Author Archives: Stephen Luttrell

The Monkey Spoons

In which three irrepressible young people buy exactly the wrong set of knick-knacks.

By Mary Elizabeth Counselman

First published in 1950

Available online at Wikisource

As a horror author, Mary Elizabeth Counselman was a non-conformist among non-conformists.

She wrote for Weird Tales during its classic period, and her 1934 tale “The Three Marked Pennies” was voted one of the most popular stories in the magazine’s history. Yet she wasn’t a member of the Lovecraft circle, and her writing is coming from a very different place than the Gothic cosmicism that was weird fiction’s default mode at the time. She’s quoted as having said:

“The Hallowe’en scariness of the bumbling but kindly Wizard of Oz has always appealed to me more than the gruesome, morbid fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and those later authors who were influenced by their doom philosophies. My eerie shades bubble with an irrepressible sense of humour, ready to laugh with (never at) those earth-bound mortals whose fears they once shared.” (Quoted in This Is A Thriller, by Alan Warren, McFarland Press, 2004)

In addition to this unorthodox statement, Counselman wrote for some very un-Weird Tales-like publications, among them Good Housekeeping and The Ladies’ Home Journal. This is as unusual in its way as the idea of Lovecraft writing for Sports Illustrated.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between Counselman’s work and that of many of her contemporaries is her modernity. She was an early-twentieth-century American author who wrote stories that had early-twentieth-century American settings and characters.  In Counselman, you don’t find any of the worship of the 18th century that appears so often in Lovecraft’s fiction.

There’s also a lack of overt artificiality about Counselman’s writing that’s refreshing, like hearing a Toots Thielmans cover of an Antonio Carlos Jobim song after an evening of Wagner. She deserves to be better known.

“The Monkey Spoons” begins in an antique shop, which long-time readers of fantasy fiction can tell you is not a good sign. Quaint little stores are where characters tend to innocently acquire life-changing (or -ending) artifacts, such as the Zuni fetish doll in Richard Matheson‘s “Prey.”

It’s no different in “The Monkey Spoons.”  The three main characters are Marcia, her brother Allan, and her fiance Bob, all of whom are inseparable (which does sound a bit odd to contemporary ears).  To commemorate their relationship, they’ve decided that they need three identical curios. Marcia thinks she’s had a stroke of luck in finding three “monkey spoons,” Dutch spoons that hung monkey-like around the rims of punch bowls at funerals.

Marcia is enthusiastic, and her husband-to-be says that he’ll pay any price for the set.  The proprietor, however, is strangely reticent:

“Her fiance grinned at her fondly, winked at her discomforted brother, and reached for his checkbook with a light shrug.

“‘All right, my precious, all right! Anything your foolish little heart desires…. But, funeral spoons!’ He roared with amusement. ‘What a gift from the groom to the bride! Mr. Sproull, how much are you asking for…?’

“He broke off, caught by the expression on the face of the hunchbacked antique dealer. Mr. Sproull looked frightened. There was no mistaking that quiver about his mouth, or the agitation in his kindly old eyes.

“‘I … I … Wouldn’t you prefer something less expensive?’ he blurted. ‘Those particular spoons are … almost a collector’s item. Besides,’ he added in an oddly loud tone, ‘they are not mine to sell, really. They are not mine!’

“He emphasized the words queerly, and glanced toward the dark rear of the shop as though he were speaking for the benefit of some skulking eavesdropper whom they could not see.”

When will people learn that they should listen to their trinket professionals?

Naturally, the three cannot be dissuaded, and so they leave with their purchase, no doubt intending not to return anytime soon. Unfortunately, events will force them to come back — some of them, at least…

“The Monkey Spoons” is interesting on a structural level, because it resembles a one-act play.  As each of the story’s four scenes takes place in the shop, it could be easily adapted for the stage. It’s also a fat-free story, containing nothing extraneous. It begins, gets about its business rapidly, and comes to its conclusion with a minimum of fuss.  This makes it all the more effective.

The horror and fantasy genres have reputations for being boys’ clubs.  The careers of C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Margaret St. Clair, Allison V. Harding, G.G. PendarvesGreye La Spina, and Mary Elizabeth Counselman are reminders that things aren’t always as straightforward as they’re portrayed by that standard narrative.  Many of these authors are still in print, and those who are currently represented only by an anthologized story or two — such as Counselman — are overdue for revival.  If a collection of her stories appears in print, I’m snapping it up,

Who’s with me?