THE CRIMSON BLIGHT Arthur J Burks
Does anybody have a problem with this premise... a mad scientist who unleashes a terrible threat on the world is actually a surviving Cro-Magnon, thousands of years old. (Mentioning Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, Shablitz scoffs, "He was a child -- if he existed. I am an old man.") We are informed that "the Cro-Magnons were the most intellectual people who ever inhabited the Earth", but they were unfortunately exterminated. "It is too bad.. that the brutish Neanderthals saw fit to destroy the Cro-Magnon. They succeeded because of their vastly greater numbers -- and because the Cro-Magnon realized, as they realized everything, that they were fully twelve thousand years ahead of their time. Perhaps more."
Eh? I dunno, does it sound like the author got something mixed up there?! In any case, THE CRIMSON BLIGHT by Arthur J Burks is a lively if confused horror story that appeared in serial form in THRILLING ADVENTURES from January to March 1933. It's not particularly well written, full of choppy sentences that seem dropped in out of place from other stories and there are a number of moments that just don't make sense no matter how I interpret them. I get the feeling it took about as long to write this story as it takes to read it, so the general effect is listening to someone hysterically telling you about what a bad day they had over the phone.
On the other hand, the story has a good solid premise and it does have some scary images. In the Dominican Republic, a strange character named Dr Felix Shablitz either creates or unleashes a weird red substance which flows out of a cave and devours every living thing in its path, growing and expanding rapidly. Whether you're thinking of the Blob or Bill Cosby's Chicken Heart, this is a basic nightmare that works well in horror stories -- the mindless, ameba-like monster that can't be stopped.
The tale is feverishly narrated by a Marine second lieutenant who takes it upon himself to save the world from being engulfed by the red horror. His plan is to order an airtight suit of armor with oxygen supply air-dropped, so that he can wade through the seven foot high mist into the cave where he thinks (with no real basis) that Shablitz is still active and directing the monster's activity. Good luck, old man.
The story has some neat moments of uneasy disgust as the flood of crimson smuck wipes out acres of sugar cane and digests every person and animal it can catch. It seems clear it will soon cover the entire island and keep spreading out into the ocean, until the entire globe is red. The Marines throw a few grenades with no result and give up in dismay. What? Hey, how about trying a flame thrower or some Molotov cocktails on the monster? For that matter, grab a sample in a jar on a long pole and do some basic tests on whatever it's made out of. Maybe it's vulnerable to some poison or acid. No, they just run in horror. Before it's all over, the red flood is chasing battleships at sea and engulfing them.
Toward the very end, I lost all track of what was going on. Apparently, the red mist was actually composed of incredibly tiny miscroscopic particles of life (finer than protoplasm0 which was storing information about all the life forms it digested. Due to the Marine's meddling, it started reconstituting gigantic hairy ogres, dinosaurs and sea serpents which the surviving islanders and servicemen then have to fight. Then there are the recent victims, which reform as living beings but without their skeletons. So they're just bags of flesh flopping around. What a mess.
There's a certain amount of the casual racism taken for granted in pulp stories of the time, as the Marine is assigned to evaluate the Haitians and determine "how many were voodooists, how many were the usual nitwits and how many had a modicum of brains" and as the worried Haitians throw two young women to the monster as a hopefully propitiatory sacrifice. Then we have an interesting insight into human nature as, when faced with a lava-like mass of gunk that's eating everything in sight, "Young girls grew hysterical and ripped their clothing from their bodies to run naked along the roads and streets and alleys -- and nobody so much as noticed." You know, I haven't observed this sort of activity in all the cable news coverage of the various disasters which have been happening. Evidently CNN has a lot of good footage they're not sharing with us.
Arthur J. Burks (1898-1974) was a former Marine officer who started selling stories to WEIRD TALES in 1924 and then turned out thousands of yarns to every conceivable pulp on just about every subject. I don't know if there's any way to begin to find out who was the most prolific pulp writers of the 1930s and 1940s, considering all the house names and pseudonyms used, but Burks logically should be a strong contender for the title. On the other hand, it doesn't mean the stuff he cranked out by the bucketful was any good.
Burks founded the American Fiction Guild ("Fictioneers") and there's a mention of this pulpster group in Russell Millers's BARE-FACED MESSIAH (which is surprisingly available on the Web): http://www.clambake.org/archive/books/bfm/bfm04.htm
"A few days later, [Frank] Gruber took Ron [L. Ron Hubbard] along to Rosoff's restaurant on 43rd Street, where members of the American Fiction Guild met for lunch every Friday. Most of the successful pulp writers in New York were members of the Guild and most of them gathered at Rosoff's at lunchtime on Fridays. They were names familiar to millions of pulp readers: Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage; George Bruce, acknowledged ace of battle-in-the-air yarns; Norvell Page, who was said to earn $500 a month for his stories in THE SPIDER; and Theodore Tinsley, a regular contributor to BLACK MASK. President of the Guild was Arthur J. Burks, who had been dubbed "King of the Pulps" in a NEW YORKER profile and quoted as saying that any pulp writer who did not make at least $400 a month was not worth his salt. It was a remark that was to cause him considerable embarrassment, for it was common knowledge in the Guild that Burks never earned that much, despite turning out around two hundred thousand words every month."
Raise your hand if you would like to go back in time every Friday night and have a few drinks at that table, listening to these guys grumble about their editors, swap story ideas and generally throw the bull around!