Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner were friends, and they collaborated on a handful of stories before Kuttner’s death. Since the two previous posts dealt with their birthdays, I thought I would talk about one of those collaborations as sort of a birthday bonus.
I know nothing about the provenance of “The Grab Bag”. Bloch is attributed as the first author. I speculate on the authorship at the end of this post. For now is a synopsis. I’m going to avoid spoilers since this is a horror story, and I don’t want to give away the ending.
A little man shows up at a house party, the kind where the guests drink a lot and stay the night in one of those mansions with lots of guest rooms. He’s an old man whom no one recognizes. He’s carrying a burlap sack which he says contains a ghost, and he wants to sell it. Orlin Kyle gives him ten dollars for it. Kyle has had a bit too much to drink (so has just about everyone else) and is something of a prankster. He takes his sack, which is tied closed, into the kitchen where he finds Johnny and Fran Vail, the hosts. They’ve also had a bit much to drink. After a rambling conversation about the alleged contents of the sack, Fran leaves to rejoin the party. She’s not comfortable with the whole ghost in the sack thing. Kyle follows her into the other room, initially intending to apologize but he ends up scaring Fran more in an attempt to impress a woman Fran is talking to. Vail ends up punching his lights out.
When Kyle wakes up, his fiance is holding his head. He tells her the story of what happened, and together they plan their revenge on the Vails. This is a horror story, so you know it’s going to end badly for someone.
I rather liked this story the first time I read it in Weird Tales, and I liked it when I reread it the other day. I have to wonder why it wasn’t published in Kuttner’s lifetime like the other collaborations he wrote with Bloch. Maybe Darrell Schweitzer, who was editor of WT at the time, knows.
The first part of the story reads like Kuttner. The dialogue is light banter, with an undercurrent of humor, zippy almost. It’s not until after Kyle wakes up and start plotting with his girlfriend that the story begins to take on a darker tone. Up until this time, the concept of the ghost in the bag (is there really one in it or not, because there’s definitely something in the bag) is kept fairly light.
The tone of the party changes as well, because Kyle’s fiance Sandra implies that Johnny Vail has been making unwanted advances on her. I got something of a hippie vibe on this reading and couldn’t help but wonder if Bloch wrote this part of the story and may have been thinking of some Hollywood parties he had attended or heard about. I don’t know. I’m speculating on this point, but it makes sense to me if that’s what happened.
The ending could be either Kuttner or Bloch. I tend to think Bloch because the story reads more like his work than Kuttner’s in the second half. Bloch often ended his horror stories with a pun or double entendre, and there’s really not one here. I can’t think of Kuttner ending a horror story with a pun off the top of my head, either, though. Still the ending feels more like a Bloch ending. Of course I could be entirely wrong.
“The Grab Bag” is a fun little story with a dark bite at the end. It’s only been published twice since its original appearance in Weird Tales. The first time was in The Early Fears (Fedogan and Bremmer, 1994), and the second was in The Best of Weird Tales, John Gregory Betancourt ed., (Barnes and Noble Books, 1995). That’s more than twenty years since the story saw print unless it’s in an electronic collection the ISFDB doesn’t have listed. I suspect it might be a bit of a challenge to find, but if you see a copy, you might grab it.