The Tongueless Horror and Other Stories by Wyatt Blassingame
A little while back, I was very pleased to read my first collection in the genre known as “weird-menace” fiction, which genre mainly dealt, back in the 1930s and early ‘40s, with lurid, violent, supernatural stories that usually turned out to have rather mundane – and often far-fetched – explanations. That collection was Food for the Fungus Lady and Other Stories by Ralston Shields, a 2014 release from the publisher Ramble House. I enjoyed my first weird-menace exposure so well that I determined to seek out some similar fare from Ramble House’s immense catalog, and happily picked another winner; namely, The Tongueless Horror and Other Stories: The Weird Tales of Wyatt Blassingame, Volume 1, which the publisher had released in 2010. As the title infers, this is just the first of four collections (to date) dedicated to Wyatt Blassingame, an author about whom I’d been hearing positive word of mouth for years. (Unlike Shields, who apparently only wrote a dozen stories in his lifetime, Blassingame was remarkably prolific.) This first volume collects seven longish tales – several of them novella length – into one very impressive package, indeed; all seven were originally released in two of the more sensational pulps, Dime Mystery Magazine and Terror Tales, during the period 1934 – 1938. Similar to the Shields stories, here, a number of the tales break the formula by giving us story lines that turn out to be very much supernatural, resulting in a fun guessing game for Blassingame’s readers, as we endeavor to figure out which tales are mundane and which are not. Another thing that the authors had in common was a remarkable knack for incorporating into their stories mind-boggling situations, grotesque characters, strong violence, drugs, female nudity, and shocking mayhem. These stories are surely not for the faint of heart!
As for Blassingame himself, he was born in Demopolis, in western Alabama, in 1909. Besides his 100+ stories in the weird-menace, thriller and detective genres, he also penned, for other pulp magazines, Westerns, adventure stories, sports stories … even romance stories. He would also write four novels for adults, three of which – Live From the Devil, The Golden Geyser and Halo of Spears – were historical pieces set in Florida, and, starting in 1953, books of both fiction and nonfiction for young-adult readers. Blassingame lived to the age of 75, passing away in 1985.
Now, as to the seven “weird tales” here themselves, the collection kicks off modestly with the title piece, “The Tongueless Horror,” which copped the author the front-cover treatment for the March 1934 issue of Dime Mystery; a beautiful piece of art by Walter M. Baumhofer. (Blassingame’s very first story, “Horror in the Hold,” had appeared in that same magazine just three months earlier, and his rapid advancement to front-cover status is somewhat remarkable.) In this one, NYC homicide detective John Hewitt, with his partner Ed Ginnis, tries to apprehend a fiendish serial killer who’s taken to terrorizing the Lower East Side. This wacko’s MO is to paralyze young girls with some unknown drug, and then – hold on to your seat – rip their tongues out! (I told you these stories were violent and lurid, didn’t I?) But Hewitt’s job is made even more difficult when he is pricked on the leg by a hypodermic syringe cunningly stashed on his car’s seat. As the drug gradually works its way up Hewitt’s thigh and into his hip, he realizes that he too will eventually suffer paralysis and death … a situation that may bring to mind the dilemma that Edmond O’Brien’s character, who’d been given a slow-acting poison, faced in the 1950 film noir classic D.O.A. This early Blassingame tale demonstrates that the author already had a knack for grisly situations and a talent for engendering suspense, and those skills would only increase over the years.
In “Satan Sends a Woman,” a globe-trotting adventurer, Ed Roland, is given an offer by a speculator named Paul Jenkins. For $1,000, Roland will venture into the nearly impenetrable Death’s Swamp, off the Alabama coast (a milieu that Blassingame knew well, I’m guessing), to search for a ship that had been wrecked nearby five years earlier; a ship carrying a fortune in pearls. And once inside the swamp, Roland encounters a half-starved madman, a cave filled with headless skeletons, and Desis, a woman with red-glowing eyes and hair like living, snakelike tendrils. (Yes, that’s her on the cover of this Ramble House edition, as depicted by Gavin O’Keefe.) And if you are wondering just what nature of woman Desis is, please know that “desis” is also a genus of intertidal spider. Say no more! This doozy of a tale culminates on board that lost ship, in a terrific battle between Roland and this sinister siren of the swamp … and then comes a surprise ending that few will foresee.
A good old-fashioned ghost story, “Song of the Dead” tells us what happens when a brother and sister – the brother is named John Wayne! – and their two friends land their schooner on the volcanic island of Saba, in the Caribbean. While there, they chance to meet a British sailor named Bill Wales, who sings to them a horrible sea chantey foretelling the deaths of four people. And before long, the members of our quartet begin to meet their dooms, precisely as depicted in the strangely translucent seaman’s song! This haunting tale features wonderful atmosphere and suspense, a thrilling wrap-up, as well as a shockingly downbeat conclusion. And it also demonstrates Blassingame’s predilection for accuracy in his tales; his descriptions of Fort Bay and the village called The Bottom on the island of Saba can only have been the result of actual visits on the author’s part or, less likely, some in-depth research.
“The House of Vanished Brides” gives us a setup that really is wholly irresistible. Here, a man named Reynolds brings his wife, Jane, to Puerto Rico for a rest cure. The two rent a house atop a mountain just outside San Juan, but when Reynolds returns to the house after doing some marketing, he finds that his wife, as well as the entire house, are gone … vanished into thin air! Matters are only made more perplexing when a neighboring peasant comes screaming into Reynolds’ path, bleeding from the mouth and with his ribs crushed in. And then a monstrous, apelike thing appears in the moonlight, forcing Reynolds to flee in horror. The San Juan police, of course, believe our hero to be crazy, leaving Reynolds no option but to search for Jane on his own. Into this nightmarish tale Blassingame throws an underwater cavern, a white-slavery racket, drugs, whippings, death by shark and barracuda, and more action than you’d believe possible to cram into one 48-hour period. Some pretty thrilling stuff, and including more in the way of well-researched little details, such as those whistling coqui frogs (only to be found in Puerto Rico) that are encountered here.
Another wonderful setup is to be found in “Satan’s Thirsty Ones.” In this one, college kid Andy Parker and his girlfriend, Mary Carlyle, climb a mountain near their school one night and witness a horrendous killing: a 7-foot-tall monstrosity, with wild hair and a head the size of a basketball, that attacks another young amorous couple, killing the boy with a knife and then proceeding to butcher and cook him up over a fire! The female survivor later begins to sport deformities herself, and before long, a rash of students-turned-homicidal-cannibals begins to afflict the small college town! And when Mary herself is carried off by one of the creatures, young Peter – I mean, Andy – Parker has no choice but to take to the hills after her. Blackmailing, invisible ink, Indian legends, a mad scientist, and another wonderful surprise ending are all featured in this hugely satisfying tale.
The novella-length story “Village of the Dead” is up next, and it is perhaps the most thrillingly intense and credible outing in the entire collection. Here, Ann Meadows returns to her small hometown of Livingston, somewhere in the Deep South, and reunites with her two sisters, one of whom is a paralyzed invalid. But she has picked a most unfortunate time to make her return. The dope-addicted, inbred, halfwit residents who dwell in the nearby Crazy Man’s Swamp have lately been making trouble, killing the Livingston residents for no apparent reason. Most of the townspeople have already fled in panic. And on the evening of her first day back, poor Ann’s father is brutally murdered, too. What a homecoming! Fortunately, the next day, Ann’s hunky, blonde, surgeon fiancé, Dr. Tom Adams, arrives to assist, and before Adams is able to resolve the mystery of all these doings, he must undergo 24 hours of pure hell. And indeed, of all the characters to be found in this wild and woolly collection, I don’t think any go through as much brutal treatment as the good doctor here, who is soundly beaten up three times, knifed, shot, and almost incinerated alive. This novella also gives us a hissably nasty redneck drug addict named Lem Prune (I love that moniker!), any number of candidates who might be the evil mastermind in charge of the shenanigans, more whippings, female nudity, heroin, wonderful Southern atmosphere, and some bravura action set pieces. A most impressive piece of work here from Mr. Blassingame!
This collection is brought to a close by the wholly captivating – if ultimately disappointing – novella “Models for Madness,” which also copped the front-cover treatment, in this case on the December 1935 issue of Terror Tales; a garish piece of art by John Howitt. This story was penned by a sculptor named Jim Farlan while sitting in Death Row, convicted of multiple homicides. Farlan tells us that he had inadvertently insulted a fellow college student, a Chinese man named Tai Ming, who had then inferred that a vengeance of some kind would be forthcoming. And soon, Farlan began to have dreams about killing his beloved Neta Phillips, a singer at his uncle’s nightclub, Death’s Roadhouse, for which Farlan had provided numerous statues of grotesque murderers. And on two occasions shortly thereafter, Farlan had seen those sculptures take on the faces of living men … men who were subsequently murdered, with the mixed-up sculptor awakening to find blood on his hands! And what was the deal with that blue Chinese symbol that had somehow materialized on poor Farlan’s body? Unfortunately, this smashing setup is let down by an explanation that is way too far-fetched to be believed, and that doesn’t even answer all the reader’s questions. Still, up till that ending, this story had been a supremely fine example of sustained suspense. And I just loved the lines regarding Farlan’s first victim: “His whole throat was gone, as though the windpipe had been ripped out with a gigantic hand! The torn flesh hung in jagged ribbons, and the blood drooled from it in unceasing streams!” Yikes!
So there you have it … seven fine pieces of weird-menace fiction at its lurid best. As for this Ramble House edition itself, it is a typically handsome one, with beautiful art direction by O’Keefe and another wonderfully informative introduction by John Pelan. But similar to the Ralston Shields collection, the book is also something of a mess as regards typography. Simple typos are rife and punctuation is often botched, with many periods replacing commas and vice versa. Words are occasionally missing, and even the book’s Table of Contents and back cover are screwed up, giving the story title “The House of Vanished Brides” instead as “Hours of the Vanished Boarder.” Seriously, WTH? When will publishers realize that merely scanning old pulp magazines to create new books is not enough? They’ve got to follow up with a good proofreading, to eliminate words such as “clear” coming out as “dear.” The corrections that I made in my own copy here, for whoever will own this book after me, are virtually countless. Still, the stories themselves are so very good that I will most certainly be moving on to Volume 2 now, Lady of the Yellow Death and Other Stories. Stay tuned…