Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Sword of Morning Star by "Richard Meade"

"I loved you then.  That was when I could still love.  But you were right, Sandivar.  It is a freezing of the soul.  All laughter is frozen, and all love.  What remains is death; but for my purposes, death is enough."
Benjamin Leopold Haas wrote mainstream novels and nonfiction about the American South under the name Ben Haas, and paperback genre fiction, like sex novels and Westerns, under a variety of pen names, including three fantasy/SF titles listed at isfdb, all of which I own.  I read Quest of the Dark Lady, published under the Quinn Reade pseudonym, back in 2015, and today I am cracking open the first book in Haas's two-volume Gray Lands series, The Sword of Morning Star, published under the Richard Meade pseudonym in 1969.  I liked Quest of the Dark Lady, and with luck this novel, and its sequel, Exile's Quest, will be equally entertaining.

Our tale is set in what we today call Europe, thousands of years in the future, long after "the Worldfire," which is either a euphemistic term for a nuclear war or a catastrophic war between wizards that Haas is using as a sort of allegory for nuclear war.  Mankind has been reduced to feudalism; most people are illiterate, men ride horses and fight with swords and are ruled by kings.  Living alongside human beings like you and me are mutants, people who are half man, half wolf!  But human and wolfman aren't exactly living in comity--one of the leitmotifs of The Sword of Morning Star is how terrible the wolfpeople smell to purestrain humies, and the contempt most humans have for the wolfmen, and the inferiority complex felt by the wolfpeople, who can't stand to look a real human in the eye!

The most civilized and sophisticated polities of this future world lie to the South in what are called "the Lands of Light," this is Italy, its capital Neoroma.  To the North and East are "the Dark Lands," where live dangerous barbarians; I guess these are Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  Lying between the peaceful people of Italy and the barbarians is the "Empire of the Gray Lands" of what I assume is Germany, including the Kingdom of Boorn, whose king is Emperor of the Gray Lands; the duty of the Emperor is to protect the South from all those barbarians. (The novel's setting presumably reflects the fact that North Carolina-born Haas lived in Austria for some years.)  Our hero, Helmut, is the 12-year-old bastard son of the King of Boorn; Helmut spent his youth in the palace, living the life of a prince, learning how to read, ride horses and sword fight and all that.  The Emperor recently died of a mysterious illness, and the Emperor's legitimate son Gustav is the current holder of the throne, but he's a kid himself and rules under the close supervision of Albrecht, Duke of Wolfsheim.  Albrecht is one of the few humans who like the wolfmen, and his ducal army is constituted of these smelly brutes--these lupine creeps can talk and walk bipedally and ride horses and fight with swords, just like a purestrain human, but their claws and fangs make them unbeatable in unarmed combat, a fact we see demonstrated in Chapter I when Albrecht lays a trap for Helmut's personal guard.  The wolfmen kill Helmut's retinue, and Albrecht wants to kill Helmut as well, but Gustav insists his half-brother be spared.  Helmut is sent into exile in the swamps, but only after Albrecht has chopped off Helmut's right hand so he can't wield a sword--a precaution meant to short circuit any attempts on an older Helmut's part to seek revenge or the throne for which he has a claim, should anything happen to half-brother Gustav.

In the swamps an ailing Helmut is revived and educated by a mentor character, Sandivar, a sorcerer who lives in an old 150-foot tall tower and can talk to the animals.  This dude can put a saddle on a bear and ride around on it, which comes in handy when a ten-foot tall mud man, a mrogg, attacks in Chapter III.

Sandivar's powers enable him to view events over long distance of both space and time; in fact, his magical abilities seem practically unlimited, but whenever his powers threaten to undermine the plot, Haas has him claim that he can't do such and such a thing (like annihilate Albrecht's army with lightning bolts) because that would go against a vow he took to limit the use of his powers; it was overindulgence in special powers that led to the Worldfire, after all.  (Following similar logic, Sandivar advises Helmut to refrain from building catapults, arguing that constructing such engines will set off an arms race that will lead to catastrophic results.  This presumably reflects Haas's concerns about nuclear war, and perhaps a romanticism about war before industrialism, when, at least as Haas envisages it, combat was a test of bravery and muscle power conducted at close range.) 

Anyway, thanks to abilities Sandivar does not hesitate to employ, he knows that the evil Albrecht has murdered Gustav and made himself Emperor, and that as Emperor he is going to make common cause with the barbarians of the North and pillage the practically defenseless South.  This will be an even bigger disaster than it initially sounds like because the peaceful people of the Lands of Light are developing a vaguely defined "New Learning" that will bring peace to all the world.  Sandivar can also see Helmut's future, and knows Helmut is the man who can stop Albrecht.  Of course, Helmut is only twelve years old, but Sandivar has a plan for that!  After getting Helmut all charged up to seek revenge by telling him that his father the Emperor didn't just get sick but was actually poisoned by Albrecht, Sandivar uses his sorcery to send Helmut to hell!

Haas proposes a universe of multiple dimensions that operate at different speeds.  One such dimension is a world of war, where the shades of the great fighting men of history fight eternally; Beowulf, Siegfried, Arthur and Charlemagne are name-checked--interestingly, they are all Northern medieval heroes, and Haas directly names not a single one of the famous Mediterranean heroes of ancient times like Achilles, Hercules, Alexander or Caesar.  Helmut stands in a pentagram and Sandivar intones a spell and the twelve-year old prince vanishes.  Ten minutes later Helmut returns, but for each minute Sandivar waited an entire year passed in the dark and dreary dimension of war, and Helmut is now a twenty-two year old muscleman and a master of the battlefield!  His trials in hell (which Haas only ever hints at--like Sandivar, we readers only see little Helmut vanish and then return as a grizzled veteran) have turned Helmut's soul to stone--he can no longer laugh or love, never again will the sight of the blue sky or the scent of the sea air bring him joy: "There was no love of life left within him."  All he cares about is overthrowing Albrecht.

Sandivar takes Helmut on a trip to sunny Neoroma to get a powerful warhorse (a tremendous beast that, reminding us of the story of Alexander and Bucephalus, only Helmut can tame), a pair of huge hunting dogs, and weapons and armor made from a special super-strong metal.  Halfway through the 144-page novel we get the scene we have all been waiting for after seeing Jeff Jones's cover for The Sword of Morning Star: the scene in which a blacksmith affixes to the stump at the end of Helmut's right arm the head of what Haas variously calls a mace or morning star.  "Morning Star" soon becomes the name by which people far and wide call Helmut.

The second half of the novel deals with Helmut and Sandivar's campaign to overthrow Albrecht and put Helmut, the rightful heir now that Gustav is pushing up daisies, on the throne of the Kingdom of Boorn.  Albrecht has disbanded the Empire's army of humans and replaced it with an army of wolfmen.  The fortified town of the one noble who has been actively resisting Albrecht, Hagen of Markau, is under siege by an army of wolves (the quadruped kind) led by a sexy sorceress, Kierena ("dark of hair and ivory white of skin and red, red, red of lip"), who can transform herself into a huge black shewolf.  Her enemies call her "The Black Bitch," but Albrecht has a crush on her and hopes to make her his Empress.  As there is no human army at Helmut's disposal, Sandivar, saying that "fire must be fought with fire," recruits an army of bears and wild boars to lift the siege of Markau.

Sandivar's raising an army of bears and boars, while kind of cool, illustrates some of my gripes with the novel.  First, there is the fact that Sandivar's capabilities wax and wane to suit the needs of the plot.  Second, it is one of many examples of Sandivar, not Helmut, making decisions and solving problems.  Helmut doesn't come off as an ambitious hero who makes decisions and bends his environment to his will, but as a guy who is led by the nose by a clever wizard to fulfill a prophecy.  The Sword of Morning Star isn't about an individual's ability to overcome obstacles and achieve his vision, but about respecting limits and fulfilling the role handed you by others or by impersonal forces.  Obviously the reader can see this is a strength, say that the novel is about one's duty to the community and the need to accept fate, but I kind of think following a bold individual who carves his own path might be more fun. 

Anyway, the siege of Markau is broken and the wolf army wiped out.  Kierena, whom I had hoped to see develop into an interesting character, is stabbed to death by Sandivar as she embraces him in hopes of seducing him--she knows she is not a powerful enough witch to match his wizardry and tries to undo him with her feminine wiles in a brief, cursory, scene.  The bears and boars depart and Helmut rests in Hagen's castle, tended to by Hagen's beautiful blond daughter, Nissilda.

A recurring theme of the novel is men rejecting women's sexual advances.  Back in Neoroma, Helmut, after having that mace head attached to his arm and fighting off five of Neoroma's muggers (I guess "the New Learning" has a ways to go), quickly became a celebrity, and the most beautiful woman in town, Lady Viira, came to his room intent on having sex with him, but Helmut, dead inside after his ten years in the bleak dimension of constant war, was indifferent to her charms, and in fury she slapped his face.  Then Kierena, recognizing Sandivar, her former teacher in sorcery, as her wizardly superior, sought to seduce Sandivar rather than fight him, without success.   And now, while Helmut and Hagen try to rebuild the Gray Empire army to use against Albrecht's army of wolfmen, we get Nissilda trying to win Helmut's heart.  When Helmut tells her he is dead inside, she tells him that, to a woman, such talk is not discouraging, but is in fact an irresistible challenge: 
"No man's so dead but what the right woman can bring him back to life.  For that is what women are, my prince--life.  It comes from us, and we tend it till it's grown, hold, suckle, nourish it.  Women are specialists in life, as men are in killing one another off.  And this I will say to you: show me a man convinced he cannot love, and every woman in the country will attempt to prove he's wrong.  Your condition, to a woman, is not a disability, only a challenge."
"A challenge?"
"The greatest man can present to woman; and no woman could e'er turn it down."
You have to love how they integrated
the morning star idea into the
back cover design
The Empire's army reassembled, it battles Albrecht's wolfman army.  Albrecht has made an alliance with an army of Northern barbarians who ride not horses but cattle into battle, but these people are superstitious and Helmut scares them off by exploiting their fears of ghosts and demons.  Albrecht's army of wolfmen is routed, and the usurper is killed by Helmut in single combat, his skull pounded by Helmut's metal right hand.  Helmut is crowned king of Boorn and Emperor of the Gray Lands, and Nissilda's love cures him of his coldness--in the novel's last paragraph Helmut laughs for the first time since his return from the bleak dimension of war, and admires a sunset.

As so often happens here at MPorcius Fiction Log, after airing a list of grievances against a piece of fiction I am going to tell you that it is fundamentally sound and I enjoyed it despite its various shortcomings; The Sword of Morning Star is alright.  One frustrating thing about it is that Haas presents numerous intriguing ideas that he doesn't develop, like Helmut's relationship with Gustav (they grew up as brothers, but there was tension because strong warlike bastard son Helmut was Dad's favorite but fat Gustav, as the legitimate son, was destined to take the throne) and Sandivar's relationship with the dark beauty Kierena (Kierena seduced Sandivar before Helmut was born and convinced him to teach her his magic powers, which she used for evil); similarly we only get hints of what hell was like and what "the New Learning" down in Italy is all about.  Still, the novel is competently constructed and written, and I'm judging this one acceptable/marginally good.

In our next episode, the sequel to The Sword of Morning Star, 1970's Exile's Quest!   

Friday, January 17, 2020

1949's The Other Side of the Moon: Long, Smith, Lovecraft and Wandrei

The cover of the British hardcover edition of The Other Side of the Moon (left)
illustrates Clark Ashton Smith's "The City of Singing Flame"
Let's read four more stories from August Derleth's 1949 anthology, The Other Side of the Moon, these tales penned by Derleth's friends Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft and Donald Wandrei, all writers associated with Weird Tales.  I read the versions of Long's "The World of Wulkins" and Wandrei's "Something From Above" printed here in the 1949 hardcover I borrowed from a Maryland library, but I read versions of Clark Ashton Smith's "Singing Flame" series and of Lovecraft's "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" from other sources.

"The World of Wulkins" by Frank Belknap Long (1948)

It is the future!  Ralph Denham is an antiquarian who has his study decked out to look like he's living in the nineteenth century and spends his free time at antique shops.  He has a flirty wife, Molly, and two precocious kids, seven-year-old Betty Anne and eight-year-old Johnny.  This guy is living the good life!  But the universe is full of cosmic terror, and Ralph and his happy family are not immune!

Betty Anne insists they buy an ugly child-sized antique robot (a "goggle-eyed horror"), a wreck covered in rust, that they see at an antiques store.  The droid is inert, but she wants play with it as if it were a doll, and christens it "Wulkins."  The family takes a ride on a roller coaster, and the rattling and shaking of the machine brings Wulkins back to life!  Immediately, Ralph notices bizarre visual effects all around him and surmises that Wulkins is no Earthly robot, but a scout from another dimension, sent to our world to seize samples and bring them back to its home plane of existence.  Ralph grabs the little spy, pulls out some of its wires, and it is again deactivated.

Instead of simply destroying the alien invader, Ralph puts it in the basement, planning to show it to his scientific buddies.  Betty Anne and Johnny, not realizing the danger their new friend poses, sneak down into the basement and repair Wulkins!  Wulkins snatches up the kids and transports the entire house into another dimension; Molly realizes something is amiss when she looks out the window and the moon and stars and landscape look different than usual.

The Second Amendment must be alive and well in the future because when Betty Anne and Johnny's parents realize that their kids are in peril, Ralph grabs the energy pistol he keeps in his drawer and hoses down Wulkins, who has grown to ogre-size, with radioactive rays, damaging and driving off the alien robot.  In a nearby building Ralph discovers a half-decayed insect creature lying on a slab; he presumes this alien built Wulkins and sent him out exploring the multiverse.  Ralph also pockets some rolls of film he finds.  Wulkins reappears, and after some more shooting, Wulkins dramatically commits suicide, and the Denham house and family somehow return to Earth.  By examining the film Ralph figures out that Wulkins was not a robot; in fact, the bug was a robot built by Wulkins, whose body wasn't really mechanical but just looked mechanical to Earth eyes.   One thing Ralph doesn't figure out is that it was his own kids, those scamps, who reactivated Wulkins and put all their lives in terrible jeopardy.

The premise and plot of "World of Wulkins" are not bad, and, in theory, a person who is actually good at writing could expend a little effort and shape such material into an effective horror and/or action-adventure tale.  Unfortunately, Long doesn't develop the story carefully.  The twist reveal--that the thing that looks like a robot is a scientist and the thing that looks like a bug is a robot--is poorly set up and pointless besides.  (The obvious way to end the story is to reveal that the bug scientist put his soul into the robot body, and then while he was trapped on Earth his body decayed, and he committed suicide because he didn't want to live through eternity in a robot body.)  One also wonders how Wulkins's suicide sent the Denhams back to Earth.  Even worse, Long's poor writing style prevents the story from being told efficiently and mucks up the tone of the piece.  Sentences and passages that should be concise and powerful, so that horror scenes convey terror or dread and fight scenes and chase scenes convey excitement and speed, are instead verbose and full of silly details that distract or confuse the reader.  Long also tries too hard to be cute when describing the kids, which of course undermines all the horror and adventure elements.

Here are some examples of Long sentences that take the reader right out of the story and should have been taken right out of the story by the author or editor during revision or editing:
[Ralph rushes to dress quickly when he realizes the kids are in danger and he had to run outside:]  Few men could have drawn on their shoes in exactly eight seconds.  But Denham did it.
[Johnny, who has no idea what he is doing, starts working on the inert Wulkins in the basement:]  There is a right way of tackling every problem and there is a wrong way.  But there is also a way which is neither right nor wrong, but just--a way.
[Betty Anne has escaped into Molly's arms but Johnny is still in danger:]  It was not only terror that she felt, but shame, that she could have forgotten even for an instant that she had a son.  She hadn't really forgotten, not deep in her mind, but her relief at finding Betty Anne in her arms had spilled over into the warm, bright little compartment reserved for her son.  Now that compartment was as cold as ice.
In an October 11, 1926 letter to August Derleth*, H. P. Lovecraft says of Long that "Fiction is to him only a means of corralling cash--he is a poet and aesthete, & has put his real soul into the thin volume of verse he issued (at a doting aunt's expense) last winter."  I can certainly believe that Long did not put his "real soul" into "The World of Wulkins," but just threw it together for money and sent it off to Thrilling Wonder Stories, where it first appeared.  I'm afraid I have to give this one a negative vote.

After being reprinted in The Other Side of the Moon, "The World of Wulkins" lay dormant until it was revivified for inclusion in the 1972 Long collection The Rim of the Unknown, versions of which appeared in Great Britain in 1978 and in Italy in 1995.

*My source is the excerpts from this letter printed in the 2000 volume Arkham's Masters of Horror edited by Peter Ruber.

"The City of Singing Flame" and "Beyond the Singing Flame" by Clark Ashton Smith (1931)

The Other Side of the Moon includes a long story by Clark Ashton Smith, "The City of the Singing Flame," and I initially planned to read it, but isfdb suggests the version here in Derleth's anthology, a joining of two 1931 stories, was rewritten by a Walter Gillings, so I decided to check out the original versions from Wonder Stories, readily available at the internet archive.

"The City of Singing Flame" is introduced by a beautiful illustration by Frank R. Paul of a city of skyscrapers of diverse architectural styles inhabited by a throng of equally diverse alien beings.  There is a brief prologue, and then comes the main text, the journal of Giles Angarth, who has disappeared along with his friend Felix Ebbonly.  (There is a slight "meta" element to the story: Angarth and the man to whom the journal is addressed, Philip Hastane, are writers of fantasy stories, and Ebbonly an illustrator of such tales.  Maybe these characters are jocular portraits of Derleth, Lovecraft, and Smith himself?)  Angarth relates how, hiking alone at Crater Ridge, within sight of the Nevada Mountains, he stumbled on a hidden gateway and was mysteriously transported to a world of purple and yellow forests, just outside a city of red spires.

This story feels long and slow, with lots of description and little plot.  There is none of the sex and violence, little of the humor or terror that has made so many other Clark Ashton Smith stories so effective.  Another disappointment is the style: many Smith stories are written in a sort of poetic or fairy tale style which is good at generating a fun or creepy "I'm in an alien world" mood, but, I guess because this story is written in the voices of early 20th-century people, the style of "The City of Singing Flame" is sort of flat and boring.

One thing that makes the story feel slow is that Angarth keeps taking the gateway back and forth between Earth and the alien world over a course of some days, on each trip advancing a little further, getting scared, and scurrying back to Earth to write in this journal.

Anyway, Angarth discovers that the red city is a place of pilgrimage, where aliens come from all over the universe to see a huge flame in a vast shrine.  Many of the pilgrims jump into the flame to be incinerated.  A musical vibration with hypnotic effect apparently entices people into this flame; like the many different aliens, Angarth is strongly attracted to the flame, but he puts cotton in his ears and resists the urge to immolate himself.  On his last trip he brings along his friend, Ebbonly.  Ebbonly decides to forgo use of the cotton and he runs into the flame and is annihilated.  In his last journal entry, Angarth tells us that he is going to throw himself into the flame tomorrow--the influence of the musical vibration has apparently convinced him that dying in the flame will be "splendid" and "glorious" in comparison to his "monotonous" and meaningless day-to-day life.

I like the themes and ideas of this story, but it is just too long and Smith doesn't bother to set up the characters of Ebbonly and Angarth ahead of time as people who are depressed or bored with the monotony of life.  If Angarth and Ebbonly had been frustrated in their careers or love affairs or hated society or something, their suicides would make more sense and would represent a culmination and/or catharsis; as it is, Hastane in his prologue says they are successful in their careers; we readers have to assume they only commit suicide because of the vibration's powers, which is less interesting than if their actions were a result of their own psychologies.   

I'd have to say this one is merely acceptable, but maybe it is not fair to judge "City of Singing Flame" on its own, and I should reserve final judgement until I have read "Beyond the Singing Flame."  (Though SF fans in 1931 would have judged "City of Singing Flame" on its own, as it appeared in the July issue of Wonder Stories, with the words "THE END" on its final page, and the sequel would not appear until the November issue, four issues later.) 

"Beyond the Singing Flame" is as boring and plot-lite as its predecessor, and more nonsensical, and throws away all the suicide stuff that made "The City of Singing Flame" sort of interesting.  This entire story is narrated by Philip Hastane, who goes to Crater Ridge to find the gateway.  He is transported to the red city, as were Angarth and Ebbonly, but finds it under attack by another city, a city of towers that walk on mechanical legs and project bolts of energy at the city of the Flame.  Hastane is carried aloft by two friendly aliens, butterfly-people on a pilgrimage to the Flame, who fly him right into the Flame!

To Hastane's relief and my dismay the Flame doesn't burn you up, it "revibrates" your atoms so you are sent to a higher plane of existence, one of "immense joy," "liberation" and "ecstasy."  Here one has new senses and abilities that enable one to experience new forms of beauty and happiness.  Angarth and Ebbonly have been waiting for their friend Hastane, and welcome him to this Eden.  This paradise, however, begins to shiver and shake--it is sustained by the Flame, and the Flame is under attack back in the red city!  The three Earthlings fly (that is one of their new abilities) towards another gateway that will take them to another paradise, but they don't make it; when the Flame expires the paradise expires, and the three men reappear in the ruins of the red city, next to where the Flame once burned.  Poor Ebbonly is crushed to death by a falling column, but Angarth and Hastane live on, haunted by the memories of their time in heaven.  Luckily, the evil city that demolished the red city left intact the gateway that leads back to Earth.

I have to give this exercise in tedium a thumbs down.

MPorcius Fiction Log may have lowered the boom on "The City of Singing Flame" and "Beyond the Singing Flame," but many SF fans over the decades have sung the praises of these tales.  Editor Mort Weisinger reprinted "The City of Singing Flame" in the same 1941 issue of Startling Stories that saw the debut of Edmond Hamilton's A Yank in Valhalla, and alongside it is an essay by Harry Warner, Jr. explaining that "The City of Singing Flame" is his favorite, "one of the finest fantasies ever written."  Robert A. Lowndes reprinted the stories in his 1960s magazine Famous Science Fiction, and they were also included by editor Robert Weinberg in 2009's The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith.  What can I say?  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are iconoclasts!

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by H. P. Lovecraft (1919)

The narrator of "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" is a medical professional with some unconventional ideas about sleep and dreams.  "From my experience I cannot doubt but that man, when lost to terrestrial consciousness, is indeed sojourning in another and uncorporeal life of far different nature from the life we know....Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon."  So he is pretty stoked when an inbred and illiterate hillbilly from the Catskills, Joe Slater, who is said to have really crazy dreams, is dragged into the insane asylum where the narrator is working as an "interne."

All his life Slater has disturbed and amazed his fellow hill people (whom the narrator variously describes as "white trash," "primitive," "barbaric," "repellent," "decadent" and "degenerate") with the vivid stories of his dreams, which he himself forgets within an hour of waking.  The police nabbed him after he, in a fit of madness during which he yelled about his need to achieve revenge on an alien "thing," beat a fellow hillbilly to a pulp.  Acquitted by reason of insanity, Slater has been consigned for life to the state mental hospital, where the narrator conducts unauthorized experiments on him. 

These experiments consist of the narrator attaching to Slater's head a sort of transmitter and to his own head a receiver, which he hopes will allow him to experience Slater's thoughts.  It is on the night that Slater dies, his health having precipitously deteriorated in captivity, that the narrator finally gains the insights he seeks, and learns the astonishing truth, that cosmic entities that are chained to our bodies by day explore the universe at night, interacting with alien life forms and waging war against malevolent oppressors. 

Technically, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" is vulnerable to the kind of complaints I leveled against Smith's "Singing Flame" stories: it is mostly description and has little plot and is kind of nonsensical.  But Lovecraft's story is far superior.  First, it is short, and does not get tedious.  Second, Lovecraft fills the story with uneasiness and tension by including the horrible killing, the constant reminders of how primitive and disgusting the hillbillies are, the obsessive quest for vengeance of the cosmic entity bound to Slater's body, and the fact that the narrator's theories and experiments are not approved by his superiors.  I like this one.

"Beyond the Wall of Sleep" first appeared in an amateur periodical called Pine Cones, and in 1934 was reprinted in the fanzine The Fantasy Fan; in 1938 it was printed in Weird Tales.  In 1943 it was the title story of the Lovecraft collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep, which features Clark Ashton Smith sculptures on its cover, and since then has been reprinted in many anthologies and collections.  I read it in my Corrected Ninth Printing of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (2001.) 

"Something From Above" by Donald Wandrei (1930)

In July of 2017 I read three stories by Donald Wandrei; two of them, "Raiders of the Universes" and "The Fire Vampires," start with astronomers spotting some odd phenomena in the heavens.  "Something From Above" starts similarly, with a detached journalistic account of some astronomers noticing lights in the sky and the occlusions of some stars.  The second part of the story details the horrible adventure suffered by a Norwegian-American farmer, Lars Loberg, and his wife Helga, in western Minnesota.  (Wandrei attributes some of Loberg's character traits to his ethnicity in a way we perhaps would not today.)  To make a long story short, Lars and Helga encounter a number of strange phenomena, like red dust falling from the sky, the discovery of a huge gouge in their field that is occupied by a large invisible object, and then, horrifyingly, Helga's disappearance while Lars isn't looking--she later falls from the sky, frozen and dead.  Lars goes insane and burns Helga on a funeral pyre, and then sets fire to the large invisible object, which we readers of course recognize as an alien space craft.  The space ship explodes, killing Lars.

In the third part of the story the mysteries of the first two parts are explained.  Solo pilot Larry Greene was flying over Minnesota when aliens from Saturn sucked his plane up into space with a tractor beam to ask him to be Saturn's liaison with Earth.  (Poor Helga got sucked up by mistake.)  The Saturnians, people made of gas, are defending our solar system from some hostile extrasolar aliens--the dust and invisible wreck that landed on the Loberg farm were what was left of an invading ship shot down by the Saturn flyboys.  While he visits their ship, the Saturn people explain a lot of sciency stuff and Saturn history to Greene; then they send him back down to Earth.  Unfortunately, Greene's time in space has frozen parts of his body and he dies of these injuries--fortunately he lives long enough to write about his adventure.

"Something From Above" isn't bad.  Maybe the prevalence of collateral damage is sort of unusual?  The story first saw print in Weird Tales, and besides in Wandrei collections and here in The Other Side of the Moon, it would be republished in Donald Wollheim's Avon Fantasy Reader, in the same issue as reprints of Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner's "The Black Kiss" and Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos."


It is always fun to dig into what the Weird Tales gang was up to in their heyday, but for our next few blog posts we'll advance forward a few decades and check out some sword-swinging paperbacks from the late '60s and 'early '70s.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Stories by Ray Bradbury and Murray Leinster from August Derleth's The Other Side of the Moon

In 1949, Pellegrini & Cudahy published The Other Side of the Moon, a hardcover anthology of 20 science fiction stories selected by Wisconsin's August Derleth.  In 2020, I borrowed a copy of the anthology from the Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore via interlibrary loan.  This book has appeared in paperback editions in both the United States and Great Britain, but isfdb warns us that all of those have been severely abridged.

I have already read and blogged about three stories that appear in The Other Side of the Moon, A. E. van Vogt's   "Resurrection" AKA "Monster" and "Vault of the Beast," and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "The Cure."  All three of these stories are good and have been reprinted numerous times, and I recommend that you rush right out and read them.

Today, let's read four stories from The Other Side of the Moon, the two by Ray Bradbury and the two by Murray Leinster.  I'm reading the versions from this seventy-year old hardcover book, but there are magazine versions of all four stories available online.

"Pillar of Fire" by Ray Bradbury (1948)

"Pillar of Fire" made its debut in Planet Stories, where the editors introduce it by saying "We cannot tell you what kind of story this is.  We simply cannot present it as we present other stories.  It is too tremendous for that."

William Lantry, a guy who died in Massachusetts in the early 20th century, wakes up and climbs out of his grave in the 24th century.  Bradbury doesn't really explain how this guy manages to get reanimated; he is truly dead--he doesn't breathe, for example--but he is up and walking around and thinking and experiencing emotion.  It seems that it is hate that gives Lantry the energy to perform his parody of life.

And hate he does!  The 24th century is what you might call a utopia--there is no fear and no crime, everybody is helpful and nobody lies--but Lantry, as a shunned outsider, immediately conceives an overpowering hatred for this sterile paradise!  Because no one in this world is suspicious and there are no police, there is nothing to stand in Lantry's way when he launches a spirited campaign of mass murder!

There are many SF stories about the shortcomings of utopias, stories which argue that for man to be at his best, to be truly alive, he must face challenges, and I think "Pillar of Fire" fits into that category, though it is more of an emotion-stirring drama than a satire or political tract.  Lantry learns that the people of the 24th century do not fear death or darkness or the unknown because there is no mystery in their lives, no imagination; things that might be scary or disturbing are removed from view or made thoroughly familiar so they lose their power to disturb.  When he goes to the library Lantry learns that books by horror writers like Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft have long been burned--Lantry is the only person in the world to have any familiarity at all with their work.  Not only are books burned in this utopia to prevent morbid thoughts, but so are the dead: the corpses of the newly deceased are immediately brought to huge incinerators that sit in each town, and school children are regularly brought on field trips to these incinerators so that for them death will have no mystery.  Even old cemeteries have been dug up and the remains of the long dead burned; it is digging in the Salem cemetery where Lantry was interred, the last cemetery in the world, that woke up Lantry, who is today the only dead body in the world!

Terribly lonely, Lantry hatches a scheme to murder people in large numbers, destroy the incinerators, and then animate those he has murdered so that he will have friends and an army with which to conquer the Earth.  "Pillar of Fire" is fast paced, and Bradbury's prose conveys the tension, the desperate anxiety, felt by a lone outsider at war with an entire world. To describe Lantry's feverish thought processes Bradbury unleashes lines that sound like modern poetry:
He arose in violent moves.  His lips were wide and his dark eyes were flared and there was a trembling and burning all through him.  He must kill and kill and kill and kill and kill.  He must make his enemies into friends, into people like himself who walked but shouldn't walk, who were pale in a land of pinks.  He must kill and then kill and then kill again.  He must make bodies and dead people and corpses.
Lantry's scheme does not come off; the antiseptic world of the future defeats him, cleanses itself of him.  As he is pushed into the incinerator he is haunted by lines from Poe and Shakespeare, writers whose works, once expected to be immortal, will in moments be truly dead, lost forever, when Lantry is blasted into cinders.  We readers must ask ourselves if living without violence and fear is worth the cost of living without art and literature and imagination.

A great story, the length and pacing and tone all perfect, with plenty of strong images and good sentences.  I was particularly thrilled to read "Pillar of Fire" because it is one of those stories which I read as a kid and whose title and plot were promptly forgotten, but which left an indelible mark on my mind; in the case of "Pillar of Fire" I never forgot the idea that people living in a future of honesty and peace would be defenseless against a time traveler from our own violent time, and a particular scene in which some 24th century people are persuaded to pursue Lantry by being told (lied to, by someone who has never lied in his life) that catching Lantry is the object of a new game.

"Pillar of Fire" was included in a number of anthologies of vampire stories as well as Bradbury collections; I am pretty sure I read it in a school library copy of the paperback edition of the Bradbury collection S is for Space with the wraparound Ian Miller cover.

"The Earth Men" by Ray Bradbury (1948)

1959 Yugoslavian edition of
The Martian Chronicles
This is kind of a joke story; as I have expressed on this blog many times, I am generally uninterested in joke stories, but Bradbury manages to make the story work, partly because it turns out to not be as absurd as it first appears and finishes with some true human drama.

Four astronauts from Earth land on Mars.  They approach native settlements, and find them to be quite like American farm houses and small towns.  As the first Earthlings to land on Mars, they expect to be greeted as heroes, but the Martians they meet just try to shoo them away, claiming they are too busy with quotidian matters like housework and business affairs to be bothered.  The astronauts' protestations that they have traveled millions of miles across space and achieved something no one has ever achieved before are brushed aside.

Bradbury gives us variations on this joke for like ten pages; the Martians keep passing the Earthers on to some other native they claim will be interested in them.  Eventually the astronauts find someone who directs them to a large building.  In this building we get the punchline to the joke and our twist ending.

The building is full of Martians who claim to be from Earth, or Jupiter, or wherever--the astronauts realize that many Martians go insane and claim they are aliens, and these mentally ill people are corralled here, in the insane asylum!  Every Martian the astronauts met simply assumed that the Earth expedition commander was yet another insane local.  Martians communicate via telepathy, and can project visual, auditory, and even tactile illusions, and so when the humans pointed out their rocket ship to the natives, they dismissed this as a hallucination (the yellow-eyed and brown-skinned Martians were similarly unimpressed by the humans' white skins and blue eyes.)  The Martians even assumed that the captain's three subordinates were constructions of his mind projected into theirs.

The humans try to convince the doctor who manages the asylum that they are not an insane man and his three illusions, but four honest to goodness visitors from Earth.  The Martian shrink is amazed at how committed to his delusions the captain is, and how realistic his illusions are, but he never once considers the possibility that the captain is telling the truth--the captain's efforts merely serve to convince the native doctor that his patient's mental illness is incurable, and that the only treatment is euthanasia.  The humans left their guns on the ship (doh!) so have no defense when the shrink shoots down the captain, and then, surprised they didn't vanish upon his patient's death, also slays the three crewmen.  When their corpses, and the rocket, don't vanish, the Martin psychologist diagnoses himself as insane, and, prescribing for himself the same treatment he has been meting out to others, commits suicide.

"The Earth Men" first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, and would go on to be included in The Martian Chronicles, one of the most enduring and widely read classics of SF, and the inspiration for a 1980 miniseries starring Rock Hudson that Bradbury himself (according to wikipedia) called "boring," but about which our friend MonsterHunter has kind things to say.

"The Devil of East Lupton" by Murray Leinster (1948)

"The Devil of East Lupton" first was printed in the same issue of Thrilling Wonder as Bradbury's "The Earth Men" and Henry Kuttner's "Happy Ending," which I enjoyed when I read it in June.  I generally like the covers of Thrilling Wonder, most of which are bursting with energy--sexual energy or kinetic energy, or both--but the cover of this issue is one of the worst ever offered by the magazine, static and flat, with silly, uninspiring monsters.  Interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay serve to up the issue's sex appeal, however.

Leinster, born William Fitzgerald Jenkins, used lots of pen names, and in Thrilling Wonder this story appeared under the name William Fitzgerald; I'll also note that its original title was "The Devil of East Lupton, Vermont."

Like "The Earth Men," this is a somewhat jocular story of a botched first contact between humans and aliens.  Leinster includes some serious science in his story, however.

A Jovian astronaut requires extremely high pressure and low temperature to survive, and when, after landing in the Vermont woods, he is startled by the appearance of hobo named Mr. Tedder and steps back into some barbed wire, the puncturing of his space suit leads to him evaporating!  Tedder retrieves two of the man from Jupiter's weapons, a ray gun that can, apparently, disintegrate anything, and what we might call a nonlethal defense mechanism, a helmet that, when activated, throws out a field which renders any living thing within a half mile radius unconscious.  Mr. Tedder accidentally activates the helmet and causes no end of trouble to the people and animals of Vermont, and to himself when the Feds send in the military to try to neutralize the mysterious creature that is generating a moving zone of unconsciousness a mile in diameter.

This is a clever and entertaining piece; it is fun to watch as Mr. Tedder figures out what is going on, or just blunders into solutions, the pacing is good, there are a few surprises, and none of the jokes is irritatingly or distractingly bad.  Thumbs up!

"Symbiosis" by Murray Leinster (1947)

"Symbiosis" first appeared in Collier's, the major mainstream magazine founded in 1888, under the Will F. Jenkins byline.  Leinster included it in an anthology he edited himself entitled Great Stories of Science Fiction and Brian Davis selected it for inclusion in The Best of Murray Leinster.

A European country with fifty million in population, famous for its high taxes and its secret police, conquers in mere hours the most fertile province of a neighboring country of four million, a nation famous for its effective health care system.  Our main character is the little healthy country's Surgeon General, who was in a peasant village inoculating people and livestock when the invasion took place.  We follow him as he is interviewed by the leader of the invasion force and then put into a concentration camp.  During his confinement he is sad, but quietly confident.  In the final quarter or so of the story we find out why: the little country knew it could not build up a powerful enough military to resist the larger state's aggression, and that it could not count on the United Nations to save it, so it instituted a radical strategy: a mutant strain of a disease was developed, and all of its citizens were inoculated against it.  On the day of the invasion the mutant disease was put into the water supply; while the natives are immune, the invaders quickly catch the disease and within a week tens of thousands of them die, and if the invaders don't surrender the disease will spread back to their homeland and wipe out nearly their entire population.

The title refers not only to the symbiotic relationship between the disease and the people of the small country, but to the Surgeon General's assertion that all members of the human race are in a series of symbiotic relationships with each other, that members of a family help each other and that different nations should similarly help each other.

"Symbiosis" is one of those SF stories which is about an idea rather than about characters or good writing or an exciting or moving narrative, though Leinster does try to inspire emotion by contrasting the pompous and bloody-minded invaders with the decent and unpretentious Surgeon General.  This contrast is pretty heavy-handed and one-dimensional, and the "twist" is sort of obvious from the beginning, so this story has no tension or surprises to offer.  I'll call it acceptable.


Four decent stories; we'll read more from The Other Side of the Moon in our next episode.

Monday, January 6, 2020

1954 stories by Carl Jacobi, Clark Ashton Smith and Evelyn E. Smith

I believe this 1969 paperback
edition includes all twelve of
the stories from the hardcover ed.
Let's read three more stories from Time to Come, a 1954 anthology of all new fiction edited by August Derleth. These stories, Derleth tells us in his introduction, present "visions of the world of the future."  I am reading from a hardcover 1954 edition I borrowed via interlibrary loan; Time to Come has appeared in paperback several times, but many of those paperback editions are abridged.

"The White Pinnacle" by Carl Jacobi

"The White Pinnacle" isn't really a "vision of the world of the future;" it is barely a science fiction story at all, being more like a horror story set on an alien planet, full of odd phenomena for which Jacobi presents no explanation.

The text is a log or testimonial penned by a spaceman, Judson, a member of the crew of a starship that travels around the galaxy seeking new sources of mineral wealth.  The ship lands on an unexplored planet, suffering minor damage in the process that prevents the ship from taking off again until a few days are spent on repairs.  Visible in the distance is a kind of white obelisk, with writing on it, and the sensors detect a source of radiation near the obelisk--this radiation is unusual, and the ship's geologist believes it indicates that a rare form of very valuable ore is present.

Proceeding concurrently with this obelisk and ore plot, but unconnected to it as far as I could tell, is a plot concerning stone-age natives of the planet.  One member of the starship's crew, McKay, is an amateur perfume enthusiast who collects scents from around the galaxy.  When he smells an unusual scent, one which strikes fear into Judson, McKay runs out into the night and disappears.

The next day McKay reappears, slightly injured, claiming he fought and captured a native (he doesn't bring this native to the ship with him, however.)  When the rest of the crew goes to investigate the obelisk later that day, they find a native tied up.  They also notice that, around the obelisk, every blade of grass, every flower, every pebble and stone, has a duplicate.  The crew bring the alien back to the ship, spend some hours trying to communicate with it, then let it go.  Judson has copied the hieroglyphs on the obelisk, and in a few hours back at the ship he manages to decipher them; not only is his ability to read the alien writing unconvincing, but the message the hieroglyphs convey has no effect on the plot.  McKay runs off again, and when he returns he says he caught up to the alien, captured it a second time, and amputated its scent gland.  In the same way that Judson does nothing with the info he gets from the hieroglyphs and the crew learns nothing from bringing the alien to the ship, McKay does nothing with the scent gland.  Jacobi includes these potentially interesting or important events in the story, but does nothing to exploit their possibilities--they don't tell the reader anything that makes him think or feel, and they don't advance the story in any way.

The resolution of "The White Pinnacle" comes when a duplicate of McKay shows up.  The duplicate touches the original McKay, they fuse together into a single McKay, and the new McKay walks to the obelisk and drops dead.  This sort of thing happens to more crewmembers, until all are dead or missing.  The last lines of Judson's log relate how he, the only surviving spaceman, sees a duplicate of himself coming towards the ship.

This story is just a bunch of bizarre events jumbled together semi-coherently; Jacobi fails to present a unifying theme or to make any kind of point or generate any feeling in the reader beyond mystification as to what he is getting at.  He tries to make "The White Pinnacle" feel like a science fiction story by having the characters uses phrases like "Gantzen rays" and "Planck's Quantum Theory" and "deflector auricles," but it is just extraneous window-dressing.  Thumbs down for this one.

You may recall that I had very similar complaints about Jacobi's 1936 story "The Face in the Wind" back in July when I read it.  My patience with Jacobi is running thin.

"The White Pinnacle" would be reprinted in 1972 in the Jacobi collection Disclosures in Scarlet.

"Phoenix" by Clark Ashton Smith

Since its initial appearance in Time to Come, "Phoenix" has been reprinted in the expected Smith collections as well as an anthology edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh called Catastrophes! and one by edited by Richard Hurley for Scholastic Book Services titled Beyond Belief.

It is the far future!  The sun has turned black, the surface of the Earth is frozen, and the remnants of mankind, mere thousands, live in underground caverns, heated and lit by nuclear power.  For many centuries the human race, and its attendant agriculture and livestock, has lived thus, but of late the surviving flora and fauna have begun to degenerate--presumably there is something vital in sunlight that the atomic lights cannot reproduce, and so life on Earth is doomed.

A desperate plan is conceived--for thousands of years spacecraft and nuclear weapons have lay in storage, and a plan is hatched to detonate the nuclear warheads on the surface of the sun and thereby reactivate Sol and thaw Mother Earth--perhaps men and women will again walk in the sunlight among the flowers and trees!

"Phoenix" is written in a poetic and romantic style that is very effective, even moving.  Smith gives us all that background and describes the farewell to his lover of the man charged with operating the nuclear bombs on the spaceship and the tragic course of his voyage to the sun.  I quite like this one--the science is probably all totally bogus, but Smith provides in "Phoenix" many of things I hope to find when I start reading a piece of fiction: well-crafted sentences, human feeling, and striking images.  Thumbs up!

If you want a story about a suicidal mission to reignite the sun written by an actual scientist instead of a poet you can try Ted Thomas's 1970 piece "The Weather on the Sun," but be forewarned: when I read it in early 2019 I bitterly denounced it as a mind-numbing government-worshiping piece of junk and implied it only got published in Orbit 8 because Thomas was friends with Damon Knight's wife.

"DAXBR/BAXBR" by Evelyn E. Smith

Evelyn E. Smith and Farrar, Straus and Young conduct a little experiment in graphic design with the title to this story, which appears in Time to Come as a cross, with the two words sharing the "X."  In the little biographical sketch appearing before the story we learn that Smith not only writes fiction, but "carries on an appreciable program of crossword puzzle work."  Wikipedia says she "compiled" crosswords--I don't know if that means she created crossword puzzles entire or if somebody else wrote the clues.

(In the days before cable TV, my mother and maternal grandmother would do lots of crossword puzzles.  There was a period during my employment by the New York government when some of the women in the office and I would spend hours doing the Monday and Tuesday New York Times crossword puzzles--your tax dollars at work!)

Like Smith's 1961 vampire story, "Softly While You're Sleeping," which I quite liked, "DAXBR/BAXBR" is a New York story, but, unfortunately, it is a silly joke story.  A man who makes crossword puzzles boards the subway and sits next to a short little guy in dark glasses.  The short guy is reading his correspondence, and over the little guy's shoulder the crossword maker spots an unusual word in one of his letters, "baxbr."  Such an odd word would be useful in designing crossword puzzles, so the protagonist asks the shorty about it.  As it turns out, the diminutive individual is a Martian spy, and, his cover now blown, he has to advance the timetable for extermination of the human race.  As the story ends, Manhattan is under bombardment and the crossword maker is killed.

I'm tempted to call this story pointless filler, though maybe crossword puzzle fans will like it, as much of the text is taken up with discussion and examples of the creation of grids of letters suitable for use in constructing a crossword puzzle; numerous names famous in 1954 crop up because the newspapers who buy crosswords like having topical answers and clues.  If I want to be generous I can say it is a curious oddity, I guess.

"DAXBR/BAXBR" reappeared in F&SF in 1956, and has been anthologized four or five times, including in Edmund Crispin's Best SF Four.  We humorless bastards just have to accept that there is a big market for joke stories.


Unsurprisingly, Clark Ashton Smith offers us something quite fine and Carl Jacobi tries to lay an incompetent half-finished piece of dreck on us.  Maybe August Derleth was just doing his friend in dire straits a solid when he accepted Jacobi's story for publication, the way the person who recommended me for that government job back in the '90s was doing me a solid--everywhere you go, dear reader (MPorcius Advice Column is kicking in here), be as nice to everybody as you can, because you never know who will some day have an opportunity to do you a favor or to get revenge on you.  The Evelyn Smith story is disappointing but at least it is competent--she's still in my good books.

I'm afraid that I have to point out that of these three stories only Clark Ashton Smith really tackles the "vision of the world of the future" theme; Derleth obviously wasn't keeping a very tight rein on his contributors.

Followers of my twitter feed know what my favorite Opal song is and also know I got another anthology edited by August Derleth via interlibrary loan along with this one--we'll start reading stories from that anthology in the next exciting episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

1954 stories by Poul Anderson, Charles Beaumont and Arthur C. Clarke

Jacket of the hardcover first edition of Time To Come, and cover of the abridged 1958 paperback edition
isfdb lists over two dozen anthologies edited by August Derleth, founder of Arkham House, H. P. Lovecraft booster and voluminous chronicler of Wisconsin.  I hold in my hand one of them, 1954's Time to Come, borrowed via interlibrary loan.  There are twelve stories in Time to Come, all original to the book and all, Derleth tells us in his introduction, "stories of tomorrow."  Today let's check out three by authors that interest me, Poul Anderson, Charles Beaumont, and Arthur C. Clarke.  (In our next blog post we will look at the contributions of Carl Jacobi, Clark Ashton Smith, and Evelyn E. Smith.)

"Butch" by Poul Anderson

"Butch" would be republished in 1955 in the British magazine New Worlds, then edited by John Carnell, but according to isfdb has never been included in an Anderson collection.   

This is one of those traditional SF stories full of science in which a guy solves a problem through quick-thinking and trickery.  An alien space ship crashes on 1950s Earth, and the only survivor is captured in Maine after killing some people and a dog and some cows.  The government scientists try to communicate with the alien, a hermaphrodite who is given the moniker "Butch," but Butch spends most of its time refusing to respond, and occasionally flies into a violent rage--seeing as Butch has very sharp claws and powerful muscles, its rages are very dangerous, and many government employees are injured and a few are killed.  Butch's actions are so irrational and counterproductive that it is decided that Butch is probably insane, due to undiagnosed physical or psychological trauma suffered due to the crash, and so in a few days a psychiatrist will try out shock therapy and lobotomy techniques--hopefully these will bring Butch to its senses so it will be eager to trade the secret of space flight with us humies.

Our narrator, Bob Muir, doubts the alien is insane and fears tinkering with Butch's brain will just wreck it and make acquiring the secret of space flight impossible.  Muir figures out why Butch is not cooperating, and comes up with a way to make friends with the alien.

Butch's people have a super duper sense of smell, and on their world their natural enemies smell like adrenaline--by a compulsive instinct, they instantly attack any creature that smells like adrenaline.  Human beings secrete adrenaline when scared, and Muir deduces that all the people Butch has killed were particularly scared of Butch.  Butch now recognizes that the people it has killed aren't really a threat to it, but it can't control its instinctive response to the smell of adrenaline.  Realizing it has killed people unfairly, it assumes the humans must hate it and want to achieve revenge on its race, and so it has kept mum, lest the humans learn where it comes from and how to get there.

Muir puts into action an elaborate scheme that convinces Butch that Earth people don't really hate it and don't really want to attack its home planet.  Muir believes Butch has never seen a woman, and because Butch is a hermaphrodite assumes there is no sexual dimorphism on its planet.  Muir gets a bunch of women with very pronounced secondary sexual characteristics and lies to them, telling them that Butch is totally harmless, so they won't be scared and set off its adrenaline alarm.  Muir coaches these curvaceous women in how to behave around Butch--they are to treat men with contempt, push them around, but be very kind and solicitous of Butch.  Butch comes to believe that men and women are different species, with men as a subordinate slave race, and so no longer worries that it has offended Earth people by killing a bunch of men, who are after all just expendable subordinates, and so opens up communication with the women.

Maybe a little gimmicky, but not bad.  One wonders if the scenes of men grovelling before women and of women whipping men are perhaps meant to appeal to SF readers with S&M fetishes.  (I know you are out there!)

For more MPorcius coverage of 1950s short stories by Poul Anderson check out my assessment of three stories by Anderson that appeared in 1951 issues of Planet Stories with heavily armed women on their covers or of his 1954 tale "The Chapter Ends" which contrasts the lifestyles of people with the brains God intended us to have with those whose noggins are packing superpowerful genetically-modified brains.
"Keeper of the Dream" by Charles Beaumont

1970 German abridged edition of
Time to Come
Each of the stories in Time to Come is preceded by a biographical note on its author; in the one before "Keeper of the Dream" we learn that Charles Beaumont worked as a freelance illustrator for SF magazines.  I looked up some of these illustrations on the internet archive--Beaumont's illustration work is below average, I have to say.

"Keeper of the Dream" is a sort of philosophical story consisting mostly of a conversation.  It is the 22nd century, mankind has abandoned religion and war, disease and hunger are a thing of the past.  Almost nobody has to work, thanks to automation.  The conversation is between two scientists.  Scientist A tells Scientist B that his top secret research project, the work of many years, is complete--he has determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life; mankind is truly alone and exploring the universe would be a waste of time because we couldn't stop anywhere.  "By a freak arrangement, Earth happens to be the only inhabited planet, from the beginning of time...."  Scientist B is the first to hear of these findings.

Scientist B says that conquering outer space was the only dream, the only goal, mankind had left, and the only job for scientists, now that there is no war, diseases, hunger, or work.  Without some dream or goal, life will be meaningless and society will collapse.  Scientist A is quickly convinced, and the two scientists take the masses of paper on which all of Scientist A's work has been recorded and throw them in an incinerator.  Now they will start the same exact project over, from scratch, in order to keep busy and in hopes that they will, somehow, get a different result.

This is more of an idea than an actual story.  The idea is OK as far as it goes, so I guess I'll judge this story acceptable.

It looks like "Keeper of the Dream" has only ever appeared in the various printings of Time to Come.

For more MPorcius coverage of Charles Beaumont stories from the 1950s, check out my assessment of his widely reprinted 1955 story "The Vanishing American," which I dismissed as "sappy filler," or of his 1954 tale about jazz, "Black Country."  (I have no doubt that my sophisticated readership is full of people who love jazz.)

"No Morning After" by Arthur C. Clarke

"No Morning After" reappeared in 1956 in F&SF (in the same issue as a reprint of Mack Reynolds' "Burnt Toast" AKA "Martinis: 12 to 1") and would go on to be included in many Clarke collections, among them a "Best of" collection, as well as--spoiler alert--a 2016 anthology of stories about how the future is going to suck!

"No Morning After" is a sort of misanthropic joke story.   During the Cold War, an engineer is getting drunk because he wants to build space craft but the government just wants him to design guided missiles--also, his girlfriend just left him.  He gets a telepathic message from outer space--some friendly aliens have discovered that Sol is going to explode in three days, and they can set up teleporters on Earth if only Earthlings cooperate by opening their minds to telepathic communication.  (The protagonist's inebriation and obsession with space flight and other random factors fortuitously opened his mind.)  The aliens implore the engineer to contact the government and spread the word so the human race can be saved!

Of course, the engineer thinks this is just a drunken hallucination, and tells the aliens that the human race would be better off dead because humans are violent and miserable and so forth.  So the beneficent aliens abandon their mission of mercy, the engineer falls asleep and forgets the whole thing, and in three days the Earth is destroyed by the explosion of the Sun.


For more MPorcius coverage of 1950s Arthur C. Clarke short stories, check out my assessment of "This Earth of Majesty," which might be dismissed as propaganda for the English royal family, or of "The Deep Range," which I call "a perfect example" of a science fiction story of its type, the "realistic, straightforward, day-at-the-office-of-a-man-in-the-future" story.


Interestingly, all three of these stories, published like three years before Sputnik, are about people who want to achieve space flight.  Of the three, I like the Anderson the best as it is an actual story and not just an idea or a joke, but it is not exactly great.  At the same time we have to admit that of the three, only the Beaumont story is actually a "story of tomorrow;" the Anderson and Clarke stories are about how the Cold War influences human response to first contact with aliens.

We'll see if the next batch of stories from Time to Come is more spectacular, and hews more closely to the "stories of tomorrow" brief.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Strange Stories from 1940 by Henry Kuttner, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch

If you search for the name Sam Moskowitz on the internet archive, one of the books that comes up is an anthology from 1973 titled Horrors in Hiding, edited by Moskowitz and Alden H. Norton.  Horrors in Hiding, we are told in an introduction, collects "horror masterpieces little known and unknown," none of which has ever appeared before in an anthology.  One of these forgotten masterpieces was by Henry Kuttner, "Time to Kill," and I figured I would read that, being a Kuttner fan.  "Time to Kill" first appeared in a 1940 issue of Strange Stories, along with another Kuttner tale appearing under a pseudonym, two stories by August Derleth (one appearing under a pen name) and a story by Robert Bloch.  Curious, I decided to read all five of these stories--if you want to take a free-of-charge trip to the pop culture of 1940 yourself, you can also read them at the internet archive here.

"Time to Kill" by Henry Kuttner

Here is the story Moskowitz and Norton thought a masterpiece, so we can afford to have high hopes for this one.

The narrator of "Time to Kill" is a physician living in a ruined city devastated by an ongoing war.  His wife and children were killed in the first air raid, and since then the city has been blasted to rubble by bombs and artillery shells--the front is nearby, and all day and night he can hear the heavy guns.  Kuttner does a good job of setting a mood, describing the wreck of the city and the psychological strain on the few surviving inhabitants, who find shelter and scavenge food as best they can.  Presumably inspired by the progress of the Second World War, Kuttner strikes an apocalyptic tone, with characters saying things like "It's the end.  Man's committing suicide.  We can't escape" and "We're in hell here.  We can't get out of it.  The whole land--the entire world for that matter..." and "We were the damned." 

The physician lives in a half-ruined office with another guy, Rudolph Harmon.  Harmon is a mechanic or engineer or something, and, to pass time, he repairs a dictaphone he found in the office.  One night he, in a daze, records a first person narrative onto the dictaphone--the stream of consciousness story of a murderer who strangles a dog and then a soldier!  When he goes out scavenging the next day Harmom hears that a soldier has indeed been murdered, and he also finds the corpse of a strangled dog!  That was no dream, but a reflection of reality!  Is Harmon one of those Jekyll and Hyde characters with a second personality that commits heinous atrocities?  Or has the intolerable stress of the war altered his mind so that he is involuntarily receiving telepathic transmissions from another person, a person driven by a lust to kill?

Moskowitz and Norton were right to try to bring this story to the attention of 1970s horror fans--it is quite good.  Bravo to them and of course to Henry Kuttner.

"The Room of Souls" by Henry Kuttner (as by Keith Hammond)

This one wouldn't be reprinted until 2016, in The Watcher at the Door: The Early Kuttner, Volume Two.

Eldon Forsythe is back home in New York after a three-year trip to Baghdad, Damascus, and Tibet, where he studied demonology, learned hypnotism and joined a cult!  This adventure drained his bank account, so he enlists the help of a Manhattan socialite, Shackleton, who pretends to be a satanist in order to gull wealthy decadents.  Forsythe, who can really summon demons and perform other supernatural feats, dominates Shackleton with ease and steps up Shackleton's operations--they get the wealthy decadents to put fake charities (owned by Forsythe) in their wills, then Forsythe uses his occult powers to get them to step off of balconies, one by one.  Soon Forsythe and Shackleton are incredibly rich, but Shackleton's exposure to real supernatural phenomena, and his guilty conscience over the murders, are ruining his mental and physical health.  Shackleton wants out of the supernatural murder biz, but of course Forsythe won't let him break off their partnership and live, so Shackleton sets a death trap for Forsythe.  Who (if anybody) will survive their desperate battle of wits and oriental sorcery? 
Mediocre filler--we'll judge this one barely acceptable.

"The Four Who Came Back" by August Derleth (as by Tally Mason)

I can't say I have whole-heatedly enjoyed all the fiction I've read by August Derleth before, but he is an important figure in the history of speculative fiction, particularly the weird, so let's give him a chance today.

A hobo is riding the rails through the Wisconsin night.  An employee of the railroad sees him, and he is forced to leave the train in the middle of nowhere.  He comes upon a house, knocks, asks the woman who answers if he can spend the night there.  She assents, and he lays down on a cot in a backroom while, incongruously, the woman and two men in the front room discuss their recent hijacking of a shipment of booze owned by some gangster named Redding.  Redding suddenly busts into the house and shoots down the three thieves; the woman gets one shot off, winging the gangster.  Redding arranges the corpses so it looks like the thieves got in a argument and then all shot each other, and departs.  The hobo finds the local sheriff and tells his story; it turns out that the murders the hobo witnessed took place three months ago--the hobo saw these vicious criminals' ghosts!  The cops had fallen for Redding's ruse, but Redding hasn't escaped scot-free; just last night he died of an infection because he hadn't gotten that bullet wound looked at.

Ridiculous filler, but so ridiculous it made me laugh, so I can't deny I enjoyed it.  "The Four Who Came Back" would have to wait until 2009 to be reprinted in The Sleepers and Other Wakeful Things: The Ghost Stories of August Derleth.

"After You, Mr. Henderson" by August Derleth

Henderson, Inc. is a brokerage firm founded fifty years ago.  The firm has a high reputation, having been ably managed for thirty years by its founders, Enoch and Joshua Henderson, and for the last twenty by Latichia, Enoch's daughter, who owns 40% of the business.  Joshua's sons, Eliot and Lucas, each own 25% of the firm (10% is in the hands of outside investors.)  Eliot and Lucas always want to pull risky deals and manipulate the stock market in ways that skirt the rules of ethics and government regulations, but conservative and moralistic Latichia, determined to preserve the family firm's good reputation, has always prevented them.  But today Latichia lies on her death bed, and Eliot and Lucas are planning to launch one of their risky and unethical schemes the moment she expires!

After Latichia dies, complicated transactions that I'm not sure I understand take place: Eliot and Lucas try to dump their stocks in Continental so the price will go down and then they can buy them back at a lower price, but the ghost of Latichia appears on the trading floor and by her own trades in Continental ruins her cousins and also preserves Henderson, Inc. and makes sure the firm's business will pass into the portfolio of another reputable brokerage firm so that the Henderson name will not be besmirched.  I think.  Anyway, Eliot and Lucas end up so deep in debt that they commit suicide  by jumping out a skyscraper window.  (Maybe this is the special "It's raining rich guys" issue of Strange Stories.)

I don't find stock trading to be very interesting, so I'm giving this one a marginal negative vote.  Derleth himself, or somebody else at Arkham House, thought highly enough of "After You, Mr. Henderson" that it was included in the 1948 Derleth collection Not Long for this World, which you can buy on ebay for over $100.00.

"Power of the Druid" by Robert Bloch

The Roman Emperor Tiberius is bored of life and work in Rome, and so has retired to the island of Capri, where he desperately pursues entertainment and pleasure.  One diversion with which he occupies his time is torturing people!  When a hapless fisherman offers the Emperor a gift of a lobster, Tiberius has his German guards thrust the lobster in his face until it tears out the fisherman's eyes with its claws.  Yikes!  Now blind, the fisherman falls off a seaside cliff to his death.  (It's raining poor guys, too!)

Another man comes to visit Tiberius, a man who proves impervious to the Emperor's efforts to mangle and murder him--after shrugging off the futile Roman and German attacks, this strange figure introduces himself as the Archdruid of all Britain.  He claims he left Britain because his position of leadership there was stifling his ambition to become rich.  Tiberius and the Druid cut a deal--Tiberius will make the Druid rich, and the Druid will transfer Tiberius's soul into the body of his young nephew, Caligula, when Tiberius's death approaches.  Bloch goes on to describe how the crimes and insanities of Caligula's reign were the result of the fact that Tiberius inhabited Caligula's body and that Tiberius kept following the Druid's counterintuitive advice.

The story's gore livens things up a little, but "Power of the Druid" is essentially boring and kind of shoddy, a jokey tone undermining any horror or shock the gruesome and wizardly elements might generate.  It would be republished in 1998 in the Bloch collection Flowers from the Moon and Other Lunacies.


With the exception of Kuttner's "Time to Kill," which bears the marks of committed craftsmanship and pursuit of an artistic vision, these are filler stories of varying entertainment value, of interest primarily to students of SF history and the careers of Kuttner, Derleth and Bloch.

More old short stories in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log--I believe the next crop will be more akin to the traditional notion of science fiction (speculations on life in the future) and less in the realm of horror or the weird.