Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Three early 1930s stories by Edmond Hamilton from The Horror on the Asteroid

One of the first hardcover SF books, a volume printed before the Campbellian revolution and the publication of the first SF stories by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and A. E. van Vogt in 1939, was the 1936 Edmond Hamilton collection The Horror on the AsteroidThe Horror on the Asteroid contains six stories first published in Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, and Astounding.  I have already read three of them, "The Monster God of Mamurth" (which I blogged about in 2017), "The Man Who Evolved," and "The Accursed Galaxy" (which I wrote about in 2013), and today we'll read the remaining three: the title story, one called "The Earth-Brain" and one entitled "The Man Who Saw Everything" that originally appeared as "The Man With X-Ray Eyes."  I don't have a copy of The Horror on the Asteroid, but all three stories are readily available at the internet archive in scans of the magazines in which they first appeared. 

"The Earth-Brain" (1932)

Our initial narrator for this tale is Morris, who by chance meets his friend Clark Landon on the streets of beautiful Manhattan during an earthquake.  Landon, a brave explorer, was in an earthquake up near the North Pole two years ago--that quake killed Landon's two best friends, fellow explorers David Travis and Herbert Skeel.  There have been earthquakes all over Europe and North Africa ever since that big one up north, and Landon reveals that he has been at the epicenter of each quake--he claims that the quakes have been following him, trying without success to kill him and inadvertently slaying thousands of innocent people!  Of course Morris thinks this is balderdash.

Landon sits down with Morris in a hotel room and takes over the narrative, relating his story of weird polar horror to his friend and to us.   

Two years ago the three white men, Landon, Travis and Skeel, along with two Eskimos, traveled north via ship and then dog sled towards the Pole.  When they came upon a mountain Landon and his two buds were eager to climb and explore it, even though the Eskimos warned them that, according to their lore, this mountain must hold the Earth's brain, and as such was forbidden.  The white men scoffed at the natives' idea that the planet Earth was a living being with its brain in a polar mountain, and started climbing the mountain, doing their best to ignore the increasingly violent tremors that the Eskimos told them were a warning that must be heeded.  Halfway up the peak they found a smooth-walled tunnel that led them into the hollow core of the mountain, a huge cavern in which rested a hundred-foot high glowing thing shaped like an egg--this spheroid of coruscating light is the brain of our planet!

Landon and his pals were snatched up by tentacles of light, and their minds invaded by the consciousness of the Earth-Brain!  The Earth-Brain had never paid much attention to humans before--we are like microbes to it--and now it studied the three men.  When the tentacles tore Skeel apart to examine his insides an enraged Landon drew his automatic and shot the brain.  The brain's resulting paroxysms of fury killed Travis, and the Eskimos outside, but Landon, by luck, managed to escape and make his way to civilization.  Everywhere he went the vengeful Earth rocked in an effort to kill him, but Landon knew to stay in open spaces, away from buildings and mountains that might fall on him.

After telling his story to Morris, Landon leaves New York and heads south.  Morris tells us about newspaper reports of further quakes, each farther south than the last.  The last quake took place in Guatemala; according to the papers during the quake an American jumped into a crevice--the crack closed up on him and the quake immediately ended.

2014 edition
"The Earth-Brain" is too long and repetitious; we know the essentials of the plot from the third page--including who dies at the Pole--and then Hamilton spends page after page elaborating and embroidering them.  The plot and idea are good, but the structure and style of the story do not make the best possible use of them.  If I was Hamilton's co-writer or editor I would get rid of the Morris character and the NYC frame story and present the story as Landon's journal.  The first part of the journal would set up the friendship between Landon and Skeel--Skeel was there for Landon when Landon's fiance cheated on him or Skeel saved Landon's life in the war or something--so when the Earth-Brain rips Skeel in half it is really heartrending.  Skeel's death would not be foreshadowed, at least not blatantly, so it would come as a surprise.  The later parts of the journal would be full of Landon's feelings of guilt over Skeel and Travis's deaths and the deaths of innocent people in other earthquakes aimed at him, as well as his ruminations on suicide.  Appended to the journal would be a newspaper clipping about Landon's suicide during the Guatemala quake.

Barely acceptable.

"The Earth-Brain" would be reprinted in Robert Price's 2001 anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu.

"The Horror on the Asteroid" (1933)

"The Horror on the Asteroid" was first published in an issue of Weird Tales with a pupil-dilating S&M cover by pioneering woman artist Margaret Brundage that illustrates the Conan story now known as "Xuthal of the Dusk" but then called "The Slithering Shadow."  (We read "Xuthal of the Dusk," a lost city story featuring a sexy queen and a man-eating god monster, last year.)

Space liner Vulcan is travelling to Jupiter from Earth when it is struck by meteors and its hull breached--over half the people on board are killed!  Hamilton really dwells on the grief and terror of the survivors, and how tough a time the surviving officers have keeping the spacemen and passengers under control and shepherding them into the life boats and to a nearby asteroid.  This asteroid, 100 miles in diameter, has a breathable atmosphere and is covered in jungle.

The space castaways, about a hundred people, become very insubordinate and fractious, and many fights ensue among them.  They spot some hairy ape-like creatures, and some large crocodillians, and find some wrecked space ships which crashed on the asteroid in the past.

I figured out the central gag of the asteroid early because I recalled Hamilton stories about evolution gone haywire like "Devolution" and his wife Leigh Brackett's 1948 story "The Beast-Jewel of Mars," in which bitter Martians use rays to devolve Earth colonists into cave men and even further back down the evolutionary ladder.  In "The Horror on the Asteroid" it is elements in the asteroid's atmosphere which cause humans to devolve.  The lead character, the Vulcan's radio operator, figures this out by reading the log from one of the earlier crashed ships.  He tries to convince everybody to get back in the life boats and flee the asteroid, but it is too late--they are too ape-like to even understand what he is talking about!  Luckily just then a rescue ship arrives.

The start of "The Horror on the Asteroid," all the stuff in the stricken space ship and the life boats, is good.  But the stuff on the asteroid is a bit weak.  First of all, there is the deus ex machina ending--the characters don't do anything to solve the problem presented by the asteroid's atmosphere, they are just fortunate that a rescue ship appeared before they were hairy ape men.  Secondly, in the first half or so of the story Hamilton sets up relationships--there is a mutinous spaceman as well as a self-important businessman who aren't interested in taking orders from the officers--that are just abandoned, which is frustrating.  When a story has troublemakers in its first half we expect them in its second half to get punished, or to reform, or, in a twist, to turn out to be smarter than the main character and inspire a change in the protagonist.  When they simply disappear from view it is disappointing and we feel like our time has been wasted.

Acceptable.

It doesn't look like "The Horror on the Asteroid" has appeared outside of Weird Tales and the collection which bears its name.

"The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (1933)

Back in 2017 we read Edmond Hamilton's 1934 story "The Man Who Returned," the tragic tale of a guy who was buried alive, escaped his tomb, and then realized life was not worth living when he eavesdropped on people and realized how they really felt about him.  "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" is a similar piece of work.

David Winn is a young reporter in New York City who wants to marry his girlfriend Marta Ray, but feels he does not have enough cash to do so.  When he hears that some scientist has developed a way to alter animals' eyes so they can see through inorganic matter, Winn realizes that if he could see through the stone and metal walls of homes and offices he could become the world's best reporter, with one scoop after another, and very quickly the world's best paid reporter!

Winn visits the inventor of the eye altering process and volunteers to be his first human test subject.  The experiment is a success, and after a stop at his paper for his assignment (talk to a bunch of politicians and prominent businessmen about a recent corruption case) Winn sets to work getting scoops.  Winn can read lips, so he hangs out in waiting rooms and, by looking through the wall, can "listen in" on the meetings of all these pols and magnates, and they all turn out to be totally corrupt, unabashedly so among their equally venal subordinates and colleagues!  This is a little more depressing than Winn expected it to be.  Then Winn heads over to Marta's.  On the way he passes through a slum, and past a prison and a hospital--able to see through walls and doors and floors, he witnesses every form of human evil and misfortune and misery!  He can't go on living if every moment he will be exposed to the hellish reality of human life, and the egghead told him that the surgery was irreversible!  Winn decides that after he marries Marta they will move to the country and become hermits!  But then comes the ultimate blow--through the wall as he approaches Winn can see Marta and her mother talking about him, and by reading their lips learns they both think he is a loser and that Marta is only marrying him because she expects she can't do any better.  "I have to marry someone, don't I?"

Winn proceeds to drown himself in the river.  (Winn is one impulsive dude.)

This is a pretty good story, even if Hamilton forgets that rubber and petroleum products are organic and erroneously has Winn unable to see automobiles--he should be able to see the tires, hoses, fuel and lubricants.  I can be much more enthusiastic about this one than the other two. 

"The Man With X-Ray Eyes" was reprinted in Startling Stories in 1946, where it was heralded as a "Hall of Fame Classic."  That same issue of Startling includes Henry Kuttner's The Dark World, which I didn't think was very good when I read it years ago.

Over in the British Isles, in 1945, "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" was included with Robert Bloch's "The Red Swimmer" and H. O. Dickinson's "The Sex Serum" in an odd little publication whose main selling point was apparently its cover photo of a topless woman.  The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has an article about the series of reprints of US fiction of which "The Sex Serum" was Number 9.


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More stories from a Weird Tales habitue in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

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