From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps
Periodicals have historically been a venue for the publication and dissemination of short fiction. In the U.S., The New Yorker has been so important in this regard that there is an entire style of realist story associated with its pages. Other general-interest mags that have been significant venues for literary fiction include Esquire, The Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post, and Playboy. Many of the 20th century’s greatest writers – from Nabokov to Munro – have found a place for their work in the pages of these mainstream journals.
But equally important, for a time at least, were the pulps that proliferated from the end of the 19th century to the early 1950s. These included titles such as Black Mask, Unknown, Startling Stories, Western Story Magazine, and others. Some of these, such as Weird Tales, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Amazing Stories are still around in one form or another, though the heyday of the pulps has long passed. In the early to middle 20th century, however, these cheap, dime-store periodicals provided a wealth of entertainment to readers looking for genre stories, and published writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, Elmore Leonard, and Richard Matheson.
Among those writing for the pulps in their prime was Robert Bloch, today best remembered as the author of Psycho, the novel that served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film. But Bloch’s genre influence went well beyond that one novel. He was a foundational figure (Stephen King identifies Bloch as a huge influence) and his fiction remains relevant – and entertaining – today.
Lovecraft arguably discovered Bloch, encouraging the younger author and suggesting places to publish his work. In return, Bloch produced a stream of Lovecraft-inflected cosmic horror, until the earlier author’s death in 1937. As Bloch‘s career progressed, he increasingly sloughed off the Lovecraft mantle and began creating fiction that was truly his own. “The Cloak,” which first appeared in the May 1939 issue of Unknown, is an example of a story that moves away from Lovecraftian influences to address an equally entrenched horror trope: the vampire. The story is not, however, a retread or homage; it offers a unique take on its subject matter and displays a flair for technique that typifies Bloch’s best work.
“The Cloak” is about a man named Stephen Henderson who, needing something to wear to a Halloween party, purchases the title garment for $5 at a local costumer’s. As the story goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Henderson is not merely dressed as a vampire – the cloak may in fact be turning him into one.
Bloch sets the tone for the story in the opening lines, which, though having nothing explicitly to do with vampirism, contain within them symbolic hints of what is to come. “The Cloak” opens at sunset, but instead of the sun descending, it is described as “dying,” creeping toward a “sepulchre behind the hills.” The colour of the evening sky is likened to blood that is “spattered“ across the horizon. The wind is propelling “dry, fallen” (i.e. dead) leaves westward, “as thought hastening them to the funeral of the sun.” The imagery – of death, blood, and funerals – could not be more clear regarding the nature of the story we are about to read.
There is something undeniably predictable about the way the story unfolds, though it may have appeared somewhat less formulaic in 1939. That said, Bloch‘s writing is propulsive and he handles his scenario with the verve of a storyteller bound and determined to keep his pot at a steady boil. At the party, the guests shy away from Henderson and the host, Marcus Lindstrom, appears visibly unnerved. “Had Lindstrom really drawn back? Were his eyes actually filled with a certain dismay?” Henderson puts his host’s reaction down to intoxication, though Lindstrom himself specifies the origin of his discomfiture: “That outfit of yours gave me a shock.”
The only partygoer not similarly affected is a woman named Sheila Darrly, who is dressed as an angel underneath a dark cloak very similar to the one worn by Henderson. (It is here the attentive reader will begin to surmise where the narrative is headed.)
The requisite scenes are arrayed in their expected order: Henderson fails to catch his own reflection in a bathroom mirror; he feels inexplicably drawn to the bulging vein on his host’s neck; when he affects to grab and bite Lindstrom, he is dissuaded by Sheila and laughs the whole incident off as a Halloween prank.
In the costumer’s shop, Henderson tells the proprietor he is looking for something “authentic,” which prompts the man to sell him the garment for a ridiculously low sum, claiming he is “leaving business shortly” and Henderson ”will find more use for it” than he would. The rest of the story is an expansion on the notion of the cloak’s authenticity: is Henderson drunk, losing his mind, or is he in fact succumbing to vampiric tendencies and desires? Certainly, the fact that the cloak remains chilly whenever he dons it, and has an old stain that suspiciously resembles blood, suggests something more literal than Henderson is willing to countenance.
Vampire stories are essentially metaphors for sex, and Bloch’s is no exception. The relationship between Henderson and Sheila – who are repeatedly referred to as “Devil” and “Angel” – is blatantly erotic and persists to the very final moments of the story, at which point Sheila’s Lucy Westenra character reveals itself in its full measure.
But after all, sex and violence are the engines that drive pulp fiction, and “The Cloak” stands as a better-than-average example of that too frequently belittled form. The magazines that gave birth to stories like this one have an important place in the development of the 20th century short story, the postmodern tendency to conflate highbrow and lowbrow influences, and the development of some modern masters in the dark fantasy, noir, and SF genres. Bloch has an important place in this history, and if nothing else, “The Cloak” stands as proof that the author had more in his literary arsenal than a novel about a creepy motel and the odd man who runs it.