House of the Restless Dead and Other Stories by Hugh B. Cave
In my ongoing quest to read every one of the selections spotlighted in Jones & Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books, I have come to the realization that some of those books are a lot harder to obtain than others. Oh, sure, with the search tools available on the Interwebs, pretty much any title is easy to find today, but getting it at a decent price … ah, that can be more problematic. For example, I despair of ever being able to find E. H. Visiak’s Medusa (1929) at a price that I can afford, and ditto for Marjorie Bowen’s The Last Bouquet (1933). All of which brings me to Hugh B. Cave’s Murgunstrumm and Others, chosen for inclusion by British horror author Brian Lumley, who cites it as his ”favourite book.” And indeed, this first hardcover collection of Cave’s short stories has been something of a big deal ever since Karl Edward Wagner’s Carcosa Press released it in 1977. Containing 26 of Cave’s pulp-era tales in an oversized, profusely illustrated, 500-page volume, the book is a bona fide treasure trove, and is assuredly obtainable today … but be forewarned that a recent online perusal shows the tome selling at anywhere from $85 to $582! Fortunately, for those looking for a more pocket-friendly collection of Cave’s work, there is the Ramble House offering entitled House of the Restless Dead and Other Stories: The Selected Weird Tales of Hugh B. Cave, Volume One, which was released in 2011. Gathering together nine of Cave’s short story and novella-length pieces from the period 1932 – 1936, with an emphasis on his “weird-menace” output – and with not a single story in the collection’s 300-page length ever having appeared in book form before – the anthology is a must for all of Cave’s many fans, as well as a perfect introduction for those who have never made his acquaintance, as was the case with me.
But before I tell you about the jaw-dropping wonders to be encountered in this volume, a brief word about Cave himself. The author was born in Chester, England, in 1910, and brought up in Boston. One of his earliest published stories – possibly his very first – “The Corpse on the Grating,” appeared in the February 1930 issue of Astounding when Cave was only 19. By his own calculation, he would then write, over the course of the next decade, 800 (!) stories in a wide range of genres: horror, sci-fi, crime, adventure, fantasy, Westerns … even romance. As well as, of course, weird-menace fiction, that peculiar horror subgenre in which supernatural doings are usually – but not always – explained away in a mundane and often far-fetched manner. After WW2, during which time he acted as a correspondent, Cave managed a coffee plantation in Jamaica. And after the 1980s horror boom, Cave became an active horror author once again, writing a dozen novels and working steadily all the way till 2004, when he passed away at age 93. His final novel, The Mountains of Madness, was released that same year. All told, Cave was the creator of some 1,000 short stories, 40 novels and an array of nonfiction. This Ramble House collection’s nine offerings, culled from those 1,000 shorter pieces, originally appeared in the pulp publications Dime Mystery Magazine and Terror Tales (two of the preeminent weird-menace purveyors), as well as Weird Tales, Thrilling Mystery Magazine and Strange Tales (a Weird Tales competitor). Featuring an informative intro by Ramble House mainman John Pelan and beautiful cover art by the Australia-based illustrator Gavin O’Keefe, it comes as a nice consolation prize for those who are not able to lay their hands on Murgunstrumm and Others … at least, for the moment.
But as to the nine wonders in this collection themselves, the title piece, “House of the Restless Dead,” kicks things off in rollicking fashion. In this one, newlywed Bill Dower, the co-owner of an electronics firm, is driven to the brink of madness by some startling incidents in his new home. Messages from the dead appear in blue glowing letters in his basement, footsteps are heard on the second-floor landing when Bill is in the living room alone, horrendous screams pierce the night from that same cellar, and a hideous corpselike thing appears and utters words of warning in the darkened house. And matters are only worsened when the girlfriend of Bill’s wife, Ellen, is found knifed to death in their home, and when Dower learns that his new abode sits atop what used to be a cemetery! Could that possibly explain all the spectral mishegas? What would you think? An unlikely windup brings this tense, nightmarish, and highly atmospheric outing to a close. And bonus points for the line “The doubt in his brain was a huge, bloated maggot devouring his reason.” I love it! “House of the Restless Dead” was the cover story for the May 1935 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, by the way, and deservedly so.
Up next, in “Blood in the House,” we have a tale that conflates the ghost story with the good old-fashioned murder mystery. Here, psychic investigator Galen Dole is called to the Southern mansion of the Grendell family, to find out how and why drops of blood keep appearing nightly on some of the family portraits behind a locked library door! Dole is startled to run into the years-dead paterfamilias, Peter Grendell himself, stalking the nighttime corridors, and is attacked by the family butler, Peterson, who claims to have received his orders to slay Dole from his deceased ex-master. Into this eerie short story Cave incorporates a family curse, fisticuffs, knifeplay, hemophilia, gunplay, and a deranged older woman whose passion is making marionettes. Somehow, it all hangs together, in a story that must have been a perfect fit for Thrilling Mystery Magazine.
The absolutely bonkers “Daughters of Dark Desire” is up next, and it is surely one of the most memorable tales in this collection. Here, residents of the small city of Cannadale are being turned into sex-crazed fiends who also have an unfortunate tendency to inflict lacerating damage on themselves. When the cousin of Peter Langdon’s fiancée, Laura, is turned into a “wanton woman,” and Laura herself later becomes something of a demented nymphomaniac, Langdon does some sleuthing on his own, only to be strangled to the point of extermination by a man who is seemingly made of living rock! And then things grow even wilder, as Cave piles on a beautiful albeit clubfooted secretary, a serious case of, uh, satyriasis for poor Langdon himself, fogbound action in a Cannadale slum, a very creepy hospital, a mad scientist, and a dungeon filled with dozens of dangerously lustful madwomen and sex-crazed men! Pure pulp craziness here, which was fittingly chosen as the cover story for the December 1935 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine.
“Spawn of Inferno” is this collection’s sole “period piece,” taking place as it does in the 1840s, in the (fictitious) town of Darbury, Mass. Here, we learn of the day when the sun disappeared from the Darbury sky, and everything was thrown into pitch darkness, as reported in the pages of Dr. Bruce Moller’s diary. The town’s elderly, crusty and eccentric scientist, Antone Sergio, we learn, had shown Moller his newest invention, which the crackpot claimed was capable of breaching a gateway into the “Death Dimension,” and releasing monstrosities into our own world. And, the very next day, the town had indeed been plunged into darkness, while hellacious creatures – like “monstrous malformed devilfish with bloated, swollen tentacles” – floated through the air and sucked the blood from the living! As Moller writes, “No stench from the foulest slaughterhouse ever approached [their] vile reek of living death and embryonic putrescence.” Is it any wonder that this spectacular and tentacular homage to H.P. Lovecraft originally appeared in the October 1932 issue of Weird Tales?
The inmates most assuredly do take over the asylum in Cave’s completely off-the-wall novella “House of Lost Souls.” Here, pilot Lee Manning crash-lands his Waco plane in the desolate woods of “northern New England,” and is brought under guard to a sanitarium for drug addicts run by Dr. Andren Lomaine. Manning is effectively made a prisoner and coerced to assist because of his earlier medical training. He encounters the beautiful nurse Annette King, has several run-ins with a burly security guard with a metallic hook hand, witnesses a sacrifice performed in an underground cavern by some hooded and rebellious inmates, and becomes embroiled in the patients’ eventual uprising. Into this head-spinning and remarkable tale Cave throws death by forced ingestion of liquid acid (and I don’t mean LSD!), multiple secret identities, knifings, mob riots, gruesomely lacerated corpses, heroine use, fisticuffs, and even a bit of romance. My only beef: The Nipigon River is in Ontario, not New Brunswick, as stated.
Still another astonishing tale, “Satan’s Sepulchre,” follows. Here, Bill Hilton returns to his hometown of Northwood to assist an old friend, Edith Darnell, whose minister father had been scared off from his post at the now-abandoned First Grace Church. Hilton’s investigations uncover a spectral form in the church’s basement, the sound of long-dead banker Matt Craven’s laughter emanating from the building’s upper stories, a torture chamber replete with bat-mawed furnace in the church’s hidden cellar, and red-robed acolytes all too eager to feed that furnace with both male and female victims! This genuinely unnerving tale, the cover story for the April 1935 issue of Terror Tales (with beautifully faithful artwork by John Howitt), earns extra points in my book by dint of its expression “soul-retching terror,” and its references to such fictional personages and places as Hastur, Bethmoora, Yuggoth and Nyarlathotep demonstrate Cave’s love of Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany and, again, H. P. Lovecraft. Make no mistake … this is one amazing piece of work!
In the hard-boiled thriller “Death in the Dark,” police detective Peter Harn arrives in the snowbound town of East Denham to help an old friend, Arnold Landren, whose daughter had recently been murdered. And what should Harn discover before he even arrives at the Landren household but the body of Landren’s other daughter, tied by the neck to a cross in the town’s graveyard, and with a wolf’s head carved into her bared torso! After an attempt is made to knife Harn in his own bed, he initially suspects that the perpetrator of these horrible acts must be Simon Graves, a scarred, one-eyed gargoyle of a man who had earlier been grievously injured in a train wreck. But as Harn – assisted by Landren’s pretty niece Doris Morton – does some more digging, the killer’s real identity becomes ever more inconclusive. A remarkably tense battle between Harn and the killer (who is armed with a pair of red-hot tongs straight out of the oven) caps this brutal piece of work, and Harn’s final two lines to Doris are the quintessence of the hard-boiled noirish crime caper; truly, some lines to remember. See for yourself! And once again, incidentally, this was the featured cover story for the June 1934 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine.
Another murder mystery is at the heart of “The Infernal Shadow,” itself the featured cover story for the October 1932 issue of Strange Tales. Here, our narrator, Dr. Lovell, is called to the home of (still another) elderly, eccentric and crusty scientist, Mark Mallory, when Mallory’s stepdaughter, Anne, is found dead. The only witness: Anne’s husband, who swears that a pair of misty, bluish hands had seemingly materialized out of thin air and strangled his wife in Mallory’s library, ultimately leaving her with a broken neck! Arriving soon to help solve the mystery is Thomas Drake, “the cleverest police inspector at headquarters,” and Drake is going to need all the gray matter at his disposal, in a case that conflates endocrine glands, an African witch doctor, a German scientist (no, not Mark Mallory), and a “were-ape” (yes, you read that correctly … a were-ape!). It is indeed a “strange tale,” but finely told, in Hugh B. Cave’s best manner.
Bringing this collection to a close is another of its more memorable and truly nightmarish outings, the novella entitled “Enslaved to Satan.” Here, a large piece of property, Woodlawn Park, has been bequeathed to the deacons of a particular church. Most of the nine deacons approve the plan to turn the property into a lavish entertainment complex for their own enrichment. But when Deacon Paul Norton finds the sole dissenter to the project, Deacon Alfred Wyman, crucified on an inverted cross on the Woodlawn grounds, a very bizarre series of events commences. Norton sees a glowing figure who very much looks like Satan himself near Wyman’s body, and scrawled messages in red, vanishing ink, apparently from the Devil himself, begin to form nightly on his bedroom wall. And then matters grow even worse, with the horrible deaths of several of his fellow deacons, and his own kidnapping and branding by a bevy of female Satan worshippers, headed by his own beloved fiancée, Ruth Winward! Yes, it is a story that grows wilder and more hallucinatory as it proceeds, culminating in an underground complex replete with an abyss of hellfire! A wholly remarkable performance on Cave’s part, this was still another featured cover story, this time for the February 1935 issue of Terror Tales.
So there you have it … nine truly impressive stories from Hugh B. Cave’s enormous bibliography that will surely leave any reader wanting more. It is a collection that I can recommend unreservedly, despite the shocking number of typos to be found in this Ramble House offering. You will have noticed that this collection’s title contains the words “Volume One” at its tail end, and although it has been almost 12 years since this book’s release (as of this writing), Volume Two has still not been forthcoming. But despite the fact that the late John Pelan is no longer with us, it is to be hoped that Ramble House will still one day be able to give all the Hugh B. Cave fans out there another generous helping. After all, I still can’t afford that Murgunstrumm book…