"Shadow of the Sphinx" by William Lawrence Hamling
wikipedia page on Hamling (which seems to be inordinately focused on Hamling's relationship with Harlan Ellison) suggests that Hamling was more important and successful as an editor of magazines and paperback books than as an author. This signs might give us trailblazers pause, but the wikipedia page also offers us some hope: Lin Carter apparently loved "Shadow of the Sphinx," though there is no citation for Carter's gushing quote, tsk tsk. Reliving my days of working at a public university research center, where I was paid by the long-suffering taxpayers of New York State to patch up the holes in the reports and articles of negligent college professors and indolent grad students, I tracked down the quote to the letters column of the March 1947 issue of Fantastic Adventures; in his letter Carter also opines about the Robert Moore Williams and Don Wilcox stories we will be discussing today. Carter, seventy-four years ago, trod the path I walk today.
Just two years ago, during the Second World War, a tomb was discovered in Giza, that of an ancient priestess, Zaleikka, who lived during the reign of King Khafre, builder of the Sphinx. Zaleikka's mummy ended up on display in Chicago's Field Museum. But in Chapter I of this caper the mummy disappears, right after Egyptologist and ambitious assistant museum curator Barry Randall noticed three odd characters, a little fancy pants with expensive gloves and a waxed mustache accompanied by two musclemen, staring at the earthly remains of Zaleikka in its glass case. All the clues point to the impossible--somehow those three weirdos brought Zaleikka back to life and she walked out of the museum with them!
Among some wrappings left behind when the mummy made its incredible egress, a glove is found. Randall, playing detective, takes the glove to the shop where it was custom-made and learns the oh-so-appropriate name of the leader of the mummy-stealing trio--Dr. Anubis! And his address! That night, outside the mansion of Dr. Anubis, our boy Randall runs into a comely blonde journalist, Joan Forrest. Instead of hanging around the office trying to get her colleagues fired with unfalsifiable allegations that they are fostering an unsafe work environment, Forrest is on the street actually reporting a story--the story of the cult that regularly meets in Dr. Anubis's mansion! Randall and Forrest join forces and sneak into the mansion, where they witness Anubis unveil before two dozen wealthy benefactors the fruits of the research they have funded--sitting upon a throne, a spectacularly beautiful brunette with a smooth young body but green eyes that burn with experience, ambition and forbidden knowledge--it's Zaleikka, Priestess of Karnak!
Randall and Forrest get captured, and Anubis is going to kill them to maintain the secrecy of cult's mysterious plans, but Zaleikka haughtily demands that they be spared--luckily for our heroes, Zaleikka has taken a shine to handsome Barry Randall (as you know, when you are attractive you get to play life on easy mode.) The three-thousand-year-old priestess and the man who reanimated her, both of them characterized by indomitable wills and overweening ambition, are vying for control of the cult; Zaleikka wins this round of the power struggle and Randall and Forrest are permitted to live.
The museum curator and the reporter are locked up in separate guest rooms; Zaleikka comes to talk to Randall, her first crush in 30 centuries, and she explains what is going on. (Our boy Barry is fluent in Coptic, of course.) The ancient Egyptians, we are amazed to learn, were masters of solar and atomic power and had all kinds of super technology, like anti-grav, disintegrator ray projectors, force field generators, and city-busting bombs. Aware via prophecy that Egypt would one day be superseded by the nations of the West, King Khafre put into operation a long term plan to ensure Egypt would rise from the desert to assert total dominion over the Earth. Under the Sphinx, he secreted an arsenal of super weapons in a locked vault and entrusted the means of opening the vault to one person and one person only--Zaleikka. Zaleikka was put to sleep, and clues that only an Egyptian could decipher were carefully hidden in plain view, clues that explained how to wake Zaleikka so that the Empire of the Nile might rise again and take over the world. Doctor Anubis was the first guy to figure out all the clues and wake up the priestess who is the key to that high-tech arsenal. (There are some plot holes here, but I decided to just accept all this insanity in a spirit of fun.)
Both Dr. Anubis and Zaleikka covet ambitions of eliminating the other and making him- or herself sole dictator of Earth, but for the time being these two power-mad creepos have to work together--Anubis needs her to open the arsenal and Lady Z needs Anubis to navigate the modern world; after all, train schedules, telephone directories and dessert menus aren't printed in Coptic here in Eurocentric America!
Randall manages to fight his way out of the mansion, dragging Joan Forrest behind him, but jealous Zaleikka has already worked her hypnotism on Forrest and the female reporter is like a zombie, her will sapped and her memory a blank. Randall drops Forrest off at the home of the best head shrinker in Chi-town, then contacts the police to warn them that a sexalicious ancient Egyptian girl is about to take over the world, but before the boys in blue can snap the cuffs on her luscious wrists Zaleikka, along with Dr.Anubis and those musclemen, are on a plane bound for Cairo!
|This is the kind of psychic message|
every young man dreams of receiving
The G-man and his Egyptian government contacts prove quite ineffectual. The still-entranced Joan is kidnapped by the cultists and with her metal powers Zaleikka makes the American journalist act as her body servant--Forrest kneels before Zaleikka and washes her feet! (This scene must have been a bonanza for 1946 fetishists into hypnotism, lesbian domination and feet!) Zaleikka sends Barry a psychic message, telling him where she and Anubis and the rest of the cult are in the native quarter, assuming she can seduce him with ease when he arrives, and our hero hurries over there. Barry resists the Z girl's powers, but is captured and carried along to the Sphinx. (Sometimes genre literature feels like an endless succession of people being captured and escaping.)
At the Sphinx there is a lot of business with secret doors and underground tunnels, gun fights between Dr. Anubis and the G-man as he tries to rescue Barry and Joan, and then the final battle of wits and fists as Anubis, Zaleikka and Randall desperately struggle to control the situation. In the end Dr. Anubis is thrown into a pit of asps, Zaleikka collapses into a pile of dust when denied the drugs that have been artificially sustaining her youth, and all those ancient super devices are destroyed in an explosion, denying the world the cheap energy, hover cars, and disintegrator ray artillery we all crave.
There are plenty of issues with "Shadow of the Sphinx" (for example, the action scenes are pretty contrived and Hamling doesn't provide any personality for Forrest or plausible reason for Randall to fall for her when that red hot Egyptian is there) but the pace is fast and I found it an enjoyable pulpy adventure story. I have a weakness for femmes fatales and for people rising from the dead or enjoying longevity/immortality, so "Shadow of the Sphinx" is acceptable to marginally good in my eyes, but others may disagree--Hamling's tale is certainly not in the league of the better work by our Weird Tales heroes HPL, REH or CAS, nor is it the kind of SF that has something to say about possible alternative or future societies or the human condition or the effect of novel technology or the proper role of government or whatever.
"The Counterfeiter" by Robert Moore Williams
Williams was a more prolific writer than Hamling, with many stories in magazines in the '30s, '40s and '50s, some appearances in Ace Doubles and then a string of paperbacks in the late '60s and early '70s with grim and moody Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta covers portraying he-men confronting a hostile environment. In 2018 I read Williams' "Robot's Return" and thought it was pretty good, and our man Lin Carter liked it, so I approach "The Counterfeiter" (7,400 words) with some degree of confidence.
"The Counterfeiter" is a somewhat sentimental story; you might call it a morality play. Our narrator is an executive at a bank. One day it comes to his attention that the bank has received many counterfeit hundred-dollar bills; in the first scene the narrator and his best teller are going through the bank's funds, separating form the legit currency a growing stack of identical Benjamins, each with the same serial number on it--the duplicate numbers are the only clue they aren't the real thing. They are interrupted by the arrival of an old man, a German immigrant who is lugging a heavy box. This guy explains that he invented a duplicating machine with which to feed and clothe the poor. He opens the box and demonstrates how the machine operates, and Williams describes its workings at some length. The machine really can duplicate anything small enough to fit inside it; the critical components of the device include a black fluid that moves like mercury and glitters with what look like pinpoint stars suspended within its volume--the inventor calls this fluid "the matrix."
The inventor has plans to use this new technology to supply slum kids the world over with beefsteaks and sturdy shoes, but some jackass has apparently been sneaking into his flat and duplicating money. Said jackass and his boss, a mob kingpin, shoulder their way into the bank brandishing guns and kidnap the inventor, the bank exec and the teller. In a garage the mobsters force the inventor to duplicate a diamond; when the diamond proves to be identical to the original, a ferocious gun battle erupts among the gangsters, all of whom want control of this extremely valuable machine. A bullet penetrates the duplicating machine, and the volatile matrix spills out, causing a fire so hot it can burn a person's bones to ash; the garage and all its contents are annihilated, including the evil gangsters and the saintly inventor--the narrator and his subordinate escape alive. The two bankers never tell anybody about the duplicating machine for fear of being judged insane.
This story is a decent entertainment; Williams is a good writer, the style is smooth and the pacing and length are good. "The Counterfeiter" is a lament over the human condition and human evil, Williams dwelling on the ubiquity of poverty, describing in some detail the brutal violence committed by the gangsters against the inventor and each other, and emphasizing the gangsters' conscious decision to cavalierly forestall the ringing in of a new era of peace and plenty in order to indulge in a pursuit of greed that necessitates an orgy of violence.
Smooth and economical, with a solid plot and a philosophical core, "The Counterfeiter" is making me think I should look into more of Williams's work.
"The Red Door" by Don Wilcox
If you've read Lin Carter's 1947 letter above, you know he hated the oeuvre of Don Wilcox and thought "The Red Door" the worst piece in the November issue of Fantastic Adventures. Well, let's see if Carter is off base.
In the first paragraph of "The Red Door" we are introduced to King Levaggo, and begin to doubt he will live to see the end of this 17,500-word novelette when we are told he is "cruel" and "fat." Levaggo is a usurper who is not favored by the people--the populace prefers his handsome cousin, Randall, the son of the previous king, Randello. (Believe it or not, "Randall" is the moniker of the hero of two of the stories in this issue of Fantastic Adventures.) Since he took the throne illegally ten years ago, Levaggo has been trying to kill Randall by subterfuge, without success. As the story opens Randall is returning to the palace from the Pacific, having fought with the Allies against the Japanese.
"The Red Door" is tedious and annoying. The plot is about murder, but the tone is jocular, with lots of silly, feeble jokes, so there is none of the tension you want in a life-and-death crime or horror story. At the same time, the multiple scenes of men and animals being cut to pieces, and a scene of a woman being struck in the face by Levaggo, torpedo any possibility of the story feeling lighthearted. Wilcox's tale is also long and slow, with a surfeit of unnecessary characters and verbose descriptions and a plot that is absurd and contrived, a incongruous mashup of a childish prince and princess fairy tale and a gee whiz atomic science caper. Lin Carter stands vindicated!
OK, if you care to suffer through it, the plot. The old king everybody liked, Randello, built a Vault with a capital "V" with massive steel doors painted red; in the Vault he put a letter to be read ten years after his death. An old woman beloved of the people and known as "The Old Lady" is expected to read this letter tomorrow. Levaggo has his chief adviser, some kind of engineer or something, install in front of the Red Door a death trap--blades that move at supersonic speed but appear to be stationary because they are synchronized with the strobe lights that are the only illumination in the chamber before the Vault. Levaggo and his advisor successfully test the trap by tricking a goat and then one of the Old Lady's servants into walking into it--they are sliced into paper-thin pieces. Bizarrely, the pieces of the goat and the servant vanish instead of piling up in the doorway like pastrami in the slicer at a deli; Wilcox never gets around to explaining this phenomenon.
King Levaggo's effort to trick Randall into stepping into the spinning blades fails--instead, Randall tricks the chief advisor into being annihilated by his own trap. You see, Randall is an even better engineer than that guy! In fact, we learn that Randall has a secret laboratory that he built with his father over a decade ago and which Wilcox describes to us in mind-numbing detail. It was in the secret lab that Randall was subjected to a process that made him indestructible--machine gun bullets, shell splinters, spinning blades; they all pass through him without harming him. This "atomic immunity" stood him in good stead in the Pacific War, as you can imagine, and also explains the failure of all of the usurper King's assassins to slay him.
Making "The Red Door" even longer and even more irritating, Wilcox includes a tedious love plot, the scenes of which are sprinkled between all the murder conspiracy scenes. Working in the palace is Sondra, a beautiful servant girl, and she and Randall fall in love. Sondra is no ordinary member of the servant class--she is really a psychic who can see the future in her dreams and who has left behind a lucrative career touring the world like Kreskin or David Copperfield to toil as a menial for a king who hits her. Why the inexplicable career change?--in a dream she saw that working at the palace for King Levaggo would lead to her becoming a princess! Oh, brother! Randall takes Sondra to the secret laboratory where he confers on her atomic immunity in a long tedious process Wilcox is only too happy to describe for us. Then, after a subplot about Levaggo's chauffeur (good grief!), Randall and Sondra and the Old Lady (who in the chauffeur subplot has herself acquired atomic immunity) pass through walls and read the letter, which somehow deposes Levaggo and makes Randall king. Levaggo isn't executed or even imprisoned, instead his punishment is being given the job of cleaning up the gory mess resultant from some of his mounted guards and their horses being cut to pieces when they tried to pass through the Red Door. For some reason the blades that disintegrated the advisor, the Old Lady's servant, and the goat did not disintegrate the cavalrymen and their mounts.
So I bid farewell to the November 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures with warm feelings about William L. Hamling, an interest in the work of Robert Moore Williams, an increased level of respect for Lin Carter's critical acumen, and a powerful aversion to the work of Don Wilcox. An enlightening foray into the world of 1940s pulp SF!
In the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log expect to hear about horror stories published 30 years or more after those we enjoyed (or endured) in today's foray into the wilds of 20th-century SF.
*I read the revised 1902 edition of Winston Churchill's The River War, an entertaining account of political and military crises in the Sudan in the late 19th century, learning first hand what I have been hearing educated people say my entire life, that Churchill is quite a good writer. I reread Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Vita Nuova and read Marc Cirigliano's translation of Guido Cavalcanti's poems. I read a few essays from T. S. Eliot: The Man and His Work, ed. Allan Tate and T. S. Eliot: Symposium, ed. Richard March and Tambimuttu, and some chapters from David E. Chinitz's T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. As for the Japanese comic books, many were just frivolous entertainments or gratuitous pornography, but some, namely Sundome and Ibitzu by Kazuto Okada, After the Rain by Jun Mayuzuki, and Otome No Teikoku by Kishi Torajirou, I can recommend as works of some artistic and literary merit.