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!

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