Retro Review: “The Dear Departed” by Alice-Mary Schnirring

Weird Tales May 1944“The Dear Departed” is a ghost short story by Alice-Mary Schnirring, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“The Dear Departed” opens with a séance in progress. Six people are seated around the table, including the medium Radha Ramavi. During the séance, the voice of a child can be heard calling “Mommie, Mommie”. One of the people at the table, a woman named Mrs. Harcourt, recognises the voice as that of her late daughter Dorrie. Clearly upset, she gropes about in the dark and breaks the circle, ending the séance early. When the lights go on again, Mrs. Harcourt is holding a stuffed toy elephant that used to belong to Dorrie, but has been missing since her death.

Radha Ramavi declares that once the circle has been broken, there is no use in going further today. But they can try again tomorrow. Then his assistant, described as a small man in Eastern clothes, sees the guests out, but not before Mrs. Harcourt slips him an envelope containing one hundred dollars, which was a lot of money in the 1940s.

Once the guests are gone, Radha Ramavi and his assistant take off their pseudo-Indian outfits and share a smoke. We learn that Radha Ramavi is really called Joe and that his assistant is called Mark. Neither of them has ever even been to India and Radha a.k.a. Joe cannot really talk to the spirits of the dear departed either. Instead, Joe and Mark are frauds, preying on the despair of the recently bereaved. They acquired the toy elephant from a nurse and used it to fleece Mrs. Harcourt and the others for money.

Joe and Mark head out for dinner and we learn a little more about how their scam works. Mark researches the customers and their dead relatives. He’s also a ventriloquist and produces the voices, while Joe plays the medium. Occasionally, Mark also organises the materialisation of a spirit, using props such as an old Air Force uniform. Since the story was written in the middle of WWII, there would have been a great demand for spirits in uniform and as well as a lot of bereaved parents and widows and therefore a great demand for mediums to talk to the dead. However, Joe and Mark decide to lay off the materialisations for now, because they suspect that one of their customers, a man called Henderson, might be an undercover cop.

By now it’s pretty clear that Joe and Mark are despicable people. But just in case there was any doubt, Mark decides to use his ventriloquist skills to harass a black truck driver waiting at a traffic light, while he and Joe are crossing. And so Mark produces a disembodied voice that whispers “Black boy, debbil’s waitin’ fo’ you,” to the truck driver. As a result, the terrified truck driver slips off the brake, the truck lurches forward and runs over Mark. Poetic justice, I’d say.

Schnirring’s decision to make the truck driver black not just shows that New York City, where “The Dear Departed” is set, was a highly diverse place, it also adds racism to the already long list of Mark’s sins and proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mark is or rather was a horrible person. I could have done without a awful accent Schnirring gave the black truck driver, though.

Now that Mark has gotten his comeuppance, Joe is distraught. For starters, he needs Mark or someone with his skills to run his fake medium scam. And besides, Joe was fond of Mark, because Mark worshipped him and would have done everything for him. Like a mongrel who’d do everything for a bone, a pat on the back or a kick. Just in case there was any lingering doubt, Joe comparing his faithful friend and business partner to a dog shows that he is a horrible person, too. Not to mention that we wonder why Mark put up with Joe, especially since Mark was the one who did all the work. Joe just pretended to be a fake medium.

However, Joe still has a séance scheduled for the next day and his customers arrive on cue. Joe has no idea what to do now, cause with Mark gone there is no one to do the voices of the spirits and arrange all the other little tricks. But since he can hardly send his customers home again, Joe decides to go through with the séance and just pretend that the spirits are not in the mood to answer that day. And so he sits at the table with the others, eyes closed, and wonders just how long he will have to pretend that he’s trying to contact the spirits before he can send everybody home.

Suddenly Joe smells cigar smoke and wonders about that. After all, he told Mark not to smoke in the séance room, because the smell of smoke gets stuck in the draperies. Then Mrs. Harcourt screams and faints. Joe opens his eyes and there is Mark or rather his ghost, his body still mangled from the accident. “You wanted me, Joe, so I came,” Mark’s ghost says.

Who Knocks?, eidted by August Derleth“The Dear Departed” is short, only three and a half pages long, but a certainly manages to pack a lot of punch into its short length. In many ways, this story is similar to “The Gothic Window” by Dorothy Quick, which ran in the same issue. For both stories feature a character faking a supernatural occurrence – though for very different reasons – only for the supernatural to really happen and make sure that a loathsome character gets their comeuppance. Though in “The Gothic Window” there is a plausible natural explanation for the supposedly supernatural occurrences. In “The Dear Departed”, the ghost of Mark really does appear at the end, witnessed not just by Joe but by Mrs. Harcourt and the rest of the circle as well.

Apart from Mark’s sudden death by truck, there are very few surprises in “The Dear Departed” and a savvy reader can quickly tell where the story is going. Nonetheless, the story is well written and highly effective. And while fake mediums are as common in fiction as they probably are in the real world, I nonetheless found the explanations how Joe and Mark conduct their scam fascinating.

Alice-Mary Schnirring is another forgotten woman writer of the golden age, except that she is even more obscure than Allison V. Harding and Dorothy Quick, if that’s possible. According to ISFDB, she was born in Brooklyn in 1912 and died in 1978. Her byline is very likely her real name, if only because no one in their right mind would choose a surname like Schnirring, which is almost impossible for Americans to pronounce and spell (and not exactly great for Germans either), as a pen name. And indeed, in my quest to learn more about Alice-Mary Schnirring I found the obituary of her son, William Schnirring who was born in 1938 and died in 2003 and also worked in publishing, though in very different fields than his mother.

Wake Up ScreamingAlice-Mary Schnirring was less prolific than Harding or Quick. ISFDB lists only six stories by her, all published in Weird Tales between 1942 and 1944. However, she also seems to have been active in other genres. A 1975 Alfred Hitchcock anthology contained a story by her and crime fiction writer and Edgar Award winner Robert L. Fish dedicated a novel to her. All this points to a writer who left SFF for friendlier and more lucrative pastures (Weird Tales was notoriously slow to pay its writers). Alas, there is no crime and mystery equivalent to ISFDB, therefore it is impossible to tell how active she was in that genre.

Considering that every scrap of paper left behind by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard has been scrutinised to death, it’s telling how very little is known about the women who wrote for Weird Tales, even though Weird Tales had more female contributors on all levels (writers, editors, artists) than any other SFF magazine of the pulp era. We clearly need a comprehensive study about the women of Weird Tales.

Night Gallery "The Dear Departed"

A screenshot from the Night Gallery adaptation of “The Dear Departed”

With regard to reprints, Schnirring seems to have done a little better than Harding or Quick and several of her stories, including “The Dear Departed” have been reprinted in anthologies over the decades. Furthermore, “The Dear Departed” was also adapted for an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in 1971, which David Juhl reviews here. The Night Gallery episode sticks to the basic plot of the story, but adds in a love triangle between Joe, Mark and his wife. I suspect that the adultery subplot was added to dispel any suspicions that Joe and Mark are a couple on a personal as well as professional level. Because the story certainly contains hints in that direction.

An effective and genuinely spooky ghost story by yet another underrated woman writer of the golden age.

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