THE WOMEN OF WEIRD TALES 08: THE GRAY KILLER
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.