Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s ‘Black Stone’

What is it about sculptors? 

In weird fiction they are often depicted as twitchy, obsessed, and monomaniacal—their fatal flaw inevitably being hubris.  Their colossal egos make them hell bent to fashion images that later become horrors.  Is it because sculptors have an almost magical, even godlike ability to create lifelike forms from inanimate wood and stone? (Genesis 2: 7—“the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”)  Is it because sculptors are so attuned to humanity’s primal attraction to idolatry and narcissism? 

(Of which ‘selfies’ are the latest dismaying example.)
In Robert W. Chamber’s The Mask (1895), an artist is able to change living things into perfect marble reproductions in a process that resembles baptism.  The sculptor in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hunters From Beyond (1932) creates lifelike figures of ghouls that summon demons—who then snatch away his beautiful model.  In the film Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) an early ‘Igor’ creates convincing wax replicas of recently missing individuals—that are not actually replicas.  (There have been many re-cyclings of this motif.)  A little later on, in Roger Corman’s classic horror comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959), an incompetent but resourceful sculptor exsanguinates his victims before posing them and covering them in clay.

It is interesting, at least to me, that horror stories involving sculpture and the fashioning of images often go in one of two directions.  The created image can summon or manifest an evil presence such as a demon or an evil spirit.  The sculptor’s work then takes on a life of its own and overpowers its naïve creator.  Or else the replica is intended to conceal the sculptor’s destruction—typically by murder—of the source of the image.  The rest of the story is then an application of Old Testament justice: the perpetrator often suffers the same artistic process his victims did, and joins them in the display.
In Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s The Black Stone Statue (1937), creativity and resourcefulness are both in view.  Her story could be described as very weird crime fiction, incorporating adventure, greed, conspiracy, murder—and an extra-terrestrial creature.  The story is unique in that it is told in the form of a suicide note, sent to the directors of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  They have requested that the narrator, now renowned for the incredible realism of his figures, create a statue of himself. 

Until very recently, the narrator’s vaunted self-evaluation as an artist was not matched by any real success in his field, and he lived in poverty.  (‘Starving artists’ along with ‘mad scientists’, antiquarian scholars and other socially isolated intelligentsia probably account for at least a third of all the evil in horror and science fiction.)  Despite his rapid rise to fame, the sculptor is remorseful:  “I despise myself for what I have done in the name of art.”

The artist shares a dilapidated boarding house in New York with Paul Kennicott, who has clandestinely returned from the jungles of Brazil with an unusual find that he wants to keep a secret. A famous aviator, Kennicott and his co-pilot crashed their plane in the wilderness, and the co-pilot died not long afterward—by turning to stone.  Wandering in the jungle, Kennicott discovers “a star shaped blob of transparent jelly that shimmered and changed color like an opal.”  The organism oozes and slides across surfaces like a snail, and produces a constant humming and droning sound.  More remarkably, the creature instantly changes anything it touches into hard black stone, perfectly preserving the object’s features.

A strange, incessant droning sound now comes from a large black box that Kennicott carries with him into the boarding house.  Kennicott’s ambition is to achieve fame and fortune by introducing the organism to industry:  “Millions of dollars squandered on construction each year could be diverted to other phases of life, for no cyclone or flood could damage a city built of this hard black rock.”  But the sculptor has a more immediate use for the creature, and has now learned from Kennicott how to use it safely on the subjects of his art…

The Black Stone Statue was originally published in Weird Tales in December of 1937.  Other stories in that issue included H.P. Lovecraft’s Polaris, Donald Wandrei’s Uneasy Lie the Drowned, Robert Bloch’s Fane of the Black Pharoah, and Edmond Hamilton’s Child of Atlantis. 

Counselman’s stories are hard to find these days, though she published widely during her career.  Among the magazines that carried her work were The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, Colliers, and of course, Weird Tales.  Her work may be found in various older anthologies; the version of The Black Stone Statue that I have was reprinted in Avon Science Fiction Reader No. 3 (1952).   

She reportedly published 30 stories in Weird Tales.  Here is just a partial listing:

The Accursed Isle (1933)
The Three Marked Pennies (1934)
Parasite Mansion (1942)
Seventh Sister (1943)
The Shot Tower Ghost (1949)
The Monkey Spoons (1950)

A southern writer who grew up on a plantation, Mary Elizabeth Counselman was also a journalist and a creative writing instructor at the University of Alabama.  Unlike her colleagues at Weird Tales, she was uncomfortable with “the gruesome morbid fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and those later authors who were influenced by their doom philosophies.”  She tended to write American Gothic stories, often set in rural locales.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.