Title: The Skull of the Marquis de Sade
Author: Robert Bloch
Published: 1976, Corgi (Originally published 1965)
I bought this 1976 Corgi edition from Instagram bookseller P. G. Bloodhouse. Highly recommended for your classic horror, crime, suspense and thriller needs!
Sometimes it’s as though a title of a book or short story calls out to you, imploring you to read it immediately. It’s sometimes quite hard to know why this happens, but this collection of Robert Bloch’s short stories spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s did just that to me a few years ago. The title of the collection provides a fantastic sense of unease from the get-go – we already know that we’re going to be reading about the exhumed skull of one of history’s most cruel and deviant libertines, without even having to turn a page.
Unfortunately, I was mostly disappointed by the title story. Whilst it’s exactly what you might expect from a story entitled “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”, Bloch ultimately negates all the creepiness and black humour in the story by using some silly and underwhelming imagery at the conclusion of the tale. Maybe I’m missing something, as I did read this story over seventy years after it was originally published, and what may seem silly now could well have been horrifying in 1945… but then again I’ve read many Gothic and horror stories from the early 1900’s and 1800’s that still have the power to terrify.
I was also disappointed to find that many of the stories here use a similar, almost non-sequitur revelation at the end of the narrative. I’ve read elsewhere that these are sometimes referred to as “O. Henry Stories” – O. Henry being an American writer who frequently used surprise endings in his tales. The worst stories for these kinds of shock endings were “The Bogey Man will Get You”, “The Devil’s Ticket” and “The Man Who Knew Women” – though that’s not necessarily to say all of these stories were not enjoyable to read. “The Man Who Knew Women” was a fun story which concerns a con-man who preys on middle-aged, desperate woman who happen to have very healthy bank accounts, and “The Devil’s Ticket” – one of my favourites from the collection – is the tale of a painter who strikes a deal with a mysterious old pawn-shop owner in exchange for fame and riches. It’s a well-known horror story trope, but it’s done well by Bloch here. Some of the scariest sections of the whole collection are from “The Devil’s Ticket”:
“[Vane] noted, with sudden, inexplicable horror, the way the old man’s hands had begun to twitch and dart forward over the counter. His fingers were like long yellow talons, and they rasped across the wood outstretched as though avid to grasp, to clutch, to possess. […] Behind the withered yellow mask of a smile Vane could sense a dreadful hunger that was more than mortal hunger – a yearning, a consuming desire to take that which must not be taken, to receive that which should not be given.”
I found this to be a really effective piece of horror writing: even though the reader is more than likely highly aware of the fact this old pawn-shop owner is none other than the Devil himself and that poor old Vane has risked his soul for money and power, Bloch still manages to create a sense of sublime unease within this clichéd narrative device.
Sadly, I felt like the bad outweighs the good in this collection. The previously mentioned “The Bogey Man Will Get You” was a really weak story, in my opinion, and the last line of the story (and the whole collection) was really poor. It was originally published in a 1946 edition of Weird Tales, but I don’t know why it was chosen to be the final tale in this collection. I wouldn’t blame you if you threw the book across the room after finishing it. Look – I know it’s pulp horror, and I don’t want to spoil it here if you do want to read it for yourself, but to me it was frustrating and cheap even for the pages of Weird Tales.
This is my first time reading any of Bloch’s short fiction, and despite my criticisms I generally found him to be a really great writer of horror suspense. His style is easy and enjoyable to read, and there are enough examples of creepy writing here for me to want to seek out more of his work. This collection, whilst mostly poor in my opinion, is a good way of seeing a range of Bloch’s styles. Even the concepts of the stories are mostly decent, but it’s often the presentation and conclusion of the narrative where he is at his weakest. I would recommend Bloch’s short fiction to anyone interested in reading some “Weird Tales”-style stories from the 40’s or 50’s, but perhaps look for a new, cheap collection of his work than trying to find out-of-print collections of his early tales – even if the cover art isn’t as wonderful as this one!