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.
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”.
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.