Food for the Fungus Lady and Other Stories by Ralston Shields
Gathering together 10 remarkably grisly tales from the pages of three of the most lurid of the pulp magazines, Food for the Fungus Lady and Other Stories is the first collection of Ralston Shields’ work ever assembled. Released in 2014 by the Dancing Tuatara Press imprint of Ramble House, the book shines a long-overdue spotlight on an author whom John Pelan, in his introduction, calls the greatest writer of “weird-menace” fiction on a story-by-story basis. And for those of you who are fairly new to this distinctive genre of the mid-1930s to early ‘40s, as was I, let me briefly state that the weird-menace stories seem to have dealt with supernatural events that are ultimately revealed to have mundane, if sinister, explanations; ghastly plots perpetrated on our hapless main characters, usually by a scheming femme fatale or money-hungry scoundrel. The stories also appear to have featured strong violence, startling nudity, drug use, insanity, murder, you name it! Pretty surprising stuff, considering that the Hays Code had, starting in 1934, severely restricted such shenanigans on the silver screen.
In his introduction, Pelan twice exhorts the reader not to read the stories in this book cover to cover, as a noticeable repetition of theme begins to manifest itself before very long. But I’ve never been very good at following instructions and did indeed eagerly consume all 10 of these outrageous outings in a row. And while the relentless reiteration of theme does eventually begin to pall, the book never does grow dull, and really, how could it? Featuring fiendishly clever (if unlikely) plotting, as well as some of the most stupefyingly bizarre situations you have probably ever encountered, the stories here are pure, purple-prose pulp heaven; violent, ghastly, brutal, often racist and occasionally shocking, even by today’s standards. Helping to keep these surprisingly well-written stories interesting is the fact that several of them do veer off formula, and are decidedly supernatural (which, truth be told, is the type of tale that I personally find scarier, and more satisfying … but that’s not what the weird-menace genre was all about). Thus, trying to figure out which of these bizarre tales will have mundane explanations (the majority, granted) and which will wind up being supernatural provides a large part of the fun here; an amusing guessing game, or sorts.
The stories here all initially appeared during the period 1937 – 1940, in these three publications: Dime Mystery Magazine, the first weird-menace pulp, which released 158 issues from 1932 – 1950; Terror Tales, which came out with some 50 issues from 1934 – 1941; and Horror Stories, with some 47 releases from 1935 – 1941. All three of these legendary pulps were edited by Rogers Terrill and were products of the company called Popular Publications. As for Shields himself, very little biographical information is known, other than the fact that his real name was John R. Baxter and that he wrote 12 stories; these 10, plus one that Pelan deems “mediocre” and another that he says is “in a completely different genre.”
Okay, let’s all take a deep breath now. As for the stories themselves, the collection kicks off with the typically lurid “Black Mother of Murder.” In this one, Dr. James Barton, having recently discovered a cure for drug addiction, accepts an offer from this tale’s wicked woman, Dr. Lura Karinadi, to further his researches at her swamp-surrounded island retreat in …California’s San Joaquin Valley? And so, off goes Dr. Barton and his wife Allene, ultimately running afoul of a cult of Kali worshippers, in a tale that conflates the “yellow menace,” drug trafficking, hashish, a tongue-ripping ceremony, torture by scorpion, and other nastiness. This wonderfully pulpy tale also contains such wonderful verbiage as “…we were swept away by a tide of passion – a tide that flowed in the direction of the gaping caverns of hell eternal” and “…a foreboding ate like a fungus at the very roots of my sanity.” I love it!
In “Daughter of the Devil,” a newly married couple, Ronald and Joyce Leslie, inherit an estate on the Pacific coast from an uncle whom Ronald had never met; an uncle who’d been something of an Egyptologist, it seems. Ronald is told by the estate’s butler to never use the padlocked stop on the home’s organ, but our hero, being a composer, ignores this advice, and employs the forbidden stop while writing his latest piece. The result: the spirit of his deceased lover, the ghoulish gal Vardis Huntington, is revived from the dead; Vardis, who instructs Ronald to gather leeches from a nearby swamp, and use them to draw Joyce’s blood so that she, Vardis, might truly live again. Flesh-eating birds, a deformed servant, more drugs, and a skeleton on an outdoor dais are ultimately all thrown into this flabbergasting tale.
“Priestess of Pestilence” gives us the story of wealthy painter Steven McLeod, who, along with his new bride Doris and her uncle, hires a schooner for a honeymoon trip from the Gulf of California down to Panama. Along the way, they rescue a woman, this story’s murderous mamacita, Felicitas de Mendizabal, who had leaped from a nearby yacht in an apparent suicide attempt. And then the problems begin, as, one by one, the passengers begin to be afflicted by some kind of swift-acting disease that leaves its victims a ghastly mass of “bleeding corruption.” Into this terror tale Shields subsumes a magical chameleon, snake poison, man-eating sharks, high-seas action, and a mysterious, 2” Japanese pistol that induces instant blindness! Truly, a wild and woolly adventure here!
And this collection’s title piece, “Food for the Fungus Lady,” may be even more way out! In this one, Walter Ashford, a worker in San Francisco’s Health Department, kills the charlatan medical man Victor Tschorinin in self-defense, and is later bequeathed the quack’s Carmel mansion by the grateful widow. Walter and his wife Anne eventually settle in, and Ashford is soon stunned to find the body of a beautiful blonde woman, the somnolent siren Dagmar, lying in a hidden cellar room in suspended animation. Once aroused, Dagmar wastes little time in entrancing Ashford (“I was held here … by the tentacles of an invisible octopus of lust,“ Walter writes), telling him that the only food that she is able to subsist on, a special breed of mushroom, can be grown overnight on the living body of a drugged individual … such as, say, Anne! A Chinese servant employing a blowgun weapon and a living half-corpse also come to figure in this doozy of a tale.
In “I Summoned Doctor Death” (you’ve gotta love the names of these stories!), another San Francisco resident, Phil Trumbull, grows desperate after his new bride, Estelle, makes repeated efforts to kill herself. Ready now to seek help in any quarter, he brings his wife to the office of the Asian doctor Fernan Villalobos, whose advertisement he had found in his hallway … a very bad decision, as it turns out! Into this wicked little tale, one of the few in this collection that is devoid of a hideous harpy character, Shields gives us more in the way of yellow menace, a Filipino cult, voodoo, white slavery, and death by battle-axe … not to mention the wonderful line “…a trickle of blood coursed downward over her breast like an evil red serpent of death…” Only one problem to be had here: Is it possible to “snip” a lock of hair with a knife? I think not.
A most unusual couple is to be found in “Little Miss Dracula”: the Hungarian Count Nigel Becker-Hazi and his wealthy wife, the heiress Emily van Driker. The count has managed to convince his kinky, thrill-seeking Mrs. that he is a vampire, and is now employing fake teeth and drugs to maintain the deception. But while at an exclusive resort in Santa Barbara, Count Nigel seems to encounter a woman who may indeed be the genuine article. She is Lispeth O’Connor, as vile a vampiress as has ever sunk a pair of fangs into a nicely throbbing neck. Child murder, husband murder, living death, and traditional vampire lore are all worked into this hugely satisfying tale.
Another horrible disease is spotlighted in “Mistress of the Blood-Drinkers.” Here, the sister of Roger Coleman, part owner of a Far Eastern emporium in, uh, San Francisco, dies of an illness that leaves her body a mess of suppurating blisters. The family doctor pronounces the illness to be Vollmer’s disease, an obscure Asian malady. When Coleman himself starts evincing symptoms, he is miraculously cured by one of his customers, Naida Sadko, after a 24-hour treatment. Thus, Coleman rushes back to Sadko’s home after his own wife, Nan, falls victim to the deadly scourge, too. But as it turns out, Sadko is one of the lost kingdom of Nargit, near Tibet; a people with claws instead of nails, and sucking membranes on their palms designed for ingesting blood! And before long, Roger, now completely infatuated with the nefarious Naida, begins to sport sucking membranes on his own palms, as well… This mind-boggler was Shields’ only story to cop the front-cover treatment, by the way; for Horror Stories’ March 1940 issue.
“The Blood Kiss” gives us the unfortunate story of another scientist, Dr. Everett Ashton, who has recently come up with a substance called “ultra-fibrin,” which causes automatic blood clotting and could very well be a boon to mankind. Into his laboratory one afternoon comes this story’s deadly damsel, Dr. Isavan Ling, a beautiful fellow scientist from the Celebes. Despite the fact that Ashton and his fiancée/lab assistant Marjory are planning to tie the knot later that day, he goes with Dr. Ling to her nearby lab, where he is locked into a suite of rooms, given a kiss by the lethal lorelei, and so turned into what Ling’s people call a lamboyo … a creature who feeds on blood. As the days pass, the confined Everett feels the blood hunger growing in him, and his plight is only made more difficult when Marjory is also captured, and some of her blood is given to him, in a wineglass, to drink…
Breaking the formula once again is the next story up, “Vengeance of the Living Dead,” which also features no heinous hottie. Rather, this tale deals with the hideous revenge that Dr. James Beswick takes on his colleague, Tom Stuart, who is having a secret love affair with Beswick’s wife, Wanda. Beswick destroys his wife’s mind with drugs and radiation; has his African servant Kandru paralyze Stuart with a blowgun dart; and then straps Stuart to a diabolical “murder machine.” But there are any number of surprises ahead for all concerned, in this tale that incorporates a vat of acid, mind-out-of-body experiences, and a goodly dollop of Tibetan mysticism…
The collection is winningly brought to a close with “A Kiss for the Blood Lady,” which finds, uh, honeymooners Gordon and Lila Varney at a California desert resort. Tragedy occurs when Gordon is bitten on the cheek by a rattlesnake, after which the director of the resort, one Dr. Corvin, tells Lila that Gordon’s face will be forever mutilated, while the poor man writhes in delirium. But when Varney comes to, he finds that a miracle has occurred: Dr. Corvin has transplanted Gordon’s perfect brain into the perfect body of the seriously insane Peter Anstey, the doctor’s nephew. But as the days go by, the befuddled Gordon starts to realize that he is beginning to share one of Anstey’s fixations: that he must smear himself in blood – human, cat, dog, whatever – in order to attract the kisses of the desert-dwelling Indian demoness Prani, a sinister succubus if there ever was one! This tale goes a little too far, sez me, with its murderous treatment of a kitten and a puppy, but is nevertheless a rattlingly fine – if far-fetched – entertainment.
So there you have it … 10 exquisitely ghoulish exemplars of the weird-menace genre! In all, Food for the Fungus Lady and Other Stories is a smashing package, but I do have three quibbles to share. First, it would have been preferable had these tales been presented in chronological order, so that we could have more easily appreciated Shields’ rapid improvement as a writer. Second, it would have been nice had those two missing stories – I believe their titles are “Tropic Voodoo” and “The Dictator and the Zombie” – been included, for the sake of completeness. And third, it would have been so helpful had this volume not included the staggering number of typographical errors on display; simple typos, botched punctuation, missing words, and on and on, sometimes to comical effect. My favorite: “…her bound ankles were directly above the flame of one of the torches burping at the foot of the altar”! Heck, even the order of the stories in the Table of Contents is scrambled! Ramble House has dozens and dozens of books in its immense catalog that I hope to be purchasing one day – including collections from other weird-menace purveyors such as Hugh B. Cave, Arthur J. Burks, Arthur Leo Zagat, Russell Gray, John H. Knox and Wyatt Blassingame – and I sincerely hope that they will prove to have been put together with more care and attention than this one. An inordinate number of typos … now that’s a real horror!