Friday, January 22, 2021

"The Children of the Night," "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," "The Dark Man" and "People of the Dark" by Robert E. Howard

I was thinking of buying Brian Aldiss's trilogy of semi-autobiographical Horatio Stubbs books, which are, I hear, about two of my favorite topics, fighting in a war and difficult sexual relationships, but what is this I see here in my snail mail receptacle?  Multiple speeding tickets from Montgomery County, land of the robotic speed trap?  I don't live in Montgomery County, but sometimes I have to drive through it, and America's 17th most affluent county is a veritable gauntlet of cameras which photograph you if you are going a measly 42 miles-an-hour and send you a $40.00 ticket.  I have learned to my pain that these electronic robber barons are all too willing to ticket you multiple times in a single day, and then, like some kind of Chinese water torturer, send the tickets one at a time over a series of days, so, even though you earned the tickets a few hours apart, a week might pass between the first and last of the tickets that will be arriving in your mail box.  Maybe Barry N. Malzberg is right, maybe machines are consuming us!

Anyway, let's look on the bright side and use modern technology to read something for free, the e-copy of Wildside Press's People of the Dark: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 3, which I borrowed from the public library of Grandview Heights, Ohio, using the hoopla software.  I talked about Joe R. Lansdale's intro to this volume in our last episode; now let's grapple with some Howard stories that haven't yet passed before our eyes.

(More technology: at his great website Stephen Fabian explains that he created the cover for People of the Dark by using his computer to combine two earlier works of his, one an illustration for a William Hope Hodgson book and the other a private commission.)

"The Children of the Night" (1931)

Six smart guys are hanging around in their host's study, where he has various strange artifacts and lots of old books on history and witchcraft.  These brainiacs talk about disputes and controversies related to European history and ethnicity, like whether it was some Mongoloids or some Mediterraneans who first colonized the British Isles and gave rise to later legends about goblins and trolls, whether people ever really did worship Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth, and why the Lombards in just a few centuries "changed from a long-headed to a round-headed race."  One of these guys, Ketrick, a guy whose eyes the narrator says have an oddly Chinese appearance in the middle if his otherwise ordinary British face, starts swinging around a Neolithic flint mallet and accidentally hits our narrator in the head, knocking him out.  

The narrator wakes up in ancient times, clad in a loin cloth, bearing a bronze axe, his consciousness having been shifted back in time to ancient Britain, to the body of one of the blonde Sword People, Aryara.  The narrator hasn't joined Aryara during a happy time in that long forgotten dude's life--in fact, he is the sole survivor of a hunting party of six that has been overwhelmed by short hideous men whose voices are like those of snakes!  These creeps, known to the Sword People as The Children of the Night, left Aryara for dead after knocking him out, and then mutilated his friends.  Aryara jumps up and takes the evildoers by surprise and beats the hell out of them.

From Aryara's mind the narrator learns all about the relationship of the Sword People to the dark Picts and these squat evil Children.  When Aryara is finally killed by a throng of the Children the narrator wakes up back in the 20th century an expert on migrations from Continental Europe to the British Isles and the true sources of those legends of goblins and trolls.  He also has achieved race consciousness, inspired by the direct knowledge that he is an Aryan, a descendent of Aryara's people, people who thrive while living as nomads and conquerors, and fall into weakness if they become farmers or city-dwellers.  More chillingly, he now realizes that among Ketrick's many English and Celtic ancestors there must be one ancestor who was one of the Children of the Night, and it is the narrator's duty to his race to kill Ketrick!  As the story ends the narrator is plotting Ketrick's murder; he doesn't care if he is hanged for this crime, because his duty to his people means more to him than his own life!

All the anthropology material can be a little tedious, but the idea of guys' subconscious or paranormally revived racial memories leading them to try to murder their friends is good horror fiction stuff.  This story is not bad.  Obviously any discussion of ethnic solidarity and race consciousness among white people that is the least bit sympathetic to the idea would be a big no-no today, but if you're looking for the conventional wisdom of the educated establishment of 2021 in a 90-year-old issue of Weird Tales, you are looking in the wrong place.      

Besides mentioning Lovecraft and Cthulhu by name, "The Children of the Night" also references Bran Mak Morn, and it has appeared in collections of Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories as well as anthologies of Cthulhu Mythos tales. 


"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" (1931)

Turlogh O'Brien is an Irish adventurer, a Gael cast out by his people to wander the world.  He was a passenger on a French merchant ship when it was taken by Vikings and as the story begins he is the Norsemen's prisoner.  All the Frenchies were killed, but among the Norsemen is a Saxon from Wessex, Athelstane, who knows Turlogh and insists the Vikings spare him.

A storm casts the Viking ship onto the reef around a mysterious island and all the Vikings perish in the shark-infested waters; Turlogh and Athelstane manage to survive.  Suddenly a gorgeous topless blonde appears!  It is Brunhild, a Norsewoman who was washed up on this beach ten years ago when she was fifteen.  The brown-skinned natives of this island, The Isle of the Gods, thought the white girl must be some kind of goddess, and the ruthless and manipulative Brunhild was soon ruling the place alongside a good-looking native.  The people of Isle live in the vast city Bal-Sagoth, a fortified town bigger than Rome or Byzantium, built by their ancient ancestors, where they worship a multitude of deities, among them a monster bird god, something like an oversized Phorusrhacos, I suppose.

Brunhild's reign came to a sudden end just recently, when she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her and she had him killed.  What can I say, life is cheap in Bal-Sagoth, where they are always sacrificing people to their various monster gods.  Brunhild had underestimated the popularity of her boyfriend among the masses; their response to her execution of this alleged philanderer is to depose her and exile her to the part of the island where that bird god lives, isolated from the city by a shark-infested swamp.  When Brunhild bursts on to the beach before Turlogh and Athelstane she is fleeing the giant bird, which our heroes dispatch handily.

Seeing Turlogh and Athelstane, who wear mail and helmets over their bulging muscles, in action inspires Brunhild.  The people of Bal-Sagoth have no armor, and are gullible and fickle, so the former queen figures that if she returns to the city with these musclemen, with the head of the bird god in hand as proof of their prowess, they can overawe the city mob, who will put Brunhild's voluptuous bottom back where it belongs, on the throne!  The fighting men agree to this scheme, and these three white people build a raft to get over that swamp and make their way to Bal-Sagoth, the city of brown people, to take over.

The current king, a puppet of the priestly class, is eliminated post haste when he accepts Brunhild's challenge that he fight Athelstane one-on-one.  The citizens proclaim Brunhild their queen once again.  But the head priest, a powerful wizard who has learned the secrets of eternal life and of breeding men with beasts to augment the islands supply of monster gods, is conspiring in the city's many subterranean chambers!  Wholesale chaos ensues when a monster god bursts into Brunhild's chamber via a secret door and Turlogh and Athelstane must battle wizardry and monsters in defense of her and of their own lives.  Can these musclemen foil the sorcery of an immortal magician?  And can the old and tired civilization of Bal-Sagoth survive when, during all this revolutionary chaos, an army of red-skinned raiders storms the city?  

"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" is a fun adventure caper full of some of our favorite things: dangerous women, unspeakably horrible monsters, evil wizards, dark labyrinths.  Unlike the rest of the Howard stories we are talking about today, it has some interesting characters who have interesting relationships with each other.  I like it!

Nineteen years after its debut in Weird Tales, Donald Wollheim included "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 12, under the sexier title "The Blonde Goddess of Bal-Sagoth."  The story has been included in many Howard collections, and was the title story of one 1977 German collection.  


"The Dark Man" (1931)

Turlogh O'Brien is back!  In "The Dark Man," which first appeared in Weird Tales just two months after the debut of "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," our Irish buddy Turlogh is on an Irish beach, asking to borrow a fisherman's boat.  We get a long description of Turlogh and his equipment, which we didn't really get in "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth;" maybe this one, though published later, was written earlier?  It does seem to take place earlier.

Anyway, Turlogh needs a boat because a Viking raider, Thorfel, has kidnapped a princess of Turlogh's people, Moira daughter of Murtagh, and Turlogh is going to sail all by himself to Scotland to Thorfel's island in the Hebrides to rescue her.  Here we see the passionate dedication of Turlogh to his people, even though they had outlawed him.  I'm sure he's not going on this suicide mission because Moira is a striking beauty with fair skin, shiny black hair, and grey eyes!

On the way to the Hebrides Turlogh stops at a mysterious little island to get water and comes upon the site of a recent battle; Viking warriors lay dead among the dead bodies of a small dark people Turlogh has never seen before, and in the center of the carnage is a black statue of a man.  Turlogh thinks the statue must be a representation of some king or god, and that the dark people fought to defend it, and he takes up the statue, which is made of some alien material which is surprisingly light, and brings it with him to Thorfel's island.  Turlogh has the uncanny feeling that the statue is giving him luck, guiding his boat to just the best possible approach to Thorfel's lair.

Turlogh spies on the big party Thorfel is throwing, where tiny black-haired Moira sits in fear among the huge blonde Vikings.  Thorfel declares he is going to marry Moira, and has even dragged a Christian priest to this pagan celebration to officiate, a sop to what he considers Moira's silly beliefs.  Moira refuses to marry the Viking, and kills herself Lucretia-style with a dagger--enraged, Turlogh leaps into the hall and tries to fight the dozens of Vikings there.  Luckily the magic of the Dark Man statue, and the statue's worshippers who appear moments later, preserve Turlogh's life and the Vikings are wiped out--even the women and children are massacred by the small dark men!

The little dark men explain that they are the last of the Picts and the statue is of their last king, Bran Mak Morn, who kicked the Romans out of North Britain; the statue was made by a wizard during Bran's reign and through it the spirit of Bran tries to look out for the remnant of his people.  In these stories we're reading today Howard tries to not only provide you the thrills of fights and killings and women in danger of being raped--he also tries to to give you a feeling of the sweep of history, and all through "The Dark Man" the characters think about or talk about how the Celts, who took Britain from the Picts, are in turn being broken by the Danes, as well as how the new religion of Christianity is displacing paganism, and how the spirit of the Dark Man statue is so ancient it considers the cultures of both the Vikings and the Christians to be young.

"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" is similar in some ways to "The Dark Man," but the former is the superior--it has more monsters, scarier magic, and relationships among the two heroes and the female lead that add something to the caper--"The Dark Man" lacks such relationships.  "The Dark Man" is still a pretty good sword and sorcery story, however. 

"The Dark Man" has appeared in many Howard collections, for some serving as the title story.


"People of the Dark" (1932)
 
Let's read the title story of this collection, which appeared in Strange Tales and has never been anthologized, though it has appeared in numerous Howard collections. 

Howard is not afraid to reuse names, and this story includes a black-haired reaver named Conan, though he is not the famous Conan of Cimmeria but a medieval Irishman, and a 20th-century man named Richard Brent, but I don't think this is the same Richard Brent who appears in "Black Hound of Death." 

"People of the Dark" has a lot in common with "The Children of the Night," Howard using some of the same devices and themes here as in that story.  Our narrator, John O'Brien, a 20th-century American man living in England, is the kind of guy who ponders theories that a primitive race of Mongoloids inhabited the British Isles before the Picts, and he is also the kind of guy who plots the murder of one of his friends!  O'Brien is in love with Eleanor Bland, a hot blonde with grey eyes, but Bland is in love with Richard Brent.  I guess our narrator doesn't have the kind of friends or family that will impart to him the wisdom that there are a lot of fish in the sea, because he decides the way to solve his problem is to ambush and murder Brent when Brent is out exploring Dagon's Cave.  Inside the cave, before he finds Brent, O'Brien falls and hits his head; hde wakes up to find himself in the body of Conan the Gael raider of centuries ago.

Conan has a wound on his head because he fell and was knocked out while chasing a gorgeous blonde, Tamera, who had fled into the infamous Cavern of the Children of the Night.  Conan knows Tamera from when he visited her village during peacetime; when he and his fellow Gaelic pirates decided to raid this village, Conan thought he'd take this opportunity to kidnap Tamera, but then her boyfriend, Vertorix, who swings a mean axe, interfered.  When it looked like Conan was about to get the upper hand over Vertorix, the two English people retreated into that haunted Cavern, where Conan got knocked out.

Having recovered, Conan ventures deeper into the cavern and finds that Tamera and her beau have been captured by the Children of the Night, short hissing men with ophidian features, and tied to an altar to await sacrifice.  He rescues them, and the three run hither and thither through winding tunnels and up and down stairs, looking for an exit, sometimes stopping to fight the pursuing hordes of savage troglodytes.  In the fighting Conan becomes separated from the two Britons; John O'Brien wakes up in the 20th century after Conan escapes the Cavern but Tamera and Vertorix jump off a cliff to their deaths rather than be recaptured.

John O'Brien follows the route Conan took to the evil temple and through various tunnels and stairways.  He spots Eleanor Bland and his rival Brent, standing just where Tamara and Vertorix died, and realizes they are just as much reincarnated souls of those medieval lovers as he is of Conan.  Centuries ago his desire for Tamara led to her and Vertorix's death, but John O'Brien gets an opportunity to redeem himself when the last of the Children of the Night appears and attacks Bland and Brent--O'Brien uses the weapon he brought to murder Brent with to instead save him and Bland.

"People of the Dark" is alright; maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't just read "The Children of the Night," which is quite similar, but more grim.


**********

All of these stories are entertaining, though "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," which lacks any cumbersome framing device and which has the most interesting character--ambitious and ruthless blonde goddess Brunhild--and the only truly interesting relationships, is certainly the best.  

No doubt there is more sword and sorcery and more of the weird in our future, but in our next episode I think we'll tackle something more on the science fiction side of SF.    

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

1932 Weird Tales by Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth and David H. Keller

One of my favorite weird stories is Clark Ashton Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," which was first published in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales.  (I expressed my love for this classic tale of exploration, terror, and possession on the red planet Mars back in 2019.)  Along with Smith's name in the table of contents of that 1932 issue of the unique magazine we see a bunch of other familiar names--why don't we check out stories by Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth and David H. Keller that were experienced by horror fans alongside "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"?  I'll be reading the versions of the stories that appeared in that May 1932 magazine via the scan of it available at the internet archive, though all four of the stories we are talking about today can be found in book form in one place or another. 

"The Terror Planet" by Edmond Hamilton

It took 81 years for "The Terror Planet" to appear in book form, but it finally did so in 2013 in Volume Four of Haffner Press's The Collected Edmond Hamilton.  We can surmise from this that "The Terror Planet" didn't exactly set the world on fire, but we can't let that stop us from reading it--maybe it is an overlooked gem.

For years the scientific establishment (jerks!) has been ridiculing astronomer Robert Hunt's theory that Uranus is habitable.  But in the same way that I, MPorcius, am capable not only of washing the dishes here at MPorcius headquarters, but also do the laundry and swiffer the floors, Hunt is not only a forward-thinking astronomer, but also a physicist and engineer of a revolutionary caliber.  He has figured out a way to bend and focus "the lines of radiated gravitational force" and has built the machine that can do it.  By affixing this machine to an airtight steel bell, like a diving bell, Hunt has created a vehicle with which to travel between planets.

At least that is the way he puts it.  The scientific world is full of rivalries and interpersonal strife, and there is another scientist, Harker Crail, who helped Hunt with his space-bell.  Hunt kicked Crail off the project when Crail not only wanted to make money off the device (heaven forbid!) but started making time with Hunt's slender dark-haired sister Jean!  We certainly don't want men who are distracted by a desire for money and sex working on our scientific projects now, do we?

The fourth character in this drama is our narrator, Devlin.  Hunt is planning to head to Uranus tonight and spend a few days there collecting proof that every 12-year-old comedian's favorite planet is habitable, so he wired his old university pal Devlin to come by to look after Jean while he is gone.  (Rob, why don't you let this chick run her own god-damned life for ten seconds?)  Anyway, as we readers expected, Crail shows up with a pistol to steal the space-bell and in the ensuing fracas all four of these goofs end up in the space-bell as it hurtles to Uranus.  The rushed takeoff knocks everybody unconscious, and they don't wake up until they are on the surface of Uranus! 

On Uranus they have Edgar Rice Burroughs-style adventures.  Reminding us that Hamilton loves to write about evolution, and reminding us of the planet Althar in his superior space opera The Star of Life, and reminding us a little of Burroughs's own Chessmen of Mars, Uranus is inhabited by three distinct races of humans, all descended from the same basic stock.  One group focused on the intellect above all else and have evolved into creatures with big heads and tiny impotent bodies, while another group has focused on physical development and evolved into a horde of savage quadrupeds.  A third group dedicated to balance still looks and acts like ordinary people like you and me.  Hunt, Devlin, Jean and Crail get mixed up in the endless war between the beast-man horde and the city-dwelling balanced people; the balanced men have aircraft and an effective weapons system that shoots acid, but when Crail becomes leader of the beast-men his scientific expertise is enough to give these hairy brutes a decisive advantage.  To save the balanced men, Devlin acts as ambassador to the aloof brain-men, who come to the rescue with their irresistible weaponry.  Devlin kills Crail in hand-to-hand combat, and the three surviving Earthers return to mother Terra, where we are led to believe that Devlin and Jean will get married.  

This is a routine but successful little adventure story; Hamilton is a pro at this sort of thing.  I guess maybe we should call it acceptable filler, though Hamilton does try to mix up the formula a bit by including novel propulsion systems and weapons (the brain-men hypnotize all the beast-men into committing suicide, for example) instead of just relying on the standard issue rockets and ray guns.        

"The Horror from the Mound" by Robert E. Howard

One of the many places "The Horror from the Mound" has been reprinted is in the 2005 collection People of the Dark, the third volume of Wildside Press's The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard.  In his introduction to People of the Dark, fellow Texan Joe R. Lansdale talks about how Howard's work strongly reflects the culture of the Lone Star State: "...no matter how wild the story, how bizarre the idea, or what location he claimed for it, I assure you, Howard was always writing about Texas and Texans."  Lansdale particularly points to "The Horror from the Mound," a favorite of his, as exhibiting such "hallmarks" of Howard's fiction, and of the people of Texas, as self-reliance, courage and confidence.

(Lansdale in this intro also compares Howard to Edgar Rice Burroughs and suggests that something Howard wrote that appears in the paperback collection Wolfshead inspired him to quit college and "make my own way by my wits, doing work of my choosing...."  Lansdale's is a pretty interesting little essay that fans of Howard and Lansdale should read if they have the chance.  I borrowed an electronic version of People of the Dark from a library in Ohio to which I still have electronic access even though I've lived in Maryland for like three years now.) 

Steve Brill is a cowboy who decided to take up farming, but, thanks to bad weather, his farm is a disaster and he's got money troubles.  There is an Indian burial mound on the property he is leasing, and, despite the dire warnings of Lopez, his Mexican neighbor, Brill decides to bust into the mound to see if there is anything of value in there.  Howard tells us that Texas cowboys "live by impulse," so Brill wastes no time getting to work even though the day is almost over--he starts plying his pick and shovel even though the sun is setting.  

Brill is half done digging into the tomb when it gets so dark he decides to go get a lantern.  When he gets back he finds the tomb has been opened and is empty!  No doubt his Mexican neighbor (Brill calls him a "Greaser" and a "Spig") stole the treasure while Brill wasn't looking!  All that talk of a curse was just an effort to deter Brill from getting at the treasure!  Brill heads over to Lopez's hut, and there his night of terror truly begins, the night during which Brill will learn the astonishing and horrifying truth of the mound from Lopez and be forced to fight for his life against no ordinary foe.

This is a good action-horror story, with satisfying suspense and a good, characteristically Howardian, climactic fight to the death.  We've all read and seen a billion vampire stories, but somehow this one manages to hold the reader's attention and feel fresh and exciting.  Lansdale is right to favor it; as I recall, I also concurred with his high opinion of Robert Bloch's "The Animal Fair"--it seems that Joe. R. Lansdale has good taste!     

"The Horror From the Mound" is included in four different paperback printings of Wolfshead. The Lancer editions have Frazetta covers and an introduction which strongly impressed Joe R. Lansdale that consists of text from a letter Howard wrote to H. P. Lovecraft; the Bantam edition has a Lehr cover and an essay by Robert Bloch in which Bloch compares Howard's work to the theories of Carl Jung

"The Last Magician" by David H. Keller

Weird Tales readers loved "The Last Magician;" according to Sam Moskowitz's research, it was the most popular story in the issue, receiving 26 positive notices from readers ("Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"  only received 25.)  It looks like it has never been anthologized, though, just reprinted in Keller collections produced by small presses.

The bulk of "The Last Magician" is kind of tedious, a long-winded story with poor pacing that appeals to the self-importance and persecution complex of the cognitive elite who feel superior to, resentful of, and underappreciated by, the masses of normies.  Honestly, it feels a little childish.  Fiction in general, and SF in particular, often consists of wish fulfillment fantasies, but "The Last Magician" is more obvious and less artful than most such indulgences.

A young wizard, age 30, returns to the seaside castle of his master, age 90, to tell a tale of how ungrateful the world has been to him and his fellows.  The old wizard trained a Brotherhood of twenty-one men in the ways of white magic, and they went out into the world and did wonderful things, improving the economy and everybody's life.  But envious merchants, jealous priests, and corrupt rulers conspired to capture and torture to death twenty of the white wizards and their families--only this guy managed to escape, after seeing his wife killed and having one of his hands chopped off.

The master wizard explains that it was ever thus!  He tells the tedious story of how, before the birth of Man, the world used to be ruled by colossal behemoth monsters, monsters hundreds of miles long!  When they died out they were succeeded by still huge but somewhat smaller monsters.  When they died out, beasts like cave bears, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats roamed the Earth.  The first humans came down from the trees at the same time, and had to fight an endless war with the bears and cats, spending most of their time hiding in caves from these ferocious beasts.  The bears and cats would have exterminated the human race if it had not been for the first wizards, who taught mankind how to kill the beasts!  But did mankind appreciate the invaluable service provided by the selfless smarties?  No!  All through history manipulative priests and the ignorant masses have hunted down and oppressed the smart people who give and give and never get anything in return, just abuse!  Sixty years ago a mob of witch hunters even killed the master's own wife!  Today almost no wizards survive because of this persecution.  

This ridiculous and tendentious history seems to take forever for the master wizard to relate--Keller spends a particularly large volume of ink describing how the wizards made life-sized model bears and used them to train their fellow cave men in bear anatomy so they would know the best place to jab a bear with a spear.  (Keller's story actually reminds me of The Kinks' brilliant spoof of the self importance of educators, "Education," which describes the miraculous effect of education on a cave man.)  These model bears lead to the fortuitous discovery of the principles behind the voodoo doll.

In the story's ending we see the various silly elements of the master's history come together.  You see, the country where the Brotherhood of Twenty-One were murdered lies on one of those ancient hundred-mile-long monsters, and said leviathan is not dead, it is merely resting!  The master makes a three-dimensional map of the monster out of dirt and twigs and so forth, and then, by poking and prodding it, disturbs the sleep of the behemoth, so that it shifts, causing earthquakes that destroy the corrupt politicians, the jealous priests and the stupid masses of the ungrateful country.  The master sends his pupil away to another land, and then kills the monster, totally destroying the region and himself--the master goes to heaven to be with his long dead wife.

A story to warm the heart of every nerd who has ever been called names and dreamnt of exterminating the human race in revenge.  

"The Last Magician" is ambitious, and an interesting artifact that perhaps provides insight into the psychology of Keller himself and speculative fiction fans in general, but it is not what I would call a good story.  There is something so remarkable about it, however, that I don't regret reading it...I guess I am giving "The Last Magician" an "acceptable" rating.                 

"The Bishop Sees Through" by August Derleth 

This is a trifling little story, competent but very slight, I guess written to fill space in the magazine.  It has only been reprinted once, in the 2009 collection "Who Shall I Say is Calling?" and Other Stories

The Bishop's chauffer is driving him down the coast road in a ferocious rainstorm to visit the Count.  Visibility is so poor the driver gets lost and stops by a Georgian house to ask directions.  The Bishop gamely goes to the door and is greeted by a butler, who warns him not to take the coast road, as it has been washed out near the Count's, and gives directions to an alternate route.

On his friend's arrival, the Count tells the Bishop he knows of no landslide.  Later, during their visit, somebody phones to warn the Count about the landslide--it seems that that butler, somehow, knew about the landslide before it happened and saved the Bishop's (and the chauffer's) life!  The Count believes in ghosts and the second sight and so on, and thinks this an example of a paranormal phenomenon, but the Bishop is a skeptic.  On the way home he has his chauffer stop at the Georgian house so he can ask the butler how he knew about the landslide earlier than anybody else, but there is no house--where it sat earlier in the evening is only a Georgian ruin!

Acceptable.

**********

The Howard story is quite good, and the Hamilton and Derleth pieces, while routine, are successful.  The Keller story has many problems, but is certainly memorable and noteworthy.  Considering that it also includes the very good "Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," you'd have to say this is a pretty good issue of Weird Tales.   

Monday, January 18, 2021

"Black as Ink," "Odds Against the Gods," and "When the Clock Strikes" by Tanith Lee

In 1986 Arkham House, the firm founded to print the work of H. P. Lovecraft and which quickly began publishing other weird and SF writers, released Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction of Tanith Lee.  Tanith Lee is a favorite here at MPoricus Fiction Log, and there is a scan of Dreams of Dark and Light at the internet archive, so let's read three Lee stories from the volume, stories I selected because I liked the sound of their titles.  But first I'll post links to my blog posts on those eleven of the collection's twenty-three stories that I have already read.

"Cyrion in Wax" and "A Lynx with Lions" :  I wrote "These [Cyrion] stories are good and I liked them, but I didn't love them...."
"Bite-Me-Not, or Fleur de Fur" : I called it a triumph.
"The Gorgon" : "...a pleasure to read."
"Magritte's Secret Agent" : "A strange and unsettling story that, like other Lee stories, surprised me without relying on any kind of gimmick or trickery."
"Medra" : "I like this one quite a bit," I said.
"Nunc Dimittis" : "This is one of Lee's stories in which she romanticizes, or at least makes sympathetic, decadent, perverted, and evil people."
"A Room with a Vie"  : I wrote "This is a story about how horrible family life can be....of course I recommend it."
"Sirriamnis" : "...the story benefits from Lee's pacing; we learn creepy things about Sirriamnis at just the right speed, creating a satisfying mood of impending but unidentifiable doom."
"Wolfland" :  "...a pretty good horror story with many striking images, feminist overtones...[and] outre erotic notes..."
"Written in Water" :  I said it was well-written and surprising.

"Black as Ink" (1983)

It looks like "Black as Ink," which is a little on the long side (isfdb calls it a "novelette"), first appeared in the DAW collection Red as Blood or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer, which back in the '80s enjoyed professional and appropriate covers by Michael Whelan (paperback) and Victoria Poyser (hardcover) and in 2014 was published behind a lame generic cover by George Mayer, typography by a randomly selected street urchin.  "Black as Ink" was apparently inspired by the folktales upon which the famous ballet Swan Lake is based.

Twenty-year-old Viktor's aristocratic family once owned the islands on the lake next to their estate, but now they are in other hands, and from their château Viktor's relatives can see the houses of the contemptible "nouveaux."  This summer, just having graduated from college, Viktor is staying at the château, when he would much rather be in Paris partying and having learned discussions with people his own age than in the country listening to his mother's and his uncle's reminiscences about the old days. 

One night, unaccountably, he hears modern dance music from the islands, and then sees, swimming in the lake, a beautiful naked blonde!  Wow!  The next night, which is moonless, he takes a boat to one of the islands, where he encounters the blonde.  She has clothes on, but Viktor is impressed to find she isn't wearing any cosmetics.  ("There was not a trace of artifice on her....")  She invites him in for tea, saying her uncle is away.  He leaves after an awkward visit, embarrassed and frustrated, she having told him he may not come again.  Viktor tells himself she was boring bourgeois, but of course the truth is he is in love with her.

Drunk the next night, he returns to the island despite the girl's warning, to observe through a window the strange behavior of the blonde and a large man in black, presumably the uncle.  When this big powerful man discovers Viktor spying on them a ferocious fight ensues and Viktor barely escapes with his life--almost drowned in the lake, it takes him months to recover.

Fifteen years later the château has been sold, Viktor's uncle has died, and Viktor career and sex life bore him.  He encounters the strange pair from the island again, and realizes the meaning, both horrible and horribly mundane, of what he saw on the island, what it meant.  And again he is severely beaten, but this time he does not recover.   

A painful tragedy about the terrible things that people endure and the terrible things that people do, the way people prey upon one another, the way those with good luck squander that luck and those with bad luck make desperate decisions in an effort to change their luck, about how we neglect what we have and desire what we lack, only to find that the things we desired bring no satisfaction when we achieve them.  Damn!

As we expect from Lee, the story is lushly written, with many images and metaphors, the way the sun reflects off the lake and the moon appears behind the trees and all that sort of thing.  The whole story is plotted and paced well, with effective surprises and some foreshadowing that chills you when the payoff comes.  Quite good, but I'm warning you, it is depressing.  Another warning: while there are hints that the supernatural is involved, I think Lee undermines all those possibilities, teasing us with the hope that the world contains magic, only to reveal the emptiness of such hopes--we can't blame our problems on devils, and we can't expect angels to solve our problems for us.  Black as ink indeed! 


"Odds Against the Gods" (1977)

In the late 1970s Andrew J. Offutt edited five volumes of original heroic fantasy stories under the series title Swords Against Darkness, and Lee contributed stories to most of them.  "Odds Against the Gods" was in Swords Against Darkness II and appears to have been well-received, being reprinted in Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 4 and some foreign anthologies.  

This is a fun romp about a smart person outwitting people and being outwitted in turn; it kind of reminded me of something Jack Vance might write (Lee is famously a fan of Vance's; see the 2009 New York Times Magazine article on Vance, "The Genre Artist"), the heroine like a sort of female Cugel, the witty dialogue not unlike that in many Vance works.   We might also see "Odds Against the Gods" as a satire of religion and of authority figures in general.

A little orphan girl is left at a very strict all-female religious order whose god is gleam of light that shimmers above an altar.  The girl resents the harsh discipline of the order, and when she is seventeen and another teenaged girl shows up at the temple it is not long before they are caught engaging in lesbian sex and sentenced to death.  Via ruses, disguises, and magical items, the girl escapes execution, achieves revenge on the order and their god, and embarks on a picaresque adventure in a land of deadly monsters, bizarre magic, and strange technologies, an adventure which offers her further opportunities to destroy religious communities and their deities.  

Entertaining.  

Even though it has a cover that reminds you of the sort of thing that might
happen in an eroge game, I think Science Fiction Almanach 1981 is a special issue 
celebrating women writers

"When the Clock Strikes" (1980)

In the early 1980s Weird Tales was briefly revived as a paperback book series edited by Lin Carter.  To the first issue (which has a cover by Tom Barber I think is terrific) Lee contributed the story "When the Clock Strikes;" Arthur Saha included it in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 8, where he called it "a much darker version" of the story of Cinderella.  In the traditional story of Cinderella, Cinderella is oppressed by her wicked stepmother and stepsisters, but in this version Cinderella is a murderous Devil-worshipping witch!

There is a frame story to "When the Clock Strikes;" the text of the story is the monologue of a person in the (I guess?) 19th century, telling visitors about the inoperative clock in the decrepit palace of a once-flourishing but now decayed northern European walled city.  The narrator relates how, two hundred years ago, a Duke took over the city by having all the members of its hereditary ruling family assassinated.  The Duke, however, left one distant relative the ruling family alive, a beautiful woman who was an expert in the black arts!  She married some hapless merchant and, behind his back, worshipped Satan and made a voodoo doll and used it to inflict a mysterious debilitating illness on the Duke.  In her evil work she was aided by her daughter by the merchant, a stunningly beautiful girl.

When the girl was fourteen the merchant stumbled on his wife's Satanic rituals and she committed suicide.  The teenaged girl successfully hid her involvement in her mother's black schemes, and pretended that the tragedy had broken her mind, obscuring her beauty and diverting attention from herself by smearing ashes on her face and hair every day and staggering around town like a decrepit homeless wretch or a dazed maniac.  The merchant's second wife, a widow, and her two conventional fashion-minded and boy-crazy daughters, tried to help out the apparently insane girl, but their efforts were rebuffed.

At age seventeen the witch girl resumes her mother's campaign of black magic terror!  The Duke finally keels over, and his nineteen-year-old son ascends to the throne and proves a competent and just ruler.  Some months after assuming his office, this generous guy throws a big party, offering free food to the masses in the streets and inviting to a ball in the palace all the prominent families, including that of the innocent but short-sighted merchant.  Aided by demons, the witch girl cleans herself up so she looks impossibly gorgeous and attends the ball, where she uses her beauty and sorcery to drive insane the young ruler and set into motion the events that will result in the total collapse of the city's fortunes.

This story isn't bad, but it feels kind of contrived; Lee just couldn't contort all the components of the traditional Cinderella tale into a story of devil-worshipping murderers in a way that felt authentic and natural, and she didn't take the easy way out of just producing a farcical joke story--like "Black as Ink" this piece is admirably sincere.  Lee goes into detail describing women's clothes and the designs on the palace clock, but these images are just not as interesting as those in "Black as Ink" and "Odds Against the Gods," and the story also lacks the former's real human tragedy and the latter's wit and fun.  Below average for Lee, "When the Clock Strikes" is just OK.       

Among other venues, "When the Clock Strikes" was reprinted in Red as Blood and Marvin Kaye's Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural.  I guess Kaye and Saha liked it more than I did.


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"When the Clock Strikes" is a little disappointing, but "Black as Ink" and "Odds Against the Gods" are solid hits that I can strongly recommend--Lee embraces the reality that life is horrible, in one story depicting life as a tragedy for us all and in the other a black comedy in which the clever and fortunate may find opportunities to enjoy seeing their tormentors destroyed.

More Tanith Lee in the future, and more short stories of terror and the weird in our next episode!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Male Response by Brian Aldiss

isfdb lists Brian Aldiss's 1961 novel The Male Response as "non-genre," but it made its first appearance as part of the Galaxy Science Fiction Novel Series (during the period the series was published by Beacon) and that first edition was explicitly marketed as SF; look at the man-sized chemistry set our dude on the cover is working with!  You need two hands to lift those flasks, beakers and retorts!  The cover of a 1963 British hardcover edition shows (behind an image of a human figure of a sort that likely wouldn't get published on the cover of a novel today) some kind of electronic apparatus.  So maybe there is some speculative science in this book, which otherwise appears to be some kind of farce or satire about the different attitudes about sex of British people and Africans.  Let's see what this curious artifact is all about; I am reading the scan of one of those Beacon paperbacks that is available at the world's greatest website, the internet archive.

The Central African republic of Goya is, according to its boosters, "most progressive;" The Times even called it "the black Scandinavia"!  So we shouldn't be surprised when Prince Jimpo Deal Lampor, son of the President and King of Goya, comes a-calling to the offices of London computer manufacturer Unilateral to order a computer--he specifies that the people of Goya want one painted red.  Soon four Unilateral employees are wimging their way down to Goya in a plane with the prince and the forty-odd crates that contain the computer's components; when the plane crashes just miles from the capital of Goya, Umbalathorp, the pilot and two of the engineers are killed, while the prince is injured; fortunately Soames Noyes, "liaison manager," and one last engineer, Ted Timpleton, escape unharmed.

When Noyes gets to the palace in Umbalathorp, a city largely consisting of huts and shanties and served by an unfinished railroad line, the man who is both King and President of Goya puts the lie to his son's talk of Goya being an African simulacrum of progressive Scandinavia--Noyes, Timpleton, and the computer, which it will take some five days for Timpleton to get running, will be domiciled in the palace to protect them from Goya's citizenry, many of whom hate and fear modern science and technology.  His Majesty Mr. President, who has two wives (one is Mrs. President, the other the Queen) doesn't seem too crazy about the modern world himself: "Enlightenment is like a tearing down of old familiar rooms when we are left to squat in a desert of disbelief.  What has education to offer but the truth of man's smallness and beastliness?" he tells Noyes.  At the funeral of the three Britons killed in the plane crash the King says that airplanes have done nothing to improve human life, but have served to "denationalize" people, to separate them from their roots to the Earth and to their cultures.  The King's sentiments are echoes by his son, the Prince, who laments that his education in England has alienated him from his "Goyese" countrymen.  While King and Prince have mixed feelings about the computer they have brought to Goya, another powerful figure in Umbalathorp, the city's chief witch doctor, is definitively against it, calling the computer a "Christian devil box." This joker tells Noyes that "The many spirits of Umbalathorp all speak out against your coming," and predicts that Noyes will never leave Africa alive!

All this stuff about how science and technology lead to deracination and alienation is interesting enough, but anybody who chose to read this book based on its cover was doing so because he thought it would be full of sex.  And while there are not actual sex scenes in the novel, sex is a major theme of The Male Response.  Everybody Noyes meets in Goya offers a girl to him--the King sends a woman to service Noyes in his bedroom, the Prince takes Soames to a brothel, a Portuguese businessman is a procurer on the side and spins fables about the terminal diseases with which the whores of other pimps and madams are riddled, a Chinese businessman wants to trade the services of his beautiful daughter for Noyes's help with some industrial espionage.  Queen Louise hopes to set Noyes up with her daughter, Princess Cherry.  Alistair Picket, an Englishman who arrived as a missionary twenty-seven years ago and, upon seeing the squalid state of Umbalathorp, immediately lost his faith and abandoned his calling, tries to set Noyes up with his daughter Grace.  In private Grace begs Noyes to have sex with her--she has been resorting to lesbian sex with black girls, and aches to experience "normal" sex with a fellow English person.  (It later becomes clear that her father has taken to having sex with "black boys.")

In one of the best scenes of the book Aldiss combines his two themes; the girl at the brothel (a woman who may have Arab blood and whose teeth are filed to points) who services Noyes doesn't use her own flesh to bring the Englishman to orgasm, but a vibrator.  A sign outside the brothel advertises this as an "American Massage," and the Prince tells Noyes the new service is extremely popular--technology and commerce have literally come between man and woman and rendered mechanical that most intimate of human activities.

All these themes are laid out and most of the The Male Response's many characters are introduced in the first of 183-page novel's three parts.  In Part II the plot really gets going, as a second Portuguese businessman accosts Noyes, accusing Timpleton of conspiring with the aforementioned Chinese man and the first Portuguese to steal five crates of computer spare parts.  We get some complicated intrigue full of backstabbing, double-crossing, and disguises as Noyes tries to steal the spare parts back but ends up captured by the police and thrown in jail.  Various characters ostensibly come to his aid but who can he trust--the King, the Prince, the witch doctor, and Timpleton all have different, conflicting interests and attitudes about Noyes and about the computer and may or may be legitimately trying to help him or manipulating the situation to pursue their own schemes. 

The Male Response is meant to be humorous; the silly contents page makes that immediately clear.  Aldiss fills the novel with low key jokes and while very few of them actually make you laugh, they are for the most part clever enough.  Aldiss mines many jokes from the efforts of non-British people to speak English, and a few jokes from Timpleton's attempts to speak French.  (The King has no English and so Noyes communicates with him en francais.)  Memorable examples: the first Portuguese businessman says "Gentlemen, we are bounders to meet again," and the Chinese entrepreneur has nicknamed his wife "Rosie" but pronounces it "Lousy."  

Anyway, in Part III the humor becomes more broad, and the plot, which in the first two parts is more or less believable and serious, becomes more and more farcical.  As Part III begins Noyes has been sprung from the clink and he and Timpleton activate the computer, which stands seven feet high, three feet deep and forty-five feet long.  The witch doctor, seeing the computer as a threat to his position and profession, proposes a contest between Western science and African witchcraft--which can more accurately predict whether the Prince will recover from the grievous injuries he sustained in the fracas that concluded Noyes's extralegal effort to recover the stolen spare parts?  The computer predicts that the Prince will recover, but the witch doctor, ominously for us readers, who have reason to believe he masterminded the attack in which said Prince Jimpo Deal Lampor was wounded, predicts that he will not live to see tomorrow's sunset.  When the next day it is the witch doctor's prediction that comes true, civil unrest erupts, as many people sympathetic to the royal family assume the witch doctor, through magic or mundane skullduggery, murdered the Prince.  Timpleton is killed in the fighting, but otherwise things go well for the royal faction: the witch doctor is exiled to the countryside to grow chickens, and through good luck and quick thinking Noyes not only survives, but ends up a candidate for President with the full backing of the King, who is eager to shed one of his titles and thinks having a white president will be a public relations and diplomatic coup.

Noyes wins election handily and then learns about a Goyese tradition that has previously gone unmentioned: before inauguration a newly elected President must publicly deflower a virgin in order to prove his manhood.  (The city mob will lynch him should he fail.)  Noyes will be allowed to choose which "virgin" (she need not in fact be sexually innocent) and said virgin will then become his wife and bearer of the title "Mrs. President."  Many men put forward their own daughters for consideration--including, through an intermediary, the exiled witch doctor.  Aldiss quickly wraps up the novel by portraying Noyes becoming seduced by a love of power and in his hubris making foolish decisions that allow the witch doctor to exact a fatal revenge on him.   

isfdb may consider The Male Response non-genre, but it is structured much like a SF story and addresses issues with which SF is often concerned.  We have the mission of people from world familiar to readers, in this case London, to an exotic and somewhat dangerous world, here a bonkers fictional Central African state, and the author uses this plot as an opportunity to talk about the effects of science and technology on human society--Aldiss in this book suggests science makes our lives worse, and portrays the triumph of a primitive cleric over men of business and technology from the metropole.

(In his intro to Another World, Gardner Dozois, following Kurt Vonnegut, suggests that SF authors are among the few people to address the issue of "what machines do to us" and in his essay 1980 essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," published in The Engines of the Night,  Barry Malzberg describes a debate with Campbell in which our pal Barry argued that SF should be about how technology was "consuming" and "victimizing" people, contra Campbell, who thought that SF should be about solving problems and overcoming obstacles.)  

So, can I recommend The Male Response?  Well, it is certainly not the "rollicking novel of bawdy adventure" promised by the cover of the 1976 Panther paperback edition.  The pace is deliberate rather than fast, and, despite all the little jokes, it is just not fun--Aldiss's novel is sad, depressing.  The characters are all venal, or corrupt, or cynical, or defeated.  Innocent people suffer or get killed for no purpose.  The sexual relationships in the novel are neither life-affirming the way sex based on love might be, or titillating as nasty or naughty sex might be--sex in this novel is sordid or pathetic, from Grace's begging to the Chinese girl's emotionless offering of her body to further her father's unethical business schemes to the whores who service their clients with vibrators.  Aldiss's philosophical asides are also downers.  "The perfectionist dreams of, and the humanist dreads, the day when all things may be reduced to equations."  "All men think alike; no two act alike."  "It is a distressing trait in human nature that we tend to underestimate the good in others when circumstances are against them...."  "Human relationships are sticky as spider webs.  We run into them cheerfully enough, then they stretch a mile rather than break and let us go free.  If we poor flies were not also spiders at heart, the matter might go easier."  In one joke passage that sticks out like a sore thumb and strengthens my case that The Male Response has much in common with a SF novel, the Prince tosses a small coin into a bush and Aldiss tells us that two thousand years later, long after a world war has obliterated our civilization, the coin will be discovered by archaeologists of the succeeding dominant civilization, that of Eskimos. .

Potential readers might also consider the fact that many 2021 readers will find this novel full of sexism, racism, and homophobia, though Aldiss is pretty scathing about English people, pointing out English arrogance and xenophobia, among other not necessarily admirable traits, while the Prince is probably the most admirable and the King the most wise of the characters in The Male Response.

So, The Male Response isn't a fun sex novel or a thrilling adventure novel, but I still think I can give it a mild recommendation.  I was never bored or irritated, and I was always curious about what was coming next, and often surprised.  Aldiss is an important, knowledgeable and skilled writer, so anything he writes has an inherent interest, and of course the book provides a window onto the culture of the time and place in which it was written.  If you are interested in Aldiss, or sex and race and computers in early 1960s SF, I think it is worth your time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Adventures in Otherness by C Smith, R A Lafferty, G Wolfe and B W Aldiss

There are a lot of SF anthologies at the internet archive; let's take a look at one of them, 1977's Another World: Adventures in Otherness, edited by Gardner Dozois.  Dozois provides an introduction to the book in which he brags about how awesome New England is, relates how when he was young (Dozois was born in 1947) the entire community discouraged him from reading SF, and offers the opinion that SF is one of the few vibrant living things in our "weary and sterile" world of "dead art, dead minds [and] dead institutions...."  (Damn!)  SF authors, Dozois tells us, quoting Kurt Vonnegut, are among the few people who actually think through the implications of big events and big ideas, how cities and wars and technology actually affect people.  Dozois also writes little intros to each of the stories.  Today we'll read four of the included stories, those by authors in whom I have a particular interest.  

(Note: Another World: Adventures in Otherness includes Damon Knight's 1957 story "Man in a Jar," which I read and opined about back in 2019.)

"On the Gem Planet" by Cordwainer Smith (1963)

Wealthy planet Mizzer was ruled by Kuraf, a decadent libertine famous galaxy-wide for his library of nasty books, until he was deposed and exiled by reformers.  Soon Mizzer fell into the hands of the most radical of these reformers, the tyrannical Colonel Wedder, a utopian whose rule is far more oppressive than was that of Kuraf.  The Instrumentality of Mankind that loosely governs the human space empire refuses to directly interfere in affairs on Mizzer, but has provided Kuraf's nephew and heir apparent to the throne of Mizzer, Casher O'Neill, the wherewithal to travel from planet to planet, seeking aid in his quest to overthrow Wedder and make Mizzer a happy place again.  "On the Gem Planet" describes O'Neill's visit to planet Pontoppidan.

Pontoppidan is an inhospitable world where you can't grow food or breathe the air; the 60,000 inhabitants live in domed cities and trade with other planets for most of what they need.  Because Pontoppidan is "a fragment from a giant planet which imploded" with a "geology based on ultra-heavy chemistry" it is covered in gems of all sorts and sizes, which provides the Pontoppidanians an all natural-natural product which is always in demand.

Casher O'Neill negotiates with the ruler of Pontoppidan and his beautiful niece, the heir apparent, angling to get some money or weapons to support his liberation of Mizzer from Colonel Wedder.  The ruler of the gem planet agrees to supply something useful in return for an unusual bit of service--a horse, an exotic Earth creature never before seen by the people of Pontoppidan, has been found on their barren planet, and the dictator wants O'Neill's advice on what to do with it.  (As luck would have it, Mizzer has plenty of horses, and O'Neill is familiar with them.) 

Through his relationship with the horse and with various underpeople (Smith's Instrumentality stories are full of these "underpeople," the product of genetic engineering whose DNA is largely that of dogs, cats, snakes, wolves, etc. and who serve as a sort of working class and servant class under the full-blooded humans), and the pretty heir to the throne of Pontoppidan, O'Neill not only acquires a valuable gem that can serve as the core of a puissant energy weapon, but is exposed to enlightening dialogues about the meaning of life, the path to happiness, and the meaning of civilization.  We also witness strong hints that there is some kind of proscribed Christian underground in the space empire, an underground of which O'Neill is a member.  

Pretty good; Smith's style renders "On The Gem Planet" a smooth and pleasant read and all the SF ideas and philosophical ideas of the story are engaging.  Smith published four Casher O'Neill stories in SF magazines in the mid-1960s and this is the first; maybe a near future project of mine will be to seek out the other three.  After making its debut in Fred Pohl's Galaxy, "On the Gem Planet" has appeared in numerous Smith collections as well as a few anthologies, like The Seventh Galaxy Reader and an anthology of SF about equines.      


"Among the Hairy Earthmen" by R. A. Lafferty (1966)

Another piece from an issue of Galaxy edited by Frederik Pohl.  "Among the Hairy Earthmen" was reprinted in a number of anthologies, including Nebula Award Stories 2 and Brian Aldiss's Evil Earths, and collected in 1984's Ringing Changes

This is a gimmicky sort of story that supposes that the explosions of intrigue, war, and cultural and technological development of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, things like the career of Lucrezia Borgia, the fall of Constantinople, the Divine Comedy, and the invention of the printing press, were the work of mischievous alien children who came to Earth on vacation and were able to inhabit or imitate human bodies.  Much of the story is just lists of figures and events, sometimes vaguely referred to as if to present a puzzle to the reader.  The end of the story features some social commentary and social satire as a character called the Pilgrim, who may be a representative of the human race--or maybe just the West or Christendom--or may even be the God of Abraham, upbraids the alien brats for all the death and destruction of those wars and of the way the Renaissance and Reformation have sundered the unity of Christian civilization.  The aliens retort that mankind was always violent, and that the diversity they have introduced is of greater value than the Pilgrim's vaunted unity.

There isn't a hell of a lot to this story, really, besides its core idea and its-against-the-grain theme (that maybe the Renaissance and Reformation were not so great); it is odd and different, and thus worth reading, but not particularly entertaining.

A German edition of Nebula Award Stories 2 and a Dutch edition of Evil Earths 

"Straw" by Gene Wolfe (1975)

I read "Straw" years ago in my copy of Storeys from the Old Hotel, but that was before this blog staggered forth from its tenebrous place of birth to haunt unheeded the series of tubes that is the interweb.  Dozois in his intro here tells us it is set in an "alternate Dark-Age Europe which never was."  Jim Baen, introducing the story where it first appeared, in as issue of Galaxy during his editorship, suggests it might be set in an alternate world, or maybe on a post-apocalyptic Earth or on a lost space colony which has degraded politically and technologically, standard SF settings.  My copy of Storeys from the Old Hotel isn't accessible to me right now, but in his afterword to the story in The Best of Gene Wolfe, Wolfe says "I decided to put the hot-air balloon in the Dark Ages, and I threw in a few other things too."  The text of the story itself includes no clues that I could find as to where or when it might take place.  

"Straw" demonstrates why Gene Wolfe is widely recognized as some kind of genius; as in so much of his fiction, "Straw" is written in an easy, smooth, pleasant style, but again and again the reader is confronted with mysteries and surprises.  Wolfe doesn't straightforwardly explain all the odd circumstances of this world, which the narrator and characters take for granted the way we take computers and the internal combustion engine and penicillin for granted--we readers learn about them from the characters' natural speech as the story moves along.  Our narrator, Jerr, a soldier, describes the day on which he first killed a man, when he was the youngest member of a small company of mercenaries armed with armed such weapons as the "pincer-mace" and pikes whose heads can be shot by some sort of spring or maybe electric mechanism who travel over the countryside via a hot-air balloon whose fire is fed by straw.

(I feel like there are a lot of weird maces in Wolfe's fiction; Baldanders fights with a high tech mace in The Book of the New Sun, and the narrator of The Wizard Knight fights with a mace that looks much like a sword.)

Times are tough for the mercs, and they are hungry, and their talk suggests that they are quite willing to turn bandit, attack some people, and then turn cannibal!  When they have run out of straw they land at a villa, and meet the baron who lives there, the baron hires them because there is some kind of war or unrest nearby and the villa could be attacked very soon.  There the story ends--we never find out who Jerr ended up killing, how the relationship between the mercenary company and the baron's household worked out, if there was a siege or battle at the villa, etc.  

"Straw" is a great piece of writerly technique.  The "problem" with it is that it feels like a chapter out of an awesome picaresque adventure novel or one of a series of brilliant short stories about Jerr and his comrades, in each of which Jerr learns some lesson or has some major life experience or the company faces some formidable challenge or something.  But "Straw" is all we have of this potential epic or saga.

Besides reappearing in several Wolfe collections, "Straw" has been included in a number of anthologies, including anthologies of military SF.        


"Old Hundredth" by Brian Aldiss (1960)

Science fiction is full of brute animals who have, thanks to human design or human calamities, evolved into bipedally walking, talking, tool-using people.  We just read one of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, in which such uplifted or enhanced animal people are a major element, and who could forget Edmond Hamilton's 1946 cover story for Weird Tales, "Day of Judgment," in which nuclear war exterminated humanity but gave dogs and cats human intelligence and posture, or A. E. van Vogt's 1971 The Battle of Forever, set thousands of years in the future, when most of the Earth's inhabitants are intelligent bipedal hyenas, hippos, cheetahs, et al, the product of genetic engineering.  Well, "Old Hundredth" is another such tale.   

It is the far future, long after the Moon drifted out of Earth orbit to circle the Sun, long after man dragged Venus into Earth orbit, even long after the final members of the human race essentially ceased to exist by abandoning their physical bodies to "merge with the texture of space itself," employing science to achieve immaterial immortality!  Today the Earth's population consists largely of the products of man's genetic engineering, including intelligent mole people and giant ground sloth people who are practically immortal.  The protagonist of "Old Hundredth" is one of those elephant-sized megatheriums; she has devoted her centuries-long life to the study of music columns.  These columns of energy stud the surface of the Earth, and when an intelligent enough creature approaches one, it produces music composed by its creator, who died in the production of it, making use of the same technology by which humans "merged" with the universe.  The giant sloth has travelled the world on the back of a baluchitherium, examining all the music columns she can get to.  She is in telepathic contact with a mentor, a dolphin who has lived even longer than she, who helps guide her musical studies and offers her advice and can transmit images to her brain and so on.

Over like nine pages Aldiss gives us all this background and sets a sad sort of mood--the sloth's main purpose is to compose her own death song and become a music column herself, she feels sad that the humankind who created her and all her comrades is no more, etc.  Her mentor hints that humans were a bunch of jerks who deserve no credit for anything; their disagreement foreshadows the melodramatic climax and sentimental denouement that come in the story's last five or so pages.  You see, human personalities, when they "projected themselves into the pattern" of the universe, were stored in glowing columns of energy much like the music columns; each of these energy columns houses many human personalities.  Most of the genetically engineered animals who inherited the Earth are meek, and docile and unambitious, but the bears aspire to be like humans.  They stick their heads in the energy columns to gain human energy and they scavenge the world's ruins, seeking old human technological devices to study and refurbish as part of their efforts to rebuild a human-like civilization.  When the sloth lady returns to her home, an old ruin, she finds within a bear with a knife intent on carrying away the ancient video screens and whatnot that litter it.  The human-hating mentor dolphin opposes the project of the bears and tries to take over the sloth's body so she will crush the bear with her superior size and weight, but the sloth is a pacifist who resists her mentor's control and lets the bear get away.

Enraged, the dolphin severs all ties with its ward, ending an intimate, formative relationship that has lasted hundreds of years.  The sloth then elects to die and becomes a music column that produces a piece of music associated with the 100th Psalm.

This story is OK.  I have to admit that, compared to Wolfe's earthy and alive, brisk, economical and direct "Straw," which sounds like an authentic natural voice and manages to be both emotionally familiar and culturally alien, and which leaves you wishing it was much longer, "Old Hundredth" feels long, tedious, pretentious, manipulative, tendentious and self-consciously literary; when you finish it you are glad it is over and kind of wish it had been shorter.  But it is not bad.

"Old Hundredth" made its debut in New Worlds in the period when John Carnell was editor.  It has appeared in a giant stack of Aldiss collections, as well as many anthologies with "best" in their titles.     


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Four stories by critically-acclaimed members of the SF community that are well worth reading, but the Cordwainer Smith and Gene Wolfe stories stand head and shoulders above the Lafferty and Aldiss contributions, I think largely because they are grounded in real human emotion and not gimmicks and high-level philosophizing--Jerr and Casher O'Neill are real people whose emotions and experiences we can instinctively understand, while the alien brats and an intelligent immortal sloth music historian are just artificial constructions propped up to illustrate some abstract or esoteric theme. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

1947 Weird Tales by C H Thompson, R Bradbury, A Derleth, R Bloch & M W Wellman

I love the cover of the November 1946 issue of Weird Tales, the work of Boris Dolgov.  I love the colors, for one thing.  And of course I love the long-limbed female figure, the contemplative fishman, and the fun sea mountain with its arches and spires, and the sea dragon is just perfect.  Very fine!

Behind its terrific cover this issue also offers stories by many writers we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log, so let's embrace the weird and check them out!

"Spawn of the Green Abyss" by C. Hall Thompson 

The gorge cover painting of this issue of Weird Tales illustrates C. Hall Thompson's "Spawn of the Green Abyss."  In March of 2020 I read Thompson's story "The Will of Claude Ashur" and quite liked it.  So I approach this one with some hope.

"Spawn of the Green Abyss" is the sealed testimonial, to be opened after his death, of a brain surgeon who has just been convicted of the murder of his wife and is scheduled to be executed!  He tells us that he welcomes his imminent death because he sees extinction as a release from a life burdened with knowledge no man should ever have to bear!  (Whereas classic science fiction romanticizes the quest for knowledge and suggests that knowledge of the universe makes your life better, in a Lovecraftian tale a guy who learns something new about the universe typically gets killed or driven insane.)

In his memoir of 24 or so pages the narrator relates the hellish adventure he experienced in the tiny seaside town of Kalesmouth in New Jersey, greatest state in the Union.  Our boy went there for a nice long rest, needing to relieve the stress built up sawing open people's skulls and digging around in their grooves and ridges.  In Kalesmouth he became fascinated by a big old house on the tip of the peninsula, a decrepit and sinister pile he was told was home to reclusive old Lazarus Heath, retired sailor, and his beautiful daughter Cassandra, whom he brought back from overseas after being shipwrecked on some Atlantic island for over a year.  One night, dark and graceful Cassandra with her black eyes and black hair came to the brain surgeon's bungalow to ask for his help--her father was quite ill.  Doc tended to Mr. Heath for two weeks, up until his death, at the same time falling in love with the mysterious Cassandra.  The Heath case was an odd one; not only would this old codger be taciturn for long stretches and then deliriously babbling about some submarine goddess, but he had scaly skin, like a fish's, and weird openings in his neck, like gills!  When nobody was looking he would sneak away to a cove behind the house where there were some queer old pillars, and it was there that, on the very day our narrator proposed to Cassandra, Lazarus Heath was found dead, though the narrator's autoposy showed no sign of what killed him.

Cassandra and our hero married and moved to New York City, but it wasn't long before Cassandra convinced her husband they should move back to the huge and fish-smelly Heath House.  There, as the months went by, Cassandra grew distant from her husband, spending as much time as possible alone, glaring at him with hate-filled eyes when she thought he was trying to get into her father's locked library, the key to which hung from a necklace she always wore.  It was as if the hideous old house, and the sea that nearly surrounded it, was stealing Cassandra from him.  Cassie even began developing scales and gills like her father!

The stormy night the surgeon learned Cassandra was pregnant, and she collapsed after telling him it was not his child, the brain surgeon took the key and got into the library, to read Lazarus Heath's diary and learn the horrible truth of Cassandra's origin and the threat to all mankind that lurks beneath the waves!  From the library window our sawbones watched climb up from the cove the creature which had fathered the thing growing in Cassandra's womb, a slimy blob monster like an unholy fusion of reptile and amoeba!  Only by killing Cassandra, who in a lucid moment begs for death, can the surgeon sever the connection to our surface world of this prince of a diabolical race long exiled to the briny deep and send it back from whence it came.

"Spawn of the Green Abyss" is a very good Lovecraftian story.  Thompson is a skilled writer: the tale is thick with atmosphere thanks to Thompson's powerful descriptions of the settings and characters, and he ably uses such elements as Greek mythology (the sirens from The Odyssey are, we learn in Heath's forbidden library, based on the evil beings who in ancient times were banished to the abyss--in the story they use their seductive songs to win the aid of such people as Lazarus and Cassandra Heath in their campaign to conquer the surface world) and our anxieties about sex to add dimensions of interest and drama to the story.  I can definitely recommend this one to all you fans of Yog-Sothery out there.

"Spawn of the Green Abyss" was reprinted in Kurt Singer's 1968 anthology Tales of the Uncanny, the cover of which incorporates one of those troll dolls designed by Thomas Dam that are now (I hear) the basis for major motion pictures.  Robert M. Price selected it for 1992's Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos, and S. T. Joshi included the story in his huge (over 600 pages) 2014 anthology A Mountain Walked.    


"Let's Play 'Poison'" by Ray Bradbury 

This is a good but not particularly remarkable story of only three pages or so.  A teacher quits teaching after a mob of his students murders one of their classmates.  He conceives a somewhat irrational hatred of children.  When, after seven years of retirement, he is dragged back into the teaching profession for a brief stint as a substitute, his hostile attitude and rage at their childish games quickly inspires among his students a powerful antipathy towards him.  The kids' campaign of harassment, by chance or by design, climaxes in the teacher's death, which Bradbury marks with a clever little gimmick.  

A solid piece of work, "Let's Play 'Poison'" has been reprinted many times in Bradbury collections and in a few anthologies.  This is my opportunity to point out to those who don't already know that the surreal image on the 1972 Japanese edition of Bradbury's 1947 collection Dark Carnival features a woman's bare ass.  Lewd!  

"A Collector of Stones" by August Derleth

I have passed a just but merciless verdict on several weak or actually bad Derleth stories at this blog, but am happy to report that this five-page story is inoffensive, even mildly enjoyable. 

"A Collector of Stones" is a light-hearted humor story.  A fat rich guy who has a big estate in the country is driven by a mania to collect.  His eccentric passion is to collect stones, nothing fancy, just mundane paving stones and the like.  He has built entire houses on his estate out of the stones he collects, and hundreds of feet of meandering walks.  

One day he finds four stones in a remote wood, stones that will be perfect for the walk he is currently laying.  He doesn't realize that he has stumbled on a decayed family cemetery, these are gravestones, the names on them being almost effaced.  The story's gimmick is that after he has laid them in his stone path the ghosts whose graves he has unwittingly robbed try to bring the stones back to where they belong.

Better than average among the Derleth stories I have read; I didn't actually laugh at any of the jokes, but I didn't find them irritatingly bad, either.  "A Collector of Stones" has been reprinted in a few Derleth collections, including 1948's Not Long for this World and That is Not Dead, a 2009 collection with an intro by David Drake you can read at Drake's website here that describes Drake's meeting with Derleth and Derleth's influence on Drake's career.        

"Lizzie Borden Took an Axe..." by Robert Bloch

The eighth page of this issue of Weird Tales, nestled between a full-page ad for a truss ("Quick help for Rupture!") and a full-page ad for the Rosicrucians ("Are You in Tune with the Infinite?") is a full page ad for a radio show, Stay Tuned for TerrorStay Tuned for Terror was a 15-minute program which presented dramatizations of stories by Robert Bloch.  "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe..." was one such story and you can listen to the radio version of it at the internet archive here, and read an article about Stay Tuned for Terror by Karl Schadow in The Old Radio Times here.  

"Lizzie Borden Took an Axe..." is an acceptable though pedestrian story.  Our narrator is in love with a woman, Anita, who lives in a big decrepit house with her eccentric uncle, a dude who is reputed to be a wizard who puts hexes on people's farms.  The uncle keeps Anita under tight control, forbidding her marriage to the narrator.  Anita also claims that in her dreams an incubus in the form of a black mist comes to harass her.

One day Anita telephones our hero in a panic, and he rushes over to the creepy old house to find the uncle dead, his head demolished by a blow from an axe.  Anita's description of her discovery of the body reminds the narrator of the story of Lizzie Borden, and Bloch uses up a page and a half of the six-page story relating the celebrated Borden murder case.  Anita and the narrator separate when looking for clues, and when he sees Anita again she has a black mist about her face and the axe in her hands, and is apparently stalking him!  Our narrator overpowers Anita, the mist vanishes and she faints, and then our hero has to consider if maybe the incubus is real and has been possessing Anita, forcing her to kill, or if stress is making her crazy to murder people and him crazy enough to see the black mist.  If the incubus is real, presumably it was an incubus that fifty or whatever years ago drove Lizzie Borden to massacre her parents!

The narrator falls asleep, and when he wakes up Anita has been slain with the axe, presumably by him.  Was he also possessed by the incubus?  Or is he just a nut?  

A routine piece of work.  Is there really any reason to cobble together the Lizzie Borden story with satanism and wizardry?  Feels arbitrary.  "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe..." has appeared in a bunch of Bloch collections, like The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, and anthologists like Peter Haining and Martin H. Greenberg have also reprinted it.


"Frogfather" by Manly Wade Wellman 

Ranson Cuff is a fat guy everybody hates.  The richest man in this stretch of swamp country, Cuff made his money catering to Northerners who come down here to hunt and fish at his camps, and now is a money lender who holds the mortgages to many of the locals' homes and boats.  The narrator tells the tale of Cuff's last day, when he was a teenager, working for Cuff, practically his slave, to help his aunt pay off her debt to the man.  

Cuff loves frog's legs, and on that memorable night he, the narrator, and an Indian who speaks better English than either Cuff or our hero but ended up in Cuff's employ, set out on a boat to hunt frogs with which to stuff Cuff's pie hole.  Cuff directs his paddlers to a spot the Indian warns him to avoid, because it is there that resides Khongabassi, the father of all frogs who has lived since the beginning of time.  Cuff thinks this is ridiculous nonsense, and fires the Indian on the spot.  Of course, around the bend in the river, the boat is overturned by a frog at least nine feet long which carries Cuff down to its glowing lair but permits the narrator to escape.  The Indian finds the narrator and together they must contrive a story of how Cuff vanished that won't bring more ignorant white men to the lair of the Frogfather.

The plot elements of this switcheroo story (a guy who hunts little frogs is hunted by a big frog!) are of course old and obvious, but Wellman gives the setting and the characters personalities, and he treats the material with seriousness and sincerity, and so I enjoyed it.  "Frogfather" presents a strong contrast to Bloch's "Lizzie Borden Took an Axe..."; Bloch gives his characters no personality at all and he doesn't bring old ideas like haunted houses and demons and wizards to life by employing them skillfully and sincerely--instead he draws attention to how well worn they are and begs the reader's forgiveness for using them by having his narrator say recursive "meta" stuff like, "There are no legend-haunted houses looming on lonely hillsides.  Yet Anita lived in one....There are no gaunt, fanatical old men who brood over black books...yet Anita's uncle, Gideon Godfrey, was such a man."  A lazy strategy that reminds you you are reading a story instead of helping you get caught up in the story.

"Frogfather" has been reprinted in two Wellman collections and the anthology 100 Creepy Little Creatures AKA 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories.  As I have said before, Wellman is somebody whose work I should try to become more familiar with.           


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A pretty good crop of stories.  After my wishy washy response to the stories I read in Avon Fantasy Reader a couple of blogposts ago, it is nice to read some short stories I can get excited about.  Dorothy McIlwraith, who edited Weird Tales from 1940 to the magazine's demise in 1954, put together some decent art and fiction for this issue. 

More short stories in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.