Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Monsters of the Atom," "Red Gem of Mercury" and "The Crystal Circe" by Henry Kuttner

Strap on your needle pistol, we're going on three more adventures with Henry Kuttner, courtesy of Thunder in the Void! Thunder in the Void is a 2012 collection of Kuttner tales produced by Haffner Press; today's three adventures were ripped from the pages of 1940s pulps and did not appear in book form until our own 21st century!

"Monsters of the Atom" (1941)

This one first appeared in the magazine Super-Detective, and the beginning does remind one of a hard-boiled crime story, though set on the Mars of the future.

Our narrator is Kirk Bellamy, an asteroid prospector, wasting his money and time at a Martian gambling den.  The native Martians try to cheat him, a brawl ensues, and he gets tossed in an alley. There a Martian tries to murder him, but our hero is saved by a sexy dame with a needle pistol.  The dame, named Lurana, hires Bellamy to do a dirty job for her--she needs help stealing a jewel from a crook named Garth.  Lurana hired Garth to steal the jewel from somebody else, but Garth kept the jewel for himself.

Bellamy goes along with her, and in short order they have captured Garth and the jewel.  Lurana reveals that she is descended from the people of ancient Atlantis.  Atlanteans colonized Venus back in the day, but then were afflicted by a Venerian plague.  To escape the plague they shrank themselves to tiny size and took up residence in the jewel Lurana and Bellamy have just recovered.  Lurana wants to reunite with her countrymen, so she takes a pill to shrink herself to subatomic size, and forces Bellamy and Garth at needle gunpoint to do the same.

Inside the jewel world a horrible truth is revealed.  Time moves much faster at the subatomic level, so while thousands of years have passed in our universe since the Atlanteans entered the jewel, within the jewel millions or billions of years have elapsed.  Over these eons, the Atlanteans have evolved into amoeboids.  The amoebas try to communicate with Lurana and Bellamy via telepathy, but, somehow, while the humans can understand the amoebas' thoughts, the amoebas can't decipher human thoughts.  So Bellamy can understand what the aliens are saying, but the aliens can't understand what the humans are saying.

The amoeba people want to conquer our solar system, so imprison Bellamy, Lurana, and Garth to use as test subjects for chemical and biological weapons research!  They test a gas on them that turns out to have aphrodisiac effects, setting up one of those scenes in which a woman's clothes get ripped off; we saw lots of these scenes in Kuttner's "Avengers of Space" and "Time Trap."  Bellamy kills Garth before the latter can rape Lurana, then leads an escape out of the jewel.  Back to full size, he throws the jewel into an atom smasher, annihilating the entire amoeba civilization.

"Monsters of the Atom" is a pretty poor effort; the whole thing feels shoddy and rushed.  Every element of the plot feels contrived and goofy, and the way people act and the things that happen are neither believable nor interesting.  Thumbs down!

"Red Gem of Mercury" (1941)

This story first appeared in Super Science Stories, which claims to be "The Big Book of Science Fiction" and backs up the claim by including work by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury.  Alfred Bester and Hannes Bok are also represented in the issue.  Those famous names don't appear on the cover (Heinlein's story appears under the pseudonym "Lyle Monroe") but Kuttner's name does.  Let's see if Kuttner's story deserves to be seen in the august company of those titans of SF, Bob and Ray.

Steve Vane was an idealistic young lawyer serving the people in the slums of a 1930s U.S. city until crime boss Mike Pasqual used forged papers to get him thrown off the bar and into the big house!   With the help of one of Pasqual's rival gangsters Vane escapes prison.  Just as the coppers catch up to Vane a space ship crash lands nearby and the fuzz drag an eight-foot-tall blue alien out of it.  Just before he croaks the alien tells Vane and the cops that he is from Mercury and the gem in his forehead gives its wearer great psionic powers!  (This sounds a little like the 1959 version of Green Lantern to me!)

With the red gem now embedded in his own forehead Vane returns to the slums to exact revenge on Pasqual (whom we are told has a "swart, thick-lipped and brutal" face) and to destroy his entire criminal empire.  The gem allows Vane to hypnotize people into doing whatever he wants them to do; this includes making them see and hear illusions.  In the climactic scene Vane conjures up the illusion that a gangster Pasqual double-crossed has risen from the dead, and the sight of this vengeful apparition breaks Pasqual's spirit, so that he confesses everything to the boys in blue.

There's no sex in this one, but Kuttner piles on the gore.  In one scene Vane hypnotizes a gangster so he will not resist while an innocent slum-dweller punches him in the face repeatedly.  In another scene Vane sees a man fall down a gorge and bounce off a jutting rock before landing in the rushing river.  And Kuttner lovingly describes the blood gushing out of the illusory living corpse as Pasqual desperately shoots it and then pummels it with bricks.

"The Red Gem of Mercury" is like something from EC or Warren comics, a mix of gory horror and hard-boiled gangster melodrama in which the criminals meet a terrible poetic justice via a bizarre supernatural agency.  It is not really a space-opera, like many of the stories in Thunder In the Void, and only barely science fiction: the story would have worked as well or better if Vane had got the jewel from a mummy in a museum or a locked chest in the library of a decaying mansion.

This story isn't really trying to say anything about humanity or life, like Heinlein's, Bradbury's and Kuttner's own best work does; it is just garish entertainment.  But I can enjoy competent garish entertainment, and Kuttner gets the pacing and structure just right, and his weird images are striking, so I'm giving "The Red Gem of Mercury" a thumbs up.  

"The Crystal Circe" (1942)

This story appeared in Astonishing, printed alongside pieces by classic Golden Age writers E. E. "Doc" Smith and Leigh Brackett.  The issue's cover painting illustrates "The Crystal Circe" which, like our last two reads, involves a mystical gem from another planet.  Did Kuttner have jewelry on the brain in the early '40s or something?

"The Crystal Circe" is the tale of broad-shouldered (the narrator of the prologue calls him "Herculean") Steve Arnsen and his bookish little buddy, Douglas O'Brien. Kuttner lays on us some of the same romanticization of the people of the Emerald Isle we saw in Leigh Brackett's "The Citadel of Lost Ships," telling us that O'Brien was "an his Celtic ancestors had been."

The narrator of the prologue is an old college buddy of Arnsen and O'Brien, who meets Arnsen by chance in the Manhattan stratoship port.  Arnsen tells this guy his tale of woe, but for some reason the meat of the story is written in the third person, rather than being Arnsen's own words.

On a fishing trip in Maine, Arnsen and O'Brien discover a crater and within it a crystal.  The jewel is somehow alive; when the men touch it they get psychic emanations from it, feelings and visions.  O'Brien, an imaginative sort, becomes obsessed with the jewel, certain it can guide him to the woman of his dreams!  The gem teaches him to be a physicist, he quits his office job and sets up a lab and develops a new alloy which he sells for big bucks.  With the bucks he hires a space ship and pilot, tobacco-chewing Tex Hastings.

"The Crystal Circe" also appeared in
this Canadian issue of Super
 Science Stories,
which is essentially
a reprint of the Astonishing issue.
Guided by the jewel, O'Brien, Arnesen and Hastings fly to an uncharted asteroid.  There a weird disaster strikes them all.  The woman of O'Brien's dreams is real, an immortal extragalactic alien served by living gems which are in fact robots born of a technology vastly superior to Earth's.  These robots need to be recharged every few bazillion years, and the alien goddess recharges two of them by beguiling Hastings and O'Brien and tossing them into a nuclear inferno!  This immolation liberates their life forces, which are then entrapped in old and tired gems, revivifying them.  When Arnesen touches the gem with O'Brien's life force in it, he finds that O'Brien's consciousness has survived, and O'Brien is happy to be the woman's slave!

Arnesen is almost ensorcelled himself, but at the last second he pushes the beautiful woman into the inferno, so her alien life force is planted into one of the gem robots.  Arnesen brings the jewel with her life force back with him to Earth.  He is a broken soul wracked by guilt and an unquenchable desire for the alien woman in the gem.  In the epilogue Arnesen tells his friend that he is going to fly out into space, as far as he can go, and die in the blackness between the stars.

Of the three stories I am talking about in this blog post "The Crystal Circe" is by far the best written and most interesting.  There are many references to Norse and Classical mythology, and passages about the mystery of deep space and its effect on the human psyche.  And of course the whole story is about man's pursuit of women, the mysterious power women can have over men, and the risks sexual desire and sexual relationships can pose to a man and his friendships with other men.  To me, that is more interesting than lawyers and gangsters getting revenge on each other, and whatever the hell "Monsters of the Atom" was supposed to be about.


I've now read 300 pages of Thunder in the Void, almost half its length, and I have enjoyed most of what I have read so far.  (A clunker like "Monsters of the Atom" is not representative.)  The collection is a solid purchase for fans of pulp era/Golden Age science fiction.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear that the Thunder in the Void collection is pretty good, sounds like you're having fun with it. Still haven't freed my copy from its shrinkwrap yet. Kuttner is one of my favorite underrated pulp authors... Great review as always.