Friday, June 25, 2021

1990s Vampire Stories by R Bloch, K Koja & B Malzberg and T Lee

Everybody loves vampires.  The vampire is the perfect metaphor: as a soulless monster who sucks your blood, leftists can see the vampire as a metaphor for business people and the capitalist bourgeoisie while right-wingers can see the vampire as a metaphor for the government and people who live off the taxpayers.  As an individual who has unusual interests and abilities and is hounded and hunted by the mainstream, the vampire can represent your favorite marginalized or oppressed minority.  And the vampire is sexy!  The vampire charms you by looking into your eyes and then puts his or her mouth on your neck and makes you his or her slave!  Hot!    

Whoever you are, the vampire speaks to you.  And so vampire stories flow from the pens of members of the literary class like a swarm of bats or a river of blood and the libraries and bookstores are stuffed with books that are full of vampire stories.  One of these books came to my attention recently--1997's Girls' Night Out, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg.  Messrs. Dziemianowicz, Weinberg and Greenberg, and their publishers, Barnes & Noble Books, market this anthology as a feminist blow against our patriarchal culture which, they say, sees the vampire as a male figure.  You have to wonder if D, W and G and B & N actually believe this, seeing as our popular culture has been full of female vampires for over a century: there are multiple female vampires in Dracula (1897), Vampira was on TV in the mid-1950s, Lily Munster (1964) is a vampire, Vampirella arrived on the scene in 1969, and female vampires appeared in many films before 1997.  

Well, I didn't buy Girls' Night Out in order to attack D, W and G for saying things they don't believe in order to sell copies of their anthology or stay in the good graces of college professors or whatever; I bought it because it contains 1990s stories by Kathe Koja and Barry Malzberg, Tanith Lee, and Robert Bloch that I can't seem to find on the internet archive, and it is these stories I will talk about today.

"The Scent of Vinegar" by Robert Bloch (1994)

Here's some MPorcius trivia: I'm one of those people who cleans everything with baking soda and vinegar because he's afraid of getting harsh chemicals on his sensitive skin.  There goes your vision of me as a rugged he-man!

As readers of this blog know, Robert Bloch never tires of telling us that Hollywood is sleazy and corrupt, and this undisputed fact is a major theme of this award-winning story.  The protagonist of "The Scent of Vinegar" is Greg, a cinema history buff and Hollywood trivia nerd who is also a drug addict and would-be blackmailer of rich Hollyweird has-beens.  When we meet him he is following up rumors of a long abandoned whorehouse in some out-of-the-way spot near Beverly Hills because he thinks there might be documents in this dump which he can use to squeeze money out of the place's former clients.  Bloch also exploits Westerners' fascination with the mysterious East (or as we used to call it, "the Orient"): when the brothel was abandoned it was being operated by an Asian madam who staffed the place with girls from places like Malaya and catered to clients interested in S&M, and Bloch makes the centerpiece of his story the penangallan, the monster of South East Asian folklore which I am sure many of my readers remember from the Fiend Folio.  Bloch structures "The Scent of Vinegar" like a hard-boiled crime story--Greg worms clues out of old guys with whom he gets into conversation, discovers the brothel, flees when he sees something horrible there, but then is forced at gunpoint to return to the whorehouse by a criminal more ruthless and competent than he is who requires a guide.  On this second trip to the place he swore he'd never return Greg runs a gauntlet of horror featuring a fountain of blood, a pile of skeletons, evidence of cannibalism and a hands-on experience of murder!      

This is a good story.  First of all, I want to tell you that Bloch doesn't waste our time with his psychological mumbo jumbo or his distracting puns, and he keeps the Hollywood references under control; those that do appear are pretty appropriate.  This restraint is what we in the sciences call "a necessary but not sufficient condition."  More importantly, Bloch does a great job with the descriptions of the old brothel, of Greg's climb up an unmaintained dirt track to the crest of the hill where sits the forgotten whorehouse, and of the penangallan and the bones and all that gross stuff.  Maybe today's readers will wince at how Bloch repeatedly describes Asian characters' eyes as "slanted" and their skin as "golden," and Greg's use of a slur for Asians that sounds like the name of Gwyneth Paltrow's snake-oil retailing enterprise, but Greg isn't working in the HR department at a small liberal arts college in 2020, he's a drug-addicted thief in 1990!  Cut this lowlife some slack and respect his lived reality!  (And it's not like the Asians don't get their revenge on him in the end!)      

Thumbs up!  I think Bloch's reputation is inflated, but sometimes he lives up to it, and he does so here.  "The Scent of Vinegar," after making its debut in the anthology Dark Destiny, won a Stoker award, and was included in the 1995 edition of Stephen Jones's Best New Horror and in the 2012 volume The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners.


"Girl's Night Out"
by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg (1995)

In a recently released interview of Barry N. Malzberg by Alec Nevala-Lee (I heard about it through Joachim Boaz's twitter feed) New Jersey's own Barry says that his collaborations with Kathe Koja are among his very best work and talks at some length about how great it was to work with Koja.  I bought this book just in time!  This interview is like two hours long and covers a lot of ground, and if you are at all interested in Malzberg, Koja, John W. Campbell Jr., Dean Koontz, Robert Silverberg, Philip Roth, J. G. Ballard, Ted White, Poul Anderson, or Sol Cohen, or just want to hear a guy bitch that SF has never recovered from the influence of your favorite 1977 film, you should definitely give it a listen while washing the dishes or weeding the garden or whatever.

isfdb lists like twenty Koja-Malzberg colabs, and "Girl's Night Out" is, I think, the ninth listed.  It made its debut in Martin H. Greenberg's anthology Vampire Detectives and has not been printed anywhere else since its appearance here in the book for which it serves as the title story (give or take an apostrophe.)  After Barry's ringing endorsement of these stories I think the world needs a convenient collection of all the Koja-Malzberg collaborations, each with a long rambling intro from the authors--come on publishing world, make this happen!

"Girl's Night Out" is like 14 pages long, and it is a downer about not only the supernatural horrors no sensible person really believes in but the horrors of our everyday career and relationship lives that we wish we could forget!  The first paragraphs of the story are about how the main characters are getting old and fat!  

Annie is a 36-year-old police detective who has been dating Marvin, 42, for some years; her relationship with him is neither sexually nor psychologically satisfying--she doesn't have an orgasm when they have sex and he doesn't really support her in her career, instead pointing out how corrupt the government is and how her efforts to fight crime are pointless.  Marvin owns a copy shop, which he started with money he borrowed from Annie--$7,500!--and copies and replication are a theme of the story.

On a cold night (cold is another recurring theme of the tale) when she is particularly unhappy with her relationship with Marvin and with her job (in her youth she had wanted to be a botanist) Annie finds a pretty pale woman in a dumpster--she is cold and has an injury, and Annie assumes she is dead, but the woman then moves and her wound disappears.  Koja and Malzberg describe in a somewhat oblique manner how Annie becomes fascinated by this woman, Sylvia, has her move in with her, and then learns from Sylvia "the truth" about men and how to dominate them--in the final scene Annie lures Marvin to her apartment and kills him in a way that suggests rape and drinks his blood, repeating like a mantra "I am Sylvia."  I guess Sylvia has turned Annie into a murderous vampire (a copy of herself) and perhaps also a lesbian; maybe we are not necessarily supposed to see this (solely) as an imposition on Annie, as Sylvia enslaving Annie and turning her into a monster, but as Sylvia, like a radical revolutionary liberating a prole from his false consciousness and convincing him to take up arms against the bourgeoisie, winning Annie over to feminism and helping her strike a blow at the patriarchy, at the men who are the "real" vampires who use their superior strength to exploit women but have weaknesses bold women can use to destroy them.   

A good horror story with something disturbing on every page and enough ambiguity that different readers may disagree over what is exactly most disturbing about it. 

The marketing department wants me to provide you this list of Kathe Koja stories I've already written about here at MPorcius Fiction Log:
"What We Did That Summer" (with Barry Malzberg)
"In the Greenhouse" (with Barry Malzberg)

"La Dame"
by Tanith Lee (1995)

"La Dame" made its debut in Sisters of the Night, an anthology of stories about female vampires edited by Barbara Hambly and the very Martin H. Greenberg who was third editor on Girls' Night Out.  It would go on to be included in the 1996 edition of Ellen Datlow and Terri Wilding's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and the Lee collection Animate Objects.   

For the last fourteen years, 28-year-old Jeluc has been a soldier fighting in the interminable wars, living in the mud with bullets narrowly missing him, round shot killing his comrades, etc.  As a kid his grandfather had a fishing boat and Jeluc is still an able sailor, and now that he has been paid off by his regiment and left the soldiering life he wants to go to sea.  In a depressed fishing village he buys a small white vessel that one seaman can handle, La Dame, and sets out alone, only to find the little ship is haunted.  No bird will land on its single mast, no fish will bite at the lines he baits everyday.  His dreams and his days are full of visions of men, some whom he knew in the wars and were killed, others he has never met who seem familiar with La Dame, all of whom seem to be warning him, and of a woman, pale and blonde and skinny, "her face all bones," who seems to represent or to be La Dame or the sea, which Jeluc's grandfather had told him was female, a demander of sacrifices and a devourer of men.  Jeluc and La Dame become lost, no land in sight for days, and finally the woman of his visions appears to Jeluc clad in red and bites his throat and he is lost forever.

This twelve-page story is well-written, all the sentences and images being good, and the themes--a man so weary of war in the mud and trees that he wants to leave the land forever; woman as devourer of man--are also good, so I liked it.  But it does feel a little slight, I think because it moves in a straight line to where we always knew it was going without any twists or turns or surprises; La Dame sails forward with a sort of inevitability that leaves the reader wanting more.         


**********

All three of these stories are good, so I've definitely got my money's worth out of Girls' Night Out.  In our next blog post we'll double down and read three more stories from this volume, so stay tuned for more female vampire goodness.              

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Clifford D. Simak: "All the Traps of Earth," "Good Night, Mr. James," and "Drop Dead"

I've had my differences with Clifford D. Simak over the years.  I can't get on board with many of his attitudes--that the country life is better than city life, that primitive people are better than advanced people, that robots and dogs and ants are better than humans, for example.  But I think Simak is a capable writer, and have enjoyed much of his work, so, when I saw at an antiques mall in Hagerstown, MD a 1963 Macfadden edition of All the Traps of Earth and Other Stories with a fun Richard Powers cover, I paid the 75¢ asked.  There are six stories in this book (apparently the 1962 hardcover edition had nine); let's read the first three today.

"All the Traps of Earth" (1960)

"All the Traps of Earth" first appeared in F&SF alongside tales by Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson in an "All Star Issue."  It would go on to appear in many Simak collections, including some "Best of" volumes.

This is a story about a robot who has emotions and desires, just like a human.  He feels lonely, he fears death, he thinks he has a soul, he experiences pride and anxiety, guilt and regret.  he even makes boneheaded mistakes and has to practice to master repetitive physical tasks.  This robot is mothing like a machine at all!  All through the long story (35 pages of text here in this paperback) we are privy to his thoughts and his thoughts are exactly like an ordinary person's--Simak makes no effort to portray a mind any different from a human mind, he doesn't explore how a robot's psychology might be different that of a human.  These sorts of stories are a tough sell to me, because I can't get over the idea that a robot is just a tool like a typewriter or a screwdriver, and so simply can't have any emotions or will.  

The robot Richard Daniel has served the Barrington family for six hundred years.  The Barringtons were a powerful and important family, among them pioneering astronauts and elected officials and all that, and Richard Daniel rarely left the house, so the robot has been able to avoid having his memory erased every hundred years as is required by law.  This law, we are told, is the result of human envy--it would hurt people's feelings to have to deal with robots who have "lived" longer than any human could.  This is Simak's misanthropy revealing itself in a silly way--in real life people don't envy the longevity of centuries-old houses and paintings and sculptures and seek to destroy them, and the same goes for centuries-old trees or 150-year-old tortoises; with the exception of violent radicals driven by their own psychological problems, people in real life are indifferent to old stuff or actually revere old houses and paintings and sculptures and plants and animals and seek to protect and preserve them.

Anyway, the last of the Barringtons has died and the family estate is going to be sold at auction, including Richard Daniel, whose new owner will be legally obligated to erase his memories.  he doesn't want to "die," so Richard Daniel puts on a disguise and runs away through the suburbs which, even though it is the 25th century or something, are just like a 1950s suburb.  In one of the story's clever bits he stows away on a starship by clinging to its exterior and rides through normal space out there in the vacuum.  When the ship exceeds the speed of light and goes into hyperspace we get some psychedelic passages as Richard Daniel's mind is shattered and he communes with the universe.  When the ship return to normal space Richard Daniel forgets all he learned about the universe while in hyperspace and wants to weep.  

The ship lands on a planet where there are no humans, only robots.  These robots also act just like humans, expressing fear, committing crimes and being tried in court and punished, selling and buying services with money, etc.  The point of the story isn't that Richard Daniel is a special robot because he has developed a personality--all robots have personalities in Simak's universe.  What makes Richard Daniel special is that his time in hyperspace, outside the protection of the ship's hull, has given him psychic powers, which he discovers while on the robot planet.

Richard Daniel stows aboard a tramp space ship crewed by thuggish jerks who are most unlike the kindly upper-middle class Barringtons and, able to read the sordid minds of these people with his new abilities, begins to develop a superiority complex, thinking himself the best of robots and robots better than humans.  As the tramp starship travels from planet to planet, Richard Daniel learns how to use his powers to sense problems with the ship, loose wires and leaky valves and that sort of thing, and to fix these problems telekinetically.  Then he realizes he can detect and cure the ailments of humans in the same way.

The tramp stops at a planet on the outer edge of the human space civilization, one which is rarely visited, where people live in a little village and haul goods on horse-drawn wagons.  Richard Daniel, who has been thinking of becoming a messiah to the robots and leading their liberation, finds that the people here are nice, and decides to jump ship and help these simple folk, to mold their civilization into something great--he feels they need him, and he realizes that he needs to be needed and it is his duty and destiny to help improve humanity with his newfound special powers.

"All the Traps of Earth," with its romanticizing of primitive rural life and its religious robots and its sentimentality and misanthropy, is characteristic of Simak's work, while its elitist sense-of-wonder ending ("...on this Earth-like planet, through the generations, a new Earth would arise....perhaps, given only time, he could transfer to the people of the planet all the powers and understanding he would find inside himself") is characteristic of classic Golden-Age SF.  As I have been pointing out, I don't accept many of its basic assumptions.  However, it is well-written--the pacing and descriptions and all that are good, and Richard Daniel is a sympathetic and believable character.  If I put aside the basic absurdity of emotional, willful, creative robots, I can't deny that "All the Traps of Earth" is a pretty good story that skillfully achieves Simak's goals and that I enjoyed it.  So, thumbs up for this one.


"Good Night, Mr. James" (1951)

This is a great SF thriller with multiple twists.  "Good Night, Mr. James" is another story about nonhumans stuck in a human society and how they deal with its rules, but Simak here does the thing I was complaining he failed to do in "All the Traps of Earth"--he gets into the heads of nonhuman beings.  Also, while "All the Traps of Earth" is a sort of optimistic story with a happy ending, "Good Night, Mr. James" is a horror story in which everybody is fighting for his life and survival is unlikely.

Henderson James wakes up in a suburban neighborhood with a pistol, and takes some time to remember who he is and what he is doing.  As his mind unclouds, he remembers he is a biologist who studies aliens, and had illegally brought to Earth a monster that reproduces at a rapid rate and is fanatically dedicated to exterminating all competing life forms.  If this monster were to escape from captivity, it could multiply so fast that it might take over the Earth, or at least kill thousands or millions of people in the attempt.  Horror of horrors, James remembers that he did let the monster get away and now he is hunting it down--he only has a few hours to kill it before it reproduces and puts all of our lives in jeopardy!  (Thank heaven in real life scientists never experiment on deadly organisms and then negligently let them escape to threaten all of our lives!)

James tracks down the monster and blasts it--as it dies the alien sends him a telepathic message which provides a clue that blows James's mind!  James is not the original James, but a duplicate James!  In cases of dire emergency, "James" now recalls, the government allows the temporary creation of duplicate people to accomplish difficult tasks.  Two Jameses were needed to kill the wily alien monster because, with its telepathic powers, a lone man, even the world expert on the monster, could never sneak up on it.  Duplicate James was only able to kill the monster because its psychic abilities were focused on the original James.  Anyway, now that the monster is dead the duplicate James will be destroyed.  Duplicate James has to decide if he will quietly go to his death, or fight to prolong his life; dupe James takes the latter course so we get more tension and excitement and a real twist ending.

Quite good; Simak's concepts and plotting are compelling and his descriptions and inner monologues are all well done.  "Good Night, Mr. James" debuted in Galaxy and almost at once appeared in August Derleth's anthology The Outer Reaches: Favorite Science-Fiction Tales Chosen By Their Authors.  Since then it has been reprinted quite a few times.  Check it out!  

I believe The Time of Infinity is an abridged version of The Outer Reaches

"Drop Dead" (1956)

The human race is spreading throughout the galaxy!  The spearheads of this expansion are the hundreds of survey teams that explore one planet after another.  Our narrator is the captain of one such team; he is an agricultural economist and the other team members include a biologist, a botanist, a bacteriologist, etc., and their team's goal is to find new plant and animal life of practical value, things that can be profitably cultivated on already settled planets.  As the story begins the team has just landed on a planet where they encounter a herd of strange animals with hides that look like multi-colored checkboards; from some of the squares grow plants, others mark the location of insect hives.

From the moment they land this planet's ecosystem seems not to have evolved naturally but to have been planned and constructed for efficiency and uniformity.  There is only one type of grass, there are no insects, there is only one type of bacteria, and the only animal, those checkboard herbivores, seem too good to be true, to be exactly the type of agricultural asset they have been searching the galaxy for.  The scientists carefully study the beasts, and when an accident leads to the destruction of the ship's food supply, they eat the meat of the native animal and find it to be delicious, nutritious, even medicinal.  The captain doesn't eat the native meat, however, as he has a medical condition and is on a strict diet consisting of some goop that he keeps in his cabin and that survived the accident. 

But then a terrible effect of the native bacteria makes itself known!  The scientists are all doomed to suffer a horrible transformation and death.  Because he didn't eat the native meat, the captain will be the last to die, and he could try to get back to civilization to warn the human race of this trap planet.  But instead he decides to die with his friends.

I found "Drop Dead" to be long and tedious.  There is no physical or psychological danger until like the last two or three of the story's 25 pages, and very little human feeling, so I was never entertained and actually had trouble paying attention.  The scientific ideas of the story are as boring as the plot: ecosystems in SF are generally more exciting than the real ecosystem of Earth, with multiple intelligent species and dangerous monsters and so forth, but the ecosystem of the planet in the story is more simple than a real one and thus more boring.  The characters are lame; in "All the Traps of Earth" and "Good Night, Mr. James," Simak created characters with interesting and believable psychologies whose goals and actions grew logically out of their personalities, but the characters in "Drop Dead" are flat and simple, just cogs in the slowly grinding machine that is the story's mystery plot, a machine that regularly spits out clues and finally spits out the solution to the mystery--a mystery I didn't care about so the solution was inevitably going to be underwhelming.
        
Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  "Drop Dead" was first printed in Galaxy and later Robert Silverberg included it in 1971's The Science Fiction Bestiary.  According to isfdb "Drop Dead" will appear this year in a British anthology of ecological SF.  If "Drop Dead" is the British Library's idea of a "classic" then this anthology is going to be a snoozer, milord!


**********

Clifford Simak was voted the third Science Fiction Writers of America Grand master in 1977 (preceded by Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson) and on the strength of "All the Traps of Earth" and "Good Night, Mr. James" I suspect he deserved the honor.  "Drop Dead" is a drag, but we all have off days.

Maybe we'll read the rest of my paperback copy of All the Traps of Earth and Other Stories in the future, but I sense we will be haunted by vampires in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

  

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Edmond Hamilton: "The Earth-Owners," "Creatures of the Comet" & "The Sargasso of Space"

Edmond Hamilton, pioneering pre-Golden Age SF writer, scripter of Superman and Batman comics, husband of Leigh Brackett, and MPorcius fave, has nine short stories listed at isfdb under the date 1931.  We've already talked about "Monsters of Mars," "The Horror City," "The Shot from Saturn," "The Man Who Evolved," and "Ten Million Years Ahead."  Today let's talk about three more of these 1931 SF tales, two from Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales and one from Harry Bates' Astounding.

"The Earth-Owners"

Like a lot of these Edmond Hamilton stories this one is about three dudes--narrator dude, his best friend, and the third dude who is smarter and/or wackier than narrator dude and his bosom chum,  Often it is the extraordinary third bloke who sets off the plot with his crazy invention or theory and ends up getting  captured or even killed, but in "The Earth-Owners" the third man is like a Greek chorus who explains everything that is happening but doesn't do much about it.

"The Earth-Owners" starts out with our narrator Sterling and his best friend Carter hanging around with their eccentric pal Randon in his house on the edge of Boston.  They are talking about the latest news, that astronomers have spotted black clouds in space that are approaching Earth.  Randon, citing Charles Fort, suggests that these black clouds may be alive and may be the Earth's true owners!  Maybe Earth is just a farm or game preserve, and we are like some alien's chickens or goats or deer, bred to be slaughtered for food or hunted for fun!  Jinkies!

Sterling, sitting by the door, has a view of Boston's downtown, and suddenly he sees black clouds, no doubt those from space, descend upon Beantown's streets--when they rise they leave behind scores of dead bodies!  As the clouds drift from block to block, exterminating all life in Boston, our three protagonists speed out of town in Randon's automobile.  

The three head south, along the way passing knots of refugees and town after town full of dead bodies.  The black clouds are spreading throughout the country, wiping out the populations of all but the smallest settlements!  Randon and his companions learn that the government is setting up the HQ of America's resistance to the space clouds in a little village in the greatest state of the union, New Jersey, and they travel there and volunteer their help.  The assembled scientists are impressed by Randon's theory that the Earth is the property of these living black clouds of death.

Earth's scientists have no luck finding any weapons that can harm the clouds, and it looks like we are all doomed, when suddenly from outer space appear some glowing spheres; these spheres attack the black clouds with lighting and have soon eradicated them.  Randon thinks that these new aliens are going to devour our life forces just like the black clouds were, but when the glowing globes leave he realizes his mistake--the globes are beneficent owners who feel pity and affection for us!  "The Earth-Owners" has a sort of sense of wonder ending in which Radon imagines that the human race, protected by the spheres, will one day grow in wisdom and become the globes' equal, maturing beyond our need for their protection and even travelling the galaxy to become the owners and protectors of races as primitive as we are today, paying forward the good deed done us by the globes.

This story is OK.  In general I prefer stories in which the characters' actions mean something, and in this story the characters are merely spectators, and in general I am skeptical of stories that welcome alien paternalism or imperialism, like Robert Crane's Hero's Walk or Kate Wilhelm's The Killer Thing or Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.  But "The Earth-Owners" is short, and themes that can grow frustrating in a novel of over 100 pages can be easier to digest in a short story.  All the scenes of death and travel I liked, and I found Randon, who is always expounding his wild theories to everybody, to be an (perhaps unintentionally) amusing character, so I enjoyed "The Earth-Owners" and am judging it acceptable.

"Creatures of the Comet"

It is the future!  Every corner of the solar system has been explored by humankind--except for the interior of a comet.  The coma of a comet, we are told, is "a great globe of glowing gas charged with enough electrical force to blast out of existence any matter that touches it."  To date, any rocket that has tried to explore the interior of a comet has come to grief.

Kirk and Madden want to be the first to see the inside of a comet, and in their rocket, which is made of a new alloy that is (they hope) proof against the matter destroying properties of the comet's coma, they blast off for the largest comet in the system.  Two weeks later they have reached the comet.  They don dark glasses and plunge into the comet's coma, where, after safely passing through a shell of energized gas, they find an inner void, in the center of which is a green planet with air they can breathe!

On this planet Kirk and Madden have an Edgar Rice Burroughs style adventure.  The planet is home to two races.  There are numerous populous cities of humans just like Earth people, and a single city that is home to a small cadre of men made of organic flexible metal.  The humans have an ancient or medieval level of technology--walled cities and metal swords--but the metal men are an old race that is practically immortal and they have much more advanced technology.  Their numbers are low and they no longer reproduce, so to work all their machines they require slaves.  Humans are too rebellious to make good slaves, so when they capture humans the metal men tear the flesh from their bones and use it as a raw material from which they create obedient amoeba-like organic robots.  

Kirk and Madden learn all this background after rescuing a party of captive humans from a pair of metal men and their squad of flesh robots; with no guns of their own, the metal villains are easy prey for K & M's "rocket-pistols."  During the fight one native human is brave enough to help them--it turns out she is the fiancé of the chief of her home city!  This princess-to-be leads them to her city, where K & M hang around a while and then help repel an assault on the city by a legion of flesh blobs.  During the fight they run out of "rocket-bullets," and Kirk is actually carried off by the flesh robots; the city chief tries to save Kirk, and he is also captured!  ("City chief" sounds silly, so I'd call this dude "the mayor," but can you imagine a big-city mayor risking his life during a hand-to-hand fight to do anything except maybe smoke crack?  I can't either!)

In the city of the metal men Kirk figures out how to control the flesh robots, with the welcome result that metal men are exterminated by their own slaves.  Having liberated the humans of the comet world, and reunited the city chief with his fiancé, K & M return home to Earth.

This is an entertaining enough story.  One thing that distinguishes it from some of Hamilton's other stories is that he tries to develop a relationship between Kirk and Madden, having them joke around a lot, referring to past exploits, etc.  This adds a dimension to the tale, but all the joking I think does diminish the atmosphere of horror a little.

Both "The Earth-Owners" and "Creatures of the Comet" would had to await the 21st Century to see republication; like "The Sargasso of Space" they appear in the 2013 volume Reign of the Robots: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Four.  

"The Sargasso of Space"

Here's a story that was reprinted in the 20th century.  "The Sargasso of Space," which was gifted with an awesome fight-for-your-life-with-improvised-weapons-in-the-cold-vacuum-of-space cover when it made its debut in Astounding, reappeared in 1990 in Astounding Stories: The 60th Anniversary Collection from Easton Press.  Easton Press makes those leatherbound books with gold decorations on them, I guess mostly for use as gifts.  I think these books look ridiculous, like a child's idea of what a fancy book looks like, but Easton Press is still in business, so I guess there is a market for these.     

It is the future!  Hundreds of space ships travel between all points in the solar system, carrying goods and passengers.  But don't suppose that life for the sailors of space is easy!  The space freighter Pallas is travelling from Jupiter to Neptune when a fuel leak is discovered--due to a shortage of fuel the ship drifts into a "dead-area" where "the ordinary gravitational attractions of the solar system are dead....because in that region the pulls of the sun and the outer planets exactly balance each other."  Inside the dead zone the Pallas joins a huge mass of thousands of lost spaceships (the "wreck pack") held together by their own small gravitational pulls; unless they can find some old fuel among the wrecks the crew of the Pallas will expire in a few months when their rations or oxygen run out.  

Immediately upon becoming part of what we WH40K kids call a "space hulk," the Pallas receives unexpected visitors--another disabled ship, the passenger ship Martian Queen, recently drifted into the dead zone and the survivors of that disaster float over to the Pallas.  

Here Hamilton displays what some might call class prejudice or IQ snobbery or something like that.  First Officer of the Pallas, Rance Kent, looks over the visitors from the Martian Queen and assesses them thus: "[they] seemed to be cargo-men or deck-men, looking hardly intelligent enough to Kent's eyes to be tube-men."  I had to laugh at the thought of how my old colleagues in the poli sci dept. at graduate school--who told me intelligence was a myth and everybody was equally intelligent and if anybody seemed less intelligent than anybody else it was because of discrimination and oppression--would react to the suggestion that engineers might be smarter than laborers and that you could tell just by looking who was smart enough to be an engineer and who wasn't.

The Martian Queen, according to the "swarthy" leader of the survivors, Krell, ended up in the dead zone when its rocket tubes exploded; in the explosion all the officers and passengers, save a female passenger, were killed.  Kent and a party from the Pallas go over to take a look at the Martian Queen and, despite all of Krell's dissembling, spot clues that suggest mutiny!  Kent slips the female survivor, Marta Mallen, a communicator ("suit-phone") and when he gets back to the Pallas he and Marta have a secret convo.  It turns out there really was an accidental tube explosion (these rockets aren't very reliable, are they?--I'll be sticking on Earth, thanks) but few people were killed--Krell decided that the way to conserve oxygen and rations and thus prolong his own life in the dead zone was to kill all the officers and passengers.  To make this prolonged life in the dead zone a little more bearable he spared Mallen for the obvious reasons.

A tense drama follows as the crews of the two ships have no reason to trust each other but need each other's help--the mutineers of the Martian Queen need a ship with working rockets while the crew of the Pallas need help navigating the maze of the space hulk in their search for fuel. There are double crosses, people getting killed when somebody opens a valve and all the air in the compartment they are in is released into space, and the final zero gee hand-to-hand combat with iron bars (for whatever reason, neither the Pallas nor the Martian Queen had any firearms on board.)  Putting the lie to the idea that SF of the past was totally sexist and the women depicted therein were all ineffectual damsels in distress, Marta Mallen repeatedly puts herself at risk to save men's bacon and to slay mutineers.

A solid entertaining thriller, full of science (not that much of it is tenable today if it ever was) and danger and violence.  I love stories in which people have to deal with space suits and airlocks and all that, and "The Sargasso of Space" is a good one.  Thumbs up! 

**********

Three entertaining SF adventures full of gruesome deaths and crazy theories.  What more could the classic pulp reader ask for? 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Stories by H P Lovecraft, C A Smith and E Hamilton in the October 1931 issue of Weird Tales

Today let's explore the October 1931 issue of Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.  We've already dipped our toes into this issue, reading Robert E. Howard's "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" in January.  Today let's read stories by some other leading members of the Weird Tales crowd: H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Edmond Hamilton. 

"The Shot from Saturn" by Edmond Hamilton

If you read the papers you may be worried about China.  And Russia.  And Iran.  And maybe Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban.  Well, add Saturn to the list!  Yes, your favorite ringed planet and its citizens may soon be subject to targeted economic sanctions, no-fly zones, no-fly lists, Twitter jail, Facebook banning, and all the rest of it!

Brant and Fraser are "astronomy instructors," and a few months ago they saw something odd while observing Saturn.  Well, today their boss, Dr. Harkness, tells them that a meteor was just spotted up in the 51st state, landing a hundred miles (though I think they call them "kilometers" up there) north of Quebec in some god-forsaken forest.  Harkness is positive that this thing is linked to the mystery light B & F spotted two months ago by Saturn, that it is not just some meteor but in fact an artificial construction sent by intelligent beings who live on Saturn!  Harkness is taking Brant and three other guys with fancy diplomas up to Canadia to check it out, leaving our narrator, Fraser, to handle all their classes.  Cripes!

A month later a message with world-shattering news comes out of the forest primeval up there: Harkness was right!  The meteor really was a vehicle and inside it were four dead Saturnians!  Harkness sends Fraser a list of equipment and supplies and tells him to come up to the crash site with all that stuff and some more scientists and even some journalists.  Who is going to teach all those classes and grade all those papers?  Who cares?

When our narrator arrives at the site he is not only confronted by absolutely novel concepts of biology and technology, but a heart-rending drama!  The four of his fellow eggheads he finds are all acting strangely--their personalities seem different, they stumble over words, forget everyday facts, even walk oddly.  Worse still, Fraser's long-time pal Brant is missing!  Harkness and the others tell Fraser that Brant went insane and tried to kill them all!  Even now Brant is, they say, lurking in the woods with a pistol, and at any moment he might take a pot shot at them.

We readers of course suspect what is going on before Fraser does, and our suspicions are confirmed when Harkness announces he isn't going back to the United States to file a report or go on a lecture tour or anything--instead he and the three other scientists who first got to the site are flying to Saturn in the dead Saturnians' ship!  All the stuff Fraser was directed to bring with him is the material needed to build a "MADE IN CANADA" version of the launcher the Saturnians used to hurl their vessel here.  Fraser and everybody else is put to work on this alien-designed contraption because Harkness is on a tight deadline!

Harkness drives everybody ruthlessly to get the launching system built on schedule.  Hours before launch Brant sneaks out of the woods to tell Fraser that Harkness and their other colleagues are dead!  The Saturnians seized them, used a machine to download everything from their brains, and then killed them.  Then the Saturnians put their alien brains into the human scientists' bodies, making sure to mangle their previous alien bodies to obscure all evidence of the brain transplant operation--Fraser was told this damage was the result of the crash.  Brant, the fifth man, managed to escape.  He warns Fraser that if these Saturnian body snatchers make it back home to the ringed planet they will report that Terra is ripe for conquest and we'll all be doomed!  Fraser has to help Brant prevent the launch at all costs!

This is a good story.  Hamilton's plot is strange and fun, with human feeling and characters whose actions and motivations all make sense.  The speculative science Hamilton comes up with is also good.  Saturnian interplanetary travel technology exploits a planet's static electricity ("every planet...is in fact a huge Leyden jar that is never discharged...."), focusing the planet's charge on a ship which has been given a like charge so that it is repelled at a terrific velocity up into space.  We see so many SF stories with rockets and space warps that something totally different is fun to see.  Thumbs up for "The Shot from Saturn!"

I may like "The Shot From Saturn," but for some reason it was not reprinted until 2013, when Haffner Press included it in their The Reign of the Robots: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume 4.  A neglected gem! 

"The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake"
by Clark Ashton Smith

Here we have a Smith story that has never been anthologized, though it has appeared in numerous Smith collections in Italian and German as well as English.  I'm reading it in The End of the Story: Volume 1 of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.

"The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake" is a filler story and I'm not sure I get it.  A writer of horror stories claims he doesn't believe in the supernatural and has no fear of ghosts or other such nonsense.  (Hear, hear!)  Two friends decide to play a little joke on him--they will take the writer's stuffed rattlesnake out of his study and replace it with a live, harmless gopher-snake, which looks a little like the rattler.  If things go according to plan, the writer will think the taxidermized rattler has come to life and be scared, and a good laugh will be had by all.

Late at night when these two jokers creep into the study to make the switch, the stuffed snake is not where it usually is.  Then they spot it on the writer's desk--it moves, apparently alive, and they panic.  The pranksters bolt, but one falls and cries out in agony.  A moment later the writer and the surviving comedian return to the study to find that their friend is dead, apparently from a heart attack.  The stuffed rattlesnake is where it always is.

I guess the gopher snake had slipped away earlier and it was that serpent which panicked the mischief makers?  Maybe we are also supposed to think the jokers had accidentally brought an actual rattlesnake and not a gopher snake?  But there is no good explanation for why they didn't see the stuffed snake in its usual place when they first sneaked into the study--there really aren't sufficient clues to make us think that the writer is really a wizard or the stuffed snake (or the writer's serpent-shaped candlesticks which are mentioned twice) are cursed or whatever.  I know I don't have a logical or mathematical mind, bur I can't get this story to add up.  

Barely acceptable, and an atypical example of Smith's work which lacks the sort of stuff that makes Smith unique and compelling.  NOT an overlooked gem!


"The Strange High House in the Mist"
by H. P. Lovecraft

This one, of course, has been reprinted a million times, mostly in Lovecraft collections, but also in a number of anthologies and magazines, including August Derleth's 1959 Lovecraft-centric anthology The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces, a 1989 issue of the Serbian magazine Alef, and Marvin Kaye's 1992 Lovers & Other Monsters.  I'm reading "The Strange High House in the Mist" in my copy of the Corrected Ninth Printing of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.

isfdb classifies "The Strange High House in the Mist" as part of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, and it does mention Kadath and Ulthar, and it does have its dreamy poetic aspects; for example, these first two lines, which are echoed in the last paragraph of the story:  
In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport.  White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan.
Atop the highest of those cliffs, an almost unscalable crag over a thousand feet above the ocean, sits a little house the people of Kingsport can sometimes see through the mist and clouds.  The citizens of Kingsport fear this house, and it is the subject of all kinds of rumors, but none have ever seen whoever it is who lives there and illuminates its little windows every night.    

A philosophy professor, Thomas Olney, a man with a wife and brats, comes on holiday to Kingsport.  Olney has a yearning to see and hear and learn new things; he visits the Terrible Old Man, whom we know from the story of that title, and he decides to climb the crag and investigate the mysterious house.  After an arduous climb he gets up there, to discover that the rumors are true--the only door into the house is on the edge of the cliff, facing the ocean--only someone who could fly could enter the house that way.

While he is snooping around outside the house he hears someone come in through the door; the bearded householder then opens a window and helps Olney inside.

Olney later has trouble remembering exactly what happened during his visit to the house high in the mist, but it seems that the resident, apparently an immortal wizard, told him many tales of Atlantis and of the peoples and gods who preceded Atlantis, and numerous fantastical callers knocked on the door that hung over the abyss, one sinister black shade to whom the wizard refused to open his door, as well as a crowd of welcome partiers, gods and nereids who played strange music and gave Olney and the wizard a ride on a giant flying sea shell.

Olney returns to Kingsport and his family, cured of his ache for new sights and strange knowledge; after the season they never return to Kingsport again.  Meanwhile, the elders of Kingsport worry that Olney's visit to the house on the cliff has wrought some change up there, and inspired in the young men of their town an unhealthy openness to exploring the old house themselves.

This is a decent mood piece; it is fantastical, lacking the more "realistic," scientific grounding of other of Lovecraft's works, and it doesn't have any of the bloodshed or horrific and mind-blowing revelations that give other Lovecraft stories a sort of punch, so I don't find it as compelling as, say, "The Shadow over Innsmouth" or "At the Mountains of Madness." 


*********

More 1931 Weird Tales in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Stories by E Hamilton and C A Smith from the Apr-May 1931 issue of Weird Tales

Let's take a gander at the April-May 1931 issue of Weird Tales.  We've already read Robert E. Howard's story from the issue, "The Children of the Night," and today we'll read contributions from Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith.

This issue of the unique magazine has a cancel-worthy Fu Manchu-style cover complete with a font that mimics Asian characters.  Do Chinese and Japanese artists and publishers have a Roman way of printing their hanzis and kanjis when they want to emphasize that some book or magazine is about some European or American topic?  Our boys Howard of Texas, Hamilton of Ohio, and Smith of Cali-FOR-NIGH-AY are listed on the cover.

One of H. P. Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth poems is included in this issue, number 10, "Alienation," which is about how a guy can't relate to his fellow humans after spending every night sending his consciousness out into the cosmos to interact with aliens. In the letters column we find Smith praising Frank Belknap Long's "The Horror From the Hills," which you may recall I thought was pretty lame.  Was Smith sincere, or just trying to do a friend a solid by promoting his shoddy piece of work?    

"Ten Million Years Ahead" by Edmond Hamilton

Since college, Norton has been fascinated by time.  So he read his Einstein, his Fitzgerald, and his De Sitter, and then spent four years in a Connecticut farmhouse working on his time machine, which he calls a "time doubler," because, as he explains to his college pals Fairley and Olcott, time is like a railroad track and this here machine that can make time double back so you can take a short cut and jump directly from the 1931 section of track to the 1001931 section of track.  Today he proposes to take the time doubler out for a spin, and he has invited his college buddies to come along for the ride.  If I was testing out a time doubler I'd probably travel to next week, a time when I could be confident the Earth would still have oxygen and the commies hadn't taken over yet (though you never know.)  But Norton isn't a small potatoes thinker like me--he sets the time doubler for ten million years into the future!

Ten million years in the future, our three heroes find, the Earth is dominated by intelligent plants who ride around in forty-foot-tall walking machines; these walkers have long metal arms, the better to snatch up human beings with so they can be put to work in the metal-walled cities of these diabolical vegetables.  The plant-people quickly capture Norton; Fairley and Olcott escape, but are quickly taken captive by the human beings of ten million years in the future.  Ten million years from now the human race is in sorry shape; having apparently lost the ability to build the flamethrowers,  rocket launchers, armored fighting vehicles and jet fighters that are the glory of our own civilization, the humans of the future have grown short and pale from eons of hiding in underground burrows from the walkers of the plant man slavers.  Their most advanced weapons system is the scimitar, which I doubt even counts as a "system."  

Fairley and Olcott quickly make friends with the shorties, and one of them volunteers to guide the time travellers to the nearby plant city where Norton is presumably working as a slave.  The three men assassinate the guards at the gate of the metal-walled city, search for and find Norton.  The alarm is raised, but Norton learned how to operate the plant-people's walkers while riding in the one that captured him, and our heroes commandeer one and fight their way out of the city atop it.  The best scene in the story is one of mecha vs mecha combat as Norton's walker grapples with those trying to keep our heroes from passing outside the city gate.

In these kinds of stories it is normal for the protagonist who has been transported to a new world to fall in love with a princess and to introduce a paradigm shift, either overthrowing an establishment or rescuing an establishment from invaders or revolutionaries, but "Ten Million Years Ahead" is like an episode of Gilligan's Island, with the characters ending up in the same position they were in at the start of the narrative.  Instead of leading the shorties to victory over the green supremacy that has turned our descendants into pale troglodytes, Norton, Fairley, and Olcott just jump in the time-doubler and return to the 20th century, where they destroy the time-doubler, Norton's life work, because travelling through time, they now know, is too dangerous.  (What kind of scientist is this Norton?  Next he'll be telling us gain-of-function research is too dangerous!)    

This is a pedestrian story about being captured and escaping; Hamilton doesn't do anything interesting with the idea of plant people--the villains could have been spider people or lizard people or anything else.  I sort of suspect Hamilton was just cobbling together ideas from H. G. Wells (the walking machines from War of the Worlds and the plot of travelling to a future in which humans are oppressed by monsters from The Time Machine) in order to quickly produce something salable.  I'm judging this one barely acceptable.

Haffner Press included "Ten Million Years Ahead" in their 700-page book The Reign of the Robots: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume Four, printed in 2013, and it has never been reprinted elsewhere.  

"A Rendezvous in Averoigne"
by Clark Ashton Smith 

Alright, it's our pal Clark Ashton Smith again, with another tale of that wacky French province, Averoigne.  "A Rendezvous in Averoigne" was voted the best story in the issue by Weird Tales readers and has been reprinted in respectable horror anthologies like the Penguin Book of Vampire Stories and the Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, as well as other maybe less well-credentialed volumes like 1967's A Feast of Blood.  I am reading it in an electronic copy of The Door to Saturn: Volume Two of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. 

A young troubadour has made a date with the pretty daughter of a mercer--they are to meet under a certain tree in the forest in Averoigne!  Just as you and I have, the troubadour and the mercer's daughter have heard that the forest in Averoigne is full of witches and vampires and devils, but they figure those are just peasant superstitions and, anyway, those freaks only come out at night.

The troubadour leaves the path when he hears a cry of terror, and is soon totally lost.  The geography and foliage of the forest seem to change, becoming dark and dense and oppressive.  The troubador comes upon a sinister castle, and is scared to enter it, but every path in the tangled forest he follows eventually leads him back to its gates, leaving him no option but to enter.

Inside he is greeted by a sinister pale aristocrat, whose dinner invitation he is unable to resist.  The mercer's daughter is already at the dinner table with her maid and a man-servant.  The four anxious guests eat dinner while the aristocrat and his equally pale wife sit and watch; the guests then are shown their rooms, one for the men, one for the women.  The prisoners try to stay awake, but fail; when the troubadour wakes up, the man-servant is weak, having been drained of blood by the aristocrat's wife in the night; the maidservant has been similarly victimized by the nobleman.

The troubadour and the man-servant spend the morning searching the castle; in the donjon (the keep) they find a tomb, and inside the tomb they discover their undead hosts, whom they destroy by thrusting a stake through their hearts.  The vampire's bodies turn to dust, the castle disappears, even the forest becomes sunlit and benign, leaving only the now empty tomb and the four relieved guests of the vampires, their ordeal over.

"A Rendezvous in Averoigne" is well-written, but it is a very typical vampire story, with few twists or turns or novelties.  I can only give it a mild recommendation.    

**********

I'd have to say these are sort of run-of-the-mill specimens from these authors and that they represent typical examples of Weird Tales stories; they are not bad, but neither are they surprising or innovative.  A little disappointing, I must admit.    

**********

With their reminders that you are ugly, getting old, and nobody loves you,
the ads in this issue of Weird Tales are more disturbing than the stories

Weird Tales Project: 1930

In January of 2021 I decided it was my destiny to blog about at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales released in the 1930s.  Today I can report palpable progress in fulfilling this sacred duty--I have now blogged about at least one story in all twelve issues of The Unique Magazine dated 1930!  Below find a list of these stories and links to my arbitrary, ill-informed and idiosyncratic opinions about each! 

(Should I blog about any more stories printed in a 1930 issue of Weird Tales I will add them to this list with a parenthetical note.)

Oh, yeah, here I'll put links to the other nine blogposts that serve as a record of this major literary project:

----  1931  1932  1933  1934  1935  1936  1937  1938  1939  


January

Edmond Hamilton:             "The Life-Masters"
Murray Leinster:                 "The Murderer"
Frank Belknap Long:          "The Red Fetish"
August Derleth:                   "A Matter of Sight"
       




February

Edmond Hamilton:             "The Comet Drivers"
Robert E. Howard:              "The Fearsome Touch of Death"





March

August Derleth & Mark Schorer:     "The Pacer"






April

Edmond Hamilton:             "The Plant Revolt"





May

Edmond Hamilton:             "The Sun People"
Clark Ashton Smith:           "The End of the Story"





June

Clark Ashton Smith:        "The Last Incantation"                









July

Edmond Hamilton:        "The Death Lord"






August

Edmond Hamilton:                                   "Pigmy Island"
Adolphe de Castro & H. P. Lovecraft:     "The Electric Executioner"





September

Clark Ashton Smith:    "The Phantoms of the Fire"    









October

Edmond Hamilton:     "The Mind Master"









November

Edmond Hamilton:     "The Cosmic Cloud"
Clark Ashton Smith:   "The Uncharted Isle"








December

Domald Wandrei:     "Something From Above"

Monday, June 14, 2021

Clark Ashton Smith: "The End of the Story," "The Last Incantation," and "The Uncharted Isle"

Let's check in with the Golden State's gift to the weird, Clark Ashton Smith, and read three stories published by Smith in Weird Tales in the year 1930.  I am reading "The End of the Story," "The Last Incantation," and "The Uncharted Isle" in an electronic copy of the 2007 volume The End of the Story: Volume 1 of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger and published by Nightshade Books.  To the extent possible, Connors and Hilger have put together texts of these stories which reflect Smith's own artistic vision unaffected by the wishes of editors, and The End of the Story also includes lots of interesting notes on each of the 25 stories it presents, drawing on Smith's correspondence with many other important members of the fantastic fiction community like H. P. Lovecraft, Farnsworth Wright, Virgil Finlay, etc.  I strongly recommend all you weirdies out there give Connors and Hilger's Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith a look.  

"The End of the Story"     

This is one of Smith's Averoigne stories, Averoigne being a fictional province in France.  "The End of the Story" is a first-person narrative, the reproductions of a manuscript left behind by a law student who disappeared in 1789.  The document relates how, on the journey home to his father's estate in Tours, the student got lost in the dark forests of Averoigne and took refuge from a storm in a monastery.  The head monk shared the narrator's love of books, and showed him the rare volumes and scrolls in the monastery library.  One manuscript the monk forbid the law student to read, and of course that is the one he reads the first chance he gets.

The forbidden manuscript relates how some count met a satyr in the forest and the satyr shook his faith in Christ and filled his mind with the idea of "pagan loveliness" and "pagan ecstasies" that continued to endure, despite the prevalence of Christianity, underground.  The count then went to a ruined castle and disappeared down a secret staircase, never to return.  This ruined castle is the very ruin one can see from the windows of the monastery, a ruin rumored to be haunted by demons and witches!  The law student, convinced the manuscript is no fiction but a true account, became obsessed with the idea of finding out what was at the bottom of that hidden stairway, and so went to the ruin.  Underground he found a portal to a magical land where in a beautiful palace a gorgeous woman awaited him, a woman who eagerly offered him her body and her love!

The abbot then burst into the "palace," flinging holy water around.  The woman fled and the magical world and palace were revealed to be an illusion--at the bottom of the hidden stairway is nothing more than an ancient vault full of rubble.

The monk explained that the woman was a lamia, a two-thousand-year-old vampire with a serpent body who has been using her evil powers to attract and devour men for centuries.  The law student returned home to Tours, to write this manuscript, at the end of which he admits he was so happy in the monster's clutches that he is going to return to her.

A decent piece of work; Weird Tales readers thought it the best in the issue.  I suspected that the story was going to assert that Christianity is bunk, that the horror of the story was going to be that we live in a universe in which there are supernatural forces but those forces are devoted to abusing us, not helping us.  The efficacy of the holy water against the lamia, however, vindicated the power of Christ to overcome evil--the horror of the story is that God can only help us if we meet Him halfway and keep on the straight and narrow, and doing so is not always (maybe not ever!) easy!

"The End of the Story" has appeared in many Smith collections, and a few anthologies of vampire stories.

I cannot figure out what the image is on the cover of Girls' Night Out; is that an ear over there?
A woman's knee down there?  I may need to buy a copy of Girls' Night Out, as it contains 
a collaboration between Barry Malzberg and Kathe Koja, and stories by Tanith Lee and Robert
Bloch, that may not be easy to read for free

"The Last Incantation" 

This brief piece, one of Smith's Poseidonis stories, has been included in 1994's 100 Wild Little Weird Tales and a French anthology of stories about Atlantis as well as many Smith collections.  

The elderly wizard Malygris, who lives in the tallest tower in the capital city of Poseidonis and who strikes fear into the hearts of all his countrymen, is depressed.  He thinks back to his youth, to the days before he took up sorcery, to the woman he loved, who died the day before they were to be married.  He uses his magic to summon her shade from the world of the dead, but when she stands before him he is disappointed--something is wrong with her, her beauty does not move him as it did decades ago; has his sorcery failed to accurately recreate her?  Malygris dismisses the phantom.  Then his familiar, a viper who lives in the head of a unicorn mounted on the wall, explains that the girl was the same, but Malygris has changed, is no longer the passionate and innocent youth who could appreciate his fiancé's beauty and whose heart could go out to her. 

This story is alright; I suppose its main attractions are its descriptions of the wizard's rooms and of the performance of his spell.

"The Uncharted Isle"

Smith was particularly proud of "Uncharted Isle," which he thought of as a "straight science fiction" (rather than fantasy) story, and chose for inclusion in Leo Margulies and Oscar J. Friend's anthology My Best Science Fiction Story.  I find it interesting that Smith considered "The Uncharted Isle" a "straight science fiction story;" I think of classic science fiction stories as being about how science and technology can enable us to understand and master the universe and our lives, and "The Uncharted Isle" seems to be arguing the opposite.

Mark Irwin, our narrator, is the sole survivor of the freighter Auckland, which caught fire in the Pacific and was abandoned.  He is weak from thirst and hunger by the time his little boat drifts into the lagoon of an island with strange flora and fauna.  He explores the island, and finds a settlement of stone buildings in an architectural style he has never seen, inhabited by people who cannot see or hear him.  These people are anxious and seem lost, much like himself.  The night sky is full of stars Irwin cannot recognizable--it appears that he, and the people from the stone houses, have somehow found themselves in a spot outside of their ordinary space and time.  Irwin falls into a sort of lassitude and gives up trying to escape the island, but then one day he witnesses, or has reason to suspect has occurred (his memory on this is vague, as on so many other things) something that spurs him to action: the sacrifice of a child by the strange people to their half-man, half-gorilla god!  Irwin steals some ornate oars, having lost those from the Auckland long ago, and leaves the island on his boat; somehow he makes it back to our universe and is picked up by a ship after, once again, he is reduced to delirium by lack of water and food.   

"The Uncharted Isle" is well-written if you consider each sentence on its own, but there is no interaction between people and no real danger and no actual problem-solving, so there is very little plot and very little tension.  This is a mood piece in which the theme is the fact that the universe and our very lives are essentially mysterious to us, which is something I can endorse and certainly is a foundational theme of weird fiction, but since there is no action and little human feeling, "The Uncharted Isle" is kind of boring.  I think we have to say this one is just OK; an unusual and well-wrought piece that achieves its creator's goals, but which is not very entertaining.  

"The Uncharted Isle" has been reprinted in a few anthologies and many Smith collections, including a French one for which it is the title story, the cover of which depicts Irwin with his stolen oars, proof that his adventure was not just a dream.


**********

"The End of the Story" is a well-constructed traditional horror story with broad appeal--everybody who reads books can understand the allure of mysterious books, and everybody who is past puberty can understand the allure of a mysterious beauty.  "The Last Incantation" and "The Uncharted Isle" are less conventional and less compelling, their appeal based less on plot and more on abstract themes and mood, though "The Last Incantation" does have strong images.

Expect to see more Clark Ashton Smith soon as we continue to explore Weird Tales here at MPorcius Fiction Log.