Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"A Question of Etiquette" (1942) by Robert Bloch, with Commentary

"A Question of Etiquette"

© 1942


Robert Bloch  


The house was old, like all the rest of them on the block. The gate squeaked as I pushed it open. That was the only, sound I heard. My shoes had stopped squeaking, hours ago. Taking the census takes the squeak out of shoes very quickly.

I walked up the steps of the porch. I was tired of walking up steps. I rang the bell. I was tired of ringing the bell.Feet sounded, inside., I was tired of feet sounding inside.

Just the same; I braced myself, ."Here it comes," I thought. "Another nose!"

And I was particularly tired of counting noses.

You understand how it is. Walk all day. Ring doorbells. Lug a heavy portfolio under your arm. Ask the same stupid questions over and over again. And when you finish, you haven't sold anybody a vacuum cleaner. You haven't sold a Fuller brush, or even a package of shoe laces. All you get out of it is four cents a nose taking the census. There's no chance for advancement. Uncle Sam isn't going to call you~into^ffirprivatT office, hand you a cigar, and say, "Well, now! I hear you've been doing a mighty fine.job of this house-to-house work. From now on you're going to sit at this desk.. No more nose-counting for .you."

No, all you get out of this census business is a new list of noses-to count tomorrow. Four-cent noses. Big ones and little ones, pug noses and hooked noses, and red, white and blue schnozzles—until you develop a case of nasal allergy. You feel that if the door opens on just one more nose you'll slam it back and go away after tweaking or punching that nose.

So here I was, waiting for this particular nose to stick out. I braced myself, and the door opened.

A sharp pinched beak appeared, the advance guard for a nondescript face and an ordinary housewife's body. The nose sniffed the air and hovered there somewhat uncertainly in the protecting shadow of the door.


"I'm from the U. S. Government, madame. I'm taking the census."

"Oh. Census-taker?"

"Yes. May I come in and ask you a few questions?"

This kind of sparkling' dialogue went on all day. Just one great big exchange of personalities after another.

"Come on."

Down a dark hall, into a dark parlor.

A lamp flared up as I set the bulky portfolio down on the table, opened it up, and drew out the form.

The woman watched me. Her solid face was expressionless. Housewife's face. Used to watching encyclopedia salesmen and bill collectors, with one eye kept on the kitchen stove.

Well, thirty-five questions to wade through. Routine. I filled in the MALE or FEMALE. bracket, and the RACE bracket, set down the address. Then,


"Lisa Lorini." , .

"Married or single?"



"Four hundred and seven."


 "Four hundred and seven."


"Four hundred and seven."

All right, so I work all day, so I run into a half-wit. I looked into the blank face. Well, hurry on, get it over with.

"Your occupation?"

"I am a witch."


"I said that I am a witch."

For four cents it wasn't worth it. I pretended to write it down and skipped to the next question.

"Who do you work for?" ' •

"I work for myself. And, of course, for my Master."


"Satan Merkatrig. The Devil."

For ten cents it wasn't worth it Lisa Lorini, single, four hundred and seven years old, a witch, working for the Devil. Oh, no, it wasn't worth while for fifty cents.

"Thanks. That's all. I'll be going now."

The woman wasn't interested. I folded up the sheet, jammed it into the portfolio, grabbed my hat, turned around, and headed for the door.

The door was gone.

Well, I can't help it. The door was gone.

It had been there only a minute ago, just a plain, ordinary door in an ordinary sitting room. There, was an armchair at one side of it and a small table at the other.

Well, I saw the armchair and I saw the table. But there was no door in between.

I started off in another direction. Over here, perhaps. Still no door. No door anywhere in the room.

Walking around in the hot sun all day isn't good for anybody. Brooding about noses is the first sign, Then you begin to hear voices answering questions in a crazy way. After that you can't find doors. All right. I turned to the woman.

"Madam—would you show me the way out of here.' I must have—"

"There is no way out."

Funny. I hadn't noticed the quality of her voice. It was pitched evenly, but low. Resonant. And there was no tiredness in it. I sensed something else. Was it— amusement?


"I should like you to stay here with me for a while. It was fortunate that you dropped in."

"Dropped in," from a witch! But she wasn't a witch, damn it! There are no witches.

There are no doors.

Now I hadn't seen the fireplace behind me. I hadn't seen the flame. But the fire was burning, and there was a pot on the hearth , irons. She stooped over, and a shadow fell across the wall.

It was a big, black shadow. Big and black, in the way that a frightened child says the words. A big, black shadow of a woman, creeping, across the wall.

I stared at Lisa Lorini. She still looked like a housewife. Black hair, plaited and the middle. A slim figure, un-bent by years.

Four hundred and seven years—

A good thought to skip. Her face now; the nose was sharp, the mouth taut, the eyes slightly slitted. But the features were quite ordinary. Quite ordinary, except that the trick of firelight lent them a vulpine cast. A red face grinning as it bent over a pot.

"You will share a cup of tea with me."

"Really, I must be—"

"It is prepared. Sit down, young man, please do. I'll just take it off the fire."

No, she was feeble-minded. Feeble-minded, like the old hags they used to burn at the stake in medieval days. Hundreds of thousands of crones and beldames burned at the stake. All of them feeble-minded. Millions of them. All feeble-minded. Not a sane one in the lot. Of course not. Witches were a myth. All of the millions were merely crazy in the same way, with the same story. Millions of lunatics. There were no witches. Only—

Only I was afraid.

She was smiling at me. One claw—one hand, I mean—held out the cup. Steam spiralled up from a brownish, liquid. Tea. Witch-brew. Drink it and—

Drink it and shut up! This was foolishness, I tried to look around again for the door, but it was dark in that room.

The fire flickered so. If was quite red, that fire. I couldn't see clearly. Besides, it was hot in here. Drink the tea and get out.

She had a cup too. It wasn't poison. She hadn't dropped anything into it. What is it witches are supposed to drop? Herbs, I guessed. And all that stuff you read about in .Macbeth. They believed it in those days. Lunatics!

So I drank the .tea. Maybe she'd let me out then,. Or rather, I'd humor her'and drink it and then get out. That, sounded a little better.

"I don't have many visitors,"

Her words came softly. Across the table I felt,her eyes watching my face. I imitated a man smiling. '

"I used to. But business has fallen off."


"Witchcraft. Sorcery. It's no good any more. So few people believe. They don't come to me for love-philtres, or little things' like that, let alone the big,things.

I haven't made a poppet for years."


"One of those little wax dolls shaped like a man. The kind you stick pins in when you wish death upon your enemies. Men don't hate any more. They don't want a witches' curse. I have not killed for years. Biisiness has fallen off."

Sure, sure. Kill anybody today? No? All right, let's clos? the office up, our business has fallen off.

Just a tired business woman. A career girl, no less.

But my hand, trembled so I nearly dropped my tea-cup.

"All of my beautiful spells and—but you're not drinking your tea."

The condemned man and his hearty breakfast. Eat your cereal, it's good for you!

"Drink your tea."

Quite a spot. My head told me that I must drink it. Drink it to prove that she was crazy, or that I was crazy, that there were no witches and nothing would happen. My hands didn't want me to drink it, though. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to get the cup to my lips. She watched me as I sipped.

The tea.was bitter, acrid but warm. A ,foreign brew, but it, wasn't Oolong. It went down easily enough, except for that tart .taste.. .. .

"I am surprised, young man; that you evinced so little interest in my occupation. One does not meet a witch every day."

She had to tell me.

"I'd like to talk about it," I said. "Some other time. But really, I've got a lot of names on my list, and I have to be going. Thanks for the tea." -

I kept looking around for the door. The fire made a sort of red pattern in the room — but not wholly there. The red pattern was in my head, too. It flamed and danced.  The.tea had been hot and now heat shimmered through my head. Shadows mingled with the red pattern in the room, and they too seemed to invade my brain. Dark shadows from the dark brew of the tea. Shimmering red and shadows in my head, before my eyes, blocking the vision of the door. I couldn't" I had the illusion that if I concentrated hard enough,
and long enough, I could find it.  It was there, somewhere in the room, somewhere amidst the redness and the shadows. It had to be there. But I couldn't see it.

I could see her, though, quite clearly. Her nondescript features were stronger now. That grim, ironic smile held an ancient wisdom. She didn't need wrinkles. That smile was older than a mortal lifetime could engrave on a face. It was as old as the grin on a skull.:. ^

Yes, I could see her, eveii if I couldn't see the door for lights and shadows.

"I must go now," I said. My voice sounded far away. Only her eyes were close. Her eyes, holding the red light and the black shadow.

I stood up.

I tried to stand up.

Once I drank nine vodkas in a hot tavern, then rose to go home and found myself lying on the floor.  Now I had drunk a cup of tea and when I rose—'

I rose.

Floated. My feet weren't touching the floor. They were resting on air—solid air, made up of red firelight, dark shadow-blur. My limbs tingled with something stronger than vodka. Little needles pin-cushioned my body. I weaved in air.

"Don't leave yet." Her voice didn't notice my position. Her smile did. She understood, all right. "Don't leave yet," said Lisa Lorini. "I have so few guests. You must come with me tonight:"

"Come with you."

"I am going—out."

"A party?" Always the stiff upper lip, ready retort, mustn't realize where I was, how I was. '

Her smile deepened, yawned, engulfed the thought. "Yes, you might call it that. And I need you as a matter of etiquette."

A witches' etiquette. Beezlebub and Emily Post! I was crazy, definitely. Floating in air, and talking etiquette.

"You see," said Lisa Lorini, "I must obey certain—rules. Just as you, holding a dinner party, must not seat thirteen at dinner. I must not hold a Sabbath unless there are thirteen present. A full coven..He wouldn't like it."


"Satan Merkatrig." Again the smile.

I began to, dread that srmle, prepare for it — like a convict lashed to a post, waiting for the next cut of the whip.

"And so you mu^t come with me to the Sabbath tonight," said Lisa Lorini.

"A witches' Sabbath?"

"Exactly. We hold it on the hills. We have far to travel, so you must prepare."

"I'm not going."

Yes , and a three-year-old kid isn't going to bed when its parents tell it to, either. I knew what good my refusal was when I wobbled there in the air. I knew it when I saw her eyes. She didn't have to emphasize it with her laugh, though.

I was learning fast. An hour ago it was lunacy. Now that chuckle crept up and scraped at my heart. Witchcraft, Black Magic, ancient dreads in a room of black and red. It was real; just as real as when thousands died screaming in the flames to expiate their evil in an age when men were wise enough to dread man's blasphemy before the laws of God and Natiure.

"You are going. Maggit shall prepare you."

Maggit appeared. There was no door, so I don't know how Maggit got into the room. I don't know exactly what Maggit was, either. Maggit was small and furry, like a weasel with human hands—very tiny—and a face. It wasn't a human face, although Maggit did have eyes and ears and a mouth and nose. But the evil in that face transcended humanity—the evil, peering out from a tiny hood of animalfur, and grinning with a wisdom neither animals or humans should possess.

Maggit crawled across the floor and piped, "Mistress Lisa?" in a detestably shrill little voice that somehow shocked me more than anything else.

Maggit was—what was the term—the witch's familiar. The animal thing, given to a witch or sorcerer by the Devil, when the Black Bible of the Sabbath was signed in the coven. The little fiend, the'familiar spirit, servant of Satan.

Only such things don't exist, save in the laws and the writings of every civilized nation for thousands of years. Such things cannot be.

So it was imagination that crawled up my floating body as I wavered, powerless to move a hand against that'hideous, furry pattering that chilled my flesh. It was hallucination's tiny paws that began to rub my chest and throat with a yellowish paste or salve Lisa, Lorini gave to it from a jar on the table.. It was,legend that chuckled and rubbed the burning ointment on my limbs. It was nightniare that perched on my shoulder, chattered in my ear, and lisped unspeakable vileness as it rocked with glee.

"The flying ointment." Lisa Lorini's voice came through a burning wave that caused my tingling body to tremble. "Now we can depart."

I scarcely noticed her nakedriess. The black hair, swirling how, covered her like a cloak.

Or a shroud. A shroud , for long-dead wickedness to wear. Her slim hands rubbed the yellow paste upon her limbs. Her body floated upward, joined mine.

"No broomsticks?" I thought, hysterically. From some popular magazine I remembered an' article on the "delusions of flight." Witch-ointment, rubbed on the limbs to give the illusion of flying through space. Popular fancy had transformed the ointment to broomsticks. But the salve was real enough. Pov/erful drugs. Aconite, belladonna, others. Giving rise to these hallucinations. Any chemist could prepare it. Run down to your neighborhood druggist tonight and—

I had to stop that.

I couldn't.

"Hold my hand." She grasped it. Two electric wires met. Tingling shocks ran through me. We were rising. Was that a door? Floating out. Darkness. Night. Floating along. She held me.

Superman, the cartoon character. Stop that .hysteria! Up into blackness, her naked white body curved^ like the ivory horns of a half rfioon.

The cottage below. Witches' cottage. "Let me live in a house by the side of the road and—" Yes, very funny. "And be a fiend to man." Hysteria again. 'Who wouldn't be hysterical, floating through air with a Sabbath hag?  And Maggit, chittering as it rocked on her shoulder, its tiny, paws locked in her raven hair. '

And then we swooped. I held on. The burning was gone now. The wind was rushing, by. Below, the city twinkled. Cities always, twinkle. Little lights, built to ward off the great blackness of night. The blackness where wolves howl and owls screech, the blackness where the, dead dwell, and the things that are not dead. Lights to guard,, lights .to hide a fear. And we, above, flying through tliat fear, into its blackest depths.

I don't know how long, how far. I don't know how we descended. There was the dark, domed hill, and the fire flaring at its peak. There were the crouching figures — white against the shadowed hillside, black against the .flaming fires. A horde of furry creatures scampered at the feet of the presences. There were eight, nine, ten—no, eleven.

Plus Lisa Lorini and myself.

Thirteen in a coven.

Thirteen—and the- sacrifice.

I didn't look at the faces. Tliey were not meant to be looked at, only dreamed.

Lisa Lorini's own' face was masked by exultation. It was she who prepared the sacrifice. The black goat was led to a rock before the fire. One of the other crones wielded the knife. A third held the bowl.
And when the bowl was filled, all drank. Yes, I said all.

That ointment burned. Even on my feet it held me^ in a burning web. I couldn't run, I couldn't riiove out of the circle. of firelight. And when the drum began to pound, I joined the circle. The furry things were lapping at the empty bowl, and their chattering was drowned in the drumming din, the howling.

"Lisa has acolyte," wheezed one of the hags.

'Tis in place of Meg, who could not come," called Lisa Lorini.

Those are the last intelligible words I heard, the last intelligible thought I managed to retain.

Because the howling rose and the fire rose, and it became revival meeting— voodoo—bedlam, only worse than any of these prosaic terms. Tlaey were calling on somebody.

Somebody came.

No burst of flames. No lightning. No theatricals. That was all done by the crones. It meant nothing, really; no more than any savage cavortings about a stone idol.

It was pure business. He stepped out from behind one of the rocks, carrying a large book under his arm, for all the world like a bank examiner coming to examine balances.

But bank examiners are not—black. He wasn't negroid, liot in the least, but—black. Even the eyeballs, the fingernails. A black shadow, a limping shadow. Whether he wore a cloak, or whether a deeper shadow draped his figure, I don't know.

They were quiet when he entered the circle. He opened his book and they crowded around. Their mumbling rose in the night. I crouched down next to the rocks.

Lisa Lorini was talking to him, pointing rny way. He didn't turn his head, but he was aware of me. He didn't smile, or nod, or exhibit a single movement. But I felt him do those things. He handed out orders. He heard reports.

It was a business meeting. Satan and Co., holding a Board Meeting on a hilltop. Souls bartered, dark deeds recorded. And the black man scribbled in his book, the beldames babbled, and I crouched there trembling in the night while the little furry creatures skulked about my ankles. I shouldn't have trembled, for the black man's actions were very prosaic after all.

Prosaic—as hell.

Then it happened. The white figures screamed down out of the dark sky. The clinging figure at its breasts dropped to the ground. There was a cry.

"Meg! Meg has come!"

Meg, the missing witch.

They turned as she advanced, breathless.

The black man spoke then. I won't attempt to set down the soimd of it. Something of rusty locks and the primal grumbling of volcanoes. Age and depth, mingled in a sort of loathsome hissing, as though articulate human speech could not frame the concepts of daemonic thought

"There are fourteen at coven."

They all were shaking. White jelly figures in the firelight. The voice did it.

Lisa Lorini whirled. She dragged me into the circle before I could attempt resistance.

"I—I thought Meg wasn't—"

"There are fourteen. Fourteen."

The voice hinted. Just hinted its anger.


."There is a Law. There is a Punishment." .

The voice capitalized the words.

"Mercy—" ;

You don't ask him for mercy.

.1 saw it happen. I saw her clutch at her throat when his black paw grazed.her wrist. Lisa Lorini writhed to the ground, wriggled for a moment like a white slug impaled on a stick, and then lay silent.

The black eyes, the black pupils turned to me. ,

"There must be thirteen. That is the Law. So you shall sign and take her place."


You don't question him, either.

Somebody was holding the bowl. Another, guided my hand, opened, the book he gave to her.

I felt the clinging, furry form of Maggit move swiftly over my chest: It was at my neck—nibbling. A trickle of blood fell in the bowl. A sharpened stick dipped in. it. The- stick was placed in my hand.

"Sign," said the voice of. the black man.

You don't disobey him—not when you hear the voice.

And then his hand, his black hand, reached out and gripped mine. I felt a surge, a blinding wave of redness, blackness, voice-depth, wind. ..

Something was lying on the ground now, but it wasn't Lisa Lorini. I glanced at the body because it looked familiar. It was my own body that lay there.

"I unbaptize thee in the'name of—"

Maggit led me away. Maggit whispered, "Fly."

I didn't hear. The soaring journey back was instinct—instinct born in another's body, another's brain.

I slept in that house, slept in the darkness, slept in the conviction that when I awoke the dream would be over.

I awoke.

I saw the mirror.

I saw Lisa Lorini, witch, with my own eyes—peering out of her„body.

Maggit chattered at my feet.

That was a.week ago. Since that time I've learned to listen to Maggit. Maggit tells me things. .

Maggit showed me her books, and her stock of herbs; Maggit told me make the philtres and the potions, and what to do to keep this body of mine from aging. Maggit told me how to brew the tea, and compound the paste. Maggit says that the coven meets again on the hilltop tonight.

I remember the rest, of course. I know that now I've signed the book and taken Lisa Lorini's place, I can't escape. Unles's I use her method. Bring another to the coven, and let—etiquette—have its way.

That's the only solution.

Today, after a week, they must be looking for me. Census headquarters must have sent out another man on,my route. Herb Jackson might take it over. He's in this district. Yes, Herb Jackson might knock on my door late this afternooni and come into ask Lisa Lorini some questions'about the census.

"When he comes, I should be. ready. ,

I think I'm going to get busy and brew up a pot of that tea.




This is a story about a very ordinary guy who falls into an extremely-terrible situation through little apparent fault of his own.  He's obviously meant to be a little bit smarter and better-educated than are most people (notice his awareness of the legends of the witch-cult, which were essential to permit auctorial exposition in a strict first-person story in which every other character was hostile) but not much stronger-willed than most.  Note that he drank the tea without question and then was unable to break through any of the illusions, commands or other spells that he found himself under.

The tone of the tale is very much like a dream turned into a nightmare.  The story starts very prosaically, with a census taker knocking on a door, moves into strangeness when Lisa Lorini claims to be a 407-year-old witch, then begins building toward nightmare when the protagonist realizes that he can't find the door.  The full nightmare is reached when the census-taker is flown off to a hill to partake in sacrifice and sign away his soul into the Black Book, with the climax being the death of Lisa Lorini and the protagonist's soul transferred into her own form.

Bloch's handles this transition well.  The story starts with very matter-of-fact narration, with the style mounting to a mad delirium.  We especially get to see the transition in the narrator's own mental state:  at first bored, then calmly-dismissive of the witch's claims, then increasingly unnerved, frightened and ultimately terrified.

The "escape" which Lisa may have made refers to escape from serving the Devil, and one wonders about the effectiveness of this "escape," since she has certainly done much evil since becoming a witch.  The census-taker's body may have died; certainly Lisa's spirit is no longer in Lisa's body, if this WAS her original form (since there is no guarantee that this is the first time that this body-swap has happened).  Likewise, the census-taker must be assuming that his life on Earth will be over should he "escape" the same way:  it is a matter for debate whether or not the Devil would take him anyway, since his trick would be inherently evil.

The body-swapping is right out of Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep.  If this is supposed to be a Mythos tale (there is, however, no obvious reason why it should be taken as such).  It's not obvious who did this.  My guess would be that Lisa deliberately chose to swap into the dead (or dying) body of the census-taker to escape her service to the Black Man.  One possibility is that the census-taker's body isn't truly dead (or that if it is the witch can re-animate and preserve it from decay) and that Lisa has thus made a complete escape.

The description of the cult and the Black Man come straight out of H. P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House."  In that story, the Black Man was identified with Nyarlathotep.  Of course, Lovecraft was himself inspired by actual European legends of witchcraft and witch-cults, which included the concept of the Black Man (including his description as being genuinely "black" rather than merely Negro) so it's debatable whether or not Bloch was cribbing from Lovecraft, or both from medieval and early modern mythology.

Lisa Lorini is an interesting variant on the cliche Wicked Witch, in that she is neither a crone (like Keziah Mason) nor a Hot Witch (like Ephraim Waite in Asenath Waite's body):  she looks and acts exceedingly normal, until she chooses to reveal her true nature.  She's scary because of what she says and does, and the increasingly-sinister expressions on her face, as she reveals her true nature.  She seems an altogether interesting character, and it's too bad that we don't get more insight into her personality and motivations.

One thing that a modern reader will surely notice is that Maggit -- a classic familiar of the Satanic variety -- is treated as all the creepier because it has a vaguely human-like face, hands and voice.  This is based on accounts of witchcraft going back to the 16th century, and very directly based on Brown Jenkin (who was Keziah Mason's familiar).  The point is that a character of this sort might well today be seen as rather cute (even if still evil):  our modern attraction to furries runs very much against an earlier concept of them as horribly unnatural.

All in all this is a good horror tale, the more so because where Bloch borrows from Lovecraft he does so using totally-different characters -- even Maggit is not physically the same sort of creature as Brown Jenkin -- and hence made the concepts his own.  The strong focus on the narrator's internal mental state is also very much Bloch's, and a characterization technique Bloch would raise to his own heights in the intensely-psychological tales he would write in the 1950's and 1960's.

Well worth running, and well worth the read.


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