Master of the Undead
Hugo Paul | Lancer Books | 1968 | 221 pages
At the culmination of a prologue establishing the nineteenth-century origin story of Sesame, Kansas—rolling along with the narrative spark of a junior-high textbook on the Oregon Trail—town-founder Jeremiah Parchman and his entire family are brutally murdered in their home with an axe. Kiowa Dan, a deaf-mute foundling, and Jeremiah’s adopted son, somehow survives the attack, but is hanged for the crime by a group of vigilantes, even though no evidence is found to link him to the crime. Tale of revenge across time, anyone?
Present-day mayor of Sesame, Laurence Novak, welcomes his daughter Marilyn back from New York, and her failed acting career. Lest anyone forget her comely features, the author refers to Marilyn repeatedly as “the slim brunette”. Mayor Novak plans for a carnival to celebrate the founding of the town, but confides to Sesame Clarion reporter Ken Adler that his true motivation for the party is to life the spirits of the slim brunette, er, his daughter. The celebration also happens to fall on the anniversary of the Parchman family murders. Hmmmn.
The mayor asks his daughter to recite some lines of Shakespeare at the carnival, but instead she delivers an odd, melancholy poem, “The Man Against the Sky.” Coupled with an unexpected eclipse of the moon, some of the more superstitious audience members are troubled that her reading is more of an incantation than an entertainment. Almost as if summoned, a new visitor shuffles into town wearing hobnail boots and a rictus of a smile. He introduces himself to the mayor as Dr. Eugene Greentree, and asks permission to live in the dilapidated Parchman house, standing derelict since the murders ninety years before.
Exhibiting an uncanny power of suggestion, Dr. Greentree convinces the current resident doctor of thirty-five years to step down, and takes over as the sole town doctor. Although he demonstrates strange healing powers and seemingly performs medical miracles—resuscitating terminal cancer patients and reviving fatal accident victims—some in town, including Ken Adler, wonder what sinister agenda drives Dr. Greentree’s actions. And why is Marilyn talking long walks to the Parchman house at night?
Master of the Undead attempts to ignite a slow burn, but never achieves much burn. The first real opportunity for any suspense comes over 100 pages into the story, when town kids Bobby Watson and Phil Bunting break into the Parchman house—but a chill breeze and a squeaky stair are their most forbidding discoveries. After her creepy Blood Moon reading at the carnival, Marilyn Novak drops away as the anticipated protagonist, replaced to some degree by Ken Adler. The Clarion reporter eventually hits his head with the solution to the origin of the mysterious stranger in town, but his acceptance of the ramifications of his discovery is surprisingly easy, leading to a rapid confrontation. An arbitrary countdown of the town clock’s midnight chimes hardly musters any narrative tension for the finale, as Dr. Brant awakens from his self-imposed retreat into his chess problems.
The mythology operating behind the Master of the Undead remains surprisingly undefined, particularly since the mundane details of the town history are so thoroughly documented. Although technically containing some undead, they are hardly manipulated by a master, or given much of a role beyond fulfilling their presence in the book’s title.