Archive for the Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Category

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Return of the Sorcerer”

Posted in Black Mass, Clark Ashton Smith, Night Gallery (1969-1973), Richard Corben, Sator Square, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, The Return of the Sorcerer with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

With the proliferation of Lovecraft and Cthulhu related media coming out over the last decade or so I am truly surprised that the cinematic world has not attempted to adapt more stories by his Weird Tales comrades, especially Robert Bloch and, of course, my beloved Clark Ashton Smith.

Clark Ashton Smith: poet, author, painter, sculptor and member of the original Lovecraft Circle.

Although several of Bloch’s shorter non-Mythos works have been adapted for television, and his novel “Psycho” (1959) was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1960 feature film of the same name, very few of Smith’s works have been rendered into the cinematic medium. This could be due to the esoteric nature of his subjects and the dense baroque nature of his prose which, oddly enough, I feel should actually make him stand out from his contemporaries.

The most notable adaptations of his work (at least that I am aware of) are the “Mother of Toads” segment by Richard Stanley from the portmanteau film “The Theatre Bizarre” (2011), which I have reviewed here already, and the eccentric reworking of the “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931) for season 3 of  Night Gallery in 1972. Whereas the former is an admirable, if flawed, attempt to bring the essence of Smith’s tale to the silver screen, the latter is a risible fiasco despite the casting of Vincent Price in the role of Carnby.

The September 1931 issue of “Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror” in which “The Return of the Sorcerer” was first published.

First published in the September 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, the basic story is one of a young man, Mr. Ogden, who answers an ad for an in-house secretarial position from a recluse scholar in Oakland, CA (one of the rare instances of a real-world location for a Smith tale). One of the requirements for the appointment is a more than passing familiarity with the Arabic language which Ogden has. Upon arrival, he is put off by the bleakness of the demesne and the febrile mien of its senescent master, a Mr. John Carnby. He accepts the position in spite of this and, once engaged, is taken to the study which is decorated like a sorcerer’s lair: “There were tables strewn with archaic instruments of doubtful use, with astrological charts, with skulls and alembics and crystals, with censers such as are used in the Catholic Church, and volumes bound in worm-eaten leather with verdigris-mottled clasps. In one corner stood the skeleton of a large ape; in another, a human skeleton; and overhead a stuffed crocodile was suspended.” (from “The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith, 1931)

A good portion of the library, he sees, is dedicated to Goetia and Black Magic and, as it turns out, Mr. Carnby needs someone to translate a certain passage of the Necronomicon (yes, that Necronomicon) which was not included in the Latin translation, but which Ogden suspects has an occult significance to Carnby despite his protestations to the contrary. Even so, he seems to blanch at every bump that goes off in the darkness of the creepy old house. “The house is full of rats.” he says, unconvincingly in explanation. The “rats” return on subsequent nights and each time the racket they make becomes louder as they seem to encroach upon Carnby’s chamber. Ogden himself even catches a brief glimpse one night of something ” …much too pale for a rat and its form was not at all suggestive of an animal. I could not have sworn what it was, but the outlines had seemed unmentionably monstrous.” (from “The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith, 1931)

It is apparent, by his jitteriness that Carnby is anxious about something more than rats and the aforementioned grimoire passage, once translated, gives some foreshadowing of the final act, so I will skip it so as not to ruin the tale for you. It is perhaps a bit predictable, but it is also ghoulishly effective and definitely fun to read how it plays out in Smith’s Gothic prose stylings.

Marquee for “The Return of the Sorcerer” retrieved from the Night Gallery.net site.

In the Night Gallery adaptation the source of Carnby’s anxiety and the main reason for his wanting to accurately translate the excised Necronomicon passage is revealed much too early, thus diminishing it’s power in unlike when it was accompanied by the ensuing grisly denouement.  Aside from Price, the Night Gallery episode stars Bill Bixby as Noel Evans (a stand in for Ogden who is only known by his surname in the tale), and there is an added provocative female assistant for Carnby named Fern (played by the lovely Tisha Sterling). In the DVD commentary it is explained that Fern was added to explain what was going on to the audience, but nothing she says in this regard isn’t said by Carnby in the original tale, although she does have a monologue about overturning the patriarchy in the dinner table scene. To be honest, I believe she was added for eye candy, despite her feminist diatribe, and there is a whole subplot about her deposing Price and seducing Bixby, which I found unnecessary and distracting.

What’s also distracting is the campy gags which take away from the dread of the original tale and I think demean Smith’s work. For example the  addition of a scene with the goat at the dinner table. In the final act, the gruesome climax is reworked into a mock Black Mass (not in the story) where Carnby and Fern recite the palindromic chant from the Sator Square: SATOR / AREPO / TENET /OPERA / ROTAS. In the commentary it is divulged that Ms. Sterling felt very uneasy about saying it as she believed it was part of a genuine Black Magic rite. In reality, it is a protection spell, dating back to the days of Pompeii, which has since been used for other benevolent uses in it’s many variations.

Unlike Boris Karloff’s Thriller, which I feel did right by many Weird Tales alumni in their adaptations, Night Gallery didn’t seem to give the material proper respect and many potentially interesting teleplays were ruined by camp humor and watering down the fantasy and horror elements so as not to offend or overtax the bland tastes and small minds of their intended audience. Occasionally they came close, but missed the mark more often than not. Even so, as my buddy Chester is wont to say, the book/story is still there for one to enjoy no matter how bad or unrecognizable any given adaptation might be.

On a final note, Smith’s tale was also adapted by comic artist Richard Corben. Unlike his Poe adaptations, he remains more or less faithful to Smith’s tale and retains some of it’s gloomy baroque atmosphere.

A page from the 1992 comic adaptation of the tale by Richard Corben.

 

 

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Hugh B. Cave’s “Murgunstrumm”

Posted in A Taste for Blood, H.W. Wesso, Hugh B. Cave, Lee Brown Coye, Murgunstrumm, Murgunstrumm and Others, Pulp Magazines, Pulp Writers, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, vampire novellas with tags , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by Manuel Paul Arenas

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am a very big fan of the weird pulp writers of the early 20th century. I enjoy the mixture of Victorian naiveté and pre-code exploitation in truly imaginative Horror and Fantasy stories, and I just love the cover art! Sometimes when I am bored I’ll surf the web in search of illustrations from the original publications of tales that I review on here. On one such a search I encountered the January 1933 cover for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror by H.W. Wesso. The image was so striking that I was drawn to it immediately. Upon further investigation I learned that it depicted a climactic scene from the vampire novella “Murgunstrumm” by Hugh B. Cave.

Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, January 1933. Cover art by H.W. Wesso.

Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, January 1933. Cover art by H.W. Wesso.

Come hell or high water, I vowed to find that story! As luck would have it, I found it only a few days later in a collection of vampire novellas edited by Martin H. Greenberg called “A Taste of Blood”. I didn’t care much for the cover art, but couldn’t argue with the selection which featured everything from Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” to Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid”.

A Taste for Blood (1992, Dorset Press). My copy is the 1995 paperback reprint by Barnes & Noble.

A Taste for Blood (1992, Dorset Press). My copy is the 1995 paperback reprint by Barnes & Noble.

I began reading as soon as I got a chance to see what this tale was all about and to find out what exactly was being shown in the Wesso cover art. Unfortunately, the story moves at a very slow pace. Without giving too much away, Paul (the protagonist, a prim, proper and annoyingly self-righteous young man) escapes from an asylum where he has been stashed away after he and his girlfriend try to tell the authorities about their near-death experience with some supernatural villains. His plan is to trick the doctors that committed him into coming along on a trip back to the scene of the event to convince them that he isn’t mad after all.

The chapters read like a script for a talkie melodrama with the occasional spooky scene designed to make young girls cling to their beaus in the darkened theater. There are some decent descriptive passages but they quickly devolve into predictable pulp pablum. I imagine the vampires in their evening dress and pomade-slicked hair look like undead silent movie idols. The most interesting thing about them is their ability to turn into a blue fog leaving only their penetrating green eyes to hypnotize their prey.

Most of the horror happens off scene in other rooms and when our hero and his friends do find some nasty surprises in the forbidding lair of the vampires, their findings are only hinted at, rather than described. There are a couple of scenes near the end which are a little more explicit, but not by much.

My biggest disappointment was the title character, the ghoulish cripple who minds the lair of the vampires and does their bidding. I don’t want to spoil the tale for the curious, but I felt a bit let down by how ineffectual he turns out to be in the end after such a build up from his first appearance in the doorway of the dilapidated inn.

Even so, I am glad that I read the tale, and I do recommend it to fans of classic vampire literature. The story can also be found in the 1977 collection of Hugh B. Cave stories by Carcosa entitled “Murgunstrumm and Others” which features some macabre artwork by the inimitable Lee Brown Coye.

Cover art by Lee Brown Coye for "Murgunstrumm and Others" (1977, Carcosa)

Cover art by Lee Brown Coye for “Murgunstrumm and Others” (1977, Carcosa)