"Slime" (Joseph Payne Brennan)



Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990) is still ANOTHER great pulp writer
about whom I know too little, and of whose stories I have not read
nearly enough. I haven't even seen any of of his Lucius Lefting stories,
for example, and I have a weakness for occult detectives.

Of his short horror yarns, the ones I have read are strangely haunting
in a quiet, understated way. They remind me of well-told accounts of
urban legends. "The Green Parrot" and "On the Elevator" both have this
quality. "Levitation" (where a stage magician's heart attack has
unfortunate results) reads much like something you would read in THE
FORTEAN TIMES as a reportedly true account; "I'm Murdering Mr.
Massington" on the other hand, is rather like a Robert Bloch crime
story, with a twisted punchline that slaps you across the face.

But "Slime"... egads. This was in the March 1953 issue of WEIRD TALES
(toward the end of that magazine's original run) and it's an all-out
no-fooling Monster On the Loose story. Brennan drops his subtlety and
carefully suggestive word choice to let us have it full blast.

There's no sly build up of hints and shadows before we see the creature,
either. Right in the opening sentence, we're introduced to a huge black
mass of protoplasm skulking around on the ocean floor. The "hood of
horror" is shapeless and without internal structure, sending out
tentacles as needed, contracting or expanding as suits the moment. It's
very old, too. "It had been formed when the earth and the seas were
young; it was almost as old as the ocean itself." The monster's only
motivation is hunger, and it has no natural enemies... anything it can
get near, whether a great shark or giant squid, is quickly absorbed and
digested.

So there it is, like the Blob of the drive-in movies but much worse
because it can move with terrifying speed. The Slime never rests or
sleeps. It just prowls the sea bed killing and eating. Nothing for us to
worry about, of course. Walking around up here in the sunlight and fresh
air, we have no idea such an abomination exists. Well, until an
underwater volcanic eruption causes a huge tsunami which flings the
Slime up to the surface and hurls it ashore in a swamp not far from
human habitation. (Thanks, Mother Nature! You're a real pal!)

Not far from the swamp where the Slime is happily eating frogs and
snakes and muskrats is the town of Clinton Corners. a derelict named
Henry Hossing finds a ten dollar bill. With this unprecedented wealth,
he eats three square meals, buys a quart of rye and sets out to the
swamp to build a fire and bask in a cheerful alcohol haze. Well, at
least fate has made his last day in this life a pleasant one.

One by one, people start to disappear. The Slime is genuinely
frightening. It seems to be just another pool of black gook until it
heaves up like a wave and engulfs you. It can roll toward you faster
than you can run, and bullets don't even get its attention. An
increasing number of townsfolk come to a grisly end. ("Now, as Fred
watched, literally paralyzed with horror, it spread itself over and
around the form of Luke until he was completely enveloped. The faint
writhing of his limbs could still be seen. Then the thing squeezed,
swelling into a hood and flattening itself again, and the writhing
ceased.")

As you might expect, the initial scoffing and disbelief of the
townspeople evaporates as more of them end up digested and sightings of
the Slime add up. Chief Underbeck shows that he's no stereotyped rustic
fool.. he calls in the state police and the Army at Camp Evans. As night
falls, three hundred soldiers, police and volunteers set out to search
the swamp, armed with everything they can carry. But don't be too sure
which side to bet your money on making it until dawn.

I only wish I had read "Slime" at the age of eleven or so, when I had my
first science-fiction and fantasy reading frenzy. If I had devoured this
story at that age, it would have burned itself into my neural circuits
as indelibly as Theodore Sturgeon's "It" or Frank Belknap Long's "The
Space-Eaters" (*ack!* to both of them). As it is, even in my advanced
years, reading this story showed I'm not nearly as jaded as I had
thought and that the ol' sense of wonder is still ticking. Thank you, Mr
Brennan.

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