The Black Druid by Frank Belknap Long
In my recent review of Frank Belknap Long’s short-story collection The Hounds of Tindalos, I mentioned that when this hardcover volume was initially released by Arkham House in 1946, it contained 21 tales, encompassing the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. I also mentioned that most later reprintings of this now classic collection contained only half of those 21 stories, including the 1975 edition that I recently wrote about; the one from the British publishing firm Panther. But later that same year, Panther released the other half of the 1946 classic in a collection entitled The Black Druid, a paperback that I eagerly sought out after enjoying Part 1 so very much. As would be expected, this second volume also contains stories in the sci-fi, fantasy and Lovecraftian horror fields, similarly written in Long’s highly literate style. Read in tandem with that first volume, it reaffirms why the 1946 hardcover has become such a beloved, highly collectible item today (currently going for $500 on eBay and $400 on Amazon!). As in that first volume, all the tales in The Black Druid originally appeared in various pulp magazines of the day; here, from the period 1924 – ’43. And all are marvelous and strange, in their own wonderful way.
As to the tales themselves, this collection kicks off with the title story, “The Black Druid” (from the 7/30 Weird Tales). In this one, a studious archeologist puts on the wrong overcoat after doing his researches at a public library and hideously transforms into the clawed demon of the title, replete with a face that was “slimy, blubbery.” Beautifully overwritten (we’re told that the archeologist’s socks “bulged above his shoes like the elephantine folds on the torso of an Abyssinian eunuch”!) and almost Lovecraftian in its references (such as to the 5th century Roman poet Rutilius Namatianus), this brief tale serves as a wonderful opener here.
“Fisherman’s Luck” (7/40 Unknown) mixes fantasy and horror to quite winning effect. Here, a man on vacation takes his fishing rod and catches both the severed head of a murdered Chinese man and the living person of a woman who had died over a century before! This tale manages to stir in humor, mythology and pathos into its short compass, and thus was a perfect fit for the magazine in which it first appeared, which, as The Science Fiction Encyclopedia so rightly claims, emphasized “the exuberantly wacky approach to fantasy which Unknown made its own.”
Next up in The Black Druid is “The Ocean Leech” (1/25 Weird Tales), a tale that should especially appeal to all lovers of eldritch stories of the high seas, particularly those written by William Hope Hodgson. Here, a becalmed sailing vessel contends with a monstrous denizen of the deep in the shape of an enormous squid of only semisolid consistency! Written in wonderfully pulpy style and not a little gory, this tale gives us a truly memorable monster:
…mute, misshapen, blasphemous … industrious retching matter, brainless and self-sufficient, obeying a law older than man, older than morality. Here was life absorbing life, and doing it forcefully, and without conscience, and becoming stronger and more exultant through the doing of it…
Marvelous fun, this one … for the reader, anyway.
“The Space-Eaters” (7/28 Weird Tales) is, in some respects, the most noteworthy tale in this collection, as the narrator is a man named Frank (probably Long himself), and his close friend in the story is a writer who focuses mainly on “remote and unholy realms of imagination and horror,” and named Howard (beyond doubt a stand-in for Long’s close personal friend Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and indeed, the Necronomicon is referenced in the story). Here, the two men, while ensconced in a lonely rural cabin, run afoul of creatures from outer space that literally eat the brains out of their victims! Another marvelously pulpy affair, this tale, the longest in this collection, culminates in a seeming warning to Lovecraft, beseeching the “Sage of Providence” to caution when writing of mysterious powers and malignant beings. Some amazing stuff here, really.
“Step Into My Garden” (8/42 Unknown Worlds) is a compelling, somewhat confusing fantasy that again utilizes mythology (the legend of Proserpine, in this case) to tell the story of John Kendrick, who returns home one day to find his wife gone, his backyard completely changed, and invisible creatures (shants, digglies and gnores) overrunning everything. Seemingly inspired by Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem “The Garden of Proserpine” (one of at least three Swinburne references in the 21-story collection; Long was a big fan of the Victorian poet, I’m guessing), the tale also conflates modern-day psychology and James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough into one very strange stew indeed, culminating with a finale straight out of The Twilight Zone.
“Dark Vision” (3/39 Unknown) also mixes in some modern-day psychological rationalization into its gripping story line. In this one, a reporter falls into a high-voltage generator, and is zapped with a lethal quantity of current, but miraculously does not die. He soon realizes that he is now privy to the thoughts of others, as well as to their most unpleasant subconscious urges and daydreams. He comes to understand that even the sweetest-looking people around him are harboring ugly thoughts, including his own fiancée, and is driven close to the brink of madness before seeking help at a shrink’s office. The subconscious mind is a “cesspool of … horrible, vagrant and lightly held thoughts,” as our hero learns in this very well-done fantasy.
In “It Will Come to You” (12/42 Unknown Worlds), the shortest short story in The Black Druid, a man who is afflicted with intermittent amnesia gets a job as a food taster after blowing a series of previous work placements. Just who this man is, and why he cannot remember anything about his past, are ultimately revealed in the final words of this pleasant trifle of a fantasy.
The collection’s next offering, “The Flame Midget” (12/36 Astounding Stories), is a truly superlative piece of science fiction. Here, a reclusive bacteriologist invites his best and only friend, our narrator, to his lab in rural South Carolina to show off his latest discovery. It is a fully recognizable human figure, capable of telepathy and of emitting lethal heat radiation, who the scientist has found on one of his culture slides; a microscopic alien from another world, who has communicated its intentions of returning to its home planet, via microscopic spaceship, to inform its people that Earth is ripe and ready for conquest! What must sound ludicrous in synopsis is convincingly brought off by Long here, as he pulls in convincing scientific sources (from Van Maanen’s star to Dr. George Crile) to back up his conceit. Ending on a note of distinct paranoia and despair, “The Flame Midget” is one of this collection’s very best.
“Death-Waters” (12/24 Weird Tales) returns us to the realm of queasy horror. It is narrated by an American who had come to the jungles of Honduras with his partner, Byrne, looking for a mineral water source to bottle and sell back in the States. But Byrne, it seems, had angered one of the natives there by forcing him to drink the evil-looking water of one particularly nasty lake, not knowing that the native has some kind of supernatural control over the area’s varied snake and reptile life. And before long, Byrne and our narrator are fighting for their lives against thousands of such, in this remarkably grisly affair. Combining horror, fantasy and jungle adventure into one fun package, “Death-Waters” was indeed a natural fit for the pages of “The Unique Magazine.”
In the charming fantasy “The Elemental” (7/39 Unknown), a young man discovers that he has suddenly attained the ability to push objects about from afar, using goads of invisible force (a la Sue Richards in the Fantastic Four), as well as the ability to fly! He uses his newfound flying skills to soar from Kentucky to the Atlantic (in passages that may bring to mind Edmond Hamilton’s 1938 story “He That Hath Wings”) before crash-landing on a lonely little islet in Chesapeake Bay and learning the truth: He had been experimentally taken over by a nature spirit, the elemental of the title, who is now, sadly, dying. It is a lovely fantasy, really, supremely well imagined and brought off by the author.
The Black Druid wraps up with what might unfortunately be its weakest offering, “The Peeper” (3/44 Weird Tales). In this one, journalist Mike O’Hara, an alcoholic Irishman, returns home one night and finds the corpse of his younger self lying on his bed! At work the following day, he tries to convince himself that he had only imagined the incident, but subsequent events go far to convince him otherwise. As in “The Refugees” (a story in Part 1 of this two-volume affair), Irish folklore is brought into play here (to far less charming effect), as well as Greek mythology, but the net result is a decidedly head-scratching conclusion to bring this otherwise sterling collection to a close.
So there you have it: 11 fascinating tales from a writer who assuredly deserves to be better remembered today. In “The Peeper,” O’Hara is described thus: “He had written stories like dew-drenched spider webs, prismatic and strange and with a little gruesome wrench at the end which made people happy deep down inside. Very sensitive and imaginative people, of course, because only such people deserved to be made happy in precisely that way…” A perfect description, it seems to me, of Frank Belknap Long himself, and the potential readers who might enjoy these books…
“Fisherman’s Luck” is a wonderful title! These look like fun stories to browse.
Talk about wonderful titles…what about “The Flame Midget,” “The Black Druid,” “Death-Waters” and “The Space-Eaters”? WOW! And yes, fun as can be….
I know. All of those sound like conventional pulp titles, and “Fisherman’s Luck” sounds fun. I can’t explain it.
Great review. Sounds like some old style fun!
Thanks for the kind words, Bill! Guess I’m old-fashioned, but I just LOVE these old pulp tales….