Thursday, January 12, 2017

Wellman's The Undead Soldier

Summary: A man takes shelter from a blizzard in an old abandoned cabin.  Looking for fuel for a fire, he pulls up the carpet and finds a bundle of papers.  Inside, he finds an article about a cannibal soldier caught and executed by the Army during the Mexican-American War.  Later on in his reading, he finds more articles, this time about a blood drinking soldier executed in 1879.  He then comes face to face with the revelation that the two soldiers were the same man...

Pulp criteria using Misha Burnett's Pillars of Pulp and Lester Dent's Master Formula:

Action:  The story is a simple one: a man takes refuge in a cabin and discovers the identity of its owner.  So, there's no action by the narrator.  However, the first article contains a campfire-like retelling of the hunt for the Devil of the Fort through Indian territory, complete with gun battles between the Army and the Indians.  So, action does exist, even though the narrator has no hand in it.

Impact: The narrator's decisions to shelter in the cabin and to snoop through the newspapers prove to be lethal.  The relationship between the cannibal soldier and the blood-drinker also hinges on the failure of the Army to carry out his final request: burn his body.

Moral Peril: Absolutely none.  Wellman's Weird Tales stories tend to rely on mortal peril instead.

Romance: None.  Here, romance would be extraneous to the heart of the story.

Mystery: In spades.  The story is an investigation of the owner of the cabin.  The narrator attempts to figure out the common thread between the articles.  That thread relies on a little known aspect of werewolf lore.

Master Formula: The narrator was not in danger until the very end of the story, so the formula does not apply.  However, the structure of "The Undead Soldier" shares aspects with it.  The mystery is introduced immediately.  Also, "The Undead Soldier" follows a series of twists before ending with the revelation and the punchline, similar to the Master Formula.

The first soldier, a cannibal with a taste for hearts and livers, was buried unburnt.  The second soldier, the blood drinker, shared the same appearance as the first.  The two men are the same man, for an unburned werewolf will turn into a vampire when killed.  The punchline - more of a gotcha moment - is that the vampire had returned to the cabin while the narrator was reading...

Impressions: A solid story to open the collection, "The Undead Soldier" introduces us to two of Wellman's trademarks: the South and supernatural legends  While it doea not stand out like the John the Balladeer stories, it's an enjoyable read that questions some the the assumptions I am using to criticise pulp.

"Ancient legends were not legends, they were truth, denied by fear." - Manly Wade Wellman, "The Undead Soldier"

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