Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror by Allison V. Harding
Unless you are an aficionado of the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales, or have read some of the many anthology collections derived from its pages, the chances are good that you are not familiar with the author Allison V. Harding. This reader had previously encountered the author in the 1988 collection Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies, which contained what is probably Harding’s most famous story, “The Damp Man.” I had hugely enjoyed this chilling tale and wanted to read more by this nearly forgotten writer, but there was one problem: No collection of Harding’s work had ever been compiled, and her appearances in various collections are few and far between. And this is somewhat surprising, given that, during the period 1943 – ’51, Harding was one of the most popular and certainly most frequently published of all Weird Tales writers. During that nine-year period, Harding had 36 stories published in the so-called “Unique Magazine,” in the genres of sci-fi, the thriller and, especially, horror. Her seeming neglect since her Weird Tales heyday — and it should be added that Harding’s work never appeared anywhere other than in that magazine — has been regrettable, but happily, the very first collection of Harding’s stories has finally, finally been made a reality, thanks to the fine folks at Armchair Fiction. Their newest release, in summer 2020, is the wonderful anthology appropriately titled Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror, a 356-page, generous-sized collection containing 16 of Harding’s works. For all fans of both Weird Tales magazine and pulp fiction in general, this should be something of a big deal, indeed.
Now, it is at this point in my book reviews when I usually like to say a word or two about the author, but sadly, I am not quite able to do so here, as very little biographical information is currently available concerning Allison V. Harding. The website Tellers of Weird Tales (a must-visit destination for all fans of the magazine, by the way) has what could be one of the best articles on the author, but a reading of that article might leave you even more in the dark than before. Suffice it to say that “Allison V. Harding” was probably a pen name for the attorney Jean Milligan, who’d been born in Cleveland in 1919; at least, Harding’s check payments from Weird Tales were made out to Milligan. Jean Milligan was also the wife of the magazine’s associate editor, Charles Lamont Buchanan, and there is evidence to suggest that he was the actual author of these tales. Or, it has been suggested, maybe the husband-and-wife team wrote together, a la Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, with perhaps one supplying the story ideas and the other doing the actual writing. In all likelihood, we will never know. Some of Harding’s tales do indeed seem as if they could only have been written by a man, with their tough-guy patter and male POV; others feature convincing portraits of women in peril, and strike the reader as assured products of a lady author. But whatever the provenance of these stories, one thing they all have in common is the master’s touch, a sure hand with creeping dread and ratcheted suspense, tremendous imagination, and grisly content. Simply put, this is one helluva collection, besides being a long-overdue one.
As to the stories themselves, they all hail from that 1943 – ’51 period, of course. In the first, “The Frightened Engine” (from the January ’48 issue), a team of construction workers building a trans-state highway is having a tough time with Hill 96. Despite laborious excavations and dynamiting, the hill always seems to remain untouched and whole the following morning. Worse still, an enormous steam shovel and even one of the workers have wholly vanished without a trace. Ultimately, the answer to this conundrum is revealed: a tentacled, underground monstrosity that H. P. Lovecraft himself might have smiled upon with approbation! This is a suspenseful and surprisingly horrific little tale to get this collection rolling.
In “The Coming of M. Alkerhaus” (3/’48), the titular movie director proves something of a blessing for Magna-Acme Studios. The studio’s head, President Trump (!!!), is impressed by how all of the director’s films have an eerie tendency to become reality, especially his disaster pictures dealing with train wrecks, calamities at sea, and so on. And that is why Trump’s assistant, young Frank Stockton, finds it especially troubling when Alkerhaus’ newest film deals with an atomic bomb attack … and the end of the world! An apocalyptic yet surprisingly lovely finale caps this well-written and chilling tale.
Strangely enough, another steam shovel figures prominently in the collection’s next story, but this one with a seeming mind of its own and a homicidal bent. Thus, in “The Murderous Steam Shovel” (11/’45), Vilma Meglund is made a widow after the driverless machine of the title kills her brawny construction worker husband and destroys their house. Nobody quite believes Vilma’s story, unfortunately, and after being hospitalized for a spell, she is ultimately sent off to a sanitarium … to which the killer steam shovel follows! What sounds in synopsis like a laughable setup is actually one of grim and escalating paranoia, with a socko conclusion…
Another person who seems to be fit for the loony bin is poor Edgar Chadbourne, in “The City of Lost People” (5/’48), in which the single, workaholic young man exits his office one night only to find the city completely devoid of … everyone! By the morning, all has returned to normal, but when the same thing happens on repeated evenings, he asks the advice of his neighbor, Dr. Kessler, a psychiatrist who also dabbles in metaphysics, hypnotism and … the occult. Into this truly unsettling story Harding inserts two genuinely creepy scenes: a tour of Kessler’s psychiatric hospital, and the sequence in which Edgar awakens in his Pullman sleeper, while traveling cross-country, only to find his train barreling along with nobody aboard. Wonderful stuff!
“The Underbody,” which copped the cover art for the 11/’49 issue, replicated in this Armchair release as its own front cover, tells the tragic story of a supernatural, corpselike entity that lures children underground, resulting in their deaths. A posse of neighborhood men is formed to apprehend the villain, but with disastrous results. This is a fairly shocking tale, even by 21st century standards, in that the author shows absolutely no qualms in depicting the horrible demises of little kids. The net effect is something like a gruesome fairy tale for adults, and one that should linger long in the memory.
“Scope” (1/’51) was the last story that Harding had published in Weird Tales, and hence, anywhere else. Here, Professor Angus Merrick and his two young assistants construct the world’s most powerful astronomical telescope and use it to search farther out into the universe than ever before possible. Eventually, they discern what looks like a tremendous eyeball staring straight back at them, before the ultimate secret of Earth’s place in the universe is revealed. “Scope” concludes with a suitably apocalyptic finish — quite different from the one in “The Coming of M. Alkerhaus” — to bring the curtain down on Harding’s authorial career.
And next up in this collection, happily, is Harding’s wonderful tale “The Damp Man” (7/’47), which I had never forgotten. In this one, newspaper reporter George Pelgrim comes to the aid of a local swimming champion, Linda Mallory, when that young woman complains about being relentlessly followed (what we would today call “stalked”) by the enormously obese and strangely moist titular character. Combining elements of hard-boiled film noir with a sense of escalating dread — and, with that indoor swimming pool scene, perhaps a touch of 1942’s Cat People — the tale builds to a tremendous conclusion, in which it is revealed that the Damp Man, aka Lother Remsdorf, is not quite human; at least, not anymore. This story was an understandable favorite of Weird Tales readers, so much so that it resulted in two sequels, “The Damp Man Returns” (9/’47) and “The Damp Man Again” (5/’49; a story that copped another front-cover treatment). It is a pity that all three Damp Man stories could not have been given to us readers here back to back to back, for the first time ever. A wonderful opportunity missed, I can’t help but feel…
In a story that anticipates the razing of NYC’s 3rd Ave. el train in the early to mid-‘50s, “Ride the El to Doom” (11/’44) tells of the final days of the elevated rail line going over the West River Bridge. Here, foundry worker Jack Larue sympathizes with the old motorman Pete Nevers, who is about to lose his livelihood after many decades of service. But as events prove, during one breakneck final ride with just the two men aboard, Nevers has himself become just like his train: more metallic than human. Harding here displays a wonderful control as regards narrative suspense and escalating horror, as the train, propelled by its crazed motorman, barrels along to its imminent demise…
In the mad-scientist story “Night of Impossible Shadows” (9/’45), a young lawyer takes his newlywed bride to visit his eccentric college chum in the country, after receiving an urgent telegram. Their host, Paul Okerdon, had been immersing himself in the study of light, and had recently come to a remarkable discovery: that a shadow “is not a meaningless harmless little patch of darkness and nothingness,” but rather, a living and sentient entity with sinister intent! His lawyer friend quite understandably believes Okerdon to have gone insane, but subsequent events do bear the scientist out, in this genuinely frightening and marvelously atmospheric tale.
“Isle of Women” (7/’48) is very much a straight-out adventure story with touches of the grisly macabre. In this one, a scientific expedition’s chartered ship is caught in a storm near the Galapagos and then sunk. The survivors fetch up on the shore of a seemingly deserted island. If only it had been deserted! Soon enough, the five men and one woman of the shipwrecked quintet are captured and imprisoned by a sadistic tribe of Amazon types, whose favorite method of torture turns out to be via poisonous snakes and water-filled pits! Into this rip-roaring action tale Harding also throws in a thrilling escape sequence, dynamiting, a volcano eruption, and the mother of all catfights, as our gal Brenda battles their female jail guard to the death. It is a longish story that yet never lags; an ample demonstration that Harding could do the adventure/lost race kind of story with as much facility and skill as she had with horror.
But returning to that realm of horror, “Tunnel Terror” (3/’46) gives us the story of two very different men: Big Bill Van Hooten, a dim-witted and brawny trucker, and his best friend Tom Mead, a diminutive and brainy type. Big Bill has been having problems whenever he drives under the river between Oceanside and Big City: The goods in his truck have been turning rotten by the time he reaches the exit of the tunnel. Could it possibly have anything to do with the long-standing curse on his old Dutch family, pertaining to any Van Hooten male crossing this river? What do you think? A supernatural manifestation and a tragic conclusion highlight this grim and gripping tale.
In “The Machine” (9/’46), Dr. Henric Cardoza invents a type of EKG/EEG device that, instead of measuring heart rhythms or brain waves, can measure a person’s soul! The device is tried on a dog and on several human subjects, all of whom go insane, before the truth is learned: The machine is actually draining away their souls, storing them, becoming stronger and more self-aware, and more likely to subjugate the entire world! It is a marvelous story, really, in which Harding makes one fatal error, having to do with Cardoza subjecting himself to the machine twice, and somehow remaining mentally whole after the first test. Some slight points off for this bit of unexplained business, but a most impressive piece of work overall.
“Revolt of the Trees” (1/’45) gives us another newspaper reporter, Harvey “The Hunch” Winslow, who is given the thankless job of doing a feature story on — you guessed it — trees. After getting quite soused, he walks into a nearby peaceful forest and hears the trees there whispering to each other of their foul treatment by the humans, and of how the time is finally ripe for them to fight back. Upon sobering up, Harvey is unsure whether he imagined the whole incident or not. But his infallible hunch tells him that he hasn’t, and so he returns to the forest … with unfortunate results. This is a beautifully well-done story, with some dire warnings for us all. A possible inspiration for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film The Happening? Probably not, but who knows?
In “The House of Hate” (1/’44), a meek, retired man, Ambrose Timothy, moves next door to a very sinister abode. Therein dwells a mute lad who is seemingly being abused by his mother, Mrs. Paquin, and by her companion, a hulking brute of a man. Once again, Harding demonstrates an unflinching readiness to depict atrocities perpetrated upon a young child, as she had in “The Underbody.” Glandular experimentation, bloody carnage, and a very surprising revelation as to Timothy’s actual motivations highlight this genuinely grim and grisly tale. It is one definitely not recommended for the squeamish.
“Death Went That Way” (11/’43; Harding’s third story and the earliest one, chronologically, in this collection) gives us the story of young Johnny Abbott, who is hired to drive a 1940 coupe from NYC to California. Others had tried to do so previously, but without success. The car, as it turns out, used to belong to a notorious bank robber named Red Thompson, who’d been killed in the car during one of his escapes. And now, as Johnny nears the area where Thompson had been slain, the car beings to act strangely. He hears someone whistling “East Side, West Side,” supposedly Thompson’s favorite tune, and then sees the cadaverous image of a redheaded man sitting next to him… This is a hugely likeable and sprightly story, in which Harding demonstrates an ability to pen a quality ghost tale with the best of them.
This Armchair collection concludes with the uberspooky offering “Fog Country” (7/’45), in which the reader is introduced to the small coastal village called Elbow Creek. This isolated burg is intermittently plagued by an unnatural fog that has the tendency to swallow victims whole and make them disappear forever. In this story, our narrator creeps up to the house owned by the Hobells, the wickedest family in town, on the night of one of these fog manifestations. Another surprise ending regarding the story’s protagonist and his actual identity caps this supremely well-done chiller, bringing this wonderful anthology to a close.
And indeed, this very first collection of Allison V. Harding’s work truly is wonderful. It would earn my very highest five-star rating if not for the book’s presentation, which, sadly, is a deplorable mess that compels me to dock it a full star. At first glance, Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror is a handsome volume, and indeed one that features lots of the original interior artwork from Weird Tales to accompany their respective stories. But the typography … gadzooks! What a disaster! This is hardly the first Armchair edition that I’ve read that was simply teeming with typos, but it might very well be the worst. But really, a quick look at the book’s back cover should have been a tip-off. It’s there that we get the blurb “Aim your reading glasses at tales like … and you’ll see see why.” Christ … right on the back cover! The book — although an important release and one that any publisher would be expected to lavish attention upon — has obviously never been proofread, and anyone in the know will tell you that using Spell Check is hardly a decent substitute. Thus, in this collection, we get “affection” instead of “affectation”; “Iris” instead of “his”; “drat” instead of “that”; “drinking” instead of “thinking.” “Tracks” becomes “trades”; “man” becomes “mart”; “reflection” becomes “defection”; “my” becomes “ray”; “chained” becomes “drained”; “screaming” becomes “streaming”; “villagers” becomes “pillagers”; “sensation” becomes “sentional” (?); “coup de grace” becomes “coup d’etat.” And on and on and on.
And then there is the matter of punctuation, especially when it comes to extraneous and/or missing commas. Check out a few examples: “Those, moments away from his telescope, away from his scientific equations and his astronomical data were begrudged.” “The Professor spoke in measured terms almost as though trying to convince himself that, a, weighty, scientific discussion could bring some more commonplace explanation to the incredible thing we had seen.” “I ran after him but the man was beside, himself.” “I got to the observatory door and opened, it.” “’Haven’t seen him,’ said, the old employee.” “As the woman, advanced on him, the boy edged away.” Multiply these times 100 and you might imagine how annoying it can be at times to read — or, perhaps I should say, decipher — this latest Armchair release. This publisher has been doing wonderful things over the past few years with its releases of little-remembered, out-of-print sci-fi, horror, crime and lost world/lost race books, but its apparent disregard for the readers who purchase its products is surely regrettable. Allison V. Harding deserves so much better.
And while I’m complaining, it might also have been nice had we readers been given some kind of introduction or afterword to this important release, or even the date of the magazine in which each story appeared, which would have saved me the effort. Still, Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror is well worth purchasing – and again, is the only one of its kind out there – but please, Armchair editors: Hire a decent proofreader already, will you, please?!?!