This week’s story, “The Curse of a Song” by Eli Colter, is an American twist on the English ghost story that also has a bit of Western in it and a bit of the psychic detective in it. Overall, it works. Mostly. There’s a bit of a frame narrative that’s supposed to give a twist at the end but doesn’t; that might be the biggest misstep in it.
The Curse of a Song by Eli Colter (March 1928)
Armitage and Morgenthaler are two learned gentlemen sitting around having a smoke. Armitage is laughing at the notion of curses. Morgenthaler however sees little funny in the subject. When pressed by Armitage, Morgenthaler basically says, “Well, I’ve seen some shit.” And so Morgenthaler begins the tale of the Wilzen brothers, Thaddeus and Grant.
Basically, Grant had an actor friend who one summer came to town and spent a lot of time with Thad’s fiancé. Thad didn’t much like the actor and fell into a bit of brooding. He later sneaks up on the fiancé’s house to find her and the actor singing a song together.
What song? Nothing but “Love’s Old Sweet Song”.
Thad being “a man of volcanic, vindicative nature-jealous, hot-headed, easily roused to an unreasoning fury” rushes madly out of town proclaiming his faith in women broken. To which I say, they’re better off without you, bud. Even when Grant learns the truth. You see the fiancé and the actor were just preparing for a musical review. No harm was meant, and Thad’s over-reacting over nothing. But there was no way to tell that to Thad because he disappeared.
Time passes. Grant moves out to Portland. One night while visiting the dives in the North End, who does he see? None other than his brother Thad, who’s now calling himself John Rogers and makes no show of recognizing his brother. Despite this Grant attempts to tries to foster a relationship with Thad/John and they spend time together. One night, while sitting around a stinking hell-hole of a music hall, Thad goes berserk when the organ player starts in with “Love’s Old Sweet Song” and empties a revolver into the poor man.
Again, the ladies are better off without you, Thad.
What’s to do but commit poor Thad to an insane asylum. There something of Thad returns, but let him hear one note of that song and he instantly became a raving maniac. He also comes to associate Grant with all his troubles. Figuring he didn’t need the aggravation, Grant takes off. He goes away for two years and gets married and lives his life. Then the doctors send word that Thad’s taken a turn for the worse and wouldn’t Grant come back for a bit and see his brother. Grant returns, only to trigger another psychotic episode in Thad, who in a fit of raving lays a curse on Grant and all his descendants. If they ever dare to play so much as a note of “Love’s Old Sweet Song” he will come back from the grave to haunt them.
Grant grieves but life goes on. He settles down and starts a family. In time, Mad Uncle Thad becomes just a family legend. At least to most of the family. Daughter Rose, sensitive and delicate, felt like she grew up underneath that curse. By nineteen she could look back and count seven tragedies linked to that song, and she fully believed in her Uncle’s curse.
It’s around here that Morgenthaler enters the story along with another guy named Murray Fielding. Morgenthaler knows Rose and is there when she meets Fielding at a house party. It’s also right then that some coeds start playing “Love’s Old Sweet Song.” Destiny! Fate! Misery! Panic! Rose and Fielding become inseparable, but miserable together. Rose can’t explain the curse, and Fielding has no idea what’s wrong. Morgenthaler learns that Rose is now being visited by her uncle Thad’s specter.
And this bit’s neat. Rose is like, “There he is right now” and Morgenthaler is like, “Where?” and then Thad is there in all his spectral creepiness, glaring, stanky, maniacal, and hideously sneering. Thad’s presence was so awful it polluted the sunlight.
It’s here that we start the psychic spiritualism segment of this story. Morgenthaler and Rose see the ghost because they believe in the curse. Fielding comes to see the ghost too because he trusts Rose and Morgenthaler. This is refreshing and there’s little of the usual “Oh, Rose, the silly girl, is just too sensitive.” Of course, his first impulse is to pull out a gun and try to shoot the ghost, but that doesn’t work. So, the trio decides to wage war against the ghost with all the psychic energy they’ve got. To do this Fielding wants them to start playing the song. His plan is to confront the psychic leech and drain the menace from the song.
But it’s a fraught task. Rose finds it almost too much. Yet they keep on even after Thad’s ghost kills Grant, AKA Rose’s father. But they won’t stop. It’s psychic warfare fought with an old timey song. The battle goes on for days and weeks. Fielding gets called away to lumber country, but they agree on an hour when Rose and Morgenthaler will sing the song and they’ll all use their brain waves to pummel Thad back to hell. And so they did, after much sturm and drang that’s really just these three concentrating really hard.
And so it ends, after a bit more, and Morgenthaler finally returns to Armitage and says, “And that’s why I believe in curses.” To which Armitage turns serious and says he’s actually Fielding’s missing half-brother. Which was a detail so minor to the story I have no idea what it could possibly mean. The end.
Next week, Vulture Crag!
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!
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.
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
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.