Friday, October 28, 2016

Forgotten Novellas: Murgunstrumm - Hugh B. Cave


I usually try to read something creepy for the Friday closest to Halloween, and Hugh B. Cave's novella MURGUNSTRUMM certainly qualifies. It's arguably Cave's most famous story, has been reprinted numerous times, and serves as the lead story in the World Fantasy Award-winning collection MURGUNSTRUMM AND OTHERS.

Originally published in the January 1933 issue of the pulp STRANGE TALES OF MYSTERY AND TERROR, with a cover by H.W. Wesso based on the story, MURGUNSTRUMM is different right from the start. It begins after the point when most horror stories from that era end, with the protagonist, Paul Hill, locked away in an insane asylum because he's witnessed something so hideous, so horrifying, that it's blasted his mind to bits.

Or has it? Unlike the largely ineffectual protagonists in stories by other famous authors (*cough* Lovecraft *cough*), Paul knows that, yeah, he's seen something pretty bad, but he's not nuts, and more importantly to him, neither is his fianceé Ruth, who has also been committed to an asylum. And he's going to do something about it. With the help of Ruth's brother, he escapes, then sets off to the small backwoods town of Rehobeth, near the Gray Toad Inn, where the dreadful incident that resulted in their being committed took place. Taking along his future father-in-law's husky chauffeur, he lures the two doctors who signed the commitment papers to the village, takes them prisoner, and forces them to accompany him to the sinister inn, which is run by the deformed title character, Murgunstrumm. Paul's plan is to force the doctors to see that he and Ruth aren't crazy, so they'll have to intercede and get her released. But once they get inside the inn, they can't get out again, and then bad things happen . . .

The pace never really lets up for very long in this yarn, and the atmosphere is hot, sweaty, and terrifying from beginning to end. MURGUNSTRUMM is pure blood and thunder, as grotesque as many a more modern yarn, and to my mind, at least, even better because it also has that wonderful headlong sense of pulp action. I haven't read the rest of the collection yet, but I know it's good because Cave never disappoints. He was one of those rare authors who could write anything, and write all of it extremely well. If you're looking for a great horror tale to read on Halloween, look no further than MURGUNSTRUMM.


14 comments:

Keith West said...

I've got both the original collection from Carcosa but the ebook version. I tried to read this story on my phone a few years ago. The problem was I never had more than a minute or so at a time, and sometimes those minutes had a day or more between them. I need to go back and finish it.

I love the Wesso illustration. Thanks for including it.

Todd Mason said...

One of those volumes I wished I could afford as a young horror fan...maybe I'll stumble across a library discard eventually...didn't love Cave's shudder pulp, as opposed to real horror such as this, but have been meaning to give his1950s historical fiction a try.

Barry Traylor said...

Love that story as I do just about everything I've ever read by Hugh B. Cave. Not only do I have this issue I also have the Carcossa Press edition called Murgunstrumm and Others. Wonderful book.

Barry Traylor said...

Forgot to mention that I was able to get one of the subscriber copes with the signed book plate from my friend and pulp dealer Par Excellence Richard Minter.

Anonymous said...

Hugh B. Cave placed stories in Black Mask, Astounding, Adventure, and Weird Tales.

I believe this is a feat unequaled by any other pulpster.

I don't think Cave was anywhere near the greatest author to come out of the pulps, but he might well be seen as the ultimate pulp professional-- able to write any kind of story well enough to hit the absolute top markets for each genre.

John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

Cave sold stories to WESTERN STORY, too, so he hit the top magazine in that market as well. E. Hoffmann Price sold to ADVENTURE, BLACK MASK, and WEIRD TALES but didn't hit ASTOUNDING or WESTERN STORY. He did sell to DIME WESTERN, though, and a case could be made that it was the top Western pulp instead of WESTERN STORY. So he came close but didn't equal Cave's achievement.

Walker Martin said...

Also, I've seen Hugh Cave's stories in the slick magazines.

S. Craig Zahler said...

Murgunstrumm is a terrific story, though perhaps the resolution is too clean and abrupt, but the rest of that issue of Strange Tales is poor---featuring the two of the worst RE Howard and CA Smith stories that I've ever read, and I'm a fan of both authors, particularly CAS.
The thing about Hugh B. Cave is that what I've read of his always exceeded expectations and evinced a different level of thinking and playing with convention---in vampirism alone, he told standout weird menace (dime mystery), horror, and weird tales.

Sai S said...

I don't disagree with the assessment of Hugh Cave's ability to reach different markets, but let's not forget the prodigious H. Bedford-Jones who appeared in Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book, Short Stories, People's, Detective Fiction Weekly, Weird Tales, Western Story among others. I can't remember any science fiction, but there's an impressive roll call of top-tier fiction magazines....

James Reasoner said...

Bedford-Jones might be my pick for the top pulpster of all time. But Frederick Faust and Erle Stanley Gardner belong in that discussion, too. I think those three are a notch above Cave, but I wouldn't want to live on the difference. Heck, I'll just read 'em all.

S. Craig Zahler said...

I think that any discussion of top pulpsters should include Edgar Rice Burroughs and Norvell W. Page. Both were prodigious and passionate talents and worked across many genres and -- insofar as what I've read -- both were always turning out entertaining if not really good stuff. The force of their personalities and the electricity of their prose and the overall creativity on display in the works of these authors makes them my top two picks for best pulpster.

Donald Wandrei certainly wrote many genres excellently--horror, mystery, science fiction, crime--but his output is not comparable to these two.

Clark Ashton Smith, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Harold Lamb, and HP Lovecraft are the best at what they did, but stayed in their genres for the most part (fantasy/quasi sci-fi, science fiction, adventure, and horror, respectively). Max Brand (Frederick Faust) is the master of westerns, but I've not read enough of his non-western stuff by him to know his versatility--I didn't care for the Kildare I read at all. H. Bedford Jones wrote a staggering amount of material, but most of his material that I've read was not memorable (admittedly this a small nugget compared to the continent of words that issue from HBJ). I did relish The Seal of John Solomon from him.

James Reasoner said...

ERB definitely belongs in any discussion about the top pulpsters. I wouldn't rank Page quite that high, but close. He was really, really good. I've never read much by Wandrei, and I really ought to.

Burroughs, Faust, and Gardner probably had the most successful careers overall, what with all the hardback, paperback, movie and TV sales after their time in the pulps was over.

We haven't mentioned Robert E. Howard yet, but he had the potential to be one of the best ever if he had lived longer and written for another 15 or 20 years. He would have been great at paperback originals for Gold Medal during the Fifties.

Morgan Holmes said...

Karl Edward Wagner used "Murgunstrumm" as his template for LEGION OF THE SHADOWS, his Bran Mak Morn pastiche. Read or reread that now that you have read "Murgunstrumm."

James Reasoner said...

Morgan,
I wasn't aware of that. I read LEGION FROM THE SHADOWS many years ago but have no real memory of it, so I've ordered a copy and will read it again. Thanks for the suggestion.