Monday, July 13, 2020

From Fantastic Adventures, 1946 stories by William L. Hamling, Robert Moore Williams & Don Wilcox

Suffering a little blog fatigue, I took a break from fiction to read some history, poetry, and NSFW manga about the heartbreaking emotional lives of Japanese schoolgirls.*  But today we're back to the speculative fiction game, reading and bloviating about tales dredged from the fertile pages of magazines printed before you were born!  Our topic this time out is three stories from a 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures that came to my attention on the Fourth of July when I saw it at an antiques mall in Frederick, Maryland.  The cover, showing some gorgeous babe canoodling with a shrouded cadaver, was beyond my ability to resist.  Today's stories are by authors of whom I have little or no experience, and they must not be widely known, because they have never appeared in a printed book--I am blazing an SF trail today!

"Shadow of the Sphinx" by William Lawrence Hamling

The contents page of this issue of Fantastic Adventures alerts us that "Shadow of the Sphinx" is a "short novel" of 35,500 words, and the 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
Barry is in love with the amnesia-addled Joan, but, when he embraces the mindless kid, Zaleikka, master psychic, manipulates his mind long distance so that he sees in his arms the ancient priestess and hears in his mind her voice, temptingly and contemptuously importuning him in Coptic to join her in Egypt!  Thinking that only he can stop Lady Z's quest for world domination and only she can free Joan's mind, Barry, dragging zombie-girl along with him, joins the agent the FBI is sending to Cairo to investigate Randall's incredible story and Chapter VIII ("Shadow of the Sphinx" has twelve chapters) finds our cast in Egypt for the tale's climax.

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.

Quite bad. 

**********

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.

Monday, June 29, 2020

"The Last Evolution," "Twilight," & "The Brain Stealers of Mars" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

I recently read Thorp McClusky's 1936 story of a shape-changing monster, "The Crawling Horror," and wondered if it might have inspired John W. Campbell, Jr.'s famous 1938 tale, "Who Goes There?," basis for the famous movies called The Thing.  According to Isaac Asimov, writing in his huge anthology Before the Golden Age, "Who Goes There?" was "a rewrite" of a 1936 story, "The Brain Stealers of Mars."  I decided to read "The Brain Stealers of Mars" for myself and see what was up, and, to round out a full blog post of Campbell stories, selected two other 1930s tales by the pivotal editor of Astounding.  I am reading them in publication order.

"The Last Evolution" (1932)

Lester del Rey edited the 1976 Nelson Doubleday collection The Best of John W. Campbell, a Ballantine paperback edition of which can be read at the internet archive.  In his intro to the volume, del Rey tells us "The Last Evolution" "shows all the crudity and lack of characterization of the period....[but also] the scope of Campbell's imagination and his originality."  Del Rey suggests that it is one of the earliest stories to show robots "as more than complex tools or slaves for human convenience."  Well, let's see.  "The Last Evolution" first appeared in Amazing and has been reprinted quite a few times.  I am reading the version from the 1976 Ballantine volume.

As del Rey suggested, there are no real characters in this story, which is a sort of history covering a pivotal event in the future; the point of the story is that machines (what we would call robots and computers) are superior to organic living creatures.  The text is the record set down by a machine onto "mentatape" over 100,000 years from now.

By the year 2500 intelligent machines are doing all work and the few remaining humans on Earth (two million souls) spend all their time on leisure, including simulated adventures and warfare.  I guess because no anti-grav has been developed, people haven't traveled to other star systems, but robot spaceships, even ones only a few inches in size, can accelerate at a rate of a thousand Gs and go anywhere.

Then aliens attack, an armada of ten thousand huge ships.  Earth's machines battle these hostile aliens, and again and again it is pointed out to us how humans could never have accomplished the feats achieved by our machines during this war.  Under pressure of alien attack our machines develop an array of new weapons and defenses, and even evolve beyond machines made of matter to machines of pure energy.  The aliens are thrown back, but not before they have exterminated almost all life on Earth--every tree and blade of grass is gone, and only two men remain.  The men take comfort in the fact that their machines will explore the universe and bring mankind's dreams to fruition.

This story's ideas are interesting (in fact, the paragraph I just composed above sounds like a pretty cool idea for a story), and it is a curious artifact in the history of SF, but there is no human feeling and the pace is slow and so it is not entertaining.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down, at least for casual readers seeking a gripping or pleasant read. 


"Twilight" (1934)

(Remember that first U2 album?  That was pretty good stuff, wasn't it?)

Del Rey tells us that "Twilight" is Campbell's attempt to infuse an SF story with feeling, and, because it was so different from his earlier work, he published it under a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart.  Asimov, in Before the Golden Age, admits that he didn't know that Campbell was "Don A. Stuart" until he met Campbell in the flesh, and that he didn't like "Twilight" and the other Stuart tales because, at the time, he "wanted action and adventure" and the Stuart stories were "too quiet, too downbeat, too moving."

Despite the antipathy of a 14-year-old Isaac Asimov, "Twilight" was a hit, and was in 1970 included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America.  In fact, taking a break from reading on a screen, I am reading it in my paperback edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I, which I purchased as a college student for a course on science fiction at Rutgers University.

"Twilight" features multiple levels of framing devices, the kind of thing I generally find an unnecessary encumbrance.  (Though it can be done well, of course; I liked the spoofs of academic sifting of sources and protestations of significance we saw in Barry Malzberg's Oracle of the Thousand Hands and Fritz Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar.")  Luckily the multiple narrators in "Twilight" don't really get in the way of the story.

Our first narrator is talking to a guy, Jim Bendell, real estate man, in December 1932, in California.  Jim becomes our second narrator, telling the story of how he recently picked up a man he spotted laying unconscious in the desert, a remarkably fit and handsome man in odd attire.  Jim carried this Adonis to his car and started driving to the doctor, some hours away.  Along the way the handsome stranger woke up and explained that he was from the future.  The time traveler, Ares Sen Kevlin, becomes our third narrator, and handles 16 pages of the 22-page story.

Kevlin is a man of the 31st century, the product of his father's genetic experiments, a superior man, the progenitor of a superior race.  Kevlin ran his own experiments in 3059, but he is a physicist, not a geneticist, and his experiment sent him hurtling forward in time, to an Earth seven million years in the future.  There he found that the human race had dwindled in numbers, so that the world was covered in huge empty cities, cities run automatically by machines that kept them in perfect working order.  Even though some of these cities had been abandoned for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, Kevlin was still able to ride in their automatic taxis and eat at their automatic restaurants because the robots and computers had kept them perfectly maintained for millennia.

Kevlin describes the history of mankind, the colonization of every planet in the solar system, the evolution of the human form into one dominated by an over-sized head with oversized eyes, and our civilization's decline, starting like five million years from now, when man lost his curiosity and forgot how to build and maintain cities and high-tech devices and simply relied on these self-maintaining machines to serve his whim.  Campbell also provides a detailed description of the operation of an automatic aircraft.

 
One of the noteworthy things about "Twilight" is Campbell's testimonials to the power of music.  I guess Campbell loved music.  Kevlin sings songs he heard seven million years in the future to Jim, and they convey to Jim a haunting, intimate familiarity with the lives and culture and psychology of those people of the far future.  Kevlin hears plenty of music in that far future, and describes how it expresses the story of human civilization over the ages, the evolving spirit of the human race.  Campbell also has Kevlin tell Jim that "Negro music" is the best music of our 20th-century civilization, though I don't know whether such sentiments grant Campbell a more comfortable cell in SJW jail or consign him to a deeper oubliette.

Kevlin is from the dawn of man's maturity in the 31st century, and the people he met in the future of seven million years from now were men of the twilight of the human race, men lacking verve and drive and curiosity, and so Kevlin could not bear to remain among them.  So he worked on a time machine and tried to project himself home; he missed, landing in 1932, but we are to assume that, after leaving Jim, he gets to work on another, more precise, time machine, and makes it home to 3059, and maybe investigates further the world of seven million years after us, to see if he can revive among those future lame-os the spirit of the human race.

This story is pretty good, Campbell succeeding in placing his interesting ideas about future technological, social and biological developments in a story with at least some emotional resonance.

"Twilight" first appeared in Astounding, the magazine Campbell would later famously helm for decades, and has appeared in many anthologies and collections, among them The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) edited by our buddy Donald Wollheim, Who Goes There? (1948) with its striking Hannes Bok cover, and Beyond Tomorrow (1965) edited by Damon Knight. 


"The Brain Stealers of Mars" (1936)

Alright, here is the story that got me started on this course of readings from the body of work of John W. Campbell, Jr.  "The Brain Stealers of Mars" first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  The title and venue make one expect an adventure story, so let's hope these 18 pages (I'm reading "The Brain Stealers of Mars" from my hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age) are full of thrills and chills.

Rod Blake and Ted Penton are inventors--the kind of inventors who don't let the letter of the law get in the way of scientific progress!  Research on atomic power was illegal, but Blake and Penton went ahead and built Earth's first atomic-powered space ship anyway, and for good measure fashioned themselves an arsenal of ray guns that includes handy pistols as well as a model the size of the kind of artillery you'd expect to see on a cruiser--the "ten-inch ion-gun!"  Then they took off to explore first the Moon, then Venus and then Mars.  This story is about their adventures on the red planet, where they arrive about three months after leaving Earth.

Blake and Penton are collecting plant samples on Mars when they encounter a creature that can read your mind and change shape to match any thing--animal, vegetable or mineral--you think of, including yourself!  These creatures, the thushol, are not intelligent in the conventional sense--they are not creative--but they have perfect memories and can thus imitate intelligent life they have observed or whose minds they have read.  So ably can they mimic intelligent behavior that they are practically indistinguishable from the real person they are imitating.

B & P also meet on Mars a race of centaurs who once had a high-tech space faring civilization--in fact, Earth legends of centaurs were spawned by these Martians' visits to Terra in the past.  But currently the centaurs' technology and social organization is inferior that of Earthmen; the decline of this Martian civilization is a result of their conflict with the thushol.  The centaurs are now in a state of apathy, the thushol having infiltrated their society--a third of the centaur population are in reality thushols who have slain and devoured centaurs and taken their places!  The centaurs have resigned themselves to this horrific state of affairs and try not to think about the fact that their children, spouses and friends may in fact be the murderers of their loved ones.  They reason that if your child is really an alien monster, but acts exactly as your child used to, so that you can't tell it is a monster, isn't it better not to pry into your child's true identity and just proceed as if the creature really is your child?
"If we killed one we suspected, we might be wrong, which would kill our own child.  If we didn't, and just believe it our own child anyway, it at least gave us the comfort of believing it.  And if the imitation is so perfect one can't tell the difference, what is the difference?"
Mars in the planet where the people think ignorance is bliss!

The thushol would like to come to Earth, and much of "The Brain-Stealers of Mars" is about their efforts to imitate objects on B & P's ship, and more importantly B & P themselves, so they can hitch a free ride to Terra, and about B & P's methods, based on logic and science, to distinguish between legit Earthborn material and things and people that are thushols in disguise who must be kept away from Earth at all costs. 

"The Brain Stealers of Mars" is a pedestrian sort of adventure in which science explains everything and provides the key to Earthmen's survival, but it also raises challenging questions about the nature of intelligence and identity.  Not bad.

"The Brain Stealers of Mars" would reappear in Alien Worlds, a 1964 anthology with Roger Elwood's name on the cover; a note at isfdb suggests Elwood was anonymously helped in compiling this book by Sam Moskowitz, the SF historian to whom Asimov dedicates Before the Golden Age.  More recently, "The Brain Stealers of Mars" was included in a 2018 issue of Black Infinity, a 200-page magazine of reprints with a cover inspired by EC comics that depicts a woman in a spacesuit about to throw a grenade at some diabolical aliens.  You go, girl.


**********

These stories aren't great, but they do all deal with big "sense of wonder" ideas, like the rise and decline of sophisticated societies over the course of thousands (or millions) of years and the ways technological change can cause social change.  Maybe someday I will check out more of the Don A. Stuart stories a teen-aged Asimov found too "quiet" and "downbeat" (in 2003 NEFSA Press put out a collection of all of them entitled A New Dawn with an intro by our pal Barry N. Malzberg) and some of the continuing adventures of Rod Blake and Ted Benton chronicled in Thrilling Wonder Stories under such titles as "The Double Minds" and "The Immortality Seekers."

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

"The Dead Woman," "The Golden Bough" and "The Typewriter" by David H. Keller

Recently we read two stories by David H. Keller, the psychiatrist who turned his hand to writing weird fiction.  Let's read three more, stories I have selected because H. P. Lovecraft mentioned them in his correspondence.  These stories are all about one of my favorite topics--the disastrous sexual relationship, in this case catastrophically failed marriages.

"The Dead Woman" (1934)

In letters you can find in Volume 9 of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. Lovecraft, HPL calls "The Dead Woman" "excellent" and "splendidly realistic."  "The Dead Woman" was first printed in Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine; I am reading a reprint of the story in a scan of a 1939 issue of Strange Stories.  You might recognize this issue of Strange Stories because it contains Henry Kuttner's "Cursed Be the City," which I read early last year, and "Bells of Horror," which I read long ago and often think of rereading.

Most of the text of "The Dead Woman" is the testimony of a Mr. Thompson, a middle-aged accountant in the employ of some business firm, to a doctor.  From the title of the story, and obvious clues in the first few introductory third-person paragraphs of the tale, we know he has killed his wife with a knife, though Keller doesn't come out and say it.  The first-person narration makes clear that the Thompson marriage was in trouble--they were unable to have children, which was heartbreaking for Mrs. Thompson, and a distance was growing between them, and Mr. Thompson was getting distracted and making mistakes at work, perhaps putting his job and their financial security at risk.  They started sleeping in separate rooms, ostensibly because Mrs. Thompson's coughing kept Mr. Thompson awake and he needed to be alert at the office, and Mrs. Thompson stopped speaking to Mr. Thompson.  When Mrs. Thompson's cough went away he began to see signs she was actually dead, even though she was still able to walk around and when he brought in doctors to look at her they said she was more or less healthy.  These signs--most remarkably the flies that are attracted to his wife, and the "little worm" he sees crawl out of her as she sleeps--are, I guess, hallucinations suffered by Mr. Thompson that reflect, metaphorically, that their marriage is dead, or one or the other (or both of them) is "dead inside."  Believing his wife should be laid to rest, Thompson decided to put her in a trunk, but the trunk was too small, so he carved her up with a knife so she would fit inside, literally killing her.     

This is a pretty good story--a mainstream story with no magic or space aliens--with interesting psychological and sociological angles.  An example: Mr. Thompson starts washing the dishes obsessively, a reflection of his own mental state and the fact that his wife has abandoned her half of the marriage bargain, doing no house work and instead just sitting around listlessly, looking out the window, so that Mr. Thompson has to look after their home as well as toil outside to bring in the needed money.  In 1936 "The Dead WOman" was included by Christine Campbell Thomson in her anthology Nightmare by Daylight.


"The Golden Bough" (1934)

Here we have a candidate for "lamest
WT cover of all time." 
This one appeared in Marvel Tales; in a December 7, 1934 letter to F. Lee Baldwin, Lovecraft says it is "the best story [in that issue of Marvel Tales] by a long shot," and in a letter written on December 29 of the same year to William F. Anger he declares "The Golden Bough" "...the only really good thing in the issue."  Weird Tales in 1942 reprinted the story, and it is in a scan of that magazine that I am reading it.

This story is like a (dark) fairy tale.  Paul Gallien is a prince, but no longer has a throne--maybe the commies took over his country?  As suits a fairy tale, the political and geographic background of this story is pretty vague--it takes place in a sort of neverland.  Fortunately, Gallien is still rich.  He has just married a woman, Constance Martin, about whom he knows little.  The night after their wedding Constance has a dream of a house in a forest, and declares she wants to live there.  So Gallien gets behind the wheel and they drive at random through Europe, more or less eastward, expecting to stumble on the house of Constance's dream.  Eventually, they do--it is an old castle on a hill in a deep forest.  The caretaker of the castle is an old woman who says when she was young that the owner of the castle, her lover, went off to war and never returned.  What country the castle is in and what war the lover is supposed to have fought in is not clear, at least to me, though the old woman is Italian, or at least speaks Italian.

The Galliens move in--Constance doesn't ever want to leave and even makes Paul push the car off a cliff (!).  The main plot of "The Golden Bough" involves a pipe-playing guy (whom Keller eventually comes out and tells us is Pan) who lives in the woods, whose nightly serenade draws Constance out of bed to him.  She dances with this weirdo and his troupe of dancing goats and geese while poor Paul sleeps unawares.  The piper convinces Constance to perform an elaborate spell, getting mistletoe from a special tree and water from a special pool and cultivating a vine on the post of her and Paul's bed.  At night the leafy vine embraces Constance, filling her with joy.  When Paul realizes what is going on he hires some laborers and buys lead pipes in the village and drains the pool; the vine needs daily watering and withers tout suite.  When she cries and demands to know why her husband drained the pool, Paul tells Constance it was because he was worried about malaria, which I thought was pretty funny.

That night Constance's long hair comes to life and murders Paul.  Constance hears the piper's serenade and cuts her hair off with the shears Paul used to cut down the dead vine, and goes out to dance with Pan and his menagerie.  Pan turns out to be an even bigger piece of shit than we thought, though--he draws the widow over to the cliff and tricks her into falling down to where lies Paul's car, so her shattered body is integrated with the shattered pieces of the automobile.  Pan then has a good laugh.

I guess the point of this story is that the gods are capricious and cruel, women are both gullible and manipulative, and men are at the mercy of these selfish, pitiless and emotional beings, even men who are rich, even men who always try to do the right thing.  This is the kind of knowledge you gain just by living with your eyes open, but of course probably shouldn't vocalize in mixed company.

"The Golden Bough" is an acceptable filler story.  Personally, I'm generally not crazy about stories that feel like a fable or fairy tale.  Maybe we should consider how this story fits into the standard Lovecraftian view that life is meaningless and the universe is inexplicable and good and evil are merely opinions with no concrete value.  I have to admit I expected the piper to just use Constance for sex and derive enjoyment from humiliating rich sucker Paul; when Paul got killed I was somewhat surprised, and when Constance was killed I was even more surprised--this wasn't just a story about women betraying men and men exploiting women, as I had been coming to expect, but an all out "we are doomed no matter how we behave" piece of nihilism.  Ouch! 

Though never anthologized, "The Golden Bough" has appeared in Keller collections like Arkham House's 1952 Tales from Underwood and Ramble House's 2010 Keller Memento--these collections also include "The Dead Woman."   


"The Typewriter" (1936)

I really like the cover,  by Clay Ferguson, Jr,.
 on the sole issue of Fanciful Tales
Here's a story that has only ever appeared in one place, a fanzine edited by that towering figure among the pantheon of SF editors, Donald A. Wollheim.  H. P. Lovecraft got a hold of three copies of Fanciful Tales (it includes a reprint of Lovecraft's own 1921 "The Nameless City") and in a December 13, 1936 letter to Wilson Shepherd wrote of the 'zine:
I like the contents immensely--especially R E H's splendid posthumous poem.  Derleth's story is good, though Keller's is rather undistinctive.*
HPL also helpfully points out that there are 59 "misprints" in "The Nameless City" as it appears in Fanciful Tales.  I'm not surprised, because the reader of "The Typewriter" is subjected to a ferocious barrage of typos and spelling errors.

"The Typewriter" is an acceptable Twilight Zone-style story.  It starts like a mainstream story, with a woman complaining to her husband that he doesn't spend enough time with her, that he is always sitting in his library, reading, thinking, and typing, that he never goes out to see friends or eat nice meals or whatever, that everything in his life revolves around his work as a writer.  It comes out that the writer's big best-selling book was a love story featuring a female character who has captured the public's imagination and become a sort of symbol of the perfect woman and the perfect love--the writer's wife is jealous of this woman, thinks her husband is spending all his time thinking about this fictional woman instead of his flesh and blood wife.

We learn about the writer's bizarre career path.  He was a bond salesman, but all his life wanted to write.  In a dream he saw a typewriter in a pawn shop--he went to the shop and found that the machine was really there!  He quit his job and wrote his novel on this special typewriter--it was as if the female protagonist of the book was telling him what to write!  He easily sold the book and since then he has made far more money than he would have as a bond salesman.  And he has not stopped receiving brainwaves from the exemplar of the female--he is now typing the sequel!

Wifey puts a sedative in her husband's coffee.  It is clear that the typewriter is the key to all this, so she takes an axe and chops the typewriter.  As the blow lands she hears a woman's scream and then hubby staggers into the room with a wound in his skull and collapses over the smashed typewriter.

Having the writer suffer an injury from the typer getting wrecked is a bit much--I'm afraid that the weird elements of this story are a little half baked.  But otherwise this story isn't bad, a psychiatrist's view of female psychology and marriage that rings true (at least to me.)

*Robert E. Howard's "Solomon Kane's Homecoming" and August Derleth's "The Man from Dark Valley."

**********

One good, two acceptable--not a bad record.  Maybe we'll read more Keller in the future.

I feel like we've had a long string of weird and fantasy stories--well, all you members of the slide rule club will be glad to hear that the next blog post will be about 1930s stories which, I think, will be about hard science!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the July 1931 Weird Tales: D H Keller, C A Smith & H P Lovecraft

Having been suitably impressed by the style and psychological concepts of David H. Keller's "The Thing in the Cellar," I looked at the isfdb page listing Keller's works, thinking to read something else by him.  My eye alighted on the title, "The Toad God," which struck a chord with me because I like frogs and toads and think the idea of worshiping a batrachian deity is very fun.  Unfortunately, the 1939 issue of Strange Stories in which "The Toad God" makes its sole appearance is not available at the internet archive, and it looks like the only copies on ebay or amazon run over a hundred dollars.  Too bad, because this looks like a great issue of Strange Stories, with an astonishingly grotesque cover and stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Henry Kuttner, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch.  (We actually have already read one of the Kuttner stories in the magazine, "The Hunt.")

Shifting gears, I decided to read Keller's "The Seeds of Death," which was first published in the July 1931 Weird Tales, and, according to Sam Moskowitz's 1983 article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940," the most popular story in the issue.  SF historian Moskowitz, who had acquired Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright's notes, tells us that 21 people wrote in to Weird Tales to praise "The Seeds of Death."  The second place story in the July '31 issue was the reprint of Lovecraft's "The Outsider" with 19 "votes."  I figured I'd reread "The Outsider," and the Clark Ashton Smith story that appears in this issue of WT, "The Venus of Azombeii," as well as ghe Keller.

"The Seeds of Death" by David H. Keller (1931)

The first sentence of this story feels like a joke.  "The Duke of Freud was distinctly unhappy."  Duke of Freud?  Is that a nickname?  Is it a typo?  Neither--this guy, whose name we eventually learn is Ferdinand, is a Spanish aristocrat, currently hanging out in New York, and no reference is made to the similarity of his title or duchy or dukedom or whatever it is to the name of the father of psychoanalysis.

The Duke is a womanizer, and he is unhappy because he just spent an entire year's budget on jewelry and the woman he gave the jewels too just left him.  The Duke has some very strict bankers watching over his finances and they won't be allowing him access to any more money this year, so the Duke looks in the wants ads for a job!  Duke, baby, I've tried this myself, and nothing good will come of it!  If you need a TV or something, just steal one from Target and say you are participating in a mostly peaceful protest!

Through the want ads the Duke finds a job, and as I could have predicted, it is a doozy.  James Garey's brother disappeared while visiting a beautiful woman, Helen Moyennes, at her castle in Spain.  Garey has learned that several other men have similarly disappeared at that woman's castle.  He wants help investigating his brother's vanishing, and the Duke, as a Spaniard and a womanizer accustomed to hanging with people who live in castles, is an ideal applicant and is hired.

The plan is for Garey to visit the Moyennes woman, and then for the Duke to arrive at the castle three or four days later.  Garey will leave secret messages in the castle for the Duke that, should Garey also disappear, will help the Duke figure out what happened to him and the other men.  In the event, when the duke arrives Garey has indeed vanished, but his secret messages are not very helpful.  The Duke does succeed in impressing Helen Moyennes--she calls him "a real man" after he takes her on a dangerous drive on mountain roads.  (When I drive dangerously on mountain roads my wife just calls me a maniac.)  Moyennes, it is revealed, has had her eye on the Duke even when he was back in New York--she gives him as a gift the jewels he gave to the woman who dumped him!  She hints that she wants to marry the Duke and live out her life with him.

When the Duke presses her to explain what happened to all the men who preceded him, she tells a crazy story about discovering strange seeds which, when eaten, paralyze a person and then grow in his stomach, living off his tissues, until he is a mummified husk and out his mouth and nose emerge beautiful orchids.  These orchids have strange properties, apparently having absorbed some of the animal life of their hosts--Helen wears flowers that she has picked from the bodies of her victims, and their long stamens and pistils move, caressing her breasts and face like a lover!  These blossoms bring the greatest of pleasures to the diabolical Helen, and she has been tricking the men into ingesting the seeds in order to assure herself a fresh supply of these beloved joy-sparking orchids!  As she shows Ferdinand, the many guest rooms of the castle are each tenanted by a dead or paralyzed man, each hosting a crop of orchids in a different stage of their life cycle.

Ferdinand is inclined to kill Helen, and I am right there with him, but Helen's servants also have guns, and will blast him the instant he blasts her.  Ferdinand and Helen are both gamblers, and she proposes a life and death game that will determine which of them should eat one of the seeds and become the fertile ground for the next crop of weird orchids.  She cheats, and Ferdinand joins the Garey brothers in a lingering death, becoming the host to another batch of the orchids whose caresses give Helen's otherwise lonely life meaning.

Not great, but acceptable.  In some ways this is more of a mystery than a weird story.  Christine Campbell Thomson included "The Seeds of Death" in her 1931 anthology At Dead of Night, and Robert A. W. Lowndes selected it for republication in his Magazine of Horror in 1964. 

"The Venus of Azombeii" by Clark Ashton Smith (1931)

I'm reading this one in a scan of the 2015 anthology, The End of the Story, which will, I presume, have a text closer to Smith's original intent, if somebody at Weird Tales in 1931 saw fit to make any alterations to Smith's manuscript.

Julius Marsden of San Francisco spent two years travelling in Africa, a continent which had long fascinated him.  He brought back with him a finely crafted foot-tall statuette carved from black wood, the image of a woman much like the famous Venus de' Medici, but with more African features.  The narrator of the frame story, one of the reclusive Marsden's few friends, also notices that Marsden seems nervous and unhealthy, and his health declines rapidly until, like two months after his return from Africa, he is a shriveled wreck of a man--a mysterious disease seems to have actually shrink him.  Marsden gives his friend a manuscript to be read after he has died and three quarters of the story consists of this manuscript, which describes the astonishing ups and downs of Marden's last few months in Africa.

Marsden was being rowed up a river by some "negroid Mohammedans" when they approached an area they called "Azombeii."  The Muslim boatmen were so scared of the people of Azombeii, explaining they were pagans who worshiped a goddess Wanaos and kept to themselves, having never been pacified by the Muslims who conquered this region long ago or the Germans who currently administer the area, that, after Marsden expressed interest in meeting the Azombeii, they abandoned him in the jungle, sneaking off while he slept.

Upon awakening Marsden met a woman of great beauty, a woman with black skin but features much like a particularly comely Italian or Greek.  This was the queen of the Azombeii, Mybaloe.  She lead him to her village.  The Azombeii, Marsden found, were better-looking, cleaner and more organized than any African pagans he had run into before.  They hated Muslims, but adored white people.  Talking to one member of the tribe who had been to Nigeria and spoke English, Marsden came to believe that in ancient times a party of Romans settled with this tribe, which explains their mixed race character, their worship of a goddess much like Venus, and the sculptures much like the Venus de' Medici in the village.

Marsden quickly fell in love with Mybaloe, who was kind and clever and sweet as well as beautiful, and with the blessing of almost every person in the village they were married in an orgiastic ceremony in a cavern that serves as the Azombeii temple to Venus.  But one guy resented Marsden, high priest Mergawe, the feared witch doctor!  Until Marsden showed up with his white skin, Mergawe had figured he would be marrying gorgeous Mybaloe!

Marsden's life for some weeks was a paradise--he was married to a beautiful queen, living in communion with nature:
I lived as never before, and never again, to the full capacity of my physical being.  I knew, as an aborigine knows, the mystic impact of perfume and color and savor and tactual sensation.  Through the flesh of Mybaloe, I touched the primal reality of the physical world.
But there was trouble in paradise!  While Mybaloe was away on some diplomatic mission to a sub-village or something like that, Mergawe pushed Marsden into a pool full of crocodiles!  Mybaloe, warned by a premonition of evil, arrived just in time to jump into the pool, kill two crocs with her dagger, and pull Marsden to safety!

Mergawe was driven from the village, but he was not through working his evil!  He contrived to poison Marsden with a magic potion that would shrivel him up after months of agony!  When she realized this, Mybaloe, refusing to live on without her husband, drank some of the poison herself!  That is real love!  The Azombeii caught Mergawe and threw him to the crocs.

Marsden and Mybaloe decided it would be too upsetting to watch each other shrink and die, so they agreed that he should return to America.  She gaves him one of the statuettes of Venus carved by a Roman long ago as a keepsake.

"The Venus of Azombeii" is not bad.  Obviously its equating of good looks and civilization and intelligence with Europeans and the opposite with Africans would be unacceptable today.  The story also exhibits of such noble savage tropes as the idea that nonwhites are close to nature and the physical world and benefit thereby.  Perhaps a little more surprising is the way Smith connects the idea that Africans are oversexed with the European goddess Aphrodite/Venus.  Seeing a woman rescue a man from crocodiles by killing them with a knife was also unexpected--when the queen suddenly appeared on the scene as Marsden was being chased down by the crocs, weapon in hand, I expected her to give the blade to Marsden so he could fight the reptiles!

Where "The Venus of Azombeii" falls a little short is in the plot and structure.  There is a lack of suspense and surprise in the second half of the story--as soon as Mergawe is introduced we know how Marsden got sick, for example.  The story also lacks a proper climax, Smith failing to raise the emotional pitch higher with the poisoning than he already had with the wedding and the fight with the crocodiles.  The whole crocodile scene, though I like it, doesn't really add to the plot or atmosphere--other scenes establish Mergawe's animosity towards Marsden and Mybaloe's dedication to Marsden.  Maybe the crocodile business was added to the story so there would be some action?  Another odd choice Smith makes in constructing the tale makes me wonder if the crocs were added late in the development of the story.  After Marsden and Mybaloe have drunk the poison, Mergawe is forced to drink it himself--this is poetic justice, he will die the same miserable death as his victims.  But then the villagers just throw him to the crocs, so the potion has no chance to take effect on him.  This strikes me as muddying the narrative. 

Marginally good.  "The Venus of Azombeii" has never been anthologized, but has appeared in numerous Smith collections, including as the title story of one Italian collection.


"The Outsider" by H. P. Lovecraft (1926)

"The Outsider" appears in the June 1931 issue of Weird Tales as a "Weird Story Reprint," having debuted in a 1926 issue of the magazine.  I believe "The Outsider" is one of the more widely acclaimed of Lovecraft's stories, with critics saying it is one of his best--it was also the title story of an early anthology of Lovecraft stories.  But when I read "The Outsider" as a teen in a book I borrowed from the library, I remember thinking it was a big letdown; I reached the end of it and thought, "That's it?"  We'll see how I feel upon a reread some 35 years later.

(I'm reading the version in my Corrected Eleventh Printing of The Dunwich Horror and Others.)

Having reread it, I can see how "The Outsider" would appeal to people who have no friends and have no success with the opposite sex and don't get along with their parents and feel out of step with their time, disagreeing with mainstream politics and disliking the popular culture of their nation and generation and so on.  And the writing isn't bad.  But there is almost no story here, it is almost like a prose poem, a mood piece describing a setting and a character but little plot.

Basically, a guy is living in a crumbling old castle with slimy walls, all alone, and can't remember ever hearing a human voice and has only the vaguest and faintest memories of ever meeting another person.  He has never seen the sun or moon or stars because the castle is surrounded by a dense forest of trees taller than the castle walls.  This story doesn't make logical sense--it makes emotional sense--it is like a dream (isfdb categorizes "The Outsider" as part of Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle.")  The story's images, the castle and forest for example, are not particularly sharp, do not conjure up a clear picture in the mind, but instead achieve a feeling.  One example of the emotionally resonant but illogical nature of the story is the fact that the narrator doesn't know what he looks like; he has never seen his reflection... nor looked down at his own body?

The castle has a tall tower whose stairs have partially collapsed--this tower, it seems, extends above the tree tops, and so one day the narrator takes the risk of climbing it in hopes of seeing the sky for the first time.  One of the most dreamlike elements of the story is how, when he climbs through the trapdoor at the top of the stairs, he finds he is not in the expected room atop the tower but in a ground level tomb in a cemetery.  As he passed through the trap door he entered another world.  And he is stuck in this new world, because he can't open the trapdoor again.

In this world he wanders around, coming to a castle, perhaps the castle he inhabited in the other world, but at an earlier or later time--he finds it is well lit and full of people attending a party.  When he tries to join the party, everybody flees in terror.  Then he sees himself in a mirror--he's a hideous monster, perhaps an animated corpse.

Maybe we are to think that the narrator is dead, and the first castle and forest were hell or just a dream he dreamed in his grave--now he is risen from the grave and back in the real world.  But this world is also dreamlike; the church at the cemetery, the castle with the party, and the meadows between them, make one think of Europe, but on the last page of the story the narrator's description of how he spends his time in this new world mentions the Nile and the Great Pyramid, as if it is Egypt.

I can sympathize with a character who is alienated and deracinated, who is wholly divorced from his ancestors and contemporaries, but I'm not crazy about surreal and dream-like stories and about mysteries which are not resolved.  I like stories in which the images are sharp and the characters have believable motivations and some kind of resolution is achieved.  So to me "The Outsider" is just OK, maybe marginally good; I guess here I am going against the conventional wisdom.

**********

I feel like I've been a real hard ass today, a real stickler, even though none of these stories is actually bad, and each of them is an interesting specimen with some unusual elements and each is certainly worth reading.     

More stories from before you were born in our next episode!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

1930s Weird Tales from Robert E Howard, Robert Bloch, David H Keller and Thorp McClusky


Poking around isfdb and the internet archive, those websites indispensable yo the speculative fiction enthusiast, as I composed my recent blog post on three Clark Ashton Smith stories that have been pretty widely anthologized, a number of stories by other writers came to my attention and set my antenna quivering.  Today we scratch the itch engendered by four of those stories, two by pop culture sensations who have left their marks on Hollywood and the American psyche, two by guys I'm not very familiar with.

"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" AKA "Shadows in Zamboula" by Robert E. Howard (1935)

That's Zabibi on the cover, forced to dance
by Totrasmek among illusions she
believes to be venomous serpents
This one came to mind because I saw it on the contents list of L. Sprague de Camp's anthology The Spell of Seven. (The Spell of Seven is illustrated by Virgil Finlay, and those interested in Finlay's work can check out the illos, which I don't think I have ever seen elsewhere, at the internet archive's copy of de Camp's anthology.) "Shadows in Zamboula" has appeared in a billion Conan collections since its debut in Weird Tales, but does not seem to have been anthologized much, so maybe we have to suspect this is not Howard at his best. I must have read the story ten or twelve years ago in my copy of The Conquering Sword of Conan (2005), where it appears as "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," but I don't remember anything about it.  Today's rereading of the story is from that volume, edited by Patrice Louinet.

Zamboula is a desert city on a major trade route, its population multicultural, or, as one of Conan's comrades, a desert nomad, puts it, an "accursed city which Stygians built and which Hyrkanians rule--where white, brown, and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds...."  This buddy of Conan's warns the blue-eyed barbarian not to stay in the tavern of hook-nosed Aram Baksh, saying he is rumored to murder travelers who partake of his hospitality, but Conan has paid for his room in advance and, after a day of losing at the gambling tables, the Cimmerian checks in at the tavern on the edge of town anyway.

Conan soon learns that Aram Baksh supplements his income by letting cannibals--huge black men with teeth filed to points and hair sculpted into horns with mud--come in to the tavern at night to murder his guests and drag the bodies off to a human barbecue out in the desert.  Conan, with his keen senses and powerful muscles and straight-bladed broadsword, is able not only to save himself, but a sexy dancing girl the cannibals have caught.  The dancing girl, Zabibi, says that everybody in Zamboula knows to stay indoors at night because of the cannibals, but she had to run out of her house because her boyfriend, army officer Alafdhal, had gone insane and tried to kill her.  Why is she dating an insane guy when with that body of hers she could date just about any man she wanted?  Well, her boyfriend isn't insane normally, but she bought from a priest of Hanuman, Totrasmek, a love potion to use on him, and that duplicitous cleric gave her a potion that insteaddrove Alafdhal bonkers, presumably because Totrasmek envied Zabibi and Alafdhal's relationship.  At least that is what she tells Conan.
A French translation of Conan the
Wanderer
, which includes "Shadows
 in Zamboula," with a fun cover
Zabibi convinces Conan to find Alafdhal and subdue him, and then accompany her to the shrine of Hanuman the ape-god to exact revenge from Totrasmek.  In the shrine, Zabibi is captured and Conan is temporarily disarmed and has to fight hand-to-hand against an Eastern muscleman who has been strangling human sacrifices all his life!  Conan proves the better strangler.  "You fool...I think you never saw a man from the West before."  We learn the truth about the relationships and identities of Zabibi, Alafdhal and Totrasmek, and Conan rescues the dancing girl and kills the priest.  Then Conan satisfies his own appetite for revenge, disfiguring Aram Baksh so the cannibals he habitually feeds won't recognize him and then handing the tavern owner over to the blacks to be cooked and eaten.   

Obviously this story about black cannibals, Near Eastern thieves and mixed race dancing girls who use lies and sex appeal to get what they want out of men--and the white muscleman who foils all their schemes--is full of wrongthink and if you value your career, your friendships and your access to the internet you shouldn't read it, and you certainly shouldn't announce online that you enjoyed it.  But "Man-Eaters of Zamboula" is a fun caper.  The pace is fast, and Howard does a good job of painting a vivid picture of a totally crazy place full of crazy people and making it, somehow, internally consistent and believable.  Every crazy thing that happened brought a smile to my face.  Gotta give this one a thumbs up....but let's keep that between ourselves.

"The Feast in the Abbey" by Robert Bloch (1935)

"The Feast in the Abbey" appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as Clark Ashton Smith's "The Dark Eidolon."  Readers voted Bloch's story the best in the issue, which seems to have caused some surprise and even consternation.  In a March 27, 1935 letter to William F. Anger, H. P. Lovecraft praises Bloch, but asserts it is "absurd to compare anything in the issue with 'The Dark Eidolon'" and hints at the possibility of "the fan vote" having been "deliberately whipped up."  HPL dismissively opines that "After all, the vote of the readers means almost nothing--including as it does vast hordes of the ignorant, the tasteless, & the superficial."  HPL is one hell of a snob.

A Frenchman, our narrator, is riding through Flanders, headed for his brother's home.  Caught in a storm, he stops at a monastery in a forest, where the abbot puts him up and invites him to dinner.  Bloch describes in detail the furnishings of this monastery, which are extravagant and rich in an unseemly way, and totally lacking in Christian ornament.  At the lush and luxurious dinner--Bloch lists all the different fruits and courses that are served, and the ceremony attending the carving of the roast that is the main course--the forty monks display terrible table manners.  They also tell ghost stories and legends and sing ribald songs.  Finally, the abbot tells the legend of the mysterious abandoned priory which at night demons render magnificent in order to beguile travelers--no doubt he refers to this very abbey!  Even worse, he lifts the lid off a platter to reveal the head of the narrator's brother, indicating that the roast, of which the narrator partook, was his brother's flesh!

The narrator wakes up in the woods, hurries to his brother's home, and is told his brother is missing.  Mon Dieu!

This story is merely acceptable, a gimmick surrounded by laborious overwriting. 

"The Feast in the Abbey" has reappeared in various Bloch collections and horror anthologies, including 1945's The Opener of the Way and 1969's The Unspeakable People.


"The Thing in the Cellar" by David H. Keller (1932)

I don't think I've ever read anything by Keller before, though I have seen his name many times.  "The Thing in the Cellar" caught my eye when I looked over the contents list of John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction.  "The Thing in the Cellar" is quite short, and has been reprinted numerous times in books like Pelan's, Groff Conklin's The Supernatural Reader and Mary Danby's 65 Great Spine Chillers.  It first appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales in which Clark Ashton Smith's "Planet of the Dead" made its debut. 

This is a good story written in a smooth colloquial style, though it is vulnerable to the charge that it has no real resolution.  A London house has a cellar of inordinate size, full of hundreds of years worth of junk; the door in the kitchen that leads to this cellar is peculiarly heavy and strong.  The family living in the house today have a single child, Tommy.  Since birth, the child has been scared when in the kitchen, and his fear grows in proportion to how loosely the door to the cellar is secured.  Tommy isn't so bad when the door to the cellar is locked--in fact he will caress and even kiss the stout lock--but if the door is actually open he will cry and if possible flee the kitchen.  Because his mother spends lots of time in the kitchen doing house work, as a small child Tommy has often had to play in the kitchen, and one of his favorite kitchen games is shoving bits of cloth and paper and junk in the space between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor.

Tommy's behavior is bewildering and annoying to his hard-working and not very well educated parents, and when he is six years old they take him to a doctor and explain their problem.  The physician suggests they drive Tommy's fears away by forcing him to sit in the kitchen alone with the cellar door open for an hour--he will realize that there is nothing down there that can harm him, something he should have realized long ago, because his mother goes down into the cellar every day and nothing has ever happened to her.  The physician, that evening, talks to a psychiatrist friend who warns him his advice was bad, so the doctor visits Tommy's parents that night to rescind his advice.  Too late--when the doctor gets there he finds that Tommy, left alone in the kitchen, the cellar door left wide open, has been severely mauled and killed--by what agent it is impossible to comprehend.

The atmosphere, pacing and style of this story are quite good, and all the psychological stuff rings true (Keller was a psychiatrist himself) and I am giving "The Thing in the Cellar" a thumbs up, but the lack of any explanation of what killed Tommy and why it never harmed or made itself known to his mother is a little frustrating.


"The Crawling Horror" by Thorp McClusky (1936)

Here's another piece I spotted in the contents list of John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction.  Thorp McClusky has two dozen short story credits at isfdb, and I have never read any of them.  Here's our chance to get some clue as to what he is all about.

The first part of "The Crawling Horror" is the narrative of bachelor farmer Hans Brubaker, as told to a country doctor, Kurt.  Brubaker relates how he heard the rats fighting in his home's walls, and then how he spotted a new cat in the neighborhood, and how the cat population of his farm abruptly declined.  Following this he saw a slimy transparent blob creature of some fifty pounds hanging around one of his dogs, inside the house--when he touched it the blob quickly escaped by sliding under a door.  Later, his dogs fought each other; after Hans euthanized the injured loser of the fight--the dog touched by the blob--its corpse disappeared.  Brubaker later encountered a dog which looked like the dead dog--this dog didn't respond to Brubaker's familiar calls.  A while later Hans saw a teen-aged boy walk down the road, and he sensed that this boy was not truly human.

Not long after telling his story to Doctor Kurt, Brubaker marries an outgoing blue-eyed blonde, Hilda Lang.  Hilda loves Hans, believes his monster story, and wants to be at his side to support him if there is danger.  The rest of "The Crawling Horror" is told directly by Doctor Kurt, relating how he helps the Brubakers protect their home from this blob that can change shape, appearing human when need be, and can dissolve and absorb flesh.  The narrator theorizes that this blob, which can pass through narrow cracks, is the source of the legend of the vampire, of the Slavic practice of carefully sealing up coffins.  In a gory scene the monster dissolves and absorbs Hilda.  It appears, however, that Hilda's soul is still alive within the monster, along with the souls of its other victims.  Hans, a man of indomitable will, allows the monster to try to absorb him, but he masters it instead of the other way around, retaining his human form but becoming the first among equals of a sort of composite person--he looks like Hans, but within him live not only his own soul but that of Hilda, other people the monster absorbed, and the evil consciousness of the monster itself, which struggles to take over the body.  (The presence of additional souls in Hans's body are symbolized by Hans looking the same as ever but being much heavier--floorboards bend under his weight.)

The pacing and style of this story are good, and the horror scenes work, but the monster's powers and characteristics are inconsistent and confusing.  Sometimes it burns people like acid, other times people can touch it safely, even wrestle with it.  The creature takes over Hilda's soul by dissolving her physical body and killing her--Kurt sees her carcass, the skin and muscles of her back absent, entrails hanging out, bones exposed--but the monster also appears to steal a dog's soul without damaging the canine's body--the dog lives after the blob oozes away, but is listless, without will, barely fighting back when attacked by the other Brubaker dog, which somehow senses it is an enemy.  And in the final battle of wills between the monster and Hans, it's like Hans's normal human body absorbs the blob instead of the other way around.

Acceptable, maybe marginally good.  "The Crawling Horror" first oozed onto the public stage in the same issue of Weird Tales as Robert E. Howard's "The Black Hound of Death," which like "Shadows in Zamboula" should probably be considered a no-go zone, it being the story of a vengeful werewolf and his collaboration with a violent African-American criminal.  Donald Wollheim liked "The Crawling Horror," including it in an issue of the Avon Fantasy Reader (as the cover story!) and in the anthology The Macabre Reader.  In his intro to "The Crawling Horror" in Avon Fantasy Reader, Wollheim points out the similarity of the story's monster to that in John W. Campbell's 1938 "Who Goes There?" and says that some SF fans have come up with a collective name for a shape-shifting monster: "vombis."  I've never heard the word "vombis" before, so maybe this moniker hasn't stuck.

When I realized "Who Goes There?" came out like two years after "The Crawling Horror," I wondered if maybe Campbell was inspired by McClusky's story.  But a note at isfdb indicates that Isaac Asimov, in Before the Golden Age, an anthology I own, wrote that "Who Goes There?" was a rewrite of Campbell's 1936 story "Brain-Stealers of Mars," which appeared in Thrilling Wonder a month after "The Crawling Horror" was printed in Weird Tales.  I'll have to read "Brain-Stealers of Mars" for myself, but if the monster in that story is the same as that in "Who Goes There?" it seems like McClusky and Campbell hit upon the same idea for a monster at about the same time.     


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"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" is a good Conan story, and the Keller story and the McCulsky story, though they have their problems, have good elements.  As for Bloch's "The Feast in the Abbey," well, it is not terrible, and it is of historical importance, I guess.

I feel safe in predicting more gore and terror in the near future here at MPorcius Fiction Log.