Macassar oil. Do you know what that is?
Macassar oil was a hair product that became popular during the 19th century. It was made from coconut and palm oils. Everyone back then wore so much of it that the fabric headrests of chairs would get a worn polish on them. This was unseemly in the eyes of society. Enter the antimacassar: a thin, decorated bit of cloth you could slip over a chair’s headrest to protect the fabric. If you’ve ever ridden on a bus or train, you’ve likely encountered an antimacassar. I knew none of this before reading this week’s story. Now I do and so do you.
“The Antimacassar” by Greye La Spina (May 1949)
This is a decent story and one that makes for a good ending to the collection.
Our heroine, Lucy Butterfield, works for a textile company. She’s on the road showing samples, but really she’s trying to find her missing friend, Cora Kent. Cora was the sales representative before her and went missing somewhere in the back country. Our heroine has tracked her to a remote farm where a Mrs. Renner and her handy man live, along with the sickly Kathy Renner who is twelve years old and confined to bed.
Mrs. Renner claims not to have seen Cora, but Lucy suspects they know something. It was there that Cora made the strange antimacassar with its pattern of circles and snakes that puzzled Lucy so much to send her out here. She lingers around the farm maintaining the pretense that she’s simply the road rep for a fabric company. Soon Kathy’s whining that she’s hungry and there are strange sounds at Lucy’s door. Then the nightmares begin of a monstrous child that feeds on her.
Lucy finds herself growing weaker, and slowly she realizes she must leave, but Mrs. Renner keeps sabotaging her attempts. In between all this Lucy and Mrs. Renner discuss needlepoint and fabric. Finally, the monstrous child appears. What a shock! Kathy is a vampire! But fortunately, the heroine’s strapping lad of a boyfriend, Stan, shows up right there and kills the monster child. Lucy sent Cora’s strange antimacassar to his mom and right away he realized the snakes and circles were an SOS message. What’s odd is no one is shocked by the vampirism. Apparently, everyone in this world must be a Weird Tales fan and expect such things. The End.
I dug this story. It had a nice mix of the morbid and the mundane. And enough of my family worked in New England’s textile industry, so it was neat to see something similar here. (It actually takes place in backwoods PA, but I imagine the two are similar.) And while the heroine is ultimately saved by a strapping lad, she is the one throwing herself into harms away to rescue a friend and do the detective work. I might have wanted the collection to end with more Everil Worrell, but this was not a bad place to finish. From here it’s easy to see Shirly Jackson and Stephen King on the horizon.
And that’s it.
We have reached the end of The Women of Weird Tales. I hope you all have enjoyed it. The collection is great fun and I recommend it. Maybe if enough people buy it Valancourt will put out a fancy Everil Worrell collection!
I’ll post my top 5 favorite stories over on my patreon. If you’ve enjoyed this series, why not consider becoming a patron. Or not. You do you. You can expect the Red Specters reviews to start sometime in June.
This is it.
The penultimate story. And it’s a story that asks an important question: What if Weird Tale writers didn’t have so many sex hang-ups?
“Great Pan is Here” by Greye La Spina (November 1943)
Our narrator’s driving along after having five cocktails with his cousin Cecily and their chaperone, Aunt Kate. They are on their way to the symphony. Now Craig, our narrator, has the hots for cousin Cecily and fears that her upbringing under the old-fashioned Aunt Kate is making her too reserved. He wishes something would wake the girl up to the world of love and emotions. Especially his emotions for her. Then side the road he glimpses a pan pipe. It’s just lying.
Was it real? Was it not?
He hesitates to bring it up. Aunt Kate hates missing the opening movements of a symphony. But he does, and no one believes him.
Later back at home our narrator drinks some more and appraises the effects of moonlight on his garden. He’s got a new nymph statue he brought back from Italy, and it’s pretty sweet. Musing such, he’s surprised when he glimpses someone in his garden. He goes to investigate and finds no one but hears the faint piping of a pan flute.
Was someone taunting him?
But no matter how desperately he searches he can’t find anyone, so eventually he goes back to the house.
The next morning Cecily’s dressed for yachting and our narrator’s thinking thoughts of love and goddesses and basically being a lusty horndog except in an Edith Wharton sort of way. He’s about annoyed when she suggests inviting along a friend, Tom Leatherman, they bump into. They all pile into the boat and our narrator fumes as he gets the yacht going. Meanwhile Tom’s talking about the pan pipes he found on the road the day before. Cecily hears that and apologizes to our narrator for not believing him the day before. Craig accuses Tom of sneaking into the garden and playing the pipes. But Tom denies it was him. Then Cecily startles everyone by saying she heard the piping too, and if it wasn’t Tom who was it then?
If only they had read the title of the story they are in.
There’s more sailing. More brooding over pan pipes. More talk of strange notes being played in the air. They go back to shore and ditch Tom Leatherman. Then Craig and Cecily go in the garden for a picnic. They’re starting to warm to each other. The mystery of the pan pipes has made a bond between them. But as they walk they find they’re not alone in the garden. A strange man is there.
Strange and foreign looking.
It’s the Great God Pan.
He then gives them the pitch. He’s an old god making his way in the new world and he’s looking for gardens that bear something of the old ways about them. Craig’s garden with the imported nymph statue is one such place. And Pan wants it. In exchange he offers to give Craig what he desires (Cecily).
This is where something interesting happens. First there’s talk of haggling and buying affection with gold, but Craig says that’s not how it’s done these days. Now it’s love that seals the deal and love that is exchanged freely between individuals. Cecily needs to give her consent in order for there to be a deal. And she does much to Craig’s delight.
Pan’s pleased and says he’ll be back later that night.
Now Craig and Cecily start to wonder what exactly they’ve done. They’ve invited an old god into the garden. That’s not something you can just admit to the yacht club. However they do decide to get married and when back inside they tell Aunt Kate and she’s happy, but still doesn’t want them to be alone together.
Night arrives. Time for bed. Once the house is asleep Cecily and Craig sneak out into the garden. The music starts. The Great God Pan is there.
Ecstasy, dance, sex, etc.
And it was all okay.
I’m not quite certain at the level of consanguineous between Craig and Cecily. I’m thinking they’re like third cousins, which strikes me as weird but not awful. There’s a bit more the next morning where Aunt Kate mentions the nymph statue seems to have lost her scarf, but that’s pretty much the end. But overall, nothing awful happens.
At least nothing awful relative to your views of conjugal relations between distantly consanguine relatives and Paganism taking root in the USA. If you’re cool with all that this story is simply The White Goddess meets Edith Wharton. Premarital sexy times are had and no one is hurt who isn’t already more than a little bit dead inside, and they’re only hurt by having a bad night’s sleep.
La Spina likes her purple prose and manages to dress all her words in such a way that they wear diaphanous gowns. Sure, it reads a bit stilted and melodramatic, but it’s not without its charms. And the sex positivism and enthusiastic consent ideas are refreshing. Like why would I be outraged that two young adults who are obviously into each other sleep together? Is it because they do it under the influence of strange rites conducted by a swarthy foreign man? That’s silly.
Of course, it’s possible that I missed some sinister element in the story. But I don’t think so.
Next week, our last story from The Women of Weird Tales. It’s another from Greye La Spina, and it’s called “The Antimacassar”.
Until then stay well.
This is one of those stories where someone in a barroom meets a long lost someone else and listens as the lost someone tells how they got so lost, and in between the telling the first someone, the narrating someone, has a multi-page flashback detailing their relationship to the lost someone, because who the heck ever pays attention to anyone when they’re telling their life story?
“The Deadly Theory” by Greye La Spina (May 1942)
Our narrator is in a bar. They’ve bumped into an old acquaintance named Julian Crosse. Julian joined the French Foreign Legion and disappeared in 1914. He’d long been presumed dead. But maybe not, because there he was with his piercing blue eyes, smoking, and sipping gin and tonic. So as the narrator smokes and drinks they listen to this man who may or may not be Julian Crosse tell his story. Except first comes the exposition.
Julian was a painter of the Corot sort. Paintings of ladies. Paintings of ladies in nature. Except it’s only one lady. A beautiful lady. Beautiful paintings too. For a time. Then a change happens. Lady becomes hidden. Beauty’s gone. Something “unhealthy” has seeped into the pictures. Reporters want to know what happened. They track Crosse down and hear a story about sisters. One died. One lost her mind. Julian loved that one. Painted her before her accident and after. Hence the “unhealthiness”. Julian didn’t affirm or deny this story. He said it’s best not to talk about such important things. Then he split for France and the Foreign Legion. First though he said good bye to the Narrator. Goodbye. He said. I loved a woman and she died. Now I’d rather be dead. So I go die now in France like a bridegroom on his wedding day. Backstory done, time now to listen to what this guy who might be Julian Crosse is talking about.
Julian met a girl. Her name was Marzha. Her sister was Idell. Their father was a sea captain. Their mother a “passionate” Persian. They died and the girls were left with their Uncle, the Occultist. He home schooled them. There’s no mention of how Julian met Marzha, but he does. And she’s totally great and perfect. She brings Julian home to meet her Uncle, the Occultist. He looks like Moses and always has some occult experiment going on. He likes Julian. Hurray. Hurrah. But Idell the younger sister was not happy at all. She was more highly sexed then her sister and she wanted Julian. But he was like no thank you. So he leaves with the Uncle the Occultist to buy “herbs” in the city. When they come back Idell greets them in hysterics. Turns out Marzha ate some poisoned mushrooms. Turns out Marzha is dead. But wait, Uncle Occultists says, Marzha knew mushrooms too well. She’d never eat a poisonous one. What if Idell did it on purpose! Shock. Surprise. The girl flees. Uncle Occultist gets an idea.
That’s the pseudo-science name for the reproductive method of phoenixes. Burn yourself up, get born again. Easy peasy, lemon squeezey. Be reborn. Life after death.
They built a fire and burned Marzha’s body. An urn was found for the ashes. All of the ashes down to the finest particle. Then there’s more occult shenanigans. Blood. Magic circles. Incantations. The whole shebang. After some time Idell has to get roped into the ritual, because it’s a three person thing. From the urn rises a phantom of ash. Marzha!
Except the body is as it was upon the moment of death, gas-inflated and bloated from the poison’s rapid action. Oops, Uncle Occultist says.
In the aftermath, Julian’s freaked out. Idell’s freaked out. Uncle Occultist is pleased because it’s cool to bring people back from the dead. Marzha’s body is a soulless zombie that needs to be misted with magic blood fluid from a spray bottle like she’s a house plant. The more blood mist she gets the more alive Marzha becomes. Except Idell kills herself unbeknownst to all, swapping in her own blood. Whoopsie, it’s her soul now in Marzha and she still has the hots for Julian! He bales. He bales faster than Christian Bale baling at Bale-Fest. Marzha-Idell is like what! how dare you. Julian smashes the spray bottle. Haha. No more blood. Marzha-Idell dies. Uncle Occultist is sad. Julian skips town and tells the narrator he died in 1915.
But how can that be? Julian is here drinking with the narrator. Suddenly an Old Man appears. It’s Uncle Occultist. He escorts Julian away. But before leaving Julian says, “Some folks never know when to quit.” The pair exits the bar. The narrator decides to get drunk which is saying something because at this point in the story I think they’d already had four scotch and soda. The end.
The Great God Pan makes a mess… again.
While reading The Women of Weird Tales I noticed a few tendencies among the selected stories. One was the morbidly sensational story. The second was the old school style that harks back to a tradition of English ghost stories. The third were child vampires. And the last I don’t know what to call except “ideas Phillip K. Dick stole”.
This week’s story is very much the second classic ghost story sort.
“The Dead-Wagon” by Greye La Spina (September 1927)
It’s a tale as old as time.*
There’s an old English family. They have a curse on them. There’s the strapping young American man newly married into the family. Ominous portents portend. Our American doesn’t believe in curses. Things happen. A gruesome ghost appears. A horrible secret is revealed. Tragedy strikes. The American starts to believe. Only blood will appease the curse, but whose blood will it be?
“No one has told you that old legend?”
Dinsmore is the name of our American. Melverson is our old English family. There’s other people like the wife and servant, but mostly it’s Dinsmore and Lord Melverson talking to each other. Since it’s a weird tale there’s none of that is it a ghost or isn’t it malarky. It’s a ghost. It scribbles ominous portents on the abbey’s sturdy heirloom door, and appears with its wagon to bring out a dead Melverson every time it arrives. The curse has its source in the abduction of a woman in the 17th century, the Plague, and a dying man getting refused sanctuary in the house. Now the dead-wagon with its equally dead driver visits the family to claim the firstborn males. This happens to Melverson’s son when he conveniently falls out of an airplane. Then later when Dinsmore marries into the family the curse falls onto his son. It’s then that we get the family secret revealed (in a found manuscript) and old Lord Melverson trying to convince Dinsmore that his newborn is in peril. Of course at first Dinsmore doesn’t believe, and he thinks it’s all old world nonsense. But then his son bonks his head and slips into a coma, at which point Dinsmore is convinced the curse is real. Then as the clock ticks and the child’s brainfever mounts, Dinsmore and Lord Melverson see the approaching ghost with his gruesome freight, and it’s at that moment that Lord Melverson figures out a way to satisfy the curse.
“Bring out your dead.”
Overall, a decent story that sits comfortably alongside the works of Sheridan Le Fanu. And with a grisly antagonist that I could absolutely see in some old classic horror movie. It’s hard not to imagine the wagon driver as the gleefully sinister Boris Karloff. And while there are some florid bits and giggle-worthy sentences like “the old man ejaculated weakly” we’ve taken a break from the thirsty territory of the first two stories. Instead, we get some pure distilled Edwardian shudders. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
Next week? The Canal.
* By “time” I mean, like, the 1800s.
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.