Short Reviews – The Haunted Level, by Cassiter Wright

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Haunted Level by Cassiter Wright appeared in the June 1944 issue of The Wide World. I seriously looked for this but I couldn’t even find a shot of the cover; it has a guy with a mustache in a beater and a hat standing in a jungle pointing out across a lagoon.

Taking a break from old SF pulps, I decided to take a look at some contemporary WWII era adventure mags. Don’t let the subtitle fool you; in this “Magazine for Men” you won’t find titillating ladies (not manly enough!) nor the tom-shennanigannery of flesh-ripping weasels. No, here you will find tales of blood and empire and manly men doing manly things to keep the British Empire great (and manly). Those without ridiculous mustaches on stiff upper lips need not apply!

Now, I also gather that The Wide World poses itself as a “True Story”/ “True Adventure” type magazine, so a lot of these stories will probably be from the angle of “Let me tell you about this awesome thing that happened to me in X part of the Empire” (Cassiter Wright, for instance, is “a veteran mining engineer”); whether they be fact or fiction, I’ll not speculate on heavily, but from the very outset it looks like these are going to be some great stories and well told.

The opening story, The Haunted Level, is an account of a gold mine on the Gold Coast. The narrator tells you that he can’t give you the real name of the mine, but you’d know it if you heard it, as it was a mine that was still in operation and still quite profitable. But this is a story about one of the bleaker, tougher times.

So, things are looking bad for the mine – there’s gold coming out of the mine still, but not enough to be profitable and not enough to sustain them long enough to divert the manpower needed to explore new levels and find richer veins. There is one solution, though… Back when the French had the mines, level 2 was said to be exceptionally rich, but it had been walled up on account of being stacked floor to ceiling with ghosts. Supposedly there had been a cave in that had trapped and killed some workers and now their souls were stuck there; no natives would work the level on account of the “fantods” and “devil-devils” that would rise up in from the ground and then vanish.

Still, they’ve got to get the mines profitable again or everyone will be out of work, so they unbrick the entrance to level 2 and set about to explore it and try to prove that it’s not haunted so that the native miners will be willing to work. There are some bats and lots of guano, as level 2 must break surface somewhere, but there’s also still plenty of gold. With the help of a few of the more reliable natives, they’re able to convince the other miners that everything is a-ok and you’re not going to be snatched up by devil-devils. Sure enough, level 2 starts producing. And the specialists are able to begin work on blasting a new shaft. Everything is hunky-dory until someone sees a ghost on level 2, causes a panic, and several are hurt or killed while trying to flee the mines. It’s no good; the mines are doomed if they don’t clear a new level and the workers refuse to mine on level 2.

With some ingenious thinking, experimentation, and fortuitous timing, however, the foremen are able to solve the mystery and save the day. The phantasms only appeared at certain times. They will have to prove once and for all that there are no devil-devils – they drag a bunch of miners back with them and ready their watches: they will predict the exact moment that the phantoms will appear. Almost as if on command, there is a rumbling far below and wisps of smoke rise from the ground, swirl in the light, and settle back to the ground.

It turned out that when the miners had been blasting new tunnels, the gas had been forced upwards, expelling smoke and dust through the cracks in the floor, giving both the appearance of the phantoms and the accompanying smell of brimstone. They all have a laugh about it. The mine is able to stay open; Level 2 was able to tide them over, and they hit a far richer vein lower that has made the mine more profitable today than it had ever been in its history.

One of the things that struck me about this was how evocative the writing was throughout. Though the mystery is solved and had natural causes at its root, The Haunted Level is written with all of the flair and finesse of the best strains of horror, from the claustrophobia of being deep under earth to the otherworldly apparitions that have the native workers so terrified. Clever, funny, exciting and frightful, all at once. The most damnably shameful part is that I’ve failed to find a scan of this issue on the internet, and I don’t know that I’m willing to sacrifice my copy to make one.

I don’t know that I will review the entire issue, as it’s harder for me to go back and get choice pull quotes when I can’t pull up a scan. Plus, it’s like I’m rubbing in your face that I have this awesome old magazine that you can’t read. But I wanted to look at some magazines that are contemporary with the Sci-Fi I’ve been reading, and I gotta say it’s pretty great stuff all around!

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