Monday, April 2, 2018

Weird Tales by Frank Belknap Long from the 1920s


For decades I have been wondering, "What is up with that Frank Belknap Long?"  He has a good reputation and some nice awards, but when I read his work I am usually astounded by how poor it is.  Maybe what I need to do is go back, back, back to the very beginning, and read some of Long's earliest work, stories that appeared in 1920s issues of Weird Tales, including two stories the isfdb specifically places in the "Cthulhu mythos;" maybe this is the Frank Belknap Long everybody is in love with. 


"Death-Waters" (1924)

"Death-Waters" first appeared in Weird Tales in '24, and was reprinted by that unique magazine in 1933.  Both issues have covers guaranteed to start difficult conversations with your "woke" friends should they see them in your collection.  Maybe keep these babies out of sight, bro!  I read the 1933 reprint version in a PDF file available at the very useful SFFaudio Public Domain PDF page.

(Whether you find Margaret Brundage's sadistic sex-oozing cover entrancing or enraging, the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales looks like an exciting one, with a Robert E. Howard Conan story*, stories by MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton and critical darling Clark Ashton Smith, and letters from Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch.  Nice!)

A guy is travelling in a passenger ship along the coast of Latin America, accompanied by his friend, who lies dead in a coffin.  He tells the other passengers on the ship the story of how his friend got killed, and how he himself got all those nasty snake bites on his arm.

The guy (Long doesn't provide him a name) was in a canoe in the center of a lake fed by a jungle spring with his now dead buddy, Byrne, and "a huge black savage," the "oily skin" of whose "animal-like body" was "hideously tattooed."  Byrne wanted to bottle the water from the spring as a health tonic to sell to gullible people back in New York, but a taste test was required, and both he and the narrator were afraid to imbibe any of it, it being full of "animalcules" and smelling foul.  So Byrne forced the black guy to taste it.  After drinking it down the black dude screamed manically, his shrieks more like the sounds of "a gorilla under torture" than any utterance one might expect to come from a human throat.  Apparently in response to the scream, thousands of snakes rose out of the lake! These serpents, apparently a nonvenomous species, swarmed into the boat to bite Byrne, but not our narrator or the black man.

The black guy rowed them to the shore, then left them.  From over a hill crawled and slunk an army of poisonous toads, venomous snakes, and even horned lizards--a carpet of scaly death!  The white men beat at the swarm of herps, killing hundreds of them, but eventually the cold-blooded creepy-crawlies overwhelmed Byrne, poisoning him to death.  The beasties only bit the narrator when he tried to pull them off Byrne, and once Byrne has expired they squirmed away.

This story is entertaining because it is so crazy in so many ways.  There are the nightmarish and gruesome images of swarming reptiles being smashed by the score.  And there are the racial elements--students of depictions of non-whites in genre literature may find the story a valuable window into 1920s thinking about race; the narrator has a whole theory of the psychology of blacks and how whites should interact with them, and one might say that the point of the story is that Byrne suffered for not treating the black guy in a just and prudent manner.  And then there is Long's strange style which features odd phrases and makes strange little jokes; I'll just give you this one example: "I became as flabby as an arachnid on stilts."  What? 

I'm judging "Death-Waters" acceptable, largely as a curious, strange, artifact.

*It looks like nowadays, even though "The Slithering Shadow" is a fun title and looks great in the typescript chosen for use on the cover of the magazine, we are calling this story "Xuthal of the Dusk."

"The Were-Snake" (1925)

"The Were-Snake" appears in a book I own, the 1979 collection Night Fear.  (You'll remember I read the short story "Night Fear" back in mid 2014 when it was masquerading as a novelet.)  Night Fear has mind-bogglingly effusive praise for Long from Gordon R. Dickson and Richard A. Lupoff printed on its back cover (reproduced above) and on its front cover a painting by Clyde Caldwell of Chaugnar Faugn, star of "The Horror from the Hills," a long story I read back in late 2014.  Caldwell did lots of illustration work for TSR during the years my brother and I played endless hours of AD&D and Star Frontiers and devoured every month's Dragon magazine, and we became very familiar with Caldwell's style.  We called him "the Gemster" because every one of his paintings seemed to include a glittering jewel or gem, no matter how inappropriate its inclusion might be.

Our narrator for "The Were-Snake" is an American adventurer; this guy is visiting some remote ancient ruin, a temple dedicated to Ishtar, a goddess, we learn, whose worship goes back thousands of years before Homer, Stonehenge, and the Egyptian pyramids.  He tells his girlfriend, a Miss Beardsley, that Ishtar's "terrestrial manifestations" were femmes fatale who seduced and destroyed countless men.  He wants to spend the night alone at the temple, investigating, and dismisses Miss Beardsley's fears a native girl will seduce him while she is away.  Our narrator's native guide, in a sort of digression, tells him that the East is superior to the West because Easterners educate the soul and care not for technology--the West, he opines, went down the tubes when Europe chose Sir Isaac Newton over John Dee.

At night two green eyes appear in the darkness and try to mesmerize the narrator.  He shoots at the eyes, with no effect.  Miss Beardsley appears, wanting to help, but she is snatched by the creature and dragged down into the ruin.  When the hero catches up he can see that Ishtar is a thing like a giant snake that oozes slime and has a dog-like head.  Overcoming his fear, he chops off the monster's head with a sharp rock, rescuing Miss Beardsley.  In the morning his guide reports that a woman without a head and a disembodied cobra's head were found in the ruin.

The "Were-Snake" is a turgid mess that moves slowly and tries, with no success, to generate excitement by describing at length, but with little clarity or power, psychological states.  Much of the story is dissonant; the opening hints that Ishtar is sexy, but Ishtar turns out to be a thing like a slug; when bullets had no effect on the creature I thought it must be an illusion or a non-corporeal ghost, but then it grabs Miss Beardsley; the narrator goes from paralyzed by fear one second to galvanized into action in another for reasons that are not made clear; we are expected to believe that bullets don't harm the monster but a sharp stone can decapitate it in one blow; the monster is slimy like a slug at one point, scaly like a snake at another, and goes from having a canine head to a serpentine head.  The story is confusing in a way that is frustrating and irritating, that takes you out of the story, rather than in a way that sucks you in by exciting a desire to see a mystery solved.

Weak.  If I may be allowed to play editor to a World Fantasy Award winner, I would suggest that this simple plot could be made to work if the narrator and/or Miss Beardsley were interesting characters with psychological attributes which gave them the ability to overcome Ishtar.  Maybe their love for each other gave them strength, or their belief in Christianity, or a belief in reason andf familiarity with science that immunizes them to superstition and allows them to see through ancient myths to the reality behind them.  Maybe the hero could kill the monster with a knife his girlfriend gave him or a sword blessed by a priest, a symbol of what makes him and Miss Beardsley special as people.  Anything to make sense of the story and give readers some emotional or intellectual handle to grasp.

"The Space-Eaters" (1928)

isfdb tells us this story is part of "The Cthulhu Mythos;" it seems to be one of the first (maybe the very first) Mythos stories published by someone other than Lovecraft himself.  I read it in a scan of its original appearance made available by the good people at SFFaudio.

Frank, our narrator, and Howard, his friend, a writer of horror stories, are sitting around talking.  Howard engages in some interesting literary criticism, discussing the reason various horror writers' stories are effective and lamenting that he is not able to achieve in his own writing his goal of depicting horrors from outer space that have no earthly analog.  Then one of Frank's friends, Wells, bursts in to tell a story of horror that matches Howard's aspirations--as he was travelling through a foggy wood full of trees shaped like "evil old men," Wells experienced the most horrifying and most bizarre sights and feelings imaginable.  And he has the head wound to prove the truth of his story--a perfectly smooth and bloodless hole has been bored through his skull to his brain!

As the story progresses Frank and Howard must confront, and try to puzzle out the mysterious nature of, a creature which has come to Earth to suck out human brains.  One of the surprising things about this story is its solution to the problem of the aliens.  I think of Lovecraft's stories as being, in part, a refutation of traditional beliefs about the universe held by the faithful of the monotheistic religions--Jews, Christians and Muslims think that God manages the universe and that God loves and protects mankind, while in Lovecraft stories the universe and powerful "gods" are indifferent or even inimical to mankind.  But Long's "The Space-Eaters" suggests that some power, represented by the sign of the cross, has defended Earth from alien invasion in the past, and in this story that power does so again.  (An epigraph to the story, ostensibly from the John Dee translation of The Necronomicon, foreshadows this by attesting to the power of the sign of the cross.)   

This is a story I can recommend.  It is of course fun to see Long writing a story about himself and his buddy H. P. Lovecraft facing alien monsters, and I enjoyed the literary criticism "Howard" delivers in the beginning of the story.  "The Space-Eaters" also has some good images and genuinely disturbing horror elements, like when Frank is asked to hold up a lamp to help a doctor conduct brain surgery on Wells--our narrator is too scared to look at his friend's exposed brain and may not even have the guts to hold the lamp steady!  Long thus exploits not only our visceral disgust at physical gore and our cerebral fears about our place in the universe, but our fears of being too weak to aid our friends should they find themselves in desperate need.

"The Space-Eaters" has been reprinted numerous times, including in a 1988 edition of August Derleth's 1969 anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, which has a striking cover illustration by Tim White.

Hannes Bok appropriately depicts the Hounds as being composed of straight lines and angles
in his cover illo for the 1946 collection of Long stories published by Arkham House

"The Hounds of Tindalos" (1929)

OK, here it is, the (I believe) most famous Frank Belknap Long story, and one of the most famous Cthulhu Mythos stories by somebody other than H. P. Lovecraft, "The Hounds of Tindalos."  "The Hounds of Tindalos" is the title story of a 1946 Arkham House collection of Long stories, and the Tindalos "brand" is so recognizable that a 2008 anthology of stories written by Long and by a number of other writers inspired by his work was entitled The Tindalos Cycle.  Well, let's see what the fuss is all about!  I read "The Hounds of Tindalos" in a scan of the nearly 90-year-old issue of Weird Tales in which it made its debut that is available at the internet archive. 

Halpin Chalmers is a genius who breaks all the rules!  "I have always been a rebel, a champion of originality and lost causes...."  He has disdain for Bertrand Russell and the positivism and materialism of 19th- and 20th-century scientists, admires the alchemists and mystics of the more distant past, and reveres Einstein as "A priest of transcendental mathematics."  Chalmers wants to know the truth about man's origin and man's destiny, and condemns modern biologists for their slow progress in uncovering the secrets of human development.  He believes that, armed with his knowledge of modern mathematics, he can travel through time by using a drug little known in the West but used in the East by such savants as Lao Tze and see man's beginning and man's end!  "Time and motion," he declares, "are both illusions," and through the use of the Far Eastern drug he is going to "strip" from his eyes "the veils of illusion time has thrown over them."

(This story is full of name dropping: Darwin, Haeckel, Plotinus, Aquinas, and John Dee, a guy I never hear about whom Long brings up in three of today's four stories, are among those mentioned.  The story also reflects the fascination of Western intellectuals with Eastern mysticism and philosophy--Chalmers bases much of his thinking on the concept of the Tao.)

Like that of so many Lovecraftian-type stories, the bulk of "The Hounds of Tindalos" is a first-person narrative.  Our narrator is a friend of Chalmers's whose aid he requests in his drug-induced journey back in time.  "...if I go back too far you must recall me to reality.  You can recall me by shaking me violently."  Our narrator thinks the Tao and all this time travel jazz is "rubbish" and tries to dissuade Chalmers from this risky experiment with foreign intoxicants, but he is willing to help his buddy if he can't convince him to just say "no."

Chalmers takes one of his Oriental pills and our narrator sits and with his "pale green Waterman" fountain pen writes down everything his adventurous crony says during his "trip."  Chalmers reports that he can see all of time simultaneously, and reels off a list of incidents from Atlantis and Lemuria, medieval Italy and Elizabethan England, ancient Greece and ancient Rome, the migration of the Neanderthals and the age of the dinosaurs.  He can perceive time as "curves" and "angles," and far back, before the time of multi-cellular life on Earth, the angles become strange and horrifying.  Chalmers throws a fit and crawls around the room like a crazed canine untoil our hero shakes him and the mystic collapses, stunned.

After recovering with the help of some whiskey, Chalmers tells the narrator that, at the beginning of time, he saw the Hounds of Tindalos, creatures of angles who became the repository of all foulness after a terrible "deed" that is symbolized in our culture by the myth of the Fall.  (Like "The Space-Eaters," "The Hounds of Tindalos" makes use of Christian symbolism, Chalmers saying "The tree, the snake and the apple--these are the vague symbols of a most awful mystery."  As did Eve, Chalmers has taken a tremendous risk in the reckless pursuit of knowledge.)  Evil is represented by angles, and goodness by curves, and the angular Hounds lust to devour human beings, the good part of whom is descended from a curve.  Upon smelling Chalmers, the Hounds pursued him, or so he says--the narrator thinks this all nonsense.

The brief second part of the story tells how Chalmers, with the narrator's aid, used plaster of Paris to fill in all the corners and angles of his room, so that, as far as possible, Chalmer's room resembled the interior of a sphere.  Chalmers thinks this may keep the Hounds from reaching him.  The final part of the story is a series of excerpts from newspapers, a chemist's report, and Chalmer's own published work, providing us clues as to Chalmer's ultimate fate.

This is a good horror story, with strange ideas and memorable images, and it is more economically structured than "The Space-Eaters."  I can see why this would be Long's most renowned and influential story, reprinted not only in Lovecraftian volumes, but in anthologies of stories about drug use and stories representing an overview of 20th-century SF.


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"The Space-Eaters" and "The Hounds of Tindalos" are good enough that it makes sense that people still admire Long, even though he also produced a vast quantity of mediocre and poor work later in his career.  These stories have provided a useful addition to my weird education.

More Weird Tales in our next episode!

2 comments:

  1. Over at LibraryThing, we had a crack at "The Space-Eaters" (http://www.librarything.com/topic/287409), and I did a post of my own on it (https://wp.me/p4jmub-5Ik).

    I'm much more a fan of "The Hounds of Tindalos" than "The Space-Eaters"

    I do want to read The Horror from the Hills".

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    1. Well, as you can see above, Lupoff called "Horror From the Hills" a "supreme achievement" and praised its humor. I thought the final action sequence made little sense and called the story "too long, and burdened with too much extraneous matter that confuses and weakens its tone." (I am a notorious foe of comic relief.) If you do read it, I'll be curious to hear what you think!

      https://mporcius.blogspot.com/2014/10/odd-science-fiction-by-frank-belknap.html

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