Monday, June 24, 2019

"People of the Black Coast" and "Valley of the Lost" by Robert E. Howard

In 2012 the good people at the Robert E. Howard Foundation published a volume (now sold out) of Howard material entitled Adventures in Science Fantasy.  The largest component of that volume is Almuric, a fun novel I read in my Iowa days, but I had never read two other pieces with intriguing titles, "People of the Black Coast" and "King of the Forgotten People" (AKA "Valley of the Lost") so I tracked down their initial publications at the internet archive and read them this weekend.

"People of the Black Coast" (published 1969)

This one was first published in a "Special Moon Issue" of Spaceway, a magazine edited by William Crawford that has a sort of semi-professional feel, with amateurish art and lots of reprints of old stories.  Forrest J. Ackerman has a column in this issue in which (among many other things) he promotes A. E. van Vogt's career (Ackerman was our man Van's agent), alerting us of the impending publication of the Ace novels The Battle of Forever (we at MPorcius Fiction Log read it in 2014) and Quest for the Future (we read that fix-up in 2016), as well as one entitled The Other-Men; maybe The Other-Men was a provisional title for Darkness on Diamondia (in 2015 I called DoD one of the most frustrating of van Vogt's works) or Children of Tomorrow (if I read this one, it was before the spontaneous generation of this blog.)  Ackerman also tries to drum up interest in a story by van Vogt which will appear in the September Galaxy entitled "A Stage of Kings."   isfdb doesn't list a van Vogt piece with "Kings" or "Stage" in the title, but the Canadian madman's "Humans, Go Home!" did appear in that issue of Galaxy.  (I read "Humans, Go Home!" long ago and plan to reread it eventually.  I remember it being particularly bewildering, but Isaac Walwyn at his terrific van Vogt website provides useful material for understanding the story that I will take advantage of on my next attempt.)

Enough van Vogt esoterica, let's get back to the matter at hand, two stories by Robert E. Howard that are classified by some as science fiction.  The narrator of "People of the Black Coast" is a guy with a beautiful and adventurous fiance, Gloria.  This girl loves to fly her plane, and on a whim she decides to fly with her betrothed from the Philippines to Guam.  This is Kennedy-level hubris, and has the tragic result we can expect: the plane crashes, and Gloria and our hero swim to a sinister island made up of vast black cliffs surrounded by a thin strip of beach.

"People of the Black Coast" really is science fiction, with Howard flinging scientific theories about the brain, references to evolution, and other traditional SF trappings at us, but it has that Howard twist: science and intellectualism in this story are physically and morally degenerate!  On this black island is a hidden city inhabited by an intelligent non-mammalian race, people who look like crabs the size of horses!  Howard tells us that these crab people are highly advanced, that the difference between their forms and that of a spider crab is like the difference between that of a European and an African, with the one obviously a more highly developed and superior version of the other.  Our narrator can sense the crabs' super intelligence and utter contempt for him--the crab people look at our hero as we humans look at an insect!

The crab people are scientists with psychic powers.  They trick Gloria into separating from her fiance, and cut her to pieces in the process of conducting an experiment on her!  The narrator recovers only her hand bearing her engagement ring!  Yikes!  The narrator then conducts a guerrilla war of vengeance on the alien scientists.  He kills many of the creatures, ambushing them one at a time and beating them down with a hunk of iron he found in some driftwood.  The narrator theorizes that women are more susceptible to psychic influence than men, so he can resist their mental powers in a way Gloria could not, and that the crab people's intellectual development over the centuries has weakened them physically and you might say in spirit or elan--he compares himself to a gorilla fighting college professors or a lion attacking a village; while the lower creature is less intelligent and less sophisticated, in a one-on-one fight it has the advantage in strength and ferocity.

As the story ends the narrator figures his time is almost up.  In a recent encounter his left arm was severed (Yikes again!), and the crab people seem to gradually be sussing out the weak spots in his psyche so that their mental powers will soon be able to overcome him. After he writes this memoir he will launch one final suicidal assault on the crab people.

This is a pretty effective horror story that hits all kind of terror flashpoints; being stranded in the wilderness, the cosmic horror of meeting superior beings who think you are nothing, the death of a loved one under torture, dismemberment, etc.  The pervasive theme of differences across race, sex, species, and level of development, which of course is taboo in our current age, adds a level of interest and uneasiness to the story.  It is also nice to know why there is a giant crab on the cover of Berkley's 1978 collection of Howard stories Black Canaan and Baen's 1996 collection Beyond the Borders.

"Valley of the Lost" (published 1966)

"Valley of the Lost," Howard's preferred title of which appears to have been "King of the Forgotten People," was first published in Robert A. W. Lowndes's Magazine of Horror, another periodical with lots of reprints and somewhat mediocre art.  Lowndes prefaces the story with a discussion of why "Valley of the Lost" wasn't originally published in the 1930s in Strange Tales or the pre-Campbell Astounding and how he ended up publishing it for the first time three decades after Howard composed it.

Howard had no shame about reusing names in his stories, and a woman named Gloria figures in "Valley of the Lost" as well.  You see, Gloria's husband, scientist and explorer Richard Barlow, disappeared in the Gobi desert four years ago.  Gloria has hired Jim Brill, he of the broad shoulders and thick chest, to go find Barlow; Brill may hate Barlow, but he loves Gloria, so off he went, hoping to find Barlow's grave so he can marry Gloria!  The search for the errant egghead is more fiendishly hazardous than anybody could have expected, and as the story begins, Brill is on the run from Mongols who have massacred his guides and servants, and he is only saved by an opportunely timed giant spider attack!

The giant spider scene is very creepy, the best part of the story and one of the most effectively disturbing scenes I have ever read by Howard.  After he has put the spiders behind him, Brill is captured by locals and taken to the city of Khor, built by Genghis Khan as a pleasure resort populated by slaves and then forgotten--the descendants of the slaves have been living here for centuries, enjoying almost no contact with the outside world.  When Gloria's hubby Barlow got here he used his unrivaled expertise in manipulating electricity to make himself king of Khor.

("King of the Forgotten People" really is a much better name for this story.)

In keeping with Howard's anti-science/anti-intellectualism themes, Barlow is an egomaniacal exploiter with no scruples.  He has been taking advantage of the Khar citizens' belief in the cruel god Erlik (there's Erlik popping up at my blog again!) to conduct experiments on human subjects, leading them to believe that he is a priest of Erlik and the subjects of his experiments sacrifices to that dark god of death.  "I've gone beyond the wildest dreams of western scientists," he gloats to Brill.  For example, from ordinary spiders that would only scare a guy like me he created the monster spiders that scare away the ferocious Mongol bandits.   

Barlow is eager to explain his latest scientific triumph to a fellow white man, even an ignorant dolt like Brill.  Reminding me of the central conceit of Kuttner and Moore's 1949 Astounding cover story "Private Eye," Barlow says that radiations and vibrations make impressions on every substance and these impressions can, in theory, be read.  With the right equipment, or psychic powers, you could see and hear everything that ever happened in a room by translating the impressions left on its walls.  Thought is one of the emanations that leaves an impression, and from a room in which Genghis Khan would drink and take opium and meditate, Barlow, utilizing his psychic powers, has been absorbing the Khan's thoughts, so that the conqueror's personality has been seeping into his own!
"...I am acquiring the uncanny genius by which Genghis Khan, who was born in a nomad's horse-hide tent, overthrew armies, kings, cities, empires!"    
Barlow says he will eventually become Genghis Khan, and Brill notices the mad scientist is beginning to look like an Asian!  Barlow plans to seize control of all Asia, and suggests that Brill go back to America to fetch Gloria so Barlow can give her to some other Oriental potentate as a kind of diplomatic bribe--this request drives Brill berserk and he attacks the would-be Genghis.

One of the interesting things in "Valley of the Lost" is the way Howard deals with the ethnic and cultural diversity of Asia, including in the tale all these Mongols, Tonkinese (people from Northern Vietnam) who serve as Barlow's personal guards, and a Chinese woman, Lala Tzu, who is Barlow's lover, and giving them distinct characteristics that, I guess, reflect Western beliefs circa 1930 about different peoples of the mysterious East.

The Tonkinese save Barlow from Brill, and Brill is tied up and set in Barlow's laboratory.  Barlow is about to do some super science on Brill, using an apparatus to de-evolve Brill so he is turned into an ape, when the beautiful Lala Tzu murders Barlow--all the talk of Gloria made her jealous, and, anyway, Barlow had been paying more attention to his Genghis Khan room and his lab than to her.  She frees Brill and there is a gory fight with the Tonkinese followed by a chase.  Then, in one of those coincidences so common in genre fiction, while American hunk and Chinese babe are fleeing the bloodthirsty Vietnamese, the Mongols attack the city.  The citizens of Khor think that Brill, being white, can use electricity to defeat the Mongols just like Barlow used to, so they exterminate the Barlow-loyal Tonkinese and beg for his help.  Of course, Brill is no scientist, but fortunately Lala Tzu knows how to use Barlow's electric artillery and the Mongols are annihilated.

(Yes, in this story the sexy Chinese girl, not our Yankee musclehead, is responsible for destroying most of the villains.)

This is a solid weird adventure tale that weds Howard's usual concerns--like the struggle of a strongman against a man with esoteric knowledge and fear of the mysterious foreign Other--with science fiction jazz we are more likely to see in the work of somebody like Edmond Hamilton; remember those horror SF stories he wrote about mad scientists and evolution that I read early in this blog's life?

Two publications that include translations of "King of the Forgotten People"
and have what real estate people call "curb appeal"

These are fun stories that manage to generate the chills and disgust we want from a solid horror tale, feature the gross physical violence and celebration of strength and ferocity we look for in Howard's work, and integrate cool SF concepts.  I know there are some who look down on these kinds of action adventure tales or are repulsed by their racism and sexism, but I think good Howard stories, and these two are good ones, have a real power, and serve as allegories for our lives, recognizing that we all face overwhelming challenges that we can't even understand (death itself foremost among them) and honoring those who manfully, stalwartly, face those challenges.

Thumbs up for "People of the Black Coast" and "Valley of the Lost"/"King of the Forgotten People."

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Bloodworld (AKA You Sane Men) by Laurence M. Janifer

On our world we had our rights, though I fought the world and though it was necessary for me to fight it: you must understand that we had our rights, that we were human, in spite of what we did and in spite of what you think: for I know very well what you think, your faces can't hide it and the tones of your voices can't hide it.  I'm a person: in spite of you, I insist on that.   
Here we have the second book we will read from among my Roanoke, VA purchases, like its predecessor a volume formerly resident in the library of C. A. Gallion.  When in 1965 Lancer published Laurence Janifer's You Sane Men, they matched its hyperbolic come-on text ("the most shocking novel you will ever read") with a restrained, even arty, cover illustration attributed by isfdb to Howard Winters.  But when they republished it in 1968 they changed the title to Bloodworld and slapped on it an amateurish and embarrassing cover illo also attributed by isfdb to Howard Winters.  The colors are bad, the composition is bad, and the artist apparently has no confidence in his ability to paint faces... ugh.

While the cover of Bloodworld seems designed to signal that the book is an exploitation piece, the first few pages of the volume indicate Janifer took this work quite seriously.  There is a heartfelt dedication to editors C. V. J. Anderson and Larry T. Shaw, and a Rosemary I can't quickly identify (wife, maybe?), and two epigraphs from Dostoevsky suggesting that mental illnesses are the product of the society in which their sufferer's live, and that hell is being unable to love.

You Sane Men/Bloodworld comes to us as a memoir typed by a man from a unique planetary society who is in the custody of scientists (whom he addresses as "Doctors," "you balanced men" and "you sane men") of a different society, the multi-system space empire or federation known as The Comity.  From the first pages our narrator, named Jo, assures us that his world is very different from those of the Comity, but also that he is "no savage, nor a villain, nor a monster," though the Doctors may think him such.

The thing that makes Jo's planet (to which, we readers are soon informed, he can never return) so unique is that it was colonized by people with some kind of mental disorder or perversion who left the Comity several generations ago because it was difficult or impossible for them to legally satisfy their outre desires within the Comity.  The striking feature of Jo's planet, the center of their culture, is the many brothels known as "remand houses" where people go to torture slaves.  In an early scene we observe twenty-year-old Jo, bitter after being scolded humiliatingly by his mother, go to his favorite remand house, request a young woman who looks like his mother, and in a private metal room burn this slave girl with a hot poker before raping her.  (The burning is pretty explicitly described, the rape sort of just gestured at.)

From the start of the novel we are aware that Jo's world, a relatively low-tech society whose economy is based on slavery, is in a revolutionary situation, with local uprisings overthrowing local authorities and the governing class of Jo's own town haltingly trying to figure out how to deal with the crisis should it come to their city.  Jo learns that a bunch of young people in his own municipality have decided to overthrow the Council, which is made up mostly of old people, and take power for themselves.  Forced to pick a side, Jo joins those his own age, turning on his own parents (both are Councilmembers) in part because he thinks under the new order, or in the chaos of civil war, he will be able to liberate from the remand house a slave woman he has fallen in love with, Elaine.  (Elaine is not the woman who looks like Jo's mother.)  Jo never tortures Elaine, but instead talks to and treats her like a lover (or at least what he thinks a lover acts like in this twisted society.) 

The effort to overthrow the Council is only in its nascent stages when the murder of a free woman shakes the city.  Murders are so rare on this orderly planet, which until recently was characterized by obedience and a respect for privacy, that the city has no police force.  Jo's father is chosen by the Council to solve the case, and Jo is enlisted by his father to help in the investigation; he is charged with questioning people he knows among the rebellious youth movement and at the remand houses.  Jo learns that the murder victim liked to burn slave women with acid, and Elaine was one of the women she used. 

Jo's father summons to their home a man reputed to be a friend of the murder victim, Tonn, a sort of outcast who lives on the edge of town.  Tonn is considered a disgusting disgrace because, like the murder victim, he prefers to torture people of his own sex; he visits the remand houses maintained for women, where male slaves are tormented.  Tonn describes his relationship with the murder victim: Tonn is a true artist of torture who considers the kind of torture other free people inflict to be mere childishness; the murder victim was a fellow virtuoso in the art of inflicting pain and inspiring fear the the two enjoyed comparing notes on the finer points!

Jo's next move in the investigation is to interview the daughter of the murder victim, Griselda.  Griselda is an aggressive and ambitious woman who enjoys killing and destruction; after meeting Jo, to whom she takes a shine, with lightning speed she makes herself leader of the youth movement, and in no time at all the rhetorical and legal conflict erupts into violence that leaves the city a smoking ruin and most of its freeborn inhabitants dead.  Jo gets Elaine out of the remand house, and they flee to the woods, to one of the spacecraft that brought their ancestors to this planet a few centuries ago.  Griselda confronts them, and Jo must choose between Elaine the slave girl, and Griselda, a woman of his own class whose interests range from killing birds to leading genocidal revolutionary political movements.  Griselda is not the type who takes rejection lying down, and Jo kills her.

Jo and Elaine get the space ship to work, blast off, and eventually are picked up by a Comity ship.  Jo's treatment of Elaine offends the liberal sensibilities of the Comity people he meets, and the lovers are separated, Jo put under close observation by Comity headshrinkers.  In the last sentence of the novel Jo drops his bombshell revelation: Griselda knew who murdered her mother, and she told Jo right before she died--the killer was Jo's mother!

In a somewhat self-indulgent afterword Janifer suggests somewhat vaguely that You Sane Men is meant to be a satire of our society or an allegory of general human psychology or something, saying that we are all Jo, Elaine, Tonn, et al.  He also does that Barry Malzberg thing, bragging/lamenting that he has published 21 books and many articles and stories under more than 30 pseudonyms.

In writing You Sane Men Janifer adopts a sort of modernist literary style, with long, colloquial and somewhat repetitive sentences.  There are digressions on the nature of memory and the inability of words to truly convey feelings and other realities--Jo deliberately refrains from giving the name of his planet, his city, and the murder victim, saying the names would tell us nothing, would convey no information.  The fallibility of efforts to transmit and receive knowledge is a pervasive theme in the novel.

A recurring motif of You Sane Men is the depiction of two different worlds, and the allegation that it is impossible for people from one world to understand those from the other, and unfair for them to judge those in the other world.  The first and most obvious example is the efforts of the Comity scientists to understand and willingness to condemn Jo and his world of slavery and torture, but there are plenty of other examples: Elaine was raised in the remand house and knows very little about the world outside its impenetrable metal walls, Jo's world; Jo thinks of Tonn the homosexual as coming from another world and Tonn tells Jo's father that it is impossible to explain to a conventional mind like his the sophisticated torture techniques he has devised; the Council in Jo's city has no interaction with the Councils in other cities and has only the vaguest ideas of what is going on in them; the rebellious youths make no effort to describe the city they will build once they have destroyed the city in which they were born.  A related theme is the question of who is accorded full and equal status as a human being: Jo insists to the people of the Comity that he and his people are not monsters, even though they have slaves and torture people for fun; when Elaine hears of the efforts made to solve the murder of Griselda's mother she is enraged that the death of a free woman is taken so seriously when nobody cares what happens to slaves like her; Tonn's expulsion from decent society provides another example.

Fellow SF fan C. A. Gallion, we salute you!
Relationships between parents and children are another one of Janifer's prominent themes; we have not only the troubled relationships between Jo and his parents, but Griselda's complaints about her own mother, and her exploitation of her status as an orphan to energize the rebellion (Griselda argues the old order must be destroyed because it was that order which killed her mother.)  The entire rebellion is more akin to the rebellion of children against their parents (one of those Psych 101 concepts we are all familiar with) than an ideological or political struggle--Council membership rotates among adult free people, but you are only counted as an adult if your parent of your sex has died; the young complain that they won't be on the Council themselves until they are so old they won't have the energy to enjoy power.

You Sane Men is ambitious with all its psychological and philosophical angles, and Janifer endeavors to shock readers with the torture scenes and Oedipal overtones, and I'd say it is a moderate success; the talk of it being "astonishingly different" and "the most shocking novel you will ever read" is of course an exaggeration, but I was curious to see what would happen and do not regret reading this SF oddity.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Whisper from the Stars by Jeff Sutton

I could understand his worry for Mark Randall, all right.  If Mark stood to open the door into another world--or was it another time?--the government would move heaven and hell to stop him.
Recently, the wife and I were exploring South Central Virginia.  Besides driving the twisting mountain roads and investigating hydroelectric dams, I stopped in Roanoke at Too Many Books, where I found four off-the-beaten-path SF paperbacks in that establishment's basement, four volumes I had never seen before in my travels to used bookstores across the nation.  The woman at the cash register who took my twelve bucks actually seemed a little surprised to see such strange books in her store--"Where did you find these?"  At MPorcius Fiction Log we admire the award-winning masterpieces by the big names and celebrate the people who laid the foundations for 20th-century genre literature in the pages of Weird Tales and Astounding, but we also like to explore the minor works and the minor authors, the forgotten stories and abortive careers, even the disreputable works and the shunned authors!  To this SF wanderlust we can attribute our purchase of these four strange books.

Judging by the article about him at Wikipedia, Jeff Sutton, whose work I do not believe I have ever read before, seems like a stand up guy, a productive citizen.  He served in the Marines in the 1930s and during World War II, later earned a psychology degree, and then worked as an engineer focusing on human adaptations to machines.  This sounds like the perfect training for a writer of exciting and thought-provoking science fiction!  Let's check out Whisper from the Stars, a 1970 novel by Sutton and one of my four Roanoke purchases.  My copy was previously in the library of a C. A. Gallion; the book is in quite good condition, for which I thank Mr. or Ms. Gallion.  Whisper from the Stars has apparently never been reprinted in English, but was printed in Italian in both 1970 and 1982.  Both Italian publications were graced with the same great Karel Thole cover illo that adorns my copy of DAW's The Book of Van Vogt.

It is the early 23rd century.  Luna, Mars, Ganymede, Callisto and Titan all host human mining and scientific installations.  Disease, war, and poverty have been conquered.  But journalism persists!  Our narrator, Joel Blake, is a print and video journalist whose work appears in hundreds of newspapers and on the 3D TV.  At a party he meets Ann Willett, a beautiful astrophysicist.  Willett is not merely a scientist, but a romantic who plays the violin superbly and says things like "I believe that our senses, and therefore the cortex that feeds on them, are restricted--that we live in a closed loop from which there is no escape."  She also complains that the government, which controls the economy and suppresses dissent, denies scientists any flexibility and stifles innovative research.

Some months after meeting Willett, Blake is assigned to interview Mark Randall, the world's greatest scientist--we are told he is the 23rd century's Einstein.  Randall hasn't just uncovered important facts about the nature of subatomic particles and extrasolar bodies called "quasi-stellars;" he is also a philosopher who wrote a book "on the brain as the house of the mind" and says things to Blake like, "The human mind is the key to the universe, yet we know only the bare surface of it, the here and now....We are locked in by our own concepts....There are vistas beyond this one...."

The first 50 pages of Whispers from the Stars consists of vague and boring pseudo-profound conversations in restaurants and at academic conferences between these three jokers and a fourth guy, another journalist, one who is particularly worried that the government is going to crush Randall like a bug.  Blake initially tries to get into Willett's pants, but is totally outclassed by supergenius Randall:
Both saw man as a creature of self-exile in a box of his own creation.  Their complete rapport made me feel more of an outsider than ever.
Blake's sexual frustration and jealousy, and his anxiety about being the least intelligent of four intellectuals who think they can travel to some other dimension or whatevs with their minds alone, could have been the stuff of human drama, but Sutton fails to exploit this material--instead of being envious, Blake has a man-crush on Randall and wants to be his best friend and helper!  Boring!  The relationships of these four people on the verge of an amazing scientific adventure and on the brink of being murdered by the Stasi of the 23rd century are as bland and sterile as their philosophical bull sessions.

Fellow science-fiction fan
C. A. Gallion, we salute you!
As we enter the second third of this 150-page novel, Randall disappears, and Blake's journalistic antennae suggest to him Randall is on the run from Department L, the secret government department charged with eliminating dissenters.  Blake travels back and forth between Lalaland, the Windy City and the Big Apple, trying to figure out where Randall is--the whole time the government is keeping an eye on him and murdering minor characters whose orbits cross those of Blake and Randall.  This isn't as exciting as it sounds because Whisper from the Stars starts with a framing device that lets us know on page 6 that Randall and Willett get away into some other dimension and Blake doesn't--Blake's pursuit of the geniuses and flight from the Gestapo of the 23rd century doesn't generate a lot of suspense because we know how it is going to turn out.

Three years go by!  Finally, Blake stumbles on a clue that suggests Randall and Willett are living incognito at an isolated lunar mine among the roughnecks and lost souls who court death wresting from the lunar rock the valuable metal deposited there in the ancient past by meteorites!  Whisper from the Stars flickers to life as the novel's final third begins and Sutton describes the trip from the Earth to Earth orbit, Earth orbit to Lunar orbit, and Lunar orbit to the Moon's surface.  I'm still a sucker for such descriptions of space travel, and for descriptions of life on that barren and inhospitable partner of Mother Earth we call the Moon.

On the moon Blake meets R and W, but the agents of the KGB of the 23rd century are hot on their heels.  There is a chase on the lunar surface, and R and W escape by shifting to another dimension (apparently--Sutton makes the dubious artistic choice of having the climax of his novel occur off screen.)  The spooks murder Blake, but then Blake wakes up to discover that not only is he alive, all the people murdered by the NKVD of the 23rd century over the course of this boring book are also alive!  In fact, the Cheka of the 23rd century is no longer all that Cheka-like.  Blake surmises that Randall and Willett, after escaping to another dimension, came back to this dimension to tinker with history to make it not quite so uncomfortable for Blake and other of their friends.  Almost nobody notices the changes, just Blake and that other journo, who are sensitives.

Except for 10 or 15 pages of space flight and lunar action, this book is lame.  It is way too long, the main character is a spectator rather than the person who drives the plot by making decisions and performing actions, and most of the exciting stuff like murders and psychic power usage happens off screen and Blake has to figure it out after stumbling on the evidence.

The basic ideas behind Whisper from the Stars and the basic plot outline are not bad, and a brilliant wordsmith like a Jack Vance or a Gene Wolfe, or a skilled writer of adventure tales like a Leigh Brackett or an Edmond Hamilton, or a guy with an unusual style and the ability to surprise the reader like an A. E. van Vogt or a Barry Malzberg, could have made a successful novel out of this material by filling its pages with any combination of fear and anxiety, tragedy and triumph, thrilling chases and cathartic violence, or cynical jokes and wise discourses on the human yearning for freedom or the human impulse to abuse and oppress.  Sutton provides none of these things, and so Whisper from the Stars, like a slug, sits there inert for 100 pages and then sort of squirms tentatively for 50 pages.

Not good.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"The Lord of the Dead," "Valley of the Worm" and "The Fightin'est Pair" by Robert E. Howard

Del Rey trade paperback and Subterranean Press hardcover editions of Crimson Shadows
Earlier this month I was rooting around the internet archive trying to find free material by Robert E. Howard, and discovered that it was possible to electronically "borrow" the 2007 Del Rey collection The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1: Crimson Shadows, edited by Rusty Burke.  So let's check out three stories by the creator of Conan that demonstrate the range of different kinds of characters he could create who solve their problems via mano a mano violence.

"Lord of the Dead" (composed circa 1933, published 1978)

A note at isfdb suggests that Strange Detective Stories purchased this story and was going to print it in 1934 but the magazine went out of business before "Lord of the Dead" was scheduled to appear, with the result that the tale was not available to the public until 1978 when it was included in the paperback collection Skull-Face.  Lin Carter liked it enough to include it in the fifth of DAW's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories.  The text in Crimson Shadows that I read is based on Howard's original typescript.

"Lord of the Dead" stars a recurring character of Howard's, Steve Harrison, a police detective.  But this story isn't full of scenes of a guy interrogating suspects and poring over files and typing reports and rapping with government lawyers.  It is full of scenes of a guy fighting hand to hand with foreigners!

Harrison is incredibly strong, with wide shoulders and a huge chest and all that.  His beat is the "Oriental quarter" of a large city on an important river.  As the story begins Harrison is in a dark alley and he is attacked by a Druze who thinks Harrison is the reincarnated killer of the guy the Druze was in his last life.  After escaping this loonie, Harrison talks to a white man who is an expert on the culture of the East and then a crooked Chinese merchant, trying to figure out what is up with this Druze.  Harrison then stumbles on the subterranean lair of a Mongol who is trying to unite all the criminal Asians in America for some diabolical purpose.  Harrison is captured, Harrison escapes, Harrison rescues (from Mongol torturers whose tongues have been cut out) the girl (half-white, half-Asian) who sicced that Druze on him in the first place and started this whole crazy mess.  Harrison kills plenty of people, but the plot is resolved when the Mongol betrays the Druze and the offended Druze starts a melee that ignites a conflagration that kills all the criminals (except the girl.)     

This is a fun story of violence that, like the Howard stories about scary black people we read recently, suggests that there is a whole secret world of non-whites, in this case Asians, with strange alien knowledge that white people cannot fathom.  Oddly for a story about an American detective, but as we might expect from a story by Howard, "Lord of the Dead" (like "Black Beast of Death") associates science with the Far East and suggests that science is dangerous and that to survive we should rely on boldness and brute strength rather than our brains.  If you're like me and lack brains, boldness and brute strength, maybe survive by just staying home?

"Valley of the Worm" (1934)

"Valley of the Worm" was printed in Weird Tales alongside a cynical and sad horror story by Edmond Hamilton that I quite liked, "The Man Who Returned."  The text here in Crimson Shadows is the same as that in Weird Tales.  "Valley of the Worm" has appeared in many anthologies celebrating the pulps, and in many Howard collections.

Just like the guy in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Moon books from the 1920s (we read them in March of this year), the narrator of "Valley of the Worm," James Allison, can remember his past and future lives.  Howard wrote six or seven Allison stories, and I guess in each one Allison describes one of his past lives as a fighting man of the North.  In this story he tells us of his life as the guy who inspired the tales of St. George, Beowulf and Siegfried!

Niord was a member of a tribe of blonde and blue-eyed nomads, the Aesir, fierce warriors of tremendous strength.  They came upon a jungle where lived the black-haired Picts, fierce warriors of strength not quite as tremendous.  The Aesir outfought the Picts and then made friends with the survivors.  No hard feelings!

Grom, greatest hunter among the Picts, becomes buddies with Niord, greatest of the hunters of the Aesir.  Grom shows a ruined city to Niord--this city is home to the invincible monster god of a vanished inhuman race, and is thus forbidden.  The Aesir don't believe in the monster god, so a bunch of them decide to start a colony in the city.  When Niord goes to visit the colony he finds it has been exterminated by the monster, so he seeks revenge.

First, in the nearby jungle, Niord kills a poisonous snake that is like 80 feet long to get poison for his arrows.  The monster god, according to Grom, comes to the surface from a bottomless pit in a ruined temple, "a great well-like shaft in the stone floor, with strange obscene carvings all about the rim."  So Niord throws boulders down the hole until the monster, a colossal white worm-thing with forty eyes and various tentacles and feelers and proboscides, emerges, preceded by a prancing Sasquatch-like herald who plays a flute!  Niord kills the hairy attendant and the sickening bete blanche with his poisoned arrows, but is fatally injured in the battle.  As he dies he tells Grom to spread the story of his destruction of the worm far and wide.

The first half or two-thirds of "Valley of the Worm" has the feel of a fable rather than the immediacy of an action story, and felt a little flat, though I suppose the mythological history of the human race it describes, what with the delineation of the relationships between and among the beautiful Aryans of the north and the ugly barbaric Picts and even more barbaric blacks of the jungle is sort of compelling (and/or offensive.)  But the end of the story is great, Howard providing evocative descriptions of the three very cool monsters, Niord's cunning plans for defeating them and the cataclysmic course of his fights with them.  In its climax, this story achieves both cosmic horror and a sort of mythic power--thumbs up!     

"The Fightin'est Pair" (1931)

As Rusty Burke tells us in the introduction to Crimson Shadows, Howard published twenty-one stories about Steve Costigan, a sailor who is also an amateur boxer.  I guess during the golden age of the pulps there was a demand not only for stories about private dicks, flesh-eating ghouls, ray-gun-toting space men, and sword-swinging barbarians, but also boxers--The Robert E. Howard Foundation has printed four volumes of Howard's boxing stories and poems, and only two of them are about Costigan!  Though I am not exactly interested in boxing, I decided I should read at least one of these stories, you know, to have some kind of familiarity with this facet of Howard's career, and why not one that Rusty Burke thinks is one of the best?

"The Fightin'est Pair" appeared in Action Stories under the title "Breed of Battle." 

Steve Costigan is a sort of working-class brute with bad grammar and poor spelling (I guess these Costigan stories are supposed to be funny.)  He is in Singapore (or maybe some other Far Eastern port full of Chinese and British people?) with his beloved white bulldog Mike.  There is a famous fighting dog, Terror, in town, and some people urge Costigan to pit Mike against Terror.  A "gentleman adventurer," D'Arcy, asks to buy Mike because he thinks owning a white dog brings good luck.  But Costigan doesn't want to make Mike fight or to sell him.

Costigan gets mugged and Mike is stolen.  Costigan assumes D'Arcy is to blame and goes to a fancy club and beats the man up, but has to flee the club before he can collect any clues about Mike's whereabouts.  Costigan offers a reward for Mike's return, and participates in a boxing match in order to raise the money for the reward.  The story's big central joke is that Costigan is distracted during the bout by the never-ending queue of Asians who didn't quite understand Costigan's poorly written sign who come running into the arena trying to sell Costigan dogs that in no way match Mike's description.  Costigan suddenly realizes the man he is fighting in the ring was one of the muggers--he beats the info on Mike's whereabouts out of this joker and dashes off to rescue Mike from the pit in which he is tearing Terror to bits.

D'Arcy, with a revolver, appears in the end of the story seeking revenge, but when he sees how much Costigan loves Mike he realizes Costigan is an OK guy and puts away his gun and these two globe-trotting fighting men start a friendship that crosses class barriers.

"The Fightin'est Pair" is faintly amusing and innocuous; I don't feel like I got anything out of it, but it was not irritatingly bad, just lightweight.


"Valley of the Worm" is a legitimately good weird story with its awesome monsters and conceits of reincarnation and revelation of the history of the world before the fall of Atlantis when human and inhuman people worshiped monsters as gods.  "Lord of the Dead" and "The Fightin'est Pair" are competent entertainments that take as their raw material class and ethnic distinctions and the thrill of physical violence.

I'll be seeking out more of Howard's fantasy and horror work in the future, but first at MPorcius Fiction Log we'll be reading some paperback science fiction novels.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Why Should I Stop?," "The Strength of Ten" and "The Mechanical Man" by Algis Budrys

If you have been following the exploits of the crew of MPorcius Fiction Log you know in the last few months we read two collections of 1950s Algis Budrys stories, Budrys' Inferno and The Unexpected Dimension.  Today let's read three Budrys stories which, after appearing in science fiction magazines in the year 1956, were never reprinted.  As I often do, I turned to that indispensable resource for those who would explore the pop culture of the mid-20th century on a budget, the internet archive, to read these tales which, it appears, the critics and editors weren't so crazy about.

"Why Should I Stop?"

This is a lame gimmicky story with superfluous recursive "meta" elements; it is no surprise that the people at Ballantine didn't include "Why Should I Stop?" in Budrys' Inferno or The Unexpected Dimension and that editors like Judith Merrill and T. E. Dikty, who included other Budrys stories in their "Best of" anthologies covering 1956, didn't leap at the chance to reprint this one.

(Also, this magazine has annoying printer's errors, with several lines repeated in inappropriate spots.)

"Why Should I Stop?" appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly and is actually the cover story.  (Somebody should be fired for allowing those printing errors on the damned cover story!)  It is an epistolary story, a record of correspondence between Budrys and the editor of Science Fiction Quarterly, Robert A. W. Lowndes.  Budrys sends Lowndes two stories on the same theme and asks what Lowndes thinks of them--these stories are included in the text we readers are presented.

The first story within a story, "Thus, Conscience," is an episodic biography of a scientist who feels that people should moderate their vices, like smoking and drinking--drinking a little or smoking a little is fine, but many people overindulge, which causes social problems and health problems.  As an adult this joker makes a device which will project a wave across the world that will reduce people's inhibitions so they even further overindulge; the boffin's theory is that he will have people the world over overindulge for two days, and then turn off his machine, so that they see the potential damage of their addictions and then reform.  The twist ending to this story is that the waves from the machine lead to the strengthening of the scientist's own predilection to make and operate such machines so that he does not turn off the first machine and instead constructs more.

The second story within a story is "Moderator."  A bunch of scientists and military officers are on a space station while war rages on Earth below.  The peeps on the station have low morale--some are close to panic--because the station weapons are out of ammo and if the station's camouflage measures are not up to preventing detection they will be easy prey for the enemy.  One of the scientists devises a machine that transmits radiation that, he tells the station commander, will calm everybody down.  But the egghead is lying: in fact, the radiation is going to make everybody even more scared!  The scientist's plan is to turn the transmitter on for an hour and then off; when everybody sees how dangerous their panic has been, he reasons, they will calm down.  As with the other story, the scientist, when affected by the radiation himself, decides to not turn the machine off but instead to build duplicate machines.

The topic of the two stories is obsession and addiction and the joke pressed home in the epistolary segments at the end of "Why Should I Stop?" is that the Budrys character keeps sending the Lowndes character very similar stories and gets more angry and more paranoid as they get rejected.       

This story has philosophical and science content (there is lots of talk about people's reluctance to believe in their own mortality, and talk about the readings of "Chi curves" on people's EEGs) but it is boring besides being gimmicky and the joke is not funny and way too long to tell.  Thumbs down.

"The Strength of Ten"

No doubt you remember Tennyson's "Sir Galahad":
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
(If memory serves, Bertie Wooster was apt to quote this couplet, or fragments thereof.)

"The Strength of Ten" stars a self-important scientist, Langley.  Langley is a real jerk.  He busts into the corporate offices of the firm for which he is working, shouldering past secretaries and jumping in line ahead of people with appointments so he can talk to a big wig, Conway.  Langley unleashes a big chunk of exposition to Conway for the benefit of us readers--this is stuff Conway should already know.  Their company copies onto tape the brains of human beings with special skills--say, jet pilots--and then puts the tape into a robot so it can pilot a jet as well as a human but has the advantage of lacking human physical needs and frailties.  Langley then tells Conway he wants to carefully edit tapes to remove hatred and greed and such negative human traits and thus create the first truly good man!  Such a noble man would be perfect for the first manned mission to Mars!  When Conway suggests some other scientist lead the project because Langley is busy, or that Langley be part of a team, Langley arrogantly insists only he is qualified to head the project, and refuses to countenance such interference.

Conway refuses to authorize the project.  Budrys presents us with a sort of ironical philosophical twist ending here, the wording of which I have to admit I found a little confusing.  Langley's arrogant behavior has somehow convinced Conway that the project of creating an artificial man without greed, jealousy etc., would be pointless and even dangerous, because such a man would lack ambition and thus not be interested in leading important projects and going on dangerous missions.

Barely acceptable.  "The Strength of Ten" was printed in Fantastic Universe.

"The Mechanical Man"

We just recently read Harlan Ellison's story "Blind Lightning" about a guy sacrificing himself to help primitive aliens.  "Blind Lightning" first was printed in Fantastic Universe, and in the same issue SF fans of 1956 would have found Algis Budrys's "The Mechanical Man," which on the cover is vaunted as "an exciting novelet."  Exciting or otherwise, it was never reprinted.  Let's see "The Mechanical Man" is a forgotten gem unfairly looked over by anthologists over the decades!

Presumably I am the millionth person to notice that
this Emsh robot from 1956 looks a lot like the
Hoth probe droid designed by Ralph McQuarrie for
1980's The Empire Strikes Back
It is the future!  North America is the least respected component of the world government (it looks like the world government was set up after communists took over of the world--shit!), and the space navy is the least senior of the Earth's military services, the branch least likely to get what it wants out of appropriations bills.  Marshal Yancey is a North American and the head of the space navy, so he has a lot to prove!  He's on the moon for the test of the space navy's armored suit--if the suit is a success it will make his career and assure his branch's position.

Yancey is at a ball where all the high-ranking officers and their wives are subtly probing each other psychologically and trying to undermine each other socially when there is news from the armored suit test site--a nuclear weapon has gone off and the site is wiped out!  But wait, the armored suit is OK!  In a bit of symbolism, the guy in the suit, Major Pollack, is a North American and, in order to show the resilience of the suit and of North Americans, he is told to walk alone cross the lunar surface for hours and hours instead of using the suit's rockets--his literal lonely walk to the main base is like Yancey's metaphorical lonely walk of a career.  But Pollack, exhausted, disobeys orders and uses the suit's rockets to get back to HQ.  Then, understanding that he will suffer some kind of terrible punishment for his insubordination, he refuses to get out of the impregnable suit!

(Barry Malzberg is a big booster of Budrys, as I noted a few blog posts ago, and Pollack's plight feels like the sort of thing that would happen to a Malzberg character.) 

Yancey holds an official inquiry at which he gives his most dangerous rival, Colonel-General Malke, the death penalty for negligence in handling the nuclear weapon that blew up the research station.  Then he convinces Malke's wife to help him get Pollack out of the impenetrable armored suit--her feminine wiles and cold heart, so recently used (without success) against Yancey, are now turned to exploiting Pollack's neuroses about women in an effort to get him to relinquish the womb-like interior of the battle armor.  If Yancey can't deliver the suit to Earth in eighteen hours he will be in trouble with the President!

Yancey apparently succeeds in his career objectives but the twist ending shows up his personal weaknesses and the failures of personal life.  Pollack is not a North American after all but a South African, and the thing Yancey and Pollack have in common is that they are "immature neurotics" who are seeking a "mother substitute" and both have fallen in love with Madame Malke and neither will ever have a chance of winning her.

A recurring theme in Budrys's work is the question of "what is a man?"  In "The Mechanical Man" we are asked if a real man is the man who follows orders and procedure under any circumstance, no matter how dangerous, no matter what the pressure, or the man who bucks the system when he thinks it wrong.  Does a real man prioritize his own honor, abstract justice, or the well-being of the collective when they appear to be in conflict?  Does a real man side with his proximate comrades (his family or ethnic group or cultural group) or with the greater whole (the empire or the revolution or the entire world) when they are in conflict?

This is interesting enough material, but the story itself is all dialogue and descriptions of guys wiping their faces and gritting their teeth and plucking at the piping on their sleeves and that sort of thing, tense conversations in which everybody is about to explode but strives to keep a stiff upper lip as they use complicated social customs and legalistic chicanery to outdo each other.  "The Mechanical Man" is one of those stories in which different elites all ostensibly in the same organization are all trying to sink each other's careers and give their own departments the upper hand over other departments, and these sorts of stories leave me cold.

We're calling this one acceptable.   


These stories reflect the fact that Budrys is a smart guy who is interested in philosophical issues and psychology as well as hard science, and writes literary stories about human beings instead of just adventure capers full of monsters, sword fights and gun fights.  But these three stories are not particularly fun or entertaining, and they didn't inspire much emotion in this reader.  I'm going to have to agree with all those editors who passed on them when choosing what Budrys material to reprint.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Bright Phoenix by Harold Mead the State, that brotherhood, all men were brothers and comrades, and all were utterly alone.
Here it is, the eleventh book I will read from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library, Harold Mead's The Bright Phoenix from 1955.  (Check out my blog post on the tenth, Enemy of my Enemy by Avram Davidson, for a list of the first ten and links to my blogposts about them.)  The Bright Phoenix first appeared between hardcovers in Great Britain; the copy Joachim donated to this quixotic endeavor of mine is a 1956 U.S. paperback, Ballantine 147.

The front cover of Ballantine 147 celebrates the discovery of Mead as "an exciting new talent," and the back compares him to highly respected and prolific British SF scribblers John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.  Alas, poor Harold, isfdb knows him as a guy with only two credits.  Well, I remember when people thought I was going to amount to something, too--now look at me, trapped in a suburban Tartarus, living the dumb show life of a mere wraith, fighting with the landlord over a leak, the source of which his flunkies can't seem to trace, like my apartment is the lower Nile, the heroic towers of Manhattan and my fascinating and piratical life among them a taunting dream.  If it is any consolation, Harold, I slagged John Wyndham's Chrysalids as "thin gruel" and thought Clarke's Imperial Earth had too much romantic slosh about RMS Titanic and the Apollo moon landing.

Well, let's see if the boys in the ad department at Ballantine were on to something in their praise of Mead.  (Check out Joachim Boaz's review of The Bright Phoenix before or after breaking a trail David Livingstone-style through the tangled prose of my own assessment below.)

It is 120 years after a worldwide war demolished civilization.  Our story, related to us in the memoirs of one John Waterville, takes place in the only extant human city, the totalitarian State where government planning of every aspect of your life and total devotion to the government is said to be required to rebuild human civilization.  The government, for example, has veto power over people's sexual relationships, and women with acceptable genes who don't on their own find a man to impregnate them with the required punctuality are conscripted into the baby-producing demographic and impregnated by "State stallions" selected by the government for their above average DNA.  Children are seized from their mothers soon after birth and raised by the government--people in the State never know their parents or their kids.  Commissars called morality officers keep an eye on everybody, enforcing the rules.  Minor criminals and dissenters are "reconditioned," their minds largely erased so they obey all commands and perform menial labor or intricate repetitive operations (like driving a car or barbering) with a maximum of efficiency.  Major criminals are more radically changed in ways known only to the government's sawbones and head shrinkers.

Waterville is a member of the government elite, known as "the officers."  Specifically, he is an explorer, and as his memoir begins he has just returned to rigidly controlled civilization after leading an expedition to "the Island," a wilderness that has grown up around the ruins of the last civilization (our war-smashed civilization, dear reader!)  Despite himself, he finds the stratification and control that characterize life in the State unpleasant, even infuriating--every aspect of this regulated society, so many things he accepted and took for granted before he was sent on the expedition to the Island, now seem terribly wrong, terribly unjust.

One of Mead's primary themes in The Bright Phoenix is the way totalitarian government ruins family life and sexual life, especially how the government promotion of sex divorced from emotional attachment, government separation of women from their children, and the compulsory impregnation of so many women by "stallions," (so that their first sexual experiences are being raped by strangers they can't even see, thanks to a blindfold) damages women psychologically; Mead presents multiple minor women characters who demonstrate this.

While on the Island, Waterville missed women--in theory he could have had sex with one of the conditioned women who served the expedition as porters, but he does not relish sex with a mindless, emotionless zombie, and there are taboos against sex with the Reconditioned.  So, his first day back to the State, he meets a woman--one of the common masses known as "the workers"--at the public cafeteria where she is employed and they go to the local eugenics office and take out a Class A license (you can cohabit for two weeks, but no pregnancy has been authorized!)  By accident, or guided by his subconscious, Waterville has found himself a woman who is also increasingly skeptical of the State and of how it orders everybody's life.
"I oughtn't to have asked you to involve yourself with me.  I'm morally ill, I'm more and more sure of it."
..."Perhaps I'm ill, too," she said, and took my hand.
These two "morally ill" people, Waterville and Jenny, fall in love, but they can only spend two days together because Waterville is sent to the camp where a cadre of pioneers are preparing to move to the Island he so recently explored.  This colony is a pilot project, an experiment, the first step in the state's campaign to repopulate the devastated Earth.

Another theme Mead addresses in The Bright Phoenix is religion.  One of the arguments conservatives will fling at the commies and the hippies and modern Western man in general is that they have replaced worship of God with worship of the government or of man himself, and in this novel the government literally pressures the people into attending church services in which people sing songs to "Human Spirit," AKA "Spirit of Man, the one true guide."  Citizens are told that in their work (all work is assigned by the government) they are serving The Spirit in rebuilding civilization and preventing another cataclysmic war, an ethic which produces a heartless and lonely society: the State people were too busy, too concerned with the Spirit, to let themselves be weakened by other people's cares.  If you are exclusively concerned with the future of man, there is not much place left for individuals.
In the camp Waterville becomes familiar with all the people he will be accompanying on the mission of colonizing the Island.  The effort will be lead by a small number of officers like himself and supported by 200 reconditioned zombie types, but the bulk of pioneers, 500, will be the capital-C Colonists, people specifically bred and trained to repopulate the blasted Earth, the very cream of the State's vigorous eugenics program.  The Colonists are all tall, strong, beautiful blondes with blue eyes.  These marvels of selective breeding are so perfect they disturb Waterville--they seem to lack humanity, and Mead/Waterville compares them to animals:
They moved with the litheness of animals, and like animals they never assumed a posture that was not graceful
(I thought this a weird thing to say, that animals are always graceful, but a few pages later Waterville is telling us how much he loves horses, how seeing horses is a delight; is this another example of the stereotypical Englishman's love of animals?)

One of the other officers is also a skeptic, and befriends Waterville.  This dude, Blackler, is the colony's doctor, which is a bit of good fortune, as the doctors of the State have an arsenal of truth drugs that they employ to seek out apostates like Waterville. 

Waterville spends months at the camp, working hard on preparations to launch the colony.  The novel enters horror territory when he gets one day's leave and returns to the city, hoping to spend one last day with Jenny before leaving the State forever for the Island.  He can't seem to find the woman, the love of his life, and then when it is time to go back to the camp he sees a final contingent of the Reconditioned being loaded into the van, and Jenny is among them!

At the head of a company of the zombies, Waterville and a small staff travel to the Island (via helicopter) to spend two months preparing a settlement for the Colonists.  Waterville spends the second month away from the settlement, with a small squad of zombies, scouting other parts of the Island.  These areas turn out to be inhabited by villagers with an organized, if primitive compared to the State, society, one with a more or less stable monarchical politics leavened by a Council of Elders, animal husbandry, wattle and daub houses, etc.  Their culture and religion, in particular their executions of criminals and battles with barbaric raiders from the north, present a marked contrast with that of the State; they are vibrant and individualistic and violent, and Waterville quickly comes to prefer their style of life to the superficially pacific but stultifying collectivism of the State. in this rough community, where a man's hand defended his head, I could bear to live better than among my own people, whose very thoughts were organized against their own frailty; not by themselves, but by a thing outside of them, the State.
But after a month with his new friends (the happiest month in his life, he tells us) he has to return to the settlement to greet the newly arriving Colonists.

As the novel, which is not short (184 pages), has proceeded, from page 45 or so, two major developments have bubbling under the surface that explode in the final quarter or so of the book.  One concerns the Colonists.  Being perfect, the Colonists have contempt for the rest of humanity and some of the officers fear this budding master race is going to murder them and take over the State; once he has met and come to love the people of the Island village, Waterville fears the Colonists will destroy his new low tech friends.

The second evolving development regards the Reconditioned.  An increasing number of these zombie helots show signs of remembering the lives they lead before their "treatment," of their individuality reemerging; even back in the State more and more are going berserk or slacking in their duties, and this "problem" rapidly increases in frequency and severity on the Island.

The blonde giants and the officer who is to head the colony from now on arrive, and Waterville tries to keep the peace, fostering diplomatic relations and trade between the State colony and the village of the Islanders.  But the head officer, Schultz, has become decadent, pursuing power and luxury for himself in defiance of the State's ideology of collectivism and service to the Human Spirit, and the leader of the Colonists is angling for his job, he, like many of the Colonists, resents that a genetic inferior should be in command. 

A big theme of the novel I haven't mentioned much is the idea of violence.  In response to the war that destroyed civilization 120 year ago, the State preaches ceaselessly that violence is wrong, and everybody pretends that reconditioning people and conscripting women to be raped by the stallions isn't really violence.  On the Island, among his new friends, Waterville witnesses out-in-the-open violence in the form of barbarian raids and the punishment of criminals, and when the Reconditioned start slacking and disputes erupt between Colonists and Islanders, all members of the settlement, officers and Colonists, become witnesses to, and many become participants in--some eager participants--in violence.

In a rapid series of developments that I guess are supposed to remind you of the rise of Hitler, there is an apparent Islander or barbarian raid that burns down some of the colony's buildings and kills some people, giving the leader of the Colonists the opportunity to give an emphatic speech, overthrow Schultz, and arm the Colonists and lead an attack on the Islander village.  Westerville and some other officers escape, fighting guards as they do (and finding that violence brings them a thrill and a measure of satisfaction) and the Reconditioned on the Island, including Jenny, recover much of their memories and wills and rise up against the State authorities.  The fighting leads to personal tragedy and to total destruction of the colony, and the author and characters acknowledge the terrible truth of human evil.  But Westerville and many Islanders survive, and the book ends on a mysterious, hopeful note, that I expect is meant to remind readers of the birth of Jesus.

The Bright Phoenix is much better than I had expected it to be.  Competently and professionally written, almost never boring or unclear, with characters and relationships that are all distinct, believable and memorable, interesting topics and themes, and successful little bits of symbolism, the book is a success.  It is to be regretted that Mead has only two credits at isfdb instead of ten or twenty.

Monday, June 10, 2019

"Black Canaan," "Black Hound of Death," and "The Grisly Horror" by Robert E. Howard

Tarbandu's recent blog post about Spanish artist Sanjulian reminded me about my acquisition back in February of 1979's The Howard Collector, edited by Glenn Lord, for which Sanjulian provided the cover painting of an axe-wielding muscleman freeing a scantily clad woman from captivity in some dimly lit temple or other place of unspeakable deviltry.  The Howard Collector is a collection of documents that first appeared in the periodical The Howard Collector, including fiction, poetry, essays and correspondence by Robert E. Howard and writing about Howard by Howard's friends and fans like E. Hoffman Price and Emil Petaja.

I saw The Howard Collector at 2nd Act Books in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a street where they have lots of fun bookstores, antique stores and restaurants.  (Charlottesville is a fun place to spend a day or two; my wife and I had great pizza at Lampo and saw beautiful Burne-Jones prints at Blue Whale Books.)  It looked like an interesting read, but I couldn't find any price marked on it, so I asked the guy working in there what it would cost.  Even though the door to the store had been unlocked and this guy had enthusiastically welcomed me in, he told me he couldn't sell any books today because the store was not open and the computers were not in operation.  I offered to pay cash, but he refused to accept it; eventually he just told me to take the book for free.  So I did.

As I had expected, The Howard Collector is a cool book, with plenty of interesting documents; Howard's father's letter to H. P. Lovecraft describing Howard's suicide is particularly memorable, as is Howard's own letter to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright asking for some of the money Wright owed him for stories Wright had purchased long ago and already published, a sum totaling over $800!  In E. Hoffman Price's June 25, 1936 letter to Lovecraft mourning the loss of Howard and describing the personality of Conan's creator, Price says that "his Conan series were really the dregs of his talent, not the tops."  So let's read three Howard stories set not in the Hyborian Age or Valusia or the limits of the Roman Empire, but in the swamps and pine forests of the American South!     

"Black Canaan" (1936)

Included in The Howard Collector is a 1931 essay by Howard called "Kelly the Conjure-Man," a brief description of what is  purported to be Arkansas folklore about a mysterious African-American hermit who arrived in the area 75 miles north east of Smackover shortly after the Civil War.  Six-foot tall Kelly lived alone in a pine forest by a creek for about a decade before vanishing; reputed to be a wizard, black people would venture to Kelly's cabin to receive protection from spells and cures made of powdered snake bone.  As time went by Kelly began to acquire a bad reputation, his sorcery being blamed for the mental disorders of insane blacks living in the area; Howard speculates that perhaps his disappearance in the late 1870s was a case of one of his victims achieving revenge on Kelly and hiding his body in the creek.

Regardless of how much this is "real" folklore and how much just Howard making stuff up, "Kelly the Conjure-Man" is a fun and evocative bit of writing, and Kelly would serve as the basis for the character at the center of the 1936 story "Black Canaan."  In a letter to August Derleth (also in The Howard Collector) Howard complains that editorial interference ruined the version of  "Black Canaan" that appears in Weird Tales.  It seems that Howard's preferred version is available in some recent publications, but these are not necessarily easy for your impecunious blogger to acquire publications, so I am going to give the 1936 Weird Tales version, available for free at the internet archive, a go.

Canaan is a triangular stretch of back-country in the American South, somewhat isolated by the three rivers that form its borders, "Black River," "Nigger Head Creek" and "Tularoosa Creek."  Canaanites are independent-minded and have little intercourse with outsiders, and Howard's tale is about some dangerous interlopers who try to revolutionize the place and make themselves its rulers!

Our narrator is Kirby Buckner.  Born and bred in Canaan; a major landowner there, Buckner is something of a community leader.  While in New Orleans, he learns by mysterious means of unspecified trouble back home, and hurries back to that swampy and pine forested country.  It is after midnight when he arrives in Canaan on horseback, and is accosted by a beautiful "quadroon" woman who emerges from the woods.  Buckner has never been attracted to a black woman before, but this girl has an animal magnetism that can "make a man blind and dizzy" as well as good English and facial features as "regular as a white woman's."  Buckner only barely resists her voluptuous charms.  Rejected, the woman sics three "gaunt black giants" on him; Buckner dispatches them with his percussion cap pistols and his Bowie knife.

When Buckner hooks up with the other white men of Canaan he learns that Saul Stark, a huge muscular black man with perfect English, has moved into Canaan and has quickly become a leader among the local blacks.  The black farm hands have not showed up for work, and are congregating in the black village of Goshen, while the blacks who live in the white town, Grimesville, have not been seen for days.  The leaders of the white community fear a black uprising is imminent.  A black spy, Tope Sorely, is captured, and he reveals that Saul Stark is a voodoo conjurer and has the local African-American population in fear of his sorcerous power--those who resisted him have suffered an unspecified but nightmarish fate!  Stark plans to lead the blacks in a campaign of murder that will exterminate the local white population and then be crowned king of Canaan!

While Buckner is off on his own investigating Stark's abandoned cabin the quadroon girl reappears, and gloats that she has used some blood Buckner shed during his rumble with those "giants" to cast a spell on him.  Sure enough, after she has again vanished, he finds he is powerless to resist the urge to make his way through miles of swamp and through all kinds of scary creeks to where Stark is leading the Canaan blacks in a major voodoo ceremony.  The seductive girl plans to make the torture and murder of Buckner the climax of the ceremony, but the loyalty of one of Buckner's friends, Jim Braxton, who sacrifices himself (he gets killed by a monster who rises from a creek) foils the ceremony and saves Buckner's life.  The girl dies, and the failure of the ceremony shatters the local blacks' fear of and allegiance to Stark.  The horrible spell Stark worked on any black who resisted him is revealed--Stark turned these recalcitrant into aquatic monsters like the one who killed Braxton.  Stark's power broken, the monsters turn against him and Stark kills them with a revolver.  Out of bullets, Stark is attacked by Buckner, who kills him in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle; when the fight is over Buckner finds Tope Sorely, the spy who spilled the beans, halfway through the process of being transformed into one of those monster amphibians--Buckner puts him out of his misery.

The most striking thing about this story to a person reading it in 2019, of course, is how racist it is, in its surface details--the "n-word" is used with reckless abandon--and in its basic themes--blacks are inexplicable aliens, both childish and demonic, reminding us of the line from Kipling's "The White Man's Burden."  Blacks are repeatedly compared to animals, and the American blacks act irrationally while the smarter black invaders are wholly selfish and malevolent.  Blacks in "Black Canaan" show no camaraderie or fellow-feeling for each other, the manipulative interlopers cavalierly abusing and contemptuously exploiting the ignorant American blacks while the black masses, when trouble appears, betray their fellows or stampede right over them.  This is a marked contrast to the white society of Canaan, which Howard depicts as a united and organized democratic polity based on mutual respect and characterized by a willingness to look out for each other and take risks to ensure each other's safety.

A major theme of "Black Canaan" is the vast gulf that lies between the whites and blacks of Canaan--the whites have no idea what goes on in the black community, and there is no point in them even trying to understand what the blacks are up to.  Blacks have knowledge, and means of acquiring knowledge, which whites lack and cannot even comprehend.  This idea is nailed down on the story's first page.  Kirby Buckner first learns that something is up back home when an old black woman emerges from a crowd, utters to him a brief phrase, and then disappears among the teeming throngs of people on the streets of New Orleans.  How does she know what is going on back in Canaan, how did she know who Buckner was or where he was?  It is impossible for a white person to tell, and pointless to guess!
No need to seek confirmation; no need to inquire by what mysterious, black-folk way the word had come to her.  No need to inquire what obscure forces worked to unseal those wrinkled lips to a Black River man.  
When Buckner goes to investigate Saul Stark's cabin he senses that, in Stark's absence, it is inhabited by some inexplicable and invulnerable creature that will destroy Buckner should he open its door, a creature with which blacks are familiar but whites are wholly ignorant.
Man and the natural animals are not the only sentient beings that haunt this planet.  There are invisible Things--black spirits of the deep swamp and the slimes of the river beds--the negroes know of them....   
Opening the door to Stark's cabin, like trying to understand black people, would be fruitless and/or dangerous, and Buckner declines to do so.

"Black Canaan" is all about boundaries and divisions (the three rivers that separate Canaan from the rest of the world are mentioned repeatedly, for example.)  Some characters in the story live in the fuzzy border zones (the "liminal space" you might say if you were in grad school) between black and white (Saul Stark and the quadroon girl with their perfect English) or between land and water (the blacks Stark turned into amphibious monsters) and between the living and the dead.  The second time she meets Buckner, the quadroon girl tells him that she will perform the Dance of the Skull at the voodoo ceremony that evening, and that nothing, not even death, can stop her from doing so.  During their trip through the swamp, just before he gets pulled into a creek and strangled to death by one of the amphibian monsters, Buckner's friend Braxton shoots at the girl when she briefly appears amid some bushes.  She escapes, the shot apparently only a graze, but in the climax of the story, when she dances before Stark, the assembled blacks and a hidden Buckner at the voodoo ceremony, we realize she was hit right in the chest and is in fact dead, her corpse animated by magic and her powerful will to complete the Dance.

It goes without saying that these people who live in the border zone, who are neither fully black nor white, fully neither of the land or the water, or neither truly living nor fully dead, are a terrible danger to the natural order and must be destroyed to maintain peace, and the very fact of their existence hidden from the rest of humanity.  The last lines of "Black Canaan" reinforce the theme of white ignorance of black knowledge, and remind us of all those Lovecraft stories in which knowledge of the true nature of the universe drives people mad:
They [white people] will never know the shapes the black water of Tularoosa hides.  That is a secret I share with the cowed and terror-haunted black people of Goshen, and of it nether they nor I have ever spoken.     
This is a quite good Weird Tales-style adventure horror story if you are not totally repelled by its in-your-face racism; the story achieves its goals.  The magic scenes and monster scenes and fight scenes are all good, and Howard succeeds in setting a mood and in integrating peculiar elements of the culture of the American South (fear of black revolts, for example) with supernatural and monster story themes.  A little more might have been done with the characters; Saul Stark and the quadroon girl (this woman doesn't even get a name!) are interesting villains and the story may have benefited from them being fleshed out further, and I think the story certainly would have been improved if we knew more about Buckner's relationship with Jim Braxton, the man who sticks by Buckner in the face of terrible danger and in fact loses his life saving Buckner's.

"Black Canaan" has been reprinted many times, first in Skull-Face and Others in 1946 and later in a bunch of illustrated paperbacks that I vaguely recognize...maybe my brother has them.  I'd certainly be curious to see all those Jeff Jones and Ken Kelly illustrations.

"Black Hound of Death" (1936)

A black criminal, Tope Braxton (Howard insouciantly reuses names) has murdered Constable Joe Sorely and is loose in the "densely-timbered river country" the local blacks call "Egypt."  Our narrator, Kirby Garfield, ventures into Egypt on this dark night to warn East-coast transplant Richard Brent, who lives in a lonely cabin in the pine forest, of the danger.  Before he reaches Brent's place Garfield comes upon a dying black man who says he was assaulted by a white man, and then a mysterious figure grapples with Garfield and flees.  What is going on in this pitch dark forest?

We learn the backstory to this nightmarish adventure when Garfield hooks up with Brent, Brent's servant Ashley, and Brent's sexy niece Gloria, who has come to the woods from fabulous New York City in response to a telegram she had believed, erroneously, was sent by her uncle!  You see, five years ago Brent was on an expedition to Mongolia when his party was attacked by worshipers of Erlik!  (Wow, two Erlik appearances in a row on MPoricus Fiction Log!  This blog is full of surprises!)  Only two members of the expedition survived the initial attack, and Brent and  the other American, Adam Grimm, were surrounded by the death-worshipers.  They had only one camel left to them, and so when night fell Brent knocked out Adam Grimm and rode the camel through enemy lines to safety.  Brent figured Grimm had been murdered by the Erlik cult, but, instead, they used their esoteric science to transform him into a werewolf!  Seven months ago Grimm came to New York, his transformation obscured by a crude disguise, intent on exacting revenge on Brent; Brent fled to a place where he thought he'd never be found, this secluded Southern pine wilderness.

Paranoid Brent thinks Garfield must be working for Grimm, and refuses him entry into his cabin.  While hanging around outside our narrator is slugged and tied up by "squat, apish" Tobe Braxton.  Howard gives us a whole long description of Braxton, who has "thick lips" and "wide, flat nostrils" and so forth--"He was like a shape from the abyss whence mankind crawled ages ago."  Braxton is working with the werewolf, who promised to help Braxton escape the authorities if he helps him kill the Brents.  (Who trusts a werewolf?)

Life in these pine forests is tough, with the men getting involved in feuds and fights all the time, so Garfield is up to the task of wrestling Braxton to the death.  Howard gives us a long gory fight scene here, one in which he belittles the value of finesse and intelligence and tells us that it is sheer strength and animal ferocity you need in a real fight.
I fought Tobe Braxton as the rivermen fight, as savages fight, as bull apes fight.  Breast to breast, muscle straining against muscle, iron fist crushing against hard skull, knee driven to groin, teeth slashing sinewy flesh, gouging, tearing, slashing.  
Having dispatched Braxton, Garfield returns to the cabin to find Ashley is dead, Brent is tied up with his clothes on, and Gloria is tied up with her clothes off.  Grimm the wolfman gives a speech in which he contrasts wimpy backstabbing citified Brent with stolid country boy Garfield, putting forward Howard's typical thesis that the barbaric life is better than the civilized life and the barbarian more noble than the decadent city boy.  The wolfman is about to flay Gloria alive with a skinning knife when Garfield shoots him to pieces through a window; the monster staggers to Brent and murders him (by biting his throat) as his final act.

"The Black Hound of Death," which I have to warn you is as racist as "Black Canaan," is a good horror thriller that voices Howard's usual theme of the superiority of primitivism to intellectualism in more than one way.  After first appearing in Weird Tales (I read the scan at the internet archive) it has been reprinted in a number of Howard collections; it inspired the title of the ninth volume of The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard.

"The Grisly Horror" (1935)

In some reprintings this one is titled "The Moon of Zambebwei," which is a somewhat more appropriate and less vague title.  Among other places, this one was printed in a 1971 issue of the Magazine of Horror.  I read the original Weird Tales version which is available at the internet archive.

In response to a telegram, Bristol McGrath rushes back from the West Coast to the pine woods where he grew up, to the mansion of his worst enemy, Richard Ballville!  On the nearly impassable road to the Ballville mansion he comes upon a prostrate form--it is Ahmed ibn Suleyman, Ballville's Arab servant, and he is dying from the torturing he recently received!

McGrath sneaks up to the mansion, looks in the window, sees that Ballville is being tortured by a "bestial black" (Howard compares the torturer to a frog.)  Among other atrocities, Ballville has suffered the burning onto his chest a strange sign--a sign that world traveler McGrath recognizes from his time in Africa!  The sign of Zambebwei!

McGrath leaps in and kills the torturer with the dagger he acquired and became expert with while in Afghanistan.  Dying Ballville tells McGrath a crazy story.  Three years ago he faked the death of Constance Brand, a woman they both loved, and kidnapped her and has held her in this house ever since.  Brand refused to marry him, so he called on the services of an African wizard, John de Albor.  (I guess wizardry is another job Americans won't do.)  Instead of using his powers to make the woman marry Ballville, de Albor, desiring her for himself, became leader of the blacks who work Ballville's land and made himself master of the estate!  Luckily, Ballville hid Brand from de Albor right before the takeover--she is in a secret cave on the other side of a swamp, a cave sealed by an iron door with a combination lock.  With his dying breaths Ballville tells McGrath the combination.

Ahmed's brother Ali arrives, seeking vengeance, and joins forces with McGrath.  McGrath and this second ibn Suleyman go to the secret cave, enter it, find blondetastic beauty Constance.  That is when the bogus Ali ibn Suleyman throws off his disguise and is revealed as the diabolical "octaroon" John de Albor!  He paralyzes McGrath and carries off our hero's dream girl.  De Albor wants her for himself, but the local blacks seize her and imprison the wizard--they want to sacrifice Brand to their new god, the god de Albor recently introduced to them.

McGrath recovers from the paralysis, liberates de Albor from his single guard, and the two of them agree to work together to rescue Constance Brand from the god of Zambebwei, which is a carnivorous gorilla with talons and fangs like a tiger's, a monster de Albor somehow brought to America from the jungles of Africa.
This thing was an affront to sanity; it belonged in the dust of oblivion with the dinosaur, the mastodon, and the saber-toothed tiger.         
De Albor of course betrays McGrath at the first opportunity.  Pushing Howard's themes of the triumph of the primitive over the intellectual, clever and unscrupulous de Albor keeps tricking the gullible McGrath, but McGrath's iron constitution allows him to shake off the effects of de Albor's drugs and blows to the noggin.

Like in a lot of fantasy fiction, even fantasy fiction by an immortal genius like Gene Wolfe (see The Wizard Knight), the hero of "The Grisly Horror" interrupts the sacrifice of a beautiful woman.  McGrath saves the day by shooting the man-eating ape in the head as it is about to devour his lady love--the god of Zambebwei goes berserk, killing de Albor and running riot among the blacks before expiring.  Now McGrath can make Constance Brand his wife!

Of these three stories "The Grisly Horror" is the weakest.  Howard fails to make the characters' motivations and actions believable and includes various elements that just feel silly.  The plot machinery that gets an African wizard and a man-eating gorilla to a secluded American mansion is way too clunky and contrived.  (If I had been Howard's editor, I'd have told him "Since you don't bother to take advantage of the peculiarities of the American South to lend an atmosphere to this story, why don't you set it in a British or French colony in Africa, which would make the presence of Arabs, witch doctors, carnivorous gorillas and pagan blacks a little more believable?  Such a setting would also allow you to exploit the fear of white people isolated in a nonwhite environment.")  A clumsy plot can be forgiven if a story offers some powerful, compelling scenes that thrill or chill you, but there are no scenes in "The Grisly Horror" that even come close to the quadroon scenes and the monster scenes in "Black Canaan" or Kirby Garfield's to-the-death wrestling match with Tope Braxton in "Black Beast of Death."  "The Grisly Horror" feels like a kind of half-assed job, especially since so many of its basic components would be used more successfully in "Black Canaan," published the following year. 

Barely acceptable.


I might have my social media accounts suspended for recommending such unabashedly racist stories, but "Black Canaan" is a superior tale of horror and violence, and "Black Beast of Death" also has some good points.  I suggest that you won't miss anything if you skip "The Grisly Horror."

Whew!  That's enough Weird Tales for now.  We'll be tackling a science fiction novel in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.