Lady of the Yellow Death and Other Stories by Wyatt Blassingame
I can’t imagine any reader who, having turned over the final page of the 2010 Ramble House offering entitled The Tongueless Horror and Other Stories: The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame, Volume One, was not compelled to proceed on to Volume Two. That first volume had given us seven tales concerning inbred and homicidal swamp-dwelling junkies, a tongue-slashing serial killer, a swamp-dwelling spider woman, the vengeful ghost of a British seaman, a white slavery racket, college mutants, and a Chinese curse; really, who could possibly resist signing up for more? Not me, that’s for sure! Thus, the second volume in a series that, to date, has extended to four books: Lady of the Yellow Death and Other Stories: The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame, Volume Two, which Ramble House released in 2011.
Like the first installment, this collection features beautiful cover art from Gavin O’Keefe as well as a highly informative introduction by John Pelan. As in the first book, the nine stories here were culled from the pages of the sensationally lurid publications Dime Mystery Magazine and Terror Tales, as well as Horror Stories, in this case; the three main magazines dealing with that wonderfully grisly genre known as “weird-menace” fiction. All the stories here date from the period 1934 – 1939, the heyday of the weird-menace tale, in which violent and outrageously bizarre supernatural doings were, more often than not, disappointingly explained away in a far-fetched albeit mundane manner. These tales also typically featured remarkably shocking situations, female nudity, drug use and other such titillating subject matter; how they must have stunned readers almost 90 years ago!
The nine Blassingame offerings here were released when the Alabama-born author was just beginning his lengthy career (his first published story, “Horror in the Hold,” had appeared at the tail end of 1933); he was 25 to 30 years old when these stories were first printed. Today, Wyatt Blassingame is widely deemed one of the finest purveyors of weird-menace fiction of them all. As Pelan tells us in his intro, “There are few authors that can cite a volume of work that’s of such a quality and as prodigious a quantity within the horror and mystery genres as Wyatt Blassingame. Sadly, there are few authors whose work has been so universally ignored.” It is to be hoped that this four-volume series from Ramble House will go far in rectifying that oversight.
But as to this particular volume, the collection kicks off with that anomaly: a weird-menace tale that is also a period piece. Thus, the title story, “Lady of the Yellow Death,” is set in the New Orleans of 1802, when both yellow fever and cholera were decimating the population. During this hellacious period, U.S. government agent Charles Duval tries to whisk his lady love, Martha Wilson, away from the plague-ridden pesthole, but his efforts are hampered by a strange Amerindian woman who seems to exert a hypnotic spell on him; by a madman who’s taken to ripping the throats out of the locals; and by the fact that Duval seems to be evincing symptoms of yellow fever himself. Into this gruesome and corpse-littered story the author throws in river pirates, leprosy, a plot to avert the Louisiana Purchase, and fights employing knives, pistols, and a white-hot poker. Extra points for the wonderful line “the air was faintly colored, like the face of a corpse long dead,” but points off for the description of the Indian girl’s “slim legs tapering into full thighs”; “taper” implies a gradual narrowing, does it not? Isn’t this something that Horror Stories editor Rogers Terrill should have caught? Still, a nice opening tale for this collection.
In “Back From Beyond,” assistant D.A. Don Mardis watches in horror through his home’s front window as his father, Judge Mardis, picks up a gun and blows his brains out, while, sitting across from the judge, the spiritualist Emil Cardire, who’d been electrocuted for the crime of murder three years earlier, observes and gloats! While investigating this seemingly impossible tragedy, Mardis, Jr. attends a creepy séance performed by Cardire’s former assistant, Madame Willoworth, and witnesses the resurrection of a recently deceased doctor. This story features good use of its (modern-day) New Orleans milieu and a wonderful underwater dukeout at its conclusion, but the ultimate explanation for all the preceding shenanigans is woefully unconvincing and, even worse, confusing; I’m still not clear on how that darn corpse was reanimated! For me, this short story was the weakest entry in the collection.
But things do rebound somewhat with the next selection, “River of Pain.” Here, an archeologist named Bill Bruce has discovered the skeleton of a Flat Head Indian in an ancient burial mound. The locals warn him that to meddle with these remains will bring about a curse on both him and his workers, and sure enough, before long, one of his men goes mad, and Bruce himself begins to hallucinate and later notice that his own skull is starting to flatten! And then that disinterred skeleton is seen lurching about in the moonlight! What can possibly be going on? This tale, fun as it is, was undermined for this reader by some very confusing geographical descriptions as well as a fairly preposterous explanation for all the spectral mishegas that we had previously witnessed. Still, some genuine suspense and a thrilling battle that transpires inside a stretch of quicksand do manage to salvage this outing nicely.
“Love Comes From the Grave” is an epistolary story, taking the form of letters between the Alabaman lovers John Maddox and Edith Blaine. The two had previously been going out with other people – respectively, Astrid Nelson and Philip Dawkins – who they had unceremoniously jilted to be together. Astrid and Philip had later done themselves in in a grief-stricken suicide pact, but as this story’s succession of letters reveals, they have now returned from the grave to haunt both John and Edith. John is given a bloody kiss from Astrid, and soon begins to develop canine qualities, while Edith, after a visitation from Philip, starts to grow decidedly feline in her viciousness! Eventually, the two lovers sequester themselves in a mountain cabin, where they begin to literally fight like cats and dogs! A shockingly grim and downbeat ending comes as the capper to this terrific little ghost story. My only beef here: The county is which Gadsden, AL resides is Etowah, not Gadsden! How could Blassingame not know that?
Another horrible disease is at the center of the marvelously titled “Flesh for the Swamp Men.” Here, a lonely and embittered ornithologist, Kane, bites off far more than he can chew when he ventures alone into the desolate Everglades. While there, he runs afoul of a band of hairy, naked man creatures, one of whom, foaming at the mouth with rabies, chomps our hero on the wrist before Kane manages to shoot it down. Now fighting the clock before rabies begins to affect him, Kane’s plight is only made more problematic when he is compelled to rescue a brother and sister who are being held captive by those same savages. Kane’s dilemma here might remind some readers of the plight of detective John Hewitt in Blassingame’s earlier story “The Tongueless Horror”; a man who’d been dosed with a slow-acting paralysis drug and was similarly fighting the clock. Stingrays (and hundreds of them!), killer dogs, tongue cutting (again, as in Hewitt’s tale), marihuana, opium and loco weed are all mixed into this wonderfully satisfying jaw-dropper.
In “Three Hours to Live,” again set in the author’s home state of Alabama, Roger Longfield tells us why he is so very scared for his life. Three days earlier, it seems, his father had had the family’s Haitian maid, Mamba (yes, as in the deadly black mamba!), arrested for repeated thievery, and the evil old crone had sworn to use her voodoo powers to kill off the entire extended family; one each day. And when Roger’s grandfather dies mysteriously later that evening, and his father the following day, and his uncle the day after that, our narrator realizes that his own days really must be numbered… This story features much in the way of agonizing suspense, several unexplained happenings, a total solar eclipse, and a character named John Wayne; oddly enough, a completely different John Wayne character would be encountered in Blassingame’s later story “Song of the Dead.” “Three Hours to Live” also demonstrates the author’s obsession with realistic detail; Washington Street and Commerce Street, as well as the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, are all actual locations in Montgomery, where this story takes place.
In “The Beast Woman,” elderly missionary Andrew Newsom, just returned from Africa, asks for help from a couple, Collins and Edith Waldon, that he’d married three years earlier. Newsom had smuggled back from the Dark Continent four abject specimens on whom he’d taken pity – Marsden, a hopeless alcoholic; Riley, whose brain had been destroyed by fever; “the giant Negro” he calls Nego; and Tandia, a beautiful but savage woman who, Newsom claims, is capable of stealing men’s souls! The Waldons, for some obscure reason, agree to stay over for a few days, and before long, one and all in the household are affected by the so-called beast woman, and begin reverting into a state of animal savagery themselves. It is a remarkably gruesome and bloody tale, featuring one outrageous situation after another, and topped off by still another wonderfully improbable ending. They sure don’t write them like this anymore!
And the next selection to be had here, “Dead Man’s Bride,” may be even wilder! Here, John De Jarnett is told by his uncle that he cannot marry the woman he had just become engaged to, Eve Wingard, due to an ancient curse on the De Jarnett family. It seems that back in the mid-19th century, a man named Casey A’Hearn, following a feud with one of John’s forebears, had sworn that no man who inherited the De Jarnett ancestral home would ever live long enough to pass the property on … a prophecy that had held true for over 80 years! And so, John drives up to the wilderness area north of Birmingham (Alabama, of course) to look the abandoned estate over, and there encounters not only the living (?) A’Hearn himself, but a pair of ghostly and ghastly retainers, as well. And matters only worsen when Eve, lured to the property by a ruse, is trapped inside this haunted mansion, too. Devil worship, a cellar full of corpses, a marriage ceremony with the dead as attendants, blood-drinking ghouls, and a wonderfully downbeat ending all highlight this terrifically exciting supernatural story.
And just when the reader begins to think that he/she has seen it all comes this collection’s closer, the absolutely flabbergasting novelette entitled “Prey of the Living Dead.” As did this volume’s opening tale, this story also has as its central concern a horrible disease; in this case, leprosy. On the island of St. Thomas, thus, U.S. Army doctor John Ingram, along with his new bride Jule and two others, is appalled when Pete – a leper whom Ingram had recently sent to a colony off Puerto Rico, and who had later died – shows up at the Ingram abode, clay foot and all, and very much alive. Or is he? After Pete seemingly vanishes into thin air, nobody knows what to think. In the weeks that follow, the seeming ghost of Pete the leper follows the Ingrams to NYC, to Knoxville, and then into the wilderness of eastern Tennessee. Even worse: Poor Dr. Ingram soon begins to sport symptoms of the horrible leprosy disease himself! Into this truly nerve-racking and absolutely gripping story Blassingame provides more in the way of realistic detail; his mentions of Cha Cha Town, sugar-apple plants, Brewer’s Bay and Water Island can only have come from an intimate knowledge of St. Thomas. If it were not for, uh, a few plot holes, a head-scratcher of an intro, and another far-fetched ending that doesn’t explain all that had come before, I would call this story some kind of horror masterpiece, and one featuring the quintessentially pulpish line “terror had burst like a balloon under his skull, flooding his brain with the black ooze of horror”! Love it! “Prey of the Living Dead,” incidentally, was the cover story of the November 1935 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, and deservedly so.
Anyway, there you have it … nine more wonderful exemplars of the weird-menace tale, by a man who was obviously a master practitioner. Despite the inordinate number of typos in this Ramble House collection, the stories themselves are so much fun that I cannot imagine any reader not wanting to proceed on to The Unholy Goddess and Other Stories: The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame, Volume Three. I know that’s where I’ll be heading next. Stay tuned…