John Bennett's The Doctor to the Dead:
Grotesque Legends & Folk Tales of Old Charleston
Introductory note: The Doctor to the Dead: Grotesque Legends & Folk Tales of Old Charleston (Rinehart, 1946) is a collection of weird tales, several of which were originally in The Yale Review. John Bennett was a founder, with Hervey Allen & DuBose Heyward, of the Poetry Society of South Carolina. -J. A. S.
commentary by rbadac
These stories are rather better than one would expect, folk tales written out like good ghost fiction, if you will. My copy (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1946) looks quite like an Arkham House book in size & jacket design-- published by the same firm that did Derleth's anthologies in the same time period, this may not be totally coincidental, & the spine colors are sufficient to fool the nearsighted into thinking it is Russell Kirk's Princess of All Lands.
Among the many highlights are the fine novelette "The Doctor To The Dead," about the accursed Dr Hein Ryngo, a resurrection man in every sense of the term; "Madame Margot," in which a beautiful mixed-blood woman sells her soul to the Devil in order that her daughter may become white; "The Black Constable," about the sorcerer John Domingo & his overweening behavior (and prompt comeuppance) within his own Satanic bargain; the three "Tales From The Trapman Street Hospital" ("The Thirsty Dead" who cannot lift the cast-iron lid of the well in the yard, but must drink from the bucket borne by the unfortunate girl; "The Little Harlot And Her Broken Pitcher," who likewise quenches a ghostly thirst; & "The Army Of The Dead," who march at night & afflict those who insist upon observing them); "The Measure Of Grief," an elegant parable of the young woman who loses her first child & is shown by a spirit-child how many tears equal sad; "When The Dead Sang In Their Graves," a thing the cemetery gatekeeper & his dog could have done without:"...Then up came the dead, straight & slow, like dead trees lifting leafless boughs. Between them rose the sprays of dust (that) whiffed upward through the cracks, & stood in the air like dried fountains. The newly dead had garments. The old dead had nothing but the rubbish of the grave. Some wore ragged shrouds; some tattered gravecloths; some had only the sand & clay between their brown bones..."
"Rolling Rio And The Gray Man" tells of the encounter on the beach between Rolling Rio the fisherman & the Gray Man, "...tall as a two-story house, black as soot & gray with ashes, a figure of monstrous pattern, half merged with the smoke, its shoulders lost in the darkness, & its eyes like foggy stars staring down..." who accompanies him in the boat when Rio casts off. Rio's further exploits include a later wrestling match with Death, explaining why to this day Death always leans a little to one side.
In "Crook-Neck Dick" the conjuror Jack Warren intercedes for Dick in his murder trial; though he is unable to prevent the trial, the sentencing, or the hanging, he still manages, through the agency of a pair of shoes & socks he loans to Dick, to mitigate the situation considerably.
"In the old days when the Devil taught the fiddlers we had much better music than we have now," goes the opener to "Louie Alexander," who learns from the best. It offers as well the formula for obtaining this instruction:"...One who wants to learn to play from the Devil must take a yellow yam, a hen egg, & a black fowl to the crossroads in the dark of the moon, stake the fowl, break the egg, lay the yam down in the egg, & call the Devil seven times. He will come on the seventh call..."
There are two versions of "Daid Aaron," both written in an approximation of the Gullah patois of South Carolina that will curl your hair, but which actually makes these hilarious stories even more delightful. Think of them as Thrawn Janet meets Uncle Remus & you'll cope better than you might imagine. In "Daid Aaron I" the reluctant dead who refuse to stay buried are called "remainders," who must be put back in the graveyard & given a good talking-to explaining their predicament. This is understandably a chore for the living, as is related in "Daid Aaron II":"...Dat night dem all set roun' de fiah, hopin' dat the dead deceased is gone whun dey berry well know Aaron Kelly ain't got one uthly chance o' goin'. De widder say: 'Ah hopes 'e gone whuh ah spec's 'e ain't!' When in walk de co'pse, lookin' dusty..."
But while Aaron # 1 is made to see reason (more or less), Aaron # 2 is somewhat more stubborn, & the fiddler courting his uncertain widow must lend a hand.
Besides providing the stylistically superb text to these tales (Heh heh. I thought it was great, didn't bother me at all!), Bennett credits the various people from whom he has heard them; most of my favorites seem to come from a Mary Simmons, who probably left a slew of wide-eyed kids in her wake, afraid to go to sleep but unable to forget her. A book well worth having.
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