Thursday, February 26, 2015

Foreplay, With Tentacles

Whispers was one of several praiseworthy attempts to revive horror magazines following the demise of Weird Tales, which ended its original run in the fall of 1954.  The magazine became a respected source of weird fiction and artwork in the 1970s.  Created by editor and publisher Stuart David Schiff, Whispers was named after a fictional periodical mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft’s story, The Unnamable (1925). 

Readers may recall that at the beginning of that tale, Randolph Carter and his friend Joel Manton are sitting on a decrepit old tomb as twilight gathers.  They have resumed an ongoing philosophical debate, and Carter is miffed about Manton’s criticism of the writer’s most recently published story. Carter, the narrator, describes the public’s response to his work:

My tale had been called The Attic Window, and appeared in the January, 1922 issue of Whispers.  In a good many places, especially the South and the Pacific coast, they took the magazines off the stands at the complaints of silly milksops; but New England didn’t get the thrill and merely shrugged its shoulders at my extravagance.

Some suspect that this episode echoes the real world reaction to one of Lovecraft’s more notorious collaborations, The Loved Dead (1924) which was also published around this time.  (See also Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia)  At any rate, the magazine that was published in the 1970s featured short fiction, reviews, and essays by a number of important writers, among them Karl Edward Wagner, Manly Wade Wellman, Frank Belknap Long, Donald Wandrei, E. Hoffman Price and Fritz Leiber.  Several of these authors were members of the generation that followed H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and their colleagues, and were strongly influenced by them, at least initially. 

Whispers also published five of Hugh B. Cave’s stories, including Ladies in Waiting.  By comparison, the original Weird Tales published 13 of Cave’s stories—several decades earlier.  Cave was still quite active in the mid-1970s, and continued to publish into the early years of this century.      

Ladies in Waiting is an interesting pastiche of a number of horror tropes. It includes a haunted house, a nightmarishly compulsive return to an earlier place of terror and eeriness, reference to ancestral evil, and also—more typical of the 1970s than the 1930s—an overt mixture of horror and sexuality in the climactic scene.  In this regard, it is more successful than Lovecraft’s The Loved Dead, but also benefited from several decades of decreasing squeamishness about human sexuality.  Ladies in Waiting also shows the further evolution of Cave’s shudder pulp technique and typical themes. 

The tale is a long way from some of Cave’s earliest weird menace stories, like The Corpse on the Grate (1930) and The Murder Machine (1930).  However, it contains several elements in common with the earlier work, in particular, characters who are drawn against their will to a strange doom, and an application of weird hypnotism as a prelude to an implied rape.  However, unlike a typical shudder pulp story, there is no naturalistic explanation for the supernatural events that unfold.    

Norman and Linda Wilkins return to an old, unoccupied house somewhere in New England.  Earlier that year they had been trapped by a snow storm and forced to spend the night there.  There had been car trouble, and when Norman came back inside after tending to the vehicle, he found his wife oddly dazed and disoriented.

And was he also imagining the odor?  It had not been present in the musty air of this room before; it certainly seemed to be now, unless his senses were playing tricks on him.  A peculiarly robust smell, unquestionably male.

Norman senses that the house is haunted and his wife is somehow possessed by the spirit of the place.  Against his better judgment, he returns with her a second time, after she begs him to take her back to look into purchasing the old place.  Along the way, a useful real estate agent provides helpful backstory.  The previous owners included a woman whose ancestor was one of the witches hanged in Salem, and her husband. He died in an asylum for the insane.  Hmmm.

The real estate agent gives the couple a key to the house and allows them to visit it again, unescorted.  Events soon begin to repeat themselves.  There is a flat tire, and Norman goes outside to repair it, leaving Linda to wander back into the house, alone.  In his frantic search to find her again, he is assailed this time by a sweet perfume and invisible, caressing sensations all over his body—which sensations also commence to unbutton his shirt.  Norman’s experience at this point recalls Jonathon Harker’s passive and ecstatic acquiescence in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when one of the female vampires is about initiate him with a bite to the “neck”.  Judging by the sounds coming from a nearby room, Norman’s wife is receiving a similar treatment.

When Norman comes to his senses he is suddenly able to see the denizens of this house—they are not vampires, nor are they precisely human.  They are Lovecraftian monstrosities, amorphous, female and tentacled—and hungry for more of him.  This didn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it didn’t have to.  Cave’s compulsive and circular plot indicates that this is a nightmare about sex, guilt, infidelity and entanglement.  Hence, no need for the rational explanation that typically concluded his shudder pulp tales.

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