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.
The next few posts should be fun. We are almost at a bunch of Everil Worrell stories, and as we saw in “Leonora”, she is great for delivering that weirdly modern creepy sensationalism. This week’s story is no exception.
The Canal by Everil Worrell (December 1927)
Our narrator is a joe-everyman sort of guy, a young and single office worker, prone to driving aimlessly around his already starting to decay industrial city. He feels vague and alienated, beset by a mood of dissatisfaction he does not understand. One night while driving he finds himself in the edge-lands by the river where a dilapidated boat lies beached offshore. And there on the boat just across a narrow gap of running water, our narrator meets a girl.
Now people, this is a weird tale and we know nothing good can come of this. But it’s the ride we are here for, and before long our poor Joe Everyman is obsessed with this girl who sits on a ruined boat at night chatting across the gap with his lonesomeness. She forbids him to cross and mentions a guardian, and our Everyman is annoyed and frustrated at the games the girl is playing with him. Meanwhile he hears a vague story at work about some plague of deaths a few years back down in the bad part of town where immigrants and social undesirables live. Something about a girl and her father/guardian being blamed. But that’s no matter because the river’s changing and soon that gap of running water will dry down to a trickle and the girl will be able to cross with a bit of help from Joe Everyman. Poor sap.
Of course, she’s a vampire and responsible for all those deaths, and Joe Everyman’s really sorry he helped her get free, and he really wants to warn people that there’s a vampire on the loose, especially after he drives the girl to a cave where she frees all her sealed away brethren, and they descend on a vacation site and begin killing campers. Yet, at the same time he’s no longer lonely and plagued by that sense of purposelessness. So, why not throw in with the vampires? They’re the people you belong with after all.
Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!
And to be clear, I am intentionally referencing “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” because the endings echo each other, and “The Canal” preceded the Lovecraft story by four years. This echoing is a feature not a bug in my opinion, and it is fun to witness. Worrell’s later story “The Gray Killer”, one we’ll eventually get to here, definitely nods towards “The Call of Cthulhu” while being wholly her own.
Those pings are what I am looking for when reading forgotten writers who were as good as their better-known contemporaries. Encountering Worrell’s work very quickly made me glad I took on this project. Her work is lurid and overblown, full of first-person narrators writing feverishly of the horrors they have witnessed, but they are also about dark obsessions and monsters hidden behind the everyday. In “Leonora”, there’s that sinister car waiting at a country crossroads at midnight. In “The Canal”, there’s the industrial city with its smoking chimneys and abandoned edge-lands that hide monsters. There is none of that antiqueness you find in Lovecraft, no gambrel roofed brownstones harkening to an inescapable past. Instead, Worrell gives us very contemporary characters at odds with their surroundings: the farm girl yearning for the larger world, the young office worker alienated from his peers. There is no “white ape” in the family tree to blame for your problems. Desire and obsession are all you need.
Next week, an oddly American English ghost story about a haunting song that drives a person to murderous rages. Best of all, the song’s one you can find on Youtube.
See you then!
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