Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 25: Name of a Little Blue Man

The back cover copy of my reprint edition of The Devil's Bride from Creation Publishing, Seabury Quinn's only novel about paranormal investigator (or whatever) Dr. Jules de Grandin informs the reader that Quinn's fiction was known for "strong elements of sadistic violence, misogynistic torture and cruelty, negative racial profiling, and frequent female nudity." Leaving aside the delight I always take in a work of prose being described as "containing nudity," this stuff is always intended to draw in readers more than it is to warn them, but there's some junk later on about "relics of a less enlightened age," so clearly they want everybody, including themselves, to feel okay about reading this garbage. I'm always bothered by this "Oh dear, the past..." hand-wringing when it comes to pulp fiction, though I certainly have my limits, which probably aren't much less or more severe than your own. I just don't need the warnings. I can handle myself, I think.

Of course, at the moment I have to take Creation Publishing at their word regarding the contents of The Devil's Bride, it not being the Quinn I read for today, but what I did read, about which more in a moment, while containing some pretty sadistic violence aimed at women, I don't happen to believe that it's axiomatic that such violence equals misogyny (in the stories I read, this sort of thing is pretty severely frowned upon). I also read nothing in the way of "negative racial profiling," or even any nudity! I was guaranteed nudity! "Quinn was sure to include at least one scene of a naked girl...", it says! THIS IS BULLSHIT!

Anyhow. Enough about Creation Publishing's PC ass-covering. I read stories published in The Casebook of Jules de Grandin, one of a series of Quinn reprints put out by Popular Library back in the 1960s and '70s, when they didn't give a crap about any of this. Now, I'll be honest, I approached these stories with some trepidation, because I have a feeling that, speaking generally, I enjoy this kind of pulp series more in theory than I do in practice. There was a lot of very fine writing from the pulp era, but there was a whole lot of quite terrible writing. A few years ago, I was very excited to finally read The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer, and I was pretty stunned at the vice-like grip and breakneck momentum that book did not offer. It felt mired in quicksand even during the action scenes, and Rohmer seemed to have no sense of urgency or velocity or drive. It sort of put me off the whole thing for a while, and I worried Quinn would not be much different. And the two Jules de Grandin stories I read for today, "Children of Ubasti" and "The House of Horror," are either kind of dumb, in one case, or chickenshit, in another, but momentum is not something either lacked. They moved damn fast, almost to a fault, though I'd rather, with this sort of thing, that the writer err on that side than the other.

These stories don't chronicle the beginning of Quinn's de Grandin series, but from what I can gather, Jules de Grandin is the Sherlock Holmes figure, though maybe a little bit more polite and less outwardly arrogant, not to mention more comfortable with people, and Dr. Trowbridge, with whom he lives and who subsequently writes down their adventures so that others might marvel, is Watson, though with considerably less personality or things to do or words to say. Trowbridge really is a blank, only once in the two stories showing any kind of unique reaction (in the moment I'm thinking of, he feels de Grandin is being rather too ghoulish), but it doesn't really matter. The reason it doesn't matter is the same reason I don't have a great deal to say about either "Children of Ubasti" or "The House of Horror," which is that these stories are fairly trashy, reasonably fun, kind of shocking -- the whole sadistic violence thing, while generally not presented "on-stage," as it were, is still very much present, and inventive -- and very clearly meant to achieve those goals and nothing else. Ironically, if they'd actually been as racist and misogynistic as I'd been told, I'd have a great deal more to think about and wade through. There would be something with heft to deal with.

Not that I mind, as a reader, that they don't. For stories written in the 1920s about an occult detective, I'd much prefer that they don't, if you want to know the truth. Anyway, I'm not left with nothing to deal with. I do have one thing, which Robert A. W. Lowndes, who wrote the introduction to The Casebook of Jules de Grandin, gets to the heart of when he begins his intro by defining the difference between a writer, and a teller of tales:

...I consider the "writer" of fiction as a person who carefully plots and plans his fiction out in advance, before resorting to a first draft...The writer will then resort to secondary elaboration when he or she sits down to write the story...But the teller of tales starts out at once with nothing more than an idea, and sometimes not so much as that.

Needless to say, Lowndes considers Seabury Quinn a teller of tales, and quotes him as describing the writing of his first Jules de Grandin story in that very way. And brother, does it show. Spoilers for both "Children of Ubasti" and "The House of Horror" follow, but, so, in "Children of Ubasti," two African demons, spawns of the ancient and evil city of Bubatsis (and before you say anything, the demons were not sent by the people of Africa, or anybody in Africa, to destroy the Western world; these demons terrorize the inhabitants of their own continent just as thoroughly) have arrived in, you know, New Jersey, and what they do is, they've set up shop -- ostensibly, one's a man and one's a woman -- and they hire young women from an agency that hires out housekeepers. But no housekeeping is to be done, and the women are used as vile pawns in a terrible game, which involves the women being told, basically, "If you can escape us, good for you. If you can't, we'll kill you and feed you to the next girl. That's what you ate last night, by the way." We learn all this because one young woman actually did escape, via the cunning method of throwing footstools at the demons and jumping out a window. When de Grandin hears this woman's story, he says "Oh, well, these are cat demons from Bubatsis," so he and his heroic cohorts -- including a Muslim Turk, who just kind of shows up -- go to the demons' house, the address of which de Grandin discovered because the demons told somebody, and then they kill the demons with shotguns. It was touch and go there for a while, but they had shotguns. Jules de Grandin has done it again.
Meanwhile, in "The House of Horror," Trowbridge and de Grandin are on the road at night, trying to find their way to a "workmen's settlement," where a young boy is in need of a dose of anti-toxin, which the two doctors plan on administering. They get lost and figure, screw the kid, he's hopeless, and decide to ask for help from the inhabitants of a big, opulent house that's out there in the woods there. The door to this house opens, seemingly of its own accord, and closes in the same way, but it's not ghosts -- it's an old man, who asks the doctors to check out his daughter, who's sick. De Grandin gets suspicious early on, he gives the daughter, who the father believes is suffering from sleeping sickness, a placebo, and they go to bed, where de Grandin shows Trowbridge that the windows are basically sealed shut. They're prisoners! Except they can get up in the middle of the night and wander around the house. They go see the girl, who is awake, and super pretty, except her eyes have been dicked around with so that they "roll[ed] grotesquely to right and left, they peered futilely in opposite directions, lending to her sweet, pale face the half-ludicrous, wholly hideous expression of a bloating frog." So that's no good. De Grandin and Trowbridge are like "We'll see about this!" and they find the secret button on the wall that opens the front door, which they open, and outside a massive storm is raging. They go out and see the old man rolling Trowbridge's car down a very steep hill or something. Trowbridge and de Grandin go after him, but before they can reach the old man the storm causes a massive branch to break off a tree, and it falls on the old man and kills him. The villain of the story has just been killed by a falling tree branch while the two heroes go "Hey, what?" The dying old man has a few confessions left in him, thankfully, and he says "The reason I did all this shit is in my office. Go read it. Go in my basement, too." Which they do, and it turns out his crippled son, years ago, had been rejected by a beautiful vaudeville actress, and he killed himself, so his dad vowed revenge. First on the actress, then on just ladies overall. He's been kidnapping young women and removing all their arm and leg bones and keeping them alive in his basement. This is all pretty surprising, and weird, and disturbing. De Grandin goes "We can't bring these women back to society. It would be too cruel! I don't know if I want to just murder them, though. I need to think about this." So he and Trowbridge go upstairs to think about if they're going to murder these women, but before they can reach a decision, the huge storm floods the basement and drowns the women and then Trowbridge and de Grandin grab the girl with the mudskipper eyes and then the house collapses. "I'll fix her eyes," de Grandin says. The end.

Now...this is all pretty absurd. Both stories are, specifically because of the way the stories unfold, if that's the phrase I want. The sick kid in "The House of Horror" means nothing. The fact that de Grandin and Trowbridge are locked into the house means nothing. Why this old man would ask the doctors to look at his daughter is never explained, because why would he ever do that? But it's the next part of the story. Each thing is just the next thing. And I was, in a grimy sort of way, getting into the moral dilemma that faced our heroes at the end of that particular story, and Quinn bails in the most cowardly way imaginable. "Should we put these women out of their misery? Wup, the whole house is suddenly falling down, we better skedaddle." This is ridiculous.

And I honestly don't care. Or I do care, but I take it as less of a negative than a supremely goofy near-positive. If all of Seabury Quinn's stories are this stupidly wild, then I think I'm on board. I mean, why not?


Chet Williamson said...

Well, most of the *De Grandin* stories are like this, but he wrote a lot of other stories as well. The novella ROADS, which was published by Arkham House, is sentimental and charming, but I'm damned if I can think of many others. I gobbled up these de Grandin stories when I was a subscriber to the Lowndes reprint magazines, and he had one in nearly every issue. This was in my early 20s and I thought they were swell (as we used to call things that were jimdandy), but I haven't read one in years, though they're all available in a gigantic deluxe three-volume set. So if you're hooked...

Jonathan Stover said...

I've read all of the Popular Library reprints and enjoyed them, though they are pretty pulpy even for the pulps. But there are a lot of gonzo moments (like, say, DeGrandin using radium salts against some evil ectoplasmic Knights Templar) that anticipate things like Hellboy...come to think of it, Mignola explicitly states that the Knights Templar story inspired a Hellboy story.

One of the oddities of the Popular Library reprints is that several of the stories appear to have been rewritten for publication in the 1950's, as the setting for several of the stories suddenly becomes post-WWII even though the copyright dates are in the 1930's. Yes, I find stuff like that fascinating.

StephenWhitty said...

Continuing to greatly enjoy this series, sir. Can't wait to see what Day 31 brings!

I have read a number of the De Grandin stories, and no, they don't age well. Although I'm fond of these sort of tales (like the more polished Denis Wheatley novels) reading Quinn you're very aware of a writer who is paid by the word, trying to just put down another word.

Find it amusing that the publisher tried to push that collection as "Science Fiction"...