Sunday, August 19, 2012
The People of the Pit
The collection kicks off with Abraham Merritt’s The People of the Pit. Merritt wrote many lost world tales, all of them supremely imaginative and decidedly weird. The People of the Pit was an early effort but it’s typical of his work. Two explorers in Alaska encounter a wreck of man who tells a bizarre story of a strange lost valley containing the remnants of an ancient and very evil civilisation.
Francis Stevens’ Behind the Curtain is a disappointing story involving Egyptian mummies.
John Blunt’s The Orchid Horror is a story of obsessive orchid collecting and of an orchid whose scent is more addictive and more dangerous than opium. Even to seek this plant is to court death. So why would a man journey to Venezuela in search of such a deadly plant? The answer of course is a woman. To win this woman he must find the deadly orchid. A strange but very impressive tale and one of the highlights of this anthology.
In George Allan England’s The Tenth Question a madman is kidnapping doctors. Years earlier a doctor had bungled his case and now he has decided to rid the world of incompetent medical practitioners. So he may be a lunatic but at least he’s doing something socially useful. Each doctor is subjected to a test of his mental acuity. If he passes the test he may go free; if he fails he is painlessly destroyed. So far no doctor has passed the test. It’s like a game of Twenty Questions but you only get ten questions in this case. If the medical man fails to determine the correct answer his doom is sealed. In fact the answer is not difficult to guess but it’s still a very fine story.
Achmed Abdullah’s Disappointment is about a Russian nobleman with a morbid fear of dying. Not of death, but of dying. Atmospheric but not terribly interesting.
Owen Oliver’s The Pretty Woman is a reasonably intriguing tale of flirtation, madness and murder.
Tod Robbins is best-known as the author of the story on which Tod Browning’s notorious movie Freaks was based. His contribution, The Living Portrait, deals with a scientist who has his portrait painted and the portrait then takes on a life of is own and proves to have a stronger will than the luckless scientist. Not a great story, but not without interest.
Talbot Mundy’s An Offer of Two to One proves that auto-suggestion really can kill. Damon Runyon’s Fear is similar in theme, dealing with the idea of fear as something deadly to the mind as well as the body. Both stories are effective offerings.
J. U. Giesy’s Beyond the Violet is another very strong story. A man is wounded in the war and his sight is affected. He cannot see most of the visible light spectrum but he can see beyond the range that the rest of us can see, with the result that he can now see ghosts. It’s actually an offbeat love story.
In C. Langton Clarke’s The Elixir of Life a mad scientist has discovered a means of draining away other men’s vital energy, giving him an enormously extended lifespan. If only it hadn’t been for that tin of gunpowder.
In Perley Poore Sheehan’s Monsieur de Guise the past lives on in a ghostly house deep in the Cedar Swamps. The mood is more one of gentle melancholy that stark terror but it works well enough.
Philip M. Fisher Jr’s The Ship of Silent Men is very creepy indeed, a tale of a ghost ship but it’s not a supernatural tale. It almost qualifies as a zombie story, and a rather horrifying and ingenious one.
All in all a strong anthology with only a couple of dud stories and some very strong ones. There’s no particular unifying theme except that all these tales deal with terror in some form. Some are more pulpy in style than others but are none the worse for that. A fine example of the quality of fiction to be found in the old pulp magazines and there are some writers here whose work I am keen to sample more of.