Wednesday, June 12, 2013

TERROR TALES by Arthur J. Burks

I recently became aware of the Radio Archives site which carries an impressive array of ebook versions of classic pulp novels, as well as collections of tales from the shudder pulps. This was my first purchase from them and I'm glad I bit.

Terror Tales is the first in a series of collections of pulp horror tales, each a sampling of the work of a single author. And I appreciate how they kick off with a frank word about how these stories are products of their time and can contain examples of racial and ethnic stereotyping typical of the period. In other words, these can be very un-PC and unenlightened, so those inclined to clutch their pearls and judge everything by modern standards had best stay away.

Some of these are more direct horror, and some dance on the edge of weird-menace territory, an odd subset of horror pulp writing that often featured sadistic violence, sexualized situations, and heroes being coerced or convinced into doing horrendous deeds. I've read some full-on examples of that genre...and ew, they can be intense and distasteful. These don't go all the way into that but stay on the borderlands. And interestingly, some stories have mundane menaces, and some are full-on supernatural, and a couple at the end have an odd, almost mystical slant.

"Six Doors to Horror" is a loony, surreal, throw-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-reader story about a group of people dining in the home of an aristocratic Chinese man in New York, only running afoul of supernatural forces lurking in a sub-basement crypt. (Naturally, every home in Chinatown has a crypt holding supernatural forces...didn't you know that? One of these days I'll do an essay about Chinatown mysteries...) "Eater of Souls" is set in the Dominican Republic, with a jungle doctor running afoul of a local curse, and his lovely wife falling victim to a plague, and corpse-candles dancing 'round in her bedroom...or are they? Although it seems supernatural, all has a material cause.

An artist and his favorite model (who has the clumsy name of "Darda") go out to eat at an out-of-the-way restaurant in New York, and end up having to battle the "Keepers of the Black Tavern." This story is just violence and sadism in a gothic atmosphere, with a cult that celebrates torture. "Blossoms of Doom" gives us the story of a young woman living on a Caribbean estate left to her by her artist father, with orders that she always live there. But as the man she loves (clumsily named "Clel"...Burks had a thing for weird, clumsy names) comes to visit, the very plants on the estate seem to be trying to kill her, and eerie menaces are around every corner. Is it her possessive (and possibly incestuous) father's ghost? Or is there something more mundane behind it all?

"When a Corpse Commands!" is set in Pennsylvania Dutch country, on an island in a river, and while overflowing with gothic atmosphere and overheated emotions, is basically a murder mystery with a young woman accused of murder, and then of witchcraft by the superstitious locals. She must unmask the real murderer and get away from there to save her own life.

"No Man Escapes Me!" is an odd story, VERY odd, and originally Burks published it under a pseudonym. It is basically a rather run-of-the-mill noir story of passion and attempted's narrated by Death, who observes the goings on with a smug feeling that even if someone escapes this time, then eventually they'll be caught in his nets. "Through Death's Thin Veil" is more mysticism as Death plays a firm role, but there's also a bit of ghost action as well. An aging doctor tries to save the life of a young woman during a blizzard, only he's conscious of Death waiting for him, and a deceased rival doctor mocking him, and maybe a ghost showing up.

This was a fun read, although to be frank the writing is rather poor in spots, especially in the earlier tales. Burks developed grace and style as he went on; the last two stories are arresting in their mystical slant on the usual pulp nonsense.

The good folks at Radio Archives currently have this on sale for $2.99 (regular price $3.99), and at either price it's reasonable for the chance to immerse yourself in pulp terrors. This is worth checking out.

No comments: