Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 27: Lord of the Desert

It's very easy to forget how many different areas of horror Robert Bloch managed to cover in his long career. At some point in his career, unquestionably after Hitchcock's adaptation of Psycho was released, Bloch became known primarily as a writer of non-supernatural horror and suspense, but you didn't even have to know his work solely through that film or novel. When I was growing up, my reading of Bloch was restricted to what I could find in used bookstores, which tended to mean that I was reading the various Tor reprints of suspense novels Bloch wrote in the 1950s, 60s, and, well, so on -- the Tor reprints covered a lot of years. But among those novels, none of them (that I read), not The Kidnapper or Firebug or The Night of the Ripper or Night-World or American Gothic, involved any kind of supernatural element. One Bloch novel that Tor published at around that time, Lori, was a ghost story, but it was at the time a new novel (1989), plus I didn't read it until many years afterwards, and, not that this is exactly relevant to my point, it was far from Bloch's finest hour.

Bloch's specialty, the popular perception went, was writing about killers, not exactly of the everyday type, but at least of the technically possible type (another contributing factor to this was the amount of Jack the Ripper-related fiction Bloch wrote). He also gained a reputation for writing short stories that ended with a kind of punchline, some horrifying revelation in the last sentence that gave the whole thing its punch. The first Bloch books I ever read, before I even read Psycho, were a pair of story collections from the 1980s, published by Tor, called Midnight Pleasures and Fear and Trembling, and the two stories I remember best are "Nocturnes" and "The Night Before Christmas," both of which end in punchlines, neither of which are supernatural, and, for the record, both are terrific. So he was good at this stuff, but it might surprise some people -- not you, probably, but some people -- to learn that Bloch was originally another, albeit earlier than most, Lovecraft acolyte. Lovecraft even replied to a young Robert Bloch's fan letter with writing advice. And that Lovecraft influence could be found rather heavily in his early work. (By the way, I know that there are plenty of supernatural stories in both Midnight Pleasures and Fear and Trembling -- I just don't remember them.)

It was not my intention today to write about Robert Bloch's Lovecraftian fiction. As I think I've made clear this month, the whole world of Lovecraftians, and even Lovecraft himself to a degree, is starting to wear me out. My intention was only to write about Bloch, a man I wrote only a glancing post about several years ago. Since I've gone back to several other horror writers since loosening up the restrictions I originally placed on myself, I figured Bloch was more than deserving of a second go 'round, and so from my bookshelf I removed my old Belmont paperback copy of his 1962 collection Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (that title story is probably the most famous and most influential thing Bloch ever wrote, outside of Psycho, of course). I picked two stories I hadn't read, based on their titles, and have only myself to blame if I somehow didn't wonder to myself "I wonder if this Robert Bloch story called 'The Faceless God' is going to be anything like H. P. Lovecraft, who Bloch so admired." I must have. This was just yesterday, so I should remember, but I must have.

The other thing is, also unplanned, both the stories were set in Egypt (there's at least one other Egypt story in this book, called "Beetles"). The setting of one of those, "The Eyes of the Mummy," could be assumed. The plot is very basic: our narrator is fascinated by Egypt and its strange myths, but following a strange and fatal incident that occurred before the story's action, one involving a possibly supernatural occurrence the resulted in the death of a colleague, he withdrew from this field of interest. Until, that is, one day when another colleague, Professor Weildan, approaches him with an opportunity that seems hard to resist. Basically, go to Egypt, where there's this tomb that has a mummy in it, a mummy of a priest from an ancient, diabolical cult. But because of this priest's outcast status at the time of his death, the tomb is for all intents and purposes unknown, and Weildan assures our narrator that there will be jewels a-plenty. Once in Egypt, though, things get dicey when Weildan meets with their contact and spy, who our narrator overhears the two men arguing -- the spy seems afraid. And although the narrator doesn't see this, it's pretty clear that Weildan murders the man. The fact that Weildan does this, and the narrator knows he did it and doesn't flee, should tell you something about both of them.

They get to the tomb, and things are looking up when they throw off the mummy's lid and see two astonishing jewels in place of the corpse's eyes:

Two great yellow disks burned up at us through the darkness. Not diamonds or sapphires or opals were they, or any known stone; their enormous size precluded any thought of inclusion in a common category. They were not cut or faceted, yet they blinded with their brightness -- a fierce flashing stabbed our retinas like naked fire.

These were the jewels we sought -- and they had been worth seeking. I stooped to remove them, but Weildan's voice restrained me.

"Don't," [Weildan] warned. "We'll get them later, without harming the mummy."

I heard his voice as though from afar. I was not conscious of again standing erect. Instead I remained stopped over those flaming stones. I stared at them.

So the narrator is pretty taken with these jewels, and I'll halt the plot summary right there. What I found interesting about this one -- and this is a very solid story overall -- was its treatment of the mummy. It's not a shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies, it's a much more psychological thing here, but then, early on, mummies usually weren't shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies. The original Freund/Karloff 1932 film feature the mummy that way very briefly, as a highly effective early mood-setter, but after that Karloff's Imhotep can pass as living. Those bandages became a staple later on in the Universal films, but then those stopped, and more recently in those iffy Stephen Sommers mummies are like ghost demons or something. Yet the bandages are what we think of when we hear the word. Isn't that interesting? No? Well, I thought it was.

"The Eyes of the Mummy" connects to "The Faceless God" beyond the shared Egypt setting. This plays into "The Faceless God" more, but in both you have protagonists who are morally questionable. Typically, it's my belief that having basically evil characters (the narrator of "The Eyes of the Mummy" isn't evil, but he is greedy) face, and lose to, the horror of your story or novel is a little bit of a cheat, in that seeing a villain get their comeuppance can rob the horror of its horror. EC Comics did this time and time again, but they had such a bright and vividly salacious way of going about it that it was essentially the house style, and quite entertaining. The problem is that it can turn horror into just another kind of revenge story. But with "The Faceless God," which features a truly awful piece of filth as its main character, Bloch makes it work. The character is Doctor Carnoti, a man with archaeology and anthropology in his background, but who is introduced to the reader in the first paragraph as he is torturing a man for information -- this is medieval, bloody, disabling torture -- and, once Carnoti gets what he wants he orders the man killed by one of his servants. What he wants is information on the location of a massive statue buried in the middle of nowhere, Egypt division, but which was briefly and partially uncovered by accident by a passing caravan. Carnoti is interested because it's supposedly very well preserved, the Egyptian god depicted is unknown (and three-headed), and all of this comes together to cause Carnoti to believe this discovery will make him rich and famous. The problem is, the Egyptians who hire him know that this is a statue of Nyarlathotep, a walking nightmare of a god whose existence has been wiped away from Egyptian mythological texts, and whose specific attributes were disbursed to other legends of other gods. It is best, it had been decided, that no one speak of Nyarlathotep.

"The Faceless God" is basically a Lovecraft story written by Robert Bloch, which for me at least means that it goes down a lot more smoothly. But it's very explicitly Lovecraft. First there's Nyarlathotep, which is a Lovecraft creation, and then there's this passage, one of the most interesting in "The Faceless God," where Bloch turns briefly away from Carnoti to create a scholarly history that combines our world and Lovecraft's:

[Nyarlathotep] is mentioned cryptically in the Necronomicon, for Alhazred heard it whispered in tales of shadowed Irem. The fabulous Book of Eibon hints at the myth in veiled and diverse ways, for it was writ in a far-off time when it was not yet deemed safe to speak of things that had walked upon the earth when it was young. Ludvig Prinn, who traveled in Saracenic lands and learned strange sorceries, awesomely implies his knowledge in the infamous Mysteries of the Worm.

But his worship, in late years, seems to have died out. There is no mention of it in in Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, and most reputable ethnologists and anthropologists are frankly ignorant of the Faceless One's history...

For whatever reason, I really like that mention of The Golden Bough, even if it's only to point out how strange that Frazer never mentions Nyarlathotep. But of course that's the point: The Faceless God is sadistically and diabolically and hatefully powerful, he cannot even exist in legend. And uncovering that statue is a form of blasphemy, and will bring him down on you.

Which is what happens to Carnoti. The reason this story can put a villain like Carnoti front and center without seeming like a cheat is that only someone like Carnoti would go after this statue, his avarice driving him straight through any objections offered up for his own good. And simply freeing a portion of that giant statue from the sand is actually sort of the end of the story, even though there are several more pages to go. But he's doomed, and in the rest of "The Faceless God," Bloch merely chronicles, with no little satisfied cruelty, Carnoti's descent into madness and finally a kind of reverent death. Along the way, Bloch writes in a way, and about things, I'm simply not used to from him; however often he may have done it, it's outside of my experience of his work. But his handle on this sort of thing, giant evil gods who live only to destroy men and make them suffer, is quite firm. It's like Lovecraft, but without the turgidness. "The Faceless One" is swift that Lovecraft only achieved in his very short stories, like "Pickman's Model" and "The Music of Erich Zann." It's really, really effective, this story, and genuinely horrifying. In fact, that's another reason Carnoti's villainy doesn't really cut into the terror: the terror of Nyarlathotep is so immense, that the Earthly evil of Carnoti feels almost like nothing. Carnoti doesn't become humanized by the end of "The Faceless One," and he's not redeemed at all, but he becomes such a helpless insect under the magnifying glass of a sadistic god, that from a certain distance he could be any one of us.

1 comment:

John said...

It's not a shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies, it's a much more psychological thing here, but then, early on, mummies usually weren't shambling, be-bandanged pseudo-zombies.

That's pretty much exactly what the mummy in the Conan Doyle mummy story "Lot 249" is, though. Pure monster, a hideous twisted thing that kills mindlessly.

"The Faceless God" sounds good, if a bit like one of Bloch's more conventionally moral stories, featuring yet another hateful protagonist who ultimately suffers some horrible fate of (mostly) his own making. Even if the cruelty of the ending provokes a hint of sympathy for the character, did Bloch really have to make him such an obvious villain in the first place?

In case it's not obvious, I agree with your point about villains being punished in horror stories. That's not to say I think horror stories in which Evil is punished and Good rewarded (or simply let be) are necessarily bad... but they're probably a lot less likely to be something of lasting interest to me, I guess.