“Black Bargain”

This week’s subject of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Black Bargain”, Robert Bloch, 1942. 

This is an interesting story from a period when the modern weird tale with urban settings was starting to evolve. 

While this is a Cthulhu Mythos story by virtue of witchcraft and mention of Bloch’s own addition to the blasphemous tomes of the Mythos  – De Verimis Mysteriis, it starts out in a soda shop with the complaints of the narrator. He’s observant and catalogs all the annoying types of customers that come in and their routines and what they order. The job annoys him not only because of the customers, but because he is a trained pharmacist and the place sells drugs, but no one ever comes in and orders drugs. Bloch is known for his occasional humor, and the story has various sarcastic comments from the narrator.

One night a milquetoast of a man comes in at closing time. He looks like a bum, and the narrator is initially not going to take his request. When the man requests actonite, the narrator is reluctant thinking the man is suicidal. Not for the last time, the man says he knows what the narrator is thinking. He’s just a chemist looking to get supplies for an experiment.

The narrator is is very surprised when the man pulls out a book and goes through a list of stuff he wants including candles (which he says need to be meltable to combine with fat). The narrator thinks the man is crazy, an occultist. The man asks for the purchase to be put on a charge account that he will pay in three days. 

The narrator decides to “Let him have his dreams”. When he tells the man that would be fine because “We’re all down on our luck some time”, the man becomes angry at the suggestion he’s a charity case. The pharmacist will be paid in three days. 

That night, walking home, the narrator ponders which of the houses around contain a man doing occult sacrifices. 

Four days later, the man does show up. He’s totally different, well-groomed and dressed expensively and now with an air of command about him. Feeling genial, the narrator asks him if his prayers were answered. The man haughtily tells him there were no prayers involved, the narrator misunderstood his purposes. He performed an experiment, and it was a “howling success”. 

The man offers to repay his loan of $2.39 – if the narrator can break a $20 bill. The narrator can’t and tells the man to keep it. The man suggests they go out to dinner at a bar. 

After a few rounds, tongues are loosened, and the narrator even buys a round. The man, whose named is Gulther, just got a job as an assistant research director at Newsohm, a local chemical supply hourse. The man announces he intends on advancing quickly and far there in the next few months. 

The narrator says he’s amazed. In Gulther’s shoes, the narrator would just be thinking of his good luck. Luck had nothing to do with it, says Gulther. It was the culmination of a project he had been working on for a year-and-a-half. 

The narrator says, “When you came into the store I said to myself, ‘Here’s a guy who’s been through hell’!” Yes, he has, replies Gulther. 

The narrator wants to know what kind of magic Gulther used. Gulther insists he knows nothing about magic. Then what about the book, the narrator asks? Gulther says it was just an old German work on inorganic chemistry. 

Gulther begins to babble about everything he’s going to do with the money he’ll make and how he’ll pay back all those people who laughted at him when he was poor. He likes the narrator and offers him a job, since he knows something of chemistry, as his secretary at Newsohm. 

Just then the narrator notices something odd about Gulther’s shadow in the bar. It stands over a seated Gulther. It’s larger and blacker than the narrator’s shadow. And, when Gulther gestures, it doesn’t move its arms. 

“’Say, Gulther,’ I said. ‘Your shadow-here on the wall- ‘

“I slurred my words. My eyes were blurred.

“But I felt his attitude pierce my consciousness below the alcohol.

“Fritz Gulther rose to his feet and then shoved a dead-white face against mine. He didn’t look at his shadow. He looked at me, through me, at some horror behind my face, my thoughts, my brain. He looked at me, and into some private hell of his own.

“’Shadow,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my shadow. You’re mistaken. Remember that, you’re mistaken. And if you ever mention it again, I’ll bash your skull in.’

And, with that, the volatile Gulther leaves. 

Two days later the narrator is working at the drug store, cursing himself for drunkenly angering Gulther. Then Gulther walks in and apologizes. The drink and sudden success went to his head. He’s had people accuse him of dabbling in witchcraft before, and the narrator’s suggestion angered hin. 

He asks for the narrator to prepare a sedative for him. As he prepares it, the narrator takes a close look at Gulther’s shadow again. It’s cast parallel to the seated Gulher, croaching on the floor. It’s also evenly black all around it, not diffuse at the edges like a normal shadow. And Gulther is looking at it too. He knows it’s odd. 

Gulther offers the narrator the job again and asks him to stop by his office tomorrow. 

“’Certainly.’ And why not? After all, what if you do work for a boss with an unnatural shadow? Most bosses have other faults, worse ones and more concrete. That shadow-whatever it was and whatever was wrong with it-wouldn’t bite me. Though Gulther acted as though it might bite him.” 

The next day the narrator goes to Gulther’s richly appointed office and sees that old book on his desk. He takes a peek at it when Gulther is gone. It’s Die Vermis Mysteriis. Describing the narrator’s reactions on reading some of it, Bloch lapses into somewhat Lovecraftian prose: 

“I won’t say whether or not I believed what I was reading, but I will admit that there was an air, a suggestion about those cold, deliberate directions for traffic with alien evil, which made me shiver with repulsion. Such thoughts have no place in sanity, even as fantasy. And if this is what Gulther had done with the materials, he’d bought himself for $2.39.” 

Gulther shows up the, but he’s not the confident Gulther but the milquetoast Gulther. And he looks like a man afraid of his own shadow. 

Seeing the narrator reading the book, Gulther says maybe it’s time the narrator knew the truth.  Gulther made a bargain with someone: 

“I thought I was being smart. He promised me success, and wealth, anything I wanted, on only one condition. Those damned conditions; you always read about them and you always forget, because they sound so foolish! He told me that I’d have only one rival, and that this rival would be a part of myself. It would grow with my success.” 

Gulther’s shadow is that rival. Every success of Gulther makes the shadow grow, makes it more palable. Gulther took the sedative last night. It didn’t work. He spent the night watching his shadow, a black blur in the darkness, that seemed waiting for something. But what? Gulther doesn’t want the narrator to really be his secretary. He wants him to be his nurse. The narrator says Gulther doesn’t need a nurse, just a rest. But Gulther says his secretaries look at him funny as if they notice his shadow. His boss, who just promoted him to head of research, doesn’t seem to. But every success like that makes Gulther’s shadow grow stronger. (I wonder if Bloch was thinking of Jung’s idea of anima.) 

The narrator tells Gulther to lay down, and he’ll be back. Before he goes, the narrator is tempted to touch Gulther’s shadow, but he doesn’t. It seems too black, too solid, and what if his hand encountered “something”? 

(Spoilers ahead)

The narrator returns with some morphine and injects Gulther. The narrator watches Gulther’s shadow as Gulther sleeps. It stands and paces. 

The phone rings and what sounds like a beautiful woman says she will accept Gulther’s invitation to dinner – another success of Gulther’s. Then the narrator notices Gulther’s shadow seems to be lightening. But Gulther’s face is getting darker, “shadowy”.

Gulther wakes up. The narrator, in a mirror, shows Gulther that his skin is now the color of slate. The narrator suggests that, using the book again, Gulther could make another bargain. Gulther agrees and sends the narrator to his drugstore for material. Gulther starts to look “nebulous, shimmery”. 

The narrator returns with materials: 

“Candles, chalk, phosphorus, aconite, belladonna, and-blame it on my hysteria-the dead body of an alley-cat I decoyed behind the store.” 

But the volatile Gulther has changed again. He’s the commanding Gulther again with normal looking skin. Gulther says he was being foolish, “men don’t make bargains with demons”, and “we don’t need that junk after all.” Gulther suggests they just forget his earlier confessions. After all, things are going great. Gulther will be running the company in three months. If the narrator sticks with him, he’ll go far. 

But the narrator is still uneasy. Then he realizes why. This Gulther casts no shadow at all. As with all his versions, Gulther immediately realizes what the narrator is thinking and pulls a revolver out of his pocket. 

The narrator dives for him. They wrestle for the gun. 

“His body was cold, curiously weightless, but filled with a slithering strength. I felt myself go limp under those icy, scrabbling talons, but as I gazed into those two dark pools of hate that were his eyes, fear and desperation lent me aid.”

The narrator shoots Gulther in the chest. Hearing the shot, other people enter the room. But there is no body, just clothes and shoes in the shape of Gulther’s body. One of the girls points out a shadow. It seems to move under Gulther’s fingers and slithers away.

It’s not much of a Mythos story, but it is an interesting deal-with-the-devil/demons story that is modern in flavor.

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