Thursday, March 30, 2017

Four stories by August Derleth from 1940s issues of Weird Tales

I feel like I have a sort of a relationship with Belmont, the people who put out my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction, Ben Haas' Quest of the Dark Lady, Edmond Hamilton's Doomstar, and Frank Belknap Long's It Was the Day of the Robot and Odd Science-Fiction.  (All relationships have their ups and downs.)  I actually find myself looking for "BELMONT" on spines and covers when rotating those Half Price Books spinner racks, and on a recent visit to a Lexington, Kentucky HPB, my eyes alit upon a copy of Belmont's paperback edition of August Derleth's Mr. George and Other Odd Persons.  On the same rack was a signed (and water damaged) copy of local author Andrew J. Offutt's King Dragon.  I left the Offutt (I own a copy in good shape) and bought the Derleth, as well as two other odd titles.

August Derleth is a controversial figure in Lovecraftian circles.  On the one hand, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Lovecraft's, playing a critical role in founding Arkham House, which did so much to keep Lovcraft's work accessible after his death, and so is worthy of the gratitude of all devotees of Yog-Sothery.  On the other hand, his own writings in the Cthulhu Mythos and his "posthumous collaborations" with Lovecraft have raised some people's ire; in particular, people seem to think that Derleth's own Christian faith, apparently reflected in his writings, conflicts with the genuine spirit of Lovecraft's work, which is materialist and devoid of hope.  Even though I think of myself as a Lovecraft fan, and have read Mythos fiction by many of Lovecraft's other colleagues, like the aforementioned Long, Robert Howard, Henry Kuttner, and Robert Bloch, I've never actually read anything by Derleth.  Well, today that changes!  Now, the stories in Mr. George and Other Odd Persons aren't actually set in the Cthulhu Mythos, but I think they will give me an idea of what Derleth's writing is all about, and in the cover blurb the New York Times says they "rank among Derleth's best tales of the supernatural," and I can't recall the New York Times ever getting anything wrong, can you?

In an introduction Derleth tells us a little about the stories included in Mr. George and Other Odd Persons, which was first put out as a hardcover by Arkham House in 1963 (my copy, part of the "Belmont Future Series," L 92-594, is from 1964.)  He claims he wrote each in a single sitting while distracted by students and never had time to revise them...Augie, baby, are you trying to encourage me or discourage me from reading them?  Well, let's put our faith in the infallible geniuses at the New York Times and read four stories I selected based on an irrational and esoteric attraction to their titles, stories that appeared in Weird Tales under the pen name Stephen Grendon not long after the end of the Second World War.

"Mr. George" (1947)

Somebody at Weird Tales pulled a boner
and put Derleth's real name on the cover
Gotta read the title story, right?

Priscilla is a five-year-old orphan, her mother and then her guardian, George Newell, I guess her mother's friend or perhaps boyfriend, having died recently.  Priscilla is in the care of three of her mother's cousins, the Lecketts, three jerk offs who find Priscilla a nuisance and covet Priscilla's inheritance of three hundred thousand dollars.  If Priscilla dies, they get the money, and it is not long before they are plotting the little girl's untimely demise.

Priscilla misses "Mr. George," as she calls Newell, and does things like writing him notes asking him to come back and riding the streetcar alone to the cemetery to put them on his grave. She begins hearing Newell's voice, and, sure enough, he begins manifesting himself in the Leckett household.  As the three Lecketts one by one set death traps for Priscilla, Newell's ghost warns Priscilla away from them and tricks each creepo in turn into getting killed by his or her own trap.  Then the ghost bids Priscilla a final farewell and she moves to the home of a nice lady friend of Newell's.

This story is competent, if a little obvious and predictable.  Perhaps Derleth's view of money and class is of interest; the "nice lady" has the kind of free and easy attitude towards the filthy lucre that apparently earns Derleth's approval ("She dressed well, having money and knowing how to use it, knowing it was only a means to an end, not an end in itself....[she] was colorful and jeweled as against their [the two female Lecketts'] almost offensive plainness"), while the evil would-be-child-murderers are cheap and grasping.  It is strange to see an intellectual type praising a woman for spending money on jewels and condemning women for dressing unostentatiously, but there it is.

The Canadian edition of the issue of Weird Tales that featured "Mr. George" is available at the Internet Archive; this looks like a good issue, with lots of fun illustrations and stories by Ted Sturgeon, Robert Bloch and Eric Frank Russell, as well as a poem by Stanton Coblentz!

Eat your heart out Wilfred Owen!
"Dead Man's Shoes" (1946)

I just bought shoes at Banana Republic that have wooden heels, which means everybody in downtown Columbus can hear me coming as I clop clop on the cobblestones.

"Dead Man's Shoes" is more to my taste than "Mr. George."  Jack and Howard Sherman joined the same paratrooper unit and served side by side in World War II until Jack was killed.  Howard was wounded and sent stateside, where he started making time with Jack's widow and sold his brother's service boots to Doug Lynn.  When Lynn wears the boots while out in the countryside collecting mushrooms, he has brief but emotionally powerful flashbacks to the battle in which Jack was killed.  He begins to get the idea that it wasn't a "Jap" who killed Jack, but Howard!  Stressed out by these horrifying visions, Lynn surreptitiously switches boots with Howard.  Howard doesn't realize he is wearing Jack's boots, and one day, while he is in the wilderness near a cliff, his dead brother exacts his revenge!

Shorter, and more unusual than "Mr. George"-- I like this one.

Like a foreshadowing of horrors to come, this 1964 book exhibits a grammatical error
 which has become alarmingly common in our own decadent digital age

"The Blue Spectacles" (1949)

I wear glasses--gotta read this one in solidarity with all the other people with poor eyesight out there who are too squeamish to wear contacts.

Through an unlikely series of coincidences, New Orleans divorce lawyer and womanizer Alan Verneul acquires a centuries-old pair of blue Chinese glasses and puts them on during Mardi Gras.  These glasses, when worn by an immoral person, give that person a vision of an earlier incarnation of his life(force?) and punish him.  This horny lawyer's punishment is not to merely suffer disbarment and the spectacle of his wife screwing up the interview for the job she has been dreaming of her entire life--no, he experiences immersive visions of the New Orleans of 1811, where Jean Lafitte (famous pirate and hero of the 1812 war) lynched his ancestor for raping and seducing various women.  When 19th-century Verneul is killed in this vision, the Verneul of the 20th-century also dies.

This one feels a little contrived, from how the lawyer gets the glasses to the "powers" of the glasses.  If you are looking for a short story about apparel which metes out vigilante justice, "Dead Man's Shoes" is the superior.  "Blue Spectacles" is merely acceptable.  

The issue of Weird Tales in which "The Blue Spectacles" first appeared is available to read at the Internet Archive.  This issue's illustrations are leaving me cold, but it does include stories by Frederic Brown, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and your new favorite poet, Stanton Coblentz.

"The Extra Passenger" (1947)

I was just telling my brother that riding the subway every day is like a paradise compared to driving every day.

Simon Arodias is a sophisticated Londoner who has long supported himself via crime.  He decides the time has come to kill his eccentric Uncle Thaddeus who lives in the country, so that he can inherit Unc's pile of money. Arodias comes up with the scheme of booking a private compartment on a Scotland-bound train, sneaking off at Unc's village en-route and murdering the old bird, then stealing an automobile and driving to the next train station and getting back on the train, into his private compartment.  Nobody will know he left the train, and he'll have a perfect alibi.

All goes according to plan until Arodias gets back into his private compartment to discover a man there, sleeping, a hat over his face.  This mysterious character, Arodias gradually learns, is the animated corpse of his Uncle Thaddeus--Thaddeus was a wizard, and was able to ensure that his own corpse could achieve vengeance on his killer (one of Thaddeus' familiars flew the corpse to the train.)

This story isn't bad; about as good, I reckon, as "Dead Man's Shoes."

The issue of Weird Tales with "The Extra Passenger" is another one you can read for free at the Internet Archive, and it is populated by SF giants: Edmond Hamilton, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury, plus two poems by H. P. Lovecraft.  One of the Lovecraft poems, and its accompanying illustration, appear to describe exactly the kind of familiar mentioned in "The Extra Passenger."


**********

Looked at as a body, what is noteworthy about these stories is how each is structured as a kind of morality play or tale of crime and condign punishment: in each, somebody plots a reprehensible sin and then some supernatural force kills him, achieving a sort of rough justice.  These stories all depict a moral universe in which transgressions against other people and the social order are punished via supernatural means; perhaps surprisingly (given the back cover text about "unholy creatures which cross dimensions to destroy") the supernatural element in each of these four stories is not a radical menace, but an agent of conservatism that defends the weak and preserves the social order--the real villain in each story is a mortal human driven by lust or greed, somebody who covets his neighbor's property or wife.  Obviously this is a contrast to typical Lovecraftian horror, which is full of collapsing societies and degenerating races, individuals who go insane, and alien forces which overturn all established orders, even the conventional laws of physics; Lovecraftian horror gets its "kick" from reminding us that the universe is in a state of amoral chaos, while these Derleth stories assure us that the universe is just, though it may work in mysterious ways.

Even if Derleth really did just dash these four stories off while University of Wisconsin co-eds were badgering him for help on their exams, and never bothered to revise them, none is so shoddily put together that it isn't an acceptable entertainment, though "The Blue Spectacles" is kind of teetering on the brink.  None of them feels particularly distinctive or memorable, either; they feel kind of like filler.  I have to admit that the fact that each features a supernatural element which works for justice and each ends with the evildoer punished weakens them as horror stories in my eyes....they feel like a domesticated breed of horror story.  Like detective stories (wikipedia is telling me Derleth wrote over 70 detective stories) in which the cops always get their man, the four Derleth stories we discussed today, while nominally "horror" stories, depict the orderly and just world we wished we lived in rather than the arbitrary and miserable world we fear we live in, and are more comforting than disturbing.  I prefer my horror stories to be suspenseful, surprising and unsettling, and so I don't think I'll be reading any more Derleth stories any time soon.

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Check out the way Belmont's crack marketing staff appealed to 1964's science fiction community (this page appears opposite the title page of my copy of Mr. George and Other Odd Persons.)  Everybody loves center aligned text, amirite?










Monday, March 27, 2017

Kill the Dead by Tanith Lee

She caught the coin, and said "I know who you are.  I thought you were a legend.  They said you'd be by this way sometime."
"Who said?"
"They all did.  For years and years.  Now I'll tell you.  Watch out.  Before and behind.  You've got a lot of enemies."
"Have I really?" said Dro.
"But not me," said the child.  "I think you're lovely."  
Isfdb lists 1980's Kill the Dead as the second entry in the two-volume Sabella series, and Kill the Dead appeared with Sabella in a hardcover omnibus produced by the Science Fiction Book Club called Sometimes, After Sunset.  So I had been thinking of Kill the Dead as a sequel to Sabella. After reading only two pages I realized I had been laboring under a delusion: this book, on the surface  had very little in common with Sabella. Whereas Sabella had been a first-person narrative about a beautiful girl who always wears black in a future milieu of interstellar travel and computerized autonomous cars, Kill the Dead was a third-person narrative about a beautiful man who always wears black in an unspecified medievlish Europeanish Dungeons & Dragonsish countryside; at first it seems like one of those fantasy novels in which a mysterious stranger shows up at the village tavern, hears rumors of the local monster, then goes off to slay it.  But the hero of Kill the Dead isn't a knight or a barbarian who fights ogres and dragons with a sword or axe--he's an exorcist who fights ghosts with his psychic powers and detective skills!

Parl Dro is known far and wide as "The Ghost-Killer." He walks the roads alone, limping because of that time a ghoul bit his leg on a bridge over a raging river, using his special powers to detect and send to the next life manifestations of the living dead. Even though he is famous, when he comes to town people are often taken aback at seeing him, having thought he was a mere legend; many are scared or suspicious or even hostile to him.  His long term destination is the town of  Ghyste Mortua, the details of which Lee keeps from us until the book is almost half over.

There are two other major characters in the novel.  One is a musician named Myal Lemyal, who carries around a sort of combination two-necked guitar and flute (you can see a representation of it on the Don Maitz covers to both my DAW paperback and the hardcover omnibus from SFBC) and lots of psychological problems (his mother died when he was a baby and his father bragged that he stole the instrument and beat Myal to encourage him to learn to play it.)  He also wants to go to Ghyste Mortua and tries to join up with Parl Dro, doggings him for mile after mile, despite the ghost-killer's apparent lack of interest in having a companion; Myal Lemyal thinks if he can see Ghyste Mortua it will inspire him to write a song that will secure his reputation as a musician.  

The third character is the last survivor of the aristocratic Soban family, which has fallen on hard times.  After their father died the Soban girls, Cilny and Ciddey, lived alone in the family house beyond the village, with no friends or relatives besides each other. When Cilny drowned, their bond of sisterly love was so strong that she returned as a ghost to be with Ciddey.  When Parl Dro detects the ghost and banishes Cilny to the next life, surviving sister Ciddey, unwilling to live without her, commits suicide by drowning herself in the stream.  (Tanith Lee's novels often contain hints--or explicit depictions--of homosexual and/or incestuous relationships.)  Ciddey returns as a ghost to seek vengeance on Parl Dro.

The novel feels kind of episodic and kind of long.  One reason is the book's structure: the ghost-killer, and the pursuing musician and girl ghost, travel from location to location, having little encounters in each one, and Lee also periodically presents characters' flashbacks--these various scenes feel more like individual set pieces than smoothly flowing components of a single narrative.  (At the end Lee ties them all together.)  One of Parl Dro's flashbacks is my favorite part of the book: as a thirteen-year-old boy he was in love with a girl of the same age, but one terrible day she was killed by a lightning bolt, her flesh burned off her bones. She returned as a ghost, and beckoned Dro to a dilapidated attic, hoping he would step on a rotten board and fall to his death so they could be together in the afterlife.  

Kill the Dead moves slowly and many sections are long-winded; there are lots of scenes of conversations in which the world-weary and cynical characters exchange significant glances and witty quips, and lots of long descriptions of landscapes; these passages set a mood but don't do much to advance the plot.

Ghyste Mortua, we eventually learn, was a mountain town of haughty citizens who were all wiped out one day by a tremendous landslide that carried the entire town into a lake.  Since then the town has been considered a dangerous center of ghostly activity.  But when Parl Dro, Myal Lemyal and Ciddey Soban get there, many of their previous beliefs about Ghyste Mortua, about ghosts, and about themselves and each other are challenged; they all reveal secrets and they all change their thinking and grow as people.

An overarching theme of Kill the Dead, present throughout the book and especially at the end when we realize the multitude of deceptions Lee has perpetrated against us and secrets she has kept from us, is how things are often not what they seem--people who are dead think they are still alive, people who are in fact alive think they are dead, things thought to be myths turn out to be true and vice versa.  Lee lets us think one thing for several chapters, then shocks us by indicating that the opposite is true, then presents us a flashback that fills us in, showing us facets of the plot that she neglected to include in chronological order. Lee's novels, including The Birthgrave, Electric Forest, Day By Night, and Sabella, often do this-- reveal that the stuff Lee has been leading us to believe was totally wrong--but I felt like here in Kill the Dead she was pushing this theme harder than usual.  Lee plays fair--there are plenty of clues and foreshadowings--but for me it still felt a little like overkill.

It is at the end of the novel that the idea that Kill the Dead is a sort of "companion" (as it says on the back cover) or "sequel" (as I dopily supposed) to Sabella makes a little more sense, as it is revealed that the novels share numerous themes and components: the sexually irresistible outsider who preys on the normals and learns to inhabit a less selfish and parasitic role in society, for example, and the young person of lowly station who learns the truth of his origin and elite heritage.  Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Kill the Dead as much as Sabella--the pace is slower, the plot more confusing and tricksy, and the characters less interesting and less sympathetic.  Acceptable, but a little disappointing.

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Attention DAW Collectors!

From the penultimate leaf of my copy of Kill the Dead

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sabella or The Blood Stone by Tanith Lee

I killed accidentally, through greed and carelessness, at first.  And then I lessoned myself in how I need not kill.
Shopworn cover of my copy
A few weeks ago the wife and I were playing tourist in Mansfield, Ohio, where there is a carousel and an old prison featured in a recent movie, and on the way back to Columbus stopped at a used bookstore in Lexington, Ohio, Holly's Book Rack.  (I assure you we refrained from making "Holly has a nice rack" jokes while we were in the store.)  I was happy to find on Holly's shelves a book I have had on my list for a while, Tanith Lee's 1980 novel Sabella or the Blood Stone.  Holly's had the 1980 DAW paperback edition, which was a match for my DAW copy of Sabella's sequel, Kill the Dead, which was also published in 1980 and which I've had for some while.  Let's check out Sabella, which the people in DAW's crack marketing team wanted us to know is "A Science Fiction Vampire Novel" whose heroine is comparable to the title characters of both Bram Stoker's seminal Dracula and the very first of C. L. Moore's famous Northwest Smith stories, 1933's "Shambleau," which was about an alien femme fatale on Mars.

Sabella, our narrator, is a young woman living on Nova Mars, a planet in another solar system named after the beloved red planet we can see in our own night sky.  Nova Mars has been terraformed and its wilds are populated with the descendants of imported Earth animals, among them deer and cicadas, just as its cities and towns are inhabited by descendants of human colonists.  In the last few decades there has been a sort of Great Awakening or religious revival on Nova Mars, and after a long period of secularism a sizable proportion of Nova Mars' human citizens are dedicated Christians.

Sabella, a pale and beautiful woman in her mid-twenties, is no committed Christian. She has an allergy to sunlight, and spends the daytime hours indoors in her isolated house.  She eschews ordinary food, instead drinking the blood of the deer she catches out in the dusty wilderness--strong, fleet of foot, and with some kind of hypnotic powers, Sabella is able to catch these creatures with her bare hands!  But what she really craves, of course, is the blood of healthy young men!

As a teen, Sabella, irresistible to the male sex, seduced numerous men, biting their necks just as they achieved orgasm and draining their life-giving blood.  Eventually she learned to control her blood lust enough to limit her blood intake, so that she need not kill the deer she caught, or even the men: for a while she killed the men simply out of fear they would call the fuzz on her, but she discovered that men she spared, when they woke up after being partially drained, didn't remember her sanguineous violations, only that they had had the best sex of their lives!

Sabella failed to keep her career as a murderer and cannibal from her mother, and Mom moved them from the populated town of Easterly where they were living to a remote desert house, far from all those corpses strewn about the wilderness around Easterly, that the authorities believed were the handiwork of the native Martian wolves.  Six years ago Mom died of a heart attack, presumably from the stress of having a serial killer as a daughter.

Inside front cover and first page of my copy, featuring misaligned store stamp
As our story opens Sabella has not drunk any human blood for four years, having resolved to kick the habit after Mom's death (there were two years of backsliding before Sabella got on the wagon.)  News comes that Sabella's rich Aunt Cassi has died, so Sabella has to attend the funeral and the reading of the will, hundreds of miles away.  The first of the novel's three parts concerns Sabella's realization that Aunt Cassi, a fanatical Christian and also a smart enough cookie to realize Sabella was a bloodsucking monster, left Sabella a chunk of change in her will in order to lay a trap for her!  Just before dying, Cassi put her trusted manservant in charge of an anti-Sabella operation.  This operation does not bear fruit (at first), because the detective hired by Cassi's manservant to investigate Sabella, drug addict Sand Vincent, falls in love with Cassi's blood-sucking niece and after a torrid three-day affair this joker dies from Sabella-related blood loss!

In Part Two the detective's loving brother Jason Vincent (about whom Sand talked to Sabella incessantly, saying, among other things, that his brother had a physique like a "gladiator's"--implicit or explicit references to homosexuality and incest often show up in Tanith Lee's work) appears at Sabella's door, looking for the hapless gumshoe. When he realizes Sabella killed Sand, Jason begins terrorizing her, making her a prisoner in her own home.  These are effective scenes, as this guy is strong and competent, no easy prey for the vampire, and from the start Sabella's feelings about him are an ambiguous mix of fear and fascination.  We also get flashbacks that relate how Sabella's photophobia and lust for blood first manifested themselves at the same time she started getting her period at age eleven, and that the very same day she go her first period she found a jewel (the blood stone of the title, depicted in George Smith's very literal cover illustration) in a native ruin.  She bought a chain and started wearing the stone around as a pendant on a necklace.

Sabella escapes from Jason, leaving her isolated desert house for a big city, where, in Part Three, she works as a prostitute for money and the opportunity to drink horny men's blood.  Full of guilt and ennui ("What am I living for?  For what happens when I take?  I'll tell you something, when I take, now, nothing happens to me"), a few months after arriving in town, she starts going to church!  She begs Jesus for help, and Jason reenters her life and provides her the clues that lead her back to Easterly to figure out the shocking reality of her vampirism!  Our narrator is not the real Sabella, but a native creature of Novo Mars who lay dormant in those ruins until Sabella awoke it the day of her first menstruation; the Martian then killed (or merged with) eleven-year-old Sabella and took her form and memories!  Jason, similarly, is a native Martian who took the form and memories of a human boy who stumbled into a native tomb.  Because he is also a Martian, Jason is the only man on the planet stronger and faster than Sabella, and the only man who can give her an orgasm and survive a long term love affair with her (he won't go unconscious when she drinks his blood, but will be awake to push her away when she has had enough.)  Jason and Sabella, we are lead to believe, will live happily ever after, travelling the galaxy and having their weird Martian S&M sex.

Sabella or the Blood Stone has some SF tropes we run into all the time.  For one thing, Sabella is a marginalized person with special powers who feels oppressed by society, like an X-Man or a Slan or homo superior or whatever.  While many other SF books with this theme portray the minority sympathetically and condemn the majority, presenting a sort of allegory of the plight of Jews in Europe or African-Americans in the United States, Sabella is more morally ambiguous, because Sabella really is a menace to society!  (The back cover comparison to "Shambleau" is apt--Northwest Smith rescues Shambleau from a lynch mob, but later Smith and readers realize the populace had every reason to fear Shambleau.)

This raises the question of how far we should sympathize with Sabella.  Sabella tricks and exploits lots of men, and before she learned how to exploit them without killing them, she killed many men.  She claims to regret and feel guilt over all this killing and exploiting, and asserts that she can't really control her lust for blood, but can we really give her a pass like we might a Jean Valjean?  Does it matter that many of the men she has killed were criminals of one type or another (months after he dies, Sabella learns Sand raped a woman on some other planet years ago)?  Should we be taken in when Sabella wallows in self pity and makes the lamest sort of social commentary--"I've taken so many and thought of them as victims, but maybe I'm the victim.")?  Is there a feminist angle here?  Sabella's victims are all men who want to use her to achieve their own sexual satisfaction, after all.

A 2010 printing
Leading writers and critics of SF Brian Aldiss and Barry Malzberg describe much SF (dismissively) as "power fantasies," and it is easy to see Sabella as a power fantasy crafted for women: Sabella is beautiful, she seduces and has sex with men, but does not get emotionally attached to them--she has sex with them as a means to an end, the end being to steal from them their very blood (which is pumped by the heart, you know.)  Are female readers who have had their hearts stolen or broken by men who had sex with them and then discarded them expected to enjoy seeing a woman doing the same (or worse) to men?  (The men whom Sabella drains but spares become addicted to her, and search for her, aching to have sex with her again and again.)  Of course, Sabella's behavior towards men also mirrors the fears many men have about women, that women use sex as a bargaining chip or a trap to get at a man's time and money--Sabella seems to be taking advantage of stereotypes of both sexes in its efforts to engage readers' emotions.

The way Lee doesn't tell us what to think about Sabella, but gives us reasons to both empathize with her and to denounce her, adds a level of tension and a potential for suspense and surprise to the novel which fictional rehashes of the civil rights movement and triumphal tales of revolutions often lack.

Looking beyond SF, Sabella also reminded me of those stories in which an orphan or bastard realizes he is descended from a rich or noble family, like Fielding's Tom Jones (and taking us back to SF again, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.)  Like those stories, Sabella is an obvious wish fulfillment fantasy about getting money and prestige without doing any work.  (Not only is Sabella really an alien with super powers, and not only does she get an inheritance from a rich aunt, but Sabella and her mother lived off insurance money received after Sabella's father, when Sabella was two, was killed in a mining accident.)  

Even more than those noble orphan stories, Sabella reminded me of those late-20th century romance novels which so often featured Fabio on the cover.  Now, I've never actually read one of those romance novels, but I worked in a bookstore for about three years in the 1990s and I sold a ton of them and read the advertising text on a lot of them, and I have also read a little about them, and it seems like many of them (at least those from the 1970s and 1980s that were produced in the same period Sabella was written and published) feature a "wild" character who is "tamed" by a character of the opposite sex, and female protagonists who welcome being dominated by a powerful man.  This is exactly what happens to Sabella.  No man can tame her or provide her an orgasm until Jason comes along, and after a struggle/courtship she welcomes his domination.  This is where Sabella is at its least feminist--Sabella lives happily ever after when she finally meets a man who is able to control her.

A 1987 edition
The novel's attitude about religion is also interesting.  For most of the book, Sabella expresses all the stock complaints about devout Christians you hear from atheists and liberals all the time, calling Cassi a "fanatic," a "crusader," and a hypocrite who talks about love but engages in "holy war."  Seeing as it is Sabella and not Cassi who has deceived and killed so many people, Sabella's criticisms ring a little hollow, and then in the last four pages of the novel Sabella expresses a belief in God and Christ, suggesting it was God who guided Jason to her.  We are used to SF novels (and novels with titillating sex) dismissing religion as a scam, but here in Sabella we have a sexy SF novel in which a woman finds Christ.  (When I read Lee's novel about a young woman in a super-high-tech and decadent society, Don't Bite the Sun, back in 2015, I thought I detected a similar, though far less explicit, theme of a woman discovering religious faith.)

More broadly, we can see Sabella as a narrative about a person growing up and learning to behave as a decent member of society, with acceptance of religion as a component of this maturation process.  As a teen she disappoints her mother and aunt by being promiscuous and committing crimes.  As a 20-something, in response to her mother and aunt's disapproval, she tries to straighten up and fly right, but she cannot accomplish it on her own--success only comes when she has found the guidance of Jesus Christ and a strong man.  This SF novel full of weird sex has a surprisingly old-fashioned plot!

Lee is a skilled writer, so the style and pacing and structure of Sabella are good, with nice images and plenty of foreshadowing of stuff like Sabella's Martian nature and religiosity that isn't too obvious, resulting in a smooth and entertaining read.  At the same time the book is thought-provoking and even challenging (is it really pro- or anti-Christian? is it really feminist or does it positively portray traditional roles?) because of its unusual themes and somewhat novel use of elements we've seen a hundred times before (like vampires and alien artifacts.)  I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the sequel, Kill the Dead, the topic of our next installment here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

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.

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"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.

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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!