“Where the Summer Ends”

The menace is something unique in this week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Where the Summer Ends”, Karl Edward Wagner, 1980.

The setting is Wagner’s hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee. Wagner gives us the South in its hot, humid summer days. In particular, he vividly and verdantly recreates the portion of town around the local univerisity with its rundown buildings, student apartment made out of converted Victorian and Edwardian, and, particularly the many vacant, kudzu-covered vacant lots around Grand Avenue which have not even been rebuilt after the buildings have disappeared from them.

Protagonist Mercer, part-time art student and part-time construction worker, wants a mahogeny mantle from junk and antiques dealer Gradie. Gradie lives on Grand Avenue, an old time resident after all the other buildings were abandoned. 

In fact, Gradie made money on the decline of the neighborhood. He would make a deal with the city for salvage rights for anything in the abandoned buildings and his partner Morny would do the actual demolition. Often, a fire would mysteriously burn down the structure before its demolition was complete. The city seemed to tacitly go along with this arson by Gradie and Morny. 

But Morny is gone now. His body was found, dead, under the kudzu of a vacant lot. His skin looked like somebody had tried to flay it. Mercer has befriended Gradie in the hopes of talking Gradie down in price on the mantle. Gradie may be old, but he is keenly aware when somebody is interested in something and won’t reduce the price. 

Morny lives with girlfriend Linda who is also his nude model on occasion. One afternoon, Linda feels nervous during a nude modeling session. Mercer’s setup is lit by the sun, but the geometry of the building’s roof and the street means no one can really see Linda apart from Mercer. Still, she senses something is watching. The kudzu climbing the building’s back wall also makes her uneasy.

On that hot summer day, they leave to visit Gradie.

They see some of Gradie’s most treasured positions, items he brought back from the Pacific Theater in WWII and his time in the Occupation of Japan. One item is a peculiar skull labeled, implausibly, as the skull of a Japanese general. Gradie says the Japanese who sold it to him told him it was actually the skull of a tengu, a mountain demon. 

While they are there, something scuttles out of the kudzu and frightens Linda badly. It’s a stange looking rat which Gradie blasts with a shotgun.

Linda and Mercer leave. Gradie isn’t going to go down in price on the mantle. Mercer notices that Gradie has been drinking heavily lately. And, leaving, Mercer stumbles, in the kudzu, over Sheriff, Gradie’s dog who recently disappeared. 

Weirdly, Gradie calls Mercer that night. He’ll sell the mantle. The price will be reduced from $150 to $50, but he needs the money that night because he’s leaving town in the morning. Mercer doesn’t have a truck to haul it in, so, when he arrives, he pays Gradie the money and borrows his truck. 

Linda helps him hall the mantle into the house. Nervous about being at left alone at home around the kudzu, she goes back with Mercer. 

They become alarmed when they don’t see Gradie. They do see three skulls in Gradie’s kitchen, all similar to the Jap General’s. One still has flesh on it and has a label: “Unknown Animal Skull. Found by Fred Morny on Grand Ave. Knoxville, Tenn. 1976.” In a boiling pot is another such skull, its flesh being boiled off. 

They find Gradie in a bedroom, his skin flayed like Morny’s, and something blasted against the wall by both barrells of Gradie’s shotguns.

(Spoilers ahead)

Gradie talks about “little green devils”, clever as people. They live under the kudzu. They live off its roots and by scavenging. They nurture the kudzu. 

When kudzu was brought over from Japan (supposedly as erosion control for road cuts), the devils came with it. They’re taking over the abandoned lots, multiplying more in the city than in the wilds of Japan.

They realized Gradie was on to them, and that’s why they killed him. 

Gradie dies, and Linda and Mercer flee back to Gradie’s trucks. 

Its tires are chewed up and useless. They decide to get in it and run it on the rims. And, then, hundreds of the devils emerge from the kudzu. The last line is “Mercer fired twice”, a nice call back to a statement in the story’s sixth paragraph about the two-shot .357 Magnum derringer Mercer carries for use against muggers. Of course, it proves to be useless in the end. 

This is a well-done modern twist on a Machen-like little people menace as in his “The Red Hand” and “The Shining Pyramid”, the “Novel of the Black Seal” in The Three Impostors, or, for that matter, Wagner’s own “.220 Swift”. The tengus are not a prehistoric survival, but, like the kudzu, an invasive species. But, in a sense, like Machen’s little people, they are creatures of the wasteland but not in rural areas but in the “waste-lots” of the city, a menace out of sight in the modern world.

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