Stories I’m Reading


SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


ROBERT BLOCH “The Chaney Legacy.” First published in Night Cry, Fall 1986. Reprinted many times, including Witches & Warlocks, edited by Marvin Kaye (SF Book Club, hardcover, 1990).

   How does an actor become a monster? What method does an actor have to utilize, what magic must they conjure up in order to become a cinematic fiend? Bela Lugosi didn’t just portray Dracula; he became Dracula. What about Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre? How did they become the characters they portrayed? And what of Lon Chaney, the famed silent film star who portrayed monsters, grotesque villains and strange looking men?

   That’s the obsession plaguing a character named Dale in Robert Bloch’s gripping and creepy little tale, “The Chaney Legacy.” Dale, a researcher of Hollywood lore, is faced with a choice: does he decide to live in a Hollywood Hills bungalow once inhabited by Chaney or does he maintain his romantic relationship with a local broadcaster named Debbie Curzon. True to his obsession with Chaney and the late actor’s films, Dale chooses the house.

   As any fable reminds us, it can be dangerous to pursue a question and a line of inquiry to its rightful conclusion. In his obsessive quest to understand how Chaney became the characters he portrayed, Dale stumbles upon a secret that would have better been left in the past. The secret comes in the form of a makeup kit with a mirror, the very makeup kit that Chaney apparently utilized to “become” the characters he portrayed in the silent films.

   But as any good student of horror fiction knows, sometimes secrets are dangerous. That’s definitely the case in this sublimely bizarre short story by Robert Bloch. Recommended for horror fiction and film fans alike.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


STANLEY ELLIN “Robert.” First published in Sleuth Mystery Magazine, October 1958. Reprinted several times, including Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962) and Ellin’s story collection The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales (Random House, hardcover, 1964; Signet D2805, paperback, 1966).

   Frequent visitors to this blog are likely familiar with the work of Stanley Ellin (1916–1986). A prolific mystery writer and the winner of three Edgars, Ellin sold his first story, “The Specialty of the House” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948. Several of his works were adapted for film and television.

   One of Ellin’s stories, simply entitled “Robert” has, as far as I know, never been adapted to stage or screen. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t vast potential there for such an adaptation. A work of horror and suspense more than a mystery tale, “Robert” concerns the interactions between a schoolteacher named Miss Gildea and the eponymous Sixth Grade student. Robert is not like the other kids. He’s a bit … different. And his difference seems to stem from his having uncanny, if not almost psychic, powers.

   Students and schoolteachers often don’t get along. And there’s always one troublemaker in particular that seems to have it in for the teacher. But Robert really has it in for Miss Gildea, so much so that he confesses that he wished he could kill her. This leads the frantic schoolteacher to rush to the school principal. Big mistake. For from the moment that she makes young Robert her adversary, things start going downhill for her. And fast.

   Overall, “Robert” doesn’t explain why things are happening so much as depict a scenario in which such bizarre things could possibly occur. While the resolution to the story is somewhat anticlimactic, getting there is a thrilling little ride.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


MORRIS HERSHMAN “Pressure.” First published in Manhunt, February 1958, as by Arnold English. Reprinted under his own name in Tales for a Rainy Night, edited by David Alexander (Holt Rinehart & Winston, hardcover; 1961; Crest d557, paperback, 1962).

   Sometimes all that a compelling crime story requires is a scenario, a mere vignette in which two characters face off in primarily one location. This works best in “short and taut” stories, those that focus on a single character’s dilemma and are of a length of no more than 2,000 words or so.

   Such is the case in Morris Hershman’s “Pressure,” a tense, albeit not overly memorable, tale about a gangster’s final confrontation with the police. Hershman conjures up the character of Dapper Phil Rand, an aging gangster from the Prohibition Era who has managed to survive well into the late 1950s. Rand’s gone to jail before and isn’t particularly afraid of going back. The one thing he simply won’t do is rat on the Syndicate.

   Enter “Coffee,” a cop who is willing to offer Rand a deal of a lifetime: protection and relocation to South America if he’s willing to name names. But Rand’s not willing to do that, so Coffee decides he is going to have to play hardball and apply some pressure, albeit not the physical kind. Rather, he tells the press that Rand’s singing like a canary, that Rand is spilling the beans on the Syndicate. Then he lets Rand out of the police station.

   What happens next tells us a lot about Dapper Phil Rand. Will he return to Coffee and catch a plane to South America or will he find a way to convince the Syndicate that it was all a ploy? What happens next is a portrait of a greying gangster under pressure.

DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Gutting of Couffignal.” Black Mask, December 1925.   [+]   RAYMOND CHANDLER “Red Nevada.” Black Mask, June 1935. Both stories have been reprinted many times, including a joint appearance in Great Action Stories, edited by William Kittredge & Steven M,. Krauzer. Mentor Book, paperback original, May 1977.

   I came across the Kittredge & Krauzer paperback one day a short while ago, and I decided to bring it along on a recent cross-country flight I made. I’m glad I did. Other than the stories above, it also includes stories by Mickey Spillane (“I’ll Die Tomorrow”), Len Deighton, Fredric Brown, Robert L. Fish and a number of others, the names of most of whom I’m sure would be readily recognizable to everyone who visits this blog on a regular basis.

   But the two authors featured at the top of those listed on the front cover are Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the two most famous proponents (if not out and out creators) of the “hard boiled” school of writing, bar none. And while the two stories the editors selected are alike in some way, in others they are as different as night and day.

   The plot of “The Gutting of Couffnignal” is the simpler and more straight forward of the two. The Continental Op has been hired to watch a table filled with wedding gifts overnight on a island in San Pablo Bay off the California shore, connected only by a single bridge.

   An easy job, or it would have been if a gang of robbers armed with machine guns and other weapons doesn’t attack the island, blowing up the bank and a jewelry store with dynamite, and killing scores of people in the process. With the help of a family of Russian expatriates, the Op assumes the responsibility of coming to the aid of the entire island, and that he does.

   The action is fast and furious, but the Op shows that all the while he’s on the move, he’s thinking too, and the ending is as hard boiled an ending as you imagine. It’s a story that once begun, you won’t put down until you’re done, with Hammett fully in charge with clear,clean prose.

   “Nevada Gas,” Raymond Chandler’s tale of personal warfare between some top gangsters in the city of Los Angeles, is as hard boiled as Hammett’s, but the story is a lot more complicated and filled with some subtle nuances that can easily take you more than one reading before you decide you’ve caught them all.

   Two scenes in particular stand out. In the first a heavy set crooked lawyer named Hugo Candless is taken for a ride in a limousine mocked up to look like his own, but it is not, and what’s more, it’s rigged to delivered a dose of fatal gas to anyone who finds himself trapped in the back seat.

   The second, almost unnecessary to the plot finds a guy named Johnny De Ruse, who’s also the main protagonist, having escaped the same trap himself, going to a gambling place and faking his way into seeing the one responsible by making a scene in a crooked casino room.

   As opposed to the Hammett story, Chandler’s zigs and zags, giving the reader only brief glimpses of a connected tale, but connected it is. Chander’s prose is lot more ornate, and the ending is much more quiet, but to my mind, it’s equally effective.

   Question: If you’ve read both, which story did you like better? Which author tickles your fancy more?

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WILLIAM SHARP “The Graven Image.” First collected in The Gypsy Christ and Other Tales (Stone and Kimball, 1895). Reprinted in Great Tales of Terror, edited by S. T. Joshi (Dover, 2002). (Follow the link to read the story online.)

   Sometimes a story can leave you with an indelible sense of horror, indeed of terror. Skilled horror writers know exactly what imagery and settings can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the reader. Locales such as an abandoned mansion, a campground at twilight, and an uncharted island all can be utilized to great effect in transporting the reader into a realm of literary danger.

   In William Sharp’s “The Graven Image,” the reader is treated vicariously to a night’s stay in a haunted bedroom, a setting that should lend itself to a solidly constructed short story. Unfortunately, the setting itself is unable to carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.

   The tale follows the narrator, Cornwall native James Trenairy, as he recounts his disquieting stay at “The Mulberries,” an old house in Kensington, London inhabited by both the living … and the dead. Although the story is most certainly a well written and captivating supernatural tale, it nonetheless feels incomplete, as if it’s more of a vignette than a complete short story. The reason for this is as simple as it is oft neglected, particularly in stories that aim more for shock value than for dramatic effect. Other than resolving to never stay in the house again, the protagonist undergoes no fundamental character or life change as a result of his experiences.

   That’s not to say that Sharp wasn’t more than capable of both building tension in the story and envisioning a situation that surely would evoke a sense of horror in readers. It’s just that the story concludes without us wondering exactly how this horrible experience, described in exquisite detail, will affect the psyche of one James Trenairy.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


CHARLES BEAUMONT “The New People.” First published in Rogue, August 1958. First collected in Night Ride and Other Journeys (Bantam, paperback, Mar 1960). Reprinted many times since, including in Perchance to Dream (Penguin, trade paperback, October 2015).

   It’s not every day that you discover that your neighbors are Satanists. But then again, the usual and the quotidian is hardly the terrain of writer Charles Beaumont. In “The New People,” one of the author’s stories assembled in Night Ride and Other Journeys (1960), the protagonist soon discovers that his typical suburban neighbors are anything but. It’s an altogether well constructed tale, one that ratchets up the suspense, all the while giving the reader the vague sense that he could just as easily find himself in the main character’s proverbial shoes.

   Beaumont, like Ira Levin and Stephen King following him, had a knack for taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Just lurking behind the niceties of Any Town USA and blissful marriages are secrets that are first gently, then abruptly, exposed. We never learn the name of the town where “The New People” takes place, but it’s hinted that it may be a place where Hollywood screenwriters reside.

   Soon after moving into their new home, husband and wife Hank and Ann, along with their adopted son Davey, begin to form social relationships with their neighbors. While Davey doesn’t want to have anything to do with the locals, Hank and Ann host a small gathering in their home for the new friends.

   As the night unfolds, one of the neighbors hints to Hank that he has secret, pertinent information that he must share. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the best conte cruels, Hank comes to learn that his newfound friend is anything but. Overall, a well-written story which bolsters my appreciation for Beaumont’s writing.

SELECTED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT “Bride of the Winged Terror.” First published in Dime Mystery Magazine, November 1936, writing as Grendon Alzee. (In the same issue is “Terror Beneath the Streets,” by Arthur Leo Zagat.) Also available online and in ebook form.

   “These hillbillies hate furriners worse’n poison …” ex-mountain man Fred Harris warns his private detective buddy Dick Mervale as their roadster tackles the dangerous winding roads of Buzzard Mountain where a picture in a circular has led the two to believe bank embezzler Gorham Carstairs has been hiding lo these many years.

   Capturing Carstairs would not only me a big reward and much needed publicity for the low rent sleuths out of Louisville (presumably Kentucky, it is never made clear), but also the gratitude and business of the Bank Association, so they are willing to risk a great deal to capture Carstairs.

   And it becomes clear how much when a bullet from a high powered rifle punches a hole in Fred’s head.

   That doesn’t slow down Dick Mervale, who quickly covers up Fred’s body with rocks, spying a huge vulture as he does so, and makes his way up to the town of Winburg where he is met by armed citizens. They aren’t after Dick though. A child, a young girl has been murdered, horribly mangled by a “big black bird.”

   Dick manages to get out of Winburg and reach the top of Buzzard Mountain where he plans to wait until daylight, but he spies the giant black bird, and seconds later hears a woman’s cry. Racing to her rescue he encounters a leathery black winged monster with a “human face” attacking a young woman “… her gauzy frock … ripped in the struggle…” revealing “…white satiny skin seeming to glow from some inner light and the swelling firm curves of just budding womanhood.”

   And wouldn’t you know it, this is Elise Carstairs the mountain-raised daughter of the man he is after, who promptly shows up with a shotgun.

   From that point on the action literally races to its conclusion, piling horror on horror until the naked Elise is in Dick’s protective arms and the mystery of the winged terror (she isn’t its bride, in fact there is no bride — she’s the monsters niece and no hint of incest appears) and why Carstairs embezzled the money in the first place is laid to rest along with Carstairs and his brother.

   If you don’t recognize the basics of a typical Weird Menace story from what Robert Jonas labeled “The Shudder Pulps” in his excellent book on the subject then you likely don’t know you pulps. These were the ones with the gaudy covers of scantily clad women being tortured and murdered by looming madmen in the most suggestive way with a heroic male usually helplessly watching nearby.

   A variety of pulp authors contributed to the genre, which was one step up from the Spicy genre where the sex was a bit more obvious and the nudity considerably so, including some notable names like Norvel Page, Cornell Woolrich, and Richard Sale, but the genre had its own stars, and one of them was the prolific Arthur Leo Zagat, best known for his fantasy horror Drink We Deep.

   For all the nudity and strange psycho-sexual tortures out of de Sade by way of Kraft-Ebling featured on the covers and in the stories virtue prevailed as did virginity for both hero and heroine. In most cases, as here, a logical (if you can call it that) explanation was swiftly tacked on in the final paragraphs to assure the reader nothing supernatural had happened, though once in a while a whiff of sulfur and brimstone would linger.

   The stories vary in quality as you might expect, from say a minor Universal Horror film to one of those independent productions with the likes of George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, or Bela Lugosi where the sets look like someone’s three bedroom house.

   This one is absurd, even by the standard of the genre, but Zagat was a master of empurpled prose and swelling horrors (sounds like a bad diagnosis doesn’t it?) who could do better and did elsewhere, and this is actually quick fun to read with the caveat you don’t dare stop and think about it. If slavering mad monsters with foetid breath, reddened claws, and hideous eyes are your cuppa, this more than delivers.

   They don’t write ’em like this anymore — well, they do, , but now they are themselves swollen monsters of 500 plus pages and with considerably less virtuous characters, and what logic there once was has gone the way of the pulps themselves. There is something almost innocent about the Weird Menace genre, in a slightly disturbing way, but I wouldn’t suggest you delve too deep.

   Some things are better left alone.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


JOYCE CAROL OATES “Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?” Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, April 1972. Reprinted in Urban Horrors, edited William F. Nolan & Martin H. Greenberg (Dark Harvest, hardcover, 1990; Daw, paperback, 1993).

   One thing that can be undoubtedly said for Joyce Carol Oates is that she is, and continues to be, a prolific writer and an important voice in American letters. Another thing that can be stated is that she is an expert wordsmith, one whose writing is replete with sentences that appear to flow together effortlessly and naturally.

   At least that’s the case for “Did You Ever Slip On Red Blood?” a haunting work of literary horror that originally appeared in the pages of Harper’s. Written in an experimental style with a non-linear timeframe, the story recalls the life and times of one Robert Severin, a counterculture political activist.

   As the story unfolds, the reader begins to learn that somehow, in some manner, Severin is the link that binds together two people who otherwise wouldn’t have met: a stewardess named Marian and her lover named Oberon. Rather than tell the story with in straightforward linear manner, Oates begins the story at the ending and then goes back to the beginning – or, more accurately, a series of beginnings – and then finally recounts the moment in which Marian and Oberon met face to face.

   As it turns out, what brought these two lovers together was a scenario that would have been a very believable one to urban readers in 1972, the year the story first appeared in print. Severin, the reader learns, was acquitted of one crime, but went on to engage in a far more serious crime; namely, hijacking an airliner. It was there that Severin and Marian first met and where Marian would end up slipping in red blood. “Did You Ever Slip on Red Blood?” traverses genre categories. It’s a thriller, a work of crime fiction, and urban horror fiction.

   Recommended.

SELECTED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


JACK LONDON “The Enemy of All the World.” First published in Red Book, October 1908. First collected in The Strength of the Strong (Macmillan, 1914). Anthologized several times, including The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London (Citadel Press, hardcover, 1993). Available online by following the link above.

   Jack London’s “The Enemy of all the World” reads more like a work of journalism than a work of fiction. That itself shouldn’t be surprising, given London’s journalism background and extensive corpus of non-fiction writings. What makes this particular short story worth reading, however, is that it’s a work of “journalistic science fiction,” an imaginative recounting of future events from the perspective of the then present.

   Published in the October 1908 issue of Red Book, “The Enemy of All the World” unfolds in purely narrative form. Absent is any dialogue or a writing style that would automatically give it away as a work of fiction. The anonymous, distant narrator recalls the life and times of one Emil Gluck, a neglected child who grew up into a vengeful mad genius and who was executed in 1941. Much like a villain in Jules Verne’s works, Gluck is a scientist socially cut off from a society that scorns him.

   Also similar to those madmen depicted in Verne’s fiction, Gluck utilizes technology to wage a one-man war against the world. Emil Gluck, dastardly villain that he is, utilizes electro-plating – his “apparatus” to wreak havoc with modern technology:

   In the meanwhile Emil Gluck, the malevolent wizard and arch-hater, left no trace as he traveled his whirlwind path of destruction. Scientifically thorough, he always cleaned up after himself. His method was to rent a room or a house, and to secretly install his apparatus— which apparatus, by the way, he so perfected and simplified that it occupied little space. After he had accomplished his purpose he carefully removed the apparatus. He bade fair to live out a long life of horrible crime.

   Fortunately for society, the western powers’ secret services are on Gluck’s trail. It is one intrepid U.S. secret service agent by the name of Silas Bannerman (a perfect name, right?) who finally tracks Gluck down and makes him his prisoner.

   A story with more than a hint of political commentary, “The Enemy of all the World” is worth consideration both as a work of early science fiction and as further evidence that London, who was involved in socialist politics in the Bay Area, had political views that weren’t so easily categorized.

LOUIS L’AMOUR “Unguarded Moment.” First appeared in Popular Detective, March 1952. Collected in The Hills of Homicide (Bantam, paperback, 1983).

   The first paragraph caught my attention:

   Arthur Fordyce had never done a criminal thing in his life, nor had the idea of doing anything unlawful ever seriously occurred to him.

   The second really had me sitting up and taking notice:

   The wallet that lay beside his chair was not only full; it was literally stuffed. It lay on the floor near his feet where it had fallen.

   And the third had me hooked all the way:

   His action was as purely automatic as an action can be. He let his Racing Form slip from his lap and cover the billfold. Then he sat very still, his heart pounding. The fat man who had dropped the wallet was talking to a friend on the far side of the box. As far as Fordyce could see, his own action had gone unobserved.

   But of course he was seen, and therein lies the story. It continues with some petty blackmail, an accidental death, the dead man’s girl friend who wants to …

   This is Cornell Woolrich territory, maybe with clearer and simpler language, but pure noir from beginning to end.

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