Monday, June 12, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sorcerer's Jewel

Nowadays, Robert Bloch is best known for his authorship of the 1959 novel, Psycho, memorably made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year. However, Bloch had a long and successful career as a writer of pulp stories, starting "The Feast in the Abbey," which appeared in the January 1935 of Weird Tales. Much of his earliest work is strongly influenced by that of H.P. Lovecraft, whom he considered his mentor and friend. Though the two writers never met, they began a correspondence in 1933 that would last until HPL's death in 1937, when Bloch was only 20 years old.

A great deal of Bloch's Lovecraftian stories could, in charity, be called pastiches. Like August Derleth, whom Bloch did meet (largely because they lived only about 100 miles apart), Bloch's juvenile writings include lots of unnecessary allusions and references to Lovecraft's various alien gods and entities. Bloch was particularly fond of Nyarlathotep, writing several stories that feature the Crawling Chaos or his mortal agents. Flawed though they are, many of these stories nevertheless feature intriguing concepts and situations that provide glimpses into the writer Bloch would one day become.

One Bloch's better early stories in my opinion is "The Sorcerer's Jewel," which first appeared in the February 1939 issue of Strange Stories (which also featured another tale by Bloch, "The Curse of the House," in the same issue). To some degree, that's because the story is only tangentially connected to the Cthulhu Mythos and that gives Bloch some space to develop his own ideas more fully. And while those ideas certainly owe a debt to Lovecraft, notably the short story, "From Beyond," Bloch makes them him own.

The story begins memorably.

By rights, I should not be telling this story. David is the one to tell it, but then, David is dead. Or is he?

That's the thought that haunts me, the dreadful possibility that in some way David Niles is still alive-in some unnatural, unimaginable way alive. That is why I shall tell the story; unburden myself of the onerous weight which is slowly crushing my mind.

David Niles, we soon learn, was a photographer, as well as the roommate of the unnamed narrator. We also learn that Niles was

a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his studies of monstrosities and grotesques are widely known. Niles believed that in fantasy, photography most closely approximated true art. The idea of picturing the abstract fascinated him; the thought that a modern camera could photograph dream worlds and blend fancy with reality seemed intriguing.

This devotion on the part of Niles is why he had chosen the narrator as his roommate: he was a student of metaphysics and the occult and could serve as his "technical advisor" as he quested discover "the soul of fantasy" through photography. Initially, Niles attempts to do this through the use of "photographic makeup" on "models whose features lent themselves to the application of gargoylian disguises." Later, he tries his hand at models crafted from clay and placed in elaborate papier-mâché sets. Both approaches disappoint him.

"I've been on the wrong track," he declared. "If I photograph things as they are, that's all I'm going to get. I build a clay set, and by Heaven, when I photograph it, all I can get is a picture of that clay set – a flat, two-dimensional thing at that. I take a portrait of a man in makeup and my result is a photo of a man in makeup. I can't hope to catch something with the camera that isn't there. The answer is – change the camera. Let the instrument do the work."

Niles then opts for another approach: the use of new camera lenses, some of which he ground himself, hoping that he might be able to see something different through their use. With time, his efforts begin to pay off, producing "startling" results.

"Splendid," he gloated. "It all seems to tie in with the accepted scientific theories, too. Know what I mean? The Einsteinian notions of coexistence; the space-time continuum ideas."

"The Fourth Dimension?" I echoed.

"Exactly. New worlds all around us-within us. Worlds we never dream of exist simultaneously with our own; right here in this spot there are other existences. Other furniture, other people, perhaps. And other physical laws. New forms, new color."

"That sounds metaphysical to me, rather than scientific," I observed. "You're speaking of the Astral Plane-the continuous linkage of existence."

Being "a skeptic, a materialist, and, above all, a scientist," Niles is quite dismissive of the narrator's occult notions, calling them "the psychological lies of dementia praecox victims." This raises the narrator's hackles. He launches first into a discussion of "crystal-gazing," the means by which "men have peered into the depths of precious stones, gazed through polished, specially cut and ground glasses, and seen new worlds." He even attempts to back up his claims by reference to the laws of optics, stating that "the phenomenon of sight has very little to do with either actual perception or the true laws of light."

The narrator offers to prove his point to Niles by visiting his friend, Isaac Voorden who has "some Egyptian crystals" once used seers for divination purposes. He proposes to then have Niles gaze into the crystals himself, where he might see things "you and your scientific ideas won't so readily explain." Unexpectedly, Niles agrees to this proposition. 

The next day, the narrator visits his Voorden's antiques shop, where he had also collected "statuettes, talismans, fetishes and other paraphernalia of wizardry." After explaining what he wanted and why, Voorden admit that he had a stone that "should prove eminently suitable."

The Star of Sechmet. Very ancient, but not costly. Stolen from the crown of the Lioness-headed Goddess during a Roman invasion of Egypt. It was carried to Rome and placed in the vestal girdle of the High-Priestess of Diana. The barbarians took it, cut the jewel into a round stone. The black centuries swallowed it.

"But it is known that Axenos the Elder bathed it in the red, yellow and blue flames, and sought to employ it as a Philosopher's Stone. With it he was reputed to have seen beyond the Veil and commanded the Gnomes, the Sylphs, the Salamanders, and the Undines. It formed part of the collection of Gilles De Rais, and he was said to have visioned within its depths the concept of Homonculus. It disappeared again, but a monograph I have mentions it as forming part of the secret collection of the Count St. Germain during his ritual services in Paris. I bought it in Amsterdam from a Russian priest whose eyes had been burned out by little gray brother Rasputin. He claimed to have divinated with it and foretold –"

I broke in again at this point. "You will cut the stone so that it may be used as a photographic lens, then," I repeated. "And when shall I have it?"

The Star of Sechmet is "the Sorcerer's Jewel" of the title and, unsurprisingly, it works every bit as well as the narrator had hoped and indeed more so – as David Niles soon finds out at the cost of his sanity and his life. 

Since I've included a link to the entire text of the story, I won't say any more about its plot. I doubt anyone familiar with this type of horror tale will be surprised by anything that occurs, but I think Bloch presents it in a compelling and enjoyable way. As I have written many times before in this space, originality is often overvalued, especially when compared to execution. I've reached the point in my life where I am rarely impressed by mere novelty and care far more about the skill with which a familiar story or concept is employed. By that criterion, "The Sorcerer's Jewel" is well worth a read. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting the Pulp Fantasy series. You’ve introduced me to a number of authors and stories I otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of.