The Surgeon of Souls—A review by Mark Louis Baumgart
Damn, I'm in heaven. A new Bellem collection.
The Ed Wood of the detective pulps, Bellem wrote prolifically from the thirties until the fifties, when he switched to TV. While most of his stories were straight detective stories, he also created a psychic horror/crime series about Dr. Zarkov, the Surgeon of Souls, the last three (rare) stories of which are collected here.
Dr. Zarkov had the ability to grant a person the chance to either go back in time and change a grievous sin, or change the near future for the better. He was always the instigator, but never the star in these psycho-dramas. Clearly the Dr. Zarkov stories were one of the originators of a theme that would later be exploited in movies and TV fare like Donnie Darko or True Calling.
The first story is a moralistic fable of a painter who becomes so infatuated with a woman that he kills his wife, only to find out that he is the victim of a curse that has caused husbands to kill wives, then themselves, throughout recent history.
"Strange Journey" is a good horror/ fantasy/hardboiled crime fable showing Bellem clearly sympathetic with his character, a man who, after embezzling money for his lover, finds himself betrayed in a web of crime, murder and deceit.
"Dark Eyes of Hell," perhaps the most modern of the stories here, could have easily have appeared in the December 1938 issue of Spicy Cemetery Dance Stories, and is eerily similar to a recent well-publicized trial. It's about a man coming home from his wife's funeral, only to be informed that he can change the past . . . but would he? It involves not only sex and justice, but implies that the husband is guilty of an even more evil act on his wedding anniversary.
The last story, a bonus to fill out the collection, is 1938's "The Executioner" and is a must for all weird war story fans, as a pair of twins, one in New York, the other in Nazi Germany, receive simultaneous head wounds and swap minds.
In the end, what's often overlooked about Bellem is that while his writings could be both tone-deaf and overly florid, he was an excellent plotter who could tell a ripping story.
Mark Louis Baumgart
This review originally appeared in Cemetery Dance no.52 (2002)
To purchase a copy of this book visit our The Surgeon of Souls listing.