Forgotten Fiction: Satan’s Phonograph by Robert Bloch

Right now, as you are reading this there are thousands of works of fiction sitting on dusty shelves waiting for our adventurous minds to seek them out.  It is the goal of this little effort of mine to seek out these shuttered tales and see how well they hold up.  Are they hidden gems full of contemporary meaning?  Or are they clunky relics of the past whose time has long slipped through the hourglass?  Let us find out.

Today’s Forgotten Fiction:

Satan’s Phonograph by Robert Bloch

This article also available on Medium

Here is a fun little piece I dug up from the Pulp Fiction Archive.  It’s only a scant two pages in the original print, which I’ve linked to above.  It begins with an unnamed narrator who has come to own a phonograph that he tells us has the ability to play from it a human soul.  Now I’m not going to even attempt to figure out how a device that looks like a standard phonograph could play a soul, or even what that would even sound like.  Are we presuming that it would sound like a voice speaking?  I was willing to suspend my disbelief, but things were already on shaky ground.

We learn that the device came from our narrator’s old mentor, a virtuoso at the piano named Gustav Frye.  If there is a reference or homage here, it went over my head.  He is a strange teacher that believes that to truly master the art of playing music, you must play with your soul.  Ah, I thought, I can see a bit clearer where this is going.  Perhaps a musician that bears his soul in his music, and is recorded, has a part of his soul captured in the recording.

Our narrator explains that he found fame and fortune at the piano after learning from the master.  Once he found this fame however, his mater left him.  And so our narrator went along with his life, playing across America and Europe, and eventually marrying his wife Maxine.

…and then, of course, the master returns.

And then- Gustav Frye came back!

I’ll never forget the night, I was home alone.  Maxine had gone our to spand the evening with friends, I remember that I was sitting before the fire stroking the black fur of Tiger, our cat.

Suddenly, the cat arched its back and hissed.  Then silently, our of nowhere, Gustav Frye glided into the room.

He was little, and wrinkled, and old.  He was clad in rags.  But somehow, he looked terribly impressive.  Perhaps it was his eyes- perhaps something that seemed to peer from within or behind them.

Frye has a big black case containing a phonograph in his hands.  He tells the narrator that he has been working ever since they last met on this machine, although he states that it is not mechanical, and he has finally completed it.  Frye also lets us know that he was locked up for a time, but he has recently broken out for the sole purpose of visiting the narrator.

The old master claims that the device can capture souls, not just sound waves.  He babbles a bit about vibrations and electrical impulses, but our narrator laughs at the ridiculousness of it.  I and have to admit that although a half-hearted explanation is given about how such a device would operate on principal, I was still feeling a bit shakey about it.  The old man has a bunch of scientific explanations about bodily waves but is really talking about the soul.  A concept that does not have any scientific basis, and so it felt strange trying to justify the principals of the machine in scientific terms when what it does has nothing to do with that.  Anyway…

Frye wants to put on a demonstration, and so like in so many stories like this the cat is used as a test.  The phonograph has red glowing lights but does not need to be plugged in.  The cat is then held up to the microphone, which looks like a standard microphone, and hisses and yowls into it.  After a moment the recording is complete, and the cat is DEAD!

I was not sure that it was going to kill the cat.  In many stories bodies can exist without a soul, usually depicted as lethargic and without any energy anymore, or willpower.  But here the cat is just dead.  The narrator yells at Frye, demanding that he leave and never return.  Frye seems confused and tells our narrator that he was responsible for his fame and fortune and that our narrator owes him.  He wants protection and a place to work to perfect his machine and even offers our narrator a portion of the fortune to be made once his plans and the machine are perfected.

Our narrator kicks him out.  But the next day Frye returns, while the narrator is away, and meets his wife Maxine.  Our narrator then returns home to find his wife dead on the floor, with her voice being played from that infernal machine on a nearby table, calling out to him for help.

Our narrator is distraught, and can only think about how he will never see his wife again.  He collapses, weeping to the floor.  He presumes to have fallen asleep, but I think it is more likely that he was drugged by Frye.  For the old master seemingly has returned while our narrator was asleep and recorded HIM!

The story concludes with a fun and clever little ending.  The story that we have been reading is really the recording of our narrator’s voice.  He is pleading with us to find Frye and release him from the recording.  Then at the end, the recording skips, and his plea to us repeat over and over again.

Final Thoughts

Fast and fun, with only a little bit of hokey scientific logic to get over to enjoy.  Definitely worth a quick read.  It’s the kind of story that lets you see a bit of how Bloch operates.  He clearly got a fun idea into his head, and then wrote this little piece to fully explore that seed of a scene.  We don’t learn where or how Frye was able to create such a device, or what his eventual plans are which lends itself to the weird in a way.  It has a couple of enjoyable horror tropes, killing the cat and ending with the narrator trapped and pleading with us as the reader.  I thought the concept was fun and original and had a good time.

Weirdness| 03/10

Horror | 07/10

Novelty | 7/10

Entertainment | 7/10

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