Review Copy by H. H. Holmes from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949
A mysterious magician meets with a client, a writer who blames the failure of his book on a particularly scathing review written by one Mark Mallow. He hires the magician to kill him, through means satanic.
On the other side of the country, the San Francisco Times book department receives an unsolicited manuscript, a book called The Blood is the Death. The head editor declares it trash, and the receptionist puts it in the “do not review” pile. And yet, when the next person comes in, a reviewer of Christian books who the receptionist calls The Reverend, he finds the book on the waiting pile. He complains about how poorly printed it is – the ink smudges on his hand.
He’s complaining about this when Mark Mallow himself walks in. He immediately translates the pen name on the book – Hieronymus Melanchton – as being the Greek version of Jerome Blackland, the man whose book he’d trashed. He decides to take the book with him, but when he touches it, the ink comes off on his hand, and this time it’s red.
He takes it home with him anyway. Something about it draws him. As he begins to read it on the subway home, the other passengers seem to edge away.
The Reverend also can’t get the book out of his head. He’s eating dinner when it turns from black to red, and then disappears entirely. Immediately, he heads for Mallow’s house with a vial of holy water. When he gets there, it’s too late. Mallow is dead.
The story closes with the mysterious magician attending his client’s funeral. It’s only professional courtesy, after all.
This is a thoroughly engaging story. The writing is good, with a lot of atmosphere and a bit of a comedic edge, particularly the character descriptions. The Reverend is notable in this respect for being described as an unmarried clergyman who is “not so much a misogynist as a gynophobe,” a line which made me laugh in public. There are a lot of funny lines, actually. The humor is pretty understated, but it works, and it keeps the plot from being too much of a slog.
The premise is pretty original as well – take your paint-by-numbers “playing with powers you can’t understand” story and make it about books? That’s so fun! It’s not something I’ve seen anyone else do. It’s relatable, too, at least to me. As writerly-type, well, let’s say that the sting of rejection is something I’m familiar with, so the madman’s motivations make sense to me, and on the other hand, I do actively look forward to terrible stories so that I have material to work with on this blog.
Unfortunately, a good premise can’t save a stale plot, and this is still that paint-by-numbers “playing with powers you can’t understand” story. I could call it beat for beat. I don’t know if this was played out in 1949, but it definately is now. The characters are one-note archetypes whose attributes we are told about rather than shown. The telling is witty and clever, but it doesn’t make the characters any less flat. Plus, the whole thing has this undercurrent of preachiness which just drives me bonkers.
On the other hand, it has a decently written female character. She’s underdeveloped, but all of the characters are, and she has the most personality out of any of them. She’s not oversexualized or dismissed as a shrewish bitch – she’s just a businesslike-but-quirky receptionist! So that was refreshing.
Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta
I don’t hate this story – I enjoyed reading it! – but I think it was probably a lot more interesting in 1949 than it is in 2017. I hope saying that doesn’t get me cursed!
Edit: Turns out, H. H. Holmes is here a pen name, using the name of a famous serial killer active during the Chicago World’s Fair! Clever.