“The Letters of Cold Fire”

Yes, postings here have been sparse lately. That should change in the next couple of weeks.

However, I did manage to read last week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones discussion group.

Review: “The Letters of Cold Fire”, Manly Wade Wellman, 1934.

The story starts and takes place entirely in New York City with one Roderick Thorne showing up at a dump of an apartment building to ask about one Cavet Leslie whom he is told is sick and visited daily by a doctor. The landlord refuses to let Thorne see him. 

So, Thorne sneaks back into the apartment building right away. We get some nice, if brief, background on the slums of New York City dating back to the warring gangs of the mid-19th century and the Civil War era draft riots. 

Thorne finds Leslie in a bed, and his opening line is: “You were Cavet Leslie.  . . . Try to remember.” Leslie says he’s forbidden to remember anything but his “lessons”. Thorne gives his name. Leslie certainly knows it. He says it will “be great in hell.” 

Thorne tells him he’s come for Leslie’s book. “It’s worth both our lives, and more.”  Leslie keeps protesting against his name being used. Thorne tells Leslie he knows he has the book. Leslie studied at the Deep School. Everybody who finished the school got the book. “Few finish”, says Leslie, “Many begin, few finish.” 

Thorne reminds him the School was underground, in a place with no light. Light destroys what was taught. “Once there, the scholar remains until he has been taught, or – goes away into the dark.” Thorne knows the book has “letters of cold fire”. Leslie confirms that. They can only be read in the dark. Once a day a trapdoor opened in the Deep School, “and a hand shaggy with dark hair thrusts in food.” Leslie was at the School for seven years. 

Thorne again demands the book. It’s in the room somewhere, he knows. “How do you know?”, asks Leslie. Thorne says it’s his business to know. 

I say certain spells – and certain voices whisper back. They cannot give me the wisdom I seek, but they say that is in your book. 

Leslie replies he’s not ever going to give it to Thorne, “of the kidney of the Deep School”. Even Thorne cannot have it since he didn’t study in the darkness for years. 

Thorne grabs Leslie and pries open Leslie’s eyelid. 

“Don’t make me see the light – not after so many years – “ cries Leslie. Thorne tells him that, if he doesn’t get the book, he will pry Leslie’s eyelids open with toothpicks “and let the light burn your brain”. Leslie starts with an incantation, and Thorne puts a hand over his mouth and tells Leslie to motion where the book is. Leslie motions to him it’s in the mattress. Thorne finds the book in the mattress, and gives Leslie a “throat chop”, killing him.

The next scene introduces our hero, John Thunstone. Like Thorne, he’s a big man. Apart from his high head, he looks “very savage and physical-minded”. 

He’s reading a passage in a book about using an accompanying deck of cards to visualize and open a door to another dimension. He’s glad he and “not someone less fitted for such studies” found the book in a Brooklyn junkshop. He thinks it might be anglicized version of another book he knows from his studies, the Chinese Yi King. 

The book has a curious inscription from its previous owner. It says it is a book, like many the inscriber had

“. . . of evilness and dismal lore

That I of the Devil may know

And school myself  to work him woe.

Such lore Saint Dunstan also read.” 

(The Catholic Online site tells me Dunstan became a monk in England around 934 and served King Edmund. He was also a papal legate who repaired many monasteries destroyed by invading Danes, restoring ecclesiastical discipline. He was a noted musician, a skilled metalworker and worked with illuminated manuscripts.) 

Thunstone wonders about the unknown writer. He performs the rite and a doorway does open.  But, behind him, a black, tree-like shape emerges, its tendrils reaching out to him. Thunstone uses an incantation from Egyptian Secrets. The shape disappears, and Thunstone thanks the unknown writer of the book. He also suspects Thorne was involved in the manifestation. 

Thunstone then goes to Harlan’s bookstore. She mentions real-life figures Professor Rhine (of the Duke psychic experiments) and Joseph Dunniger (evidently, he was a famous mentalist who also debunked mediums) proposing theories of psychic powers. She just practices them and knew that Thunstone would be showing up. 

She knows Thunstone’s there for a book. Out of curiosity, Thunstone asks her what she would do if he asked for the Necronomicon. The whole bookshop is described in somewhat magical terms with the only the front part lighted and the back shelves permanently in dark shadows. It’s a

book-cave there, wherein perhaps clumps of volumes hung somehow from the ceiling, like stalactites. 

Harlan says she would give it to him.

Nobody else that I know would be able to look into the Necronomicon without getting into trouble. To anyone else the price would be prohibitive. 

Thorne tells her, as she’s reaching for it, “Leave the book where it is!”. He knew she had it and wanted to make sure it was still there. Harlan says she’ll continue to keep it until he wants it.

Thunstone then asks if Thorne ever comes to the store. 

Not for months — he hasn’t the money to pay the prices I ask him for even cheap reprints of Albert Magnus.

Thunstone bids Harlan good-bye and says she’s a kind woman. Harlan says Thunstone is also kind to her and many others. 

When you die, Mr. Thunstone, and may it be long from now, a whole generation will pray your soul to glory. 

Harlan then adds that Thorne asked her about Leslie, “a poor sick man who lives – if you can call it living – in a tenement across town.” Thorne authorized Harlan to pay any price for any books Leslie had. Thorne asked about the Necronomicon justthe day before. She got the idea Thorne thought Leslie’s book, which he just called a schoolbook, could serve as a substitute for the Necronomicon, and she gives Thunstone Thorne’s address.

As he bids a final goodbye, Thunstone says

Some books must be kept in existence, I know, despite their danger. My sort of scholarship needs them.  But you’re the best and wisest person to keep them. 

After Thunstone leaves, we hear Harlan say that, if she were really to use the magic in the books she has, she would

cut forty years off my age – and take John Thunstone clear away from that Countess Monteseco, who will never, never do him justice!. 

Thunstone pays a visit to Leslie’s address and finds out he died earlier that day. He notices Leslie’s mattress shows signs of something being hidden in it. 

Thunstone, after leaving Leslie’s old apartment, senses somebody is spying on him. He makes his way to Thorne’s apartment, and Thorne is expecting him. 

Thunstone tells Thorne his “hound-thing” led him to Thorne’s place. Thorne knew that and invites him in to sit down. Of Leslie’s schoolbook, Thorne says,

I am impelled at last to accept the idea of a writing which, literally, tells me everything he needs to know. 

Thunstone drops his hat onto a bed when he enters. We get a bit of folklore (or maybe magical superstition) when he drops his hat on a bed. Thorne says, after Thunstone asks him if he killed Leslie,

That’s bad luck for somebody, a hat on the bed. Cavet Leslie had outlived everything but a scrap of his physical self. Somewhere he’s outlived that, for I take it his experiences and studies have unfitted his soul for any conventional hereafter. 

Thunstone says he should be flattered that Thorne tried to immobilize him. Acknowledging a long history between the two, Thorne says “you’ve hampered me again and again in reaping a harvest”. 

Thunstone replies, “Come off it, Thorne. You’re not even honest as a worshipper of evil. You don’t care whether you establish a cult of Satan or not.” 

Thorne acknowledges that’s true. He’s not a zealot like Leslie was. He asks Thunstone if he knows about the Deep School. Thunstone does. Thorne says,

Leslie entered the Deep School . . . and finished all the study it had to offer. He finished himself as a being capable of happiness, too. He could not look at the light, or summon the strength to walk, or even sit. Probably death was a relief to him – though, not knowing what befell him after death, we cannot be certain. 

But, now that he has Leslie’s schoolbook, Thorne has the benefits of its knowledge without going through the same ordeal. He also tells Thunstone to not bother grabbing for the book. It can’t be read in the light. Thunstone already knows the “letters of cold fire” only show up in the dark. 

Let’s make it dark, then, says Thorne. 

Thorne turns off the light and the room is absolutely dark. Thorne tells Thunstone he was clever to stay by the door in case he wants to run away. “It’s no good running away from evil.  . . . I didn’t come to run away again.” 

Thorne tells Thunstone to try to open the door. The door doesn’t exist now. 

Don’t you wish you knew where you were? . . . I’m the only one who knows, for it’s written on the pages for me to see – in letters of Cold Fire. 

Thorne’s voice gets more distant in the dark as Thunstone quietly tries to move towards him. Thorne then describes a place of bushes and trees and with a breeze, a land he calls into existence just by describing it. Thunstone tells Thorne he’s where he’s always wanted to be, in a land where desires can simply be spoken into existence. But who’s going to believe he really can do that? Thorne seems to be interested in being proclaimed a discoverer of new truths. He talks then about how hypnotism and “thought-transference” used to be disbelieved until established by science. 

A light begins to appear over the sort of land Thorne described. 

This country . . .  may be one of several places. Another dimension – do you believe in more dimensions than these? Or a spirit world of some kind. Or another age of the world we know.

Thorne brought Thunstone there by simply reading a book. 

Thunstone surreptitiously takes out a cigarette lighter his girlfriend, the Countess, gave him. 

Thorne says the land he’s called into existence by reading the letters of Cold Fire is big enough for other creatures. Something massive can be heard crashing through bushes. He’ll make them hungry creatures, says Thorne. He’s going to leave Thunstone in this place and take the book of Cold Fire with him. 

Thunstone, described as being like a powerful football player or wrestler, lunges for Thorne and tries to burn the book. The two struggle, but Thunstone succeeds with his “warm fire”, and the book starts to burn. Thorne demands Thuntone put the fire out. He’ll destroy them both. Thunstone replies he’ll take his chances. Thorne attacks Thunstone but is repelled, and the book burns up. Darkness returns. 

Thunstone turns on a lamp. They’re back in Thorne’s apartment. 

“Suppose”, asks Thunstone, “that we call the whole thing a little trick of imagination.” That would be a lie replies the infuriated Thorne. It would be a white lie, says Thunstone. Then he reference some writing Thorne mentioned when Thunstone first showed up. That may convince people, taunts Thunstone.  “This book” would convince people, says Thorne.

“What book?” asks Thunstone. 

You set it afire. It burned, in that place where we fought – its ashes remain, while we come back here because its power is gone.

“Why talk of burning things?”, asks Thunstone. 

I wouldn’t burn this set of notes for anything. It will attract other attentions than mine. 

Thorne acknowledges Thunstone stopped him again, but says Thunstone is going to have to let him go. He is not going to run away, replies Thunstone. Thorne tells him they are back in “conventional lands”, and Thunstone would be dealt with if he killed Thorne. Nobody is going to believe anything Thunstone would say about him.

Thunstone replies he’s going to leave the explaining to Thorne. Thunstone then reveals that, before he came, he called up a doctor who is waiting in the lobby with men to drag Thorne off to a mental asylum. When the doctor shows up with attendants, there is a short exchange of dialogue as Thorne tries to briefly explain but to no avail. The doctor simply says, when Thorne mentions Thunstone burning a book, “You’re talking about John Thunstone, you know?” 

The last brief scene is with Thunstone and the Countess. She asks what ‘fantastical danger” he faced the previous night. “I was in no danger,” replies Thunstone.

She knows he was, replies the Countess. 

I was wearing the cross you gave me, and I held it in my hand and prayed for you – and prayed hour after hour –

Thunstone replies, “That . . . was why I was in no danger.” 

There is a persistent Christian element in the story. It’s not just the concern with the afterlife or Leslie mentioning Thorne in hell or Thunstone and Thorne discussing Leslie’s post-mortem fate with the assumption an immortal soul exists. It’s in the reference to Saint Dunstan, and, of course, Thunstone, while using things like the Egyptian Secrets, giving the Countess a cross for protection and the power of prayer keeping him safe. 

I liked the story ok, but there is a frustrating lack of linkages and follow ups. Of course, Thunstone was a series character in several stories and two novels by Wellman. He’s got a typical pulp hero thing going with the nice apartment, occult knowledge, physical abilities, and a Countess for a girlfriend. Thorne’s and Thunstone’s previous battles may be covered in other stories. I don’t know since this is the only Thunstone story I’ve read.

Still, I would like to have known more about the anonymous inscriber of the book from the junk shop. Does Thunstone regularly search for potentially troublesome volumes in out of the way place? Does Harlan show up in other stories? Why, with such power in his hands, did Thorne feel the need to provoke Thunstone into a confrontation? 

The idea of getting Thorne locked up in an asylum is an interesting ploy on the frequent motif of some Lovecraftian characters being locked up because no one believes their story. (And, hey, standards were less back then for committing people.) Here, it’s just used to shut Thorne up. 

4 thoughts on ““The Letters of Cold Fire”

  1. I’ve read Manly Wade Wellman’s Thunstone stories and generally liked them. However, I find myself wishing the dangers were more….dangerous and the suspense…more suspenseful.

    1. That’s good to know. I was thinking of looking some up to read. I liked the background details but, as you hint, the menace was a bit underwhelming.

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