“…he admitted that there were worse things than murder: far worse than the taking and curing of human heads as trade to tourists was the fitting of beast craniums with the brains of thinking humans.”
—from Gray Ghouls, by Bassett Morgan
Even more profound insights may be found in this over the top gem of weird fiction, originally published in Weird Tales in 1927. Bassett Morgan was actually the pen-name of Grace Ethel Jones, who published 13 stories in Weird Tales from the late 1920s to the late 1930s. She also wrote several novels and more conventional short genre fiction for a variety of pulp magazines. In her weird fiction, a favorite subject was the consequences of putting human brains in the skulls of primates. This motif occurred in several of her stories.
Donald Wollheim, in some introductory remarks to Gray Ghouls, remarks that the author is “apparently well acquainted with these areas [Papua, New Guinea], for many of that writer’s stories have been located in those regions.” The version of Gray Ghouls that I have is in Wollheim’s Avon Fantasy Reader #15 (1951). (The front cover tastefully depicts an astronaut, his hand curled about the bare midriff of a beautiful half naked woman. He is defending her against a one eyed annelid creature with a drooling proboscis.)
A listing of some of the titles of Morgan’s work gives a sense of her scope of interest:
The Head (1927)
The Wolf Woman (1927)
The Skeleton Under the Lamp (1928)
The Demon Doom of N Yeng Sen (1929)
The Island of Doom (1932)
The Vengence of Ti Fong (1934)
The Devils of Po Sung (1939)
A more thorough history of this interesting author may be found at Douglas A. Anderson’s blog Lesser Known Writers, at http://desturmobed.blogspot.com/2011/12/bassett-morgan.html . This is a wonderful site to peruse for information about obscure but fascinating authors, many of them masters of weird fiction.
Gray Ghouls is an appealing mish mash of H.G. Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). It is a preposterous adventure story that may not have been intended to be taken seriously. Also thrown into the mix is what we might call a Jerry Springer-ish insight into family dynamics.
Tom Mansey, an early Indiana Jones type, is sent to investigate the head hunting trade in Papua New Guinea. Ordinarily, shrunken heads from decapitated people of color would not excite much alarm in the region, but lately the heads of Caucasians have been showing up on the market, appalling the local colonial authorities. Mansey’s mission is as follows:
“…take feasible measures to halt barter in heads, intimate to the most indomitable, hellishly cunning race of blacks that earth endures, that selling heads to tourists was indelicate, inadvisable and immoral.”
Lest more sensitive readers cringe at late 1920s racial insensitivity, the author also has the hero make this politically and economically astute remark:
“I’d suggest right here that you’d better stop tourists buying heads. So long as they pay big money for them, the heads will be forthcoming, and since heads with Nordic-colored hair bring fatter prices, the natives will swoop down on the ports and clean out our little intrusion of white exploiters in one whirlwind of savagery run amuck.”
Mansey arrives at Papua and searches the treacherous wilderness for Homer Mullet, a London brain surgeon who has “gone native” but continued his unconventional surgical practices among the natives. Mullett we learn was forced to leave London after successfully transferring the brain of a boy who was dying of tuberculosis into the head of “a half-wit homicide”—with mixed results. Under-appreciated for his innovation, Mullett was forced to flee England and continue his work among the natives of the Papuan jungles. Mansey soon discovers that head hunting for the tourist trade is only a misdemeanor compared to what Mullet has been up to.
Jerry Springer would appreciate the complexity that ensues when one transfers the brain of an ex-wife into the skull of an orang-outang ape—this is what Mullet does one fateful night after a fierce domestic quarrel. Sheba the ex-wife becomes the vengeful, incredibly strong Sheba the she-ape. Wanting Mullett all for herself, (why?), she dispatches every other woman that becomes romantically interested in him. He subsequently transfers each one’s brain into the skull of another ape. Soon the deranged surgeon is surrounded by a harem of she-apes with human brains, a united sisterhood of aggrieved exes, led by their primate queen, Sheba. He tries to leave the jungle and the island, just as one of Jerry Springer’s male guests might try to flee the television stage.
None of this has to make much sense. Readers who need things to make sense should read science fiction.
Mullet and Mansey’s plans to escape the harem of she-apes are complicated by the arrival of a vengeful tribe of cannibals—the only well adjusted people on the island. The two hope that the warriors will distract the she-apes long enough for them to flee, along with the latest native girl Mullett hoped to marry. But Sheba has other plans…
Despite the insanity of the plot, there is a surprisingly suspenseful ending—a traditional “cliffhanger”—as well as a poisonously ironic denouement. One can see in Bassett Morgan’s Gray Ghouls the inspiration for many inane but entertaining B movies.