Z Is for Zombie by Theodore Roscoe (1937)
Pure pulp. Purple prose, breakneck pace, weird happenings. And to hell with political correctness! And do you really need. Full, grammatical sentences?
Z Is for Zombie was first published as a six-part serial in Argosy in 1937. Small press Starmont House brought it out in book form in 1989 and Otto Penzler republished in his 2011 doorstop anthology Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!
John Ranier had been had been a successful New York surgeon until he lost everything in the stock market crash. His wife left him when his money left and Ranier began a long downward slide. For the past five years he had been serving as ship's doctor on a lowly steamship serving a New York to Caribbean route. That's how he found him himself in a ramshackle bar in Haiti, drowning his sorrows when a group of passengers from his steamship entered. The group had decided to go on a motoring tour and would join the ship later on the other side of the island. One of the group is stabbed in the back, in front of witnesses and with no one near him. Even the knife that stabbed him is gone.
Seriously wounded but alive, the victim is taken to a small area hospital run by the mysterious Dr. Eberhardt with the help of his adopted niece, Lais Engles. The group arrives during a fog-bound night. The doctor is missing. His office has been ransacked. Lais recognizes the stabbing victim as a man who had died at the hospital and was buried fourteen years before. (Did I mention that Dr. Eberhardt was experimenting with reviving dead calls?) Even though he died fourteen years ago he died again that night. A loud banging of a door. A dark, horrible face seen staring outside the window. And the corpse is missing.
In 1918 Brazil and Peru had sided against Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to broker a secret pact with Chile to make war against Brazil and Peru. Disguised as a tramp ship, the Kronprinz Albrecht headed off on the mission, captained by Lais' uncle. Aboard were six-year-old Lais, an orphan, and a number of German soldiers. The ship got lost in the labyrinth of the Amazon. For four years they wandered through that maze. When they finally emerged from the jungle they found that the war was long over. Trying to make their way back to Germany, they are blown off-course and are beached in Haiti, but bringing with them from the jungles of Brazil the "mauve death," a virulent, lethal disease. Helping to rescue those on the ship was Eberhardt, who brought the victims to his hospital. There they died, one by one, except for young Lais. One of the dead was Adolph Perl, a German soldier who had a distinctive scar on his hand and webbed toes -- the same man who had been stabbed and killed, dying again for the second time in fourteen years.
While a local voodoo priest stirs up natives against the hospital, which the priest views as competition, Ranier and the others make a mad dash to Perl's grave. The grave had been open but Perl's body was not there. Instead they find the body of an old nurse sitting against the headstone. At another cemetery they find the nurse's grave opened, but with the mummified body of an American marine there instead. At the marine's grave, there was the body of a German colonel. At the colonel's grave, the body of another soldier.
While Ranier has been running from grave to grave, hundreds of incited natives have attacked the hospital, killing all the critical care patients and setting the building on fire. Ranier rushes there to save Lais, who is trapped on the second floor but is calmly shooting the natives with a rifle.
And so it goes. Danger upon danger. Mystery upon mystery. And in the background the ominous sounds of the voodoo drums. The finale taking place on the crowded docks of Port-au-Prince.
I mentioned purple prose, didn't I? Try this:
The night, itself, was a ghost, fuming and blowing, trailing its gauzy veils across field
and road, stalking in white cerements through the jungle, blindfolded with eerie
bandages, muffled in cotton, embracing with clammy, half-liquid arms the earthy
ghosts of black Haiti.
His hot-potatoed words spluttered out above the thousand-tongued rattle of his car.
In an outer circle of night nameless shadows moved; shapes cadaverous as the
undernourished and grinning Holbein figures of Plague and Death pictured in old
medical book wood-cuts.
And, as mentioned, why use sentences when you don't need them? And let's not forget sound effects:
There were times when, the steering gear almost torn from his hands, he marveled
that the chassis didn't rip from the wheels and jump the curve. Moments when the
wheels soared above the razorback bumps and his head cracked the roof. Bump,
swerve, screech and bang on an unpaved stretch. Slewing a hairpin downhill turn
as if cracked on the end of an invisible whip. Slam-bam on the grade crossing. Ziff-
ziff-ziff the trees went by. The fog cut to whistling mist-ribbons. The night streaming
past like soup. Swish! a curve. Zip! an underpass. Rrrrrrt! the narrow span of
mountain bridge. Hmmmmmm on a downhill chute.
Pulps in the Thirties were not concerned with political correctness, in part because it had not been invented yet:
A cry from Dr. Eberhardt's whiskers flung Ranier around to see the tree beyond
the window monkey-jammed; Negroes shinning up the trunk, lizarding out on the
gallery-touching limps, hanging in the bright foliage like clusters of monstrous fruit.
His silhouette blocked the window, and his Congo presence filled the room with a
lion-like breathing and a fetor of black grease. A dented top hat was titled Ted Lewis
fashion over his brows; around his naked shoulders a circlet of pig's-hoofs dangled;
ragged pink trousers were belted by a dead snake from which hung an apron of
gourd rattles [...] A convulsion scribbled the minstel face face under the tophat.
[Note the "top hat" and the "tophat"]
This book may not be everyone's cup of tea, but (low-brow that I am) I really enjoyed it.
From Otto Penzler's introduction to Z As In Zombie: "Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992) produced work in a variety of genres: hard-boiled for Detective Fiction Weekly and Flynn's Detective Fiction, as well as the cult classic I'll Grind Their Bones (1936); Foreign Legion for Argosy and Adventure; boxing for Fight Stories; aviation for Air Stories; and horror for Weird Tales, among many other genres and magazines, but he is probably best-known for his adventure stories set in such exotic locales as Timbuktu, Tangier, Morocco, and Saigon, which were a mainstay of the contributions to Argosy." A number of Roscoe's stories are available on the web at unz.org, Another zombie-themed serial from Argosy, A Grave Must Be Deep, was published by Starmont in 1990. A collection of three novellas, The Wonderful Lips of Thibong Linh, was published by Donald M. Grant in 1981. Roscoe also wrote biographies and a number of books on naval history.
Patti Abbott is back at her post, curating today's Friday's Forgotten Books. Go to pattinase.com for links and other reviews.