Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s and Lovecraft’s “Ashes,” first published in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Spoilers ahead.
“It has been your privilege to witness the first successful trial of a preparation that will revolutionize the world.”
Narrator Prague hasn’t met college friend Malcolm Bruce in “a dog’s age” and is shocked to see the usually “dominant, self-reliant figure” haggard and agitated. Wine and cigars steady Bruce to confide he’s just been through “the most devilish, gruesome experience that ever befell a man.”
Bruce asks if Prague knows Arthur Van Allister. Prague does; in fact, when Van Allister resigned from his Chemistry professorship, Prague helped plan the sound-proof laboratory he installed in his home. Since then, Van Allister’s been too busy with his experiments to be chummy.
Bruce, it turns out, has been Van Allister’s lab assistant for the past four months. His coworker was Marjorie Purdy, the Professor’s secretary and frequent lab hand. She was a “strict-attention-to-business” type, as efficient as she was good-looking and with a strong aptitude for chemistry. Working side by side, Bruce and Purdy were soon close friends.
Two months back, Van Allister isolated himself in a private workroom. He told his assistants his experiments would bring him “everlasting fame,” but refused to discuss the exact nature of his efforts. Two days ago, he called Bruce and Purdy in and showed them a bottle of colorless fluid. He poured the liquid into a glass box caging a lab rabbit; it instantly transformed into soft white ashes. Van Allister’s face radiated “ghoulish glee” as he explained how his discovery would revolutionize the world. The colorless preparation reduces to ash all it touches, except glass. Imagine it sealed in glass bombs. Why, a nation so equipped would quickly subjugate the world, or annihilate it!
Back in their own workspace, Purdy collapsed into Bruce’s arms. Her closeness brought his simmering passion to a head, and he kissed her until her eyes reopened, glowing with “lovelight.” They had to separate to return to work, but that evening they gave themselves over to their newfound romance, and Purdy accepted Bruce’s proposal of marriage.
All was bliss in the lab the next day, until Bruce returned from an errand to find Purdy gone. Though her hat and coat were also gone, the servants hadn’t seen her leave the house. As the hours passed, Bruce fretted himself toward panic; when Van Allister summoned him into his workroom, he had to force himself to obey.
Inside he was confronted with a glass box the size and shape of a coffin, filled with colorless liquid. On the table beside it was a glass jar filled with soft white ashes. On a chair in the corner were Purdy’s hat and coat.
Instantly Bruce’s “senses were numbed, [his] soul surcharged with horror,” for he realized the ashes had to be Purdy’s! Maddened with grief and rage, he wrestled with Van Allister. The old professor was surprisingly strong—he forced Bruce inexorably toward the glass coffin. Finally Bruce got hold of the ash-jar and smashed it down on Van Allister’s head, knocking him out. Still impelled by his loss, he lowered Van Allister into his own diabolical device, reducing him to soft white ashes!
Now that Bruce has confessed all, he doesn’t care what action Prague may take; without dear Marjorie, life holds nothing more for him. Prague rouses his friend from sobbing despair with pertinent questions: Is Bruce sure Purdy is dead? Did Van Allister tell him that? No? Bruce attacked before the madman could speak? Then they must go to the Professor’s house at once and search for Purdy!
In the private lab, Prague kicks open the locked door to a storage room. Inside the friends find a huge mahogany chest and inside the chest they find Purdy, unconscious but alive. Revived, she tells how Van Allister bound her hand and foot and told her he had just reduced a dog to the white ash in the glass jar. The only remaining experiment must have a human subject, and he means it to be Bruce, whose sacrifice Purdy must witness. After she fainted, though, he stowed her in the mahogany chest, where imagine her helpless agony! She could only hope Van Alliser would kill her too, for she didn’t know what she would do when Bruce was gone!
The lovers can now rejoice in each other’s safety, but Purdy must still ask in a nervous whisper where Professor Van Allister has gone. Silently Bruce leads her to the workroom and the glass casket. Silently he reaches in and “taking up a handful of the soft, white ashes, [he] let them sift slowly through his fingers!”
What’s Cyclopean: Van Allister radiates “ghoulish glee” at the success of his invention.
The Degenerate Dutch: One gets the distinct impression that Van Allister doesn’t particularly care which army uses his new weapon, and might in fact be quite pleased if it were all of them.
Mythos Making: The most mythosian thing in “Ashes” is the use of the phrase “weird tale.”
Libronomicon: No books this week, though one imagines the selection of journals at that lab must be unusual.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Malcolm Bruce wouldn’t blame Prague for thinking he’s gone crazy.
“Ashes” is, I swear, the most wholesome story we’ve covered in the entire reread. And despite the lightly sketched characters and linear plot, I’m surprisingly okay with that. Malcolm and Marjorie are delightfully modern as they bond over their chemistry experiments. I was nervous for a few pages that Marjorie wearing white rubber gloves was foreshadowing, and she would turn out to be some eldritch abomination secretly feeding off Van Allister’s experiments—but no, Malcolm only mentions these details because he’s goopily in love and thinks everything she does is wonderful. The villainous ex-professor is exactly as villainous as he first appears, his WMDs an excuse for bloodless slaughter, and he gets precisely the comeuppance he deserves. The happy couple fall into each other’s arms, and presumably spend many pleasant years together inventing new molecules.
Of course, the complete lack of twists is kind of an issue from a storytelling perspective. “Everything is exactly as it appears and everything comes out fine in the end” isn’t exactly fodder for cosmic horror. What it does remind me of is the underlying gothic bones of “The Last Test,” Lovecraft’s not-so-successful mythosian revision of Adolphe de Castro’s “A Sacrifice to Science”—both in the plot and in the mad scientist’s determination that someone else should make that titular sacrifice. I like this one better, chiefly because it’s shorter and has more sensible characters, but have to admit that it might’ve been improved by a resurrected Atlantian priest of Nyarlathotep.
“Ashes” is in fact unusual for a Lovecraft collaboration in that Lovecraft’s fingerprints are almost non-existent. No cyclopean flights of description, no awkwardly inserted elder gods, and a distinct lack of serious attempts at mood-setting. Malcolm Bruce announces that he’s just been through “the most devilish, gruesome experience that ever befell a man,” and that Prague may think he’s crazy, a framework that’s opened a good many shocking stories of supernatural and extradimensional horror. But the follow-through is distinctly non-Lovecraftian. At one point our narrator even complains that his own life has been prosaic and uneventful despite his love of the bizarre and dangerous… and by the end of the story this is still essentially true.
Compare with our previous Eddy/Lovecraft collaboration, “The Loved Dead.” That one is equally mundane, if considerably less wholesome, but Lovecraft’s excitable descriptions spill across it like the light of a gibbous moon. Maybe they lost their thesaurus, for “Ashes” is so low on the rugosity scale that it may be on a different scale all together.
What the story is is surprisingly modern, and not only in the geekiness of the central couple. “My evil employer is inventing hellish weapons, but I need a job” – there’s a practical moral dilemma that comes up a lot more often than “should I keep reading this book that eats people?”
“Overwhelmed by threats to humanity, so just gonna squee about my new relationship,” also a thing. I could wish that they were a little faster to sabotage the WMD production, but I wish that sort of thing a lot, and not only in fiction. I’m even willing to forgive Marjorie’s faint, given that it’s under rather more faint-worthy circumstances than many Lovecraft narrators of many genders. And she probably spends a lot of time inhaling dubious chemicals with no proper fume hood; her lungs can’t be in very good shape.
I like the story more than it probably deserves, but what I really want is a sequel in which Marjorie and Malcolm—having invented a cure for narratively convenient fainting—go around investigating mysteries and ridding the countryside of mad scientists through the power of chemistry.
In his edition of Lovecraft’s collaborations, The Horror in the Museum, S. T. Joshi separates the stories into two categories. The “primary revisions” were either largely or wholly written by Lovecraft; the “secondary revisions” Lovecraft “touched up,” more or less extensively. Joshi places his work with close friend and fellow Providence native C. M. Eddy, Jr., among the secondary revisions. “Ashes,” he believes, is the earliest of these tales and probably the one which Lovecraft’s hand touched only lightly. I’d have to agree—if our Howard left any clear fingerprints on Eddy’s prose, I didn’t detect them. It read like classic pulp-era horror to me. Classic second-tier pulp horror, I’m afraid. Maybe even third-tier.
Like Greene’s “Four O’Clock,” “Ashes” strikes me as a story based on an initium (i.e., a plot bunny) vivid or compelling enough in itself but insufficiently developed as a fiction. Greene’s initium, I supposed, was the image of a spectral clock face. Eddy’s initium, I suppose, was the idea of a chemical solvent that would disintegrate all other substances into soft white ash. All other substances, that is, except glass. Because the obvious technical challenge such a solvent would pose is: How the hell would you store it? The moment it was made, it would destroy its vessel! Oops, ah, you didn’t need that beaker, did you? Or that lab table. Or your hand, sorry. The good thing is that when the glass bombs fall, they won’t actually destroy everything. Get some glass umbrellas, people, and you’ll still be around to enjoy the stemware and window panes Doomsday Dunk leaves intact.
Interestingly, it’s glass Lovecraft’s Gunk Out of Space utterly destroys. So much for the common lab containers. Eddy at least makes his scientist’s life easier.
His mad scientist’s. And, as crazed experimentalists go, Professor Van Allister is one of your loopier, right down to his megalomaniac claims of “the greatest chemical discovery ever known,” his “ghoulish glee,” and his utter disregard for consequences, whether on the global scale (potential universal ashification, minus the glass THANK GOD) or the personal level (can I really get away with ashifying my lab assistant when I’ve made sure to procure a witness to the crime? A witness who won’t be any good as a witness if I then ashify her, by the way?)
Oh well. There’s no science in this story, and precious little of its SF-Lite equivalent, a reasonably valiant attempt to fake science, to give one’s fictional theories/inventions a veneer of plausibility. Van Allister has only the broadest features of a chemist: A laboratory, some lab equipment, former tenure at a college. As for his great achievement, the Doomsday Dunk, what’s its critical active ingredient? Make up a lethal agent if you must, give it a likely sounding name, you know, like unobtainium—that one always works. Tell us how you obtained that unobtainium, insane cackling optional. Details are essential to verisimilitude, the more the verisimilitudier. Details are the difference between meh and the chills (however temporary) that suspended disbelief fosters. For an example, see “The Color Out of Space” alluded to above. Or, even better, At the Mountains of Madness.
The science stuff aside, I have problems with behavioral plausibility in “Ashes.” Far as I can tell, Van Allister showed no symptoms of MSS (Mad Scientist Syndrome) before he secluded himself in his new private workroom two months before the bunny-ashification. Note that I’m counting his leaving academia and building a personal lab in his home as symptoms only of ESS (Eccentric Scientist Syndrome.) Narrator Prague thinks well of the Professor prior to Bruce’s shocking account, and who could be a more reliable observer and incisive thinker? Not to mention a better kicker-down of doors, for all his unadventurous lifestyle.
I’d hope smart, no-nonsense Marjorie Purdy would never work for a Mad Scientist; ergo, Van Allister couldn’t become a Mad Scientist until just before the climax. Not that either Purdy and Bruce can pride themselves on character consistency after the lapse from all judgment (practical and ethical) that is their behavior following the bunny ashification. They’re understandably shaken after Van Allister’s demonstration of his Ultimate Weapon, but only until Purdy staggers into Bruce’s arms. Then, quick as the bunny went poof, horniness overcomes consternation, and he’s all over the swooning lady chemist. Okay, so it’s true love as well as horniness. Okay, so Purdy returns his passion—ocular lovelight doesn’t lie, right?
I could allow that the pair, already on the verge of falling, might momentarily counter horror with sex. But to break their clinch only to go back to work until quitting time freed them to clinch some more? To let lovelight blind them to the clear and present danger of a Mad Scientist with a Dunk of Doom? Get a room later, guys! Right now you need to contact the authorities!
Or, if you realize the peril of informing any government about an ultimate weapon, you could try to neutralize Van Allister yourselves. Lock him up in the mahogany chest. Get an alienist from the College to certify him as a nutcase. At minimum, go talk to Prague before things get to the point of homicide by ashification! And to show up at the lab the next day and go about your routine business thinking only of love? For Bruce to leave dearest Marjorie alone with the Mad Scientist—for Purdy to waltz into the Mad Scientist’s lair, thinking nothing of it? Marjorie, remember the BUNNY?
There’s no greater enemy to story integrity than characters acting like idiots to make a contrived plot work. [RE: But where else will they get jobs?]
Taking a deep breath now. It’s nice for Eddy to give us a competent female, with an aptitude for SCIENCE, but then, his mom was involved with the women’s suffrage movement. Too bad Purdy devolves into a pulp-typical heroine, trussed up pending rescue by the heroes.
At least Eddy made me smile by including a glass coffin and mahogany chest reminiscent of his friend Houdini’s props. There would have been a challenge for the escapologist, getting out of the Dunk of Doom before it reduced him to soft, white baby powder!
Miss Purdy, might that love-glare be coming from your nose? Need a touch-up?
Next week, we cover another discovery from Necronomicon: Simon Strantzas’s “Antripu.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.