Pulp Cult: The Lovecraftian Horror Of Henry Kuttner
Winter’s here. The Ransom Note office is punctuated by our merry seasonal soundtrack of weak snivels and gurgling chest wheeze. Now we’re staring into the bleak abyss stretching from October to March, we’ve realised a cold hard fact; with the pound officially on course to achieving parity with the Lira, no one’s going on holiday anywhere hot anytime soon. We need to find some cost-free ways to fill those long dark nights and sharpish.
Let me offer you a suggestion dear reader! Over the last year I’ve been binging on pulp short story collections, hunting down things such as Pan’s classic Horror compendiums* and 60s anthologies of android tales. There’s loads of weird old gold out there in charity shops and bargain bins, and with a bit of cross referencing I’ve established three things 1) a whole load of these stories are drawn from the classic American pulp magazines (the likes of Weird Tales), 2) the authors are generally superb weirdos with wildly prolific outputs, and 3) there’s a growing Youtube community devoted to turning many of these stories into audio books.
So over the winter months I’m going to share the finest of these finds, a mini library of podcasts dealing with the fantastical, the terrific and the macabre – they’re designed for listening to as the night draws in, an insulation against appalling TV schedules filled with reality nonsense – and why would you want reality TV when reality is so bland? Close the curtains, light the candles (yep, you’re saving on electric as well), shut off the heating to get that crypt chill, pour the Lidl wine and settle in for some cheap thrills…
First off is some superbly ghoulish action from Henry Kuttner. Kuttner is generally considered an unfairly ignored master. Before his premature death aged 44, Kuttner, along with his wife and fellow author CL Moore, spent the years between 1936 and ‘58 crafting a body of pulp classics. Writing for magazines and low grade publishers, they churned out hard-boiled detective novels, prescient sci-fi thrillers, overblown sword & sorcery fantasy, the occasional Green Lantern comic, and creeping Lovecraftian horror. Some of the duos work is kitsch and silly, some of it is bleakly dystopian, and some of it is plain horrific – and the best of this category reads like the ‘30s equivalent of an ‘80s slasher flick.
This brings us to our first treat; The Graveyard Rats.
The Graveyard Rats was Kuttner’s first published story, written before he’d started his long creative partnership with CL Moore. It’s a gloriously grim tale told with relish, and has remained in print since first appearing in 1936. Setting his action in the Lovecraft indebted surroundings of Salem, the tale follows a grave robbing cemetery caretaker who finds himself competing with rats to harvest the fruit of his dread garden. It starts nasty, ramps up quickly, and ends in true gruesome style. I was delighted to find a great telling of the story from one Edward E. French, a Hollywood prosthetic artist who appears to have started moonlighting as an ominous voiced storyteller in the mould of the late great Valentine Dyall – we’re definitely going to be visiting French’s channel again in later months.
As a piece of amusing trivia, the Graveyard Rats was also used as the basis for one of the segments of 90s made for TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror II – it’s the first story on, I haven’t watched it yet, but a quick click through leads me to suspect it’s a load of old bollocks, but feel free to give it a spin and tell me if I’m wrong:
As a bonus, here’s another decently read tale from Kuttner’s pen – an unashamed slice of Lovecraft mythos (Kuttner was corresponding with Lovecraft at the time of writing), The Secret Life of Kralitz is more about chilly atmospherics than intricate plot. It's little surprise that you can see the ending coming a mile off, but the journey to inevitable horror pay off is enjoyable all the same, with Kuttner’s lurid descriptions of a subterranean bacchanal – “a hell that held high carnival tonight” – coming complete with descriptions of goblets being filled by creatures that resemble a ‘skinned child’.
Unfortunately, of Kuttner’s sci-fi that has ended up on Youtube, the stories are either crap lesser works that scrape the pulp barrel, or good stories read by useless hacks with no sense of pacing. The worst example of this being William ‘Captain Kirk’ Shatner butchering Mimsy Were the Borogoves. I dunno, maybe you’ll like it – it’s here if you want a check – to me it sounds like he’s barely cogniscent of the meaning of the words as he reads em. Ideally I’d love to see a version of the Kuttner/ Moore tale Those Among Us make it online – it’s a story of slippery identity in a world filling with artificial intelligence, and it predates Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep by over a decade – I found a copy on the fairly decent anthology The Pseudo People– yours for only 65p…
More action coming soon…. [insert Tales From the Crypt cackle here]