Tuesday, February 20, 2018

And always the Worm: The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross (1944)





…. Do you remember, in Peer Gynt, towards the end of the play, there is the famous storm scene? Peer is on board ship, returning home at last from his adventures. He stands on the deck watching the storm. Then suddenly he becomes aware that someone is standing beside him at the rail—a Stranger. Peer had thought himself the only passenger on board, yet now he falls into conversation with this mysterious travelling-companion. The man bargains with Peer for his body if he should die in the storm. In the end, unsatisfied, he leaves Peer—he goes down the companion way. Peer asks the ship's boy who the Strange Traveller is.


"There is no other traveller," says the boy. "You are the only passenger."


"But someone was with me a moment ago," cries Peer. "Who was it that went down the companion way just now?"


"No one, sir," says the boy. "Only—the ship's dog . . ."




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The Other Passenger
John Keir Cross

(1944).
With a new introduction by J. F. Norris





I'm not sure what the historical landscape of horror literature for the period 1890-1990 would look like without the efforts of Valancourt Books.  


Certainly the record would not be accurate.  The finest craftsmen would be footnotes, their paperbacks available only on Ebay for hundreds of the dollars. The invisible hand of the horror fiction market works with greater speed and finality than the dreams of a censor.


One area for which I have a passion, and in which Valancourt has done yeoman service, is in the world of UK horror fiction.  John Keir Cross's collection The Other Passenger (originally published in 1944) is an outstanding example of the type.  


This is not the UK horror of M.R. James and the Bensons.  It is the other UK – the world of strange crime, horrific anecdote, and ghastly punchlines whose masters are John Metcalfe, John Collier, L.P. Hartley, and Gerald Kersh. Keir Cross is an outstanding contributor to this aleatory themed thread (it can hardly be called a "school").  


Keir Cross characters are slapped down by mere coincidences, by their own unacknowledged psychological fault lines, as much as they are sometime victims of the supernatural.  Often they do not understand they have been something horrible until they piece together their stories in retrospect.


The Kier Cross voice owes much to Somerset Maugham.  It is a confidence, cosmopolitan, and educated voice, slightly bored with everyday life and everyday pretensions.


Narrator Bob Malpas strikes that tone at the beginning of "Petronella Pan."


....When I got into the Church Hall that day three years ago I was, at the same time, amused and slightly frightened. Have you ever seen a horde of babies?—a real horde of them, not only one or two together? A terrible, an awesome sight. Squat bundles of flesh, red and raw-looking, clasped to the bosoms of proud mothers. Babies ranging in age from three months to two years—mothers ranging in age from sixteen to forty. The hall sweated love. What could I—a cynic, a misanthropist, a man too aware of the Worm—what could I do in such an atmosphere but cringe a little and wonder more than ever at people like Barrie and Katherine Mansfield?



The narrator of the incomparable "Clair de Lune" achieves something similar, hinting at a deep vein of misanthropy at the same time:


....We sat down—Christine on a hessian-covered pouf, I on a hard, perfectly flat wooden stool that gave me hell after the first ten minutes.


Mrs. Fletcher—one of the mascara-eyed women—talked on and on and on about George Moore. It seemed that she had been his sole confidante—their conversations must have been interminable. Dobson, as a constant background, fingered his lute. The young man with the horse face—Hector Lowe, the runner—came in, having presumably completed his five miles, and then we all drank weak China tea from handleless home-baked cups.


Christine sat on her immense behind, her skirt flaring out all round her, her brows drawn intensely together. I suffered a damnable torture from my hardwood stool and wished myself a thousand miles away.



The only way to really appreciate Keir Cross is to read his stories.  They initially seem bent on lulling us, and the reader wonders how a story is going to be made out of such material.  But then the sweating begins, and the rushing in the ears, and we are in his grip.


Below are my notes (mostly excerpts).




The Glass Eye • (1944) • short story


A spinster office worker throws over her job and savings to pursue to most handsome mane she has ever seen, a music hall ventriloquist.


…."Mr. Collodi?" she said, hesitantly. Her voice sounded thin and false—not herself speaking at all, but someone else; someone else in her body, trembling, aching, sick in the stomach.


"Max Collodi, at your service," he replied, still smiling.


And suddenly there swept into her, as she sat there, a terrible, an overwhelming desire. It was a desire she had experienced before, in the Old Palace, when it had seemed that the acrobat was going to fall on top of Bernard—the desire to touch. She wanted to touch Collodi—to touch his hand, his forehead, his blue-tinted jaw. And after those thirty-seven years this craving, gathered and condensed in this one moment, was not possibly to be denied.



Petronella Pan • (1944) • short story


"There was, then," he said, "a woman. You must picture her as a very beautiful woman." (I had a composite vision suddenly of Marie and Mary and Beatrice and Nellie). "But vain—inordinately vain." (Bitches all, I remembered, if truth be told). "In course of time she married. She married a very clever man—a biological research chemist. She grew big with child and was delivered of an exquisite babe—the inheritor of her good looks. And behold, all the pride she had hitherto felt in her own beauty she now felt in the beauty of her child. People said they had never seen a lovelier baby, and the woman thrilled as ecstatically as she ever had at a personal compliment. One day she read an announcement of a baby show. She entered her little daughter for it—she was then, I fancy, one year old—and naturally she won first prize: there was plainly no other child to compare with this cherubic one. A little intoxicated by her outstanding success (for the judge had been wildly eulogistic), the woman kept her eyes open for announcements of other baby shows about the country. And the next six months she spent in travelling all over England in a sort of delirium, winning prize after prize. It became, with her, an obsession. It was almost, so to speak, her trade."


The old man paused and gazed mistily through the window of the pub to the Church Hall opposite, with its Wayside Pulpit message plain to view. He chuckled and sipped at his beer.


"Alas," he went on, "there's always a Worm. The woman knew, from her glass, that beauty fades. She knew that her baby was almost two, and that there must be an end soon to the heap of trophies accumulating on her dresser at home. And she was seized with a sort of panic. And a defiance, too, God help her. It seemed to her she was being robbed—something was slipping past her and she could not grasp at it. There were long nights of despair when she lay staring into the darkness while her husband snored dully by her side, with no knowledge of the weeping anguishes that were going on in the same bed with him. Yet it was that very hoggishness and indifference of her husband that in the end gave the woman the idea. One night, as he snored, she thought angrily: 'What does he care, lying lumpishly asleep! He and his wretched researches, his injection into harmless guinea-pigs!' Then she stopped short and drew a long shivering gasping breath. No matter how stupid a woman is she is bound to know something about her husband's work. And this woman, married to a biologist, had certainly, most devilishly certainly—heard of Glands!"




The Last of the Romantics • (1944) • short story


Thomson, the narrator, is the true monster, happy to relate a ghastly anecdote to his mistress as prelude to greater acts of nastiness to come.


"I could eat you, Patsy," said Purbeck. "Mouthful by mouthful—very slowly and deliciously—thirty-two chews to each bite, the way Mr. Gladstone recommended. I'd have those sparkling eyes in a cocktail, on the end of little sticks—like cherries."


She laughed—a shade uncomfortably. And glanced to the mirror on the wall beside her to see that her lipstick wasn't smudged.


"Don't be silly, Thomson," she said. "You are silly sometimes—you say such silly things."


"Patsy, dear," he went on, "if you only knew it you've given me the most wonderful cue of my whole life. If I waited a thousand years I'd never get a cue like that again. I'll always adore you for it—always. After we've been to bed together once or twice we'll probably drift apart, we two—you'll find me with another woman one day. Or we'll have a lovely scene and you'll accuse me of mental cruelty. Maybe you'll cry for an hour or two—I hope you do: I like to feel that a good woman is shedding tears for me. Then you'll recover and marry someone very solid. And later on you'll remember me as something in your life that was a little bit haunting—and, shall we say?—pleasantly unpleasant. You'll possibly even shudder. But I, Patsy—I shall remember you with everlasting gratitude as The Girl Who Gave Me The Perfect Cue!"



Clair de Lune • (1944) • novelette


We walked slowly about on the damp croquet lawn in the dusk, with the sweet sound of the recorder coming through the windows to us. I had a mallet in my hand, and now and again shot a ball absently towards a hoop.


"Tell me, Christine," I said, "what is the history of Crudleigh?"


"It used to be a row of cottages," she said. "They were built round about 1820—it was some sort of housing experiment, I think—a group of London ladies financed it—blue-stockings. Then round about the middle of the century a set of artists took them over and started a colony—the Crudleigh Water Colour Group—they had the same sort of ideas as the Pre-Raphaelites a little later on. Then in 1880 the cottages were reconstructed into one long house and some friends of William Morris's took it over. Tess bought it about three years ago, after it had been lying derelict for a time, and started running it as a guest house."


"For interesting people," I gibed. "No, what I meant, Christine, was—has anyone died here? Committed suicide, or been murdered—you know the sort of thing."


She looked at me strangely.


"Good heavens, Harry—what on earth put ideas like that in your head? Of course not—at least, I've never heard of any such thing."


I started on another tack. I sent a ball scooting through a hoop, then straightened myself, swinging the mallet.


"Tell me, Christine," I said, "why does Tess use wooden dishes? And why does she serve the food in them without salt?—that dreary vegetable soup, for instance?"


"Really, Harry! You know perfectly well that wooden dishes are a hundred times healthier than any other sort—besides, Tess makes them herself on the turning lathe—it's one of her crafts. And as for salt—if you took any interest in dietetics you'd know that mineral salt is bad for you: all the latest books say so. If you cook vegetables properly you don't need it—and it's far better for you without."


She went into a long statistical report about the latest situation in dietetics. I listened as patiently as I could. When she had finished she said:


"Anyway, Harry, why did you ask? It's not the sort of thing I should have thought you would have been interested in."


I remained swinging the mallet a long time. Then I said:


"Christine—in very old books—not the sort of books I suspect you've ever read—there are such things as witchcraft recipes and so on. One of them tells you to use wooden dishes and to cook without salt—that is, if you suspect that there are evil spirits in your house."


She stared at me, her brows drawn together.


"Harry! You are mad!"



Absence of Mind • (1944) • short story


Forgetfulness, or the self-mystifications of a kleptomaniac?



….It had been a beautiful pendant—beautiful: but really it was too much. It would have been nice, for instance, with the slightly décolleté gowns she wore when she was a member of a platform party opening a bazaar or a fête. She saw, in her mind's eye, people in the front rows staring—not at the Reverend MacNaughton as he made his speech, but past him at her, and particularly at her neck and bosom. Well, it would have been nice. But still . . . Mrs. Carpenter sighed and went on her way through the mountains of cretonne, the hats, the posturing wax figures and the shining pots and pans.


Before she went for lunch she walked once more through the jewellery department. The assistant was talking again at the far end of the counter and Mrs. Carpenter was able, unobserved, to put out an envious hand for one quick caress of the pendant. She sighed again, more deeply, and moved away, out of the store this time, to the little restaurant she patronised further along Oxford Street. Beautiful, beautiful. But still . . .


In the afternoon she went to a cinema, walking back past the big store to get to it, and in the darkness she undid her shoes. She sighed joyously at the relief, settled her spectacles more comfortably—she was very short-sighted—and gave herself up to a contemplation of the screen. But something kept her full attention from the mawkish love story she was watching. At first she did not know what it was—something vague and pleasant that her mind was keen to dwell on. And then, suddenly, as her eye caught a glitter from the jewels round the film heroine's throat, she realised that it was the pendant. Yes—the pendant and her desire for it. And thereafter it went on intruding itself. She had only the vaguest notions as to what the film was about: its scenes were interspersed with other scenes woven by her imagination. At tea, too, back in the little restaurant, the pendant was before her eyes—and in the train on the way back home. It glittered from the pages of the evening paper she tried to read, it shone among the trees and houses that slid past the carriage window. And all the time, as she thought of it, she sighed and went on sighing. Perhaps it was shameful to covet a thing—but she had liked the pendant so much . . .




Hands • (1944) • short story


A masterly story, one to rival Poe and Ramsey Campbell.  Psychological, splattery horror turned up to a shattering intensity.


….I cannot deny that he has always been strange. In his recent letters to me I had the impression of something going on in him, something quite nebulous that was a worry and a goad. But even before these letters there was an unaccountable streak. In our days together at University I was constantly encountering a black wall of terrible morbidity—as if malevolent forces over which he had no control were at work inside.




Another Planet • (1944) • short story


….One of Harry's friends told Lily that her boy was in prison. But she didn't believe him. Later, she heard people say that Harry was probably going to be hanged. She didn't believe that either: it was happening on another planet. She sat in a large room while men in wigs talked at great length about Harry, who stood in a box, very pale and frightened. And it seemed to Lily that the ways of this other planet were inexpressibly strange.



Liebestraum • (1944) • short story


A spell-binding story which confidently inflicts a state of feverish dread on the reader.  Mr. Mackenzie is like a character out of a poem by Masters or Robinson.


…."I liked that picture fine," she whispered, and he experienced an immense glow of satisfaction, as if he had made the film himself and she were praising him. He had bought some sweets for her and he put his hand gingerly into his pocket for them, but for some obscure reason he hesitated to pass them over. What could he say?—without seeming clumsy? "Here's some sweeties for you, Jessie . . ."? "Here—I bought you these . . ."? No. He decided to wait till the lights went down. But when the lights did go down he still did not withdraw his hand from his pocket.


When the show was over they walked towards her home, he silent and restrained, she talking animatedly about her favourite film stars, about people in the choral society and so on. He was amazed before such vitality. It seemed to him that he had not lived before at all. His life with Bella had been a shadow existence. Their way to Jessie's home led them past the house where he had spent his fourteen years of married life, and it seemed to him that he was meeting a ghost or hearing a far-off dismal echo. There, in the light of the street lamp, was the gate he had opened and closed so many times, the bleak little plot of grass, the shadowy porch with (and he saw it clearly in his mind's eye) its blistered paint, its knocker in the form of a devil's-head, its small brass plaque engraved MACKENZIE. Now there would be a different name, of course, there would be different furniture, different curtains. Someone else would be sitting before the range, some other woman would be standing in Bella's place by the sink. And yet he had a strange sense that if he walked up the path and knocked at the door, Bella would come and answer it—and beyond her, in the kitchen, he would see Mackenzie, the sanitary inspector, reading the evening paper.



Miss Thing and the Surrealist • (1944) • short story


Yet there were occasions of great seriousness—when suddenly something assumed momentous symbolical significance because, I am sure, of the way we had accustomed ourselves to look at life. I remember one night Jo Haycock and I were sitting talking in my room overlooking King's Road—in the World's End part of Chelsea, I should mention. It was late and wonderfully quiet—towards two a.m. And suddenly in a long gap in our quiet conversation there sheared beastily through the night a ghastly prolonged loud scream. We stared at each other and rushed downstairs.


We found a little shocked crowd on the pavement opposite. Some ambulance men came and the screaming ended when they took away the dreadful forlorn thing. A wretch of a prostitute had flung herself from the top floor of the tall house opposite the one in which I had my room. She had impaled herself on the area palings instead of dashing mercifully to the stone as she had hoped.


Jo and I went upstairs again and made tea. We were sick. We were haunted for days by the long scream of agony shearing out across the big quiet city. All the Surrealistic peering into the unconscious with its emphasis on the lower motives—all the speculation in the world could not satisfy the big strange question about Alice Emmanuel (as the papers told us her name was) and the black body falling through the night to the blunt hideous spikes.


But all this is not any part of the story—at least not directly. I should talk first about Kolensky and in doing so introduce Miss Thing.



Valdemosa • (1944) • short story


The Majorcan holiday of George Sand and  Frederic Chopin.  Seriously. And it's perfect.



"Oh," cried Solange, "it's chicken! It isn't pork after all—it's chicken!"


Antonia put the dish down before Madame Sand, stood for a moment grinning and wiping her hands, then shuffled out, her loose mules rustling the esparto mat.


The four looked hopefully at the brown and withered roast chicken before them. It was lean and dry—"as old as God," George muttered beneath her breath.


"I want a leg," cried Solange.


"You can't have it," said Maurice belligerently. "You had leg last time—it's your turn for wing this time."


Chopin sipped at his burgundy. Then his eye caught something and he stared at the chicken with horror. And simultaneously they all became aware that the brown, dried-up bird was covered with fleas.


"Ugh!" cried Madame Sand, her face twisted with disgust. "Antonia—for God's sake come here—Antonia! . . ."


Solange began to laugh delightedly and even Maurice gave a perverted smile.


Chopin said nothing. His lips were drawn tightly together, his hand gripped the knife with a nervous ferocity. Then he got up suddenly and went through to the next room. When Antonia shuffled in, wiping her wet nose with the back of her hand, he was coughing and spitting violently.


George signalled for the chicken to be removed. She leaned across the table, took Chopin's burgundy glass, and drained it at one gulp. Then she rose, lit one of the long thin cigars she favoured, and strode angrily backwards and forwards, puffing at it greedily.



Amateur Gardening • (1944) • short story


When I force myself to be honest I know that all the time I've been writing, I've been thinking over that last scene between us—seeing it dimly in my mind, misty and obstructed because of the mental effort to write. As in a glass darkly. (If ever I write the story of all this, that's what I'll call it—As In a Glass Darkly.) I remember going to her flat that night, knowing I shouldn't go, that it was already over between us. I had some flowers with me (futile gesture—I'd only bought them on the way to cover something up from myself) and a big slab of the cake she used to like so much. When I went in Dennis was already there. I had known he would be, of course, but somehow it was still a surprise—a surprise that what I had known had been confirmed, I imagine. Jenny was standing close to the fire—very tall and slim and dignified in a black gown. I gave her the flowers and the cake and then we all three looked at each other in a futile and foolishly antagonistic sort of way. There was nothing to stay for—nothing at all—but somehow it was absurd simply to disappear again. Besides, I wanted to look at them—I wanted to look at Dennis—to see why I'd failed and he succeeded . . .




The Little House • (1944) • short story


Just a beautifully set anecdote. Its only power is that it will make you weep.




Esmeralda • (1944) • short story


"Esmerelda" rivals "Hands" and "Liebestraum."  A story of psychological disintegration, it has the power to sting and slap the reader repeatedly with at each new turning. There is no playing at cleverness here. Keir Cross simply gives us an imperishable tale.



Music When Soft Voices Die ... • (1944) • short story


Suddenly we became aware—simultaneously—that two of Gregory's assistants were moving towards us. Apparently the African trophies were the next item on the catalogue. I glanced quickly at Menasseh.


"Now's the time," I said smiling. "You seem interested in these drums of Erskine's. They're going up, I fancy. Are you buying?"


He gazed at me, his eyes large behind the thick glass of his spectacles.


"Oh no," he whispered. "Oh no. God forbid it . . ."


The two men in green baize aprons were lifting some of the larger drums, preparatory to carrying them over to Gregory's dais. Menasseh, I saw by this time, was looking quickly backwards and forwards in an access of nervous apprehension of some sort. He suddenly leaned close up to me.


"Ferguson," he said, "I can't keep it, I can't. I must tell someone. I want to see you—I must see you."


"We could go outside," I said, a little disturbed, I had to confess, by his urgency. "I shall not be bidding again. Will you?"


"No. No. Not here," he muttered. "Not here—I can't stay here. It has upset me too much—I must go away from here, quickly."


He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and thrust a card into my hand.


"If you are in Dundee," he said, "if you should be in Dundee—"


"I have to be there at the end of this week, as it happens," I answered. "I have a little business which I am mixing with my holiday. Thursday, I should say—or possibly Friday."


"Good. Good. Then could you call on me? For God's sake could you call on me?"


I nodded: and he, in his nervousness, set his old head nodding up and down too. I fingered his card, looking at the address on it:


SAMUEL MENASSEH


39, The Portway


Dundee


"My business address," he said, reading my thoughts. "But come anytime, anytime this week. I shall be there. I have a little room behind the shop where I live—I only go to my house outside the city at week-ends and so on." Then, reading my thoughts still more deeply, he added: "My business is strange—very strange. Don't be surprised. It's a little—unpleasant. I don't tell people about it—I won't mention it here . . . But come, sir—oh for God's sake I beg you to come! It will haunt me, this—I'll have no peace!"



Cyclamen Brown • (1944) • short story


A London underworld tale of grim humor and misunderstanding. Not equal in intensity or grasp to the stories that precede it.




Couleur de Rose • (1944) • short story


And here was he talking of looking at the world through rose-coloured spectacles! The irony of it—the incredible irony of it!






The Lovers • (1944) • short story


Not a taxi business. A taxidermy business!




The Other Passenger • (1944) • novelette


…. Why should I waste time now by building up the dramatic climax? I should describe, in detail, with a cumulative atmosphere, the nailing of that terrible thing to the crosspiece, the weeping struggle I had to drape the sagging ancient clothes round its limbs, the ecstasy that was inside me as I packed the yellow straw tightly, tightly round the foot of it . . . But there is no dramatic climax. There is only, all about me, a flow of images.




***





….We go. Somehow we go. And with us goes always that other silent Passenger.






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Sunday, February 18, 2018

The naked face of oblivion: Night-World by Robert Bloch (1972)




“I shall not kill because you order me to kill; because you issue me a uniform, a weapon and a command. That is fraud.

“I shall not kill because of something that happened between me and my mother, father, sister, brother, wife. That is Freud, and he is a fraud, too.

“I shall kill because I am a brave man. And a brave man is true to his nature.

“It is the nature of man to be free, to resent confinement. It is the nature of man to oppose hypocrisy and injustice. I shall kill in the name of all mankind—all mankind confined hypocritically and unjustly in asylums, prisons, hospitals, rest homes. I shall kill in the name of those who have been punished for their courage in openly defying society. In the name of those who are labeled misfit and unfit. In the name of the bastard buried away in an orphanage and the millions dying neglected and forgotten, institutionalized merely because they have committed the crime of growing old.

“I believe in the principles of democracy. One man, one vote. And mine is a vote of protest—a vote that will register and be remembered. Mass murderers are famous….”








The Scarf  (1947) was a superb novel of suspense, a portrait of postwar alienation to rival Celine, Camus, Highsmith.

Psycho (1959) was an enthralling one-sitting battle of wits between the protagonist and himself. As well as some real-life opponents.

Robert Bloch's novels of the 1945-1976 period (prior to Strange Eons) are what I term non-supernatural weird suspense tales. Unlike many of his career-spanning short stories, they do not feature sardonic and "Runyonesque" narrators and story-lines. Instead, they foreground noirish aspects of crime: serial killers and their victims, the “you-can't-win” mis en scene.

Bloch is a meticulous plotter, and is always careful in such novels to contrast the madness of his antagonists with the generalized irrationality of society at-large. In this he echoes Chaplin's fine film
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

Night-World was published in 1972. Say no more: Vietnam’s psychological ramifications  for U.S. G.I.s is foregrounded. Whitman, Manson, and the Zodiac killer get contextualizing mentions.

Night-World begins with typically apposite Blochian negations. Chapter One: an insane asylum; Chapter Two:  an advertising agency.

….They told him he was here for his own good, and the locked door was a protection against the other patients. But it couldn’t protect him against time. Gnawing away, night after night, so that he couldn’t sleep. And it couldn’t protect him against his protectors. They had a key….

….At the far end of the second corridor, Karen stepped into her own niche, put her purse in the desk drawer, pushed the telephone to one side, and sat down to study the approved and initialed rough layout for a full-page black-and-white scheduled to run in the fashion magazines listed in the accompanying memo and work-data sheet. She glanced at the notes and suggestions, then studied the rough, trying to visualize the finished artwork.

In the foreground, arms folded defiantly across his bare chest, a scowling young man with shaggy hair tumbling across his forehead, the slitted stare of his heavy-lidded eyes suggesting the acid-head. Striped trousers, very tight in the crotch, just suggesting.

Behind him, the girl—all angularity and elbows, hands on hips and legs outthrust. Long straight hair strand-strung on either side of exaggeratedly high cheekbones and sullen slash of mouth. The young witch, suffering from malnutrition or stardom in an Andy Warhol film.

Midway between the two, a chopper or bike. Not a motorcycle—only the pigs ride motorcycles; we ride hogs.

Karen made a mental note of the distinction: pigs are bad, hogs are good. If she referred to the machine at all in the copy block, she must remember that. On the other hand, the ad was for the striped pants, and she’d better concentrate on the merchandise. She began to run through phrases, discarding as she went. Dig, bag, with it, doing your thing—last year’s vocabulary, but a dead language today. And the Now Generation was presently known as the Beautiful People. Their clothes would be heavy, or funky. Gear. Karen reached for pad and pencil and jotted down a tentative headline—Geared for Action.

No sense bothering with an actual description of the trousers; no one buys striped pants, they buy a look. And the look was—what? In deep. Thrust. Put it all together—and today’s lexicon of popular phrases sounded like a description of the activities in a whorehouse….

Karen Raymond is Bloch's heroine. Eaking out a living in advertising in order to support her husband Bruce's stay at Dr. Griswold’s posh sanitarium, she lives a life if quiet desperation.

On the day the novel opens, she gets world her husband is about to be released. She makes a beeline for Griswold's madhouse. And the fun begins.


….The nurse strangled at her desk, Griswold dead, and two more bodies found upstairs. She knew who they were, now—an orderly named Thomas and an elderly woman patient. The orderly had been stabbed to death, and the patient apparently died of a heart seizure, but of course they couldn’t be certain of that. All they knew was that four people had died; three staff members and one patient.

Five other rooms upstairs showed signs of occupancy, so there had been five other patients in the sanatorium. But they were missing.

They were missing, and all their records, all means of identifying them, had gone up in smoke in Griswold’s fireplace.

Five mentally disturbed patients gone. Vanished. Only one—Bruce—known by name. And every reason to believe that one or more of those patients was a mass murderer.

But who were they?

And where could they have gone?

No wonder Lieutenant Barringer frowned when Karen shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know their names. I never even set eyes on any of them. I told you I didn’t visit my husband while he was in the sanatorium.”

“Why not?”

“Dr. Griswold thought it best if I stayed away. Bruce seemed so disturbed—”

“Disturbed?”

Barringer picked up the word, but Karen couldn’t help that. There was no avoiding the subject, and if she didn’t speak up, they’d hear it from Rita.

“Of course. That’s why he was under treatment, it was a nervous condition. Ever since he came back from Vietnam—”

“Was he a head?”

“No. He never got into drugs.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. I’m his wife—if there was anything like that going on, I’d know.”

“Then in what way was he disturbed?”

“Just nerves—”

“Please, Mrs. Raymond. People don’t spend six months in a sanatorium unless there’s been some kind of diagnosis. Surely Dr. Griswold told you more than that. What were the symptoms? What did your husband do that prompted you to put him away—”

“I didn’t put him away! Bruce was the one who wanted to go!”

Hearing the shrill echo of her own voice, Karen realized she was close to hysterics. If she wanted to help Bruce, she would have to control herself….


Bloch plunges us into an inverted who-is-it? mystery.  Interlaced chapters braid back stories of victims: workers at the sanitarium, fellow escapees of the sociopathic mastermind. Any cop entering the room could be an escapee working on a diabolical plan. One of the escaped patients quickly begins killing fellow escapees and staffers who can identify him.

As bodies pile up, Karen defends her husband's innocence. But Bloch being Bloch, even when Karen has a clandestine meeting with Bruce, we are not sure of Bruce after all:


….Karen tried to keep her voice steady. “You can’t go on running forever.”

“I have to.” Bruce’s eyes never left her face. “They already know I was in the sanatorium. They’re bound to check my service record and the hospital reports. Between that and what we both know about me—” He broke off and for a moment his glance wavered. Then he stared at her again, and his words came with a rush. “Have you said anything? Have you told them about us?”

Karen shook her head.

“Good.” Bruce’s shoulders sagged in relief. Night after night. After a while, the two seem to blend. Not blend, really, because it’s as if the night swallowed the day. So you’re always in darkness, perpetual darkness—a night-world. That’s what you live in, a night-world, where all the sounds and shadows turn strange. And you think about those who’ve done this to you, and they’re your enemies. Then you think about those who aren’t directly responsible, but who don’t care. The people you call out to who never hear your voice—after a while you realize they’re your enemies, too. Everyone’s a part of the conspiracy, a conspiracy of silence and indifference. They’re all trying to get you. So you wonder how you can get them first. Punish them for punishing you. And you start to dream about it, and the dream becomes a plan and the plan becomes a reality.”

“Bruce, for God’s sake—”

“We don’t talk about God in the asylum. We talk about something called the Id and the Ego and the Superego. Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, all equally invisible.” His smile was bitter. “The gospel according to Griswold. According to him there are no accidents. The mind that makes one man a murderer makes another man a victim.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“Of course not.” Bruce sighed. “I’m only trying to tell you what it’s like, tell you how he thinks. I know, because that’s how I felt myself, at first. But Griswold helped me change. The thing is, he couldn’t help him.”

“Who?”

“The man they’re looking for. The murderer.”

“What’s his name?”

Bruce shook his head. “If you knew his name, he’d come after you. Do you want to be a victim, too?”

“I want to help you.”

“Then give me some money—let me get away before he finds me. That’s all I want.”

“Is it?”

“No.” And then he was holding her, his arms tight, his body close so that she could feel the trembling. “You’re what I want, what I’ve always wanted, I know that now. But it’s too late, after what happened I don’t blame you—”

“I love you. I always have.”

The trembling ceased. Now there was only a tautness. “You didn’t even visit me out there.”

“Griswold asked me not to. He must have told you that.”

“Yes. And I didn’t believe him.”

“I was coming to see you the other night. Griswold said you were probably ready to come home.”

“If I’d only known.” Bruce released her, stepped back.

“You didn’t?”

“Do you think I’d have gone along with Cromer if I had?”

“Cromer—?

“All right.” Bruce took a deep breath. “The man they want is Edmund Cromer. He never really talked about himself, but from what little I heard, he’s the only son of a wealthy family back in New York or New Jersey, I’m not sure which. They committed him about a year ago. In view of what’s happened, I suspect they sent him all the way out here because he might have been involved in something pretty horrible back East.”

“Did you know about his plan to escape?”

“Nobody did, except Rodell. And I don’t think Rodell realized he meant to kill anyone when he made the break. But of course Cromer must have had it all worked out. And after it started, there was no stopping.”

“How did it happen?”

“I’m not sure. I was upstairs in my room after dinner, and so were the others, all but Cromer. He’d gone down to talk to Dr. Griswold. He must have killed him first, in the electrotherapy room, then the night nurse outside. There was no noise. The first time any of us realized something had happened was when we smelled smoke from the burning papers in the fireplace.”

“Wasn’t there an attendant on duty with you upstairs?”

“That’s right—Thomas. He was playing checkers with Tony Rodell in his room. I guess that had all been arranged, just to keep him busy, because Cromer had no trouble finding him when he came in with the knife in his hand—”

Bruce broke off, frowning. “No point going into that,” he said. “Thomas was dead by the time the rest of us came running out of our rooms. The old lady, Mrs. Freeling, took one look at Thomas and keeled over. Cromer said she was dead.”

“You didn’t examine her?”

“No.” Bruce shook his head quickly. “And I didn’t try to stop Cromer either, if that’s what you’re wondering about. None of us did. Because Cromer had come upstairs carrying Dr. Griswold’s gun and he kept us covered. We had no way of knowing it wasn’t loaded—all we did know was that Cromer had committed cold-blooded murder and was perfectly capable of continuing.

“He gave us our choice. Go with him now in Griswold’s car or he’d leave us behind. And he didn’t say anything about leaving us behind alive.

“If we’d had time to think, maybe a couple of us could have gotten together and tried to jump him. But you’ve got to realize what it was like—the panic, the confusion. Edna Drexel was hysterical, Lorch was in a state of shock. Between Rodell and Cromer with his gun, I had no chance of doing anything alone. I guess all any of us could grasp was that we’d better get out of there.

“Cromer promised to take us into town. Before we drove off he gave Rodell the gun and told him to use it if anyone made a move. Then he took the freeway to Sherman Oaks. He left the car, saying he’d be back in a few minutes, and Rodell stayed behind with the gun. That’s when I made my move. I got it away from him, but while we were struggling, the others ran off. After Tony was knocked out, I found the gun was empty, but I had no way of knowing where Cromer had gone, or if he’d really come back. And perhaps, if he did, he’d have another weapon. What I wanted to do, of course, was drive off—but Cromer had taken the car keys.” Bruce’s voice dropped to a whisper. “So I ran.”

Five patients escaped. Cromer kills one by drowning her. Another is done-in with the blunt force of a liquor bottle. A third is killed by his own adoring dogs, whom Cromer has maddened with amphetamines.

But is Cromer real, or another personality residing in Bruce's war-stricken brain? Each declaration on fact by a character makes us suspect that fact is a lie or a self-delusion. This is, after all, a Robert Bloch story.

Night-World gives Bloch plenty of space to take on his own favorite targets: commercialism, advertising, TV, smog, the crackerbox landscape of suburbia.

Who better?

Jay
18 February 2018