In which a scholar, charged with executing his late uncle’s unusual will, encounters sorcery in rural Wisconsin.
First published in 1933
There are two problems with having been a film major, as I once was:
- You never actually stop being a film major, and
- Everything reminds you of a film.
The story we’re looking at this week is an example of #2 above, except that “The Return of Andrew Bentley” doesn’t remind me of a specific film so much as it does a certain subgenre — those low-key B horror movies that Universal made during the 1940s, when the vogue for monster movies was winding down.
These were quiet, effective little chillers, invariably starring Lon Chaney, Jr. They had evocative titles, such as Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), Strange Confession (1945), and Pillow of Death (1945). An adaptation of “The Return of Andrew Bentley” — perhaps rechristened Legacy of Doom or something similar — would have fit in nicely. The main character even seems like Lon.
In this case, our Lon stand-in is named Ellis. He lives near Sac Prairie, Wisconsin, and is a writer, a profession that doesn’t meet with the approval of his über-crusty, older-than-dirt uncle, Amos Wilder. It’s therefore with some surprise that Ellis receives a note from Amos, stating that they need to meet immediately.
Ellis learns that he’ll inherit the bulk of his uncle’s estate, but that certain conditions must be met in order for this to occur. First, Ellis must live in Amos’s house, which is far out in the country. Second, he must check the seals on the old man’s crypt every day; should Ellis find that these have been tampered with, he must consult a set of written instructions that Amos will have left for him.
Ellis, who is a bit incurious but seems like a good chap, agrees to this. Then the following occurs:
“Amos Wilder tuned away, his eyes glittering. Then he looked through the window directly opposite me and began to chuckle in a curiously guttural tone. At last he said, his eyes fixed upon a patch of blue sky beyond the tree near the window, ‘Good! I’ll block him yet! Amos Wilder is still a match for you—do you hear, Andrew?’
“What his words might portend I had no means of knowing, for he turned abruptly to me and said in his clipped, curt way, ‘You must go now, Ellis. I shall not see you again.'”
As it turns out, Ellis actually doesn’t see his uncle again. This is because Amos converts to Bahá’í shortly thereafter, and spends the remaining decades of his life wandering the earth doing good deeds for the downtrodden, and you aren’t buying this, are you? What? You think he ends up dying under mysterious circumstances instead? (Steve checks the story.) Hey, good guess!
So it is that Ellis moves into the house, and carries out the conditions of the will. Soon thereafter, he has a number of disturbing experiences, including:
- A night-time vision of Amos, asking for the local priest’s blessing on his sepulcher
- The discovery that his uncle’s library is choc-a-bloc with grimoires
- A close interaction with a limping man who emerges from the trunk of a nearby elm
- A conk on the head from an unknown assailant
It’s the guy who lives in the tree who worries the help the most. For example, when Ellis breaks this news to Amos’s long-time servant Jake Kinney, the reaction isn’t exactly confidence-building:
“Abruptly Kinney came to his feet, his eyes wide with fear. ‘What’s that you say?’ he demanded hoarsely. ‘Walked with a limp?—wore a cape?’
“I nodded, and would have continued my narrative, had not Kinney cut in.
“‘My God!’ he exclaimed. ‘Andrew Bentley’s back!’
“‘Who’s Andrew Bentley?’ I asked.
“But Kinney did not hear. He had whirled abruptly and run from the room as fast as his feeble legs would allow him to go.”
A discussion with Amos’s lawyer, Thomas Weatherbee, clears up the mystery of Andrew Bentley. It seems that he was the local sorcerer. When Ellis scoffs at this, Weatherbee upbraids him, informing Ellis that most of the locals believe in black magic. Wisconsin doesn’t seem as if it would be a hotbed of that sort of thing, but since I’ve never been there, I’ll reserve judgment.*
Weatherbee then backs up his case for Bentley being the local Aleister Crowley by producing a certain photo, which was taken surreptitiously. This is one of the high points of the story, and I wouldn’t think of spoiling it for you.
Shortly after this, Ellis opens the sealed instructions that Amos left for him, and the situation goes from menacing to actively dangerous…
“The Return of Andrew Bentley” manages to be action-packed and atmospheric at the same time. This is difficult, because,when it comes to pacing, those two narrative approaches are in opposition. For example, when was the last time you saw a spooky Vin Diesel movie? Nonetheless, Messrs. Derleth and Schorer manage to pull it off.
A few brief words about the authors:
- August Derleth is to some extent the Rodney Dangerfield of twentieth-century horror fiction: he hasn’t always been shown the respect he deserves. Despite founding Arkham House and being a Guggenheim Fellow, Mr. Derleth has been harshly criticized by some HPL fans for supposedly adulterating the cosmicist Cthulhu Mythos with traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of Good vs. Evil. Like all of the fans who got all riled up about J. J. Abrams‘s re-imagining of the Star Trek franchise, these people need to (a) lighten up and (b) get out of the house more often.
- Although not as well-known as Derleth, Mark Schorer was quite accomplished as well: he had a PhD in English, and taught at a number of Ivy League schools prior to becoming Chairman of the Department of English at Berkeley. An expert on Sinclair Lewis, Mr. Schorer is about as far from the cliched image of a Weird Tales author as you can get.
With talent like this behind it, it’s not remarkable that “The Return of Andrew Bentley” has been so frequently anthologized across the decades; I first came across it in a collection edited by Bennett Cerf sometime in the early 1970s. This story combines pulp energy with the tone of Victorian-era ghost fiction. Still under copyright, “The Return of Andrew Bentley” is worth the price of admittance for any anthology you find it in, especially the one listed at the beginning of this essay.
One final note: Although Lon Chaney, Jr. wasn’t a participant in the production, “The Return of Andrew Bentley” was filmed. In 1961, the story was adapted as a episode of the TV series Thriller, which was hosted by Boris Karloff. The program starred John Newland, the host of One Step Beyond, another spooky anthology show from the same period. A choppy-but-still-watchable .avi version can be found on YouTube here.
*I do want to go on record and say that I really love their cheese, though. Excellent cheese is life-enhancing.