Monday, May 29, 2017

Four 1930s stories by Edmond Hamilton

Hardcover edition
Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading the late 1970s collections The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett--I have the 1977 paperback printings of each from Del Rey/Ballantine.  Today we have four tales by Hamilton first published in 1930s issues of Weird Tales.

"The Man Who Returned" (1934)

The last time we read Hamilton we encountered stories which tried to convince you that imperialism and government interference in your private life are wrong, the kind of stuff we find in SF pretty regularly.  But "The Man Who Returned" offers the kind of lessons you get from reading Proust--that you live your life alone and you can never really know how people feel about you!

"The Man Who Returned" starts off as a story about premature burial!  John Woodford wakes up to find himself in his coffin!  With his last ounce of strength, he breaks out of the casket and staggers out of his mausoleum.  (Because he is subject to cataleptic fits Woodford has feared being buried alive all his life, and made his family agree to forgo embalming him and to inter him above ground.)  Hamilton does a good job with the physical and psychological horror business in the first part of the story, describing Woodford's panic and his desperate efforts to force his way out of his tomb.  But the real horror of the story comes when Woodford eavesdrops on his family and learns his wife never loved him--she loves his best friend!--and when he finds out that his employer of decades considered him a subpar worker and only refrained from giving him the sack because he felt sorry for him!  He thought he had a successful life, but in fact Woodward was a failure!  Realizing he is better off dead, Woodward returns to his coffin.

After I read "The Man Who Returned," I read Edgar Allen Poe's 1844 story "The Premature Burial," which I figured was likely an inspiration for Hamilton.  Sure enough, just like Hamilton's character, the narrator of Poe's story is subject to cataleptic fits and makes precautions to avoid being buried alive, a black fate of which is he perpetually terrified.  Poe's story, however, does not touch upon the Proustian issues which are the real centerpiece of Hamilton's tale; in fact, Poe's story has a happy ending, as the narrator gets over his catalepsy and his obsessive fears of being buried alive.

"The Man Who Returned" is an effective horror story.  Since first transmitting its sad and cynical realism (Leigh Brackett tells us that the story "is too damned true") from the pages of Weird Tales, it has been reprinted in numerous collections of stories from that magazine, as well as in a 1980 volume entitled Fear! Fear! Fear! edited by a Helen Hoke.

"The Accursed Galaxy" (1935)

I read and wrote about "The Accursed Galaxy," the seventh story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a few years ago and so am skipping it here.  Isaac Asimov liked the story, and in her intro to The Best of Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett uses it as an example of a "streak of misanthropy" detectable in some of her husband's work. Besides being misanthropic, "The Accursed Galaxy" is actually pretty funny--it is worth the time of fans of eighty-year-old SF for numerous reasons.

"In the World's Dusk" (1936)

As I may have mentioned, I recently purchased a big stack of Fantastics on ebay.  I have been flipping through them, and just yesterday came upon, in the May 1957 issue, a review penned by Villiers Gerson of Donald Wollheim's The End of the World. The End of the World is an anthology of six stories, and while he praises the Heinlein, Dick, Clarke and Coppel selections, Gerson expresses derision for the included stories by Amelia Reynolds Long ("Omega") and Edmond Hamilton ("In the World's Dusk"), lumping them together in this merciless paragraph:

Well, "In the World's Dusk" is the next story in The Best of Edmond Hamilton--let's see if it deserves this harsh assessment.

It is millions of upon millions of years in the future, so far in the future that the Earth is covered by a single desert because the water of the oceans has "dwindled, due to the loss of its particles into space from molecular dispersion."  Only one city still stands, the city known as Zor, and it is deserted, mankind having lost the will to live and died without issue.  Except for one man!  Galos Gann, the genius scientist!  Gann is one of those "never say die" types who refuses to believe that the days of humanity are over. "Somewhere and somehow I will find means to keep the race of man living on!" he tells the night stars.  "It is my unconquerable will that my race shall not die but shall live on to greater glories."

It is easy to see why Gerson would object to "In the World's Dusk;" it is a weird mood piece, full of romantic images and extravagant verbiage, inspired (Hamilton tells us in the afterward to The Best of Edmond Hamilton) by the fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.  Gann animates the dead, and then summons people from the past via time travel, hoping to create a breeding stock that will bring forth an heroic new human race.  But we learn that the soul is not physical, that it cannot be revived from death nor travel across time, and Gerson only succeeds in populating Zor with spiritless automatons and raving maniacs.

Finally, Gann retreats to the Earth's core, and, using powerful machines that cause earthquakes and volcanic activity, recreates the conditions of the Earth at the dawn of life.  Then he puts himself in suspended animation, measuring out his drugs so he will awake when he expects the human race to have evolved again and built a great civilization.  But when he awakes he finds he has missed this second human race's glory days, that the Earth is again a desert, and again only one city stands and again it is inhabited by a single man, the last man of his race.

I think this story is entertaining, but of course it is silly and has gaping plot holes, and its "highfalutin' prose" is not to everybody's taste.  Gerson's opinion does not seem to represent a consensus of speculative fiction editors and readers, however--"In the World's Dusk" has appeared in a number of American and European anthologies since its initial appearance in Weird Tales and its selection by Wollheim for The End of the World.

"Child of the Winds" (1936)

After those two downers that tell us that nobody appreciates us and our most strenuous efforts are a waste of time, maybe "Child of the Winds" will cheer us up?  That's what people turn back the nude-woman-in-peril cover of an issue of Weird Tales looking for, isn't it, a little lighthearted cheer?

In remote central Turkistan there is a plateau reputed to be the site of gold!  But the people who live in the nearest village tell ambitious gold prospector Dick Brent (isn't that one of Bill Clinton's nicknames?) that the place is too dangerous to visit, because the winds up there are alive and kill all trespassers.  Brent has trouble finding anybody to come along with him, even when he offers them double pay!  The only guy willing to accompany Brent is Dasan An, a semi-Westernized local who wears "white-man's clothes" and speaks a little English--this guy tells Brent he is not superstitious like the others--he has even been to Tehran!

Maybe in real life guys who have been to the big city are better informed than superstitious villagers, but, in a story that first appeared in Weird Tales, the smart money is on the superstitious villagers.  Brent, his native buddy, and Brent's four camels go up the plateau and in short order the winds hurl the camels off a cliff and batter poor Dasan An to an unrecognizable pulp.  Brent escapes this horrible fate because there is a beautiful English girl, Lora, living on the plateau, and she calls off the winds.  When she was a child Lora accompanied her father on a gold prospecting expedition up the plateau--the winds killed all the beasts and adults but kept her as a pet.  Every day the winds blow fruit up onto the desolate plateau for her to eat, and she spends her leisure time dancing with the winds.  (For some reason Virgil Finlay, when illustrating "Child of the Winds," chose to depict Lora cutting a rug with her elemental buddies--check it out at the internet archive--instead of bending his talent to the task of immortalizing the tragedy of poor Dasan An, who was pounded to jelly for betraying the beliefs of his people and trying to make a buck the Western way.)

This story has a premise somewhat similar to that of "The Monster-God of Mamurth," but where that story had interesting images and good action and horror scenes, the meat of this story is, I guess, the relationship between Brent and Lora, and this relationship is boring.  Despite all he has seen, Brent refuses to believe that the winds are intelligent beings (every time the winds pick him up or bring him some food he thinks it is just a freak coincidence) and instead of spending time describing their burgeoning love and making us care about these two, Hamilton uses up a lot of paper and ink on Lora's efforts to convince Brent the winds are alive.  Boooring.  The climax of the story comes when, having fallen in love, Brent and Lora leave the plateau to return to civilization, and those winds who want to keep Lora and kill Brent are foiled by a kinder wind.
"Tender?"  Try telling that to Dasan An's mother!
I've got to give this one a thumbs down.  The idea that the winds are living beings is already a little weak, Hamilton's love story is feeble, and both Lora's affection for the winds that massacred her party and Brent's refusal to believe they are alive strain the reader's credulity.  The most interesting character in the story is Dasan An, and maybe scholars of Western depictions of non-Western peoples will find Hamilton's portrayal of him interesting.

"Child of the Winds" would be included in the 1965 Boris Karloff's Favorite Horror Stories, which would go through several editions with different titles and covers (all these covers are worth looking at.)

"The Seeds From Outside" (1937)

Like "Child of the Winds," "The Seeds From Outside" is about a love relationship, but here Hamilton presents us with something much more convincing and interesting.

Standifer is a painter who loves to paint "green growing things" and so he leaves the city to live in the woods and tend a garden.  One day a meteor strikes, and from the landing site Standifer retrieves a small package from an alien world containing two large seeds.  He plants them, and from them grow two alien (adult) plant people, a beautiful plant-woman and a plant-man!  Standifer and the green-haired, green-eyed woman fall in love, but the jealous plant man murders her, shattering the painter's dreams of happiness.  Standifer destroys the plant man (appropriately enough, with a scythe), and then moves to Arizona where he need never again see green growing things.

Brief and to the point, I think this one works.  Hamilton sketches out an actual personality for Standifer, and succeeds in making his feelings for the plant woman seem real to the reader.  After its appearance in Weird Tales,"The Seeds from Outside" appeared in a few anthologies, including a French "Best of" collection of Weird Tales stories.


In our next episode we continue our look at Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton's body of work with two Brackett tales about women from other planets!


  1. Hi

    I love the fact that you are looking at both Brackett and Hamilton, writers I have read and enjoyed in the past. I have the Best of collections and will be reading them again and comparing my impressions with yours. Probably in the fall as I already have a big pile of reading to go through at present. I was really impressed you were able to offer the review penned by Villiers Gerson
    it really added to the post for me. I enjoy the planetary romance of aspect of early SF I was reading D. Wandrei last night and the cover art is also a bit part of it for me.

    You might enjoy some of the covers in my latest post.

    Happy Reading

    1. I'm glad you are enjoying my current Hamilton-Brackett project here. They seem to have made good choices in editing each other, selecting better-than-average stories and a diverse array of themes. Hamilton's intro to the Brackett volume and his afterward to the volume of his own stories are charming and informative--in his Afterward, Hamilton describes going for long walks, cooking up ideas, then running home to furiously bang away at his typewriter so hard it moved around the table. He really seems to have enjoyed the creative process and even the physical part of writing.

      It is definitely fun reading the editorials, letters, and reviews in these old Fantastics, witnessing debates and hearing people express their ideas of what SF is and should be, and what the magazine should do.

      Lots of great covers at your post--a few, like the Calvino, I'd never seen before!