Thursday, September 8, 2011
Inca Zombie Boy
My hobby of collecting old science fiction pulp magazines has brought some curious works of fiction my way, and I'd like to talk about one of them. The cover above is from the March 1951 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, a pulp devoted to reprinting classic science fiction and fantasy stories. The March 1951 issue featured the 1925 mystery novel The Threshold of Fear by Arthur J. Rees, an Australian mystery writer who was a comtemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.
Most British mystery novels from the interwar period focused on middle and upper-class English people, and featured sleuths who were from those social classes. This was also true of The Threshold of Fear, but with a twist. The story's narrator, Richard Haldham, was born into the English upper crust, but his father made a series of bad investments while Richard was serving in the trenches during World War I, and after the war Richard found himself forced to support himself. By the time the story opens in September 1922, Richard Haldham is just about out of money. He answers a classified ad in the Times for a chauffeur-mechanic, and the lawyer who placed the ad reluctantly hires Haldham, who travels to a country house in Cornwall to take up his new employment.
Mystery novels set in English country houses are a dime a dozen, but it's not often that you find one told from the chauffeur's point of view. Rees uses Haldham's depressed social standing to good effect; as a lowly servant, it's not Haldham's place to inquire about the unusual goings-on at the isolated estate of Charmingdene. The house's owner, Colonel Gravenall, has two relatives, a niece and a nephew, staying with him. The nephew, Edward Chesworth, is suffering from some sort of nervous disorder, and his sister Eleanor is acting as his nursemaid. Haldham's job is to drive the two of them to the coast near Cape Cornwall every night, where Edward spends about an hour walking agitatedly back and forth by the cliff edge before returning to Charmingdene.
Despite his current low circumstances, Haldham is still a member of the Chesworths' social class; like Edward, he was an officer during the war, and his uncle was the C.O. of Edward's regiment. This connection is enough to persuade the Chesworths to take him into their confidence. In a long story-within-a-story, Edward tells of his experiences with the Musard expedition to Peru two years earlier. The rest of the expedition perished in an avalanche, and Edward found his way to a lost Inca village on the shores of a small inland sea in the midst of the Peruvian Andes. He was taken in by Munyeru, an Inca priest whose hobby was reviving dead men. Edward tried to leave the village by swimming across the sea, but he lost consciousness during the attempt. Munyeru tells him that he drowned in the attempt, and was dead for four days until Munyeru revived him. This has made the Death God Ah-mbwa-zovu very angry, and in due course He will come hunting for Edward, beating His drum as He approaches.
This experience has haunted Edward since his return to England; he is convinced that Munyeru did indeed bring him back to life and that the Death God is indeed coming for him, and this has left him a broken man. Haldham is inclined to dismiss the story except for one thing: he himself heard the sound of the drum the evening before from his bedroom above the garage, so he knows it isn't all in Edward's head.
The novel takes an odd turn two-thirds of the way through when Rees introduces a new character out of the blue: Colwin Grey, a lawyer-turned-private investigator and a friend of Haldham who has come to Cornwall looking for him. Haldham tells his story to Grey, who is able to solve the mystery in short order.
Rees went on to write more mystery novels and short stories narrated by Haldham and featuring Colwin Grey. He was a fairly popular writer in his day, but is pretty much forgotten now. I'd never heard of him before reading this story, but it turns out you can read four of his early novels on Project Gutenberg, though The Threshold of Fear isn't one of them. If you're consumed with a sudden desire to read the novel, Amazon has copies starting at $3.97; or you can get this issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (which also has Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann") starting at $10.
BTW, if you're looking at the cover illustration at the top of the post and wondering who the bosomy blonde woman in the strapless gown is, it's not Eleanor Chesworth, who is actually a slim brunette; nor is the Indian with the spear Munyeru, who is actually very old. So who are they? Nobody in particular, really. It was common practice for pulp magazines to have cover art unrelated to the stories; the SF pulps were unusual in using covers that illustrated scenes from the stories.