Monday, June 7, 2021

Robert Bloch: "Slave of the Flames," "The Hound of Pedro," and "Beetles"

My 1930s Weird Tales project continues to slither forward--today with three 1938 stories by Robert Bloch!  I read all three of these tales in scans of the original magazines edited by Farnsworth Wright available at the internet archive, where, free of charge, you can not only read prose and verse by the  pioneers and immortal giants of weird literature, but admire illustrations by Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay and advertisements for the Rosicrucians ("You Can Influence Others With Your Thinking!"), Listerine ("Don't Treat Symptoms--Get At The Cause") and Fleischman's Yeast ("No Friends Since Pimples Came?--Get this help in guarding against skin-blotching intestinal poisons.")  Did you know that eating yeast half an hour before meals can clear up acne?  I didn't either!*

*MPorcius Fiction Log is not in the business of offering medical advice; all information provided is for entertainment purposes only.  MPorcius Fiction Log will not be held responsible for the consequences of any person ingesting or failing to ingest any substances whatsoever.        

"Slave of the Flames"

The issue of Weird Tales that saw the debut of "Slave of the Flames" features a bondage cover by Margaret Brundage that I have to admit is pretty mesmerizing, and includes a poem by Frank Belknap Long (praising H. P. Lovecraft), another by Robert E. Howard (about an island nation that suddenly sinks beneath the waves), and two by Clark Ashton Smith (one is, I guess, about a bunch of people on a remote beach in Egypt who fight griffins and hunt for herbs, while the other, I think, is about a guy who tries to forget about his failures with women by reading fantasy stories--oof, cuts close to home for some of us!)  While the power of Brundage's cover illustration immediately makes itself felt, it took quite a bit of time and focus for me to get anything out of Long, Howard and Smith's poems, which are kind of oblique and bristle like a pack of sea urchins with words you don't hear too often.  real furrowed brow stuff.  These three top members of the Lovecraft circle took their poetry seriously. 

A look at his isfdb page suggests Robert Bloch didn't take his poetry too seriously.  But we know one at least one thing he did take seriously: psychology.  "Slave of the Flames" offers an attempt to get inside the mind of a murderous pyromaniac.  

...making a fire was like--like painting a picture, or playing music....It was beautiful to see things burn.  And not only things now--people, also. 

In my blog post about some H. P. Lovecraft collaborations with C. M. Eddy, I quoted some of Lovecraft's correspondence in which he talked about how true art had to be written from an unconventional point of view and advocated the idea of writing horror stories from the point of view of enemies of humanity who should be eradicated.  Well, here Bloch embraces those ideas and achieves some success. 

The first few pages of "Slave of the Flames" are all about a young man, Abe, who is obsessed with the beauty of fire and, in 1871, leaves his rural home to come to Chicago, where he starts a fire that burns down several city blocks--he stands among the crowd, enraptured by the sight of the conflagration, imagining the fire is a living creature, a giant monster in a battle for its life against the Lilliputian fire fighters who eventually defeat it.

After this realistic beginning comes the fantastical bit, which constitutes like two-thirds of the story.  After the blaze Abe is pursued by a mysterious cloaked man who takes him to meet another weirdo, an elderly and obese man clad in a fortune in jewels.  This man is Nero, emperor of Rome!  The cloaked  man is a priest of a fire god (whom I think is later revealed to be an aspect of Satan, or Satan in disguise or whatever.)  Back in ancient times, we learn, Nero, a pyromaniac, was gifted renewed youth by the fire god in return for his putting people and entire towns to the torch as sacrifices.  Periodically this life extension treatment must be renewed by the razing of a great city; in 1666 Nero and the priest burned down London, and now they are getting pretty old again and are planning on burning down Chi-town.

Bloch introduces a not-all-that-convincing complication to the story to enable his plot to work; Nero thinks nothing is more beautiful than a fire, but he often chickens out when it is time to burn down some city, and so has some underling set the fire.  Nero believes Abe is a reincarnation of the guy(s) who helped him burn down Rome and London, and makes Abe a member of his entourage.  In October Abe is given the honor of starting what we know as the Great Chicago Fire.  But Abe screws everything up for Nero when the emperor and the priest summon the fire god to ask to be rejuvenated in return for having burned down the Windy City.  As the god appears, Abe cries out that he, not Nero, started the fire, and the vengeful god kills all three of them. 

"Slave of the Flames" is one of many examples of Bloch mining history and literature for material for his stories.  Remember that story about revolutions?  And that Napoleon story?  We just read a Bloch story in which characters from Homer and Swift are brought to life by aliens.  And of course his stories that use Poe and Jack the Ripper and the Marquis de Sade as jumping off points are famous.  

The Nero stuff is kind of lame, but not exactly bad, and the first part of the story that focuses on Abe's psychology works, so I guess we'll call "Slave of the Flames" acceptable.  If you like reading paragraph after paragraph about buildings and people burning up, stuff melting, people boiling to death in hot water, people driven hysterical with terror by the advancing flames, etc., maybe you'll like this more than I did.

"Slave of the Flames" has been reprinted in plenty of Bloch collections, as well as a 1977 fanzine called The Diversifier and a 1979 French anthology of Weird Tales stories.


"The Hound of Pedro" 

The year: 1717!  The place: The Mexican village of Novorros!  A band of forty armored cavalrymen rides into Novorros and murders the priests at the mission and takes over the adobe town, forcing the local Indians, the Yaquis, to slave in the local gold mine!  The leader of these marauders is Black Pedro Dominguez, a ruthless and sadistic fatso whom we are told looks like an evil version of Buddha!  At Pedro's side is his black hound, a ferocious beast as big as a cougar.  As his lieutenants Pedro has a turbaned Arab and a buccaneer with a jeweled cutlass. 

Like Bloch's "The Mandarin's Canaries" this is a story about exotic foreigners torturing each other, though maybe it is a little less vulnerable to 21st century charges of racism because it depicts white imperialists (albeit in league with a Muslim) abusing Native Americans.  Black Pedro and his lieutenants behead people, take advantage of Indian women, let the hound eat people alive, and come up with elaborate ways of executing Yaquis who resist, like burying them up to their heads in the sand and then using the prisoner's heads as targets in a game of lawn bowling.  The Arab is some kind of wizard, and sacrifices virgin girls to the Devil on a monthly basis, as well as rebellious Indians as they become available.  The Yaquis come to believe the hound, which is always slinking around the village, can understand human speech and reports all talk of resistance to Black Pedro.    

After describing these atrocities in the first half of the story, in the second half of "The Hound of Pedro" Bloch introduces the Spanish authorities who have been searching for Black Pedro and his band of criminals for months.  They attack the town just after Pedro and the wizard have sacrificed an Indian maiden and Pedro and the black dog have drunk her blood.  The leader of the Spanish force bursts into the torture dungeon to kill the wizard and Black Pedro, who, curiously, doesn't put up any resistance.  The huge black dog, on the other hand, fights its way past the Spanish troops and out of the dungeon.  Outside, it is captured and tortured by the Yaquis, who bury it so only its head sticks out of the sand and then roll wooden bowling balls at it.  The Spanish officer beats back the vengeful natives to put the dog out of its misery, and as it dies the canine speaks and it becomes clear that every month, when the Arab sacrificed a virgin to Satan, he cast a spell which allowed Black Pedro to shift his soul into the dog's body for a few days.

This is a convoluted and contrived story whose wacky plot is simply a rickety framework upon which Bloch can hang his gory and salacious exploitation material.  The reasons the wizard and Satan want Pedro to inhabit a dog's body don't make much sense--apparently when Pedro is in the dog's body and it kills a person the soul of the person goes to the Devil.  So I guess when the wizard sacrifices people to Satan, like he does all the time, including to cast the spell that puts Pedro's soul in the dog's body, their souls don't go to the Devil?  The story might make more sense if Pedro wanted to be in a dog's body, but he doesn't seem to want to.  Another minor issue with this story is that the weapons and equipment Bloch vaguely describes make me wonder if "1717" is a typo for "1617."     

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

Finally, I have to say something about the illustration attached to "The Hound of Pedro" in Weird Tales.  Bloch describes the dog as having a hide as black as midnight, a toothy maw with a long red tongue, and ruby eyes, and says the thing radiates evil and scares everybody.  But the illustration shows a lovable brown and white hound with cute floppy ears and big sad eyes.  The illustrator must not have read the story!  For shame! 

"The Hound of Pedro" wasn't reprinted in an English Bloch collection until 2008 with the publication of Skeleton in the Closet and Other Stories, though it did appear in a 1984 French collection as well as Michel Parry's 1974 anthology The Hounds of Hell, which was translated into German in 1977.


"Beetles" 

Weird Tales is full of Egyptian stuff, and Bloch served up his fair share of Egyptian stories, as we have seen recently.  Well, here's another piece that draws on people's fascination with ancient Egypt, mummies, and the curses associated with archaeological digs.  

Arthur Hartley was a gregarious guy whom everybody liked, but after returning from his eight-month archaeological expedition to the Egyptian Sudan he stopped coming to the club and seeing his friends and even refuses callers who drop by his apartment.  On the rare occasions he does show his face in public he looks sick and scared.  Our narrator sort of barges in on him tin hopes of learning what the hell is up with this former life of the party now turned shabby recluse.

Hartley, it turns out, stole the mummy of a virgin while on the expedition--it's right there in his apartment--and now thinks he is under a curse!  Everywhere he goes, he sees beetles, big black ones over an inch long, in the shadows, and if it is dark they crawl towards him, trying to crawl on his face.  These little six-legged bastards are fast, and clever, and he has never been able to catch one. 

Of course the narrator thinks Hartley is just hallucinating.  He hurries to get a doctor, but when they return to Hartley's apartment they find he is dead.  At first they think he died of a heart attack or something, but quickly realize the beetles were real, and had been hiding in the stolen mummy case, in the remains of the virgin, and, when Hartley fell asleep, after struggling to stay awake for days, they crawled into his mouth and ate his insides, leaving only a shell.  The final scene of the story is the army of beetles climbing out of Hartley's mouth.

Not bad, though you have to wonder why Hartley would steal a mummy.  It's not like stealing a Greek vase or a Rembrandt, a thing of beauty you can joyfully stare at forever--it's a disgusting dead body!  Obviously I was hoping the virgin was magically still alive and Hartley had fallen in love with her or Hartley was a necrophiliac or something like that, but Bloch does not really go there.  

"Beetles" has been well received, and has reappeared in many collections and anthologies.  The Spring 1991 issue of Weird Tales, a special Bloch issue, reprinted it and the Gahan Wilson cover directly refers to it.


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I feel like I'm making real progress in my self-appointed quest to read at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales printed in the 1930s.  No rush, though; our next few blog posts may address more mainstream literature, though hopefully these works will feature the sex and violence we crave without cease!