Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dime Detective: Arms of the Flame Goddess

The February 1911 issue of Adventure magazine was grounded in the real world.  It featured the real world exploits of a real-life adventurer-pirate and the inventor of the machine gun.  Even the fiction stories took place on a contemporary earth within the realm of the natural world. 

This magazine would have been written for the parlors of blue collar men who had never left Long Island, former soldiers and sailors who served in the Spanish-American war.  A full generation into the Industrial Revolution, these men would have experienced the last gasp of the age of sail, and been looking forward to the age of the atom.  Some of the readers could very well have been the children or grandchildren of actual cattle-driving cowboys.  To put that in perspective, the men of 1911 were as far removed from the golden age of cattle drives as we are from the golden age of disco.  Manned flight was in the stage of social media today; it had been around for a decade, people were finally starting to find a real use for it, but it was clunky and for the uninitiated, kind of scary.  The tales in Adventure reflected that more sedate pace of technological change, with an emphasis on what was, what is, and what might be next year, rather than the fantastic and far-flung futuristic.  There was simply no real need to look too far ahead because every tomorrow still looked pretty much like today.
Fast forward to 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, and now commercial flights are available.  Hitler’s Luftwaffe and the Jap Zeros are fearsome flying machines the likes of which the world had never seen.  They cooperate with ground forces to alarming effect.  The men of the Allied forces are engaged in a furious technological race that forces their whole society to start looking further and further down the road in a desperate attempt to get there first.  Science fiction enters the scene, and suddenly the average Joe doesn’t see ‘fairy tales’ as something for the kids, but something for all of us.  Somewhere in there, a shift occurs, and magazines start incorporating more and more elements of the fantastic.

Enter the April 1938 issue of Dime Mystery Magazine, and it’s lead story, Arms of the Flame Goddess by Francis James.

Three married couples, having invested a few years back in a large patch of undeveloped land out in the rural countryside, embark on a scouting trip.  A logging company wants to clear cut the land, and they want to be sure that they don’t underbid the contract.  While hiking they encounter a near naked flagellant, a strange Christian cultist who whips himself bloody in a savage mockery of Christ’s suffering on the cross.  When he flees, they pursue, only to find him charred to a crisp amid unburnt grass.  The lone clue, a ring of paper dolls linking hands accordion style.  They immediately leave the area only to discover a second ring of the paper dolls on the windshield of their car.  Then things get really weird.
The town isn’t home to a cult of flagellants, it’s held hostage to a cult of flagellants with the power to make you spontaneously combust.  They also command pale dancing girls wreathed in fire who entice men Siren-like into the woods where the cult sacrifices their victims to the flame goddess.

In the end our hero rescues his wife, and the mysterious events turn out to have a perfectly rational explanation.  The cult leaders are only out for the money and power.  They only targetted the protagonists and their party to stop the land deal that would upset their little con job.

The story itself, is unsettling and creepy in a very Lovecraftian sort of way.  The final confrontation involves human sacrifice and graphic violence around a forest bonfire that is a bit surprising to a 21st century reader expecting more Victorian fare.  

This is a Detective magazine, though, not Weird Tales, so mundane explanations are the order of the day.  Things are changing, but men are still rational creatures, and everybody knows that there aren't really such things as flame goddesses and hexes.  It might be nice to pretend once in a while, but at the end of the day, fairy tales are for kids.

Is it any good? 

Yeah, it's pretty good.  It sticks pretty close to a pattern that modern day slasher movie fans would recognize with a band of six couples slowly whittled down over the course of events.  It isn't particularly earth-shaking, but as far as light entertainment goes, I've read a lot worse.

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