The Surgeon of Souls and Other Tales of Terror by Robert Leslie Bellem
In my last two book reviews, I discussed a pair of characters who were amongst the most popular during the era of the pulp magazine: The Spider, who was featured in 118 novels that appeared in The Spider magazine from 1933 – ’43, and Doc Savage, who appeared in no fewer than 181 novels in the pages of Doc Savage Magazine from 1933 – ’49. Today, however, I am here to discuss still another pulp character, but one who does not enjoy anything near the renown of those other two. That character is Dr. Zarkov, the self-styled Surgeon of Souls, one of the many pulp-era characters created by the remarkably prolific, Philadelphia-born author Robert Leslie Bellem.
And if Zarkov has sunk into the mists of oblivion, it may very well be because he was only featured in seven short stories, dating from June ’36 to December ’38, all seven of those tales appearing in the pulp magazine Spicy Mystery (sometimes billed as Spicy Mystery Stories), which itself lasted only 73 issues, from July ’34 till December ’42. As the title of the publication might suggest, stories therein were peppered with a healthy dose of sex and eroticism, and Bellem, always an adaptable writer to fit the market, was a contributor much in demand. A series of tales long forgotten by most, apparently, the exploits of Dr. Zarkov can now be found and enjoyed relatively easily today, thanks to Black Dog Books’ 2009 collection The Surgeon of Souls and Other Tales of Terror. A typo-riddled affair sporting a $13 price tag for its scant 122 pages, the volume yet remains fairly essential reading for anyone with an abiding interest in pulp fiction.
But who, or what, is Dr. Zarkov, and what makes him a “surgeon of souls,” you may well be asking at this point. Well, I wish I had a better answer for you, but the truth is, Zarkov really is one very mysterious figure. An elderly gentleman with gray hair and goatee, Zarkov, in all seven tales, abruptly appears in front of men who are at some kind of moral crossroad. He gives them counsel, urges them to reconsider their reckless actions, tells them that he can detect a cancer in their souls, and warns them that they are on a path leading to damnation. He comes and goes like a mist, and is able to alter both time and space, in some of the stories allowing the at-risk protagonist to live parts of his life over again; sort of like a cosmic do-over, to determine whether or not their soul cancers have any hope of being excised.
But Zarkov’s counsel and eldritch assistance are no guarantees of salvation; as Alfred Jan tells us in his short but incisive intro, “…Zarkov advises and helps our heroes to do the right thing, but ultimately the hero has free will to choose his own path — to destruction or redemption. Hence Zarkov is like an angel, but not a guardian angel…” And if Zarkov’s ability to alter time and space, his seeming omniscience and tendency to fade in and out of existence weren’t enough to convince the reader that this Surgeon of Souls is someone very much outside of nature, Bellem uses such phrases as “supernatural being,” “like a wraith” and “unearthly” in these tales to describe the little man. Or is he a man? We never do find out for sure.
The seven stories in which Dr. Zarkov tries to steer some incipient sinner in the right direction all deal with a male lead character who is being led into either murder, adultery or theft after getting involved with a voluptuous femme fatale whose erotic lures are just too much for the poor sap to resist. And all seven stories feature those “spicy” elements previously alluded to, as the wanton hussies are described in loving detail, in wonderfully written pulp verbiage such as this: “…her hips [were] lyric arches of feminine promise…”; “…he could see the rising lilt of her breasts — two boldly firm mounds of creamy deliciousness…”; “…her hips had a distinctly sinuous quality, the flare of their curves flowing sleekly into the ivory columns of her thigh…”; “…her torso was a symphonic symmetry of evil beauty, flawless and milk-white and supple of waist…” (Yes, those Spicy Mystery readers surely did get their 25 cents’ worth!) I might add that the denouements of all seven stories here are completely unpredictable, and that, sad to say, Dr. Zarkov’s track record is a fairly poor one, as far as redeeming the characters who he (it?) deals with. As a Surgeon of Souls, Zarkov tries, but fails more often than not.
As to the stories themselves, in the original Zarkov tale, “The Surgeon of Souls,” businessman Harvey Bannister goes bankrupt and is summarily dumped by the gold-digging Lola Linnard. Contemplating suicide, Bannister is approached by Dr. Zarkov, who gives him monetary assistance and causes him to find a sweet, homeless wife. But even after Bannister is happily married and back on his feet again, the temptation to take vengeance on Lola and her boyfriend remains very strong. Can the poor schnook be convinced to save himself from damnation?
In “Bitter Reckoning,” John Saunderson is convinced by his soulless girlfriend, Magda Morraine, to murder her aunt for the old lady’s money. Despite Zarkov’s intervention, Saunderson does go through with the killing, telling the Surgeon of Souls that the old biddy could never have been young or beautiful. But in a chilling climax, Zarkov arranges things so that the murderer learns differently.
“30 Seconds” gives us the story of Philip Haydon, who is about to jump off the roof of his apartment building after strangling his wife, Maizie. Before he leaps, however, Dr. Zarkov gives him a chance to “undo the evil” he has wrought, turning back time and letting Haydon relive the recent past. But can the twin lures of his mistress, Nadine Blanding, as well as sultry neighbor Rosa Farrand, possibly be resisted?
In “Death’s Detour,” Zarkov turns back the hands of time again, in this case to find out whether Fred Fleming — currently on Death Row for the crime of slaying the irresistible Reeta Mehaffey — is guilty or, as the inmate insists, innocent. In this clever tale, Zarkov demonstrates that he might have made one very fine detective operative, if he/it hadn’t gone into the soul redemption business instead!
“Gallows Heritage” is perhaps the most overtly supernatural story featuring Dr. Zarkov, as the gypsy woman whom our protagonist, married painter Paul Shane, gets involved with is ultimately revealed to be something of a genuinely demonic entity. Lured from his honeymoon bed by the gypsy woman’s haunting violin music, Shane rows across a nearby lake to a sexual tryst with the she-demon, despite Zarkov’s warnings. But can Shane resist the further temptation to kill his sweet innocent bride, Marga? Conflating horror, the supernatural, grisly homicide and one doozy of a family curse, “Gallows Heritage” might very well be the finest Dr. Zarkov outing in this collection.
Up next we have a tale called “Strange Journey,” in which Tom Mallory is convinced by the sensuous Cyrla Carteret to abscond with the money and negotiable bonds in his boss’ private safe and run away with her. Despite Dr. Zarkov’s pleas, the crime is indeed carried out, but things do not go quite as planned, requiring the Surgeon of Souls to do some delicate time shifting to put things right. “The whole affair was beyond his understanding,” we learn of Mallory at the end, and the reader will surely share the poor guy’s bewilderment.
Finally, in the last Dr. Zarkov tale, “Dark Eyes of Hell,” Walter Foster is compelled by his mistress, the scrumptious Loanne Maxon, to not only bump off her elderly husband, but to poison his own wife, Drusilla, with botulinum culture, so that the two might elope to Europe together. Despite Zarkov’s warnings and offers of second chances, Foster determines to go through with the foul deeds, resulting in one highly ironic conclusion. Suitably, after seven Surgeon of Souls stories of mysterious manifestations and eerie happenings, Bellem wraps up this final tale with the words “How the hell can you explain it? Nobody could.”
But wait … this Black Dog volume is not quite finished, giving the reader one bonus tale by Bellem, this one not featuring Dr. Zarkov, but also originally appearing in Spicy Mystery (the August ’35 issue). In “The Executioner,” a NYC-based man, Bill Gerard, wakes up in a hospital in Nazi-era Berlin. Addressed as “Erich Gerhardt” by his nurse, blonde sexpot Kathy, the befuddled Gerard learns that he had been struck by a taxi in the Unter den Linden and is a high-ranking member of the Nazi party, in what capacity he cannot recall. Ultimately, his own life, and that of his long-lost twin brother, become fatally intertwined, while the realization of his party duties leads to one quite grisly finale. “The Executioner” is a tale that might have worked very well as an episode of The Twilight Zone years later, when Bellem began a new career as a television screenwriter. (He was responsible, incidentally, for no fewer than eight episodes of The Adventures of Superman, including such fan favorites as “The Mysterious Cube” and “Superman’s Wife.”)
So there you have it … eight wondrous, finely written stories from an author who surely deserves to be better remembered today. Dr. Zarkov is a fascinating and mysterious character, and it is a pity that Bellem did not shed more light on him (?) or his origins in other stories. Operating as a life coach/sage/spiritual guide/best friend/miracle worker, Zarkov is someone/something that we could all benefit from at times in our own lives, surely. I’d like to think, though, that given my own personal chance at a spiritual do-over, I’d fare a lot better than the unfortunate, lust-addled men to be found in The Surgeon of Souls and Other Tales of Terror …