Review: “The Black Statue”, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, 1937.
This week’s bit of weird fiction being talked about at LibraryThing is unusually rational because it’s a piece of weird science fiction. It’s also very concerned with money which is also unusual.
And it’s another weird fiction story delving into the psychology of one of the occupations most featured in weird stories. Two of them are scientists and scholars.
Our narrator is in the third group. She’s an artist, specifically a sculptor.
The story is narrated by her though she never gives us her name. [Update: In a very bad bit of inattention, I thought the narrator was a woman. It is, in fact, a man — hence Kennicott later calling him “old man”.]
The story is told as a letter sent to the directors of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
And, right from the third paragraph, we get a sense of where this story is going:
In these days I have thought often of suicide as a way out – a coward’s way, leaving me the fame I do not deserve. But since receiving your cablegram, lauding me for what I am not and never could be, I am determined to write this letter for the world to read. It will explain everything. And having written it, I shall then atone for my sin in (to you, perhaps) a horribly ironic manner but (to me) one that is most fitting.
Her account begins in the hallway of the “filthy hovel” where she lives, a rented room in the house of Mrs. Bates’ rooming house. It’s a place for those like her who are “too proud to go on relief” even though it’s the middle of the Great Depression.
Mrs. Bates is hassling a shabbily dressed but handsome young man. He can’t pay his rent of two dollars, and Mrs. Bates could care less that he promises her four dollars at the end of the week. (As a bit of trivia, that’s rent of $37.07 in today’s money if the story is set in 1937.)
For some reason, the sculptor feels sorry for him and pays Bates with her last two dollars.
The man is gratefully – in a very enthusiastic way — calling the narrator “old man” and promises her a $2,000 check next week.
His boyish manners and looks lead the sculptor to his identity. He’s Paul Kennicott, famous aviator. But he’s supposed to be dead along with his co-pilot. They both disappeared in the Brazilian wilds.
So, why is Kennicott alive and sneaking around in New York City with no money?
The narrator doesn’t tell Kennicott she knows his identity. She just goes back to her room, but she hears a loud buzzing sound. She opens the door to her room and sees Kennicott carrying an odd box up to his room, and the buzzing is coming from it.
In his room, she confronts him. She knows who he is, and she wants to know why he’s sneaking about. She also heads off the wrath of Bates when she claims the sound is coming from her radio and that she’ll shut off. No radios when Mrs. Bates is paying the electric bill.
Thankful, Kennicott muffles the box with some pillows and tells his story.
After crashing in the Brazilian jungle, he and his co-pilot McCrea were separated.
After hearing some droning noise that sounded like an electric dynamo, he came across what was left of McCrea. He, and much of the jungle around him, had been petrified, turned into a black stone, indestructible but of very light weight.
And the cause of it all was “a star-shaped blob of transparent jelly”. It petrified what it touched. It’s the thing in the box making the noise.
Kennicott worked out the rules for when the blob petrifies things. In weird fiction, menacing creatures and objects are not usually discussed in terms of how much money they could make. Given the potential for using this petrification power, Kennicott is right in saying it could be worth billions of dollars.
Kennicott tells the narrator he’s got to make the right contacts before making his discovery public. Why people would kill to possess something like this. “Don’t you see?” he asks.
Oh, the sculptor sees:
in my mind – dark ugly thoughts, ebbing and flowing to the sound of that ‘I – n n – n n g – n n g!’ that filled the shabby room.
She knows Kennicott is right, but, naturally, she thinks like a sculptor. The blob would be the ultimate tool for a sculptor.
Kennicott may be picking up on some of this when he offers, if she keeps her mouth shut, to build her the studio of her wildest dreams.
Yes, we can see where this is going. But it’s probably not inevitable yet.
Until he asks, I’ll build up your fame as – what are you? . . . Some kind of an artist?”
Some kind of an artist! Perhaps if he had not said that, flaying my crushed pride and ambition to the quick, I would never have done the awful thing I did. But black jealousy rose in my soul – jealousy of this eager young man who could walk out into the streets now with his achievement and make the world bow at his feet, while I in my own field was no more to the public than what he had called me: ‘some kind of an artist’. At that moment I knew precisely what I wanted to do.
And so she does. She pretends not to believe Kennicott, demands a demonstration, and brings Kennicott into deadly contact with the blob.
Since Kennicott has helpfully told her how to use the blob, she goes on to petrify others and gain fame.
And, as we expected, she commits suicide by petrification at story’s end. (Don’t worry. She takes care of the blob too.)
The plot seems predictable, but it isn’t until that fateful remark by Kennicott.
We also have the not unusual combination of insecurity and egotism in an artist.
She opens the story by saying she justifying her crimes with peculiar psychology typical of the artist. At story’s beginning, she says
Greed for money and acclaim, weariness with poverty and the contempt of my inferiors, hatred for a world that refused to see any merit in my work
Yet, we have no evidence for any artistic achievements before she comes across the petrification trick. What merit was there in her work? Even she doesn’t tell us.
Maybe she wasn’t a good sculptor or even mediocre. But, if Kennicott would have at least acknowledged the most basic specifics of her art, he might have lived to get his billions.
Counselman, incidentally, was a popular contributor to Weird Tales and, on the basis of this story, I can see why.