Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Thorp McClusky: "Black Gold," "Fothergill's Jug" and "Workshop of the Living Dead"

Let the 1930s madness continue with three more stories by Thorp McClusky, two from Weird Tales and one from Strange Detective Mysteries.  In a letter to Willis Conover dated October 24, 1936, H. P. Lovecraft compared McClusky to Edmond Hamilton, suggesting both men were "gifted writers" (Lovecraft often praised Hamilton's "The Monster-God of Mamurth" in his correspondence, and seems to have liked McClusky's "The Crawling Horror") but that they "chose to be hacks."  Let's hope today's three stories serve as evidence for Lovecraft's belief McClusky had natural gifts and not for McClusky's alleged decision to embrace hackery. 

"Black Gold" (1937)

We've already read a stack of stories from the April 1937 issue of WT, Edmond Hamilton's "Fessenden's Worlds," Henry Kuttner's "We Are The Dead," and "The Mannikin" and "Fangs of Vengeance" by Robert Bloch.  Let's add McClusky's "Black Gold" to the pile.

The Wade family got rich back in the day in the slave trade.  Today the Wades' fortunes are at a low ebb due to reverses in the stock market.  But the last of the Wades, Henry Cabot Wade, has a risky plan to get rich again--among the reasons he has for rolling the dice is that he needs money to marry his girlfriend Evelyn.

One of Henry Cabot's sea captain ancestors marked a spot on a nautical chart with a note that he left "black gold" there.  Some people think that this Captain Wade of long ago threw a cargo of African slaves overboard there because he feared inspection by a frigate.  But Henry Cabot is positive "black gold" is a euphemism for something else, something valuable.  With the last of his money he has hired a ship and a diver and he and Evelyn have sailed to the spot to retrieve the hoped-for treasure.  

The spot is a shallow channel between two small islands.  The treasure hunters arrive at night, and plan to begin the search in the morning.  Henry Cabot and Evelyn are making out on the deck under the stars when Henry Cabot hears something, then sees something!  Things Evelyn can neither hear nor see!  As Evelyn watches her boyfriend seems to fight with an invisible opponent, falling back before an onslaught she cannot see, until he is thrown overboard!

The next day the diver finds Henry Cabot's body buried under an army of skeletons in rusted chains; one of the skeletons has its hands around HC's throat, and this skeleton bears the jewelry of an African witch doctor!

A solid horror story in just four pages, even though you know where it is going from the jump.  As a tale of black vengeance on a white man, "Black Gold" perhaps suits the current zeitgeist, but I don't know that I can recommend it to today's readers, seeing as Henry Cabot makes liberal use of the dreaded "n-word."

"Black Gold" would be reprinted in the many editions of Barnes and Nobles' 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories.

"Fothergill's Jug" (1938)

This is an oddly self-referential story that takes pains to make you think it takes place in "real life."  The narrator is Thorp McClusky himself, and he and the other characters talk about Weird Tales, express opinions about H. P. Lovecraft and Charles Fort, even refer to contemporary cultural phenomena like the famous children's book Ferdinand, actress Ethel Barrymore and race car driver Barney Oldfield.

The frame story consists of McClusky and wife taking a drive and dropping in on some friends in the country.  At his friend's place, McClusky meets a bachelor and medical doctor who reads Weird Tales regularly, and they get to talking about Lovecraft; McClusky bruits the idea that Lovecraft's stories of New England wizardry and monsters have a core of truth, that HPL based them on old documents.  This spurs McClusky's new acquaintance to tell his own story of weird goings on concerning an archaeologist, name of Fothergill, who was his neighbor back in the Twenties, a fellow bachelor whose house exploded in 1928.

Fothergill spent much of his time in the Near East, digging in the desert, uncovering the ruins of cities that were forgotten before the Pyramids were built.  Among the prehistoric artifacts he discovered was a simple clay jug with a thick sturdy wax seal over its wide mouth.  When the jug was heated (in an effort to soften the wax) the vessel moved as if something alive were in it, something rendered uncomfortable, even angry, by the heat.

Fothergill brought the jug back to America and showed it to the doctor, and they discussed whether the creature in the jug might be an extraterrestrial of some kind and/or the source of Arab stories about Jinn.  Stressed out by his responsibility for this perhaps dangerous artifact, Fothergill became a drunk.  The doctor kept telling him to bury the jug and forget about it.  It almost looked like Fothergill was going to take this advice--he even dug a hole--but then he changed his mind and put the jug into the fire.  The doctor was on the phone with Fothergill when there was a horrible noise and the line went dead--when he got to Fothergill's place the MD found the house totally flattened and Fothergill lying dead three hundred feet away, his neck wrung as if he were a chicken.  In Fothergill's garden was a footprint suggesting whatever was in the jug had expanded to 50 or 100 feet tall before vanishing.

This is a decent Lovecraftian story--McClusky even reads an old newspaper clipping, like so many Lovecraftian characters do.  "Fothergill's Jug" debuted in the same issue of Weird Tales as Robert Bloch's "The Hound of Pedro" and isfdb doesn't think it has ever been reprinted; however, the story is listed in the table of contents of a recent McClusky collection with a cover image lifted from Donald Wollheim's Avon Fantasy Reader No. 6 printed by Armchair Fiction and advertised at the website.  

"Workshop of the Living Dead" (1938)

This story appeared in Strange Detective Mysteries and stars a police detective and is full of police/crime material.  Banks and other places of business are struck by armed robbers.  The cops are taunted by an obese gangster whom all know is a serial murderer but who is so clever the DA can never pin anything on him.  One mob boss has another mob boss rubbed out.  The boys down at the lab figure stuff out by looking at fingerprints.

"Workshop of the Living Dead" has a powerful weird element as well.  The robberies and murders are carried out by men who never speak, wear slack expressions, and do not bleed when shot by security guards or fellow criminals.  When our female lead is kidnapped and stuffed into the back seat of a Cadillac next to one of these taciturn thus, she notices he smells of rotting flesh!  When the cops capture one of these speechless heavies who has been shot full of holes, the hospital staff find he has no heartbeat, his skin is room temperature, and he doesn't need to eat or sleep!  But after a few days in hospital he starts to decay!

Obviously, one of the organized crime bosses (the aforementioned fatso) has somehow acquired an army of zombies!  But these are not voodoo zombies risen from the grave--they are scientific zombies!  The obese mobster is working in concert with a mad scientist who injects people with a serum that slows down metabolic processes, rendering them impervious to pain and obviating any need for oxygen or food, and also turning them into obedient morons.  The scientist calls them "living robots" and explains to his captives (the main character is caught by an electrified trap when he sneaks into the fat mobster's rural hideout looking for his girlfriend) the draw back of his system: the serum severely inhibits the immune system, which is why the zombified thugs succumb to bacteria and rot away unless refrigerated.

The scientist hopes to conduct experiments aimed at solving this whole bacteria issue on the main character and his girlfriend but then one of the main character's colleagues busts into the hideout and a fight ensues in which the fat mobster is shot to death and the mad scientist commits suicide rather than be taken.

A trifling story, but not bad.  I can't find any evidence "Workshop of the Living Dead" has been reprinted.


These stories range from acceptable to good, and "Black Gold" and "Fothergill's Jug" are certainly better than the four stories from Thrilling Mystery we read for our last blog post.  Hopefully McClusky can maintain this level of quality as we encounter more of his work in our continuing exploration of late 1930s issues of Weird Tales.

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