Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Animated Corpse as Practical Joke

Astounding Stories of Super Science first appeared in 1930, later becoming a “Clayton Magazine” when that company took over the original publisher a year later.  Initially considered by some to be an imitator of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the publication underwent several name changes over the following decades.  The title was shortened to Astounding Stories, then became Astounding Science-Fiction by 1938. 

Under the able and visionary leadership of John W. Campbell, the magazine became immensely influential as the Golden Age of Science Fiction unfolded in the late 1930s and 1940s.  In 1960 the magazine took the name of Analog Science Fact and Fiction, which it retains to this day.   It is considered to be longest running genre magazine of its type.

But in 1930, the first year of publication, Astounding Stories of Super Science was different in tone and quality than its later incarnations.  It published the stories of several early pulp science fiction writers like Ray Cummings and Murray Leinster, but also included shudder pulp masters like Paul Ernst and Hugh B. Cave.  Cave had an interesting story in the second issue of the magazine, The Corpse on the Grating.  It is more of a shudder pulp tale than science fiction, though there is a slight nod to the importance of scientific credibility.  (See also A Weird Menace from Hugh B. Cave.)

The Corpse on the Grating concerns three old friends who have known and aggravated each other for years.  “M.S.” and Professor Daimler are older men, described as students of mesmerism and spiritualism, gentleman occultists of the type to be found in similar stories of the time by Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft.  Howard’s The Children of the Night (1931) contains several examples of this kind of character.  On the other hand, Dale, the narrator, is the practical man of science.  “I am a medical man, and my own profession is one that does not sympathize with radicals”, he says of himself.

Not to over glorify the material, but it appears that M.S. and Professor Daimler may represent “old school” stock characters from horror and supernatural fiction circa the 1920s and early 1930s, while Dale symbolizes the “thinking man” attracted to the science of the then emerging field of science fiction.

In the beginning of The Corpse on the Grating, Professor Daimler has invited the two others to his laboratory one dark night.

"I've summoned you, gentlemen," he said quietly, "because you two, of all London, are the only persons who know the nature of my recent experiments. I should like to acquaint you with the results!"

In keeping with the title of the magazine, some science is presented at this point.  Whether it constitutes super science may be debatable.  Readers are reminded that a dead frog can be reanimated by attaching parts of it to “a common dry cell battery with enough voltage to render a sharp shock.”  The three friends debate whether this constitutes a true re-animation.  (It doesn’t.) 

Under some conditions, an apparently deceased individual can be revived via a thorough application of heat, which is Professor Daimler’s approach.  Finally, it is known that epileptics who have not been prematurely entombed—at least for long—can be revived from their deathlike catatonic states through mechanical procedures involving warmth.  This last observation is possibly derived from that famous scientific treatise on the subject, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). 

This is pretty much all the science that readers of The Corpse on the Grating, need to know.  The professor shows off a table full of test tubes and other paraphernalia, and admits that he has recently failed to revive a dead man by applying his technique—it involves “acid heat.” The narrator is dismissive of all of this and mocks the other two gentleman.  Perhaps Dale also represents the reader, who may have some questions, too.  Such as, where is the body of the experimental subject, the titular corpse? 

So this is the set up:  science suggests that the dead can be revived, if only temporarily, through a relatively straightforward process involving extreme heat. And something needs to be done about the narrator’s annoying skepticism.  Dale and his friend M.S. leave the disappointed professor and walk down the street, arguing and mocking each other.

This being a shudder pulp story, a horror is encountered in just under five minutes.  It is only a block away, in an old warehouse the two reach on foot.    M.S. and Dale find a corpse attached to the wrought iron grated doorway of an old warehouse.  It is a corpse, but not the corpse. The dead man’s posture and facial grimace suggest that he was trying to escape from something that frightened him to death.  He apparently was the night watchman in the warehouse.  With the body count increasing in the neighborhood, shouldn’t someone call the police? 

Instead, M.S. dares Dale to spend the night in the warehouse, and Dale rises to the challenge—he has to, because he is a man.  (A similar motivation can be found in the effectively spooky collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, The Horror in the Museum, published in 1932).  

There is an amusing scene, near the end of The Corpse on the Grating, when Dale finds the dead night watchman’s flashlight and a book the man had been reading on his long shift.  This creates literally a story within a story, for Dale passes the time by reading the dead man’s anthology of horror stories.  Cave is having some fun with his readers here.

It was a book of horror, of fantasy. A collection of weird, terrifying, supernatural tales with grotesque illustrations in funereal black and white. And the very line I had turned to, the line which had probably struck terror to that unlucky devil's soul, explained M. S.'s "decayed human form, standing in the doorway with arms extended and a frightful face of passion!" The description—the same description—lay before me, almost in my friend's words. Little wonder that the fellow on the grating below, after reading this orgy of horror, had suddenly gone mad with fright. Little wonder that the picture engraved on his dead mind was a picture of a corpse standing in the doorway of room 4167!

As he reads a description of the approaching menace in the story, he perceives some of the same sights and sounds as the lead character, but they are coming from just outside in the hallway.  Readers may get the impression that Cave took pleasure in concocting his story for the same reason people enjoy constructing haunted houses or elaborately decorating the yard for Halloween.  Certainly this is a noble and adequate motivation for horror writers today, to throw something together with the minimum believability needed to give someone a bad dream or insomnia.

Cave and his colleagues in the shudder pulps wrote like H.P. Lovecraft—if Lovecraft had replaced all his adjectives with verbs.  There is a lot of action, and not a lot of time before the horrible or appalling makes an appearance.  The convention also involved including an explanation for the terrifying phenomena. (One is supplied by his triumphant friend M.S.)

In some respects, The Corpse on the Grating can be seen as a 1930s version of flash fiction, though at about 5,000 words it would probably qualify more as a “short short story.” However, Cave was able to keep this swift moving tale fairly brief, often omitting explanatory passages and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.


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