Thursday, March 23, 2017

Weird Tales Books-Black Medicine by Arthur J. Burks

Black Medicine by Arthur J. Burks was published in 1966 by Arkham House of Sauk City, Wisconsin, in an edition of 2,000 copies. Arkham House books are typically rare, costly, and prized by readers and fans of weird fiction. I was lucky enough to find recently a reasonably priced copy of Black Medicine. I finished reading it on March 11, 2017, and can report on its contents. I had hoped to find zombies in the stories of Arthur J. Burks. I'll cut to the chase and let you know there aren't any.

Burks was born in Washington State and served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I. He also served in occupied Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, probably in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Burks served in other places as well, possibly in the Pacific. These locales show up in the stories in Black Medicine, of which there are eleven. The first, "Strange Tales of Santo Domingo," is actually in six parts, so it might be more accurate to say there are sixteen stories in the book.

The sixteen stories in Black Medicine fall into three groups, plus one story that stands alone. One group of stories is set in the Dominican Republic. They include "Strange Tales of Santo Domingo" in its six parts and "Three Coffins." Another group is set in neighboring Haiti. These include "Voodoo," "Luisma's Return," "Thus Spake the Prophetess," and "Black Medicine." The third is a looser group of unrelated stories set in different places: a time-travel fantasy called "When the Graves Were Opened"; a dream-fantasy called "Vale of the Corbies"; an oceangoing ghost story, "Bells of Oceana"; and a ghost story set in Burks' own Washington State, "The Ghosts of Steamboat Coulee." I consider "Guatemozin the Visitant" to stand alone for different reasons, first because of its length (72 pages in Black Medicine, or of novelette length); second, because it's the only story in the book not to have appeared in Weird Tales; third, for its setting in Mexico; and fourth for its unusual themes and unusual power.

One very appealing characteristic of Burks' writing is its even-toned and effortless authenticity. As a military man serving on board ship and in exotic locales, he had a rare familiarity with his subjects and settings. He didn't have to do research on what his characters do and where they live and work, for he did those things and lived and worked in those places himself. It's refreshing to read genre fiction of such authenticity and verisimilitude. Burks was given to pulpish and purplish prose at times, but those aspects of his writing are easily outweighed, I think, by his skill at describing real places and real situations.

Arthur J. Burks was one of the first authors--if not the first--to have a story on Voodoo in Weird Tales. His first two stories in "The Unique Magazine," published under the pseudonym Estil Critchie, were "Thus Spake the Prophetess," from November 1924, and "Voodoo," from December 1924. "Thus Spake the Prophetess" is set in Haiti, but there is no explicit mention of Voodoo or any of its practices, figures, or spirits. "Voodoo" is of course a different story (no pun intended). It, too, is set in Haiti and involves the search for a Voodoo priest by an American serviceman. The serviceman, Rodney Davis, infiltrates a Voodoo ceremony, where he sees a Maman Loi, "the priestess of the serpent," a Papa Loi, her male counterpart, and the sacrifice of a "goat without horns," that is, a human being, in this case an adolescent girl. Davis returns to his commanding officer to report, laconically, that justice has been served.

Other tales of Voodoo followed, the longest and most detailed of which is "Black Medicine," the title story of this collection and the cover story for the August 1925 issue of Weird Tales. I had speculated before that the larger figure in that cover illustration might be a zombie. As it turns out, he isn't, for there are no zombies in Black Medicine. As it turns out, the figure is a man, Chal David, "chief Papa Loi of Bois TombĂ©." The woman in front of him is a Maman Loi, "high priestess of the cult of voodoo." In the background of the cover illustration are the "followers of the Great Green Serpent." If I understand Voodoo (also called Vaudoux and Voudon) correctly, the "Great Green Serpent" of Haiti might also be "Li Grand Zombi" of Louisiana. Nevertheless, zombies appear to be absent from the fiction of Arthur J. Burks, leaving William B. Seabrook as still the father of zombies in America.

One more thing: There are many good and enjoyable stories in Black Medicine, but one of my favorites and one of the most powerful, I think, is "Guatemozin the Visitant," a story of a revenant from the Aztec past who, when his burial place is disturbed, comes back to wreak a terrible vengeance on the Mexico City of 1931. I am reminded of The Plague by Albert Camus, a far more significant work to be sure, but I would not take anything away from Burks except for, again, his occasional pulpish and purplish prose.

Black Medicine by Arthur J. Burks
(Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1966), 308 pp.
"Strange Tales of Santo Domingo"
  • "A Broken Lamp-Chimney" (Weird Tales, Feb. 1925)
  • "Desert of the Dead" (Weird Tales, Mar. 1925)
  • "Daylight Shadows" (Weird Tales, Apr. 1925)
  • "The Sorrowful Sisterhood" (Weird Tales, May 1925) 
  • "The Phantom Chibo" (Weird Tales, June 1925)
  • "Faces"  (Weird Tales, Apr. 1927)
"Three Coffins" (Weird Tales, May 1928)
"When the Graves Were Opened" (Weird Tales, Dec. 1925; reprinted Sept. 1937) 
"Vale of the Corbies" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1925) 
"Voodoo" as by Estil Critchie (Weird Tales, Dec. 1924)
"Luisma's Return" (Weird Tales, Jan. 1925) 
"Thus Spake the Prophetess" as by Estil Critchie (Weird Tales, Nov. 1924) 
"Black Medicine" (Weird Tales, Aug. 1925) 
"Bells of Oceana" (Weird Tales, Dec. 1927; reprinted Apr. 1934)
"The Ghosts of Steamboat Coulee" (Weird Tales, May 1926) 
"Guatemozin the Visitant" (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Nov. 1931; reprinted in Magazine of Horror, Sept. 1969)

Black Medicine by Arthur J. Burks (1966), with cover art by Lee Brown Coye.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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