Saturday, May 29, 2021

Robert Bloch: "The Opener of the Way," "The Secret of Sebek," "Return to the Sabbath" & "The Mandarin's Canaries"

Bopping around the isfdb, I saw that the 1963 Robert Bloch collection Horror-7 has had some pretty great covers.  This was all the spur I needed to continue my project of blogging about at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales printed in the 1930s by looking at stories that were reprinted in Horror-7 after first appearing in that famous magazine almost 30 years before.  I'm reading all of these in scans of the magazines available to one and all, free of charge. at the internet archive.

"The Opener of the Way" (1936)

"The Opener of the Way" was the title story of a 1945 Arkham House collection of Bloch tales and has appeared in a number of later collections and anthologies, among them The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology.  

Sir Ronald Barton is an archaeologist who has spent twenty years as a junior member of government expeditions in Egypt, digging up old tombs and so forth.  He feels he has never received the recognition and remuneration he deserves, and now is getting on in years.  So, from a recent dig Barton stole a three-thousand-year-old manuscript which presents a map to a tomb seven hundred feet beneath the desert that is purportedly full of treasure and details the sacrifices one must make and spells one must cast to unseal the tomb.

(The reader wonders why, if he wants to portray Barton as poor and unrecognized, Bloch makes the man a knight, which implies he was awarded an honor by the King of England in recognition of his services to the British people or that an ancestor had the money to purchase a baronetcy.)

The story describes Barton's expedition to the secret tomb with his son, Peter, focusing on Peter's skepticism and fear as dear old Dad sacrifices goats and jackals and chants spells and performs other outrĂ© and unsettling operations.  Once in the smelly old tomb, where looms an eight-foot-tall statue of Anubis, Sir Ronald admits to his son that he suspects the treasure in the tomb is an arsenal of superweapons and magical devices that he aspires to use to take over the world and revive the worship of the malevolent forgotten gods that reigned before recorded history!  Yikes!   

According to the ancient manuscript, to reveal the secret door to the treasure one must shift one's soul  into the statue and thusly animate it.  Sir Ronald attempts this risky procedure via self-hypnosis, and tragedy and horror almost beyond belief is the result!

This is a good story; the description of the door to the tomb is especially good.  Much better than Bloch's average--all the occult business is interesting, all the atmospheric stuff works, and Bob doesn't waste our time with dumb puns and lame social commentary and psychological blah blah blah, as he does so often in his later work.  One can see in Sir Ronald's career and desperate pursuit of power, and in Peter's reactions to his father's moral degradation and catastrophic risk taking, some psychological phenomena and maybe even comment on social relations (those between a father and son and a man and his government), but these elements are organic to the story and strengthen it, they aren't just obtrusively piled on top of the plot to dull and burden it the way Bloch's psychological jargon and jeremiads against our culture sometimes can.

Thumbs up for "The Opener of the Way."   

"The Secret of Sebek" (1937)

This story features the forbidden book Bloch invented to put up on the shelf next to Lovecraft's Necronomicon and Howard's Nameless Cults: Ludvig Prinn's Mysteries of the Worm.  The narrator of "The Secret of Sebek" starts the story off by telling us he suffers recurring nightmares because of what he saw in New Orleans while there working on stories about Ancient Egypt.

It is Mardi Gras, and after a long day slaving over a hot typewriter our hero goes out into the streets to get drunk and mingle with the party goers.  He is approached by a man dressed like an ancient Egyptian priest--this guy knows of the narrator's work and is himself a student of the occult.  He takes the narrator to a costume party at his mansion, where many people are dressed up as devils and monsters and so forth.  The guy introduces the narrator to his inner circle of fellow occult researchers, and they show the narrator their little occult library, which includes a copy of Mysteries of the Worm, and produce from behind a secret panel a mummy case, the markings of which indicate it contains the remains of a priest of Sebek, the Crocodile God of the Nile, to whom were sacrificed virgin maidens.

These priests of Sebek's mummies are said to be protected by crocodile-headed men, and just such a monster, which the narrator had seen among the partygoers but simply assumed was a guy wearing a mask, appears and kills our narrator's host by biting his throat, and then leaves.  The narrator flees New Orleans and since has been trying to forget the whole incident.

I have to give this one a thumbs down.  "The Secret of Sebek" is a little too obvious and too slow, with not much happening and too many long boring descriptions of New Orleans and the party, descriptions that I found didn't conjure up any images or emotions in my mind but were simply strings of characters that accumulated on the page before me.

"The Secret of Sebek" has been reprinted plenty of times, including in Bloch collections, volumes dedicated to Lovecraftian stories, and a mummy anthology.

"Return to the Sabbath" (1938)  

"Return to the Sabbath" appeared in an issue of Weird Tales that features one of the most widely reprinted Edmond Hamilton stories, "He That Hath Wings," a story that tells you maybe you shouldn't deny your true nature in order to please your family, and an Elak of Atlantis story by Henry Kuttner that I read before I started this blog.  (A good idea for a future blog post is one in which I address all four Elak stories, all of which debuted in Weird Tales.)  There's also a Clark Ashton Smith story with a great title: "Mother of Toads."  This looks like a good issue!

The narrator of "Return to the Sabbath" is a Hollywood PR guy.  He and a colleague, an assistant producer, are sitting in a low class theatre that shows short films between vaudeville acts and stripteases, and see an amazing horror film from Europe that the theatre was sent by mistake, Return to the Sabbath.  The film's lead, an Austrian who portrays a scientist who is buried alive and makes a pact with Satan and rises from the grave to wreak revenge, Karl Jorla, is so good the assistant producer tracks him down via phone and cable and hires him. 

Jorla arrives and our narrator learns the amazing truth--that foreign flick was so good because Jorla and the film's director are real devil worshippers and the black sabbath depicted was no act!  Jorla confides that Return to the Sabbath was never meant to be seen by the public, and the fact that it has been accidentally released has incensed Jorla's former friends in the Satan cult and they are searching the world for him with the intention of killing him.  He only accepted this acting job in Tinseltown as a means of getting his ass out of Europe.  

Production begins on the movie that has been built around Jorla's persona, but Jorla and the narrator fear the agents of Lucifer will get him before the film can be completed, and Bloch gives us a decent build up and pretty good horror climax.  

Entertaining.  Film buffs might appreciate all the references to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and other horror cinema icons.  Another above-average effort from Bloch, "Return to the Sabbath" has been reprinted many times in English and in translation.  

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"The Mandarin's Canaries" (1938)

This story depicts an Imperial China whose ruling elite is corrupt, authoritarian, arbitrary, and cruel.  Worst of the monsters who misrule the Chinese people is the Mandarin Quong, a sadist whose main source of joy is inflicting and observing pain.  He is a connoisseur of pain who is even writing a scholarly treatise on pain!  At Quong's direction people unlucky enough to live under his jurisdiction are arrested and convicted on trumped up charges so he can seize their wealth and then thrill at the sight of them being tortured to death among the orchids in his Garden of Pain.

Years ago some Portuguese missionaries came to visit Quong.  They brought with them some canaries.  Quong had the two priests crucified, and the freed canaries became regular visitors to the Garden of Pain; somehow, the birds took to eating the flesh of the corpses that are a daily fixture of the Garden.  Over the years the canaries multiplied, until today they number in the thousands; in half an hour the flock strip the flesh off a man who hangs dead on a cross or lies dead on a rack or is slumped against a tree, perforated by crossbow bolts, leaving him a gleaming white skeleton.  After their daily feast of human flesh the canaries congregate in the trees and sing a beautiful song that brings tears to the eyes of Quong.  The local people fear these birds as symbols of the Mandarin's absolute power, and come to believe they carry the souls of those they have devoured.  

Such is the background of the story.  The plot concerns the greatest crossbowman in China, whom Quong hires to torture people by shooting them a dozen or more times without killing them.  This soldier has a beautiful wife, whom Quong appropriates.  After enjoying her a few times he gets angry at her one day and kills her and the canaries eat her flesh.  The crossbowman turns the tables on the Mandarin, inflicting upon him the torture of being shot repeatedly but allowed to linger, alive, in agony.  The Mandarin, surprisingly, then turns the tables on the soldier, affixing him to a tree with a crossbow bolt and summoning his canaries, who kill and eat the soldier.  But then the canaries attack the Mandarin as he lies bleeding to death, and the Mandarin's last thoughts are the suspicion that this is because the souls of the soldier and his wife are animating the birds.

"The Mandarin's Canaries" is an exploitation story that seeks to leverage our prurient interest in torture, our fears of being cuckolded, and our fears of foreigners (or maybe just foreign rulers) who don't share our values (to put it diplomatically.)  It would be easy to dismiss the story as vulgarity, xenophobia,  cultural appropriation, etc., but that is not my bag--I'm more interested in whether or not the story succeeds as a piece of literature or entertainment than in measuring its fealty to the attitudes of the au courant.   

The background sections, which form over half the story's page count, I think do work at creating a horrible character and horrific setting.  Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really work.  How is the soldier able to just overpower and torture the Mandarin--aren't there any guards?  How is the Mandarin, as he is bleeding to death after being punctured by dozens of crossbow bolts, able to overpower the uninjured soldier who minutes earlier easily manhandled him?  If the Mandarin's victims' souls can animate the birds, why did they do his bidding for years--shouldn't they identify with the Mandarin's victims, not the Mandarin?  Why did the flock seek vengeance on Quong at the end of the story, and not earlier?  I can't help but think Bloch could have come up with an ending that wouldn't be so full of holes and would do a better job of presenting his themes.  

(As a side note, it is interesting to compare this story to Clark Ashton Smith stories which are basically similar in that they are about sadists torturing people, e. g., "Isle of the Torturers," but are set in some fantasy land and so are less susceptible to being called racist.)

I guess I'll call "The Mandarin's Canaries" "acceptable" because it is sort of crazy and never boring, and scholarly types might consider it an interesting example of "Yellow Peril" fiction as well as body horror, but the ending just doesn't work so I can't call it good.  The story has appeared in Bloch collections, but not in any anthologies, though the editors of Cavalier magazine in 1960 saw fit to include it in their publication along with (it appears) fun paintings of World War I fighter planes.    


Dull and routine, "The Secret of Sebek" is a waste of time, but the other three stories are good or at least provide insight into the popular culture of the 1930s.  I haven't run a spreadsheet and I don't have a specific year that distinguishes "early" from "late," but I think on average over the course of this blog's life I have been finding Bloch's early work more rewarding than his later work.

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