so, our narrator sits in a graveyard spying on a new-made grave, and since he’s a junkie, he’s shooting up. The morphine helps the time pass. Finally, all is darkness, save for the light of the moon, and our narrator sets to digging. But moonlight makes him see strange things. The eerie half-light makes a chill crawl up his spine. No matter how much he tries to laugh it off, his nerves won’t quit and he’s worried he might get hysterical, when THUNK! his shovel hits the casket. The hard work of dragging the casket out calms his mind.
But full moons, open graves, and heroin don’t mix and once the casket’s out of the ground there’s only the pit behind it, and that pit under this light with those drugs in his vein, all of it puts our narrator’s mind to boiling. He pulls himself together and opens the casket. Inside is the body of a young woman, and our narrator can’t bear the sight of her. He quickly covers her head with a sack.
But in the moonlight the whole scene shifts. The hooded corpse, the open pit of the grave, the eerie light?
The great cosmic vastness blossoms greater than all the morphine in the world. And his soul leaves the body to take a trip to the moon where judgement awaits! There the narrator stands beside the hooded corpse before a tribunal of all Earth’s dead! He trembles in fear because he knows he has defiled their place. What to do but pass out, at which point the trial for his soul begins! The hooded corpse calls forth a character witness. It’s Browne his old partner who died from the infected cut. The narrator hears how Browne might have lived if not for the narrator’s evil influence on him. But there is a yet a chance for our narrator’s soul. Once more, the hooded corpse and the narrator descend into the grave.
The narrator wakes now, no longer on the moon, but in the cemetery with the vile hooded corpse of the young woman beside him. Only now, the corpse is no longer a corpse. The body breathes! Our narrator’s first impulse is to flee, but the girl has taken hold of him and grips him fast. She even speaks his name. Morton! Who is it there in the grave with him with a hood hiding her head, but the girl he jilted and left for dead! And then she starts to scream. What to do, our narrator thinks, but kill her again. So, he strangles her and gets away. Only now he knows, his soul lost its trial. He is now forever damned!
This story has everything: mad scientists, heroin, grave robbing, hints of necrophilia. It’s a lurid stew of rehashed Poe served up with a side of trash, but it’s old trash and that’s always interesting to look at. Does this story have any redeeming qualities? Nope. None at all. And that’s okay.
Next week, another lurid mess from Everil Worrell (and my favorite from the collection): the Gray Killer!
Time for another installment of The Women of Weird Tales. This week’s story is “Vulture Crag” by Everill Worrell. It’s another one that brings to mind old Universal horror films*. It’s also a call back to our first story, Greye La Spina’s “The Remorse of Professor Panebianco” because we get another foreign scientist and his fascinating soul-juicer.
“Vulture Crag” by Everill Worrell (August 1928)
Let me start by saying this story is a mess. It’s full of exposition, takes forever to get started, and lacks the lurid obsessive quality of Worrell’s other stories. It’s also one of those pulp stories where you’re very conscious of the fact that writers got paid by the word.
Donald Chester is our WASP hero. Count Zolani is his foreign genius, mad scientist friend. They’re driving in some remote corner of the Delmarva Peninsula, Zolani expounding the whole way on the Deep Vasties of the universe. Recently, he bought an old, abandoned house on a crag overlooking the sea and he plans to conduct experiments there. When they reach the house they find the place populated by vultures, but Zolani doesn’t care. He’s a mad scientist after all. So ends the first part.
Next we move forward in time a bit and Chester’s financed Zolani’s project. Enter Dorothy Leigh. Chester’s fallen for her, and she’s a convenient target for him to exposit at about Zolani’s project. The Count’s made the old mansion into something of a hospital where he’s built a device that can temporarily extract a person’s soul and shoot it into outer space. Those Deep Vasties beckon after all. There’s lots of technical gibberish. None of it makes any sense. Of course, Dorothy has misgivings about the whole thing, but what can she do? She’s just a simple girl.
Commenceth, the third part. Chester and the other test subjects go to Zolani’s place for the soul juicing. But when Chester gets there, who does he find there as well? None other than Dorothy! Zolani’s obsessed with her and thinks she loves him. She doesn’t but there’s no escape from mad men. Dorothy and the test subjects all get soul-juiced and shot into outer space, but Chester realizes Zolani plans to kill his body when he sends his soul away. They struggle. There’s something about the power of love drawing Dorothy’s soul back into her body. Before that can happen, a mob breaks in because they know that foreign scientist is up to no good. And behind the mob are the vultures. They swoop in and start feeding on the soulless bodies. (Worrell’s knack for grisly imagery does rise to the fore here as she talks about how the vultures eat the sleepers’ eyes first.) Zolani kills himself, and Chester and Dorothy escape. Later, Dorothy describes the hour she spent as a soul in outer space, saying she felt both indestructible and eternal.
And so, that’s it: an overly long mess of a story that’s bloated with exposition, mad science, and a no-good swarthy foreigner. The best bits involved vultures plucking people’s eyes out. Fortunately, next week Worrell returns with a story so sleazy and lurid you won’t believe it’s from 1928.
Until then, keep Beach City weird!
* It’s not really similar to The Black Cat from 1934, but I think I can hear an echo of this story in that one. Check out the trailer here.