Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 8, 2019


Look Behind You! by Arthur J. Burks (1954)

Arthur J. Burks was an extremely prolific writer for the pulps, a million-plus words a year writer who could churn out stories for virtually every pulp market.  According to one estimate he wrote over 800 stories for the pulps,  Burks himself, in 1936, wrote that the number was much closer to 1400; the latter estimate feels right, somehow, given the high probability of yet undiscovered pseudonyms.  He was known to challenge people to name an object, any object, and he could write a story around it (an ability that he himself satirized in at least one short story).  Burks was never a good writer, per se, but he was an effective one, creating mood pieces that were strong on atmosphere and weak on plot.

Burks began his career as a military man, joining the Marines during World War I, eventually serving as an aide to General Smedley Butler, with whom he shared a by-line on at least one book.  Burks began writing in 1920 and published his first novel the following year.  In 1927 he resigned from the Marines to become a full-time writer.  He reenlisted during World War II, eventually retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.  Following that war (and especially in the Sixties) Burks' interest in metaphysical and paranormal subjects occupied most of his time as he produced works and lectured on both subjects.  Mysticism had always played an important part in his science fiction, fantasy and horror stories from his early stories about Haiti and the Dominican Republic, eventually leading to his 1939 metaphysical treatise Who Do You Think You Are? and to later books such as Bells Above the Amazon, the Life of Hugo Mense, Explorer of the Spirit (1951), Sex:  The Divine Flame (1961), and En-Don: The Ageless Wisdom (1973).  (A throwaway line in "Our Daily Tuesday," one of the stories in Don't Look Back!, is somewhat telling:  "Helena, desperate, called in some famous psychiatrists, psychologists and dianetics experts."  Each was described as a scientist later in the paragraph.)

Look Behind You! was the first publication from the very small press of Shroud, publishers.  In his introduction to the book, the book's editor Kenneth J. Krueger, a former fanzine publisher, states that he was asked by Shroud's owner, Robert J. Fritz, "to help him select a group of stories with which to inaugurate a new series of books devoted to the rather select field of fantasy and the macabre."  (As far as I can tell, the name Fritz soon vanished from the scene and Krueger [1926-2009] stayed on as publisher of Shroud's occasional books and magazines until his death.)  Krueger turn to his friend Arthur Burks, who responded by giving him the six previously unpublished stories in this book.  (Krueger noted that the book was originally to have 13 stories; why it was reduced to six stories is a mystery but possibly had something to do with the cost of printing.)  There is a strong hint that these were unsolf "trunk" stories, rather than works written specifically for this book.

Look Behind You! was published in two states: a hardcover edition of 80 copies and a paper edition of 650 copies.  The paper edition was plastic ring bound and had cardboard covers.  Although no price was listed on the book, it sold for $1.00.  The pages were type-written and justified on both the right and left, causing some rather weird spacing on each line.  The type is small, making it difficult to read.  The cover and  the eleven illustrations are by DEA (Margaret M. Dominick), a fan artist whose ability can be likened to that of a moderately talented high school sophomore.  The cover includes the exclamation point in the title, while the title page and the title story omit it.  A surprisingly off-putting aspect of the book is the numbering of the pages.  The right-hand (recto) pages are even-numbered and the left hand (verso) pages are odd-numbered. giving the small book 73 pages.  (Considering how off-putting I found that, I must be OCD.)

The stories:

  • "All the Lights Were Green"  A mood piece about a small plane pilot and his passenger -- a South American revolutionary.  There are mystical lights as the revolutionary goes to his unexpected, ultimate fate.
  • "The Kindness of Maracati"  Maricati, the chief of a Brazilian tribe, was noted for his kindness.  Fifty years earlier, his wife Bokai had cheated on Maricati, who murdered her lover and buried him under their hut.  this is the tale of Maricati's fifty years of kindness.
  • "Our Daily Tuesday"  The story of Mark Gibney, a genius who had learned to "reset" his body every day so that he remained forever twenty-one while those around him aged.
  • "Ye Imys of Helle"  The narrator returns from the jungles of South American with some ayahuasca, a mind-altering drug that allows him to enter the minds of others and to mentally travel to wherever he desires.  After some experimentation, he decides to find out if Hell is real.  It is, but it's  not what he expected.
  • "Look Behind You"  The longest story in the book.  Randolph Perssons is a photographer who has secretly developed the "S-Film" and the "S-Whisper track."  With these inventions he is able to record the past, beginning with the past of a well-respected woman in town -- revealing her renunciation of an affair with a married man; realizing that she could never marry her lover and would not marry any other, the woman turned her life to good works.  Perssons sends her the film he had taken with his inventions.  The next day, the woman goes missing.  And so it begins...
  • "The Chosen of the Gods"  Lon Baldwin stumbles out of the Brazilian jungle, sick, wasted, and near death.  He comes to a remote village and finds that medical help is days away -- too far to save him.  A local "witch doctor" promises him help if he travels to Caushuikari -- the witchcraft place. 
A minor and slight collection.  Is it worth your time?  As I said above, these are mood pieces, with little plot and even less characterization.  But there is a power to them.  The writing may not be that original but the ideas behind each story are.  The reader would probably be better served with the 1966 Arkham House collection Black Medicine or with last year's Masters of the Weird Tale:  Arthur J. Burks from Centipede Press, but Look Behind You! is still an interesting, albeit flawed, collection.

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