Johann, who I guess is some kind of 18th-century villager in Central or Eastern Europe, has a terrible fever. If I had a life-threatening fever I'd be home in bed reacquainting myself with Lucy Ricardo and Gilligan, like any sane person, but Johann is wandering around the village cemetery, the cemetery everybody knows is inhabited by a voracious ghoul! Our little buddy Johann has some 'splainin' to do!
It turns out Johann and his wife Elsa got some plague or something, from which Elsa died. While Johann was in a coma the villagers buried Elsa in the ghoul-haunted graveyard, and when he woke up, still half-delirious, he grabbed a pistol and ran off to the cemetery to protect his wife's grave! When he discovers Elsa's grave has already been raided, he vows vengeance and hunts the cemetery for the ghoul! Will Johann mete out justice against the grave robber, or encounter a horror unimaginable?
This is actually a great story; Kuttner's descriptions of the setting and of Johann's emotions are effective and economical, and maybe I'm a dummy, because the ending surprised me, but I like a good surprise at the end of my horror stories and found this one quite satisfying.
"It Walks By Night" that "The Lovecraft influence is evident...." I suppose this is true, but, to me, the differences from Lovecraft are more important. "It Walks By Night" is written in a direct straightforward style--there are none of the long sentences and esoteric words we associate with Lovecraft, nor any scholarly digressions or framing devices. And Kuttner's tale isn't a cold-blooded narrative about some overeducated nerd with a head stuffed full of architecture and history who pursues knowledge and ends up learning more than it is healthy to know; this is a story of passion, of a man driven by grief and rage over a tragedy and an atrocity suffered by his wife.
I love this story, but it would not be reprinted in book form until the 21st century by such specialists as Centipede Press and Haffner Press; the fanzine Etchings and Odysseys, however, was ahead of the curve, including "It Walks By Night" in an issue dedicated to Kuttner in 1984.
Bloch tells us this is a collaboration with Kuttner, but Bloch's name appears alone above "The Black Kiss" in a 1951 issue of The Avon Fantasy Reader, where I read it. (I can't seem to find a scan at the internet archive of the issue of Weird Tales in which it first appeared.) According to isfdb, Kuttner requested his name be left off the story.
No doubt you remember how, after two or three pages of framing devices, H. P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" starts off with a lot of business about an artist and his dreams, dreams apparently inspired by the alien mind of a monster living beneath the ocean waves! Well, our story here begins with an artist's dreams, dreams of the world under the sea! Graham Dean has recently inherited an old house on the Pacific coast, once owned by his Spanish ancestors centuries ago, but after moving in his sleep has been disturbed by those dreams while his sketches have taken on a "malign" cast!
Through his dreams and the exposition of a Japanese (I guess Japanese-American) occultist, Dean and we readers learn all about how the evil inhabitants of the briny deep envy those of us who live on land; these hideous fish-people seek to invade our minds, switch bodies with us and enjoy life on the sunny surface! Normally, our minds are safe from invasion by these piscine brain pan pirates, and the only humans these scaly bastards can overcome are the victims of ship wrecks, people already scared out of their wits. But Dean is especially susceptible to being taken over by a particular fish woman, and she keeps showing up in his dreams, in which she tries to kiss him! Not only is Dean vulnerable because of his love of the sea and his artistic temperament, but because of his ancestry and his bone-headed decision to move into this creepy seaside house! Dr. Yamada tells our hero that the ancestor of his who lived in this house married a wealthy woman from Spain, and an unfortunate side effect of the senora's corrupt family's dealings with "Moorish sorcerers and necromancers" back in the old country was that she had been taken over by one of the fish people before getting on the boat to America! It is that very same aquatic undocumented immigrant who piggy backed its way here so long ago that is today trying to take over Dean's body!
Will Dean escape with body and mind intact thanks to the help of Dr. Yamada? Or is he doomed to lose his body to the evil sea woman and find his own soul trapped in the body of a disgusting human-eating fish?
"The Black Kiss" is a decent story that exploits men's fears of sex and of women--the creeping feeling that sex is somehow disgusting and the dread that women will use sex--and the numberless other cunning strategies that bubble feverishly in their inscrutable estrogen-charged brains--to control you. "The Black Kiss" also taps into (as these Lovecraftian stories often do) white fears of and fascinations with the nonwhite "other." Besides the aforementioned Muslim wizards, there are Yamada and some unnamed Mexicans, who play the role in this story that "natives" often play in these kinds of stories--these exotics know the dark secrets of the old house and of the evil fish people, but the white man, with his faith in reason and science, does not heed their warnings--to his peril!
|This picture does not really reflect what goes on|
in the story
Another problem is the character of Micheal Leigh, who plays a tiny role in this story. Leigh was also in an earlier Kuttner Weird Tales story, "The Salem Horror," which I read long ago and don't remember. It really feels like Leigh was just shoehorned in here; the guy is off stage for like 99% of the story, sending telegrams and chartering a plane to get to California, and then he finally appears on the last page, where he does nothing. Yamada accomplishes all the narrative purposes Leigh might have, rendering Leigh a superfluous distraction; including Leigh in the story was a mistake, maybe the product of an ill-fated effort to start a Micheal Leigh series. (Weird Tales had a number of recurring characters, like Conan and Dr. Satan and Jules de Grandin.)
As isfdb tells us, this is a story involving Azathoth, one of the alien gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, and has been translated into French and Italian; you know those people have good taste, so it must be a good one.
After an epigraph from Arthur Machen, Kuttner tells us that two men are dead and one has disappeared, and the story gives us all the clues from newspapers and a diary that let us perceptive readers ferret out how this tragedy has occurred. Robert Ludwig of NYC was visiting his friend Paul Edmond in California, and brought with him an old 18th-century pamphlet which included instructions on how to project the soul out of the body. These two goofballs decided to follow the instructions, and try to send their souls to Baltimore to say hello to their fellow occultist, Kenneth Scott, owner of one of the world's finest occult libraries. This experiment in off-the-grid cross-country communication sets off a nightmarish odyssey through other dimensions, a journey on which the characters witness scenes of mind-shaking horror and stomach-churning gore and from which none escape unscathed, the living member of the trio likely envying the dead!
Kuttner's descriptions of hellish alien worlds which follow different physical laws than our own, and their bizarre inhabitants, are the main attraction here. I also like the idea that the pamphlet is a trap for the unwary, and the description of the ritual that facilitates astral projection isn't bad. Thumbs up for "Hydra!"
Bloch suggests that "Masquerade" may be the first of what he calls Kuttner's "adult" stories. In Weird Tales it is accompanied by a great illustration that is reminding me of some of the illos from early TSR publications, I guess specifically Erol Otus's work.
Quite to my dismay "Masquerade" turns out to be a sort of recursive joke story in which the narrator, whom it is suggested is a short story writer ("If I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back"), and his wife, comment sarcastically about how what is happening to them is like something out of a short story. Apparently on their second honeymoon, during a powerful storm they knock on the door of a closed lunatic asylum and are welcomed in by ugly inbred creeps who, as the narrator predicted, talk about the legend of the local vampires. The twist ending is that the narrator and his wife are the rumored vampires, and what we readers may have taken for fear of the sinister rural idiots ("why did this have to happen to us?...I wish we were dead!") is in fact regret that they have to drink human blood to survive.
"Masquerade" has appeared in many vampire anthologies published all over the world, as well as the anthology Feast of Fear which has a perhaps misleading Conan-style cover painting.
No doubt we'll be spending more time with Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch in the future, but in our next episode it's back to post war science fiction.