Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Five horror stories from 1940 by Ray Cummings

A British edition
In his fascinating memoir, The Way The Future Was, writer, editor, literary agent, Bolshevist and high school dropout Frederik Pohl talks a little about Ray Cummings. Pohl tells us that Cummings, who was born in 1887 and had some success as an SF writer earlier in his career, in the late 1930s was making his living by selling mystery and horror stories to Popular Publications, printers of numerous (at one point, according to wikipedia, 42) pulp magazines.  "Horror stories," according to Pohl, "were the dregs of the pulp market, cheap thrill-and-sadism stuff to a precise formula...."  The formula Pohl describes will remind people my age of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!--what at first appears to be a supernatural menace turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by some mundane ne'er-do-well.  When Pohl came to work at Popular as editor of Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories it was, he says, "a great day for Ray" because Pohl admired Cummings as a person and would buy actual SF stories from him, even if Pohl didn't care for them.  "...for months he would turn up regularly as clockwork and sell me a new story; I hated them all, and bought them all."

"Dregs?"  He "hated" them all?  Ouch!  Were these stories really so bad?  I liked Cummings's 1931 novel of piracy and firefights in the future, Brigands of the Moon, and was pleased to see several Cummings volumes among the 21 pounds of books donated to the MPorcius library recently by Joachim Boaz.  I don’t trust Pohl’s judgement when it comes to the proper role of the state in the economy, so why should I trust his judgement of Cummings's written work?  It’s not like I love every single thing Pohl has written (though I do think very highly of Gateway and "The Fiend," and The Way The Future Was is very readable.)  The only thing to do is to investigate first hand!  Trawling through the internet archive, I have picked out five horror stories by Cummings (some co-written with Gabrielle Cummings, whom I believe was Cumming’s wife) published in magazines in 1940. Let’s see what these stories--and the horror pulps--for which Pohl has such disdain are all about!  (In a later blog post I'll read some of the SF stories by Cummings which appeared in Astonishing and Super Science issues edited by Pohl.)

"Perfume of Dark Desire" (as by Ray King)

Our first three stories all appeared in the same issue of Horror Stories, one with a naked blonde on the cover about to suffer a quadruple dismemberment!  Yikes!

In "Perfume of Dark Desire" New York lawyer John Holden travels from the Big Apple to a tiny village in upstate New York to do some kind of real estate related business with a wealthy hermit guy, Robert Martin.  This of course reminds us of Johnathan Harker's trip to Transylvania in Dracula, one of the foundational texts of our modern culture of horror fiction.  Holden even receives a warning from a local before he reaches Martin's isolated house--the naked corpses of young ladies are being found in the woods around Martin's pad, and it is said they are the victims of some kind of creature that seduces them before murdering them.  Also, mysterious fires are associated with these heinous crimes.

Holden walks to Martin's house, where, through the window, he sees a beautiful brunette putting perfume all over her body--Holden actually saw this hot chick furtively purchasing that perfume back in the village's drug store!  This exhibitionist turns out to be Martin's niece, Barbara Jones, whom Martin calls "Babs."  Holden is pretty good-looking himself, and he and Babs are immediately consumed with lust for each other!

The monster, an apparition wreathed in smoke, murders another beautiful girl just outside Martin's house, and instead of calling the cops, Martin and Babs enlist Holden's aid in concealing the body in the coal bin down in the cellar!  There's also a strange scene in which a scared Babs drops an oil lamp, setting her clothes on fire so Holden has to rip her smoldering duds off and jump on top of her to quench the flames. 

At night Babs comes to Holden's room to strip and offer him her body if he will promise to keep the corpse in the cellar a secret!  She explains that her uncle Robert has a mental illness, a strange and compelling fetish--to him, smoke is a powerful aphrodisiac and if a girl smells of smoke he can hardly resist molesting her!  That is why she wears so much perfume, because the smell of perfume repels him!  One of Martin's enemies has learned of his perversion, and is blackmailing him--this villain has been running around the woods, setting piles of leaves on fire and murdering young women, then threatening to pin these atrocities on Martin if the old perv doesn't cough up the shekels.

Before Holden and Babs can consummate their relationship they hear a scream and rush off to find that the blackmailer has murdered Martin the pervert and put him in a smoke monster costume.  The blackmailer (revealed to be the drug store clerk who sells Babs that special perfume) knocks Holden unconcious, ties him up, and starts molesting Babs--he brags he will rape her and then murder her and the authorities will think Martin is to blame.  But Martin is still alive, just barely!  The old freak pulls the murder weapon, a knife, out of his own chest and uses it to free Holden, so Holden can kill the blackmailer.  After this good deed Babs's sex criminal uncle expires, and she goes on to marry the New York lawyer and they live happily ever after.

"Perfume of Dark Desire" is contrived and ridiculous, and appeals to people's fascination with violence and rough sex.  Again and again in the story people perform actions which are anti-social  but which gratify sexual desires, and are relieved of responsibility for these actions because unlikely circumstances have "forced" them to engage in them.  Ronald Martin's mental illness forces him to grope young women, the fire forces John Holden to rip off Barbara Jones's clothes and climb on top of her, fear of exposure to the police forces Babs to bare her body before Holden, etc.  The perfume the blackmailer invented and with which Babs covers herself (out of the blameless motive of protecting herself from her uncle's irrational lust) turns out to be a powerful aphrodisiac--thus Holden and Babs's animalistic desire for each other is not a reflection of their characters, not a sign they are "easy," but the work of the evil blackmailer!

Fiction allows people to vicariously participate in acts which are objectively pretty terrible and often elides any guilt the consumer might feel over deriving pleasure from such participation by providing in-story justifications for the actions.  Many people have fantasies of killing other people, and the first Star Wars movie and the first Indiana Jones movie--to provide two famous, popular, and critically acclaimed examples--allow people to indulge in fantasies of killing people by the dozens, and viewers never need feel guilty about their enjoyment because it is OK (more than OK--you get a medal for doing it!) to shoot down Nazis and space Nazis.  Similarly, many people have fantasies of denuding and groping young ladies or of disrobing and exciting the lust of strangers and "Perfume of Dark Desire" has characters who indulge in these more or less unacceptable behaviors "against their wills."

I can't call this story good, but it is crazy enough to be entertaining, and it isn't boring. 

"When the Werewolf Howls" (as by Emerson Graves)

Irma Lowe, a beautiful young woman, works at the mountain lodge owned by her blind grandfather (Irma’s parents are dead.) Also working at the lodge, managing the boats that take tourists off on excursions on the big nearby lake, is George Harvey. George and Irma have crushes on each other. Living in a cottage on the estate is another guy who has a crush on Irma, Lester Sands, a big ugly guy who has weird eyes. It is vaguely suggested that Lester is a refugee from "mid-Europe."  Irma is preparing steaks in the lodge kitchen when Lester starts pawing her; George appears and intervenes. On his way out Lester steals a raw bloody steak, and Irma sneaks to his cottage to look in the window--she sees Lester eating the uncooked slab of beef!

Grandpa has Lester thrown off the property. A few weeks later a big seeing-eye dog arrives at the lodge, accompanied by a note saying it is a gift from an old friend of Grandpa’s in Latvia. (Cumming’s choice of Latvia is an interesting one, as the year this story was published Latvia was conquered by the Soviet Union.) Grandpa is thrilled by this gift, but Irma and George don’t trust the beast—it has eyes just like Lester’s!  Eventually a message arrives from Latvia, indicating that Grandpa's old crony sent no such dog, but too late--Grandpa has already gone into the forest for a walk, guided by man’s best friend! The dog returns to the lodge without him, and, Lassie-style, leads Irma into the woods; she hopes the service animal is taking her to Grandpa's side so she can help him, but instead the beast leads her into a pitch black cave! In the dark she hears Lester’s voice! Lester tells her he can see in the dark and has been watching her through her window every night as she stands naked in her unlit room, savoring the caressing touch of the cool night air on her supple young body! (Who does she think she is, Ben Franklin?)  Lester also lets her know he sent the dog and that Grandpa's little stroll ended with a fall from a cliff!

Lester molests Irma, even biting her neck, but before he can go all the way George and a posse arrive, and Lester takes to his heels. Cummings leaves ambiguous the question of whether Lester is a werewolf or just a nut who thinks he is a werewolf, and whether the seeing-eye dog is really a dog trained by Lester or in fact Lester in another form.

"When the Werewolf Howls" feels a little perfunctory, maybe because it is shorter than "Perfume of Dark Desire."  We have here another young woman living with an older male relative who ends up murdered, and another interrupted rape in the story's climax.  Keep your eyes open--we may see these elements again!

"Corpses from Canvas" (with Gabrielle Cummings, as by Gabriel Wilson)

When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV, partly because my mother, who loved mystery novels and TV detective shows, always had the TV on.  One of the reoccurring "tropes" I found silly and annoying, even as a child, was when a detective novelist's story appeared to be "coming true," with murders much like those in his or her book(s) taking place.  I'm also not crazy about all those cartoons and horror stories in which a guy's characters jump off the drawing board and interact with real people.  (Yes, I'm brimming over with pet peeves like these.)  So, the title of this story, which promises to be about a painter whose paintings "come to life," has me shaking my head before I even start it.

Jack Blake is a painter!  He unveils his latest work to a Robert P. Norton, a "slender, dandified little fellow, with sleek grey-black hair and an effeminate waxed mustache," who is a "publisher of art novelties."  The painting is a life-sized portrait of a degenerate criminal in the act of fleeing the scene of the crime, clutching the severed hand of his victim!  Cummings describes this painting in great detail, from the "pig eyes" and "low, retreating forehead" to the "twisted shoulder" and "club foot."  This sinister apparition is lacking one of his own hands, and presumably is collecting other people's hands as a means of achieving psychological compensation as well as revenge on the world.

Norton wants to mass market one-dollar color reproductions of this horrifying image; if they sell as well as he expects them to he and Blake will make a mint, and Blake will have enough money to marry his fiance Elsa Jarrod, a "dark-haired beautiful young girl."  The unveiling of the painting has taken place at the rambling old mansion of Elsa's grandfather, with whom she, and her cousin George, one of Norton's employees, live.  Blake and Norton spend the night in the mansion, and in the venerable edifice's dark halls and humid rooms a gruesome melodrama plays out!  George convinces Norton to dress up as the killer from the painting and scare people--this will be, he asserts, a genius publicity stunt!  But it is a trap!  George murders Grandfather Jarrod and even cuts Gramps's hand off!  George then stabs Norton and leaves him for dead--he hopes to blame Norton for Gramps's murder (this is all in service of a harebrained scheme to get not only Gramps's but also Norton's money.)  But before George can tell his lies to Elsa and Blake, the fatally injured Norton drags himself to the painter and his fiance and, with his dying breath, tells them the truth.  Exposed, George tries to kill Blake, but Blake outfights him, and when George makes a break for it he is panicked by an hallucination of the killer from the painting and goes over a balcony, breaking his neck.

With George gone, Elsa inherits Gramps's entire estate, and Norton's death does not prevent Blake from making money from the sales of reproductions of his macabre painting.  These two lovebirds get married, but sometimes the painting of the killer makes them shudder and Blake no longer paints horror subjects.

The descriptions of the painting and of Norton are good, but the plot is a contrived mess and the effort Cummings puts into portraying Norton as an exploitative, greedy, and effete fairy ends up feeling like a cheap trick; obviously he is setting us up to expect Norton to be the villain, but the actual villain, George, gets no interesting description at all!  Giving both Norton and George equally detailed (preferably equally distasteful) descriptions would have improved the story.

On a sort of "meta" level we have to wonder if Blake represents Cummings himself and Norton his employers at Popular Publications, and if "Corpses from Canvas" reflects Cummings' uneasiness about making his living by appealing to the lust for blood and sex of the public, bitterness at his paymasters, and perhaps a dream of striking it rich through his creative work and retiring from the sex and gore game.

"Forked Horror"

This one actually appeared under Cummings's own name.  Maybe "Forked Horror" is a story he was proud of?  This tale was published in an issue of Terror Tales, the cover of which depicts a blonde bound and confined to a coffin!  Unlike the woman on the cover of the May 1940 issue of Horror Stories, whose situation appears to be hopeless, this blonde has at least some reason to hold on to a glimmer of hope, as a man is reaching for an automatic pistol with which to perforate her tormentors, step one in effecting his rescue of her.  Of course, her savior is himself being perforated by a portcullis, but I'm an optimistic sort; I hope blondie is as well.

"Forked Horror" is a first-persona narrative written in the voice of a woman, Gloria Allen.  When she was 17, Gloria married Dr. Paul Levant, a scientist who was an expert on snakes and the medicinal use of their venom.  Paul's hobby was "oriental occultism," and he believed that the dead could possess the bodies of animals and "come back."  He told Gloria that, should he die, he would try to come back in the body of a snake!

In the very first year of their marriage, Paul was killed (it was believed) by one of his snakes, and Gloria proceeded to marry Paul's best friend, Tom Allen, just a few months later.  As our story begins, Gloria is in the woods taking a stroll and a little garter snake approaches her!  She picks it up and caresses it, calling it "Paul," and brings it home, secreting the reptile in a box where Tom won't see it.  But when Tom wakes up at night and finds his wife on the veranda cuddling with the snake, he kills it with a shoe!

Tom accuses Gloria of not loving him, of still being in love with the dead Paul, and their young marriage collapses.  Gloria is torn psychologically, unsure who she really loves--is her heart devoted to Paul or to Tom--and haunted both by a fear of snakes and an undeniable urge to be reunited with Paul, even if he has taken the form of a snake!  On the brink of madness, she wonders if Paul's shade is trying to drive her to suicide so they can be united in the afterlife--or maybe he will just come to her in the body of a poisonous serpent and murder her so they will be together in the grave! 

Gloria's memoir is a legitimately good horror story, incorporating some of my favorite themes--difficult sexual relationships, immortality, and the movement of minds/souls/consciousnesses between bodies.  Cummings includes psychological theories I guess we aren't supposed to believe today (that women act on their irrational emotions and don't even know their own minds) as well as references to Cleopatra's suicide.

Unfortunately, "Forked Terror" suffers grievously in its last two pages, which consist primarily of a journal written by Tom during his last moments in an asylum.  Tom explains how he murdered Paul, making it look like the scientist died from a snake bite, and then worked deceptions in an effort to drive Gloria insane so he could get her money. (Perhaps it is significant that Gaslight, the play that would hit Broadway in 1941 and be made into an Ingrid Bergman film in 1944, premiered in London in 1938.)  Tom’s writing features clues that lead the reader to believe that he himself is insane, and Tom admits he believes it possible that Paul really has come back in the body of a snake, his object being to kill Tom. The story ends with a brief third person section in which we learn Tom died in the asylum immediately after writing the journal; we are presented with evidence that Tom committed suicide, as well as contrary evidence that suggests he was killed by a snake!

"I Am the Tiger Girl!"  (with Gabrielle Cummings, as by Gabriel Wilson)

"I Am the Tiger Girl!" was published in Horror Stories.  The blonde on the cover of this magazine is rocking the latest in riveted steel haute couture, but it looks like some pitiless fashion critics do not appreciate her look and are mere moments from ripping her to shreds.

Our narrator for "I Am the Tiger Girl!" is Landa Maine, a refugee from “mid-Europe,” where her parents were executed as spies—Landa has grown up in America, raised by two legal guardians, unrelated to her, whom she calls "uncles."  Landa has always known she was different; her finger nails and toe nails grow with preternatural speed and are very hard and sharp, and she feels a close affinity with cats—her pet cat Fluff is her only friend! The sight of blood, especially blood drawn by her own nails, sexually arouses her. When she was 17 she was laying naked in bed with the window open, enjoying the feel of the breeze on her body (one of Cummings's recurring ideas, I guess, maybe one of his own turn-ons?), when a figure in a black hood climbed in through the window to grope her and scratch her thigh. Nobody else saw him, and her uncles assured Landa it was just a vivid dream, during which she had scratched herself.  But after this event Landa suffered a constant feeling of being watched, hungrily, by a black cloaked figure that lurked in shadows.

The plot of "I Am the Tiger Girl!" involves Landa’s relationship with a man, Burt, who falls in love with her. Landa loves him in turn, but fears one day she will be overcome by her weird lusts and kill him with her nails; to be sure, the first time Landa and Burt kiss she scratches him and greedily licks the blood off her nails when he isn't looking!  Cummings also gives us a very gory dream sequence in which Landa claws out Burt’s eyes--blood oozes out of Burt's empty sockets and the eyes roll around the floor like marbles, following Landa with an accusatory gaze!  Landa and Burt do get married in the end, but only after the uncles' efforts to destroy them and get Landa’s inheritance (always with the inheritances) are foiled.

The meanie uncle, who outs himself as that black cloaked groper, murders the softie uncle and makes it look like Landa was the killer.  He then knocks Burt out and ties him up.  Burt must watch as the evil uncle subdues and strips Landa and then molests her—his plan, after he has had his fun with Landa’s body, is to murder Burt and Landa with a special glove made from the claws of a huge wild cat; it will thus appear that Landa clawed Burt to death and then committed suicide. Luckily, Fluff the cat comes to the rescue, killing the uncle and then disappearing forever so Burt and Landa can wed. The story’s last paragraph suggests that while her outre lusts are currently under control, one night Landa’s perversion will overwhelm her and she will murder her husband in his sleep with her bare hands.

This is one of the better of these five horror stories, because, as with "Forked Terror," it involves a person wracked by contradictory impulses, struggling with a bizarre mental illness and involved in a potentially disastrous erotic relationship, and like "Corpses from Canvas" has a disturbing vision of bodily mutilation.


I don’t think these stories are quite as bad as Pohl seems to have thought them, but they definitely appeal to readers’ baser impulses, show signs of being hastily thrown together, and shamelessly recycle plot structures, plot elements, and salacious scenes.  As far as I can tell, nobody ever saw fit to print them in book form, even though Cummings had many books published over the decades, so I guess Pohl wasn't the only editor to look askance at them. 

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