Len Quirey has a problem--and not just his scotch-for-every-meal habit and the uneven temper that accompanies it. Len's new quandary is about a foot long (no--not that--he should be so lucky!), is made of a mysterious reddish metal, and causes his ears to ring horribly whenever he does anything to make it vibrate. Turns out the stick--or whatever it is--,which Quirey bought from curio dealer Count Stefan Lonczewski for two bucks, has another interesting property: It can make anyone do anything its bearer instructs a person to do. Quirey discovers this last the hard way when, in a moment of anger, he tells the lady next door to kill the guy she lives with.
Then Muriel shows up at his door. She wants the stick, and seems willing to do just about anything to get it. As Quirey observes, she's "one hell of a feast for the eyes." She's also from Atlantis. Ever wonder what an Atlantean looks like with her clothes off and how this race makes love? More on that in a bit.
Philip Rahman, the man responsible for bringing Muriel and Quirey to my attention, is himself known to be attracted to strange powers, and is also something of a fish out of water. Rahman's small publishing house Fedogan and Bremer (apparently, he's Bremer) recently released this story, called "The Persuader," in a collection of Howard Wandrei's fantasy tales, titled The Eerie Mr. Murphy. A copy of the book sits on the table in front of Philip Rahman at Jimmy's, the windowless south Minneapolis watering hole he calls "his second office." A big man with luxuriantly wavy silver hair, a matching goatee, a Hawaiian shirt, and a robust demeanor, Rahman could easily pass for Old King Cole's younger, hipper brother. He seems completely at ease here, despite the racket from the end of the workweek melee around him. Truly, the place is roaring like a closetful of bees.
Rahman is also delighted that the "long-awaited" Mr. Murphy is finally shipping (it was actually penned back in the 1940s). "The book was supposed to come out last year," Rahman notes, nursing his second gin and tonic. "But the small-press market was very soft. Every few months, it seemed that another specialist bookstore or two would either close down or convert to an online operation. Fortunately, we had enough of a history with Amazon and such to stay afloat, but it was no time to launch a new book. First rule of running a small press: Don't quit your day job."
Rahman practices what he preaches. By day, he's a regular enough guy, albeit one who until a few years ago hosted an annual Ed Gein Memorial Barbecue. "'Bring whatever you want for the grill,' was the rule--no questions asked," he quips. His bread-and-butter--or make that gin-and-tonic--gig is at a hospital (and not in the morgue, either!). Rahman works as a data analyst for Fairview Riverside, a position he's held for 26 years.
"The bread comes in handy," Rahman says--though the press hasn't lost him his Hawaiian get-up. F&B, who publish one to five titles a year (except for fallow 2002), have yet to lose money on a book--an admirable feat for a small press in the realm of horror, fantasy, mystery, and crime fiction. Relatively small press runs have helped with this success (Rahman prints editions of 1,000 to 2,000 as a rule), as has the core following of 450 to 500 fans who buy everything F&B publish.
There's also the matter of quality, as Mr. Murphy demonstrates. Like the other 25 titles the publisher has turned out, this book--edited and elegantly introduced by Wandrei estate representative and longtime Rahman friend, Dwayne Olson--is a nicely done affair. The full-color dust jacket for this hardcover comes from an illustration by Wandrei, depicting a flurry of demonic beings and naked humans on their way to some unspeakable ritual or other.
Many of F&B's "new" publications go back to the 1930s and '40s, when the Minnesota-born-and-raised Wandrei was a writer of pulp fiction--horror, crime, mysteries, etc. Wandrei wasn't merely an armchair adventurer; he had a broad roguish streak that went back to his days at the U of M, which were interrupted when a judge presented him with a stretch in St. Cloud. It seems the fledgling writer had been a member of "the thrill bandits," a gang of upper-middle-class students who made it into newspapers nationwide with a series of burglaries committed for kicks. While Wandrei managed to stay out of the hoosegow during the years he spent writing in New York, he found plenty of other trouble to get into, mostly involving women and alcohol.
His career never took off the way he wanted it to. Esquire, a grail for writers at the time, only accepted one of Wandrei's countless submissions: "The Eerie Mr. Murphy," the tale of a strange little man who could stop watches and airplane engines with his mind.
The Wandrei name is almost synonymous with Fedogan and Bremer. While they've published plenty of other writers, including Psycho author Robert Bloch, Rahman and his mostly silent partner, Dennis Weiler (he's Fedogan), have offered three titles by Howard Wandrei and four by his brother Donald. It's Donald who, in 1939, co-founded the godfather (or would that be devil daddy) of horror presses, Arkham House, with fantasy/horror writer August Derleth.
Meeting Donald Wandrei, as he did in 1976, helped provide Rahman with the impetus to join the publishing racket--something he'd actually dreamed of for as long as he'd been a reader. It also threw quite a monkey wrench into his personal space/time continuum. Rahman was a newcomer at an intimate horror fan get-together in St. Paul when his host asked if he knew who Donald Wandrei was. When Rahman answered in the affirmative, the fellow replied, "He's coming over in a while, if you feel like sticking around."
"I was shocked," Rahman recalls, chuckling. "I had always associated Wandrei with H.P. Lovecraft (the master of tentacle-heavy supernatural horror who died in 1937), and just assumed that he'd been dead for years. It was as though someone had told me that I was just about to meet Edgar Allan Poe."
The two became friends, and three years after Wandrei's death in 1986, Fedogan and Bremer hit the shelves with its first title, The Colossus, a collection of Wandrei's science-fiction stories. Twenty-odd books later, and it was Rahman who was holding court--at 1998's World Fantasy Convention--an event that found the publisher kissing actor Christopher Lee's wife in plain view at Lee's own birthday party! (Rahman claims he thought she was actress Barbara Steele.) And he picked up a World Fantasy Award, anyway!
Chalk it up to Rahman's good fortune--or perhaps to the persuasive powers of a foot-long two-dollar caduceus. Could Rahman have uncovered the same powers employed on hapless Quirey from The Eerie Mr. Murphy? You see, after Muriel dazzles the sozzled Quirey with a quick session of lovemaking, Atlantean style, she recovers the utensil. Naturally, it turns out to be the Small Sceptre of the Atlantean Kings, and soon she directs its charm on him. "The Persuader" ends with the wily bombshell making the acquiescent Quirey slit his own throat.
I wonder if I should have acted on that strange urge to pick up Rahman's check.
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