Wednesday, October 07, 2015

"The Eyes of the Panther": A Weird Tales Mystery [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Weird Tales, September 1942
The Jules de Grandins, the Conans, the Edmond Hamilton blockbusters were always prominently placed at the beginning of any issue of Weird Tales. Lurking in the last pages are the filler; stuff by also-rans who supplied regular, if not spectacular stories. It is interesting what you will find buried in these forgotten pages. Amongst them are to be found the first stories. Sometimes these initial sales prove to be a wonderful find like Tennessee Williams' "The Vengeance of Nitocris" (August 1928) under his real name of Thomas Lanier Williams. More often, they are obscure stories by authors nobody remembers. The one-offs. Writers who penned a single outing, were able to sell it to Farnsworth Wright or Dorothy McWraith, then disappeared into the dust of the past. "Off the Map" by Rex Dolphin in the final issue (July 1954) is one such tale that has been reprinted several times. But most never see the light of day again.

An example of such a forgotten tale is "The Eyes of the Panther" by Kuke Nichols (September 1942). Nichols is a complete mystery. Is this person a man or woman? Was the name a pseudonym, meant to sound like "kooky"? A little joke like Edgar Rice Burroughs' Normal Bean? Nobody knows. Kuke wrote this one story and it is all we have to go by. Let the detective work begin...

The title "Eyes of the Panther" is shared with a famous horror tale by Ambrose Bierce (October 17, 1897, The Examiner). Bierce's story within a story follows a family who suffered tragedy because of a panther that comes into the house by an open window. Bierce suggests that this incident causes the offspring of the victim to become a were-panther that is shot by her lover in the end. This story was filmed in 1989 with C Thomas Howell as the young man. He got to flip roles on Grimm, where he played a shapeshifting FBI agent named Weston Stewart.

C Thomas Howell in "The Eyes of the Panther"
Kuke Nichols' story has no real bearing on Bierce. It begins with an obscure quote from James Branch Cabell. The plot concerns a man who is tired of the city and returns to his ancestral home to live a quiet life. Becoming bored, he goes to the attic and discovers a trunk that was said to be cursed by his grandfather to keep anyone from opening it. Inside the rotting box is an ancient book, also falling to pieces. From this book, the narrator performs an old rite involving wooden poles that opens the gates to Hell. The familiar that lures him on is a panther with golden eyes, the source of our title.

But once the man has begun to open the door he sees what terrors he will unleash on the Earth and recants. He destroys the spell then flees for his house as trees all around him try to claw him and pull him down. Once inside he burns the book. The panther stares evilly at him before it disappears in the burning house. The narrator survives the fire and ends up in an asylum for a while. After that he chooses to set sail for the South Seas, though he knows he can't escape his fate, for at night, sea creatures stare up at him with the same eyes as the panther. He feels he is doomed, but holds a small hope that God will forgive him in the end.

The end result is that "The Eyes of the Panther" is not a terrible tale. It certainly is better than the many Cthulhu Mythos pastiches by August Derleth that follow a similar plot arc. The first person narrative is quick-paced and free of obvious defect. That being said, it never really rises above any of this either. There are a few interesting bits, like how their version of the Necronomicon "was wrapped three times each way by a tarnished silver chain, and that the chain was made of tiny crucifixes, linked end to end." Still, Nichols has all the denizens of Hell, but describes none besides the panther, first seen on the cover of the book: "Above the circle was stretched a great cat, a panther, perhaps; stained black in contrast with the rest of the carving, which was pale brown. The cat's face was turned outward from the book, and in its eyes were set tiny specks of gold."

Illustration by Boris Dolgov
Another odd fact about this story is the illustration by Boris Dolgov. Dolgov was responsible for some of the very best artwork in Weird Tales, a master alongside Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, and Lee Brown Coye. His soft, fantastic figures are elegant at the same time they are haunting. The illustration for "The Eyes of the Panther" is crude, asymmetrical, and extremely disappointing. I would not have known it was a Dolgov except it is signed at the bottom. In a tale with all the denizens of Hell to choose from - or the panther with the shining eyes - Dolgov draws a tree. And not even an interesting one. I have to assume he got the assignment very late or possibly even without a copy of the story. Even though there are trees that attack the narrator, this illo deserves to be buried at the back of the issue.

In the end, "The Eyes of the Panther" provides no real answers, only more questions. Was Kuke Nichols a pseudonym? If so it would mostly likely be for an author already in the issue, as avoiding duplicate bylines was the most common reason for using them. If so, the tale had to be penned by Manly Banister, Seabury Quinn, Greye la Spina, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, David H Keller, Clark Ashton Smith, HP Lovecraft, or Nelson S Bond. Most of these are immediately dismissed: (stylistically) Lovecraft and Smith; (too big a name to waste) Quinn, La Spina, Keller; (never used pseudonyms) Leiber and Banister. Of those who did use pseudonyms, Robert Bloch used Tarleton Fiske and Nathan Hindin in Weird Tales. Nelson S Bond also used them in other magazines, but there is no record of his using Kuke Nichols. Most likely, Kuke was a fan of the magazine and wrote the one story, basing it on familiar themes and authors.

Could it have originally been a Cthulhu Mythos tale? August Derleth would clamp down on the Mythos properties as he was building Arkham House. (Shutting down authors like C Hall Thompson who wrote "The Spawn of the Green Abyss" and "The Will of Claude Ashur" four year later.) This story appears a little too early for that to be likely. The quote by James Branch Cabell suggests another inspiration than Lovecraft. Kuke Nichols was a fantasy fan more than a Mythos one, I suspect. The story feels almost more like an A Merritt story with its panther and gateway than something Poesque or Lovecraftian. Ultimately, we'll never know. Could Kuke have gone on and written even better stories? It never happened. The mystery remains, as does this minor tale for those who want to dig it up for some autumnal reading. Enjoy.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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