"I sold my soul that I might paint a living picture." - "The Golgotha Dancers", Manly Wade WellmanSummary: A man tours an art museum in search of The Isle of the Dead, but finds in its place another painting, named Golgotha. The image of 12 cherubic demons dancing while two more drive spikes into a crucified man's hands captivates him. A museum guard takes the painting down, as someone has sneaked the painting into the gallery. On a whim, the unnamed man offers to take Golgotha home. The guard agrees, as it would hide all evidence of his negligence of his duties.
After hanging the painting in his room, the man falls asleep. He wakes from a nightmare to find that the dancers from the painting are crowd around him. They seize his arms and stretch him out in cruciform fashion. As he lays pinned in his bed by the dancers, one raises a hammer high into the air, just like in the painting...
"The Golgotha Dancers" first appeared in Weird Tales vol. 30, issue 4, making it a first run pulp short story. Accounting for length and genre conventions, it shares much with Lester Dent's Master Pulp Formula, including multiple physical conflicts including one initiated by the narrator, a reliance on wit and skill to resolve the encounter, and a punchline at the end. However, the character of Miss Dolby, a nurse who heard the commotion of the dancers and rushed to help the narrator, was not introduced in the first quarter of the story but at the half-way point. Her growing involvement with the narrator and the mystery serves as a respite in the escalating stakes not found in Dent's formula. In fact, she is a key character in the resolution, as her peril forces another confrontation with the dancers. Her levelheadedness and skills with a knife ultimately contribute to the demonic dancers' undoing.
That said, Wellman is not merely duplicating this stock formula, but writing to his own. Wellman's formula, as seen here and in his John the Balladeer stories, is to embed a clue into the mystery of the story, whether in the songs John learns or the inscription "I sold my soul that I might paint a living picture". Evil can be fought but must be outwitted to be defeated. The means for that defeat are always near, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, but it takes a special person to solve the puzzle. In "The Golgotha Dancers", the narrator sees clearly that the painting is a living painting, while it took the doubtful Miss Dolby's wits to properly apply that knowledge into a solution.
An analysis of "The Golgotha Dancers" using the Five Pillars of Pulp shows:
Action - The unnamed narrator wrestles in flesh and blood with the demonic dancers.
Impact - How the narrator escapes his fate is irreversible. Also, standing against the dancers with Miss Dolby draws the two together.
Moral Peril - Although the associations with the crucifixion hill of Golgotha give the dancers actual hellish overtones, the peril that the narrator and Miss Dolby face is mortal, not moral or spiritual. At no time did the narrator think of abandoning her to the dancers.
Mystery - From the man who sneaked Golgotha into the museum to the inscription written on its frame, mystery draws the narrator to the painting and a series of confrontations with the dancers. While solving a particular facet of the mystery allows the narrator to survive his encounter with the dancers, questions about the methods used to create the living painting and the identity of the artist remain.
Romance - On my first read, the ending, where the narrator recognizes his love for Miss Dolby, felt out of place. However, upon rereading, it is clear that her chance run-in to rescue him the first time led to a growing relationship prior to the final confrontation with the dancers. The formality of the relationship obscured this fact on the quick read.
"The Golgotha Dancers" can be found at Wikisource , Amazon, and Project Gutenberg.