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.
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!
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!
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