Friday, January 12, 2024

Weird Tales, March 1938: McClusky, Prout, von Scholz, & Price

The March 1938 has two of our favorite things on its cover--a fleshless human skull and a topless human lady!--and if the lure of death and sex isn't enough to make you part with your hard-earned two bits, the cover also lets you know the interior contains work by four big names in the worlds of the weird and of science fiction: H. P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner, Thorp McClusky and Jack Williamson.  A regular murderers' row of speculative fiction!

We talked about this issue's Lovecraft reprint ("Beyond the Wall of Sleep") when we read selections from a 1949 August Derleth anthology, and about the Kuttner contribution ("The Shadow on the Screen") in one of our many Kuttner-centric blog posts.  The Williamson, part one of the serial "Dreadful Sleep," I'll perhaps look at in the future.  Today we'll examine the story by McClusky, plus three stories by men whose names don't appear above the death's head on the cover, Mearle (AKA "Merle") Prout, Wilhelm von Scholz and E. Hoffmann Price.

"The Thing on the Floor" by Thorp McClusky (1938)

In 2020 we read McClusky's "The Crawling Horror," which reminded me of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s "Who Goes There?"  Two years later we read McClusky's story about how beautiful women can rob you of your soul, "The Woman in Room 607."  The heroes from "The Woman in Room 607," police commissioner Charles Ethredge and detective Peters, reappear here in "The Thing on the Floor;" it looks like there are five Ethredge and Peters stories, four of which (including today's specimen) were collected in the 1975 volume Loot of the Vampire.  

There's a new sensation among the rich people of the city--Dmitri Vassilievitch Tulin, a hypnotist said to be able to cure people's ailments, including cancer and hemophilia--for a price!  Top cop Charles Ethredge thinks Dmitri is a mere charlatan, of course, and is a little annoyed when his fiancĂ©, Mary Roberts, can't attend a concert with him because her friend Helen Stacy-Forbes has invited her to one of Dmitri's Thursday evening performances at his brownstone.

Sitting in the Tulin household, among two dozen of the city's wealthiest people, most of them women, half of them desperately sick and the other half mere thrill seekers, Mary gets her first glimpse of the hypnotist who has the society crowd all in a flutter.  Dmitri turns out to be an "obscene" "monstrosity," a pale and ugly man over six feet tall, bald and immensely obese.  (If you were wondering how Virgil Finlay might draw a fat guy, his illustration to "The Thing on the Floor" here in Weird Tales will go some distance to satisfying your curiosity.)  After explaining his philosophy (matter and energy are not real, but only "temporary conceptions of an infinite, timeless Mind" with a capital "M") and demonstrating to the assembled upper-middle class ladies his powers to preserve his clients' health by shooting his servant, who is unharmed, Dmitri holds court at a party with the amazed witnesses to his feats.  Apparently impressed by Mary's beauty, he ushers her and her pal Helen into a private room where, ostensibly, Helen will be hypnotized to determine if she, like her brother, is a hemophiliac.

The scene shifts to two weeks later, and the second half of the 18-page story relates how Mary's cousin's jewels turn up missing and the cuz and Charles figure out Dmitri hypnotized Mary into lifting them, and then how Ethredge and heroic detective Peters confront Dmitri and force him to free Mary from hypnotic slavery.  In the final struggle we get a gruesome scene of sexualized violence as Mary is tortured via hypnotism, her body contorted in agony, and then two little ironic twists at the ending: Dmitri himself is undone via psychological trickery, and his servant, after having survived being shot and otherwise wounded scores of times, upon Dmitri's demise suddenly suffers the effects of all those bullets and other forms of abuse--it is the devastated body of this man that is the "thing" of the title.  

This story is alright; while the step-by-step descriptions of Dmitri's demonstrations feel kind of long, the entertainment value of the body horror ending help to redeem the tale.

"Guarded" by Mearle Prout (1938)

I don't think I've ever read anything by Prout, who has four fiction entries at isfdb, all of them for stories that were printed by Farnsworth Wright in Weird Tales.  "Guarded" was chosen by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert A. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg for reprinting in 1993's 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, and takes up four pages here in the magazine of the bizarre and unusual.

"Guarded" is a pedestrian story, though competently told, about feuding hillbillies in Tennessee who chew tobacco and have names like "Jed" and "Ezekiel."  Jed Tolliver hates the Simmons family, whom he thinks of as "foreigners" because they moved to TN from VA or some such place.  Jed shoots down Abner Simmons from ambush, and when he goes to gloat over the dying "foreigner," Abner uses his last breaths to tell his murderer that he won't let him kill the last of the Simmons, his brother Ezekiel.  And, sure enough, some days later, when Jed tries to ambush Ezekial, some mysterious force throws off his aim; some months later Jed tries to sneak up on Ezekial and stab him in the back, but somehow ends up cutting his own throat!  As Jed dies, he hears "a light mocking laugh."

Acceptable filler.   

"The Head in the Window" by Wilhelm von Scholz (1938)

This story, we are told, was "adapted from the German" by Roy Temple House, a well-respected linguist and editor of a scholarly journal.  Wilhelm von Scholz was a German writer who during the Second World War edited a Nazi periodical and wrote verse praising Hitler.  The German wikipedia page on von Scholz lists over two dozen works by him (I can't find an English wikipedia page on the man, but Terence E. Hanley has put up a blog post about Scholz based on that German wikipedia page at the cool blog Tellers of Weird Tales) but von Scholz has only two entries at isfdb, and the other one is a story printed only in German.  (If you were wondering, House has only one fiction entry of his own at isfdb.)  It seems this English version of "The Head in the Window" has only ever appeared here in Weird Tales, and is five and a half pages in length.

Von Scholz and House may not have made extensive contributions to the canon of English language speculative fiction, but this story here is a good one; with its effective pacing, vivid descriptions and well-drawn characters with real personality, "The Head in the Window" makes the McClusky and Prout efforts which appear alongside it, with their boilerplate plots and cardboard characters, look poor in comparison.  

A nervous German painter and his nervous little dog are living in Italy alone in a relatively remote house.  On a walk home late at night after spending the evening drinking with fellow artists, this dude has some disquieting encounters but also receives inspiration for his next canvas.  Using a man he saw on his creepy night walk as a model, he sketches out the composition for this next painting, but is stumped because he can't quite come up with an appropriate face for the central figure of the painting--in the dark he didn't get a good look at this guy's face.  In the middle of the night he awakes to find the man he saw, his inspiration, pressed up against the glass of one of his windows, his face clearly visible and displaying unmistakable marks of horrible abuse, as if the man has been beaten or even murdered!  Then the gruesome figure vanishes!

The next morning the astonishing truth is revealed to the German painter--the man he saw on his walk and then at his window was a peasant reputed to have psychic powers who, having sensed that the painter would be attacked by robbers, sacrificed his own life to preserve the German's!

I like it.   

"The Girl from Samarcand" by E. Hoffmann Price (1929)   

Here we have a "Weird Story Reprint."  "The Girl from Samarcand" first appeared in a 1929 issue of Weird Tales, and would reappear in the Price collection Strange Gateways in 1967 and in 1986 in an Italian anthology with a titillating Boris Vallejo cover.  The decision to reprint it here, almost ten years after its debut, was a good one, as it is a solid tale based on believable human personalities and relationships as well as compelling descriptions of art and magic.

Three years ago, Diane, an attractive society girl of New Orleans, married Hammersmith Clarke, a sort of adventurer guy who made his fortune in the East acquiring Oriental rugs for sale in the West.  (Samarcand, AKA "Samarkand," is a town in Uzbekistan, as my globe-trotting readers already know.)  Diane and "Ham," as she calls him, have had a difficult relationship because hubby seems more interested in sitting around at home looking at his world class collection of centuries-old rugs than going out on the town with Diane, or even talking to Diane.  "The Girl of Samarcand" can be seen as a story about how jealous women can get of their husbands' hobbies or work; we might even see it as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for men whose wives demand more attention than they want to give them.

Price does a good job of making his descriptions of the dynamics of the Clarkes' relationship and of all the exotic rugs entertaining, and the final revelations and resolution of the plot are not bad.  A new rug arrives from Ham's primary contact with the East, a rug he didn't order but which is so astoundingly beautiful he doesn't even consider refusing.  Engrossed in staring at this rug, he devotes even less attention to Diane, driving her to leave him.  Then, one night, as the light of the moon lands on the new rug, a gorgeous "Yellow Girl" appears--it is a girl Ham met in the East twenty years ago and spent but a single night with.  The woman explains that he and she were forbidden lovers centuries ago, and were both executed for their illicit affair, but, before she was killed, she wove her soul into this rug.  By contriving to get the rug into Ham's hands, she has travelled from beyond death to be with him again, but can only remain for as long as the moonlight lay upon the rug.  Even worse, she can do this trick but once!  So Ham agrees to return with her to the next world.

Pretty good.         


I'm satisfied with all four of these stories, two of which are actually good and deserving of recommendation to fans of the uncanny.  The March 1938 issue has been an easy step in the long journey that is my quest to have read at least one story from every issue of Weird Tales with a 1930s cover date.

1 comment:

  1. I love your choice of covers! WEIRD TALES specialized in scantily clad women and skulls.