Robert Bloch is best known for “Psycho”, of which a movie and a thousand imitations and memes were made. But he was also a staple of science fiction, weird fiction, and crime pulps.
I’ve read one of his crime pulps before, a smug little “you didn’t really think it was vampires” whodunnit for a more mainstream detective pulp. Now it’s time to give him a second chance–this time in the realm of the strange and the weird.
August 1939’s Strange Stories had two tales from Robert Bloch. “Pink Elephants” under his own name, and, as was common when an author had multiple stories in the same issue, “Flowers From the Moon” (hosted, among other places, at SFFAudio) under a pseudonym.
So, picking the less ridiculous-sounding title, I’m reading “Flowers From the Moon”, a tale of space travel…
Hopefully, this won’t be another shaggy dog story.
In the opening, Terry begins the tale racing in his car towards where a great aluminum spaceship is about to land. There, the doors open, and he is reunited with Edna Jackson, his love. Their meeting is interrupted by what is left of Terry’s rival, now a madman.
In a bestial rage, Charles rips the throat out of a nearby reporter. The captain of the ship shoots Charles, throws the beast man’s body into Terry’s car, and commands him to drive.
Once in the safety of the expedition’s lab, the captain starts telling his story. It was a smooth flight to the Moon, almost perfect, until they discovered strange flowers on the surface. Flowers that they brought back with them to Earth.
The scent is hypnotic, entrancing Terry to the point where his breathing matches a strange pulsing from the flowers. Then a baying howl rips through the lab, and the wolf that was Charles attacks and kills Edna’s father.
The pharmacological effects of the flowers turn men into beasts, and Charles isn’t the only member of the crew to fall under their effect. The Captain falls under their sway, and two wolves now menace Terry and Edna.
The poor doomed couple barricades themselves in a room, unable to leave without getting attacked. This standoff cannot last long, for Terry knows he is changing too. The story is a last confession before the final horror.
Well, that opening sure caught my attention. True to Lester Dent’s formula, Terry starts out in a heap of trouble, with strong indications of more coming. And the stakes escalate in roughly quarters, although “Flowers From the Moon”, like many a weird tale, relies more heavily on exposition than action to build its story.
From the previous story, I expected a purely naturalistic explanation for the weirdness at hand. Sure enough, Bloch’s description of how the flowers caused bestial changes in humans is almost mechanical. However, the uncaring mechanics of chemistry only add to the Gothic-styled horror. When Bloch plays the weird things straight, he’s effective and chilling. The horror is magnified by the twist at the end. And the clever mix of folklore and science is complementary and believable.
From a prose standpoint, Bloch is eminently readable and frantic. Rather than gilding the vocabulary, Bloch uses rhythm and short sentences to heighten the unease. It’s a subtle trick, but one later writers will abuse.
With this story, Bloch offers science horror without the stiltedness expected from the more mainstream science fiction of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Perhaps I’ll try “Pink Elephants” after all.