I picked up this anthology because it has two of my favorite authors in it.
One is, of course, Mark Samuels, which means this story gets its own post. David Hambling’s story will get its own post too. The rest of the anthology will be covered later.
Review: “Death in All Its Ripeness”, Mark Samuels, 2020.
Death is, indeed, ripe in this story.
It’s the autumn of 1936, the last autumn of Lovecraft’s life.
Lovecraft is revising Mrs. Renshaw’s Well-Bred Speech in the late hours. It isn’t just the infelicities of Renshaw’s style that is tiring Lovecraft. It’s his strained eyes and, above all else, his poverty, a specter he tries to keep from distracting him.
A few days later a respite seems possible when a package arrives in the mail from one Ezekiel Nantwich. Inside is $200 and some fanmail. Well, not really, not after Lovecraft reads the letter.
While he’s flattered by the attention, he is not amused by Ezekiel’s claim that, with Lovecraft’s help, he can write a “true occult book”. At least Ezekiel knows the Necronomicon isn’t a real book. Lovecraft, ponders telling Nantwich he should turn his aesthetic attention to weird fiction rather than writing occult works. Being an honest gentleman, he sends the money back to Ezekiel since Lovecraft won’t commit to the project.
The next scene is with Ezekiel, and we quickly learn he’s an unpleasant man. He lives on a farm where he beats his bedridden father, steals money from his father’s mattress, and drinks a lot.
Ezekiel goes to the country store of Joshua Corwin. After Ezekiel picks up his letter from Lovecraft and an issue of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, Corwin, who doesn’t think much of Ezekiel or his reading choices, asks if Ezekiel has a penpal. Ezekiel tells him to “stick to your Bible fairy tales”.
Nantwich gets home where we see 150 pages of a manuscript called The Animal Truth. He thinks Lovecraft is insane for returning the money. In his letter, Lovecraft’s tells Ezekiel he appreciates the offer, but he can’t work on a “seriously intended work of occultism”. In fact, he’s worked with Houidini and also worked on his friend Clifford Martin Eddy’s The Cancer of Superstition. However, Lovecraft would be happy to look at a sample of Ezekiel’s work on a non-collaborative, non-renumerative basis.
He also asks if Ezekiel has ever considered writing fiction. Ezekiel pulls some carbon copies of some sample chapters of his book.
Next, we see Lovecraft, a week later, receiving those grubby carbon copies, and they smell of liquor.
The accompanying letter says Lovecraft doesn’t understand, and Ezekiel is a little mad Lovecraft returned the money.
I’m telling you this could be big for both of us. . . . Read what I’ve written. It’ll change your mind. Then tell me you’re sorry and that you’re willing to work with me after all.
Lovecraft finds the manuscript “outright egomania and untrammelled vanity” like some people he’s known in the amateur press. It concerns
’case studies’ of vicious wild animals living in the woods who gradually began influencing cattle on a local farm, warning them of the dangers of domestication and encouraging them towards malign actions against their masters.
The creatures are anthropomorphized and malevolent. Ezekiel gives no proof of his case studies and says the animals are supposedly exiled familiars left to their own devices after “historically suppressed witch-trials”. His style is “ungrammatical, confused, repetitive, and riddled with innumberable – and very basic – spelling errors.”
Lovecraft thinks it’s a prank. For Ezekiel to send such a thing to as stranger shows “serious organic derangement in its author”. Lovecraft will return the manuscript without comment, and that should be the end of it.
We then switch to Ezekiel who is prowling the woods all night “becoming one with the primal power of hate”. He chews dirt and smears himself with it, goes on all fours, and howls. He kills whatever he meets. “Not to think, not to pity, not to hesitate in one’s actions; only to kill, to fulfil the innermost purpose of everything.” He wants the universe to collapse “into a great coalescence of mutual terror and ultimate destruction”.
When he returns to the family farmhouse, he smells something bad coming from his father’s room. Entering the room, he asks his “pa” how he feels. It’s obvious his father is dead, and the unsympathetic Ezekiel says, “Ya, better not be fooling me.”
He props his father’s body up. He’s not going to report his death. He has no other relatives, and his mother hasn’t been talked about for years. Then he gets an old copy of Home Brew magazine out to read its Lovecraft serial “Grewsome Tales” (better known as “Herbert West: Reanimator”. He’s the boss now and doesn’t have to work anymore.
Then it’s back to Lovecraft. It’s 1 AM, and the phone is ringing. Lovecraft wonders who could possibly be calling at such an unsociable hour. Even after his friend Two-Gun Bob died last July, he got the news by letter,
It turns out to be Ezekiel who says
Callin’ from the farm. My pa wants to speak to ya. Says it’s right ya ain’t choosin’ to work for me. I’ll put him on the line. Ya can straighten him out afore I put him back down . . . .
Lovecraft responds, “Please don’t attempt to contact me again” and hangs up.
The next scene is with Sheriff Barnabas Dudley driving to the Nantwich farm. Corwin asked him to visit it, but Dudley’s put it off for a few days. He doesn’t like interfering in people’s business, and “old Corwin” is suspicious of everyone in a 20 mile radius.
However, there was that “very bad business” on the farm 30 years ago. Nothing was proved against the elder Nantwich, Enoch, but Dudley is still sure there’s something not quite right about that man. In 1906, Enoch decided his wife Bethany was a witch “who talked – and did certain other things – with the wild animals in the woods.” Not long after Ezekiel was born, Bethany’s body was found hanging from a tree five miles north of the Nantwich place. It was said she went mad after Ezekiel’s birth and “eyed the child in a furtive way”.
The farm was searched and some strange things found: bundled sticks in human shapes (shades of Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks”) with most having some kind of hieroglyphics on them but others had names. Some thought Enoch planted them to bolster his accusations against his wife.
After Bethany was buried, “wild, crazy talk” started about her being seen after dark with a crooked neck, climbing up and down trees, and “consorting with animals”.
The Sheriff before Dudley, Job Cooke, drank a lot but told Dudley some stories. It wasn’t Bethany’s hung body that disturbed Cooke. It was something that happened 20 miles away from there. Somebody dug up Bethany’s grave and poured kerosene on her body. The cemetery watchman said it wasn’t the first time the grave had been disturbed.
At the Nantwich farm, after receiving no answer to his hails, Dudley goes inside the house, the “stench of death” is present. He finds two dead bodies, Ezekiel’s and Enoch’s. There are signs of some kind of struggle, and they obviously didn’t die at the same time.
Scattered on the floor are pages from Ezekiel’s book, many bloodstained. It talks of “talking animals, devil-worship, and the rage of nature”. In Ezekiel’s room, he finds stick figures, and there’s a bloody pentagram on the wall. One of the stick figures has the name “Enoch” on it. Another stick figure has a torn label ending with “craft”. Dudley pockets that one.
Dudley is so disgusted he torches the place. It’s in such a remote area, no one will notice. Dudley thinks Ezekiel was his mothers’s “wicked triumph in posterity”.
The final scene is with Lovecraft. With the autumn ending, Lovecraft, with his sensitivity to cold weather, dreads the coming winter.
His hand is scratched up from a cat that attacked him outside the house even though Lovecraft is usually able to “strike up a rapport with any feline”.
Suddenly he feels a “pang of grippe” and unwell. It is, of course, the cancer that will kill him in March 1937. The last line is poignant foreshadowing and delivered as the reposing Lovecraft notices the heat has finally been turned on: “Doubtless an easily distracted janitor had finally noticed the lateness of the season.”
This is an ok story. What happened in that farmhouse is unclear, but it seems Bethany returned to kill her son (perhaps the spawn of some unnatural liasion she had) and the husband who probably killed her. But why the seeming attack, via the vicious cat who we are supposed to think may be a familiar, on Lovecraft? For not publishing Ezekiel’s account of the true nature of the world? If it is an attack, is it Bethany’s or Ezekiel’s. And why the reason for Ezekiel’s strange call? And where did the bundled sticks come from? From Bethany or was it Enoch? Maybe he did dabble in witchcraft.
There may be another interpretation of what happened in the farmhouse if Enoch really was a witch. Perhaps he came back from the dead, labelled those sticks with Lovecraft’s name, and somehow killed his son. Maybe he really was on the phone call to Lovecraft.
Ezekiel is depicted as, at heart, a person closer to the sort of murderous beasts he talks about in his book. Perhaps it’s a case of “blood will tell”. His yearning for death and “ultimate destruction” and the “triumph over all the muddleheaded talk of ‘civilisations’” provides a juxtaposition to the gentlemany and civilized Lovecraft and adds to the funereal air of Lovecraft’s impending death.
Mostly, though, I think Samuels mostly wanted to do an affectionate story, with some horror, about Lovecraft and his last days.