No, not sharks.
In all the Four In The Morning and Prometheus excitement, I missed telling you all about the release of Knightwatch Press’ very cool horror pulp anthology Tales From The Bell Club, featuring my short story Tell Tom Tildrum and edited by Paul Mannering. It also features The Wager, a yarn of un-fathomable submersible horror from my good friend and sometime collaborator Jeff Carter.
You can read about Jeff’s story at his blog here.
Take a look at this great cover…
The premise of Tales From The Bell Club is that there exists a upscale private club, much like the world famous Travellers Club, Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club, or the Cobalt Club (to which Lamont Cranston belongs in The Shadow series). The Bell Club’s sole requirement is that prospective members must have undergone some personal horror and agree to share the tale.
All stories are set in an era ranging from the early 1900’s to the mid to late 1930’s – the ‘golden’ age of adventure and pulp.
My own offering is called Tell Tom Tildrum, a reference to the old English fable, The King ‘O The Cats (special thanks to Jeff for pointing out this tale to me and giving me a springboard).
For sake of context, in The King ‘O The Cats, a gravedigger witnesses a body of feline pallbearers carrying a small casket in which lies a dead cat in state, with a golden crown upon its head. One of the cat onlookers notices the gravedigger and tells him to tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead. The terrified and bewildered gravedigger returns home to his wife and relates the strange tale, but despairs that he has no idea who Tom Tildrum is. At that point, their housecat, who had previously been sitting on the floor supping milk from a pan, rises up on two legs and declares;
“If Tim Toldrum’s dead, then I am the King ‘o Cats!”
And leaps through the open window to go scampering down the lane toward the graveyard.
My story concerns the application for membership in the Bell Club of one Captain Howe, an arrogant, racist and cruel veteran of the King’s African Rifles, the British colonial suppression of Africa, and the Great War who settled in the Wainhoji River Valley in Kenya and made a living as a safari guide and big game hunter for the notorious Happy Valley Set.
The Happy Valley Set was a scandalous collection of aristocratic young British ex-patriots and American socialites living in the shadow of the Aberdare Mountains whose promiscuous sexual and narcotic exploits were nefarious throughout the 20’s.
The colony was founded by Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, who became one of the region’s first white land owners and was instrumental in drumming up homesteaders from among the wealthy British peerage. Interestingly, he also was the first to coin the term ‘white hunter’ (he employed both a Somali hunter and a white man named Black, and so began referring to them as ‘white hunter’ and ‘black hunter’ respectively). An eccentric but dogged character in his own right, Lord Delamere was instrumental in pushing modern agriculture into Kenya. He also frequently drove golf balls onto the roof of the Muthaiga Country Club, and then clambered up after them.
One of Lord Delamere’s friends was the notorious officer and sometime ornithologist Lt. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, who as a captain in the KAR singlehandedly crushed the eleven year Nandi uprising by calling its leader, Chief Koitalel Arap Samoei to a truce and then shooting him dead while in the act of shaking his hand. He then ordered the chief’s companions machinegunned to death (my Captain Howe is the trigger man on this). T.E. Lawrence described Minertzhagen as being ‘so possessed of his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good.’
There is an amusing anecdote about him, probably fictional, that he met Adolf Hitler in his later years and was bemused when the fuhrer raised his hand in the sharp Nazi salute and declared ‘Heil Hitler!’ Supposedly Meniertzhagen returned the salute and said, ‘Heil Meinertzhagen!’
But back to the Happy Valley Set.
One of the most famous members of the Set was American socialite Kiki Preston, an heiress of the Vanderbilt family. Nicknamed ‘The Girl With The Silver Syringe,’ she was famous for her public use of morphine, cocaine and heroin, and was an avid big game hunter, along with her cuckold husband, Harvard alumn Gerry Preston. Sort of a roaring twenties version of Paris Hilton – famous, or rather infamous for her extravagances (and not much else).
In a similar vein was Countess Alice de Janze, another American socialite nicknamed ‘the wicked madonna,’ married (ostensibly) to Count Frederic de Janze. She spent her days playing the ukelele and caring for her tame lion cub, Samson, and her nights with The Earl of Erroll, Josslyn Hay (who some say wound up murdered by her hand in the early nineteen thirties), or any number of men and women. Alice was an unpredictable firebrand who kept her marriage entirely open. Yet when her paramour Raymond de Trafford bowed to pressure from his traditional Catholic family and announced he would not marry her after she left the Count for him, she shot him in the stomach in a Paris railway station, then turned the gun on herself (and ‘shot herself gently’ according to one newspaper). Both survived, and Alice got her way. She and de Trafford were married a year later!
Lady Myra Idina Hay nee Gordon, nee Wallace, nee Sackville (at one point wife of the aforementioned Josslyn Hay), hosted wild, cocaine and alcohol driven wife-swapping parties at her mountain home, Clouds. She was renowned for greeting visitors as she emerged dripping from her immense green onyx bath.
Now against this background, my Captain Howe, very much in with the in crowed, describes to the shadowy members of the Bell Club an incident in which he led a party of socialites into the bush after a wounded lion with eight Maasai askari hunters, and stumbles across something much more dangerous.
The basis for the weird in my story is the legend of the watusimba.
In the 1940’s, there were reports of young women who were enslaved via narcotics to East African witch doctors, forced to live in cages and given raw meat (sometimes human) to eat. These women were supposedly given lion skins to wear and claw-like weapons, then directed as assassins against the witch doctor’s enemies. They were known as watu Simba (or invariously, simba mtu), or were-lions.
Another story I took inspiration from was that of legendary big game hunter George Rushby, who as game warden of Taganyika, was called to deal with a pride of twenty two killer lions who killed and eaten approximately 1,500 people in the districts of Njombe and Singida. Battling not only killer lions, Rushby came face to face with local superstition as well, as the villagers believed the lions were magically directed by the will of a local witch doctor, Matamula Mangera, who was called The King Of The Lions.
Here’s an excerpt –
“It was an intimate party. Only myself, two gents with their wives, eight askaris…ah, that is, guards, culled from the Maasai, and about fifty Kikuyus, including the cook, bearers, and horse trainers. Quite a small entourage, really, for a hounding party.”
“Yes sir,” I said. “Like your fox hunt, but we use gundogs. African Lion Hounds. Bloody beautiful animals, stiff ridgebacks and fine red coats, like proper British soldiers, bred for the purpose. They flush ‘em out, keep ‘em at bay till we can come up with our Express Rifles and blast ‘em.”
I took a sip of scotch and went on.
“Anyway, the dogs had surprised a lioness with her kill, and they surrounded her. You could hear the barking and her roar way at the back of the train, a real hullabaloo boiling over. She killed two hounds by the time we got to her. Big, yellow thing she was, magnificent, her shoulders and her whiskers painted red with blood. Gerry shot her first with his .404 Jeffrey, right there,” I said, pointing to my own left shoulder. “Clipped her just enough to make a blood trail for us to follow, really.
Of course, most of the Maasai wouldn’t follow. They’re against killing a lioness unless out of necessity.”
I recalled arguing with the Maasai, when Kiki and her husband Gerry and Malcolm and Bernice rode up to see what was the bother.
It was barely noon, but we were all of us drunk already, and Kiki and Bernice were giggling as Gerry sloshed most of a bottle of gin over the lip of her glass, it being deucedly hard to pour on horseback.
I waved my hand dismissively at Leebo, the headman.
“Ah, these black devils don’t want to chase her. Something about the area they don’t like. They’ve just got a thing against killing females.”
“Aw, that’s so chivalrous of them,” Bernice remarked, pouting her lips. She reached down and patted one of the bearers’ heads, even though it was the askari who were refusing.
“Yeah, knights in shining loincloths,” Gerry remarked.
“Won’t kill females,” Malcolm grumbled. “How little they understand the fairer sex, eh Ger?”
“I think it’s sweet,” Bernice said, now twisting her finger in the African’s curls. “Tell b’wana,” she cooed silkily, to the man’s obvious embarrassment.
“It’s bibi, for you, you numbskull,” Gerry snickered, shaking his head. “Bea, you’re scandalous. What’s it gonna take to get them moving, Cap?”
“Well the bearers’ll stick with us,” I said, “but half the Maasai won’t go.”
“Bullshit!” Gerry snarled suddenly. “We’re payin’ them aren’t we? Listen up, you apes….”
“Oh, let ‘em be, Gerry,” Bernice said, knocking back her glass and wiping the hand that had been stroking the Negro’s head on her khaki riding pants. “They wouldn’t be any help anyway.”
“She’s probably right, Gerry,” I allowed. “No help at all’s better than reluctant help in this case.”
“Oh but I so wanted a lion skin for the sitting room,” Kiki whined.
“I don’t know, tootsie wootsie,” I said. “Going into the bush after a wounded lioness with half the askari…”
“Can’t you all just see me laid out on a lion skin in front of the fire?” she mused, stretching suggestively in her saddle and lacing her fingers beneath her chin like a calendar girl.
“Can’t I!” I grinned.
“Oh brother,” Bernice said, rolling her eyes. “Theda Bara over here.”
“Well let’s send these wogs packing, and press on, chums,” Malcolm said, draining the last glass and tossing it over his shoulder.
“What’s the matter?” We all of us asked at once.
She was rifling through her bag and I knew right away what it was, because the hard little velvet lined case that contained her famously silver syringe was already in her hand.
“I don’t have anything! Not a bindle!” she screeched, throwing things out of the purse.
“Aw, daddy’s little hop-head can’t get snowed for the big bad lion?” Bernice sneered.
“Shut up, you bitch!”
“Now now,” said Malcolm.
“Kiki,” I said, “you don’t really wanna go after a lion on that stuff do you?”
“That’s easy for you to say, Cap, you’re already plastered,” she snarled.
“Oh and you’re not?” Gerry prodded.
I knew I was. I had lost count of the bottles we’d left lying in the bush behind the train. Wine, scotch, absinthe, vodka….
“Well I’ll just have to go back and get Beryl to fly toNairobiand get some more,” she said, turning her horse around.
“Hey Kiki, what about the lion?” I called.
“Oh bring it back for me won’t you, Cap? I’ll give you a big kiss!” she called over her shoulder as she bounced away.
“Better give me more than that,” I called after her, watching the swell of her hips.
“Hey, that’s my wife you’re talking about, you limey profligate,” Gerry grinned, his eyelids wavering.
“I’m surprised you got that word out in your condition. Go catch her before she rides off a cliff,” I said.
He smiled and winked at me as he turned his horse toward the back of the train.
“Bag her for me, Cap.”
“Clean up your mess, you mean,” Malcolm shouted after him as Gerry joined the sacked askari heading home with their spears over their shoulders.
“Yes,” I chimed in, “if you’d of shot straight to begin with we’d be back at the Count’s laying around playing sheik andShebaright now.”
“Gimme a break, chum,” he said in parting. “I’m drunk.”
You can pick up Tales From The Bell Club here, and see the old gang get what’s coming to them…