#983: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 2: ‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938) by Theodore Roscoe

Back in August, I read the first volume of Theodore Roscoe’s stories set in the fictional town of Four Corners, and enjoyed them so much that I’m back this month for the five tales that comprise Volume 2.

‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938) concerns the Easter clan and the “seven days of jabberwock and murder” which follows the death of patriarch ‘King Isaac’ Easter — one time patent medicine pedlar who claimed to have an elixir that will return him to life. Interred in his specially-built mausoleum, with a front door that cannot be opened from the outside once shut and a back door which can only be opened from the inside with the key he insists is placed in his cold, dead hand, the expectation is that he will come back to life within three days of his death. Except that doesn’t come to pass — instead, it takes four days before Isaac’s body vanishes from its coffin, his fingerprints in evidence all over the mausoleum.

Oh, and he’d been embalmed before internment. And shot in the chest at his funeral.

It’s always fun to spot a particular theme or point of interest in an author’s work, and here along with Murder on the Way! (1935) and ‘Z is for Zombie’ (1937) we find Roscoe once again returning to the dead rising and the nature of the panic and distress that causes while also providing a rollicking story that rips along, sprinkling clues and pointers in its (ahem) wake. It becomes clear — in light of a will that bears remarkable similarity to Eli Proudfoot’s in Murder on the Way! and sees money bestowed on each person in turn if their predecessor predeceases them — that the risen Isaac Easter is out to murder his bickering, fractured family one-by-one, and yet the thrall his ‘resurrection’ holds over the town is neatly parsed even as people recognise their own safety:

Already the echoes were rocking the valley, shaking guns down off their hooks over fireplace mantels, shaking the farmers’ wives in their boots, shaking the nerves and the theologies and the complacencies of Four Corners to their very roots and foundations. There was a run on shotgun shells at Clapp’s General Store. There was a run on bolts and keys and padlocks at the locksmith’s. There was a run on the bank…. There was a run on the railroad to Albany.

Even when it’s clear that the Easters alone are the risen Isaac’s target, the family are reluctant to move from the house, since they only inherit on the condition that they remain there for a year and, Isaac being “richer’n fertilizer” there’s evidently a lot of money at stake. And so, one by one, the Easters die, shot in a variety of circumstances with Isaac’s favourite bow and arrow, the old man even seen on occasion vanishing into woodland, the “William Tell business” exerting a powerful hold on everyone, not least our narrator, since there seems to be no earthly explanation to account for this miraculous resurrection.

I can fault Roscoe on two fronts here: firstly in that he gets a little carried away in the closing stages — and this is by no means a short story, comprising probably some 22,000 words — describing a chase in urgent, rich detail that serves to demonstrate the man’s agility with language and invoking a sense of terror but proves to do just the opposite of its studied intent since it slows the previously propulsive narrative to a wearisome crawl for three or four vital pages. Secondly, the explanation of how the twice dead, embalmed Isaac effected his exit from his mausoleum is…less than adequately rigorous, and given that it’s the crux of the whole story it’d’ve been nice if a little more consideration had been given to this aspect. It’s not that it’s not explained, more that there’s some hand-waving which reduces the cleverness just a touch.

However.

In every other regard, not least the magnificent flight of fancy that enables Isaac to be seen in the vicinity of the murders which unfold, this is a pulpish, gaudy, mind-bending triumph. If the pulp magazines where Roscoe was encouraged to ply his trade have an advantage over the ‘serious’ business of novel writing, it’s that they allowed the ideas which linger on the fringes of possibility to find a home where they might be tested out and find a receptive audience who wouldn’t crab too greatly at the baroque or slightly out there. And this is out there, a long way out there, and yet works perfectly in the loopy, topsy-turvy world of the Easter clan that Roscoe has been as such pains to paint with such garish colours. The final line moment of revelation — I don’t know if that song ever existed, by the way — isn’t unlike the sort of revelation that Ellery Queen or Christianna Brand would spring upon their readers…it’s just filtered through the slightly twisted mindset of the pulp writer, and all the more enjoyable for it.

And, hey, it’s not like Roscoe is only in this for the graveyard chuckle you know he was emitting when the idea struck him. Much like John Dickson Carr, Roscoe is a superb wrangler of mood, giving us quiet moments of reflection — the undertaker Seymore, “chair tilted, feet on table, hands behind head, calmly chewing gum. Immune”, or the sound of a jazz standard on a summer’s night “as incongruous to my surroundings as the splash of trout would have been in a dance hall” — which ground this in the everyday as brilliantly as it escalates up into the madness that only Four Corners could gestate. And this might be Roscoe’s real coup de grace: making this seem believable, even probable, by starting off with such familiar concerns as warring families and stubborn mindsets before calmly taking you by the hand and leading you off into the mouth of madness before you’ve even realised what’s happening.

If this is anything to go by, I’m going to enjoy this second visit. Bring on next week!

~

See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: Ghoul’s Paradise is this aberration that only Roscoe could have written; an unnatural marriage of bucolic small town charm, mystery, pulp, horror, and balls to the wall action. In that order. Running fifty pages, it packs more story than a typical mystery novel, and easily could have been fleshed out to a full length.

James Scott Byrnside: Roscoe is less interested in crime scene mechanics and more in planting impossible crimes within a horrifying atmosphere. The story does have good clues, but its real pleasures involve murder within a whirlwind of madness. It’s a hugely enjoyable offshoot of his interest in zombies (sort of Murder on the Way in microcosm) and if you can accept spectacle over character, you’ll have a great time.

~

The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe

Volume 1:

Volume 2:

‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938)
‘The Man Who Hated Lincoln’ (1939)
‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939)
‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939)
‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941)

13 thoughts on “#983: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 2: ‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938) by Theodore Roscoe

  1. I have read this twice on the the strength of Ben’s earlier review over at The Green Capsule. Murder mysteries with claims of the supernatural get my attention.

    The first time I devoured this at speed. As you say, it is a nice ‘soup’ of impossibilities, occult, pulp, thriller, murders, page turning suspense, and Roscoe’s wonderfully descriptive language that pulled me into the story feeling what the characters experienced versus simply reading words.

    With the later reading, I took my time to absorb the details. Is this fair-play – not completely. For example (rot-13) gur jver naq fgnvarq tynff jvaqbj cnva erzbiny naq erghea jrer eriryrq yngr va gur fgbel va zl ivr, but there two good clues early on that could have been joined together (Jvyxrf ybirq gnkvqrezl fb uhagrq fznyy navznyf. Tvira gung Vfnnp fgvatvyl ershfrq gb cnl sbe n tha naq ohyyrgf, Jvyxrf zhfg unir yrnearq gb hfr gur obj naq neebj gb pbyyrpg uvf fcrpvzraf).

    For me the best of GAD has two consistent qualities: (1) Remembering not just what happened but how the story made me feel. (2) Making me want to re-read it even though I have a TBR resembling an avalanche. I am always looking for “The Perfect Crime” in my reading. Is it perfect; nope, but it is wonderful. Anyone who hasn’t yet should visit Ghoul’s Paradise.

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    • I’m delighted to hear that you’ve had such a good time with this….twice! And I completely agree about those two good clues — as soon as you see the solution, you want to kick yourself for not seeing it sooner.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: “Ghoul’s Paradise” from Four Corners Vol II – James Scott Byrnside

  3. Man, now I’m tempted to reread this, and it’s only been about a year. It starts with such a leisurely pace – your standard Four Corners stroll with a nice touch of background legend – then picks up into an exciting active killer mystery. Then there’s this bonkers out of control finale that’s like a miniaturized version of the chaos at the end of Murder on the Way. It’s something like this that makes you want to track down every single story Roscoe ever wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a surprising amount of Roscoe available, given how forgotten he is: four volumes of French Foreign Legion stories, four volumes of his Scarlet and Bradshaw adventure stories, two volumes of Four Corners, A Grave Must Be Deep and Murder on the Way!, War Declared and I’ll Grind Their Bones, and Z is for Zombie…hell, there’s more Roscore available to buy new than there is Erle Stanley Gardner…!

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      • There’s a surprising amount of Roscoe available, given how forgotten he is

        Not enough considering what’s still out there waiting to be collected and republished. Several apparently play on Roscoe’s favored theme of the dead rising, voodoo magic and dark murder in Haiti (The Little Doll Died and Zombie Express). Roscoe also wrote an uncollected short story with the suggestive title “The Man Who Died Twice.” So there’s more from the Carr of the Pulps to be unearthed. But, until then, I’ve Four Corners, volume 2 to look forward to. Great review!

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  4. This sounds great, but I need to read the other Roscoes in my collection before this! I bought the Volume 1 of this series on promise from TomCat that it contains a cracking impossible crime. And before I even read *THAT* I need to eventually read MURDER ON THE WAY!.

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