Saturday, September 18, 2021

Weird Tales Mar '35: Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore & Bram Stoker

I've been flipping through C. L. Moore's correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft and so feel like reading the fifth Northwest Smith story.  (I blogged about the first four of Moore's Smith stories back in March of 2020.)  "Julhi" made its debut in the March 1935 Weird Tales, accompanied by a new Conan story, "The Jewels of Gwalhur" (AKA "The Servants of Bit-Yakin") and a reprint of an 1891 Bram Stoker story, "The Judge's House."  Let's take a gander at all three.  I'm reading the Moore tale in my copy of Gollancz's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, number 31 of their Fantasy Masterworks series, Howard's Conan piece in my copy of Ballantine's The Conquering Sword of Conan and I guess I'll just read the Weird Tales version of Stoker's tale at the internet archive.

"Julhi" by C. L. Moore (1935)

After a night of drinking on Venus, Northwest Smith wakes up in total darkness, his weapons missing.  Someone must have drugged him and dragged him into this pitch black labyrinth!  In the dark he meets a young Venusian woman, and from her he gradually learns the complex back story to this tale.

The woman, beautiful Apri (Moore, when the two make their way out of the darkness, describes her and her attire in some detail, having already described Smith's scarred and tanned body in a sort of prologue paragraph), has psychic powers she barely understands.  Like in a Warhammer 40,000 scenario, a monstrous alien from some other dimension was able to enter our universe via contact with this  undisciplined psyker.  This alien invader, Julhi, holds court in the ruins of this ruined city, a place that was built centuries ago by a king who, it is said, worshipped unspeakable entities.  Julhi's human slaves kidnap people to feed to the monsters who now haunt the ruined city--Julhi's companions from that other dimension--and Smith was to be just such a snack for these extradimensional vampires, as was Apri, who had aroused Julhi's wrath.

Julhi, however, has relented and uses her psychic powers to guide Apri and Smith out of the dark maze of ruins to her dreamlike palace, which apparently she constructed with the power of her mind.  When Julhi appears to Smith she is reclining on a couch, and Smith finds she has an upper body much like a human's, though she has only one eye in the center of her forehead that never blinks, a mouth that never closes, and feathers instead of hair on her head.  As for her lower body, that is indescribably alien, lithe and graceful and fluid, something like a snake, but hypnotically beautiful.

These Northwest Smith stories tend to be a little repetitive, and Julhi explains in greater detail stuff we more or less already know, like how she got to our dimension, what she is doing here, the history of this ruined city, etc.  Northwest Smith stories also often revolve around some feminine alien who is like a creature from Greek mythology and who tries to seduce Smith and suck his blood or life force, an erotic act that causes Smith pleasure even as it threatens his life.  Some may find it odd that Moore, a woman herself, would repeatedly portray women as disgusting alien blood suckers who seduce men so they can selfishly drain men's life force, but there is no looking past it, and this is of course how some men see at least some women, so no doubt it can strike a chord with some male readers.  

Moore spends page after page in "Julhi" describing the seduction and ecstasy process; for long surreal paragraphs Smith feels like he is floating bodiless among the stars.  He sees the version of this island city in Julhi's dimension, where it is not ruins but a bustling community, and realizes Julhi and her comrades are evil degenerates among their people--her race does not consist entirely of evil vampires.  This sort of jogs Smith into resistance.  It is Apri's mental abilities that keep Julhi and her companions in our universe, and to send the vampires back to their native dimension Smith strangles Apri to death--Apri, guilt ridden over having brought Julhi to Venus where she murders and abuses people, and nearly insane from Julhi's meddling with her brain, welcomes death.

(You'll recall that in "Black Thirst" a woman also wanted to die and Smith killed her, and that in "Scarlet Dream" a woman sacrificed herself so that Smith might escape an alien dimension.  Moore in these Northwest Smith stories addresses the same themes again and again.)

"Julhi," too long and too wordy (Moore uses the word "volplane" twice) and hitting yet again the same notes we have already seen in Northwest Smith stories, is merely acceptable.  I like the monster Julhi, and I like that to resolve the plot Smith has to strangle some poor girl, but the long surreal section is just too tedious.  I said the same thing about H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price's "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" in my last blog post, and ages ago I said it about Clark Ashton Smith's "The Monster of the Prophecy": these "I am a bodiless mind floating through space" psychedelia sequences are mind-numbingly boring and add nothing to the plot and very little to the atmosphere of the stories in which they appear.     

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Julhi," and the most awesome, is that Moore illustrated the story herself for its debut publication in Weird Tales.  Making us ponder even more deeply what kind of nonconsent/rough sex fetishes Moore might have had, Moore's drawing depicts a shirtless Northwest Smith strangling a naked Apri in a kind of symmetrical Art Nouveau composition.  Moore's strong simple lines, bold composition, and fearless recreation of an act of eroticized violence make this illustration more memorable than many of the crummy illos we find in the pages of Weird Tales (we all love Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok, but many of the other artists who illustrated Weird Tales are totally pedestrian)--I may be unable to hail Moore for this overly long story, but I can give her drawing a hearty thumbs up!  Weird Tales readers voted "Julhi" the best story in the issue, and maybe it was because of this drawing!  (I certainly hope it wasn't because of the surreal sequence!)

(In a 1976 interview for the fanzine Chacal you can read at the internet archive, Moore, among other things, says she went to art school.  Among the other things: she loves Robert Heinlein's work, she thinks Robert Bloch is a wonderful guy, she never experienced any sexism working in the SF field or while writing for television, and never had any interest in science or pretense that she was writing science fiction and not fantasy.  She talks a lot about her and husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner's writing careers, and discusses being a writer primarily as a business venture or a profession--she and "Hank" wrote quickly so they could pay the bills, doing little polishing or revising.  I found this noteworthy and perhaps ironic as, in his letters to Moore, H. P. Lovecraft stresses with some passion that he hopes she will devote her talent to producing great literature and not squander her abilities the way Edmond Hamilton had, churning out hackwork at a rapid pace in the interest of making money.)  

(Fans of the weird and sword and sorcery should definitely check out the two issues of Chacal, which feature art by Frank Frazetta, Stephen Fabian, Richard Corben, Phillipe Druillet, and an interview of Manly Wade Wellman.) 

"Julhi" has not been anthologized, but has appeared in the many collections of Northwest Smith stories that have been published over the years.


"The Servants of Bit-Yakin" (AKA "Jewels of Gwahlur") by Robert E. Howard (1935)

The Kingdom of Keshan lies in a region where grasslands meet rainforest.  The aristocracy of Keshan are of mixed race, their subjects "largely pure negro;" the princes and priests who rule Keshan claim to be descended from white people who peopled a now extinct kingdom nearby, Alkmeenon.  Conan came to Keshan pursuing a rumor that in the ruins of Alkmeenon are to be found a magnificent treasure, the jewels known as the Teeth of Gwahlur.  Of course he didn't tell the rulers of Keshan that--he told them that he was a mercenary who had come to offer his services training and commanding their army so they might defeat their traditional rivals, the kingdom of Punt.  But Conan soon faced competition--a potentate from Zembabwei, Thutmekri, who arrived hoping to cut a deal with the leaders of Keshan--he would lead an army of Zembabwans against Punt in exchange for some of the Teeth of Gwahlur.  

(Howard loves to devise these fictional countries and their crazy politics.)

As the story begins, Conan has figured out where Alkmeenon is and is climbing up a cliff--the palace of Alkmeenon, where the jewels are, is in a valley much like a bowl surrounded by this circular cliff.  Our hero is in a hurry to get his Cimmerian mitts on the Teeth of Gwahlur before any Keshani or Zembabwans secure them--no easy task because the head priest of Keshan, Gorulga, knows where lies a secret passage through the cliff and is on his way. 

Inside the ruined palace we meet more characters that stand between Conan and the jewels.  The palace of Alkmeenon is reputed to be the site not only of those jewels but of an oracle, a white woman who died centuries ago whose body has been miraculously preserved.  Some joker Conan has dealt with in the past, Zargheba, beat Conan to the palace (he also knew the secret way through those cliffs) with one of his white slave girls, Muriela, and instructed her to impersonate the oracle.  While Zargheba is outside the palace watching for Gorulga the high priest, Conan runs into this Muriela, who can't fool Conan into thinking she is the oracle because he knows her.  She begs Conan to save her from Zargheba, and relates that Zargheba is working with Thutmekri to trick Gorulga into endorsing the handing over of the Teeth of Gwahlur to the Zembabwans.  Conan tells her to alter the plan; to impersonate the oracle but tell Gorluga that the gods want the jewels given to Conan!  

At first Conan's plan seems to be working--Gorulga and his fellow priests, clad in leopard skins and ostrich feathers, are deceived by Muriela and go off to get the jewels to hand over to our Cimmerian buddy--but additional obstacles and characters appear that threaten Conan and Muriela, while Zargheba mysteriously turns up dead.  Conan triggers (but survives) death traps, fights a huge black dude and then a hideous monster, discovers and follows secret passages, and rescues Muriela multiple times.  In the climactic scene Conan loses his chance to seize the jewels thanks to Muriela's womanly foolishness, but the Cimmerian shrugs this off--easy come, easy go is Conan's attitude.  "Never worry about what's past."  As Conan and Muriela leave the palace--now full of butchered black people--Conan begins scheming how to defraud the people of Punt; like the people of Kushan, they worship a white woman and maybe Muriela can impersonate their goddess and Conan can trick them out of their money.

Even if it has some aspects of a crime or mystery story with its convoluted plot of competing con men trying to pull a heist and mysterious murderers who are not revealed until the end, "The Servants of Bit-Yakin" is a solid Conan tale.  There are plenty of weird aspects, like a lost city and people who have the ability to live for centuries, and, as if he is in a Lovecraft story, Conan learns the history of the lost city by looking at old wall paintings and old documents--our boy from Cimmeria is practically an archaeologist in this one!  The scenes of violence are also good, quick and gruesome.

Of course by today's standards the story is shockingly racist--all the black characters are villains or dupes, and their religion revolves around worshipping hideous monsters and white women.  And while Howard doesn't push the nonconsensual sex theme as hard as does Moore in this issue of Weird Tales, there are rough sex aspects to the story, like men pulling off or ripping away women's clothes.  Don't let anybody from the HR or DEI departments catch you reading this baby!      

I don't think "Jewels of Gwahlur"/"The Servants of Bit-Yakin" has ever been anthologized, but of course it has been reprinted in countless Howard collections and I thought it was quite fun.  


"The Judge's House" by Bram Stoker (1891)
     
I still remember reading Dracula in the periodicals room at The New York Public Library Research Division when I was supposed to be reading some academic article that was putting me to sleep.  Like everybody, I love Dracula, but I have never read anything else by Stoker.  Today that changes!  "The Judge's House," according to isfdb, was first published in the 1891 Christmas supplement to the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, a British newspaper.  Since then it has been reprinted in a million places, Weird Tales being one of those places.

Malcolm Malcolmson is a college student back when college was hard!  He has a big math examination coming up, so he needs to get away from all his friends to a remote location to study for a few days.  He takes the train to some town he's never been to before and rents a brick house with a wall around its yard.  Local people are scared of this place, which is known as "The Judge's House" because over a century ago it was home to a judge famous for passing harsh sentences, and it is almost never tenanted, but Malcolmson is not dissuaded.

During the day the student walks around the countryside reading math books, and at night he drinks tea and sits in the Judge's House and reads math books.  The remarkable thing about the house, the element of it upon which many of the story's gimmicks and effects rely, and something I have to admit I don't quite understand, is that it has an alarm bell on its roof, and the rope to the bell hangs down into the room where Malcolmson gulps down tea and reads books with titles like Conic Sections, Cycloidal Oscillations, and Quaternions.  Did 17th and 18th century homes customarily include alarm bells?  Is this a former government or ecclesiastical building?   

The house is full of rats, and as Malcolmson is pulling his all-nighters he can hear the vermin scampering in the walls and see them peeking at him through holes.  One rat is the biggest, and seems to rule the others through fear.  Over a series of nights, it climbs down the alarm bell rope and, when Malcolmson attacks it, runs back up that rope to escape.  There are clues that suggest that the rat is a manifestation of the devil, and then clear indications it is the ghost of the judge or the reincarnation of the judge or something of that nature.  Further querying among the locals digs up the fact that the alarm bell rope is the same rope used to hang criminals condemned by the judge over a hundred years ago.  In the climactic scene the Judge himself appears, apparently coming out of a portrait painting depicting him, to tie the rope around Malcolmson's neck and hang the math student from the bell.  I suppose Stoker is leaving open the faint possibility that Malcolmson was driven insane by overworking his brain and committed suicide.

This story is alright, no big deal.  I guess it is interesting that the villain is an agent of law and order who achieved some kind of sadistic satisfaction from meting out the death penalty to people.  Also interesting is that the conventional rats, groaning under the tyranny of the judge rat, seem to sympathize with Malcolmson and try to help him.  Is the "point" of this story that we are all just rats ruled by even more disgusting and evil rats?  And of course I laughed to see conic sections crop up in Weird Tales again.

A missed opportunity in the story is, I think, represented by the fact that Stoker offers no particular reason why the judge should want to destroy Malcolmson.  Sure, the judge is a sadist and Malcolmson is an interloper in his house, so there is enough reason for him to kill Malcolmson, but wouldn't it be a more powerful story if Malcolmson, who as written is a pretty innocuous guy, was some kind of sinner with some guilt weighing on his mind who feared the judge was hounding him because he had cheated on a test or stolen a book or toyed with some young woman or something?  Of course, if the story's theme is arbitrary and cruel government, then making Malcolmson worthy of punishment might undermine that theme.    


**********

The Howard story is a winner in my book, and the Moore and Stoker stories are certainly worth reading.  A pleasant leg in the long journey that is my quest to read at least one story from every issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s.  Stay tuned for more dispatches from this expedition into the precincts of the horrible and uncanny!

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Weird Tales July '34: H P Lovecraft & E Hoffman Price, A Derleth and C A Smith

As I've told you many times, I have taken up the quest of reading a story from every issue of Weird Tales dated to the 1930s.  Well, I haven't yet read anything from the July 1934 issue, so let's get on it!

"Through the Gates of the Silver Key" by H. P. Lovecraft and E. Hoffman Price

My interest in Lovecraft's Dream stories has always been limited, so I don't think I have ever read this one. It gets a pretty over-the-top endorsement from the editor in the pages of Weird Tales ("utterly amazing novelette...transcends human experiences...goes beyond anything ever printed before") where it first appears, so maybe I'm in for a life-changing experience?

(I'm reading "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" in my copy of the Corrected Ninth Printing of Arkham House's At The Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, where it clocks in at like 36 pages.)      

Four years ago, Randolph Carter, one of the world's greatest mystics and experts on the occult, vanished after going to explore some cave in New England.  Today three other mystics and one skeptic, a lawyer representing Carter's legal heirs, sit in a New Orleans house to apportion Carter's estate, even though many occult researchers believe Carter is not dead, but just in another "time-dimension" and may return.

We learn a little about Carter's ancestry and life (he's from a long line of New England wizards and first visited that cave as a kid) and then one of the three mystics, a "Hindoo" Brahmin swami with a turban, says he can explain to them the truth behind Carter's disappearance, and most of the story consists of him narrating Carter's adventure.

Carter had a silver key of great magical power, and in the cave used the key to cast a spell that allowed him to pass through a gate and free himself from his physical body and even his individual identity so he could float about the universe and hither and thither through time.  He met mysterious beings who stood upon pedestals, the most powerful beings in the cosmos, and was invited to join them on a pedestal of his own.  Then some being invited him to pass through another gate; beyond this gate he learns a lot of gobbledygook about how "that which we call substance and reality is shadow and illusion, and that which we call shadow and illusion is substance and reality."  Carter learns that his "archetype," in human and inhuman forms, has lived in innumerable times and places, and he requests that he be sent to one of his facets that lives on a planet he has dreamed about, a world of metal towers where people part-insect and part-reptile, with "tapir snouts" and "noxious claws," war endlessly against subterranean foes, planet Yaddith.   

On Yaddith his consciousness inhabits the body of an almost immortal wizard, Zkauba.  Often the Carter facet is submerged below the Zkauba consciousness, which considers the Carter memories and personality a distraction from its wizardly duties, but other times the Carter mind gains ascendency and tries to figure out a way back to 20th-century Earth.  After thousands of years he succeeds.  Back on Earth, his lizard-bug body disguised, Carter works to get back his human body, and, we are told, enlists the "Hindoo" swami as an aid.  The swami is at this New Orleans meeting to prove that Carter is still alive so his estate won't be dispersed, and he says that in a few months Carter will be back in his normal body and able to appear in the flesh.

The skeptic of course thinks this is all balderdash, and realizes that the "Hindoo" is no "Hindoo" at all, but somebody in disguise.  He snatches at the man's mask and beard and thus reveals the shocking truth that we readers and the two other mystics have already suspected--this "Hindoo" is a disguised Randolph Carter, still inhabiting the lizard-insect body of Zkauba, wizard of Yaddith!  The sight of the alien's face gives the skeptical lawyer a fatal heart attack, and Carter in his alien body escapes by occult means, never to be seen again--perhaps the stress of being exposed caused the Carter facet to lose control of the alien body permanently to its native personality, that of Zkauba, who has no interest in remaining on Earth with us stinky mammals.

I like all the stuff about Yaddith and Zkauba, but much of the text about floating around without body or identity among god-like beings, and the explanations of how time and space are all one and identity and place are mere illusions produced by limited points of view--Lovecraft and Price employ the metaphor of conic sections--are rough-going; this stuff can be tedious, repetitive, and required me to go online and renew my acquaintance with conic sections.  Were the people who read Weird Tales in 1934 all familiar with conic sections?  Yet another reason to suspect that education in the past was more rigorous than it has been during my lifetime....

While the ending is suitably horrific and downbeat, with the lawyer killed and Carter's thousands-year project foiled, much of "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" is a contrast to the bulk of Lovecraft's body of work.  Whereas I expect Lovecraft stories to generate cosmic horror--the realization that life is meaningless, science and religion are weak reeds of pretension and self-deception, and knowledge leads not to enlightenment but madness and death--the long middle section of "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" feels like a sense of wonder story, a story in which a special guy with special talents and hard-won knowledge becomes a god and explores the vast intricacies of the universe, a story which comes close to celebrating human potential instead of reminding us of human limitations.  Maybe this is Price's influence?  Or evidence of an evolution in Lovecraft's thought?  

"Through the Gates of the Silver Key" has, of course, been reprinted in many Lovecraft collections, but has not proven popular with anthologists.  In 1951 super editor Donald Wollheim did include it in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 17, however.

"Wild Grapes" by August Derleth

This is a barely acceptable piece of filler that was later reprinted in Derleth collections and one of those Barnes and Noble anthologies of 100 brief stories edited by Robert Weinberg, Martin H. Greenberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz.

A guy was acting as caretaker of his uncle's farm; unc had a habit of going away for months at a time.  Coveting the farm, the nephew murdered the old man.  He buried the body on the edge of the farm and, to disguise the broken nature of the ground over the fresh grave, planted some wild grapes there.  A month later he sees some white fog or something over the grave; he goes to check out this phenomena, assuming it is phosphorus rising from the decaying body, and the grape vines, instilled withhis vengeful uncle's soul, strangle him to death.


"The Disinterment of Venus" by Clark Ashton Smith   

In our last episode we had a Clark Ashton Smith story set in that province of France where occult adventures are always taking place, Averoigne, a tale that was more light-hearted than scary and had as one of its themes erotic love.  Well, here's another one!

Some monks are dutifully tilling the soil in the monastery garden and find a life-sized Roman statue of Venus, a dazzling naked beauty in glorious marble!  The sight of this work of art has a powerful effect on the monks, filling them with lascivious thoughts!  Those who actually touched the statue in the course of unearthing it and drawing it out of the ground become total horndogs and sneak out of the monastery grounds to try to seduce peasant girls or hire whores!  There must be some kind of fell enchantment on this statue!  

The most pious and chaste of all the monks is also the the most handsome--this young monk is a regular Adonis, Smith tells us.  He resolves to take a hammer and smash the statue of Venus to bits!  But when he sees it he is stricken, and in a macabre turn he embraces the statue, and it falls over, dragging him into the hole out of which it was recovered--the statue's weight crushes the monk's skull, killing him.  Smith implies that those who find him can see he ejaculated before dying!  (At least I think that is what Smith is implying.)  The head of the monastery has the hole filled up with Venus and her doomed admirer's corpse still in it.

This is a fun story, at least until that guy gets killed; I have to admit I was expecting the statue to come to life and the comely monk and Venus to live happily ever after in Faerieland or another dimension or something, and was a little surprised at the gruesome climax.  Maybe this tale is a satire on prudes who fear pornography or nudity will drive men out of control.  We might also note that Venus and a statue of her are prominent in a 1931 story of Smith's, "The Venus of Azombeii," which we read a little while ago.       

"The Disinterment of Venus" has appeared in numerous Smith collections, starting with 1948's Genius Loci and Other Tales.  I read it in an electronic library copy of The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Conners and Ron Hilger, where the presented version of the story may be more explicit than the version in Weird Tales

A 1974 British paperback edition of Genius Loci and Other Tales

**********

My Weird Tales project slithers and slinks forward!  More weird thrills next time!

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Clark Ashton Smith: "The Holiness of Azedarac," "The Demon of the Flower," "The Second Interment," and "The Double Shadow"

It is time once again to commune with Clark Ashton Smith, poet, sculptor, painter and storyteller, California's gift to the weird!  Today's stories were all printed first in 1933, and I am reading them in an electronic library version of 2007's Smith collection from Night Shade Books, A Vintage from Atlantis, Volume Three of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.

"The Holiness of Azedarac"

Dateline: France, 1175 A.D.  Azedarac, the Bishop of Ximes, has a problem.  You see, an agent of the Archbishop of Averoigne, Brother Ambrose, has been spying on Azedarac and discovered that the Bishop of Ximes is not as serious a Christian as you might hope a bishop to be; in fact, Avedarac is a sorcerer who worships Satan, Yog-Sothoth, and other prehistoric and alien monster gods.  Ambrose is on his way to Vyones, the seat of the Archbishop, to deliver his report and Azedarac sends his crony Jehan to intercept the spy.

We follow the young monk Ambrose as he is accosted by a disguised Jehan and tricked into drinking a potion that sends him back in time to 475 A.D., where he is rescued from Druids keen on sacrificing him by a beautiful sorceress with pale skin and a long braid of golden-brown hair.  This friendly lady magician, Moriamis, takes a liking to Ambrose and invites him into her home, where she reveals that Azedarac and Jehan were alive in her time--in fact, she was Azedarac's lover!  Azerdarac tired of her, and then he and Jehan vanished, Moriamis surmises they travelled to the future, to Ambrose's own time.  Moriamis seduces Ambrose, and for a month they live happily as lovers, but then Ambrose feels he must return to the medieval period to fulfill his duty and report to the Archbishop on the evil of Azerdarac. Moriamis has two potions she stole from Azedarac, one that sends the imbiber to the future, one that sends users to the past, and she gives them to Ambrose.  The mischievous beauty is not ready to surrender another lover, and has intentionally tinkered with the dosage of the future-spiriting potion; Ambrose reappears not in 1175 but decades later, and learns that Azerdarac was never denounced and after disappearing was canonized as a saint!  So he drinks the back-in-time potion, which Moriamis dosed out very precisely, and they resume their life-long love affair.

A fun little story that forgoes horror to make light of both Yog-Sothery and Christianity; what is important, this story suggests, is not duty or justice or religion, but sexual love, in the pursuit of which all tactics are justifiable.  

This tale of successful deceptions made its debut in Weird Tales, in the same issue as C. L. Moore's famous "Shambleau," another story about a tricky manipulative woman who seduces some dude.  It has reappeared in many Smith collections, but hasn't been anthologized very often.   


"The Demon of the Flower"

This one first appeared in Astounding under the editorship of F. Orlin Tremaine.  Since then it has appeared in Smith collections and one of those Barnes and Noble anthologies of short shorts edited by Robert Weinberg, Martin H. Greenberg and Stefan Dziemianowicz.  

Planet Lophai is dominated by intelligent mobile plants, snake-like monsters with colorful blossoms that dance in the light of the planet's two suns.  An intelligent race of people much like humans lives on this planet, at the sufferance of the monster flowers, and they worship the greatest of the plants, the Voorqual, an ancient thing rooted atop a pyramid in the very center of their capital city.  Since time immemorial they have obeyed this vegetative dictator's commands, including his demands for a yearly human sacrifice!  

After Smith sets the scene, describing all these flowers in detail, we get our plot.  The king of the humans and high priest of the Voorqual has always followed tradition and obeyed the monster, but then the Voorqual selects for this year's sacrifice his fiancé, driving the king to turn rebel against this system of plant-based authoritarianism!  He sneaks off to consult a legendary being in the mountain in the desert; this oracle, a sort of monumental living cross of shining blue stone, explains how to kill the Voorqual, which, he reminds the king, is inhabited by an elder demon.  The king fails to take the hint, and when he kills the flower the demon's temporarily homeless life force simply takes up residence in the body of king's fiancé--she walks to the top of the pyramid and her human body undergoes dreadful transformation into a monster plant--Voorqual 2.0!  The revolution has failed!  

A solid story, though the descriptions of the flowers go on a bit too long.

"The Second Interment"

Here we have a story of being buried alive.  I feel like there are a lot of premature burial stories out there, and the editors of A Vintage from Atlantis, Scott Conners and Ron Hilger, point out in their notes that Smith didn't set out to write such a story on his own; it was suggested to him by Harry Bates, editor of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror.  Conners and Hilger quote Bates's letter, which includes many of the plot points that turn up in the published story.  (Conners and Hilger in their series The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith have really done a great job of providing us fans of the weird all kinds of fun anecdotes and gossip like this.)

Since he was a kid, Sir Uther Magbane has feared death more than have his peers, been obsessed with it.  In his adulthood, just when he is about to marry some delightful girl and maybe be happy, he is struck by a strange malady that puts him into something like a coma.  Believed to be dead, he is buried, but wakes up minutes after being interred, and those who just buried him hear his desperate thrashing and horrible cries for help and rescue him.

For the next three years Sir Uther is haunted by this terrible incident and becomes even more obsessed with death; his obsessions drive away his friends and his fiancé.  When he gets sick again he is horrified that the same thing will happen, and has an alarm system with a button installed in his coffin, just in case he gets buried alive again.  Well, of course he gets buried alive again, but the alarm doesn't work.  Smith, poet that he is, describes in detail the agonies of Sir Uther's death and his feverish conjectures that his brother, who will inherit the family wealth, is somehow behind his fatal misfortunes, offering many outré metaphors about the experience of dying of asphyxiation in total darkness, constricted into a tiny space.

Pretty good.  After first appearing in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, "The Second Interment"  would be included in the various editions of the Smith collection Out of Space and Time.

"The Double Shadow"

In 1933 Smith self-published a 30-page booklet of stories entitled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies.  In an April 1935 letter to C. L. Moore, HPL recommends Smith's little publication to the creator of Northwest Smith, saying that he is sure she "will find the contents of 'The Double Shadow' highly impressive" and telling her that his "favourite items are 'The Maze of the Enchanter', 'The Double Shadow', & 'A Night in Malneant'."  Smith sent a copy to Moore, who lived in Indianapolis, and, in a letter to Lovecraft written on May 27 of 1935, Moore told HPL that he had been right, that "the book was all I had expected of it."  (I read these letters in my copy of Hippocampus Press's tenth volume of Lovecraft's letters, which includes Moore's letters to Lovecraft as well as those extant letters sent to Moore by HPL.)

Lovecraft and Moore's praise is fully justified: "The Double Shadow" is a great story about being a wizard, showing you what it is like to devote your life and career to living in a remote place, pursuing forbidden knowledge, animating the dead, summoning demons, communicating with beings from other dimensions, and all that sort of stuff.  The descriptions of the magic workers' lair, their familiars, the spells they cast, and their ultimate black fate, are vivid and evocative.  Even though the story is full of elements we've seen many times before--a wizard's apprentice, animated mummies, demon summoning--Smith makes them feel fresh and exciting.  

The narrator is the apprentice of one of the greatest sorcerers of Poseidonis.  The story describes how the two wizards discover a metal tablet with a spell inscribed on it, and all the things they have to do to ascertain the origins of the tablet, decipher the tablet's text, and cast the spell.  And then the terrible results of the casting, which inflict upon wizard, apprentice, and one of their weird assistants, an animated mummy, a fate worse than death!  In some of his stories Smith overdescribes, giving you a list of descriptors like colors or something that don't really register, but this time out he constructs the images and relates the feelings of the narrator with just the right amount of verbiage.  "The Double Shadow" joins stories like "Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" and "The Testament of Athammaus" as one of my favorite Clark Ashton Smith tales!

Highly recommended.  "The Double Shadow" would eventually see publication in Weird Tales in 1939 and later in many Smith collections as well as anthologies of stories about Atlantis or black magic.  A widely acknowledged weird classic!

**********

These stories are all entertaining, one being great, and I think they show different aspects of Smith's career.  "The Holiness of Azedarac" actually has a happy ending and limited horror or gore elements, going against our expectations when we read a story by Smith.  "The Demon of the Flower" is very much a poetic story with long descriptions of bizarre sights.  "The Second Interment" shows Smith, who needed money in a way Lovecraft did not, writing a story based on somebody else's outline (but, as Conners and Hilger describe with copious primary source documentation, bringing to it plenty of his own distinctive ideas.)  And then in "The Double Shadow" we get a top notch sample of the kind of story we expect from Smith, a vivid and perfectly crafted story about amoral necromancers suffering an inconceivably horrible and physically disgusting doom.

Another fun foray into the weird world of the pulp magazines of the 1930s--and there's more where that came from in future installments of MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Ariel: The Book of Fantasy, Volume Two edited by Thomas Durwood

I recently found myself in the great state of New Jersey, land of my birth, and took the opportunity to visit one of my favorite Garden State spots, the Old Book Shoppe in Morristown.  Among the purchases I made there was Ariel: The Book of Fantasy, Volume TwoAriel was conceived, I guess, as a sort of high quality SF magazine which would also appeal to the adult comics crowd (people who read Heavy Metal and Vampirella), and even though the amount I paid for it damaged my self conception as a cheapo, there were so many big names represented in the thing that I couldn't resist.  So let's take a look at it, shall we?

"Eggsucker" by Harlan Ellison (1977)

After some enjoyable illustrations of sexy ladies and cool monsters from Frank Frazetta and Richard Corben and the Table of Contents we get the debut appearance of Harlan Ellison's "Eggsucker," the prequel to Ellison's famous 1969 "A Boy and His Dog."  "Eggsucker" is printed on full page illustrations by Corben instead of white paper, and this makes it a little harder to read. 

I hadn't read "A Boy and His Dog" in a long time, so I read the version in my copy of Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1970.  "A Boy and His Dog" is a pretty long story, like 37 pages in the Wollheim paperback, about the relationship between the narrator Vic, a young man in the post-nuclear war Kansas of 2024, and his uplifted dog Blood--Blood is smarter than Vic is and has psychic powers thanks to genetic engineering/selective breeding designed to make canines useful in war.  Besdes being able to communicate telepathically with Vic, Blood, can detect people at a distance, an ability that helps the man, Vic, find women to rape.  The story is well-written, funny at times and sort of shocking at other times, and the action sequences, like a fight with a party of scavengers, are good.  An underground society of survivors with access to some technology fools Vic into joining them--they need his semen because the men of the subterranean community (a caricature of prudish wholesome early 20th-century small town life) are mostly sterile--but Vic escapes (giving hip lefty Ellison a chance to indulge his fantasies of gorily murdering Middle American squares) with one of their number, an adventurous girl who has fallen in love with Vic and abandoned her people but also incurred the jealousy of Blood.  Back on the surface Vic has to choose between these two manipulative characters, his jealous partner Blood, who taught him to read and has saved his life in the past, and the traitorous girl who is not only the prettiest girl he's ever fucked but the first one to give him her consent.  

"A Boy and His Dog" is challenging because we readers can't be quite sure how much to admire the brave, resourceful, and loyal Vic, who represents freedom, and how much to condemn him for raping and murdering people.  Seeing as most of the people he rapes and murders are the hypocritical squares from underground small town, who represent, for Ellison, the kind of people who caused the nuclear war with the Chinese communists that destroyed the world (we obviously can't expect Ellison to blame the Chinese Communist Party for any of the world's problems) I guess we are expected to cheer Vic on as he cracks open people's skulls--Vic is not to blame for his atrocities, our prudish capitalist society drove him to these extremities!  Vic and Blood are like Frankenstein's monster, victims and products of our sick middle-class society that stifles people's understandable desires and perverts not only people but animals as well!  Of course, "A Boy and His Dog" tries, like so much exploitation material, to have its cake and eat it too, satisfying its readers' lust for blood and fetishistic sex with descriptions of gore and explicit kinky sex at the same time it is, in some circuitous way, condemning oppression and violence.  

"A Boy and His Dog" is probably Ellison's best story, whatever you make of its politics, less preachy and hectoring, more nuanced and thought-provoking than most of his stories, with more richly drawn characters and better action sequences; it feels like a believable story and not a polemic or fairy tale.  So, thumbs up for "A Boy and His Dog." 

One of Vic's sarcastic nicknames for Blood provides the title for 1977's "Eggsucker," which takes up like five of Ariel: Volume Two's 80 pages.  Where Vic narrates "A Boy and His Dog," Blood narrates "Eggsucker."  This story is fine, but I don't think it adds much to the story of "A Boy and His Dog."  Basically, Vic and Blood get careless and get into trouble and then save each other's lives.  An attack by a mutant monster, or whatever it is, mentioned in passing in "A Boy and His Dog" is described in detail here.    

My favorite part of the story is a mention of Necco wafers.  I love Necco wafers and was excited to find them again earlier this year in a display at Martin's grocery store.

"Eggsucker," with Richard Corben illustrations, would reappear in collections of all the Vic and Blood stories.  I have to admit that I feel that the close association of Corben's comic book art with "A Boy and His Dog" kind of undermines my feeling that the story is a nuanced, ambiguous work of literature, and not just another frivolous action-horror story that basically celebrates violence.  Look at these covers: Vic and Blood aren't grimy shocking anti-heroes, but people we are supposed to unabashedly find cool. 

**********

After the Ellison/Corben piece there is Part Two of an interview with Frank Frazetta illustrated with photos of the painter and his family, reproductions of various drawings and paintings of topless women, half-naked heroes like John Carter, Tarzan, and Flash Gordon (or Buck Rogers, but I think that's an "F" on his codpiece) and monsters.  This is all worthwhile if you like Frazetta, as I do.

Then comes a five-page comic by Bruce Jones, "The Princess and the Merman," which is acceptable but forgettable.  A lonely princess who can't swim is on an island--she and a merman who can't leave the water fall in love, and both die after leaving their element.  

Two pages are then devoted to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Lake," which is presented in calligraphy I found a challenge to read and provided with an illustration by Michael Hague.  

Next up is a one-page essay by the SF writer college professors want you to read, Ursula K. LeGuin, the transcription of a speech that was previously published in 1975 in Science Fiction Studies #7 under the title "American SF and the Other."  Here in Ariel, Volume 2 it appears under the title "Science Fiction Chauvinism."  LeGuin complains that SF is too racist, sexist, and imperialist and too often celebrates the martial virtues and too seldom examines the plight of the proletariat or advocates socialism.  

LeGuin's opinion is of course not falsifiable, but I hope some of the people who read this essay in 1975 or 1977 were aware of the diversity of content and thought in SF before 1975, for example, that the cover stories of the February 1941 (Nelson S. Bond's "Magic City") and August 1943 (C. L. Moore's "Judgement Night") issues of Astounding featured female protagonists, that the April 1937 Weird Tales featured Henry Kuttner's anti-war story "We Are the Dead," that the 1932 issue of Wonder Stories included Edmond Hamilton's anti-imperialism and anti-war story "Conquest of Two Worlds" and Jack Williamson's story of love between a human and serpentine alien "The Moon Era," that the February 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder offers A. E van Vogt's "The Weapon Shops of Isher," which has as one of its characters a resourceful female detective, and Ray Bradbury's "The Man" which denounces Earthmen who economically exploit aliens, that James H. Schmitz's stories commonly have female heroes (e.g., the four Agents of Vega tales) and that Robert Heinlein's novels are often implicitly anti-racist, featuring admirable non-white characters (e.g., The Star Beast and Starship Troopers) or explicitly anti-racist, featuring characters who give anti-racist speeches (e.g., Podkayne of Mars) and so on.  Of course, anybody could come up with a long list of SF stories in which women are ditzy obstacles or manipulative fiends, Earthmen's war on and domination of aliens is celebrated, blacks and Asians are sinister and inexplicable, etc., and some of the stories I have listed above would fit perfectly well on both lists.  My point is that SF, since long before we were born, has been no monolith but a field presenting diverse viewpoints and that generalizations in secondary sources written by people with axes to grind can present a distorted picture of the field.

I don't have the resources or inclination to get to Wuhan or Xinjiang or Hong Kong ,so I have to rely on the English-language media if I want to know what is going on in China.  But, thanks to the internet archive, I do not have to rely on Ursula K. LeGuin or anybody else to tell me what SF was like before 1975--I can look at the primary documents, the old SF magazines, and see what was going on in them myself.  And so can you.

(Longtime readers of MPorcius Fiction Log will remember that in 2018 I beat the same drum in response to Barry Malzberg's caricature of SF in his quite good novel Herovit's World, but this time I used some different examples--there are many such examples that defy the stereotypes promulgated by SF's critics without and within the field.)

LeGuin's essay is accompanied by a full-page portrait of an alien which maybe is a caricature of her?  I don't think it looks like her, but I don't have any other theory as to why this illo was attached to this essay.  

After LeGuin's piece comes four pages with an academic essay detailing how Frodo of Lord of the Rings is like Christ and its goofy accompanying illustrations showing a hobbit wearing a crown of thorns and a hobbit's hairy feet nailed to a cross in front of a volcano.

"The Burning Man" by Ray Bradbury (1975)

According to isfdb, this story first appeared in an Argentine magazine, Gente.  In 1976 it was among the stories printed in the hardcover book Long After Midnight; it seems it was also produced as an episode of the 1985 version of TV's The Twilight Zone.  LeGuin may be the SF figure most rapturously embraced by the academy, but Bradbury is the boy who escaped the ghetto of Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories to be most enthusiastically welcomed into the mass culture represented by TV, even though in Fahrenheit 451 he portrays TV as a family- and culture-destroying monster. 

It is a terribly hot day in the country in the days before our beloved AC had made life south of Canada bearable, in the days when motor cars had rumble seats.  A woman and her nephew are driving through the dry countryside to the lake that is five miles from town.  They pick up a hitchhiker, a man whose sexuality (he wears his shirt open and leans in close to them from the rumble seat) unnerves them and whose strange comments about how maybe there are people who, like locusts, live underground for years and then emerge to devour the countryside and maybe some people are just born evil make them suspect he is a dangerous monster.  Are their fears justified?  Can they give this guy the slip?

A good little story of two pages--Bradbury succeeds in generating some real menace and offering some interesting images.  The tale is rounded out with forgettable Bruce Jones illustrations.


 **********

After the Bradbury piece we get a short academic article about Mary Shelly's Frankenstein; like the piece on Frodo as Christ-figure, this thing reads like a grad student's thesis and is adorned with a large and somewhat silly illustration; this one is a photo of an old-timey table upon which sits a framed photo of Boris Karloff as the Monster, I guess a riff on the idea that the Monster is Dr. Frankenstein's (metaphorical) son.  The illustrations to the three academic articles in Ariel: Volume Two (the LeGuin speech, the Frodo piece and this Frankenstein discussion) almost seem designed to make fun of the texts they accompany.

"Paradise Gems" by David James

This story, which takes up less than half a page, has never appeared anywhere else.  David James's real name is David Hagberg, and isfdb only lists one novel by him, Croc, which looks like something that would be highlighted in the Paperbacks from Hell book ("In the tradition of Night of the Crabs"), but wikipedia is telling me that Hagberg wrote dozens of men's adventure franchise novels, espionage novels and crime novels, including a bunch of Flash Gordon novels.  

Anyway, this little vignette is about how aliens come from space, give everybody on the planet a jewel, and then everybody keels over and their souls (maybe) enter paradise through the jewels.  The narrator and his girlfriend didn't take jewels, and now they are the only people left on Earth; the punchline joke is that they are living like Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, so, regardless of whatever happened to everybody else, they are living in paradise.

Acceptable but forgettable filler.

"The Helmet-Maker's Wife" by Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts is a pretty highly regarded writer, and a skilled illustrator; he did the cover of the issue of New Worlds with Charles Platt's The Garbage World that I love so much.  This story, it appears, has only ever been printed here in Ariel: Volume Two.  It is illustrated by photos with garish lighting of women and a foam blockhead; the photos remind me of the cover of The Yes Album (talk about a great album) but don't seem to have anything to do with Roberts's story.

"The Helmet-Maker's Wife" starts in medias res.  Our narrator, who is having trouble with his memory, is tossed out of a Land Rover, given a shot from a syringe in one arm and a shot from a pistol in the other arm (ouch!), and flees into the wilderness, bleeding.  As he rests in a stone enclosure he initially thought a cave his memory comes back, and we get flashbacks to his earlier life.

Roland Betterton was a sculptor, but when there was a communist revolution in Britain he was forced by the commissars to abandon his career as an artist--and even his name!--and become factory worker Bert Rawlinson.  (I guess when Roberts wrote this thing he wasn't taking into account Ursula K. LeGuin's feelings about how socialism should be portrayed in SF.  Maybe his subscription to Science Fiction Studies had lapsed?)  After years of sucking up to the god-damned commies to preserve his hide, he was dragged before a commissar.  We get another flashback, about how the narrator was friends with a Korean War hero, a charismatic and able officer of, I guess, some kind of air cavalry or parachutist unit.  This guy, MacBride, is now a leader of the anti-communist resistance in the hills, and the People's Republic of Great Britain wants "Rawlinson" to become a double agent and join his old buddy in the hills so he can betray him.

MacBride accepts his old pal Roland Betterton into the ranks of his band of freedom fighters, and we get scenes of the narrator reuniting with his old friends and helping maintain MacBride's squadron of attack helicopters; these are apparently kept going with spare parts sent over from the USA, and are used to swoop down on and destroy the People's Republic's military convoys.  MacBride's people, in particular MacBride's daughter, a talented singer whom Betterton knew when she was a sweet child (MacBride married a retired opera singer on whom Betterton had a crush), torture captured commies; MacBride's daughter derives perverse sexual satisfaction from cutting captives with a knife--her victims are suspended from a frame, with her below so she can feel the terrified prisoners' blood and urine drip upon her.

The commies attack MacBride's base, and Betterton, I guess due to posthypnotic suggestion, helps them wipe out MacBride's force.  Then comes the somewhat vague, somewhat tricky ending.  Perhaps the ending indicates that as a reward Betterton (who as "Rawlnison" had been living in a cramped shared flat in a Worker's Barracks) has been allocated a beautiful country house and allowed to sculpt again, and has married MacBride's daughter, who has been re-educated out of her anti-communist and golden shower ways.  There is also a chance, I think, that this whole story of revolution and espionage has been a dream, that England has not been taken over by the Reds and Betterton is a successful sculptor and his friend MacBride is alive and well and his daughter is not a pervert but just a nice twelve-year old kid.

This is a pretty good story, though at times it is ambiguous and maybe a little confusing.  In a number of ways it reminds me of the version of Roberts's "Molly Zero" I read in the anthology Triax; "Molly Zero" is also about life under totalitarians and also features not-quite-believably convoluted espionage operations.  An interesting theme of "The Helmet-Maker's Wife" is the artist who has to stop performing his or her art; both the narrator and MacBride's wife have to leave their successful creative careers behind.  

Because I have been pointing out evidence of the SF community's love for Norse mythology I will note that MacBride is compared to Siegfried and some of his squadron's attack helicopters have names like Slepnyr and Ossian's Ride.   

**********

After the Roberts story 15 pages are taken up by an episode of Richard Corben's comic Den, about a naked muscleman who stops a naked priestess from sacrificing a naked woman to Cthulhu (spelled "Uhluhtc" here) and then escapes on a giant bat.  I dislike the color schemes Corben uses, and people's faces are far from beautiful, but the muscular nude male and voluptuous nude female bodies are great, as are the bat (the reputation of bats has been taking a beating in the media lately so it is nice to see a positive portrayal of a bat) and the architecture and fun accessories like the priestess's terrific Cthulhu mask.  Of course the story is the same old Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard stuff again, but we love ERB, HPL and REH, don't we?, and the art is original enough and good enough that it is easy to forgive the stock plot.  

"Islands" by Michael Moorcock (1963)

"Islands" first appeared in New Worlds under the title "Not By Mind Alone," and would go on to appear in the Moorcock collection Moorcock's Book of Martyrs, American printings of which go by the title Dying for Tomorrow.  (I own copies of both; I think my brother bought one of them--we both went through Moorcock phases.)  The story's appearance here is accompanied by illustrations by Jeff Jones; like Corben, Jones is not afraid to depict male genitalia, unlike Corben, I love the colors Jones uses--the reds and browns, and the tiny amounts of green and blue, in the painting of a man seated at a table on page 72 in particular.  As with the photos accompanying Roberts's story and the picture beside Le Guin's essay, the Jones art on the same pages as Moorcock's story have little to do with Moorcock's text.

"Islands" is a talky, philosophical story, somewhat boring.  Two smart guys are having a conversation in London.  One is our English narrator, the other a German doctor who has lived in England a long time.  As a sort of preamble to the story proper, they debate heredity and environment and individualism: how different are individual people, are people essentially the same and just superficially different due to their genetic inheritance and social pressures, or are people radically unique and superficially similar due to a need to conform to their environment?  The German insists he has proof that individual people are all very different, that each person in fact lives in his own private universe and his conformity to social norms is just an act!  Then he tells his weird story, taking over the narration.

An old woman patient lead the German doctor to her nephew, who complained of being incessantly afflicted with illusions, of an inability to maintain contact with reality.  The doktor witnessed him interact with other realities, even sit in a chair that does not exist in our universe so that he was hanging in the air, feet off the ground!  The German took the nephew to a physicist's lab, and there the scientists devised a machine that allowed the nephew to live in his own private universe, conversing with people and dealing with situations perhaps similar but different and distinct from those in this world.  The physicists' machine can be used on anybody to liberate them so they can enjoy life in their own special universe.

The English narrator takes over again, and says he doesn't believe the German's story.  The German tells him that soon he will have no choice, as the scientists have built many of the machines and deployed them around the world--later today they will be activated and everybody in the world will be liberated from this universe to inhabit his own, better, universe.

This is a weak story that feels long, takes work to follow, and doesn't offer much reward for the reader's labor.  Gotta give it a marginal thumbs down.

**********

And that's Ariel: The Book of Fantasy, Volume Two.  The Bradbury and Roberts stories are legitimately good, and the Ellison, Moorcock and LeGuin contributions worth reading because they are important figures in SF history, and I am glad I had an excuse to reread the quite good "A Boy and His Dog."  And I will certainly be looking at the Frazetta, Corben and Jones art again, so, a purchase I need not regret.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Thrilling Wonder Feb '49: R Bradbury, J Blish & D Knight, and T Sturgeon

Finding some elements of Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands...," which I read recently, similar to A. E. van Vogt's Isher stories, I was inspired to reread the magazine versions of the three 1940s stories ("Seesaw" and "The Weapon Shop" from Astounding and "The Weapon Shops of Isher" from Thrilling Wonder) that were jammed together to form the 1951 novel The Weapon Shops of Isher, as well as the 1943 magazine version of The Weapon Makers, which appeared as a serial across three issues of Astounding.  I have to say, I really enjoyed rereading these, as, having read them before in one form or another, I didn't have to break my brain trying to figure out the plot intricacies but could enjoy the images, the relationships between the characters, and the philosophical and psychological theories of our favorite Canadian.  I also think the original magazine versions of some of van Vogt's short stories are better than the novels they were developed into for book publication; I am certain this was the case with "The Rull," for example, and suspect it is the case with the Isher stories.  The reviewer who wrote about The Weapon Makers for British magazine Nebula Science Fiction in 1954 opines that the revision of the Astounding serial for hardcover publication was to the story's detriment, and I think I may agree.  

Anyway, the February 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder that has "The Weapon Shops of Isher" as its cover story also presents stories by other SF figures of interest to us here at MPorcius Fiction Log, so let's take a look at three: one by perhaps SF's greatest mainstream success, Ray Bradbury; a collaboration of Futurians James Blish and Damon Knight; and something by Theodore Strugeon, who (as Disch tells it) invited Thomas Disch to a threesome with his wife, an offer Disch declined.

"The Man" by Ray Bradbury

An Earth rocket lands on an inhabited planet.  The natives don't rush to meet the astronauts, much to the consternation of their captain.  He sends his lieutenant to town to find out what is going on.  It turns out that Jesus Christ visited the town yesterday, and his appearance has monopolized people's attention.  (Bradbury doesn't actually use the words "Jesus Christ," but leaves no doubt as to the identity of the visitor.)  The lieutenant is thrilled and decides to stay on this planet, where he can find the peace of mind that is impossible to find on filthy Earth since everyone's faith was destroyed by Darwin back in the Victorian era.  The captain, however, thinks the natives have been duped by another Earth rocket's captain, an unscrupulous rival, and sets out to interview the natives about the man who allegedly healed the town's sick and comforted its poor yesterday.  When the evidence they provide of Christ's appearance doesn't satisfy the captain, he is more sure than ever it is the work of one of a fellow astronaut.  The lieutenant denounces the captain for threatening to spoil the wonderful thing that has happened on this planet with his skepticism and his "scientific method."

When it becomes clear that the healer was not a fellow Earthman in disguise, the captain sees the light but instead of the reality of Christ bringing him peace he becomes obsessed with a desire to meet his lord and savior and blasts off to feverishly search the universe for Him.  The lieutenant stays behind--his mild pursuit of the peace offer by Jesus is bound to succeed, while the captain's aggressive, desperate hunt for Him is doomed to failure. 

It is interesting to see such an in-your-face Christian SF story, as well as an SF story that denounces science in no uncertain terms--"The Man" is a good example of the diversity of thought in the SF field (we might also see it as an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist SF story, with its talk of how Earthmen plot to exploit the natives.)  But "The Man" is not exactly a fun or exciting story--it is a preaching-to-the-choir polemic.  

Acceptable.  I prefer the Ray Bradbury of "The October Game" and "The Silent Towns," myself, but "The Man" was a hit, being chosen by Everett Bleiler and T. E. Ditky for their The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1950 and included in 2003's Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, as well as the oft-reprinted collections The Illustrated Man and S is for Space.      


"The Weakness of Rvog" by James Blish and Damon Knight

"The Weakness of Rvog" would later be expanded by Blish into the novel VOR, which I read long ago and remember very little about.  The novel seems to have been a success, though: isfdb lists a dozen physical editions, and many have pretty awesome covers.  (I wonder if Knight made any money on those books.)  This magazine version seems to never have have appeared again after its debut in Thrilling Wonder--it's a Futurian deep cut!

I'm hardly the biggest fan of James Blish or Damon Knight, and have repeatedly trashed stories by them on this blog (though Knight has produced some legit gems), and I expected to not like this story, but in fact it is pretty entertaining.  "The Weakness of Rvog" is a traditional science fiction tale about a bunch of scientists racing against time to figure out a scientific problem--if they fail the Earth will be destroyed!

In the spacefaring future in which Mars has been colonized by Earth, an extrasolar craft lands on our beloved Terra.  An alien, RVOG, whose body is indestructible and who communicates via sequences of flickering lights, emerges.  It takes the boffins months to figure out how to talk to this creature, and when communication is achieved RVOG demands to be killed.  RVOG has asked numerous other alien races to put it out of its misery, and they all failed; the human scientists have reason to suspect that RVOG punished those other civilizations by wiping them out.  Some off the eggheads want to get to work on a means of killing RVOG right away, while others want to try to cure RGVOG's depression so they can pick his brain--no doubt RVOG has much to teach us about the universe and can give us a leg up on the development of such technology it already has but which is currently out of human reach, like an FTL drive.  

Before these PhD's can anything come to any conclusions RVOG goes on a rampage, killing thousands or millions of people but luckily one of the scientists figures out how to neutralize it through psychology and trickery; this genius also figures out the alien's origin and purpose here on Earth.

We can perhaps see reflections of the political views of the Futurians in the fact that the genius is a Russian and that a theme of the story is one-world government based in Sweden.  (A related side note: SF people love Norse mythology, as I recently mentioned when opining about a weak Fritz Leiber story, and the Terran space warships in "The Weakness of RVOG" are named after components of Norse mythology.) 


"Messenger" by Theodore Sturgeon

Unlike van Vogt's epic of the struggle of a virgin empress against a cabal of super-scientists, Bradbury's parable of Jesus visiting an alien planet, and Blish and Knight's tragic tale of a genius Russki psychoanalyzing a suicidal robot (oh, spoiler), Sturgeon's "Messenger" does not seem to have been destined for great things.  "Messenger" did reappear in a 1966 reprint magazine, and then in 1998 in the fifth volume of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, The Perfect Host, though, so it didn't exactly disappear without a trace.

"Messenger" is a story about how a scientific genius with good values uses science to help other people and save his life from a guy with terrible values.     

Auckland Ford has invented many things and gotten rich.  But he thinks being rich and idle is unhealthy, so he gives most of his money away to charity and works a lowly technician's job at the nuclear power plant he designed, watching gauges all day.  He has a sexy daughter, Dorcas, who is of below average intelligence.  The power plant's public relations guy, Bentow, is vain, lazy, and evil; he wants to marry Dorcas to get at Ford's money and already has the dimwitted dame going gaga over him.  Then he learns that Ford is going to sign his will next week, leaving all his money to charity!  Bentow decides to kill Ford in a way that will look like an industrial accident, and much of the story's text concerns the workings of the power plant and how Bentow plans to exploit these technical facts to murder Ford.  Much of the rest of the story explains how Ford uses his knowledge of science to escape death and bring Bentow to justice.

Acceptable.  The inventor who comes up with stuff that radically improves human life, like cancer cures, and selflessly offers it to the public, even though the public treats him like crap, appears to be a sort of stock character in Sturgeon's body of work; check out "Slow Sculpture," "Occam's Scalpel." and "Extrapolation."  

**********

This is actually a pretty good issue of Thrilling Wonder, with plenty of pages of work by important writers that is good or at least interesting, and plenty of illustrations by Virgil Finlay that are worth looking at. The MPorcius staff encourages you to Check! It! Out!

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

1968 SF stories by Fred Saberhagen, Fritz Leiber, H. H. Hollis and Terry Carr

I have already written three blog posts about Donald Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 and its terrific John Schoenherr cover, covering a dozen of the stories it offers.  But I think there may still be some goodness to be wrung out of this fruit!  Today we'll read four stories from its pages, tales by Fred Saberhagen, Fritz Leiber, H. H. Hollis and Terry Carr, as we continue the exploration of the anthology shelves of the MPorcius Library that has taken up my last five blog posts.


"Starsong"  by Fred Saberhagen 

This story, one of Saberhagen's many Berserker stories, first appeared in Fred Pohl's If.  Saberhagen often bases his stories on famous works of literature or myth or events in history, and this story is a beat for beat retelling of the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice.  

Ordell Callison is the greatest musician in the human space empire.  He marries the beautiful Eury.  As you well know, artistic types tend to be decadent libertines, and Ordell and Eury fit the mold.  One of the little games they and their hangers-on play is tag, each of them flying around in a little one-man space ship; when a man catches a woman's space ship he boards her ship and has sex with her.  Ordell and Eury are participating in one of these space sex games, as they did all the time before they were married, but now they want to play the tag part but not the sex part.  For some reason they didn't tell this to their fellow debauchees, so when Eury is caught by some guy he expects to be able to fuck her and doesn't believe her when she refuses and he gets a little rough.  Eury manages to escape his clutches and, back in her ship, in a panic, flies into a nebula.

In this nebula is a Berserker space station; the Berserkers, as you probably know, are machines programmed to exterminate all life.  This Berserker base is a laboratory that conducts experiments on captured humans, its main line of research is integrating human brains into Berserker computer systems.  So the base is mostly "crewed" not by purely mechanical robots, but by cyborgs, human brains stuffed into robot bodies; these brains are imperfect clones or natural brains in various states of insanity and are thus very suggestible.

Ordell goes to the lab and uses his top tier musical abilities to befuddle the foggy human brains of the cyborgs so they will facilitate his rescue of Eury.  All goes according to plan for a while, but, just like in the traditional Orpheus story, the rescue attempt miscarries on the very cusp of success.

Saberhagen's space warfare retelling of the tale of Orpheus is imbedded in a horror-story-style frame story involving a brain surgeon who assesses the human brains liberated from the lab when the Berseker base is captured by human space navy boarding parties.

I am prejudiced against parodies and spoofs and retellings and reimaginings, and was not impressed with this story, much of which comes across as contrived and silly.  Barely acceptable. 

"Starsong" would go on to be included in quite a few Berserker collections.
   

"The Square Root of Brain" by Fritz Leiber 

In the same way the narrow corridors of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons dungeon are riddled with spiked pits, spring-loaded crossbow bolts and green slime that falls on you from the ceiling, these SF anthologies are laced with joke stories that can unexpectedly spring on the intrepid explorer and make a mess of his expedition.  Wollheim and Carr warn us that "The Square Root of Brain" is a "sharply satiric look at human achievements," and I'm inclined to skip it, but will press on, buoyed by the knowledge that Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar" is one of the very funniest of SF stories.  

At a Hollywood party, in a series of rooms decorated with psychedelic drapes, modernist furniture, and teen-aged starlets in tight dresses, a bunch of people swap incredible anecdotes (a guy claims to have been abducted by aliens, a woman says she remembers her past lives, etc.) and share conspiracy theories.  The text of the story is broken up by block-quoted entries from an encyclopedia--these entries are nonsensical or clearly fictitious.  I guess these encyclopedia entries, and the fact that in the last paragraphs the modernist chairs turn out to be spacecraft, is our clue that this is an alternate universe and the crazy anecdotes and conspiracy theories, in the depicted universe, are likely true.

Despite the warning, I fell in the trap.  The jokes in this story are not funny, it offers no human feeling and no arresting images, the anecdotes and theories are not original, and there is no suspense or tension or even interest.  Gotta condemn this one.  Bad.

"The Square Root of Brain" debuted in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds and Moorcock even included it in Best SF Stories from New World 4, another anthology I own.  Do Moorcock, Wollheim and Carr really think this lame story is good?  Maybe they promoted it because it is (sort of...I guess) an attack on American imperialism and racism?  Or maybe they wanted to do their friend a solid and knew Leiber's name on a book would help it sell because Leiber truly has done very good and quite popular work?  Well, who knows?  One thing I do know is that isfdb does not list "The Square Root of Brain" as having appeared in any English Leiber collections, though it has been reprinted in a French collection.


"Sword Game" by H. H. Hollis

We really are exploring today, oh my brothers--here's a story from some guy I never read before.  H. H. Hollis was a Texas lawyer (real name: Ben Neal Ramey) who wrote SF on the side for fun; he has 16 fiction entries at isfdb.  "Sword Game" is probably his most successful story, appearing in several anthologies after its debut in Galaxy and garnering a Nebula nomination. 

"Sword Game" is another unfunny joke story.  A math professor is able to create tesseracts, which in this story at least are cubes inside which time passes very slowly because they exist in the fourth dimension as well as the three ordinary dimensions, or something like that.

Anyway, the prof starts having sex with one of his students.  He hasn't been enjoying being a professor anyway, so he and the girl join a circus and take to the road--the girl, before attending college, worked in a carnival as the woman who scrunches up into a basket and dodges swords that pierce the basket.  On stage the girl climbs into one of the prof's tesseracts, which appears as a translucent cube, and he thrusts a sword through the cube and through his girlfriend--spectators can see that the point of the sword sticking out the other side of the cube has her blood on it.  In a way I don't quite understand the girl doesn't die even though the blade of a sword has passed right through her torso because she is entirely within the tesseract so time passes very slowly for her while the weapon, its hilt being outside the cube, experiences time at the normal rate.  When the prof withdraws the bloody sword the girl heals instantly and climbs out of the cube in perfect health. 

This girl is vapid and they have nothing to talk about and the prof soon tires of her.  So he murders her in a way he thinks will be undetectable.  Telling her he needs to practice, he has her get into a tesseract in private, then he stabs her with a short Roman gladius--the point does not stick out the other side of the cube.  He breaks off the hilt of the sword so the blade is entirely inside the cube--presumably she has been slain.  Then he shrinks the cube down to a convenient size, and uses it as a paperweight on his desk when he resumes his career as an academic.

Many years pass.  The prof develops a friendly relationship with a promising student who looks much like him when he was young.  The student is fascinated by the tesseract and figures out how to open it.  Before the prof can stop him, the student opens the tesseract and the girl jumps out--for her only a few seconds have passed.  She is alive because when she didn't recognize the sword entering the cube she squirmed to dodge it.  She thinks the student is the prof and embraces him, and the lovers imprison the old geezer of a prof in the tesseract, where he will live until the collapse of the universe.

A plot along these lines--evil mad scientist takes advantage of a daffy female and then gets his comeuppance--could definitely work, but, instead of writing it like something you'd find in Weird Tales, Hollis presents it as a joke; there is lots of feeble topical humor about the mores of kids in the late Sixties, for example.  We're calling this one barely acceptable.          


"The Dance of the Changer and the Three" by Terry Carr

The point of this story, which first appeared in the anthology The Farthest Reaches, is to present some truly alien aliens and to demonstrate that different cultures cannot really understand each other.  Our narrator is one of the few survivors of a mining expedition of like fifty people sent to inhospitable planet Loarr, where the natives are beings made up mostly of energy that look like nebulas or snowflakes and communicate by changing their patterns and colors.  Their traditional art form is the "wave dance."  The narrator was the diplomat on the mission, and had time to get to know the Loarra people and their art pretty well, and to give us some insight into Loarra culture, provides us his translation of the most prominent Loarra wave dance, something like a folk tale or heroic myth, maybe akin to our Iliad or the tales of King Arthur or something.  The narrator stresses repeatedly how his translation is imperfect and he has to resort to words like "water" and "sky" even though on Loarr, a gas giant, there really is no water or sky.

The wave dance epic concerns three heroes who go on a quest to "avenge" the "suicide" of another character.  Our human narrator has to use the words "avenge" and "suicide," words which do not make much sense in the context of the aliens' story, because we Earthers have no words that correspond to the concepts that the Loarra story is really about.  In my opinion "commemorate" and "metamorphosis into the next stage of life" would be better translations.  Anyway, the three heroes meet a very old Loarra, one who is so old he is mostly matter now instead of mostly energy.  The old timer tells them a secret that is incomprehensible to human minds, and using that secret the three heroes enter the vortex from which life first emerged on Loarr and create a new life which they promptly devour.  This meal, we are told, is the most significant part of the Loarra epic.

At the end of Carr's story, after we have read this fragmented translation of the Loarra national epic, we learn the story of the mining expedition.  The humans met the Loarra, learned to communicate with them, made friends with them, got permission to mine, and then mined for over three years.  Everything seemed to be going just fine.  Then one day the Loarra, indestructible energy beings, suddenly attacked the helpless and unarmed miners and killed all but six of them.  When the narrator, who had been friendly with the natives for four years, asked them why they had murdered his colleagues, the aliens assert that they are not angry and don't mind if the humans take the ores off planet and don't want the humans to leave; they killed most of the humans "just because" and cannot predict whether they will or won't launch such an attack again.

"The Dance of the Changer and the Three" succeeds in making its point that the universe is inexplicable and life is meaningless and so forth, but it is not very engaging--it is kind of boring, to be honest.  It tells a story you can't understand, and keeps telling you that you won't be able to understand it, so all the descriptions of conversations between flickering beings feel pointless.  Maybe on a technical level the story is "good" because it inspires the reader to share the diplomat's frustration at being unable to make sense of the universe and hopelessness at realizing we have no control over our own fates, but I have to give it a thumbs down because reading it is not an entertaining or enlightening experience.

Editors evidently love this story--it has been reprinted many times in anthologies like Robert Silverberg's Deep Space and magazines like Vertex.    


*********

Oy, I feel like this has been a tough expedition.  I may have to reread some SF stories I already know I like in order to renew my faith in the utility of carrying on with the performance art project we call MPorcius Fiction Log.  

Well, see you next time, space fans...if there is a next time.