Forgotten Book: The Opener of the Way by Robert Block (1945 and 1976)

Many options, some very pricey, exist for purchasing Robert Bloch's The Opener of the Way

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 186th in my series of Forgotten Books.

Like most readers, I go through phases where I binge on certain types of books and try to collect them in various editions. One of my longer manias involved Arkham House books. I went through several stages where I wanted the words to all their titles or I wanted nice collectible copies of all their volumes. That path, I can assure, you will lead to destitution and madness. That would particularly be true now if you are starting your collection now and do not have really deep, deep pockets.

Back when I was looking at the Arkham House titles, they were expensive. And, while I work with accounting and money and the like, I have never been one to let my better judgment stand in the way of something I want. Well, not quite true. In 1973, I was offered a presentation copy of Lewis Carroll’s Phantasmagoria for a mere $150. At the time, I was working maybe 20 hours a week, for less than $2 per hour while attending school. That $150 price tag represented close to two months take-home pay for me. I was barely able to stay in school and feed myself at the time, so I had to let it go. But that potential purchase always remains back in my thoughts. What might have happened? What might have happened was that I would have lost my apartment, been unable to pay my bills and I would have had to sell the book, along with many other nice things, in order to keep a roof over my head, my car running and food on the table.

That book was THE ONE that got away.

I have had many fine things over the years, but Arkhams were always one thing I loved. I once convinced a bookstore to order the entire available Arkham catalog and tried to buy them one at a time for a while. They were only $4 or $5 each at the time, but even then, I had trouble getting them paid for. It caused some stress in my relationship with the bookstore.

Arkham, for those who have made it this far and don’t really know what I am talking about, is a specialty publisher, that started as a venue for August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to publish a memorial volume for H. P. Lovecraft, since no commercial publisher was interested. They launched the enterprise with The Outsider and Others in 1939. They soon also published more Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, along with Robert E. Howard’s amazing Skullface and Others. They did the first books of many fine writers of the weird, fantastic and horrible. People like Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Seabury Quinn, William Hope Hodgson and Robert Bloch. Their volumes are wonderful, filled with stories only available to those with a fantastic pulp magazine collection and deep pockets. My first Arkham book was The House on the Borderland and Other Stories by Hodgson, which reprinted the title novel and three others. I ran across Hodgson through Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series and loved his work.

Over the years, I acquired several Arkham House books, some like the Hodgson expensive, others like Lord Kelvin’s Machine by James P. Blaylock not nearly so much. But I never had The Opener of the Way by Robert Bloch, which was published in 1945. It was Bloch’s first book.

For several titles, such as the massive Clark Ashton Smith volumes, I got the British publisher Neville Spearman’s 1970’s reprints. Sure, you had to order them from England and it took forever and the postage was expensive, but CAS was worth it. Spearman did The Opener of the Way in 1974 but I missed it. Again, funds were a big reason.

In 1976, British publisher Panther released the massive collection in two paperback volumes, The Opener of the Way and The House of the Hatchet. Last year, I got the first of those volumes, not realizing it did not contain all of the hardcover title. And that is what I read this week.

This volume contains ten stories from the hardcover edition, including the title story, “Beetles,” “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” and “The Fiddler’s Fee,” all stories I really liked. They suffer slightly from being together, as many of the stories contain that final line that serves as a “Gotcha!” with the Ripper story being a superb example. Others you could see coming.

I like Robert Bloch’s work. About 6 months ago I reviewed his novel The Will to Kill here and it was great. This volume holds up reasonably well. It does represent early work by Bloch who matured as he wrote more.

Those who want the whole volume can get the Arkham House volume (starting in the $400 + range on up to a price with a comma in it), the Neville Spearman edition ($30 to $750), the two paperbacks (between $10 and $20 each) or The Early Fears by Bloch (Fedogan and Bremer, 1993), which reprints all of Opener (except the introduction) and Pleasant Dreams, another early collection.

Go forth and collect.

Series organizer Patti Abbott usually hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

Cocktail Hour: Smoke Ghost (inspired by Fritz Leiber’s short story of the same name)

The Smoke Ghost cocktail brings a touch of smoke to the Manhattan.

Although best known for his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery series, many horror fans get their first exposure to Fritz Leiber via his oft-anthologized short story “Smoke Ghost.”

First appearing in the October 1941 issue of Unknown Worlds, “Smoke Ghost” is noteworthy as one of the first works to shift the ghost tale away from the drafty mansions and castles of 19th Century Gothic fiction. Its title apparition could only manifest amid the filth, violence and alienation of a large, modern city.

On his way home via a commuter train, neurotic businessman Catesby Wran spots an amorphous black shape lurking among the urban rooftops and smokestacks he passes. Soon, the sighting becomes an obsession, and Wran fears the shape — an embodiment of all that is dirty and frightening about the modern world — is pursuing him, attempting to taint him with its grime.

As the story unfolds, Wran finds physical evidence of his haunting, mostly in the form of soot he believes the ghost leaves behind. Although the reader is left wondering whether anything supernatural is actually taking place, we understand how Wran interprets it as the residue of “the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and Fascist wars.”

The leap is easy to follow because Leiber’s prose taps so perfectly into Wran’s paranoia. The story’s language is not evocative of the bumps and drips of the previous century’s ghost tales but of the hard, gritty prose of noir detective fiction. By emphasizes the setting’s filth and seediness, Leiber taps into his protagonist’s fear of the grim, grimy century in which he finds himself.

The opening page of "Smoke Ghost" as it appeared in Unknown Worlds.

It’s easy to see how “Smoke Ghost” left an imprint on horror works that followed — from Ramsey Campbell to the darker urban fantasy writers. A raft of movies from “Dark City” to “The Machinist” also seem to owe it a heavy debt.

“Smoke Ghost” is a landmark in the evolution of modern horror — and one worthy of raising a glass to. In its honor, this week’s cocktail introduces the element of smoke to one of the most iconic of urban cocktails, the Manhattan.

Smoke Ghost

2 1/2 oz Smoky Whiskey, such as Ranger Creek Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey
3/4 oz Red Sweet Vermouth
1 hefty dash Angostura Bitters
1 Maraschino Cherry

Combine whiskey, vermouth and bitters with a few ice cubes in a mixing glass. Stir gently until the mixture is chilled. Put the cherry in the bottom of a chilled coupe glass and strain the mixed drink into the glass.

 

Forgotten Book: Earthbound by Richard Matheson (1982)

Spooky, erotic stuff lies inside the covers of Richard Matheson's Earthbound.

This is the 164th in my series of Forgotten Books.

All of you should know the work of Richard Matheson, particularly at this time of year. His work for The Twilight Zone alone is enough to make him a demi-god. Then there were his wonderful movies, adapting Edgar Allan Poe and others like Fritz Leiber, which he and Charles Beaumont, another demi-god, adapted in Burn, Witch, Burn. I reviewed that film several years ago. If you have not seen it, you should.

But, beyond those wonderful cinematic things, there is the literary Richard Matheson. First it was the short stories. The collections Born of Man and Woman, Shock!, Shock II, Shock III, Shock Waves, Shock 4 and The Shores of Space are treasures beyond measure. The signed Collected Stories by Richard Matheson is one of the core books of my library. It was expensive but worth every penny I spent.

Then there are the novels. You must have read some of them – I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, his war novel The Beardless Warriors, the amazing Hell House, Bid Time Return and What Dreams May Come, among many others. If you have not read these books, put down this column and go find them. Get any copy you can. It won’t matter. You will fall in love with the stories, with the printed word and with the mind of the Master.

I met RM only one time, at a World Fantasy Convention in Arizona. We didn’t talk long. It would have been embarrassing because I would have blithered like an idiot. We talked about a mutual friend Chad Oliver and RM spoke fondly of Chad’s days in California. Then he was gone, and I was still alive after being in his presence.

Not many writers affect me like that. But Matheson was a personal hero and I went all fanboy.

To this book now.

Earthbound is an overlooked Matheson title. It was originally published by Playboy Press under the pseudonym Logan Swanson in an uninspired looking paperback edition. Very few people saw it. In 1989, a small press in the UK, Robinson Publishing, presented the work in a hardcover edition bearing Matheson’s name and a creepy cover that was not given an artist credit.

Earthbound's original, far less exciting cover.

I had this book for a long time and decided that since this was Halloween week, I might as well read the master. What a quick, wild read. David and Ellen are a California couple whose marriage is in serious trouble. David has had an affair and been caught. He loves Ellen, in his way, but they have been married more than 20 years. Their kids are grown and gone. They are about to be grandparents and David is feeling mortality.

They decide to go on a second honeymoon back to the small town where they originally honeymooned. But their original cottage is gone to a fire, so they take another one nearby. They visit some of the same places, order the same meals but something is just not right.

Then David meets Marianna, a free spirit who wants nothing more than wild sex and depravity. When David succumbs to her temptations he feels excitement, guilt, lust, enervation and more. David immediately resents the liaison and vows to be faithful to Ellen. But Marianna is persuasive.

The novel moves between erotic thriller into erotic horror with astounding ease and makes twists and turns you don’t see coming (or at least I didn’t), leading to violent confrontation and resolution.

It’s short, vicious and packs a mean punch. Just like a Richard Matheson novel should.

Again, Halloween is a couple of days away. Enjoy your favorite horrors and candy and films. Scare yourself.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.