Monday, July 31, 2017

Three Weird Tales winners by Edmond Hamilton

I remember this image well from my youth,
when it appeared on Piers Anthony's
Blue Adept
I recently acquired at an Ohio antiques mall a copy of the 1983 World Fantasy Convention program book, a special focus of which is Weird Tales, that year being the 60th anniversary of the magazine's founding.  This thing is full of cool stuff for the Weird Tales fan.  Editor Robert Weinberg compares cover artist and con Guest of Honor Rowena Morrill to famous Weird Tales cover artist Margaret Brundage, suggesting both are pioneers as women in the speculative fiction illustrator field and that both have been denounced by feminists and prudes for their depictions of naked women in distress.  (Weinberg specifically mentions King Dragon, a copy of which resides in the MPorcius library!)  Robert Bloch reminisces about his experiences as a Weird Tales reader and contributor, and Jack Williamson, in an excerpted chapter of his autobiography, talks about his relationships with such members of what he calls "the Weird Tales clan" as editor Farnsworth Wright himself, E. Hoffman Price, and MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton.

I am very cheap, and I thought a looong time before plunking down ten bucks for this publication.  The thing that pushed me over the edge and made me a buyer was an article in the program by SF historian Sam Moskowitz entitled "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940, with Statistics and Analytical Commentary." While serving as editor, Wright read all the letters sent to the Weird Tales offices, and, whenever a story was mentioned in a letter in a positive way, he marked the mention as a "vote" for the story on a notecard listing all the stories in that issue.  This way he was able to judge (scientifically!) which stories were the most popular in each issue.  Years later Moskowitz obtained these notecards and, in this article, he provides us grateful readers a list of the most popular stories in each issue of the magazine for the period of Wright's editorship.  Moskowitz's list indicates the number of votes each winning story received, as well as the number of votes received by some famous stories which were only second or third favorite for an issue, and he also includes a list of the 56 top vote-getting stories for the entire period, and of the eleven writers who most often won the top spot for an issue.

Seabury Quinn, about whom I know nothing and about whom I rarely hear anybody talk, had the top story in the most issues, thirty.  Second and third place are held by speculative fiction icons H. P. Lovecraft (16 issues) and Robert E. Howard (14.)  In fourth place is our man Hamilton--in nine issues of Weird Tales between 1924 and 1940 his story was the most popular.  Hamilton's winning stories include "He That Hath Wings," "The Monster-God of Mamurth," and Part Two of "Crashing Suns," which I have already read.  But most of Hamilton's winners I had not read until this week, when I begin to rectify this gap in my Hamilton knowledge by reading "The Polar Doom," "The Avenger from Atlantis." and "The Six Sleepers."  I read all three online at the internet archive.

Attention doctoral candidates in the humanities!
 A denunciation of this cover will serve as the
extra chapter your dissertation needs!
"The Polar Doom" (1928)

Like "The Monster-God of Mamurth," "The Polar Doom" starts off like one of those lost city stories I associate with H. P. Lovecraft.  From superstitious Eskimos white men hear rumors of a ruined city, "erected by devils long ago," on an island in the northernmost reaches of Canada, among what are now called the Queen Elizabeth Islands but were in the 1920s known as the Parry Archipelago.  A famous anthropologist, Dr. Angus McQuirk of Eastern University, who has the odd theory that the human race originated in the Arctic, organizes an expedition up to this island.  The last thing the civilized world hears of the expedition is a garbled radio message that suggests some unknown disaster has killed all members of the party!

Ten days later mysterious aircraft that look like flying domes or "gigantic chocolate-drops" hover over Winnipeg and we are in "World Wrecker" Hamilton / War of the Worlds territory as they wipe the city out with "compression rays."  Hamilton explains that "any matter, any object, is composed of vast numbers of tiny molecules in ceaseless motion, molecules spaced as far from each other proportionately as are the planets of our universe;" these sorts of theories were apparently beloved of the SF writers of the '20s and '30s--for example, we saw them prominently featured in some Donald Wandrei stories from the early 1930s we read recently.  Anyway, the compression ray causes the molecules of the target to move much closer together, killing people and causing buildings to collapse by shrinking and distorting them in whole or in part.  (Like the graviton gun I've been using in Deathwatch, this seems like an unnecessarily fancy way to kill people when you can just set them on fire or blast holes in them.)

Next on the domes' hit list are Montreal, Quebec, and Boston, all demolished.  This series of misfortunes is followed by a genuine tragedy as the flying domes topple skyscrapers and destroy bridges in beautiful New York City!

While the mysterious flying domes are destroying the metropolises of North America, a lone Canadian pilot, unaware of the holocaust to the south, flies north to look for the lost McQuirk expedition, and crash lands on the island to find David McQuirk, the anthropologist's brother, is still alive.  David then takes up the narrative in a long flashback describing how the expedition found a frozen dome and defrosted it, only to awaken an ancient race of toad people!  You and I know that there is no creature more charming on God's green Earth than a toad, but these toad people go the extra mile to force us to reassess our toad love!  They murdered most of the expedition out of hand, and took the anthropologist and his brother captive.  Angus, impressed by the high technology and advanced scientific knowledge of the toad people, became what people twelve years later would be calling a quisling!  (These damn anthropologists are always going native and betraying the human race!)  He quickly learned the toads' language and history (they can't stand the cold and have been waiting out the ice age in suspended animation since the days when the North Pole was warm) and even helped them set up their heating system, a beam they shoot into space to collect heat from the rays of the sun:
that mechanism was to be a great heat-magnet, a magnet which would be able to bend and attract heat-vibrations as Einstein has shown that light-vibrations are bent and attracted by the bodies they pass in space.    
With this heat magnet the toad people plan to defrost their entire city of thousands of domes (which fly through the use of "propulsion ray apparatus") and conquer the world!  Angus even told them all about our civilization so they'd know what to attack first!

Anyway, after the attack domes have returned from their trip to Manhattan, the Canadian airman gives David a pistol, and the two of them sneak up to the heat magnet while the toad men are distracted.  David has to shoot down his own brother, but they deactivate the heat magnet and all the toad men freeze to death.

Much of "The Polar Doom" reads like a newspaper article or a brief history, and there is little attempt at producing characters or achieving any kind of literary style.  When talking about Hamilton's success as a Weird Tales author in "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940," Moskowitz suggests "It should be remembered that, up until John Campbell's takeover of Astounding Science-Fiction, novelty of the idea took precedence over literary style as a criteria [sic] of the popularity of a given piece of science fiction, which was then regarded as a literature of ideas."  Hamilton certainly serves out the scientific ideas in "The Polar Doom," invoking Einstein on the effect of gravity on light and "French biologist Berthelot" (does he mean Sabin? Marcellin? I don't know) when talking about suspended animation.  But he also includes the sort of striking images of horror I think most of us look for in Weird Tales, and which were memorable elements of the stories collected in Crashing Suns.  My favorite in "The Polar Doom:" a ray slices through the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, sending thousands of fleeing Manhattanites, a veritable waterfall of screaming figures, plunging to their doom in the East River.

Entertaining.  "The Polar Doom" would only be reprinted a single time, in the 2009 volume of early Hamilton stories from Haffner PressThe Metal Giants and Others: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume One.

I guess Brundage is going for a
metaphorical thing here
"The Avenger from Atlantis" (1935)

Here's a story which it seems has never been reprinted (though maybe the Haffner folks will get to it in the future?)  Written somewhat later in Hamilton's long career, it is much more character-oriented than "The Polar Doom," but if you are "woke," these characters may well have you scurrying for your safe space!

Ulios, our narrator, is the greatest scientist in the island city of white towers and porticoes known as Atlantis!  Among his duties is holding the position of Guardian of the Force, the Force being the apparatus that manages the volcano that is this advanced civilization's power source.  Ulios is married to a beautiful woman, Etian, a half-breed--she is half Atlantean, and half barbarian!  When Etian finds out that Ulios has perfected a means of transferring brains between people, she wants him to promise to transfer her brain to a young body when she gets "wrinkled and flabby and old.  Old!  A horrible fate that I dread above all others."  Of course, Ulios, greatest scientist in Atlantis, tells her this would be "black unholiness" and to "banish such thoughts as these from your mind."

He may be a great scientist, but Ulios is a lousy director of human resources.  His assistant, Karnath, is the only other guy in Atlantis who has the key to the Force, and the only other guy who knows how to transfer brains.  So Ulios may be surprised when his servant Sthan wakes him up one night to tell him Etian has just flown off in Karnath's flying machine, but the reader isn't.  We also aren't surprised to learn Karnath has sabotaged the Force and that the whole Atlantean civilization is exploding and sinking beneath the waves while Ulios, Sthan at the helm, is flying after his faithless wife and colleague, but our narrator is!
I swear by all the gods that I had no suspicion of anything else!  Earth tremors were common enough in Atlantis, and had I dreamed that this was anything more I would have forsaken my pursuit.
Crushed by "black guilt" for committing the sin of abandoning the Force to pursue his own vengeance thus allowing his entire civilization to be annihilated, Ulios vows to atone for his crime, but only after punishing Etian and Karnath for theirs!  The flying machines of pursued and pursuer run out of juice over North Africa, and Ulios and Sthan continue following the traitors on foot.  For years they chase them, overcoming deserts, mountains, barbaric tribes, monstrous beasts.  Karnath teaches Etian how to transfer brains, so when they get old they just kidnap local savages and move their brains into their young bodies!  When Ulios realizes this, he teaches Sthan the secrets of the operation, so he and his servant can also waylay innocent people and take their bodies as replacements!  The chase goes on for generations, for centuries, as the four last Atlanteans keep switching bodies so that they never die and need never give up flight and pursuit.

Babylon, the Rome of Tiberius, the Paris of the French Revolution, London under the bombs of the zeppelins--Ulios and Sthan chase the destroyers of Atlantis through them all!  Finally, in a Manhattan skyscraper, that monument to modern ingenuity, ambition, sophistication and beauty, where Karnath's brain resides in the body of the world's richest man and Etian's in that of his gorgeous mistress, we get a final showdown and a twist ending that revolves around Etian's womanly vanity!

This story features so many of my favorite things--mad scientists transferring brains, disastrous sexual relationships, a quest for vengeance--and Hamilton fills it with so many melodramatic speeches and wild cliffhangers, as well as a protagonist who legitimately acts like he is insane or from an alien culture, that I love it.  It is easy to see why the readers of Weird Tales embraced it--"The Avenger from Atlantis" is a classic of the weird!

I assume that's Lenya, but Brundage
decided to leave out Hath's human face!
"The Six Sleepers" (1935)

Weird Tales cover boy Hamilton struck again just months after "The Avenger from Atlantis" with the "startling thrill-tale" "The Six Sleepers."  Like the tragic tale of Ulios, this baby has yet to be reprinted.

By coincidence (like an actor who refuses to rehearse because he wants his performance to be spontaneous, I never plan out these blog posts) all three of these Edmond Hamilton stories are about people who live thousands of years and must face strange new versions of Earth.  In "The Six Sleepers" we have American prospector Garry Winton who gets chased into a cave in Morocco by Berbers.  The cave is full of a natural gas which induces a state of suspended animation.  Already in the cave are five other people who have been chased into the cave by hostile Africans over the centuries: a Roman legionary, an English crusader, a 15th-century Italian condottiere, a 16th-century pirate, and an aristocratic emigre from Revolutionary France.  (For some reason no African hunters or farmers ever end up in this Moroccan cave, just European professional fighting men.)

Garry and the five European sword swingers wake up thousands of years in the future, when an earthquake causes the cave's roof to collapse and the gas to escape.  If Garry was the kind of (self-)conscious consumer who only buys products emblazoned with "NO GMO" labels he is SOL (the kids still say that, right?) because this future is chockablock (I know the kids still say that!) with genetically modified organisms.  The adventurers are attacked by huge rats with human faces, and then make friends with a young woman, Lenya, who is accompanied by Hath, her loyal retainer, a bipedal wolf with a human head!  Lenya tells Garry that the civilization after his, that of the super high-tech "Masters," developed all kinds of new breeds of people, like the rat-men to serve as miners and fish-men to explore the oceans.  The Masters are long gone after a fratricidal war and their technology defunct (Lenya carries a spear around instead of a plasma rifle) but, left to their own devices, the rat-men and other freaks have flourished.  And by flourish I mean they have multiplied and mercilessly prey upon the few true humans left, people like Lenya, descendants of the tiny number of Masters to survive the cataclysmic final war.

Anyway, Lenya's brother and two of the swordsmen are captured by rat-men and the rest of the cast have to rescue them before they are sacrificed to the rat-men's god. Hamilton tries to build up suspense by not telling us what the god is until the last moment--I stupidly was predicting a robot or computer or nuclear reactor.  The god turns out to be a huge snake with a human-like face.  (I wonder if Hamilton got the idea for this story from witnessing somebody feed rodents to his pet snake.)  After the crusader decapitates the snake-man there is a chase through a ruined city and a final desperate fight, which Garry resolves by getting one of the Masters' old atomic power projectors operating and using it to incinerate the rat-men.

This story isn't actually bad, but the plot (rescuing somebody from being sacrificed by creepo cultists) is pedestrian and Hamilton's innovations don't really spice it up. Innovation #1, that the protagonist is joined by warriors from five eras, feels contrived (their swords didn't rust over a thousand years?) and is just used to make obvious jokes (the legionary can't believe the Roman Empire is no more, and the crusader thinks everybody is a witch or a demon), and Innovation #2, all the crazy human-animal hybrids, is just window dressing--the hybrids simply play the same role in the story that expendable enemy soldiers play in fiction all the time.  Disappointing after all the science and striking images in "The Polar Doom" and the perfect little mad scientist masterpiece "The Avenger from Atlantis."

**********

A fun exercise; I will be letting Moskowitz's article guide my reading in the future.      

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