Short Reviews – The Devils of Po Sung, by Bassett Morgan

Friday , 4, August 2017 7 Comments

The Devils of Po Sung by Bassett Morgan appeared in the December 1927 issue of Weird Tales and was the featured Weird Story Reprint in the March 1939 issue. A scanned pdf of this issue can be found here at Luminist.org.

I’ll admit, at first I had a bit of a tough time getting into The Devils of Po Sung. The florid narrative prose was challenge enough, but every character (except for the devil mongrel Chinaman, ironically enough) speaks in very thick vernacular and/or pidgin. The story begins a bit clunky and actually hits a lot of the notes and “tropes that the pulps were known for” – remarkable because this is really the first I’ve encountered it – I almost gave up on this one. But I’m really glad I didn’t, and once this story hit its stride, I could see why they chose to reprint it.

Captain McTeague is a trader in skins and pearls from Papua.  Papua’s full of evil shamans, debbil-debbils, head-hunters, and worse, but money is money and there’s plenty to be made by a man brave enough to deal with it all. A wicked tribal warlord-slash-witchman named Tukmoo had been known for having the best pearl lagoon in Papua, but suddenly he’s out of the picture, the pearl supply has started to dry up, and McTeague wants to know why. At the suggestion of the Chinese middleman the old shaman uses, McTeague goes down the coast to seek out Tukmoo only to be caught in a storm and then chased by a ship belonging to the one man more dreadful than Tukmoo: Po Sung.

“McTeague knew as much as any other man about Po Sung. He was a Mongolian tainted with the worst of other strains of heritage. He spoke excellent English, was suave in company of Europeans and had so huge a grasp of trade that he was a valued confidant of port merchants and diplomats for some years while he perfected his own sovereignty in hidden realms of wealth. Po Sung was like a giant octopus with tentacles reaching to every compass point. Now that he was growing old he had brazenly disdained the guise of decency and his true colors, secure from vengeance in some backwater shelter where he devised and executed his schemes unmolested.”

McTeague anchors his schooner in a lagoon to make repairs; ominous drums in the jungle communicate his arrival. The next morning, Tukmoo shows up in all of his tribal splendor:

“Tukmoo wore a necklace of pearls as large as his finger ends, strung between human incisor teeth. He was plumed and painted, covered from forehead to heel with blue lace of tattooing beaded with cicatrices. A scarlet loin-cloth supported a club knobbed with human knuckle-bones. The forty paddles stabbed the water as one, and McTeague was wondering (since there are but two in a set) how many incisor teeth went into that necklace, when Tukmoo reached the deck, and planted his prehensile-toed feet firmly, demanded in fairly fluent pidgin-English, strong drink.”

It turns out that the lagoon McTeague sought shelter in is where Tukmoo set up shop after being driven out of his previous domain. Po Sung ran out Tukmoo and his tribe with magics and devils more powerful than even the tribal sorcerer could conjure. Worse, Po Sung has Tukmoo’s son and Tukmoo is working tortures on his son’s betrothed to make magics to fight Po Sung’s devils (but “Not enough to injure her comeliness, because if she is not killed for a debbil feast, [he] will sell her to a big-bellied Chinese trader.”) McTeague convinces Tukmoo that “she will prove a help to [their] magic if she were told she will be taken with [them] so that her liver, hot with love for [Tukmoo’s] son Tawa, will smell out the place where he is kept prisoner.” Tukmoo is fine with this arrangement and so sends McTeague along with his cabin-boy and the girl to go find Po Sung.

On the way, they’re waylaid by strange talking animals, apes and mugger crocodiles, and fight their way out. Eventually they reach Po Sung’s hide-out. Po-Sung himself is sort of a mix of Fu Manchu and Dr. Moreau. He’s bred a variety of orchid to be carnivorous and uses them for guarding his house. Playing the role of consummate host, Po Sung makes sure McTeague is well treated and cared for as he’s shown the wonders of Po Sung’s horrors. He’s been sticking human brains into animals and feeding the bodies to his orchids. The talking ape McTeague shot? Tukmoo’s son. It’s fine, though, because Tawa will be reunited with his love if he survived the gunshot, because Po Sung has stuck the brain of his fiancé into an ape. And McTeague’s in luck, because Po Sung has spared no expense in procuring a fine Orangutan specimen to stick his brain in.

After some menace and horrors, the plans of Po Sung are eventually laid to waste by his own creations; jungle apes attack his compound and start killing everyone, and McTeague is carried out of the carnage by Tawa’s ape-ified bride. McTeague is feted by Tukmoo for having dealt with Po Sung, but McTeague just wishes he could forget all that he saw.

So, interesting bits:

There is magic; McTeague has bits of sorcery and juju that could ostensibly aid him. Some of it is clearly stated to be “parlor tricks” and includes, among other things, black powder, fuses and caps, but it’s referred to in the story and by the characters as magic. This is part of how the lines of science and sorcery are blended in weird fiction.

Po Sung is presented as something of both sorcerer and mad scientist. He’s been doing some serious GMO botany, for one thing, but he has a pervasive mystic evil about him; yeah, he’s doing mad science, but he’s more akin to a necromancer than your typical mad scientist.

There are some similarities to the Isle of Doctor Moreau, namely talking animals and the ending where they kill everybody, but it’s also an “into the heart of darkness” type story, literally going up the river towards evil, and Po Sung, the most outwardly civilized despite his “mongrel heritage”, is shown to be a class of evil beyond even Tukmoo, “who punished infidelity of women by having them devour facial features of their lovers uncooked and sliced from the living victim,” who could be, if not excused, explained as just being a savage and superstitious native.

The Devils of Po Sung is a nightmarish, bloody and brutal tale. It would probably surprise you that it was written by a woman. Despite being having published a few novels, selling to several magazines and even landing two Weird Tales cover stories (Black Bagheela and The Wolf-Woman), Bassett Morgan is not a name that I see come up often in discussions about the pulps or women in science fiction. South Seas adventure horror SF with lots of blood & guts seems to be her thing (Jo March if she’d stuck with penny-dreadfuls?!), so if that’s up your alley, you definitely need to check her out.

7 Comments
    • Alex says:

      Yeah, when I was writing this, that was about the only thing I could find anybody had written about her!

    • deuce says:

      I was sincerely shocked to find that Terence Hanley at Tellers of Weird Tales — who’s usually totally ace on these things — still doesn’t have a dedicated post on Morgan. He’s a dogged cataloguer and investigator who goes the extra mile. An odd lapse.

  • JonM says:

    The keepers of pulp history never let an opportunity go by to remind us that women were always portrayed as a helpless victim or luggage to be rescued in these stories. But here you are giving us yet another example of a woman – the woman the hero set out to rescue in fact – pulling the ostensible hero’s fat from the fire. Granted, she’s stuck in an ape body at the time, but still…the narrative takes yet another body blow here.

  • Ostar says:

    Hey -are you ever going to get to Manly Wade Wellman?

  • There’s been quite a bit of coverage of Wellman’s Silver John stories here:

    http://puppyofthemonth.blogspot.com/search/label/Manly%20Wade%20Wellman

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *