Monday, March 20, 2017

2014 weird tales from Melanie Tem, Steve Rasnic Tem & Darrell Schweitzer

If you undertake even the most cursory research on H. P. Lovecraft, the name of S. T. Joshi is bound to come up first, last and often.  Joshi is not only the towering figure in Lovecraftian scholarship--he has also edited numerous volumes of brand new weird stories.  When I looked up his name in the catalog of Central Ohio libraries, 2014's Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic was among the numerous titles that came up (Joshi is prolific and indefatigable, and has published a lengthy and eclectic list of books on a variety of subjects.)  Last week, I borrowed Searchers after Horror, which has a fun wraparound cover by Richard Corben replete with human bones, from the Worthington Library, and this week I read stories included in the volume by authors whose work I have already sampled, Melanie Tem, Steve Rasnic Tem, and Darrell Schweitzer.

"Iced In" by Melanie Tem

Longtime readers of MPorcius Fiction Log may remember that I thought Melanie Tem's 2005 story "Country of the Blind" was a first-rate tale of shock and disgust, a well-crafted story that offered up an emotionally draining experience for sensitive souls like your humble blogger who used to get faint in health class when various diseases were discussed.  So, how did I handle this one?

"Iced In" is a depressing realistic story about a woman who has made a lot of poor decisions in her life (if you are the kind of person who judges, as the kids say) and suffers psychological problems.  She is a hoarder, has alienated all her friends and family, and blames others for her problems.  (While the story is in the third person, it is entirely told from the protagonists point of view and has aspects of an "unreliable narrator" situation.)  When an ice storm hits her Kansas home, because she has not paid her bills, has wasted her welfare money on ice cream and chips, and has not maintained her house or put aside supplies for an emergency, she freezes to death.

This story is well-written, and I liked it, but it is not shocking or disgusting, just sad, which is kindof a relief, and kind of a disappointment.  As far as I can tell, "Iced In" has little or no "weird" elements; this isn't supernatural horror or "cosmic horror," this is the horror of real life as lived by real people who suffer from mental deficiencies and/or bad luck.  The ice which is slowly invading the dilapidated house is sort of anthropomorphized, but I don't think we are expected to think it is really alive.

"Crawldaddies" by Steve Rasnic Tem

Like his wife Melanie, Steve Rasnic Tem has written a ton of horror stories and won a bunch of awards.  I was hoping the pun title of this one was not a warning that it was some kind of joke story.

I need not have worried; "Crawldaddies"is not a joke story; in fact it is a pretty traditional Lovecraftian tale.  At age thirty-five Josh feels a powerful urge to return to the remote mountain village in Virginia where he was born, which he and his mother left when he was five.  This place is so remote there isn't even a usable road to it; Josh has to hike there after saying goodbye to his wife and child.

Josh has always been a little odd, and in his place of birth it is quickly revealed why.  In Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" a remote seaside village is home to a bunch of people who have interbred with fish people; well, the town where Josh comes from is right next to a creek and everybody has some of the genetic material of giant crustaceans much like crayfish!  Josh himself is about to molt his human exterior and sprout additional limbs; presumably he is not going to return to the outside world and his wife and toddler.  The reader also has to speculate that Josh's own child, in thirty or so years, will likewise transform into a part-human, part-arthropod monster.

This story isn't bad.

"Going to Ground" by Darrell Schweitzer

I enjoyed Schweitzer's novel, The Shattered Goddess, a fantasy novel which had a healthy proportion of horror elements.  Schweitzer actually edited Weird Tales from 1988-2007 (the ups and downs of Weird Tales' long publishing history are actually pretty interesting--during Schweitzer's tenure, for example, they had to change the name of the magazine because they lost the rights to the name "Weird Tales"), and his stories appear in many of Joshi's anthologies of new weird fiction, so this is a guy who is committed to the weird.

The protagonist of this quite short story is a college professor who is an expert on Edgar Allen Poe, and the story refers to Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" directly several times, so I dutifully read that 1845 tale immediately after finishing "Going to Ground."  Poe writes in the story about our irrepressible urges to do things which we know are immoral, counterproductive or even self-destructive, providing as examples the common desire of people looking over a cliff to jump, and the all-to-common practice of procrastinating in performing even the most urgent of obligations.  The narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse" is a murderer who has escaped detection for years who gives in to a sudden urge to confess, which leads him to the hangman's noose.

In "Going to Ground" the college prof wanders into the forested wilderness late at night, his memory a blank.  He finds he is marching among a column of corpses and ghosts, and then remembers that earlier today he murdered his wife and child.  Soon thereafter he is confronted by their own ambulatory corpses.  Schweitzer's character's experiences mirror many of those of Poe's character: both flee wildly, lose their sight (Schweitzer's prof drops his glasses) and are cornered by a crowd.  I'm not sure if the prof is already dead when he discovers he is marching with the dead, or if the dead are leading him to his own death...it seems possible that he died while falling into a ditch (where he lost his spectacles) or maybe when he stopped his car by the forest he was in reality crashing it.

Not bad, and, of course, it was a spur to reading an important story I would have already read if I had had a decent education.    

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These stories are all good, but not great.  Also, I've gotten so used to reading old books, that encountering references to the common currency of quotidian 21st-century conversation (e. g., hoarding, the Internet) was a little jarring.  We'll be going back some 37 years into the past in our next episode.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Five stories by Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft

In the 1930s Hazel Heald published five stories in genre magazines.  Before publication these stories were revised by H. P. Lovecraft, and, according to S. T. Joshi, "there is abundant evidence that Lovecraft wrote nearly the entirety of all five stories." I personally have no way to assess such claims about their authorship; let's just read these five tales of terror (I'm reading them in my copy of the 2002 printing of The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions) and see if they are any good.

"The Man of Stone" (1932)

This story takes place in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, in the environs of Lake Placid. Some of my ancestors on my mother's side lived in Lake Placid, and my mother has all kinds of sentimental and romantic feelings for the Adirondacks and the people who live there, and we took many vacations to Lake Placid in my youth.  My favorite Lake Placid memory is how, driving up one year (I guess now you can take a superhighway straight up to Lake Placid, but when we went in the '80s you took twisty windy one-lane roads), my brother and I made pistols out of Legos and used them to defend our family station wagon from all the tractor trailers we saw, which we pretended were monsters we called "Cujos"--we had heard about vague references to the Stephen King movie, but had no idea it was about a dog, and to our childish minds "Cujo" had a beautifully brutal and sinister ring to it.

Back to "The Man of Stone."  The narrator and his best friend haven't seen their pal Arthur Wheeler, sculptor, in a while; he went up to the Adirondacks to do some sculpting.  (Uh oh, remember when that dude in Henry Kuttner's "The Frog" left NYC for the country to paint?)  A fourth member of their circle staying in the woods as a rest cure returns to civilization and says he saw some strange, uncannily realistic statues in the woods--could these be Wheeler's work?  The narrator and his best bud high tail it upstate to investigate.

They find in a cave the petrified body of Wheeler, and in the shack he was renting a similarly petrified old man and a younger woman.  And a diary which explains all.  (These Lovecraftian stories often include old manuscripts and diaries and so forth.)

The diary, written by "Mad Dan" Morris, makes up over half the 14-page story.  Dan was descended from a clan of people who worship alien gods like Shub-Niggurath and Tsathoggua and whose preferred reading material is classics like The Book of Eibon.  He used hypnotism to marry pretty young Rose, and physical violence to keep her.  A jealous guy, soon after renting out space in his cabin to Wheeler he suspected that Rose and Wheeler were having an affair, so he plotted to murder them.  (Rose wasn't much of a wife anyway, due to religious differences--she refused to attend the rituals and sacrifices to his family's gods, for example.  Mixed marriages can be tough.)  He thought a poetically appropriate way to kill them would be to turn them to stone with a spell he found on a sheet of paper stuck in his copy of The Book of Eibon.  (In keeping with Lovecraft's materialism, the spell isn't magic per se but rather super science.)  Dan managed to get poor Wheeler, but Rose was a tougher nut to crack, and, in fact, she turned the tables on him, forcing him to drink the petrifying poison before drinking it herself to commit suicide.  Right before she killed herself she wrote a postscript to Mad Dan's diary, detailing her escape and her and her wizardly husband's final stony fates.

This is a decent story.  It is kind of fun to read a Cthulhu mythos story from the point of view of the self-confident worshiper of the ancient alien monster gods instead of just from the point of view of a horrified researcher or somebody like that.  And maybe my mother would appreciate that Lovecraft and/or Heald considered the scenery of the Adirondacks to be "breathlessly exquisite."

"Man of Stone" first appeared in Wonder Stories, and, a reflection of the fact that a woman plays a prominent role in the narrative and that a woman had a hand in writing it, was also included in the 1994 anthology New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow.

"The Horror in the Museum" (1932)

The title story of this collection appeared first in Weird Tales, in the same issue with Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House."

This time we get a third-person narrative set in a decrepit section of London full of decaying homes and warehouses.  Jones becomes a regular visitor of Rogers' Museum, an establishment in a dark basement full of wax figures of vicious criminals and their mangled victims--Rogers once worked at Madame Tussaud's.  But Rogers' Museum includes uniquely bizarre alien creatures, and when Jones becomes friendly with Rogers, the worker in wax claims that his strangest exhibits are preserved specimens of once-living things, not artificial figures at all!

Jones scoffs, and Rogers tells him increasingly incredible tales of his trips to strange corners of the world with his odd foreign-looking and foreign-sounding assistant, Orabona, trips upon which they collected the Museum's weirdest and most horrifying exhibits.

As he tells it, Rogers' strangest and most important journey was to the three-million-year-old ruins of an alien city in Alaska, where he and Orabona retrieved from its ancient throne a monstrous god, Rhan-Tegoth, a being not dead, but dormant. Rhan-Tegoth, which lies behind a locked door, is a bone of contention between Rogers and Orabona--Rogers wants to revive the monster (via bloody sacrifices, of course) while Orabona wants to destroy it; a revived Rhan-Tegoth could very well take over the world or trigger the cataclysmic return of "the Old Ones."

If I had the jacket to my copy,
it would look like this.
Jones thinks Rogers' outre creative work has driven him insane, and Rogers takes advantage of Jones' concern, fooling Jones into spending a night in the museum.  This leads to a very effective scene in which Jones imagines all the horrible things that might be happening around him in the dark (I also liked the scene of this nature in "The Curse of Yig," you will remember), and then an exciting fight scene as Rogers tries to capture Jones and sacrifice him to Rhan-Tegoth.  Of the four principals--innocent Jones, Rogers the priest of Rhan-Tegoth, creepy Orabona, and the monster from outer space, who will triumph?  Who will survive?  Will anybody?

I love the plot, and that the characters are all participants in the drama, not just placeholders in a frame story who find a manuscript which tells us the actual story.  I actually wasn't sure what was going to happen in the end, and I actually cared what was going to happen.  Lovecraft and/or Heald do a terrific job of describing the characters, the settings and the monsters, and the narrative moves at just the right pace.

Very good: five-and-a-half out of six long sinuous limbs terminating in black crab-like claws!

"Winged Death" (1934)

A horror story about academic jealousy with an unreliable narrator? Genius!

Thomas Slauenwite, M. D. was born in my home state of New Jersey to South African parents, and studied medicine at Columbia U and then researched fevers in Africa.  He convinced his buddy, Henry Moore, Ph.D., an entomologist, to come to Africa to research the local insects, thus (Slauenwite claims in his journal, recovered by police) making Moore's career.  And how does Moore repay his generosity?  Well, when Slauenwite becomes famous in the medical field for figuring out how some fever is transmitted, Moore points out to the world that Slauenwite was just lifting his career-making theory from the unpublished papers of recently deceased Sir Norman Sloane, papers Slauenwite found in a house he was renting.  Slauenwite, in his journal, pledges to achieve revenge on Moore!

Eighteen of this story's 22 pages are occupied by Slauenwite's journal, which means we don't have to deal with extraneous characters and their peregrinations as we sometimes do in Lovecraftian stories.  Slauenwite, besides having a name that is hard for me to spell, is a fun narrator because he is such a self-important jerk, and because he is single-minded in his pursuit of vengeance:
Poisonous snakes and insects everywhere, and niggers with diseases nobody ever heard of outside medical college.  But my work is not hard, and I have always had plenty of time to plan things to do to Henry Moore.   
(Yes, like "Medusa's Coil," this is a story featuring a character who uses the "n-word" with abandon.)

The journal describes in detail Slauenwite's quest for vengeance over the course of the period 1929-32.  He treats a crocodile hunter of the Galla people who has been bitten by a "devil-fly"; the local people connect these flies to some ancient ruins they scrupulously avoid because they are associated with the "evil gods Tsadogwa and Clulu."  Uh oh!  With the croc hunter's help, Slauenwite captures some of the devil-flies, planning to mail them to Moore back in New York in hopes they will bite him and kill him!  To prevent Moore, an authority on African insects, from recognizing the flies, Slauenwite crossbreeds them with other species so they look different, and then tests them on his black employees to make sure they are still deadly!  

The plan works!  Moore suffers a long lingering illness and eventual death, but then come the weird complications.  As the Africans told a dismissive Slauenwite, when a devil-fly kills you your consciousness enters the fly's body!  The fly that killed Moore, now inhabited by Moore's soul, begins terrorizing Slauenwite, doing such things as landing in his ink pot and then writing cryptic messages on his ceiling!  Can Slauenwite swat the fly before it bites him--and if it does bite him, will his soul migrate into the fly?

A great horror story that will remind readers of the fine film The Fly with Vincent Price, and of such acts of biological warfare as the British efforts to infect Native Americans with small pox at Fort Pitt in 1763 and unethical medical experiments like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted by the US government on African-Americans from 1932 to 1972.  "Winged Death" first appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as Edmond Hamilton's fun "Thundering Worlds," and in 1944 was included in the collection Marginalia.

"Out of the Aeons" (1935)

We all know how terrible religious strife can be.  It is terrible in the 21st century Middle East, it was terrible in 17th century Europe, and it was terrible on the now-sunken continent of Mu in the 1732nd century B.C. (that's B. C. E. to all you kids).  As we read in the expurgated 1909 edition of von Junzt's Nameless Cults, the people of the kingdom of K'naa lived in fear of the god Ghatanothoa, who resided in a fortress at the top of a mountain that looked down on the kingdom.  Any human who lay eyes on Ghatanothoa would be turned to stone, but his brain preserved to suffer eternal torment, so when the priests of Ghatanothoa tell the people of K'naa they have to sacrifice 24 young people to Ghatanothoa every year or he'll "ooze" out of his fort and petrify everybody and his grandmother, they hop to it!

But there is one man willing to be the Martin Luther of the year 173,148 B.C. (better known to the people of Mu as the Year of the Red Moon.)  That man is T'yog, High-Priest of Shub-Niggurath!  He devises a magic scroll that will protect the bearer from Ghatanothoa's petrifying power, and figures he'll climb the mountain, invade the fortress, find Ghatanothoa, and then use his mad Art of the Deal skills on Ghatanothoa, and maybe get that 24 young healthy young people negotiated down to a more comfortable level.  Like maybe a dozen armadillos or something.  T'yog expects that liberating his people from the oozing menace will win lots of converts to the temple of Shub-Niggurath and maybe even lead to T'yog being declared the new king!

The people of K'naa are totally into this K'naa First policy, well, except for the priests of Ghatanothoa.  The priests of Ghatanothoa get one of their best Russian hackers, I mean sneak thieves, to creep into T'yog's quarters the night before the big climb, open the scroll case and replace the powerful spell scroll with a useless fake.  The next day T'yog climbs up the mountain, never to return, and the power of the priests of Ghatanothoa is preserved.

The above adventure story appears in the middle of "Out of the Aeons," which was first published as "Out of the Eons" in Weird Tales.  The beginning of "Out of the Aeons" covers how in the 19th century a Boston museum acquired a strange mummy that was discovered on a tiny uncharted Pacific island.  The mummy has a look of terror on its shriveled face and is carrying a scroll case with a scroll in some incomprehensible language.  In the 1930s the curator of the museum reads from Nameless Cults and begins to figure out who this mummy is.  At about the same time a journalist writes a story about the mummy, and all the weirdos on the Pacific Rim who pine for the days of Mu get wind of the mummy's discovery and make a beeline to Beantown to study, worship, or steal the mummy who, they believe, looked upon the god Ghatanothoa and has a memory of this sight stored inside its 174,000-year-old brain.  The final third of the story deals with the final fate of the Asian cultists, the museum staff who have to deal with them, and the mummy--let's just say none of these people dies peacefully in his sleep with an easy conscience.

The 20th-century parts of "Out of the Aeons" are just OK; the real magic lies in the paraphrase of the history of K'naa and the story of T'yog, which is like a great sword and sorcery tale set in the perfect setup for an awesome AD&D campaign.

"Out of the Aeons" was later included in the Lovecraft collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (dig the Clark Ashton Smith sculptures on the cover), August Derleth's anthology The Sleeping and the Dead, and Avon Fantasy Reader #18, edited by famed SF editor Donald Wollheim.


"The Horror in the Burying-Ground" (1933)

This is the weakest of the five Heald stories, a sort of lampoon of small town hicks.  (It always makes me a little uneasy when city sophisticates make fun of the lower classes and small town people.  I guess because of the clothes I wore and the way I would carry a volume of Proust or Nabokov around like a talisman, some of the leftist social science grad students I worked with in my Manhattan days didn't know I came from a working class background, and they would frankly express their disgust with "white working-class people" around me.  These daughters of college professors, who were following in their parents' footsteps in pursuing a career of leeching off the taxpayers, always made sure to include "white" in their description of the people who aroused their contempt.)  "The Horror in the Burying-Ground" has a tedious frame story with lots of characters, and the main drama, a sort of love triangle and premature burial tale, also has too many characters.

If you stop at the general store in the crummy rural town of Stillwater maybe the local goofballs who hang out there will tell you the story of Sophie Sprague, Tom Sprague, Henry Thorndike, and crazy Johnny Dow.  Tom was Sophie's brother, and the two lived together on their farm.  Tom was a violent drunk who kept men away from his sister, but when he was off on a spree Thorndike would court her.  Thorndike was the local undertaker, a med school drop out.  Johnny Dow, variously described as "an idiot" and "a half-wit" acted as a sort of assistant or flunky of Thorndike's--Thorndike compensated him by shooting him up with heroin or morphine or something.  The garrulous and mentally deficient Dow with his unguarded talk revealed to everybody that Thorndike was always experimenting with new drugs and embalming fluids on cats and dogs and even the local livestock.

Abridged 1965 UK edition of  1944's Sleep 
No More; it only has 11 stories instead of
 20, but they throw in a sexy Dracula lady 
Anyway, not long after after drunken Tom punched out Thorndike, Tom was found collapsed and the local doctor pronounced him dead of alcohol poisoning.  But Dow's naive jabber and Thorndike's suspicious behavior make clear to us readers that Thorndike had given Tom an injection that simulates death in hopes of having a chance to bury the drunken lout alive.  (The drug Thorndike developed paralyzes the victim but leaves him fully conscious--this sort of horror appears to be a common theme with the writers in the Weird Tales circle; we just saw it in "Out of the Aeons" and in Henry Kuttner's "The Hunt.")

Thorndike didn't do a good job with the dosage, and Tom had some kind of spasm and knocked the syringe needle into Thorndike's own arm, so that the undertaker got a dose of his own medicine.  During the comic funeral scene Thorndike collapses and the local doctor pronounces him dead as well, the upshot being, despite the protests of the "half-wit" Dow, that both men are buried alive, and for decades to come, Dow will visit their graves and talk to them.      

Gotta give this thing, which is too long, tries and fails to be funny, and lacks the "cosmic" horror we look for in a Lovecraft story as well as any of the suspense or shock we look for in any horror tale, a thumbs down.  Despite my denunciation, after its initial publication in Weird Tales along with Kuttner's "The Salem Horror," "The Horror in the Burying-Ground" was included in August Derleth's Sleep No More: Twenty Masterpieces of Horror for the Connoisseur.

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Well, we've got one clunker in "The Horror in the Burying-Ground," but "The Horror in the Museum" and "Winged Death" are very good, "Out of the Aeons" has a cool middle section, and "The Stone Man" isn't bad.

In our next episode I temporarily suspend my boycott of the 21st century to read Lovecraftian stories from 2014!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Three stories by Zealia Bishop and H. P. Lovecraft

Cover of the 1970 first edition of
The Horror in the Museum
and Other Revisions
H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth tells us, spent a lot of time "revising and correcting manuscripts of prose and poetry sent to him by a variety of hopeful writers."  One such writer was Zealia Bishop, who reported that Lovecraft made so many changes to her manuscripts that it made her feel like "a complete failure as a writer."  Ouch!

The above quotes come from my copy of the "Corrected Fifth Printing" (2002) of Arkham House's The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, a collection of stories H. P. Lovecraft worked on to varying degrees but which were initially started by other writers. According to S. T. Joshi, the three stories included in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions that were circulated under Bishop's name in the 1920s and '30s, "The Curse of Yig," "The Mound," and "Medusa's Coil," are "close to original works by Lovecraft," they being "based on the scantiest of plot-germs" provided by Bishop.

I've never read these stories before, and I haven't read any Lovecraft in a long time, so let's check them out.

"The Curse of Yig"

"The Curse of Yig" has been widely anthologized, and after first seeing print in Weird Tales in 1929, was actually reprinted in a 1939 issue of that magazine.  It seems that the weird fiction community has given this one its stamp of approval--let's see if I can concur or if I have to play iconoclast on this one.


Our narrator is an "American Indian ethnologist" come to Oklahoma to investigate Native American mythology about snakes and the snake god Yig.  Indians and old white settlers are tight-lipped when it comes to the topic of Yig, "father of all snakes," but the researcher gets an eyeful and an earful from a medical doctor at an asylum. Eyeful: a glimpse of a totally insane person who slithers around on the floor of his cell like a snake!  Earful: the story of this pathetic creature's origin, a tale of pioneer settlers from Arkansas whose efforts to build a new life in Oklahoma were plagued by their fears of snakes and obsession with the folklore of Yig!

This is a really good horror story, well paced, well plotted and well written.  Among its strengths is its setting.  I guess because of where Lovecraft himself spent his life, weird stories seem to mostly take place in New England or the New York area, so it is a nice change of pace that "The Curse of Yig" draws on the lore of the American West and the history of the pioneers and their interactions with Plains Indians.  The descriptions of flat expanses, unceasing winds and red dust clouds succeed in making Oklahoma as creepy as the ancient woods and decrepit towns of the northeast.

After "The Curse of Yig" has generated an atmosphere of looming dread with its descriptions of the landscape and the pioneer couple's nerve-wracking journey and settlement comes the climax, a powerful scene of terror.  One of the pioneers sits trapped in the dark, surrounded, desperate to decipher what horrible atrocities the sounds she hears and shadows she glimpses signify, what evils may momentarily be visited upon her; this tense scene is followed by revelations of soul-wrenching tragedy and sickening gore.

No wonder "Curse of Yig" has been so widely republished--it works flawlessly.  A horror classic!

"The Mound"

"The Mound" was written in 1929-30, Joshi tells us, but didn't appear in Weird Tales until 1940.  The version that Weird Tales published had been severely edited by August Derleth, we are told; The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions is the first place the "unadulterated" manuscript was published.

To my surprise, "The Mound" is practically a sequel to "The Curse of Yig," featuring as narrator the same ethnologist.  He is in the same part of Oklahoma, now investigating a haunted mound, upon the summit of which figures, thought to be ghosts of long dead Indians, are regularly seen.  Numerous people over the decades who have gone to investigate the mound have returned insane, or simply failed to return.

Our narrator goes to the mound and discovers an old manuscript from the mid-16th century, written by a Spanish explorer named Zamacona. This Spaniard found an entrance to a vast underground cavern, lit by radiation of some kind, where lies a tremendous city, that of the Tsath, humans who are direct descendants of those brought to Earth by Great Cthulhu itself over a million years ago!  The people of Tsath are immortal telepaths, and are served by a slave class composed of the product of a program that bred conquered peoples with animals, amalgamations of humans and machines we would now call cyborgs, and the animated dead.

Zamacona kept copious notes about Tsath society, which is a kind of left-wing utopia thanks to mechanization, technocracy, socialism and eugenics.  "In government," our narrator relates, "Tsath was a kind of communistic or semi-anarchical state....Family organisation had long ago perished, and the civil and social distinction of the sexes had disappeared.....Poverty was unknown, and labour consisted only of certain administrative duties imposed by an intricate system of testing and selection." Lovecraft/Bishop describe the evolution of Tsath society in some detail; in the period of the Spanish manuscript the easy life has turned the Tsath somewhat decadent, and they are losing interest in science and history and indulging more and more in mysticism devoid of sincere belief and sensuality--"principal occupations" include "intoxication, torture of slaves, day-dreaming," and "gastronomical and emotional orgies...."

(Lovecraft thought the 18th century was the height of civilization and regretted the War of American Independence, which I guess is why he flings all those British spellings at us.)

Disgusted by the treatment of the slave-classes, whose members are blithely disassembled and put back together again Frankenstein-style and tortured in the arena for entertainment by the Tsath master-class, and even serve as steeds and cattle (yes, a source of meat), as well as the orgiastic and sensual Tsath religion, the conquistador wanted to leave, but, for security reasons, the Tsath forbid his return to the surface. Zamacona was provided a swank city apartment and inducted into one of the "large affection-groups" which have replaced "family units" among these creepos--whoa, is HPL poaching some of Ted Sturgeon and Bob Heinlein's territory here?  The Tsath guaranteed Zamacona that his affection-group would include "many noblewomen of the most extreme and art-enhanced beauty"--hubba hubba!

During his four years among the decadent Tsath, whose degeneration was accelerated by the Spaniard's presence, Zamacona made three escape attempts, the second effort with the help of a Tsath woman who still cherished outmoded ideas of monogamy and had fallen in love with the surface dweller.  When they were caught she was tortured in the arena and her headless body turned into an undead slave, an automaton charged with standing guard on the mound of the story's title--her living dead cadaver is one of the "ghosts!"

The horror climax of the story has the narrator, the 20th century ethnologist, returning to the mound after reading the manuscript, digging an entrance to the world of Tsath, but then turning back in mind-shattering terror when confronted by an undead guardian whose cobbled together form includes pieces of Zamacona's body, indicating that the Spanish explorer's third attempt to escape was also a failure.  

The 60-plus-page "The Mound" has more in common with Lovecraft's famous "At The Mountains of Madness" (published in 1936 in Astounding but apparently written in 1931) and "The Shadow Out of Time" (also published in Astounding in 1936) than it does with the compact (16 pages) and economical "Curse of Yig," despite these two Bishop stories sharing a narrator and setting.  While "Curse of Yig" is a true horror story, all dread and shock, suspense and gore, "The Mound," like those two Astounding serials, is a science fiction story (with horror elements) about an alien civilization, complete with a detailed fictional history for that alien culture and an expression of Lovecraft's own elitist technocratic politics and interest in decaying, degenerate, peoples.

"The Mound" is good--the horror components and SF components all work--but it drags a bit (unlike "Curse of Yig," which feels like it is the perfect length) and it doesn't feel fresh--at times it really feels like a North American version of the Antarctican "At The Mountains of Madness" or Australian "The Shadow Out of Time."  It is more ambitious than "Curse of Yig," and has something to say about society, but is less entertaining.

"Medusa's Coil"

The history of "Medusa's Coil" is similar to that of "The Mound."  First written in 1930, a version that had been "radically revised and abridged" by Derleth was printed in Weird Tales in 1939; it wasn't until 1970 that the public had access to the original version when it appeared here in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

A guy, our narrator, is driving at night through southern Missouri; when he gets lost and it looks like rain he stops at a decaying mansion to ask if he can stay the night. The decrepit old hermit who lives in the mansion tells its, and his own, story of decline.

The mansion, built in 1816, was originally the center of a plantation built by a transplanted Louisiana grandee, the grandfather of the current lonely owner, Antoine de Russy.  In the description of the estate's early-19th-century grandeur, we get a sentence which gives us an idea why in 2016 the people who run the World Fantasy Award stopped fashioning their trophy in the likeness of a Gahan Wilson caricature of Lovecraft:
There had been, at one time, as many as 200 negroes in the cabins which stood on the flat ground in the rear--ground that the river had now invaded--and to hear them singing and laughing and playing the banjo at night was to know the fullest charm of a civilisation and social order now sadly extinct.
Our narrator uses the word "negro," but in the telling of his tale de Russy says "nigger" more times than I could easily keep track of.

De Russy had a son, Denis, whom he sent to Paris to study.  Among the turn of the century decadents hanging around the City of Lights, Denis met a beautiful woman, Marceline, with long black hair (de Russy compares her to "an Oriental princess" you might see in an Aubrey Beardsley drawing; maybe Lovecraft has the Salome illustrations in mind here?) who was leading a sort of quasi-bogus cult of hipsters who claimed to believe in antediluvian magic.  Denis married this beauty with olive skin and hair that seemed to almost have a life of its own and brought her back to the Missouri plantation.  De Russy and the American-born black servants got a bad vibe from her, but one of the blacks on the plantation, a Zulu woman born in Africa over 100 years old named Sophonisba, doted on and fawned over Marceline.

One of Denis' buddies from the Sorbonne, American artist Frank Marsh, came for an extended visit and a sort of love triangle developed; Marsh and Marceline, both sensitive artistic types, had more in common with each other than either did with Denis, and spent a lot of time together.  Marsh started painting her picture and Marceline fell in love with him.  Things came to a head when it became apparent to Marceline that Marsh was not in love with her at all--in fact, he had come to the plantation to warn Denis that his wife was an evil monster linked to ancient Cthulhu and that whole R'lyeh crowd!  Marceline attacked Denis, and he killed her with a blow from a machete.  When he saw that her four- or five-foot long braid was still moving, that it had a life independent of Marceline's gory corpse, he decided to cut the hair off her dead skull so he could throw it in afire.  Mistake!  The braid moved like a snake, out of the room and into Marsh's room, where it constricted the painter to death python-style!  Denis then committed suicide, leaving poor Dad to clean up the mess; de Russy buried the three disgusting corpses in the basement.

But that's not all!  The US-born black employees started complaining of seeing a snake in the basement, and refused to go down there, while ancient Sophonisba started hanging out down there all the time!  The plantation's finances collapsed and soon de Russy was left alone.... or was he?  His story told, de Russy takes the narrator upstairs to see the painting, revealing the final, ultimate, horror--not only was Marceline an evil witch with monster hair, she had a proportion of African blood!  The figures in the painting seem to move, and in a fit of shock, the narrator wrecks the canvas, causing de Russy to panic--the painting has in the past spoken to him and demanded that he protect it!  Or else!  The men flee the house, but de Russy is too slow--the risen corpse of Marceline catches him.  Our narrator makes it to his car and escapes with memories which will haunt him to the last of his days!

This is a good horror story, though current sensibilities will recoil at the way it exploits whites' fears of blacks and men's fears of women.  It also touches upon a parent's worries about his children, the kind of jealousy that can spring up between friends when an attractive woman is around, and Lovecraft's common themes of decay (the passing of the Southern way of life as well as the collapse of a respectable family that traced its lineage back to the Crusades--remember that Lovecraft's own family could trace its ancestry back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony but by his lifetime was facing financial, psychological and physical collapse) and miscegenation.  The pacing is good, and the characters, driven by sexual and family relationships as are so many of us, are easier to identify with than your typical Lovecraft character, who is some kind of lone, alienated researcher.  The images--the collapsing mansion, the seductive woman, her animated hair slinking around like a serpent--are vivid and memorable.

**********

"Curse of Yig" was surprisingly good, and "Medusa's Coil" nearly as effective, while "The Mound" is an almost archetypal Lovecraft story; solid, but a little too long, in spots a little too slow and dry, and too reminiscent of other examples of Lovecraft's work.  I've enjoyed these stories, so more Lovecraft revisions in our next episode!  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Three Lovecraftian Tales from Henry Kuttner: "The Eater of Souls," "The Frog" & "The Hunt"

I don't know about where you live, but where I live in the Central Ohio area, the local library supports software called hoopla that allows patrons to "borrow" electronic books for free. My interest in Henry Kuttner reignited by my reading of A Million Years to Conquer (AKA Creature From Beyond Infinity), I looked up Kuttner on hoopla and found that a wide selection of books by him were available, and decided to read some of his Cthulhu Mythos stories.

Years before giving birth to this blog, I read some of the more famous of Kuttner's Lovecraftian stories, like "Spawn of Dagon" (a Weird Tales cover story), "Bells of Horror" (which has one bizarre and horrible scene that remains strongly impressed on my mind) and "The Salem Horror," so this week I read stories which have not been as widely anthologized: "The Eater of Souls," "The Frog," and "The Hunt."  All of these appear in The Book of Iod, a 1995 production of Chaosium, available on hoopla for reading on your mobile device.  If you are interested in Kuttner's horror writing but are reluctant to be a genre fiction free rider, consider supporting the good work of Haffner Press by purchasing their volumes Terror in the House: The Early Henry Kuttner, Volume One and The Watcher at the Door: The Early Henry Kuttner, Volume Two, wherein these three stories, and a multitude of others, appear.


"The Eater of Souls" (1937)

This is a sort of dreamy mood piece, a legend told among indescribable aliens on a world "beyond Betelgeuse, beyond the Giant Stars," who now live in peace but in the past suffered the oppression of a half-demon, half-god creature that looked like a white spider and lived in The Grey Gulf, an "abyss from which men say the nearer moon was born...."  This tormentor could summon to itself innocent victims, whose souls would be added to his weird entourage.  The legend relates how a monarch, ignoring the advice of his sorcerous advisers, journeyed to the bottomless pit to confront the Eater of Souls and sacrificed himself to liberate his people.

This brief piece is all style and images; maybe we should think of it as a prose poem. I like it.

"The Eater of Souls" first appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as H. P. Lovecraft's
"The Thing on the Doorstep."  "The Frog"'s "frenzied outcry of blasphemy" was first unleashed on the
world in the same issue of Strange Stories that also printed Kuttner's story "The Invaders."

"The Frog"
(1939)

Norman Hartley is a New York City artist who can't get any work done because his friends are always dragging him to night clubs.  So he rents an old house in the country.  Oh, Norman, I could have told you leaving the Big Apple was a mistake!  In the yard of his rental is an ugly stone with weird carvings on it; the local hicks claim it is the headstone of the burial site of an old witch whose father was a swamp monster, but our Norman doesn't believe in superstitions and the hideous rock offends his artistic sensibilities.  ("It throws the garden out of symmetry.")  So he hires some out-of-town laborers to remove the stone.  Oh, Norman, I could have told you engaging in some amateur landscaping was a mistake!

This is a sort of ordinary horror story, acceptable but not innovative.  From the grave arises the witch, a half woman and half frog monster, and she begins terrorizing Hartley and the village, breaking into old people's homes and ripping them to pieces, chasing Hartley down the street and into the swamp where the Indians say the her father, a sort of demon, lived.  The villagers scurry to organize a posse to defend their families and hunt the monster down.  I was hoping the villagers would turn on Hartley, try to appease the with by handing him over, but Kuttner doesn't take that tack: instead the country folk rescue the city slicker from certain death in the swamp.

Competent but not spectacular.  Weird fiction scholars may note the theme of miscegenation, a common one in Lovecraftian literature; I personally had hopes that Kuttner would push the theme of urban vs rural divide a little harder.

Holy crap, the people at Strange Stories don't
fool around!  According to isfdb, there is some
controversy over who actually created this over-
the-top-cover illo.  Kuttner has two pieces in this
issue, "The Body and the Brain" (w/Robert Bloch)
as well as "The Hunt."
"The Hunt" (1939)

This story is set in the same country village as "The Frog," which I thought was fun.  Researcher into the occult Will Benson has moved out here to conduct his experiments in peace.  His cousin, Alvin Doyle, is coming for a visit with a pistol in his pocket--if Doyle kills Benson then he, Doyle, will be in line for a sweet inheritance! But, wouldn't you know it, Benson is in the middle of summoning the ancient god Iod, Hunter of Souls, when Doyle arrives. Benson ushers Doyle into the pentagram and continues the "experiment," which once started cannot safely be halted.

But Doyle is a cold-blooded murderer, not a superstitious scientist, and he doesn't give a rat's ass about this goofy experiment.  He shoots Doyle dead and departs, oblivious to the fact that the pentagram has been broken. On his long drive home he gets sleepy, so pulls over to take a nap.  He dreams that he is being transported between different alien worlds, all with different colored skies, different terrain and flora and fauna, all of which Kuttner describes in vivid technicolor-- writhing vegetation!--towering ebon skyscrapers!-- teeming throngs of grotesque beings!  When Doyle awakes he sees floating above him Iod itself, an indescribable monster with semi-transparent reptilian skin through which can be seen glowing crystalline forms, an alien entity equipped with a faceted eye and a slimy tentacle.  Iod sucks out Doyle's soul but leaves Doyle's consciousness in his inert body, so that Doyle must experience his own burial and decay in the grave, must endure an eternal existence of total insanity!

This story is just alright.  The noteworthy part is the long travelogue of scary alien planets, but this lengthy section is really just filigree that has nothing to do with the actual plot.

**********

I think something special is going on in "The Eater of Souls," but "The Frog" and "The Hunt," while acceptable entertainments for those of us who have already had our tickets for the Lovecraft train punched many many times and are fully committed to this sort of material, are just ordinary horror stories of their type.

More Lovecraftian shenanigans in our next episode!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Monster From Out of Time by Frank Belknap Long

Everywhere Dorman's gaze traveled there were great drifts of blowing snow and in the far distance a gigantic wall of ice extended half across the plain, with boulders at its base so large that he would have mistaken them for small hills if they had not differed so drastically in shape.
In our last episode we read a paperback edition from Popular Library with a cool Frank Frazetta cover of a short novel written by an associate of H. P. Lovecraft--let's do it again!  Last time was 1940's The Creature From Beyond Infinity (AKA A Million Years to Conquer) by Henry Kuttner; today it's Frank Belknap Long's 1970 novel Monster From Out of Time.  I am often disappointed in Long's work, but I bought this baby for the cover and as a souvenir from a strange used book store where the owner was very chatty and seemed to be making up the prices right there at the register, ignoring the Post It notes stuck to each book.  (And good news that was, too, as those Post It note prices were pretty high.)

In the Prologue to Monster From Out Of Time, two Mexicans, an old man and his daughter Tlacha, are watching the employees of an American company dig up their fields looking for uranium and valuable minerals.  Tlacha complains that the Americans are ruining their farm land, while her father seems content with the fees the Yankees have paid him.  Then there is an earthquake and Dad is swallowed up by a crack in the ground!  From another crack a giant monster emerges, and a blinding glow--Tlacha falls unconscious and when she wakes up she is in a field of ice and snow!

Chapter One introduces us to two American archaeologists who are down in the Mexican jungle to look at ruins, David Dorman and Joan Raines.  When they see some Indian fishermen jump in their harpoon-gun-equipped boat to attack the monster that came out of that crack (the thing is bigger than a whale and has taken to the waters of the Gulf), they jump in the boat with them!  These gringos live for adventure!  The monster glows and the archaeologists, after odd visions of shifting landscapes, find themselves on a frozen plain bordered by a glacier--they too have been sent back in time to the Ice Age!

They soon meet Tlacha (I don't think Long gives Tlacha a last name) and her American boyfriend, Harvey Ames, one of the engineers from the gringo mining company she was criticizing back in the 20th century.  The four take up residence in an igloo built by Ames, and wear skins from animals killed by Ames.  But don't think Ames is doing all the work--when a monster appears Dorman shoots it (with Ames' pistol.)

After two weeks of igloo living, Raines is kidnapped by a local, a hairy man with a "cruel, thin-lipped face."  Dorman, Ames and Tlacha follow their prints in the snow and after encountering some prehistoric beasts are reunited with Raines when they too are captured by the kidnapper's tribe. This tribe of primitive humans has embraced as their leader a 20th-century man--this guy has our heroes thrown in the arena to fight a giant lizard.  (Don't ask why these Pleistocene people built an arena out of ice or why a lizard is living in this subzero environment.)  The tribe's leader turns out to be Tlacha's brother, who is mentally ill.  (I think we are supposed to think he has been driven insane by dreams of reviving the glories of the empire of the Aztecs and the humiliations visited on Mexico by the gringos.)  After Ames and Dorman kill the lizard, Tlacha grabs Ames' pistol and kills her brother.  Then, for no discernible reason whatsoever, our four protagonists are transported back to the 20th century.

This book is terrible.  The plot is feeble, the characters are lacking in any personality, and there is no sense of excitement or fear or even interest.  Very little actually happens in the story: it feels like Long had a target of 128 pages, and instead of filling the 128 pages with sex and violence or his opinions about anything even remotely interesting (the way our pals Ted Sturgeon and Bob Heinlein were liable to talk our ears off about politics, religion, the structure of the family and stuff like that), he filled those pages with extraneous detail and conversations about utterly mundane topics and peripheral matters.  When Dorman and Raines are in the fishing boat that is chasing the monster, instead of trying to transmit to us the thrills of such a dangerous and bizarre encounter, Long gives us several pages of David and Joan's argument over whether or not it is safe for David to stand in the boat so he can get a better look at the monster.  We get a detailed description of the igloo and of all the miscellaneous junk in Dorman's pack, but none of that stuff ever matters to the plot; we learn all about it and then it is forgotten.

Each scene is too long, and many sentences are too long, like Long was just trying to augment each sentence's word count.  This sentence, for example:
But the moon had passed behind some medium-dense clouds directly overhead, and the light that filtered down was the opposite of bright.
"Medium-dense" is twice as many words as "dense," and "the opposite of bright" is four times as many words as "dim."  Did  Long outsource this thing to his round-headed buddy Chuck?    

Long is definitely not the only person to blame for this disaster, as the book does not seem to have been edited.  In the Prologue a guy named Harvey Ambler, one of the American engineers, is mentioned.  This is obviously the same guy who, when he appears in Chapter Five, introduces himself as Harvey Ames.  On page 22 we get this phrase:
...dangling from his arm was a dun-colored sun helmet which he had taken off because he couldn't stand the heat which it generated.
Obviously a hat does not generate heat, but capture it.  These kinds of mistakes, and the many typos in the book, are distracting and even insulting, suggesting to the reader that Long and Popular Library have put no effort into this piece of work for which they expected us to pay 60 cents.    


Shoddy and boring, a frustrating waste of time.  Wikipedia suggests that in the 1970s Long was just mechanically producing books of little value (like seven Gothic romances under a transparent pseudonym) because he needed the money.  Well, I guess I can understand that--I've done some things and even written some things for money I am not exactly proud of.  Monster From Out Of Time is for Frank Frazetta fans and Frank Belknap Long obsessives only!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Creature From Beyond Infinity by Henry Kuttner

"The Carriers kill instantly by touching their victims.  Lead-plated suits are being issued to the guardsmen, but these do not always work.  It depends on the quantity of energy emitted by a Carrier.  Dynamite has been placed at the New York bridges and tubes.  The mayor is ready to isolate Manhattan, if necessary, for protection."
I recently purchased a 1984 printing of Barry N. Malzberg's The Engines of the Night at Karen Wickliff Books.  This collection of doom and gloom essays about how SF writers are underpaid and machines are devouring the human spirit and SF fans are creeps is dedicated to Mark Clifton, Edmond Hamilton, Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Henry Kuttner.  Hamilton of course lived a long life (died age 72) and produced a multitude of work, but Clifton, Kornbluth, and Kuttner died relatively early in their careers, and our pal Barry, in his characteristic way, suggests in his essay "Mark Clifton: 1906-1963" that "the death certificates of all three should have listed science fiction under cause of death."

Let's check out a tale Kuttner published in Startling Stories in 1940, eighteen years before that grim reaper SF cut him down at the age of 42: A Million Years to Conquer.  A Million Years to Conquer was reprinted in 1952 in Fantastic Story Magazine, and then in book form by Popular Library in 1968 under the title The Creature From Beyond Infinity.  (The 1968 title really does not jive with the story.)  I own one of those 1968 paperbacks, and it has a great Frazetta cover, featuring a guy fighting a wooly mammoth in the arena, watched (?) by a sort of flying sphere.  (As we know, being thrown into the arena to fight to the death is the fate of many a science fiction character!)  Looks awesome, let's go!

(The 1952 issue of Fantastic Story including A Million Years to Conquer is readily available to my fellow cheapos at the Internet Archive website.  Marvel not only at Kuttner's novel and the accompanying Virgil Finlay illos, but also the fun ads for books (I Killed Stalin by Sterling Noel), magazines (16 issues of Ranch Romances for only $3.00!) and essential medical aid!)

Beautiful planet Kyria was doomed!  A small group of citizens built a spherical starship and fled their home world to seek out a new planet fit for human habitation. After spending long years investigating hundreds of useless planets and laying in suspended animation between planets, the Kyrians finally discover Earth.

At the very moment of their success the members of the expedition face two big problems!  One: they crash on Earth and only two people survive the disaster, expedition commander Theron and young Ardath, who was born in space and never saw Kyria with his own eyes.  Even worse, two: New York City hasn't been built yet; in fact, nothing has been built on Earth yet!  As Theron tells Ardath, Earth is a young world as yet only inhabited by single-celled organisms!  Thankfully, Theron is an optimist who takes the long view, and he tells Ardath that human beings will evolve from those single-celled creatures, some day, and Ardath should wait for them to appear. Then he should find two genius Earthlings and breed them to create a super race--this was how Kyria got so advanced, after all, through a eugenics program that bred "mental giants" until all Kyrians were at the genius level!  Having shared his wisdom, Theron dies of his crash-related injuries.

(Eugenics, of course, is a dirty word today, but in the first half of the 20th century many of the smarty smarties like John Maynard Keynes, politicians like Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and political activists like Margaret Sanger who are widely revered today were in favor of eugenics of one type or another.  So let's not judge poor Theron and Ardath too harshly!)

Like that lovely young couple Stevens and Newton did when they got marooned on Ganymede in 1931's Spacehounds of the IPC, Ardath excavates from his surroundings the ore, chemicals and energy (from steam--there are no fossils yet, so no fossil fuels) he needs to fix his ship.  Then he goes into orbit and into suspended animation to await the rise of mankind on Earth.  (I'm sure you remember how Neil R. Jones and Cordwainer Smith used this suspended-animation-in-Earth-orbit gag.) Periodically Ardath wakes up to check on Earth's progress, and to advance it, nudging the dinosaurs toward extinction, for example, and providing primitive man with fire, archery, the techniques of smelting iron and raising crops.  When mental giants appear he kidnaps them and carries them back into orbit; from various antediluvian Conan-style settings (remember, Kuttner was part of that Weird Tales circle that included Robert Howard and H. P. Lovecraft), as well as the Roman Empire--as Frazetta's cover illustrates, Ardath snatches a guy right out of the arena!--he seizes ambitious fighting men, an obese Chinese sage, a beautiful priestess of Dagon, and a merciless queen. Some of these selfish ingrates are not too happy about being whisked away from Earth and asked to spend the next thousand or so years in suspended animation, and they conspire against Ardath.

The novel's first eleven chapters switch back and forth between Ardath's adventures in ancient times and the early 20th century, where we meet a true super intellect in America's Middle West.  Kuttner and his wife and ofttimes collaborator C. L. Moore regularly write about ruthless children and manipulative homos superior, and little Stephen Court is another example.  Already equipped with encyclopedic knowledge and the ability to hypnotize people en masse, eight-year-old Court ditches his parents in 1924 to ride the rails with a hobo he hypnotizes to act as his guardian.  By 1941 Court, an emotionless man whose only love is knowledge, is "the greatest scientist in the world" and maybe the richest, thanks to a series of inventions he dashes off without breaking a sweat.

A mysterious plague begins turning people into glowing apparitions that feed on energy and are invulnerable to gunfire!  While trying to figure out the origin of this scourge Court detects Ardath's orbiting starship.  Even Court's super duper brain can't solve the problem of the plague with Earth science, so he invents a spaceship to go scavenge alien technology from Ardath's ship.  On page 75 of the 125-page novel Court enters the ship, where he finds in charge of the vessel not his fellow master of science and engineering, Ardath, but one of those ancient warriors, Thordred the Usurper!

Thordred sends the incapacitated Ardath on what he hopes will be a one-way trip to the sun, and the rest of the people on the ship split into two factions: the priestess of Dagon sticks with Thordred, while Court, the Chinese, and the Carthaginian gladiator join together.  (Thordred murdered the queen long ago.)  Resigned to the fact that the plague is going to kill everybody on Earth, Thordred decides to capture a bunch of people to take to another planet where he will build a new civilization with himself as dictator.  Court and his new friends escape to an evacuated post-apocalyptic Manhattan, where the garbage-strewn streets are haunted by the luminescent Carriers of the plague whose merest touch is death!  Faced with so much danger, death and destruction, the callous Court suddenly changes his tune, becoming filled with a love for humanity!  He even realizes he is in love with his lab assistant, who is back home in Wisconsin!

Court's multicultural party escapes New York, Ardath escapes being immolated in the sun, and together with Court's lab assistant they defeat Thordred in Wisconsin, figure out what is going on with that plague, and under the aegis of the world's governments manage a colossal public works project which puts an anti-plague shield around the Earth and gets all the people of the world to put aside their petty differences and live in harmony. Ardath abandons Theron's whole eugenics program and, with the gladiator and the Chinese, sets out to explore the universe in hopes of finding another planet with a hospitable environment.

The Creature From Beyond Infinity / A Million Years to Conquer is a quick and fun read, full of briefly sketched but engaging characters (the mad scientist who turns good, the scheming coup plotter, the warrior driven by a desire for revenge) and lots of cool SF themes and gadgets (e. g., Thordred is a real threat to Ardath and Court because he uses a brain reading device to transfer all of their personal and scientific knowledge into his own scheming skull.)  The story is full of science, like these old SF stories often are, and as is often the case, the science can be pretty sketchy--Kuttner portrays evolution as a direct march to some predictable ultimate form of life, for example.

A great specimen of Golden Age SF adventure.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dangerous Visions from Evelyn Lief, Andrew J. Offutt and Richard A. Lupoff

When we were reading David Gerrold and Stephen Goldin's anthology Generation we read a story by Evelyn Lief in which she attacked the suburbs and television.  We just read a novel by Andrew Offutt in which Muslims fight genetically engineered pterosaurs over a thousand years in the future. And just a few days ago I tried to use the occasion of Richard Lupoff's birthday to promote two old blog posts about his books. So it seems like a good moment to read the stories by Lief, Offutt and Lupoff to be found in Harlan Ellison's 1972 Again, Dangerous Visions.

"Bed Sheets are White" by Evelyn Lief

In the three-page intro to this three-page story Ellison brags about how tough he is as a teacher at workshops and how it was his toughness which inspired Lief to write this brilliant story.  Then Lief brags that she is a zionist-socialist who lives in a commune in Brooklyn and hopes to spend the rest of her life working a few months at a time and then writing and travelling a few months at a time.

The story, which is mostly printed in italics, mostly consists of the thoughts of a man driving cross country.  He lives in a world in which the government has decreed that everything be white; people must have white sheets on their beds, the highway is painted white, the buildings on the side of the road are white, etc.  This story is some kind of bizarre riff on the Beautification Campaign promoted by Lady Bird Johnson (at this link read a government website that gives a very sympathetic account of this project of Mrs. Johnson's.)  The driver's wife is a member of an anti-White Laws activist group.

The protagonist drives into the night, and is stopped by the cops, who advise him not to drive at night, because at night you see the color black.  Then he looks up at the sky and is arrested for committing this act, recently made illegal.

In her afterward Lief thanks Ellison for buying the story.

Silly, pointless, useless.

"For Value Received" by andrew j. offutt

Offutt's byline is all lowercase here in Again, Dangerous Visions, perhaps a signal this is a serious literary story.  The intro is six and a half pages, and in it Ellison inveighs against "The Corporate State" and suggests you sabotage the telephone company (by overpaying your bill and confusing their computers) and the cereal manufacturers (by claiming you found a fly in your box of cornflakes) and brags about shoplifting books and records.  He brags that he has committed acts of sabotage so radical that it would not be safe for him to reveal them to us readers.  (That's OK, Harlan, your safety is our paramount concern!)

Offutt himself informs us that most of his writing is anti-authoritarian satire and talks at some length about his life, career, and environment, poking fun at his experiences of writer's block and of stereotypes of urban elites and of his own rural Kentucky milieu (while hinting there is some measure of truth to these stereotypes.)

"For Value Received" is a more obvious and more focused anti-authoritarian satire than, say, Messenger of Zhuvastou or My Lord Barbarian, though those sword-swinging adventures certainly have their share of anti-establishment elements.  In this eight-page story a new father refuses to pay a hospital bill, and so he and his wife leave their newborn baby at the hospital and go home.  The little girl grows up in the hospital, Mom and Dad coming to visit during visiting hours every day, taking her to school, etc.  Rather than suggesting that this unusual upbringing will turn the child into a weirdo, Offutt indicates it has beneficial effects: "Mary Ann Barber, M. D., was graduated from medical school at the tender age of 23.  Her Boards score set a new high."

This story gets points for being original and crazy, but I didn't actually enjoy it. Marginal negative vote.      

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" by Richard A. Lupoff

In his novels Sandworld and Crack in the Sky, Lupoff expressed his conventional liberal ideas about race and filled up space by talking about or imitating genre fiction heroes Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft, as well as underground comix. When I realized "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" was an early constituent part of the famous and critically-lauded 1978 novel Space War Blues, and saw Ed Emshwiller's illustration for the story, I figured it would be an anti-racism story imitating/satirizing the kind of space war epics "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Jack Williamson produced, and/or Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  I look to SF stories for fun and for ideas that are new, and a parody of The Legion of Space or Spacehounds of IPC that featured anti-racism lectures didn't sound new or fun, but I decided to give it a shot anyway, to see what all the hoopla was about.

Ed Emshwiller's illo for "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama"

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" (presumably the long title is a mocking reference to those juvenile books for boys about explorers and fighting men, like We Were There with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys by Robert N. Webb (1956), The Battleship Boys with the Adriatic Chasers by Frank Gee Patchin (1918) and With Washington at Valley Forge by Judith M. Spiegelman (1967)) is about a race war in outer space and consists of 13 chapters totalling 90 pages. Chapter 1 introduces us to Gordon Lester Wallace III (AKA GLW3, AKA GLWIII and other variations) of the planet New Alabama (AKA N'Alabama, AKA Alquane VII and other variations), who has just graduated from boot camp (or a military academy?) and will soon be shipping off to serve in the war against the blacks of N'Haiti.  New Alabama, you see, is inhabited by the descendents of white colonists from Alabama; in the (distant?) past the large countries like the United States and USSR were broken into their constituent parts by the united small countries, and then each of Earth's many countries started colonizing alien planets.  Then the Jews and Arabs ("the Jewrabs") united to take over the Earth, leaving all those extrasolar colonies to fend for themselves.

Chapter 1 is written in a degraded dialect of English with different spellings and punctuation rules than we are all used to, so that reading it is a slow process.  People have "funny" names (a stripper is named "Miss Merriass Markham") and there are lots of minor jokes based on repetition; for example, when looking at the curvaceous Miss Merriass the omniscient third-person narrator says "think of that belly belly-to-belly with your belly...."  Lupoff describes the hair of several different New Alabamans, and the description is always the same: blond hair, plastered flat.  Repetition of every kind is a recurring motif throughout the story.

Chapter 2 is set on N'Haitai.  In contrast to the brute we met on N'Alabama who spent Chapter 1 in a strip club, in Chapter 2 we follow a government office worker, Christophe Belledor; this chapter, to (I guess) demonstrate that in this story the whites are savage and the blacks are sophisticated, is written in clear English prose (though I guess these characters are really speaking French.)  "...you know the blancs, Phillipe," Christophe tells another public employee, "they breed like beasts."  It's the old switcheroo! (Or, as Joanna Russ calls it, "role-reversal.")

Christophe is copy editing a government report drafted by a Deputy Minister; the Deputy Minister has conceived a plan to supplement the N'Haitian workforce with zombies created by injecting an alien parasite into the brains of corpses recovered after space battles.

Chapter 3 is a mind-numbingly detailed description of a planet covered in water, inhabited by a colony of small almost-mindless creatures that are distant descendents of humanity--these are the aforementioned alien parasites.

The rest of the long story alternates between difficult to read and allegedly funny ("Our old sarge he looks, maybe not quite with twenty-twennies (no sprig chicken he no more but he keeps in good shape rest assured) but he gets buy with spectacles at leased") chapters about the racist rednecks of New Alabama and chapters about the scientists and bureaucrats of New Haitai.  The New Alabaman chapters hardly move the plot forward at all, they just show the white characters acting like buffoons and expressing racism and their repressed homosexuality.  The New Haitian chapters are more interesting, covering as they do the Frankensteinian voodoo scheme the N'Haitians have in the works, but these chapters also include committee meetings and voodoo rituals that are not exactly thrilling.

Anyway, Christophe (he got drafted due to office politics) and Gordon meet in hand-to-hand combat in a tremendous space battle (the space battle is actually good, an homage to the exciting fighting in, say, "Doc" Smith or the famous first chapter of Starship Troopers) and Gordon, killed, is resuscitated as a zombie soldiers in the service of the New Haitaians.  The N'Haitians conquer N'Alabama and reduce the whites to second class citizens.  Christophe hooks up with Yvette, a young woman we witnessed in a masturbation scene and voodoo ritual sex scene.  There is also a subplot about how God is a mischievous child and our universe is a plaything given him by an indulgent uncle.

It is easy to see why critics like this story: there are the anti-racist and anti-war messages and the caricature of Southerners, and Lupoff's ambitious, extravagant and experimental wordplay in the New Alabaman chapters in which he mines every possible pun, phonetic spelling and form of punctuation for potential laughs.  But I found reading the story a chore--during the period I read it, "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" felt like my job, and I turned to Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos" and Night Fighter by C. F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright for my leisure reading.  My reward for grinding through Lupoff's experimental prose and the long tedious sections was a sort of standard plot with a typical message and jokes which are not funny. (Having lived the first 40 years of my life in the Northeast I have heard lots of criticisms and mocking of the South and Midwest, mostly from people who learned about the South and Midwest from TV, so for me this kind of material feels very tired.)

It is perhaps interesting to consider how critics today might respond to the story. Obviously, in portraying blacks as better than whites in just about every way, Lupoff was endeavoring to be a good "progressive" or "liberal" of the late '60s (when the story was largely written) or early '70s (when it was published in Again, Dangerous Visions.)  But, today, his focus on voodoo, the scene in which a young black woman admires her naked body in a mirror and touches herself and then participates in a voodoo orgy, and even the way blacks are portrayed as bourgeois types with a bureaucratic government overseeing an industrial and scientific society, might raise eyebrows for being exoticizing, exploitative, or culturally appropriative, or valorizing Western middle-class values by portraying blacks "acting white" as admirable. (These aren't my criticisms; I'm just speculating on what today's cultural arbiters might think.)

"With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" makes you use your brain and addresses all kinds of issues related to popular literature as well as social issues, but it was just not very enjoyable, so I can't really give it a thumbs up.  People interested in literary SF and SF that addresses issues of race are likely to find it worthwhile, however.  (As the weeks go by, I suspect I will begin to appreciate "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" more as the tedious stretches fade from memory and the naval battle, the Frankenstein stuff, and Lupoff's admirable ambition--he clearly put a lot of hard work into this thing--rise in prominence.)

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Well, these stories, even if I didn't think them very fun, certainly fit Again, Dangerous Visions' purported raison d'etre; they are certainly "out there:" they are crazy, uninhibited and potentially offensive attacks on our society that editors would have every reason to be chary of publishing.  In his 1982 essay "Science Fiction and the Academy: Some Notes," Barry Malzberg lists the dozen books of fiction he thinks should constitute the syllabus of a college course on SF, and Again, Dangerous Visions is one of them.  Well, I feel like I just had a big lump of healthy, if not tasty, science fiction education!