This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Bells of Horror”, Henry Kuttner, 1939.
This is a fairly good bit of Lovecraftian fiction from Kuttner.
He uses a typical Lovecraft structure. Our narrator opens by mentioning a weird event then gives the back story of what led up to it and concludes with a not all surprising event. (Sometimes Lovecraft managed to surprise with his last lines, sometimes not.)
Our weird event is the recovery – and then deliberate destruction soon afterwards – of the “lost bells of Mission San Xavier”. They were rung once, after vanishing for more than a 150 years, and “an unpleasant blackness . . . shrouded San Xavier” then. That’s our hook.
The bells were lost until Arthur Todd, a friend of our narrator Ross, finds them hidden in a cave. Todd is head of the California Historical Society; Ross is its secretary. With the bells was a carving warning “Let no man hang the evil bells of the Mutsunes” . . . lest the terror of the night rise again in Nueva California”. The Mutsunes were Indian shamans who helped cast the bells and may have put a curse on them.
Todd asks Ross to come and help him get the bells out of the cave. So, Ross takes a drive.
A local guide Todd has sent to town to guide Ross isn’t keen on going back to the cave. He just gives Ross the directions.
On the way, Ross notes how gloomy and cold the weather is.
On the trail up, he also comes on a strange sight: a toad rubbing one of its eyes out on a rock. Ross notes his eyes are awful itchy too. Perhaps it’s a fungus in the area.
Later, still on the trail, a Mexican comes screaming down the trail. His eyes are gouged out too.
Then Todd and Denton, Todd’s assistant, show up. They were following the Mexican who was helping them with the bells. The Mexican is dead, having slammed his brains out after colliding with a tree in a blinded state.
Shortly, two other laborers come racing down the ill past the three men.
Denton translates a parchment found with the bells. It says that the one time the bells were rang an evil demon named Zu-che-quon appeared and brought a black night and a cold death. It warns whomever finds the bells not to ring them. They should be sent to Rome.
The trio walk down to a cabin that was rented by them for a base. They find another of Todd’s laborers ringing the bells. He comes to a bad end when the bells break free of the rope he suspended them on, and his head is smashed.
The bells are brought back to Los Angeles. They’re going to be rang again in two weeks.
The three men discuss the odd irritation of their eyes in the mountains where the bells were found.
Denton, not as skeptical about a possible curse, heads to the library to look at the blasphemous Book of Iod. He finds reference to a Zushakon in it. He can be summoned from under the Earth before it dies and the stars fade. He brings darkness and death. He can even show up during an eclipse.
Some arguments go on between Todd and Denton about the relevance of all this.
All of a sudden, an earthquake occurs. It’s ringing those bells which were being hung.
A great darkness falls as everything shakes apart. The men make their way to the mission with the bells. All the while, the narrator feels the urge to claw his eyes out, a voice whispering in his head “Why do you need eyes? Blackness is better”.
They do manage to stop the bells ringing, but Todd is a broken man. He is horrified by the voice in his head that told him to put the other two’s eyes and then his.
Denton speculates that the bells awakened Zushakon.
The story concludes with an eclipse two months later. Ross gets an anxious call from Todd. He’s feeling Zushakon’s power again.
Ross rushes to Todd’s house to find him dead, with empty eye-sockets “and the crimson-stained thumbs of Arthur Todd”.
I liked a couple of things about this story. First, Kuttner used a location besides New England. Second, I liked how the gloom and cold are not some sort of background detail symbolizing menace but are actual manifestations of that menace’s existence.
I also liked the whole eye-gouging thing, and I wonder if Kuttner was inspired by Clark Ashton’s Smith’s “The Dweller in the Gulf” from 1933.