#371: Lightning Strikes Twice in ‘Z is for Zombie’ (1937) by Theodore Roscoe

Z is for Zombie

It’s just over a year since Bold Venture Press republished Theodore Roscoe’s Murder on the Way! (1935), in which I was fortunate enough to have a hand.  As luck would have it, I recently acquired a copy of Roscoe’s equally zombie-centric and Haiti-set ‘Z is for Zombie’ (1937) and thought the two might bear some comparison.

This story — as with ‘A Grave Must Be Deep’ (1935) that became Murder on the Way!, and ‘War Declared!’ (1936) that became I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936) — was originally serialised in Argosy short story magazine in six parts between 6th February and 13th March 1937.  The cover of my Starmont House reissue, shown up top, was the cover of Argosy when it carried the first part of the serial, an issue that additionally contained stories by such also-rans as Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Ron Hubbard.  There’s no indication that the text here has been modified in any way as was done with those two previously-mentioned stories, so I’d estimate that the whole serial runs to about the length of a shortish GAD novel — at a guess, say 70,000 words.

Okay, that deals with the technical specs.

We open in a Haitian bar with John Rainer, war-wounded and financially crippled by the Depression, on shore leave from the cruise ship where he acts as doctor when he’s not pickling himself in self-reprobation:

And what’s Dr. Rainer doing now?  Dispensing seasick pills and tomato juice.  Don’t tell me!  Not the Dr. Rainer who was going to be the greatest surgeon of his day!  Not the young, brisk, clever Dr. Rainer who ran that big glass and chromium office on Park Avenue, and did all those positively-miraculous-my-dear operations on pinguid millionaires? … — not the Dr. Rainer?

That ‘pinguid’, by the way — that’s the sort of thing I love about Roscoe’s writing.  The only other review of this story that I’ve found online is less than complimentary about what it calls Roscoe’s “purple prose”, but for me he’s one of the few authors — and I mean this very sincerely — who shares John Dickson Carr’s ability to drop adjectives that send your mind pinwheeling with the utter perfection they effortlessly conjure.  If it also sends you scurrying for the thesaurus, well, at least you’re learning something.


Anyway, we find Ranier soused and deplorable when a man enters the bar, orders him out, punches him for good measure, and sends him sprawling.  When Ranier comes to he re-enters the bar to confront his attacker…and then thinks better of his position, and instead stay quietly out of the way, nursing his drinks and his sprained pride.  Shortly thereafter this man — various German or Dutch, as if Roscoe couldn’t keep this straight — is joined by others from the cruise including “an entomologist…who was a walking glossary of limericks”, a Brooklyn truck driver “beetle-browed, grinning, cropped, and cauliflowered, [who] resembled a Tanganyika gorilla on a holiday”, and a woman classified as “five years old from the neck up; from the neck down, all bosom and behind … with a voice that sounded like a lumberjack talking through a doll”.

They sit, drink, and discuss Voodoo superstition with the Haitian guide and — long story short — it is discovered that the pugilistic Dutchman has been stabbed in the back: Ranier is possessed of professional rectitude enough to recognise that the man has been bleeding for about 20 minutes…but no-one has gone near the table for the half hour the group has been sat there, and no-one could have gone behind Haarman’s chair without being spotted.  And the knife has vanished — a search of the premises and all the people therein, including the rapidly-expiring victim of the attack, reveals no sign of what Ranier delightfully calls the “cutlery” in the case, and everyone else is inclined to think Ranier himself the culprit.

And then, well…then things get really crazy.

This first quarter or so isn’t as breakneck as may be expected — and, indeed, I’d wager that chapters 4 and 5 add very little at all to the narrative besides changing the setting in typically picturesque Roscoe fashion — but, oh, do I love the way this guy writes.  From an accusation being thrown at Ranier by someone “facing him combatively, feet apart, eyes directed from under a slanted hat brim, levelling that finger at Ranier in the manner of a ‘You Buy Liberty Bonds’ poster” to Ranier’s reflection that the wound was delivered by a “powerful blow to drive a blade so deep; knife double-edged, razor-honed, and must have been buried to the hilt.  Short-circuited a vertebra to cut off the brain telegraph, ossifying the body to stone”, the story doesn’t race, but it does ripple with the sensibility of menace.

It seemed to Ranier as if the night itself was held in the grip of shock, like a great crouching beast muscle-locked in an ictus.  Only its pulse was going, a low, dulled throb from the abeyant dark, no louder than the tapping of a fainted man’s heart.

A colourful night ensues, comprising lost Amazonian explorers (they’d have to be very lost to end up in Haiti…), a dead man coming back to life only to die again only to come back to life again, a disinterred grave or…several, severed hands, vanishing corpses, and various manners of other insanity, all against the tumpy-bum-bum of drums warding off the rumoured walking dead who are once again said to be on the march on the island.  Oh, and there will be toads.  Lots and lots of toads.  Not, like, a plague of them or anything, but it’s quite a potent voodoo motif, apparently.


It’s a testament to the fecundity of Roscoe’s imagination that none of this feels like a simple, lazy retread of ‘A Grave Must Be Deep’/Murder on the Way! — indeed, this distinguishes itself remarkably for the pell-mell loopiness on show: where that previous tale was so astonishingly grounded in one key location from which every drop of pressure and confusion was wrung, here we pinball from bar to hospital to graveyard to…well, you get the idea.  And the cast may well be made up of a similar broad sweep of pulp archetypes — the Blousy Dame, the Suspicious Italian, the Arrogant Prick, the Shrill Native — but there’s not quite the brilliance of that coterie from Roscoe’s first zombie-fest here.  Indeed, these feel rather more like people steadily cracking under the strain, which is perhaps more realistic, but it’s unlikely any of them will compel themselves to the memory like the Widow Gladys and her son Toadstool.

There is, too, an additional issue that counts against this narrative: the unedited text could really do with an edit — I’m a fan of Roscoe’s written expression, as I’ve said, but dude is this ever prolix.  This is undoubtedly a symptom of the six-part serialisation, as the key points from the previous instalment bear repeating whe you read them a week ago, but for a straight single-volume read the repetition gets, I have to say, a trifle frustrating.  Perhaps halfway through, confronted with a series of disinterred graves which all disgorged the wrong bodies and battling with the suspicions of the group who see him as the most likely suspect, Ranier is pulled into yet another argument with Kavanaugh (the aforementioned Arrogant Prick) and then goes reeling away fixating yet again on the impossible stabbing of Haarman for about four pages, running through all the combinations and possibilities that we’ve already done at least twice by now.  And you sort of want to grab him and shake him and go “We know, John!  We know!  A lot has happened since then, so don’t do this now, just get on with things, eh?!”.

Because, see, with a good edit this would be a marvellous story — the patterns are intricate, the final ideas and explanations mostly extremely satisfying (not, alas, that impossible stabbing, but other things make up for that).  But the fact that so much travelogue must be waded through in order to get there, and that we have to be told, for instance, how Adolph Perl is dead and this is therefore impossible about 280 times, reduces the potency of these eventual revelations.  I’m a fan of making a complete text available, I really am, but sometimes — as discussed elsewhere — a bit of an edit can help speed things up and make the key ideas shine all the brighter, especially when you really feel at times how Roscoe it being paid by the word.


So, well, full credit to Roscoe for whittling out another careering tale in the same milieu which manages to feel distinct and original, but perhaps delegating the actual whittling to someone else might have made this as much of a classic as I feel Murder on the Way! to be (and, yeah, I’m biased — so what?).  Huge fun, really huge fun, but requires patience.


Two side notes to finish on: firstly, going back to Audrey Parente’s biography of Theodore Roscoe to see what was said about it there reveals the fabulous story that Roscoe took some of his detail of Haiti from a book about the island published by an ex-serviceman who had been stationed on the island.  When this author updated his own book, later editions credited this Roscoe story with some of the amendments in detail made…for which the book itself was the original source.  Ha.

Penzler ZombiesSecondly, if you’re curious to read this but lament its unavailability — worry not.  it has been included in its entirety as the final story in the Otto Penzler-edited collection of zombie stories published either as Zombies: A Compendium of the Living Dead (this appears to be the Kindle title…the edition shown to the right here) or, perhaps more catchily, as Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! (in paperback).  I mean, sure, there’s about 800 pages of other stuff in there, too, but you can pick up this compendium for less than the reissue of the story on its own, so it’s worth considering if the concept of this has (ahem) bitten you and you don’t want to bargain on the second-hand market.


Finally, I’m going to play this on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, under the category In the medical field.


8 thoughts on “#371: Lightning Strikes Twice in ‘Z is for Zombie’ (1937) by Theodore Roscoe

    • It is huge fun once you get past the repetition. I think Murder on the Way is better, of course, but suitably edited this would give it a run for its money, no question.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Because, see, with a good edit this would be a marvelous story . . . Has it come down to this? Are you advertising for work?

    Frankly, I hate zombies. I always have. Zombies and plagues and brains getting eaten and gross decay. I’m no fun at all. And those Val Lawton zombies of the 1930’s – those walking ads for racism that seem to be Roscoe’s model – they’re ironically boring as, ahem, hell. So excuse me if I turn my head away as you discuss further . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure, but this essentially a repurposing of the claustrophobia of And Then There Were None but with superstition rather than outright murder. Put a group of near-strangers in an odd situation and throw in some impossible murders…what’s not to love?!?!

      Liked by 3 people

    • The use of voodoo in these Roscoe tales is very compelling, no doubt helped by Roscoe having been on the spot and so experiencing some of it first (or first-and-a-half) hand. And I’m delighted someone else agrees with me about how fine a writer he was. I have another of his books, ina very different genre, and I’m fascinated to see how he applies himself to that. All in good time.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve found a few copies of this but they’re always extremely expensive. Good to know that I should grab a copy if I ever see one with a reasonable enough price – or perhaps I should just pick up that zombie compendium.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m maybe 50% tempted by the zombie compendium myself. I don’t really go in for gore and violence, but if there’s anything else that explores the superstition/cultural context in there I’d love to read it. And, of course, anything that flirst with an impossible crime would also be welcomed in my house…

      Liked by 2 people

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