Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Three ghoulish stories by science-fiction writers: Malzberg, Brown, and de Camp & Pratt

The final third of Bill Pronzini's Tales of the Dead, also published as The Arbor House Necropolis, is entitled "Ghoul!"  I don't think "Ghoul!" was ever published as a book on its own, as Voodoo! and Mummy! were.

When I was playing 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons the ghoul was always one of the scariest monsters,because it could paralyze you and quickly massacre your entire party.  In fact, if memory serves, in the example of play in the Dungeon Master's Guide a gnome gets sneak attacked by ghouls, and the DM doesn't even bother to roll any dice, just assumes the gnome is torn to bits.  In Pronzini's intro to "Ghoul!" he claims that in the superstitions of Eastern Europe the ghoul is more feared than the werewolf or vampire.  Gary Gygax and I can believe it!

"Indigestion" by Barry Malzberg (1977)

Malzberg got his name on the cover of Fantastic with this one.

Those familiar with Malzberg's work will not be surprised to learn that in "Indigestion" we are confronted with a first-person narrator who is suffering from vivid delusions.  Henry is a lonely man living in New York City.  Perhaps inspired by the misguided theory that planaria gain the knowledge of planaria they eat, Henry believes that the souls of dead people whose flesh he eats become housed in his own body.  (This also reminded me of the alzabo from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, published in the 1980s.)  Henry claims that he is the minister of a congregation of hundreds which he carries inside himself, so that he is never alone.  A side benefit is that raw human flesh is very tasty!

Henry's conscience manifests itself as a green scaly space alien who tries to convince Henry to stop robbing graves and eating from corpses.  At the end of this brief tale Henry realizes what a disaster he has made of his life, and leaps out a window to his death.

I thought this story was effective; beyond the "gross out" elements we have the image of a man who is lonely and feels he has screwed up his life, something many of us can identify with.

"The Spherical Ghoul" by Frederic Brown (1942)

Brown is famous for his novel What Mad Universe and his short story "Arena," both of which I think are worthwhile.  According to Wikipedia, best-selling authors Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane and Robert Heinlein all were crazy about Brown, which is pretty impressive.

"The Spherical Ghoul" first appeared in Thrilling Mystery, which Pronzini calls a "shudder pulp."  Brown's story is advertised on the cover, but I had trouble finding a decent reproduction online; the picture I did find can be viewed here.

This story stars Jerry, a grad student who works as a night watchman at the morgue of the little college town of Springdale.  He's an anthropology student; yesterday Roger Zelazny reminded me that I know approximately zero about Havelock Ellis, Rainer Maria Rilke and W. H. Auden, and today by mentioning The Golden Bough again and again, Brown reminded me that I know almost nothing about James George Frazer.  I also learned that I don't know much about armadillos; I thought armadillos were herbivores.

The story is constructed as a mystery.  Jerry studies for hours, sitting in front of the only door to the windowless room where the bodies are kept in refrigeration.  When he has occasion to go into the room with the fridges, he is shocked and appalled to find that one of the corpses stored in there has had its face eaten away!  Yuck! How could this have happened while Jerry sat in front of the only door to the room?

There's a lot of jazz with the police, witnesses, using temperature to estimate the time of the crime, all that mystery fiction stuff.  In the end it turns out that one of the characters had access to an armadillo, and lowered the beast through a ventilation hole so it would devour the corpse's face.  This was to hide the cadaver's identity; the armadillo employer murdered the guy because the guy was blackmailing him for embezzling funds, and so on and so forth.  I find it hard to get excited about these mystery plots in which different jerk offs are trying to screw over each other.  When Jerry tells the embezzler/murderer that he has figured out his armadillo scheme, armadillo guy commits suicide before the cops can bring him in I guess this spares the armadillo the indignity of being entered into evidence at a trial. 

I don't think Brown tells us what becomes of the armadillo.  It must be hard going back to eating bugs after tasting raw human flesh, which, I have on good authority (that of Henry of Barry Malzberg's "Indigestion"), is delicious.  Maybe somebody should write a sequel to "The Spherical Ghoul," about how a man-eating armadillo terrorizes Springdale, bursting in on the coeds while they are showering and all that.

This story was OK.  I guess I was hoping there would be some kind of supernatural or science-fiction resolution to the mystery, like a guy who could detach his head or something like that.  I'll never laugh at the armadillos in Browning's Dracula again, though.

"Corpus Delectable" by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (1953)

I get the impression that L. Sprague de Camp is a controversial figure in science fiction and fantasy circles, and that as the years have gone by his detractors have begun to seriously outnumber his supporters.  Fans of Robert Howard and H. P. Lovecraft are angry about de Camp's biographies of those Weird Tales luminaries, and with de Camp's editing and rewriting of some of Howard's work.  I read a bunch of de Camp's Viagens novels years ago and found them mediocre and forgettable, so I guess I'm not exactly in de Camp's camp myself.  Still, I'm willing to give him another chance; De Camp was a prolific writer who devoted his career to science fiction and fantasy, so he probably deserves a measure of respect for that.

"Corpus Delectable," Pronzini tells us in his intro to the story, is one of a series of stories about the habitues of Gavagan's Bar.  I guess these stories are supposed to be funny; the bar serves as a framing device for humorous anecdotes from various wacky characters.  This isn't my thing, but I'll try to be fair....

To be honest, I feel like old Bill Pronzini pulled a fast one on me with this one. This isn’t a bad story, but it has no supernatural, cannibalistic, or grave robbing content; there isn’t even a man-eating armadillo!

A car salesman comes to the bar and tells his sad story. He made friends with an undertaker, and over the course of time found that his new buddy was taking to staring at him. It turns out that the car salesman has a perfectly photogenic face for use in mortuary advertising - he looks like an expertly prepared cadaver! After his friend surreptitiously takes his picture, and it appears in an ad in a trade publication, the car salesman can’t go anywhere without being stared at or even accosted by people in the mortuary business who want to use him in their advertising. The car salesman is not interested in providing his photo, but then he is spotted by a former Chicago gangster who has gotten into the mortician game after going straight. This thug is not used to taking “no” for an answer, and the punchline of the story is that the gangster catches up to the car salesman right there in Gavagan's Bar!

As I said, this story isn’t bad, but I’m scratching my head wondering why it is in this book.


Malzberg delivered the goods with his bleak tale of a mental case who robs graves and eats the recently buried dead. But the stories by Brown and the team of de Camp and Pratt, while competent, don’t really fit the bill. Maybe before I return Tales of the Dead to be interred on the shelves of the library I will give “Ghouls!” one last look.

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