Sunday, April 20, 2014

Three More Mummy Stories: Wollheim, Williams and Grant

Let's return now to the copy of Tales of the Dead I borrowed from the library, to read three more stories from the section of the book which reproduces editor Bill Pornzini's 1980 anthology Mummy!

"Bones" by Donald A. Wollheim (1941)

I've already enjoyed Wollheim's work as an editor; in 1971 Wollheim founded the famous DAW Books, and I own and have read books by Jack Vance, Tanith Lee, A. E. Van Vogt, Lin Carter, Theodore Sturgeon, and others, published by DAW.  But until today I had never read any of Wollheim's fiction.

"Bones" first appeared in Stirring Science Stories, a magazine that lasted four issues, which Wollheim edited.  According to Wikipedia, Wollheim had no budget to pay for fiction, so he and his cronies wrote all the stories, often under pseudonyms.  According to ISFDB, one story Wollheim wrote was credited to "X" and titled "!!!"

"Bones" feels amateurish and overwritten.  "Half conquered by the smell of the antique houses, the subtle vibrations of past generations still pervading his spirit..."  Not too good, and the entire story is like this.  "...his nostrils were assailed by the inescapable odor of all such institutions - age!"  "The silence assailed his ears with a suddenness that all but took his breath away."  "Shortly Dr. Zweig announced himself ready to attempt the final work toward actually bringing the now pliant and vibrant corpse to life."  "The air was supercharged with tension, horror mixed with scientific zeal."  Oy.

The plot of this 7 page story is similar to Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy": a guy is invited to be part of a group of intellectuals attending the unwrapping of a mummy, the mummy is electrified and comes to life.  But while in Poe's satire the mummy criticized democracy and American architecture, "Bones" is a mood piece with a trick ending, and when the mummy tries to speak, it falls apart.

Not very good.  

"The Vengeance of Nitocris" by Tennessee Williams (1928)

When you are reading from a book called Mummy!, you might think that you will not be exposing yourself to the work of great figures of American literature.  Well, you could not be more wrong!  Tennessee Williams, who penned A Streetcar Named Desire ("Stella!") and The Glass Menagerie ("gentleman caller") and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ("Big Daddy") was published in Weird Tales, the August 1928 issue, with this story long before he was the toast of Broadway.  "The Vengeance of Nitocris" appeared in the same issue as a story by Robert Howard about Solomon Kane and one by Edmond Hamilton about the Interstellar Patrol.

When you are reading from a book called Mummy! you probably expect all the stories to include mummies, but again you would be mistaken.  As Pronzini warns us in his intro, there are no mummies in "The Vengeance of Nitocris."  Instead this is a story set in ancient Egypt, about a pharaoh who neglects his duties to the gods, and is torn apart by an angry mob lead by rabble-rousing priests.  The impious pharaoh's sister, Nitocris, is a striking beauty with "thick black brows," "luminous black eyes," "rich red lips" and "slender fingers."  Hubba hubba, we can understand why the priests put her on the throne after murdering her brother, can't we?  

Nitocris has built a tremendous temple of great beauty, and invites all the priests to a banquet there in its subterranean dining room.  While the priests are living it up with booze and slave girls, Nitocris sneaks off and pulls a lever and the Nile rushes into the banquet hall, drowning all of the priests (and the slave girls!  Cold!)  Nitocris then commits suicide in a room full of fire.

This is more like an anecdote than an actual short story; Williams lets us know ahead of time what is going to happen, and all you classical scholars will know anyway, as Williams lifted the story from Herodotus.  So there isn't much suspense.  I myself hadn't heard the story before, and was disappointed when the priests were drowned; when Nitocris pulled the lever, "a moment of supreme ecstasy," I thought a pack of ravenous lions was going to burst into the banquet hall and tear everybody to pieces.

This story is just OK, though I feel like I learned something about American and Greek literature I should have known already, so I will recommend it.     

"The Other Room" by Charles L. Grant (1980)

I've never read anything by Grant before, though I have a book he edited, Gallery of Horror.  It seems that "The Other Room" only ever appeared in Pronzini's Mummy! and the omnibuses like Tales of the Dead in which Mummy! rose again.

It seems that Grant is a fellow New Jerseyean, and in fact was born in a town with which I am familiar, Hackettstown, where they make M&Ms.  

"The Other Room," Pronzini tells us in his intro, takes place in the New England town of Oxrun Station, the setting of several stories by Grant.  Like everybody, I love New England: the trees, hills, ocean, antiquing, old houses, etc.  After we bought our doughty Toyota Corolla my wife and I spent many weekends driving around New England.  One week we stayed in a spider-infested cabin in the Maine woods, next to a clear pond full of adorable turtles.  The power went out and for light to read by I had to hand crank a LED lamp.

Sometimes my life back in New York feels like a dream.

Anyway, in "The Other Room," two academics discover a secret chamber in an old Connecticut house.  The room contains sarcophagi, and an inscription that describes a simple spell.  When one of the academics completes the spell there is fire and smoke and everyone flees the house, and we are left to wonder what manner of doom is about to befall the world, now that a door to some ancient evil has been opened.

Grant spends a lot of time setting the scene and helping us get to know the characters, which include the wife and teenage daughter of the owner of the house.  This is fine, but I felt like there wasn't much pay off; what they actually find in the secret crypt and what happens next is left a mystery.  This story kind of feels like the first chapter of an adventure story about an army of monsters trying to conquer the Earth through a gate, and how a band of plucky ordinary people, or a special branch of the FBI, or an armored division of the US Army, has to stop the monsters before midnight or an eclipse or something.  Or the first half of a short story about a family or a pair of friends who outfight a monster in a house using the rifles from the gun cabinet, the rusty crossed swords that have hung over the fireplace for 20 years, and their knowledge of the Bible or The Necronomicon.  (My spell check wants to read a story in which people defeat a monster with their knowledge of microeconomics.)

Grant seems like an able writer - I want to read something else by him now - but I feel like there could have been more here.  My man Tarbandu, who has read lots of horror stories and doesn't seem to be a fan of Grant's, suggests at his venerable PorPor Books Blog that the lack of a "payoff" is characteristic of Grant's work.  Will Errickson, whose Too Much Horror Fiction blog is always interesting and full of great images, appears to like Grant more than does Tarbandu, and provides a more sympathetic view of the style of horror Grant wrote and promoted.    


One poor story, and two OK stories; not so hot.  Still, I will rustle up and read more stories by Wollheim and Grant before giving up on them.  And I'm not done with Tales of the Dead; its third section, Ghoul!, lurks in my future.

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