Arthur Augustus Birdsley
© MCMXCV T.P. Butler
If Howard Philips Lovecraft is to be lionized as the twentieth century's greatest horror fiction writer, then Arthur Birdsley must be considered a close second. Although his books of macabre short stories and novels are long out of print, he continues to exert a strong influence on contemporary authors and artists.
Arthur Augustus Birdsley was born in 1893 in Walpole, Massachusetts. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1916, he worked as a scrivener in his father's Boston-based law firm and penned his stories by night. Unfortunately, none of the major pulp horror fiction magazines seemed very interested in his work, but he did manage to have The Foetid Goat published in 1918 by New Classic Press. The Foetid Goat was received with mild praise, but sold enough copies to lead to a five book contract.
His second novel, The Black Apple, established him as a truly unique writer whose peculiar imagination was unparalleled, even by Lovecraft himself. The Black Apple 's protagonist, Donald Carney, was to become a fixture in American popular culture, thanks to a daily radio drama based on the works of Birdsley entitled Tales From the Nether Realm. This radio drama lasted from 1919-1922 and allowed Birdsley to leave his job as scrivener in order to pursue writing on a full-time basis.
Old Scratch, an anthology of short stories, followed The Black Apple and contains some of Birdsley's must sinister and polished work, including Mother's Entrails, The Cult of Yojo (taken from the name of Queequeg's idol in Moby-Dick) and The Amorphous Wrongth . Old Scratch was the body of work that crystallized Birdsley's style, for it is in these stories that his peculiar sentence formation, his incredibly imaginative infernal creatures and his convoluted plots reach the apex of clarity and prowess that has come to characterize a "Birdsleyesque" aesthetic.
It was also in Old Scratch that Birdsley's most horrific antagonist was introduced: Cnenc Chench. Cnenc Chench, the rotting, disintegrating obese demon, was to become a particular obsession with Birdsley, and after the release of Old Scratch, Birdsley retreated to Old Orchard Beach, Maine to isolate himself from the horror-reading public. He is rumored to have conducted many dark, solitary experiments and rituals in Maine, even to the extent of braving a heaving Atlantic Ocean on the night of a new moon in December, 1924 to hold a mysterious working on Cliff Island. Unfortunately, no reliable data exist pertaining to this excursion..
1926 saw the release of Arthur Birdsley's finest book, a novella entitled The Sticks. Cnenc Chench plays a major role in this work, in which aspiring writer I.R. Cormorant attempts to magically contact Cnenc Chench in order to infernally consecrate his writing tools. Cormorant is convinced that Cnenc Chench is a beautiful succubus who will consecrate his feather pen by inserting it into her vagina.
Cormorant proceeds to do the working, having gone to an isolated cave during the new moon. The ritual must be conducted in complete and utter blackness, or else Cnenc Chench will not appear. He conducts the ritual, having memorized the incantations necessary to summon Cnenc Chench, and soon hears a raspy, guttural voice tell him to step away from the plume that he intends to have consecrated. He shortly hears wet slurping sounds, and is quite erotically intrigued by the mental picture that accompanies these slurps. His curiosity finally gets the better of him, and Cormorant ignites his lantern. expecting to see a demonic nymph masturbating with his trusty ink pen. Instead, to his horror, a bloated and horned abomination appears before him, inserting the instrument into his exposed and rotting entrails. Cnenc Chench rips Cormorant asunder, and the rest of The Sticks delineates the story of the young girl who finds his remains.
1926, alas, also meant personal tragedy for Arthur Birdsley, for he was stricken with an aneurysm that left him bed-ridden for almost two years. He had seemed to recover substantially, however, when he released March Through Dalton . This book was not a macabre horror story at all, but an account of an aging veteran's memories of the Civil War. lt is this work that is most widely known of Birdsley's, but it is atypical of his style. March Through Dalton was well-received by his contemporaries, and actually made The New York Times Book Review's "Ten Best of 1928" list.
Birdsley did not enjoy this success for very long. On February 4, 1929 his wife Agnes shot him with a Civil War era revolver, furiously angry over an alleged affair with a servant girl. Birdsley was laid to rest at Arsenal Memorial Cemetery in Watertown, Massachusetts three days later.
lt is sad that Birdsley's works are not more widely read. Perhaps this biography will stimulate others to seek out his works. Arthur Birdsley is one of America's finest twentieth-century writers of macabre fiction, and deserves more recognition than is currently bestowed upon him. History will surely be kinder to the career and legacy of Arthur Augustus Birdsley than we, his near contemporaries, have been.
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