“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
When it came to the non-nonsense penny-a-word economy and resourcefulness of such prolific pulpsters as Bruno Fischer, a picture would often foretell a thousand words, reliably triggering a torrent fit to thrill for the infamous Weird Menace pulps’ ever-insatiable lust for page-turning melodrama and moral dilemma.
In a bit of assembly-line ass-backwardness coming into the publication picture, the noirish stories were sometimes written to go along with artwork already in-house. “The covers were supposed to illustrate a story,” Fischer explained in Lee Server’s reference Danger Is My Business. “However, the covers were sometimes printed in advance, before there was a story. So what the editor did was show me the cover or a drawing – it was usually a picture of a half-naked woman and someone stripping the rest of her clothes off her. And on that basis I wrote dozens of stories.”
A not inconsiderable quantity that turned out to be a fraction of Fischer’s creative output during his 1908-1995 lifetime, which saw him write over 300 stories — the nightmarish tenor of which may seen in such titles “School for Satan’s School Girls,” “Models for the Pain Sculpture,” and “White Flesh Must Rot” — for the so-called shudder-pulps such as Terror Tales and Sinister Stories, and also for the mags Mask and Manhunt. Also writing as Russell Gray and Harrison Storm, Fischer authored 25 novels, such as The Bleeding Scissors, Murder in the Raw, and The Lady Kills.
In any event, what started out as a sideline gig to help Fischer support his new wife and family soon enough captured Fischer's imagination and ambitions to the extent that he gave up his stint as editor of the Socialist Call, the official weekly of the Socialist Party. Fischer had a new calling in his efforts to endure and prevail through Depression-era hard times and beyond.
One of the more diversionary yet discerning delvings, the 1948 story “Smile, Corpse, Smile!” may have a title that smacks of one of Fischer’s more sensationalistic tales, but there is a subtle psychological underpinning to it that resonates beyond the retelling, belying its White-Flesh-Must-Rot-o-rama aura. Still, it is a fish tale of sorts, and a whopper of one.
Jed, the main character, is a loner enjoying a weekend away visiting his friends, Dave and Laura, but he's more avidly ice-fishing alone at Teacup Pond – he could really do without the whole visiting and socializing routine; all he really wants is the creature discomforts of sitting on a stump and the prospect of his thirteenth pickerel. But Jed’s bump-on-a-log routine is disrupted when he sees, or thinks he sees, a woman’s hand float in the ice below him. Just when he’s ready to chalk off the apparition to bleary-eyed imagination and call it a day, however, he impulsively “got down on my knees and peered. And I saw the face”:
- It floated just under the surface of the blue water, shimmering as if seen through a veil – or in a dream.
Did I say float? No, that gives an impression of being static, and that face was anything but that. Grave black eyes looked up at me. A small red mouth was slightly parted, as if about to speak. Long, fair hair flowed back from a smooth brow. She was rather young , with a small round chin and a rather childish pug-nose.
I had never seen anything so unutterably lovely, and perhaps it was her loveliness that was so terrifying.
I leaped up. I ran, forgetting that there was ice under my feet, and I sprawled full-length. I lay there, panting, and the coldness of the ice went through my coat, my pants, my gloves. Only it wasn’t the ice. The coldness was deep inside of me.
For once, then, something: “It was as if I had found something infinitely precious and then had lost it.” Jed is hooked on an intermittent glimmer, and spends the rest of the weekend trying to shake off the mixed feelings and recapture new sensations as captivation turns to obsession. Meanwhile, he goes on a futile insomnia-fueled search for his presumed revenant on-the-rocks, and his wholesale resentment of women and the hell of other people becomes a “more real and more desirable” singular longing in view of this chilled chimera of “a woman who didn’t exist.”
Or did she? Jed is desperate enough to seek out information about a possible identity , and learns that there is indeed a realistic angle to his vision, a tragic set of circumstances anchored in the recent disappearance of a local girl. Refreshingly, there are twists and turns in “Smile, Corpse, Smile!” that keep it from verging, in too pat a manner, into urban legend territory, weird tales division.
So boy meets corpse, boy loses corpse… By keeping the focus on the seachange within Jed as he strikes an appealingly ambivalent balance between mental breakdown and ultimate hope, Fischer crafts a note-perfect pulp work as rich in characterization as it is in evocation. Throw back the little ones – "Smile, Corpse, Smile!" is a cohesive, and well-constructed tale that didn’t get away from him.