Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Weird Menace from Hugh B. Cave

In 1935, not long before his death, H.P. Lovecraft published his dreadful The Quest of Iranon—arguably one of the worst stories he ever wrote—and his round-robin contribution to The Challenge from Beyond, a story that also included sections written by Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, C.L. Moore and A. Merritt, (see also Help, I’m a Centipede!).  He also wrote a couple of poems which later became part of his Fungi from Yuggoth series.  In that same year, another author whom Lovecraft was familiar with published a quintessential shudder pulp story, Imp of Satan (1935).  Though both wrote horror fiction, Hugh B. Cave and H.P. Lovecraft were very different with respect to style, work habits, and degree of success.

Interestingly, the two men both lived in Rhode Island; Lovecraft in Providence and Cave in nearby Pawtuxet.  They never met in person, which was probably just as well, but did correspond on occasion.  Lovecraft and Cave disagreed vehemently about the aesthetics and professionalism of publishing work in pulp magazines.  Lovecraft took the high—but less lucrative—road and disdained formulaic writing driven by a focus on speed and quantity over quality.  Cave took the other road, and was prolific and successful.  In 1935, the year Imp of Satan came out, Lovecraft published just two stories and a couple of poems, while Cave cranked out 9 short stories.

A very partial listing of Cave’s fictional works shows the scope of his subject matter.  The stories below were published during the period in which Lovecraft was active.  (Cave was still writing and publishing as late as 2004, at age 93.  At that time, he was even venturing into e-books!)

Prey of the Nightborn
Death Calls from the Madhouse
The City of Crawling Death
The Watcher in the Green Room
The Cult of the White Ape
Satan's Mistress
Tomb for the Living
The Brotherhood of Blood
The Flame Fiend
Disturb Not the Dead

And so forth.  A few of his stories show the influence Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”, (e.g., The Isle of Dark Magic), but the majority are easily classifiable as fiction typical of weird menace or the shudder pulps.  In his chatty and affectionate1975 study, The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s, Robert Kenneth Jones quotes an author named Richard Tooker who offers a succinct definition of the field:

“A fearful menace, apparently due to supernatural agencies, must terrify the characters (and reader, but not the writer) at the start, but the climax must demonstrate convincingly that the menace was natural after all.”

It is the naturalistic explanation near the end of shudder pulp stories, along with fast pace, frenetic action, graphic violence and scantily clad women that distinguish weird menace from weird fiction generally.  Jones goes on to analyze key elements of shudder pulp fiction.  The stories often featured a secret cult led by a madman, or a monster that was typically some form of exaggerated but quite terrestrial biology.  Instead of a madman there might be a clever villain—typically an aggrieved family member or lover. 

Other typical elements of weird menace include characters compelled against their wills to engage with the terror in their midst, weird resurrections of characters believed to be dead, aging evil-doers who prey on the young, strange deformed amalgamations of people and creatures produced by evil scientists, irresistible but hazardous women, vengeful, witch-like old crones, and curses.

Hugh B. Cave’s Imp of Satan exemplifies many of these features.  The story begins with narrator rowing frantically across a small pond, away from an old deserted shack on the shore.  He hears maniacal laughing coming from the shack, and someone is aiming feathered darts at him—“the kind of poison-tipped dart used in jungle blow-guns!”

It would seem that more back story is needed here, and Cave soon provides it.  Safe on the far shore, the narrator remembers that right in the middle of his recent wedding to the lovely Lenore, he had heard the same high pitched voice screaming these words from a balcony overhead:

“Make them man and wife, and then—God help them!  For the curse of Kawalo will follow them to the ends of the earth and destroy them!”

In the text, these words are italicized to indicate that this young married couple will have more than the ordinary period of adjustment.  The narrator, whose name is Barrett, moves into the house of his wife’s guardian Old Philias Arns and his housekeeper, Mrs. Sargy.  The house is just across the pond from the evil, dilapidated shack.  Philias is dying of some strange disease, and Barrett wonders whether the old man resents his marriage to Lenore.  Mrs. Sargy is also suspicious; Barrett speculates that she is disappointed to have the newlyweds in the house—she had been in line to inherit the property upon the death of Philias Arns. 

But these speculations are red herrings.  Barrett discovers in an old photo album a photograph of Lenore with another man, her previous lover.  When he confronts his wife, she explains:

“I should have told you before…But I didn’t think it was that important, after three years.  He was an engineer.  His name—it doesn’t matter now, does it?  When I said goodbye, that was the end.”

In the interim, Lenore’s old paramour contracted a horrible disease in the tropics that causes relentless physical shrinkage and insanity, that is, imp-ification.  This is the ‘Curse of Kawalo’ that the spurned boyfriend wants to share with Barrett and Lenore.  Although there are vaguely supernatural allusions to Satan and Hell, the diminutive monster in this story is clearly a product of the natural world.  Murder, kidnapping, entrapment and related mayhem ensue, as well as considerable semi-nudity.  There is a final struggle in which the imp is vanquished and the newlyweds escape their torment.  However, Barrett is left pondering the future of his life with Lenore after such an inauspicious beginning.

The ‘Curse of Kawalo’ involves the painful miniaturization of the humiliated ex-boyfriend, probably a metaphor for the emasculation of being passed over for another guy by a beautiful woman.  But this is about as profound as Imp of Satan gets.  This is literature with a lower case ‘L’, but still interesting and entertaining for its over the top melodrama and half-baked ideas.       

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