Monday, June 10, 2024

Thrilling Mystery, May 1936: E Hamilton, F B Long, R Cummings and C Jacobi

Advertising works!  While reading a story from the October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder I came upon a full page ad for Thrilling Mystery that promised me horror, terror and torture and backed this promise up with a great illustration featuring hooded tormentors and their bound victim.  I decided I needed to check out some of this HT&T action, and found at an issue of Thrilling Mystery full of stories by people we know: Edmond Hamilton, Frank Belknap Long, Ray Cummings, and Carl Jacobi, the May 1936 ish.  Let's check out these four stories, rare specimens which would not be reprinted until the current horrible, terrible, and torturous 21st century.

"Beasts That Once Were Men" by Edmond Hamilton

Already in this blog post I am caught in a mistake--it looks like "Beasts That Once Were Men" was reprinted in 2000 in Haffner Press's The Vampire Master and Other Tales of Horror, and 2000 was still in the 20th century.  Oh, well.

Our story begins on the telephone.  Our hero Ned Felton receives a call from someone whose speech sounds like barks and howls.  Eventually Ned begins to comprehend the words the voice struggles to pronounce--the voice claims to be Francis Lester, brother of Ned's beautiful fiancĂ©, Ruth!  Francis says he is going to commit suicide before the terrible thing that is happening to him gets even worse!

Ned rushes to pick up Ruth, who has black hair, an oval face, and a body "almost childlike" in its "smallness," but with the "sweet curves of ripening womanhood."  On the drive to the remote house where Francis has been staying with two scientists, Doctors Robine and Mattison, Ruth tells Ned what little she knows about the financial support and laboratory assistance her brother has been providing those two eggheads.  It was all Greek to her, but Ruth recalls the word "atavism" coming up, and Ned knows what that means--R & M are trying to reverse evolution!  No doubt poor Francis is now some kind of beast man!  

At the rural retreat Ned and Ruth discover what appear to be the remains of Francis--an ape in human clothes, lying dead on the floor with a bullet hole in his head.  Francis must have gone through with his plan to destroy himself!  Then Mattison, a sort of missing-link ape man, bursts into the room, knocks out Ned, and carries off Ruth.  Ned wakes up to meet Robine, who admits that his wacky experiments are the source of all this mayhem.  The men split up to search for Mattison and Ruth; the next time Ned sees Robine the scientist is laying stunned nearby where Mattison the ape man is stripping naked the unconscious Ruth--Hamilton tells us all about how her stockings and clothes have been torn and her white flesh has been scratched red by briars and brambles while being carried through the woods by her bestial abductor.

It's a ferocious fight, but Ned finally knocks Mattison out by braining him with a rock.  Robine comes yo his senses and helps tie up the ape man.  Ruth wakes up after being carried back to the house.  And then comes the soul crushing let down, I mean, amazing twist ending! 

Son of Ohio Edmond Hamilton often wrote about evolution in the 1930s, and his wife Leigh Brackett would later write a story in which vengeful Martians, bitter over Terran settler-colonialism, subjected humans to reverse evolution, 1948's "Beast-Jewel of Mars."  I don't have to tell you again that this view of evolution doesn't make much sense, but the appeal of a man transforming into an evil brainiac from the future (like in Thorp McClusky's "Monstrosity of Evolution") or the primordial ooze of a bazillion years ago (like in Donald Wandrei's "The Lives of Alfred Kramer") is undeniable and we see this stuff pretty regularly.
So, like a fool, I ignored all the clues that we had a hoax on our hands and really thought that Robine's radiation machine had turned Francis and Mattison into lower forms of life and was painfully disappointed when Ned exposed Robine's chicanery.  Robine murdered Francis because Robine is not a very good scientist or businessman and got absolutely nowhere with his radiation projector and couldn't pay Francis back.  He hid Francis's body and shot down an ape and dressed the simian in Francis's clothes--he also made that phone call pretending to be a beast-Francis.  As for Mattison, Robine fed him hormones and steroids that made him look and act like an ape.  What?  That is perhaps less believable, and certainly less fun, than an evolution reversing ray.  Ugh.

Exposed, Robine commits suicide via a ring with a spring-loaded poison injector, I guess a common device in 1930s genre fiction I(we just saw one in John Russell Fearn's "The Secret of the Ring.".  

"Beasts That Once Were Men" is OK up until the disappointing ending, but that ending pushes us down into unacceptable territory.  There's a tradition of these kinds of endings in which the supernatural or science fiction elements of a story turn out to be a criminal's hoax (the original Scooby-Doo cartoons are perhaps the most famous expression of this tradition, and we've read Henry Kuttner and Jack Williamson stories in this vein, like "The Graveyard Curse" and "The Mark of the Monster") so I guess I shouldn't be as surprised as I am.  Now I am worried that all four of today's stories are going to have the same deflating sort of conclusion.

"Harvest of Death" by Frank Belknap Long

"Harvest of Death" would be reprinted by Centipede Press in a 2010 volume of their Masters of the Weird Tale series with a price tag of $225; it also appears in a $60 Centipede Press production, released in 2022 complete with a cover photo of Long showing off an awesome suit and some terrific hair styling.  I have often questioned the choices Long makes in his fiction, but his fashion choices look to be unquestionable.

Young artist Willie Stuart has just left a party and is loitering in a doorway in New Orleans' French Quarter when a strange shape, much like an oversized bat, dashes by and around a corner.  The shadow seems to have come from a nearby building, and Stuart investigates with his flashlight--he finds lying on some stairs the dead body of surrealist Robert Craugh, a man famous for his paintings of macabre scenes.  Long describes the still-bleeding corpse in extravagant detail and at great length, milking the scene of every cubic centimeter of gore.  Lying next to the artist is the canvas he was carrying when somebody or something ripped out his throat and buried a knife in his chest--The Torturers, which depicts six gaunt men tormenting a slim young woman.

The police commissioner is Willie's uncle and Willie badgers him into deputizing him so he can work on the case of Robert Craugh.  The characters in these slapdash exploitation stories are often hard to credit--an artist who is habitually drunk is also an eager amateur detective?  A police commissioner who assigns his booze-swilling frivolous party-going nephew to investigate the murders of celebrities?  Good grief!

Willie's first step is to talk to a gallery owner named Bailey who has been exhibiting Craugh's work.  It is not long before Bailey, a wealthy connoisseur with a mania for decadent and surrealist art and a mansion full of books and vases, is taking credit for the crime.  The gallery owner claims that Craugh was a sadist who tortured his sister, and so he summoned a monster from outer space to wreak revenge on Craugh.  Willie is poked with a poisoned needle and falls unconscious; he wakes up in a dungeon which is also inhabited by a male corpse, the horrible torso wound of which Long describes in detail, and a beautiful half-naked woman whose limbs bear many small wounds.  The woman claims to be a cousin of Craugh and says Craugh was a saint and Bailey is insane.  The corpse is her brother--the monster from space tore brother's heart out!

Bailey and the four-foot-tall bat man come down to the dungeon to start scourging the beautiful girl, but then a detective who was following Willie arrives and shoots down both of the killers.  Then comes the denouement, in which we learn the demented Bailey was obsessed with ancient religions and human sacrifice and has tortured and murdered like a dozen people with the help of his "monster," a "microcephalic idiot" whom Bailey adopted from a "home for the feeble minded" and conditioned into cannibalism and trained as an assassin.  We also get our happy ending--it looks like Willie and the beautiful Miss Craugh will get married.  With their unique "meet cute" story, I guess marriage was inevitable.

Long does an entertaining job with the gore scenes, describing the oozing injuries and pools of blood and how Willie is always on the brink of vomiting and all that, but the plot is lame--it is just a wire-thin frame upon which to hang the gore scenes.  I never believed the little cannibal was an actual space monster, so that wasn't a source of disappointment, and, besides turning a pinheaded dwarf into a cannibal assassin and dressing him up like a bat is actually pretty fun.  So I guess we can call "Harvest of Death" acceptable.  (Why is this story titled "Harvest of Death" anyway?  It is not about farmers, but the art world, and Long makes sure to throw in the names of famous painters like Van Gogh and Dali, so something like "Exhibition of Execution" or "Gallery of Grue" or "Impression of Death" or "Red Period" would have been more appropriate.

"Halfway to Horror" by Ray Cummings

Way back in 2018 we read five exploitative horror stories by Cummings from 1940, a big pile of Cummings' adventurous science fiction short stories from '40 and '41, two adventure novels he published in the early '30s, and an irritating utopian novel published in the late 1920s. Let's get back in touch with Ray and his wild, diverse and perhaps a little crazy career with this story, which is set in the frozen north!

Our narrator, Seattle accountant George Halton, is one of a party of amateur climbers who have just descended Mount Sir Joseph and are on their way to Eagle Pass, led by their professional guide, Peter Trow.  In the party are: Halton's fiancĂ©, a small woman with a "darkly Latin" beauty, Tina James; Tina's uncle, a good-natured 60-year old geology professor; uncle's grim and gaunt wife; and a 30-year-old professor, Lee Carrington. Family friend Carrington is also in love with Tina, but Tina has rejected him, even though aunt gaunt-face prefers Carrington, and Halton has been wondering if aunt or Carrington might welcome seeing him falling off a cliff to his death.  Well, the climb is over now and the danger is passed.

Not!  A blizzard strikes the party, and they can barely see fifty feet!  They decide to stop at Halfway House for the night instead of pressing on to Eagle Pass.  And then they come upon an armed man standing over the frozen corpse of a naked young woman, her beauty marred by hideously gory wounds suffered before she died!  Yikes!

The armed man says he is a French Canadian trapper and ranger, and he found this corpse and is burying it.  He warns the party that something "queer" is going on around here, and that staying at Halfway House is not safe, implying there is a monster about.  However, the blizzard is not letting up and Eagle Pass is like ten miles away (or as a Canadian of today might say, "sixteen kilometers, eh?") so they really have no choice but to hole up at HH.  

At Halfway House a series of scary and then horrendous events take place.  A figure dimly seen in the distance!  Bloody footprints in the snow!  Blood discovered in the pantry!  Members of the party going outside to collect snow to melt for cooking water fail to return!  Eventually, people start turning up dead, and then we have a series of desperate fights to the death between narrator Halton and a series of adversaries.  The climactic fight is followed by an explanation of what is going on from the dying French-Canadian ranger. 

The explanation, in brief, is that the French-Canadian's tall strong brother was insane due to a head injury and prone to flying into murderous rages and fits of lust.  So he hid his crazy brother at rarely-used Halfway House, thinking nobody would go there; unfortunately, when that nameless woman and then the Halton party arrived, crazy brother went into rape and murder mode.  Compounding Halton's troubles, the evil Carrington thought he could take advantage of the carnage, killing Halton and blaming the deed on whoever had killed Tina's uncle and aunt.  But neither Carrington, nor the maniac, proved a match for Halton in hand-to-hand combat.  Only Halton, Tina, and the professional guide, who left Halfway House (without telling Halton!) to get help from Eagle Pass, survive the story.

We'll call this thing barely acceptable filler.  In 2011, "Halfway to Horror" would be reprinted by Pulp Tales Press in their Ray Cummings collection Wings of Horror and Other Stories.    
"Death Rides the Plateau" by Carl Jacobi

The interior illustration to this one has the sorts of hooded and robed figures that inhabit the advertisement in Thrilling Wonder that reminded me of the existence of Thrilling Mystery, which seems like a good sign.  

Paul and Lucia are on their honeymoon!  A detour leads them to stumble into a remote rural community on a plateau with a mine and a few farms, a village where the deformed inhabitants don't like strangers!  At night, walking back from a scenic outlook, they are assaulted by six weirdos in robes and hoods, one of them wearing a skull mask!  The robed assailants are scared off by the lights of a passing truck, but at night the six creepos appear in the humble room reluctantly rented the newlyweds by the deformed inn keeper and Paul is carried off to a cavern where he witnesses a bizarre human sacrifice and barely escapes being sacrificed on the electrifying goat-man-shaped altar himself!  

Some among the villagers have gripes against "the Master" who runs the human sacrifice cult and try to help Paul and Lucia escape but they get killed for their pains.  Also in the mix is a gorgeous Russian woman with a skin tight dress and a perfect figure who tries to seduce Paul.  Lucia is captured and while trying to find her Paul is captured again.  Lucia is laid out naked to be sacrificed while a bound Paul watches.  Nearby hang the blackened bodies of the last ten people electrocuted on the mechanical altar, which, in the interest of drama and suspense, bends its clockwork arms forward to close the circuit to electrify its victims.  The "Master," the guy with the skull mask, explains to our apparently doomed narrator that the mine produces a rare mineral and he has developed this entire sham religion to scare the superstitious local hicks into keeping the mine a secret so he can corner the market on the mineral.  (If you are thinking that murdering a dozen people is not the kind of thing that helps you stay under the radar but rather attracts the attention of the government, I am with you.)  Paul manages to break his bonds, kill the Master, steal his revolver, shoot that Russian looker who is leading the ceremony that is to culminate in the electrocution of Lucia, and escape with his wife.  

Like Long's "Harvest of Death," the plot of this story is just an excuse to string together the cool gore and sex exploitation elements--the robed attackers, the skull-faced master, the electric-chair fashioned into a Satanic sacrificial altar, the hot Russian woman, all the many deformed people and horribly mutilated corpses, the naked young wife in bondage.  At least Jacobi has the sense to give us a hero who outfights everybody instead of having a brand new character show up to rescue Paul and Lucia.  Acceptable filler. 

In 2014, Centipede Press put out a volume of their Masters of the Weird Tale anthologies on Jacobi that included "Death Rides the Plateau" and sported a $350.00 price tag.  Perhaps a wise investment--ten years later a copy is listed on ebay for $1,400.


None of these stories is actually good, so I can't recommend you track them down unless you are some kind of Hamilton/Long/Cummings/or Jacobi completist or pulp scholar or something.  Regardless, expect to see more 1930s insanity of approximately the same type in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.  

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