"The Dead Don't Die!" (1951)
Reprinted in the Summer 1971 issue of Weird Mystery, "The Dead Don't Die" first appeared in Fantastic Adventure with an illustration by Virgil Finlay that integrates an electric chair and a line of bikini girls. Mind blown!
Whoa, this story is long--over 40 pages! That is what we lazy people call an investment! I wouldn't bat an eye over tackling a forty-page story by a legitimately talented master of the English language like a Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance, or somebody who reliably offers compelling fast-paced adventures like a Leigh Brackett or Edmond Hamilton, or somebody who specializes mindboggling experiments hatched his own peculiar point of view like an A. E. van Vogt or Barry Malzberg. But I think Robert Bloch is overrated and I was just going to read these things out of curiosity, as a kind of a lark. Well, I'm still curious, so let's move forward and hope for the best!
Gadzooks! The first sentence of the story is "This is a story that never ends." Bloch is already yanking my chain!
The narrator of "The Dead Don't Die!" is a writer of horror fiction named Bob who has taken a job as a guard at a prison. He makes friends with a guy on death row, Cono Colluri, a circus strongman whom Bob believes to be innocent. The day after Cono is executed the real killer of Cono's wife confesses. Oops! Cono had no friends or relatives, so he left the eight thousand bucks he had saved up to Bob! (In today's money that is like $75,000!) Cono's "banker" was The Great Ahmed, a palmreader also attached to that travelling circus. The Great Ahmed has quit the circus and moved to Chicago, so Bob heads up there. The first person he meets in Chi-town is a cool blue-eyed blonde (a natural blonde, even!) named Vera LaValle.
I found myself enjoying this story a lot more than I had expected to. The narration was smooth and conversational, and the whole thing was very noirish, with the night time city streets, wet with rain, reflecting the neon signs of bars as the elevated train clack clack clacks overhead. I even smiled at the obvious jokes:
Maybe I really was a Robert Bloch fan and I just hadn't seen his best work yet?
After a violent interlude in a tavern full of professional beggars who feign disability, the sexy blonde brings Bob to Nicolo Varek. Varek introduces himself as a "man of science" and claims to "have perfected a means, a methodology, a therapy if you like, that defeats what men call death." Unlike many men of science, he can back up his claims: Cono Corulli, alumnus of the electric chair, is on his feet, stiff and stumbling and with some nervous tics and a low low blood temperature, but alive!
Varek pressures Bob to become one of his henchmen, to act as his go-between in his business of discreetly selling immortality to millionaires. Sensing that those who gain eternal life via Varek's method lose their souls, Bob refuses this job opportunity and has to fight his way to freedom, past the cold clutches of his former friend Cono, now Varek's obedient servant! Bob hooks up with The Great Ahmed, who provides him shelter and promises to help him. While Ahmed is away "investigating" Varek's organization, Vera LaValle levitates into the third story window of the guest room where Bob is sleeping and tries to murder our hero with a knife. Bob overpowers her, and being struck brings the hypnotized blonde to her senses, and she relates to Bob the horrible truth about Varek and about herself!
Paris, 1794, the Terror! Varek, a foreign alchemist! Vera, the daughter of a wealthy merchant! Vera's father feared for his daughter's life amidst the revolutionary chaos, and hoped to marry her to Varek, who, with his Russian passport, should be able to safely leave Paris, a city which trembled under the shadow of the guillotine! When Varek met Vera he fell in love, she being so gorgeous, but he was way too creepy for Vera, what with his claims of having learned occult sciences in India and China, of being hundreds of years old and on the cusp of discovering the secret of raising the dead thanks to his experimenting on the copious supply of decapitated corpses mass produced by the guillotine--the mademoiselle rejected him with a laugh! It is not long after that Vera and her father fell victim to the Terror, and Varek collected the blonde bombshell's body, sewed her tete back on, and brought her back to life! A queer half life of cold flesh, flesh that need not eat nor sleep, a life subject to the hypnotic control of Varek the diabolical genius! A living death she has endured for over one hundred fifty years!
|"The Dead Don't Die!" is included in this|
oft-reprinted anthology of zombie stories
("The Dead Don't Die!" is "a story that never ends" because Bob suspects there really are labs and cold storage units all over the world, carefully hidden, and perhaps even animated dead that walk among us, so the destruction of Varek's Chicago lair may not end the living dead menace.)
I liked the noirish beginning of this story, but things get a little bogged down with Vera's long description of Varek's career in the 18th and 19th centuries (in a section that nowadays might be called racist we learn about Verak's tenure in Haiti) and then all the details of how Varek's method really works--besides hypnotism and Satanism there is also lots of electrical and mechanical stuff going on (Bloch seriously overdoes the explanations, unnecessarily covering all the science fictional and supernatural bases.) Bloch also seems to be trying to show off his knowledge, or to give us an education, piling on explicit references to Poe and Victor Hugo as well as all that revolutionary history and zombie and vampire folklore. Oh, and there are also some superfluous dream sequences.
It is too long, but "The Dead Don't Die!" is entertaining enough. We're marking this one moderately good.
"A Lesson for the Teacher" (1958)
"A Lesson for the Teacher" was first published in Fantastic and reprinted in the Winter 1970 Weird Mystery. Bloch doesn't get top billing this time, and the illustration his story receives is a total bore. Ouch!
It is schoolteacher Ruth Bailey's thirty-seventh birthday. Her fiance killed in the war fifteen years ago, with no family or friends, it is a lonely birthday. But a knock at the door! A tall handsome stranger! A Frenchman from Martinique, he wants one-on-one instruction in colloquial American English! Three nights a week, five bucks a night! And of course Monsieur Clay needs to learn about American customs and culture in the field, and what better way than to take Ruth out on the town the other two nights of the week?
Bloch fills this story with puns (e.g., "the menopause that refreshes"), and, after a brief bit of conflict, gives it a happy ending. Ruth falls in love with Clay, and gets jealous when Clay goes out with a younger woman. But then that younger woman comes to Ruth's place to warn her that Clay is a weirdo! The next time Ruth sees Clay he admits that he is no Frenchman, but something even weirder--a space alien, an anthropologist who has come to Earth to learn about our culture. While here he has fallen in love with Ruth, and he teleports them to another star system to live happily ever after.
One of the noteworthy things about "A Lesson for the Teacher" is Ruth's denunciation of the 1950s youth culture of rebellion, drugs and rock and roll, which brought to mind Richard Mathesson's 1955 attack on the youth culture and decadence in America, "Dance of the Dead." I'm no expert on Bloch, but there seems to be a thread of conservatism running through his work--"The Dead Don't Die" took the conservative line about revolution ("revolution always leads to dictatorship") and expressed sympathy for the bourgeoisie, and according to Wikipedia, 1982's Psycho II was "intended to critique Hollywood splatter films."
While of interest for historical and sociological reasons (the aforementioned attack on developments in American culture and the fact that we have here a man trying to write about a woman's psychological and relationship problems), "A Lesson for the Teacher" is only OK as a story; I'm putting this one in the "acceptable filler" slot that so many of these stories from magazines end up in. It looks like "A Lesson for the Teacher" never appeared in any book, just these two magazines--not a big hit with editors, it seems. I'm not even sure why Cohen included it in Weird Mystery--there is no horror or detective content.
"The Hungry Eye" (1959)
Bloch is back on the cover! The first time SF fans had a chance to gaze into "The Hungry Eye" was when it was printed in Fantastic and heralded by a mesmerizing cover featuring a striking blonde and a ridiculous whirlwind-embedded eyeball. Unfortunately, this issue of Fantastic is not at the internet archive; fortunately "The Hungry Eye" was reprinted in 1966 in Great Science Fiction (five years before its reappearance in the Spring '71 issue of Weird Mystery) and that issue is available at the internet archive.
Another Chicago story! (I actually like Chicago; nice bookstores, nice museums. I hear that people are massacring each other over there, but I doubt that the mayhem is taking pace in the neighborhood with the museums and the bookstores.) The narrator of "The Hungry Eye" is Dave Larson, stand up comic! This provides Bloch an opportunity to again play cultural critic, griping about how comics all have the same routines; for example, how "Today every comic talks about visiting his psychiatrist." Mental illness is a major topic of the story and of Dave's act--the 20th-century world, the world of the gas chamber and the atomic bomb, is a world that is going crazy, a world full of "sick" people. Dave provides us a half-joking list of all the sickos out there, a list that includes "necrophiles" and "zooerasts." Among the sick are the audiences of his and other comedians' acts, the beatniks! According to Dave, the beatniks are a bunch of self-consciously showy nonconformists who are really just as conformist as the squares they make fun of, a plague of would-be Jack Keroacs who romanticize their drug use and sexual promiscuity and expect other people to clean up the messes they make of their lives and others' lives.
Dave has a grudge against beatniks in part because his brother George is a beatnik! George was nothing but trouble, trouble Dave was always trying to get him out of, until he vanished five years ago. As this story begins, George is back in Dave's life, and he is in real trouble this time--the cops want him for murder! While working as a security guard for the Art Institute he killed another guard, or so it is said; Dave doubts his brother capable of such violence. But then Dave meets a researcher from the Institute who suggests that George became a killer because he came into contact with a jewel. This jewel was made from a sentient alien meteorite that has the power to hypnotize people and turn them into serial killers! At first Dave thinks this ridiculous, but it is not long before the bloody scene of George's own murder makes a believer out of him! Dave snatches up the jewel with the plan of giving it to that academic, but the jewel, which has the shape of an eye, begins to work on him!
The Eye transmits to Dave's brain the story of its arrival on Earth centuries ago, when it landed near a naked virgin who had been left alone on a barren plain as a sacrifice to the wolves! The Eye gave her the strength and bloodlust to return to her village and wreak a terrible vengeance on those who had selected her as the yearly sacrifice! From then on, decade after decade, century after century, the Eye passed from hand to hand, inspiring each of its possessors to murder--such possessors included Jack the Ripper! (Jack the Ripper is a recurring figure in Bloch's work.) Through the medium of the eye, Dave can "remember" the sensations of all those killers as they committed their crimes, from that virgin all the way up to George and George's own killer...is Dave himself going to begin a career as a serial killer at the direction of the diabolical Eye from outer space?
"The Hungry Eye" is significantly better than the other two stories we've read today. Unlike the innocuous "Lesson for the Teacher," it is an engaging horror story that isn't weighted down with distracting puns. And it is far more economical than "The Dead Don't Die!", while its boldly drawn depictions of Chicago beatniks and an ancient tribe that practices human sacrifice are much more compelling than "The Dead Don't Die!"'s blah blah blah about Revolutionary France and Haiti. "The Hungry Eye" is an effective horror story with some memorable horror images (and plenty of material about how much beatniks suck.) Thumbs up!
"The Hungry Eye" has appeared in quite a few Bloch collections and SF anthologies.
These three stories, especially "The Hungry Eye," are making me feel much more in tune with all the people who are always praising Bloch. ("The Animal Fair," which I read early this year, had a similar effect, and now that my memory has been jogged I recall that 1971 story also contains complaints about drug use, rampant sexuality and the youth culture.) Maybe I have been wrong to judge Bloch on such lame stories as "Mother of Serpents," and "The Hungry House."
More SF stories from the 1950s in our next episode--stay tuned!