Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz

From KEW's 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels:

#12: "The Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz
Is it real or is it hashish? But what is reality? It's all relative, isn't it? This one is strange even for Perutz."

The Master of the Day of Judgment is told from the point of view of Baron Yosch, a military officer in the Kaiser's army. Although the events taking place in the book occur over a few days in 1909, the book supposedly comes from a manuscript found in the baron's personal papers after he went missing during WW1. As such, it is a "found" novel, a style not very popular these days. The edition I'm reviewing is the 1930 Hedwig Singer translation.
At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the baron's circle of friends: the actor Eugene Bischoff, the physician Dr. Edward von Gorsky, and Engineer Waldemar Solgrub. A married couple, Felix and Dina (Bischoff's sister) also figure into the novel. Most of the action takes place in the same city, which appears to be Prague.
Structured as a murder mystery, Master is concerned with a rash on unexplainable suicides which have occurred over the past few weeks. The key death happens in the first fifty pages when the actor Bischoff kills himself with a pistol in a closed room. No one can figure out why he did it. The baron suddenly finds himself accused by everyone as he had been too close to Bischoff's sister Dina. The actor had also lost a large sum of money in a bank crash and the baron is accused of confronting him with this information.
Baron Yosch plays the part of a dandy through the book. He's a military officer, but has never seen combat. He's more interested in playing Beethoven on the piano than any martial activity. When the baron suddenly finds himself at the center of a murder investigation, he decides to retire to a country estate he's not visited in years. We're constantly given detailed events of trivial matters he remembers from the event.
As more suicides occur, the remaining witnesses to the death of Bischoff become convinced some evil entity is at work. Eventually they trace the source down to one location. To tell more about it would give away the ending of the book. I will say it is quite a surprise, and worth the read.
Master of the Day of Judgement is an excellent book and can be read very quickly. I'm sure the translator added much to the flavor of it.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Doctor Death: Twelve Must Die

Doctor Death was originally a minor character in some pulp stories of the 1930's. The forward in this collection suggests that the publisher decided to give him his own magazine after the edition of All Detective magazine featuring a Dr. Death cover sold very well. The success of the story never transferred over to the larger format and the Dr. Death magazine was canceled after three issues. Vol. 1 of the Altus collection contains all three of these plus a pitch writer Harold Ward did for a Dr. Death comic strip.
In 12, Dr. Death is revealed to be Professor Rance Mandarian, a once highly respected university researcher who had gone insane. Recreated himself as Dr. Death, Mandarian has decided to wage war on human civilization. A master of the occult sciences, Dr. Death has discovered the means to create zombies and harness elementals, deadly spirits who can destroy anything in their path. At the beginning of the book, he issues a warning to the world: destroy the wheels of industry and return to living off the land or face his wrath. To make his position clear, he pronounces a death sentence on 12 leaders of science and industry. He then dares anyone to save them.
Opposing Dr. Death is The Secret Twelve, a council made-up of the leaders of society (and the underworld). Death's main adversary is Jimmy Holm, a privately wealthy police detective and Detective Inspector John Ricks, a hard-boiled copper from the old school.
The writing style is crisp and to the point. No long scenes of descriptive dialogue here! The pulp audience wanted entertainment in the way of action. We do get a detailed tour of Dr. Death's subterranean lair and it comes complete with the walking dead and stacks of bodies. Plot devices tend to be quick as well; when Jimmy Holm and Death's assistant Nina Ferrera fall in love it takes place over the course of two pages.
The next novel, The Gray Creatures, has Dr. Death traveling to Egypt to find the lost tomb of Anubis, the ancient god of the dead. Death has learned of an amulet in the tomb which will enable him to raise the dead of Egypt and complete his conquest of the world. Of course, Nina gets kidnapped by the fiendish scientist right before his trip, forcing Jimmy Holm to head off in hot pursuit. This is the best novel of the three as Ward is able to build an effective sense of tension in the scenario as Death gets closer to his goal. And along the way we encounter a lost tribe of pyramid builders. Jimmy Holm thwarts Dr. Death in the last few pages of the novel, but the crafty old test tube cleaner manages to escape once again.
The final novel, The Shriveling Murders, has it's name taken from Dr. Death's latest invention: a ray gun which sucks all the moisture out of a person's body, reducing them to a dead doll. Death has plans for his new toy and the means to carry it out. Although not quite as good as Gray Creatures, it has numerous scenes which are wildly out of control. There's even a riot at an insane asylum where a herculean lunatic leads a mob of madmen against Death's army of the living dead.
But Shriveling also has a voodoo cult scene which is embarrassingly racist. I'm glad Altus didn't censor it; future generations need to experience this sort of thing for comparison.
Once again Nina is conveniently kidnapped and falls into Death's clutches (this being her main profession). Of course, Jimmy saves the day at the end, but Dr. Death escapes.
The collection has a nice introduction by pulp historian Will Murray. It concludes with a proposed daily comic strip script by Harold Ward. The script neatly distills the major plot devices of 12 Must Die down to the essentials.
All-in-all, an excellent collection with fine illustrations from the original magazines

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Pulp Fiction Art: Cheap Thrills and Painted Nightmares (2005)

Amazing documentary movie from the UK which looks at the men who painted the covers for the horde of pulp magazines which flooded the newsstands in the 1930's and forties. There's interviews with the surviving artists and plenty of revelations. Did you know that Rafael Desoto, who painted most of the Spider covers, wanted to be a priest? He talks about his change of career in this movie. We also learn that most pulp artists weren't paid that much and regarded their magazine work as only something to pay the bills until their day arrived. Also, most of the cover originals for the "shudder pulps" have been lost; apparently the artist who painted the bulk of them was so distraught he made a bonfire of his originals.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Ler Triology

One of my favourite SF series is the Ler trilogy by M A Foster. Now combined into one volume, The Book of the Ler, it's the story of a race of humans created by mankind who become humanity's cousins in the journey to the stars. The first book, The Game Players of Zan, describes their life in a special preserve on earth. The second, The Warriors of Dawn, is about the a human and a Ler who team up to find a renegade tribe of Ler in a remote solar system. The series concludes with The Day of the Klesh. I could write pages on these books, so well-crafted they are. I will suffice it to say that it's one of the few series novels I have re-read and taken notes.