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The Opener of the Way

Greatness? Write this way...

A review by Forrest Jackson

More than fifty years have passed since the publication of the first Robert Bloch book, The Opener of the Way. Never mind the small paperback of "Sea-Kissed" that preceded Opener, because Henry Kuttner shared the credit for the British and Irish unauthorized publications of that near-pamphlet.

Opener of the Way -- Arkham House In some respects, The Opener of the Way is a typical fantasy book of its era. Its contents were culled mostly from the already musty pages of Weird Tales. The dustwrapper informs the reader that the "book was produced in a wartime format, of lighter weight paper and smaller margins, to assure a more compact book, in accordance with government regulation." As such, cheaper paper was used, so truly fine copies of the book are difficult to locate.

But let us give all thanks to The Black Goat that the book is "complete and unabridged," because each story is excellently weird and proves that the young Bloch was as much a master as the mature author who penned Psycho. In fact, it is surprising that ten years passed between Blochís first magazine sale and the publication of the book.

The earliest tales are youthfully in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, which is not shocking considering Blochís weird tutor was the Old Gentleman himself. What is surprising is the effectiveness of these early pastiches, their absolute pulpiness notwithstanding, as in "The Shambler from the Stars." Bloch was wise enough even as a teen-ager to infuse his particular interests, such as Egyptology, into the Mythos, rather than to drone on about quotidian, nameless monsters and the same old forbidden tomes, as most dull Lovecraft imitators did and still do.

The monsters and tomes are present in these early stories, but are used sparingly, especially as Bloch mustered his unique voice. "The Faceless God" employs both Egyptology and Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep, and though it remains within the confines of a
Mythos story, it stands out as something apart from the cycle, too.

"The Mannikin" is a better example of Blochís tendency to extend a Mythos tale beyond its tradition. Not only does it NOT drone, it thrills. And it does so even though it involves an extremely Lovecraftian main character (Simon Maglore) and the invocation of the usual demonic cast (Nyarlathotep and friends) by the aid of the usual grimoires (in this case not The Necronomicon, but Ludvig Prinnís Mysteries of the Worm). The result incorporates elements of HPLís Mythos, but evolves into an odd and gruesome story of a witchís familiar that is far more disturbing than Brown Jenkin from "The Dreams in the Witch House."

Opener of the Way -- British, 1974 The introduction to The Early Fears, which reprints both The Opener of the Way and Pleasant Dreams, addresses the issue of political incorrectness. Bloch states that he does not feel the need to apologize for his naÔve depiction of blacks and other minorities because his early writing was inevitably informed by a culture that accepted prejudice as something proper and natural. (Whether you think prejudice is proper is your own moral decision, but it is natural, you must admit.) The most outrageously racist of the stories is about Haitian voodoo ("The Mother of Serpents"), which was published while Lovecraft was still alive. I suspect Bloch was seeking approval from Lovecraft, who was a lifelong outspoken negrophobe. After HPL died, there was little need for Bloch to continue writing such stories.

The remaining tales prove Bloch was a writer fully comfortable with his own voice. Gone are the "Ia Iaís" we love, but in their place are the screams of the victims of "The House of the Hatchet," a story which can be read as a precursor to some of the themes of Psycho. Another murderous classic is "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," which was later adapted for radio. A few of the stories are somewhat influenced by the weird menace and mystery/detective pulps, such as "The Mandarinís Canaries" and "The Return to the Sabbath," respectively. Although their themes are both occult and supernatural, the latter in particular is also a mystery. It is no wonder Bloch is as respected in that genre as he is in the field of weird fiction.

The last story in the collection is science fictional, although it remains weird at heart. Bloch cites "One Way to Mars" as a departure from the confines of the traditional weird fiction format, though thankfully he never abandoned the field.

When I attended the NecronomiCon in 1993, Bloch was the guest of honor. During his Cthulhu breakfast speech he told the conventioneers that, although he realized his fame came from Psycho, he wanted to be remembered as a Weird Tales author. He will also be remembered as a humorous and kind man, one never haughty toward his fans and one always humble, no matter how many awards he deservedly accumulated.

Notes on the book: The Arkham House edition of The Opener of the Way had a print run of 2,065 copies. The Ronald Clyne dustwrapper I find to be lackluster. Perhaps the lazily reclining monster is supposed to be an illustration for the included story "The Seal of the Satyr," but an Egyptian scene of horror would have been more appropriate. Signed copies are by no means scarce. When I presented my copy to Bloch for an autograph, he joked that it was worth more money unsigned, as it is the rarest state of the book. Donít listen to him. The signature does improve the value, but not by much. Expect to pay $400 or more for a fine copy.

Forrest Jackson can be contacted at fj@hotweird.com; information on his publishing efforts can found at the sites for Pentaradial Press and Heliophobe Worldwide.