Larry Kent is making his way through a swamp that is almost as dense as the prose in this story.
The last rays of an unseen sun had faded until the wooded swamp was a fog-shrouded monochrome of somber shadows and swirling vapors. The dank chill of slime-wet air seeped coldly through the darkening gray mists . . . Hidden cells deep within his sensitive brain quivered to the stimulus of a familiar and eerie warning. Somewhere in that chill curtain of twilight fog, Fear lurked, naked and abysmal.
A couple paragraphs of that, and I’m exhausted. Luckily, Wells takes pity on the reader and lapses into a more readable style.
Kent has spent time in the savage wilds of China and Africa, “but never had Kent’s quivering nerves sensed the crepitant feel of Fear more strongly than they did now in the desolate heart of Alabama.” He valiantly carries on in search of his fiancee, Dorothy Lane, who mysteriously vanished in these swamps four days ago.
His nose leads him to two dead bodies. Standing over them is “a creature that was a blasphemous caricature of a man.” Its description is fairly Gollum-esque down to the bulbous eyes and loincloth. His hands, however, are more more claw-like with the fingers fused together and a giant thumb — like the pincer of a crayfish. Not nearly dainty enough for my precious.
Seeing Kent, the brute runs off and smack into three men. Kent tells them that he is lost and the men offer him a place for the night, but their hospitality is transparently a ruse. As they return to their lodge, Kent sees Dorothy accompanying them, but she does not acknowledge knowing him.
Back at the lodge, or “House of Grisly Fear” as the chapter heading describes it, Kent sees a room full of men who have suffered various amputations. Their faces are all the same, though, “stolidly set masks of pure fear.”
Like the creature they encountered in the swamp, they are dressed only in loincloths. From the stumps of their limbs grow strange appendages similar to the claws of the creature — who is not a creature, but a man named Bartlett.
Putting the pieces together, Kent recognizes one of the men as Dr. Enlow Carlin. The doctor had claimed that he had discovered the gland that granted regenerative powers to certain crustaceans. He was drummed out of the mad scientists union for such heresy; and also for spending his time on crustaceans rather than ape-men.
When Dorothy finally manages to be alone with Kent, she has no time for explanations, but tells him they need to escape. Thanks, Madam Curie. Carlin catches them before they take a step and decrees that they shall be turned over to “The Dweller in the Pool.”
Dorothy reveals that the Dweller in the Pool is her brother Raoul. He had lost an arm in an auto accident and was “too bitterly proud to tell any of the rest of the family.” That must have been some arm. Or some family.
He sought out Carlin for his regenerative skills. Sadly, his miraculous crayfish injections were merely a scam to blackmail hopeful patients, and reduce them to deformed madmen. But things are not what they seem with the Dweller in the pool.
A nice pulp piece despite some over-written passages.
- First published in Mystery Tales, June 1938.
- Also that month: Minimum Wage enacted for $.25/hour.
- Who is the titular Hell Maiden? Dorothy is the only woman in the story and she seems like a pretty good chick.