Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"There are times, I confess, when the reader will shudder over the style rather than the content of these stories." - The Opener of the Way

During my recent review of Weird Tales issues, the stories of Robert Bloch I found reminded me how much I'd enjoyed his work in the past and had been meaning to find a copy of his first collection of short stories, the Opener of the Way. So I did.

This book first saw publication in 1945 by Arkham House and many of the stories came from Weird Tales; the copy I obtained is a (much more affordable) 1976 paperback reprint by Panther. I feel sorry for anyone who chased the 1945 original - they're missing out on this fantastic back cover blurb:

Although Bloch kept writing horror to the end of his career, the latter-day stories I've read veered away from the supernatural; here, near the start of his career, we have quite a bit of supernatural terror. Let's delve in!

  • "The Opener of the Way" The titular story (which inspired the cover above) involves a father and son unearthing one of those (uh-oh) lost Egyptian tombs; the dad has been acting strangely and when he starts talking about projecting his consciousness into a statue you just know it won't end well...
  • "The Cloak" This was (loosely) adapted into the Amicus film the House That Dripped Blood - in fact, this is so different that if you've seen the film, you might still be surprised by the original version. This involves a man seeking out a Halloween costume, asking the costumer to give him "the real thing." The vampire cape the costumer provides seems to be precisely that - it turns the wearer into a vampire!
  • "Beetles" More fiddling around with Egyptian tombs (uh-oh). A man who unearths a mummy fears flesh-eating scarab beetles are after him for vengeance; he's right, but he didn't foresee how the beetles would get into his home...
  • "The Fiddler's Fee" What is it with the Devil and violins, anyway? Here we have a violinist who sells his soul to become a virtuoso, but being the world's greatest violinist doesn't guarantee people will find you likeable - or loveable.
  • "The Mannikin" A man deformed by a tumor so that he appears to be a hunchback seems to hold an unhealthy interest in the occult; wait, did I say tumor? To quote the great philosopher, "It's not a tumor!"
  • "The Strange Flight of Richard Clayton" An interesting science fiction/horror blend; a lone pilot sets off to Mars on a ship which will take 10 years to find Mars, then 10 years to return. Within the ship, the throbbing of the vessel begins to wear upon the lone occupant and he begins to lose his mind. How can he possibly survive 20 years in such an environment?
  • "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" This is one of Bloch's better-known tales and I'd seen it dramatized (faithfully, as it happens) on Boris Karloff's Thriller (it was also adapted into comics format by Gil Kane). If you aren't familiar with it, it's the story of one man's dogged pursuit of Jack the Ripper, believing the killer still walks the Earth by having made occult sacrifices for eternal youth. Despite the subject, it's fairly lighthearted - until the climax.
  • "The Seal of the Satyr" A tourist in Greece hears legends about how mortals could be transformed into beings such as centaurs and satyrs through human sacrifice; naturally, it's all true, but he's a little slow to discern just how true.
  • "The Dark Demon" A very Lovecraftian piece (where Lovecraft himself and several related creatures are name dropped) about a horror author whose ideas come to him in his dreams; unfortunately, his most recent dreams involve him bringing about the incarnation of Asmodeus; that doesn't sound good.
  • "The Faceless God" Yet more gamboling around in Egyptian tombs (uh-oh). This one is pretty sedate and way too-familiar but it involves the Lovecraftian being Nyarlathotep, so I'm sure someone likes it.

Bloch is my favourite of the Weird Tales-type authors because he not only has fiendish ideas of terrible things to inflict on his characters, but also a gift for dialogue and descriptive imagery and a twisted (yet often pleasing) sense of humour. I've said before that I don't have much time for Lovecraft - but Bloch? Oh my, yes.

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