Monday, June 29, 2020

"The Last Evolution," "Twilight," & "The Brain Stealers of Mars" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

I recently read Thorp McClusky's 1936 story of a shape-changing monster, "The Crawling Horror," and wondered if it might have inspired John W. Campbell, Jr.'s famous 1938 tale, "Who Goes There?," basis for the famous movies called The Thing.  According to Isaac Asimov, writing in his huge anthology Before the Golden Age, "Who Goes There?" was "a rewrite" of a 1936 story, "The Brain Stealers of Mars."  I decided to read "The Brain Stealers of Mars" for myself and see what was up, and, to round out a full blog post of Campbell stories, selected two other 1930s tales by the pivotal editor of Astounding.  I am reading them in publication order.

"The Last Evolution" (1932)

Lester del Rey edited the 1976 Nelson Doubleday collection The Best of John W. Campbell, a Ballantine paperback edition of which can be read at the internet archive.  In his intro to the volume, del Rey tells us "The Last Evolution" "shows all the crudity and lack of characterization of the period....[but also] the scope of Campbell's imagination and his originality."  Del Rey suggests that it is one of the earliest stories to show robots "as more than complex tools or slaves for human convenience."  Well, let's see.  "The Last Evolution" first appeared in Amazing and has been reprinted quite a few times.  I am reading the version from the 1976 Ballantine volume.

As del Rey suggested, there are no real characters in this story, which is a sort of history covering a pivotal event in the future; the point of the story is that machines (what we would call robots and computers) are superior to organic living creatures.  The text is the record set down by a machine onto "mentatape" over 100,000 years from now.

By the year 2500 intelligent machines are doing all work and the few remaining humans on Earth (two million souls) spend all their time on leisure, including simulated adventures and warfare.  I guess because no anti-grav has been developed, people haven't traveled to other star systems, but robot spaceships, even ones only a few inches in size, can accelerate at a rate of a thousand Gs and go anywhere.

Then aliens attack, an armada of ten thousand huge ships.  Earth's machines battle these hostile aliens, and again and again it is pointed out to us how humans could never have accomplished the feats achieved by our machines during this war.  Under pressure of alien attack our machines develop an array of new weapons and defenses, and even evolve beyond machines made of matter to machines of pure energy.  The aliens are thrown back, but not before they have exterminated almost all life on Earth--every tree and blade of grass is gone, and only two men remain.  The men take comfort in the fact that their machines will explore the universe and bring mankind's dreams to fruition.

This story's ideas are interesting (in fact, the paragraph I just composed above sounds like a pretty cool idea for a story), and it is a curious artifact in the history of SF, but there is no human feeling and the pace is slow and so it is not entertaining.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down, at least for casual readers seeking a gripping or pleasant read. 


"Twilight" (1934)

(Remember that first U2 album?  That was pretty good stuff, wasn't it?)

Del Rey tells us that "Twilight" is Campbell's attempt to infuse an SF story with feeling, and, because it was so different from his earlier work, he published it under a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart.  Asimov, in Before the Golden Age, admits that he didn't know that Campbell was "Don A. Stuart" until he met Campbell in the flesh, and that he didn't like "Twilight" and the other Stuart tales because, at the time, he "wanted action and adventure" and the Stuart stories were "too quiet, too downbeat, too moving."

Despite the antipathy of a 14-year-old Isaac Asimov, "Twilight" was a hit, and was in 1970 included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America.  In fact, taking a break from reading on a screen, I am reading it in my paperback edition of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I, which I purchased as a college student for a course on science fiction at Rutgers University.

"Twilight" features multiple levels of framing devices, the kind of thing I generally find an unnecessary encumbrance.  (Though it can be done well, of course; I liked the spoofs of academic sifting of sources and protestations of significance we saw in Barry Malzberg's Oracle of the Thousand Hands and Fritz Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar.")  Luckily the multiple narrators in "Twilight" don't really get in the way of the story.

Our first narrator is talking to a guy, Jim Bendell, real estate man, in December 1932, in California.  Jim becomes our second narrator, telling the story of how he recently picked up a man he spotted laying unconscious in the desert, a remarkably fit and handsome man in odd attire.  Jim carried this Adonis to his car and started driving to the doctor, some hours away.  Along the way the handsome stranger woke up and explained that he was from the future.  The time traveler, Ares Sen Kevlin, becomes our third narrator, and handles 16 pages of the 22-page story.

Kevlin is a man of the 31st century, the product of his father's genetic experiments, a superior man, the progenitor of a superior race.  Kevlin ran his own experiments in 3059, but he is a physicist, not a geneticist, and his experiment sent him hurtling forward in time, to an Earth seven million years in the future.  There he found that the human race had dwindled in numbers, so that the world was covered in huge empty cities, cities run automatically by machines that kept them in perfect working order.  Even though some of these cities had been abandoned for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, Kevlin was still able to ride in their automatic taxis and eat at their automatic restaurants because the robots and computers had kept them perfectly maintained for millennia.

Kevlin describes the history of mankind, the colonization of every planet in the solar system, the evolution of the human form into one dominated by an over-sized head with oversized eyes, and our civilization's decline, starting like five million years from now, when man lost his curiosity and forgot how to build and maintain cities and high-tech devices and simply relied on these self-maintaining machines to serve his whim.  Campbell also provides a detailed description of the operation of an automatic aircraft.

 
One of the noteworthy things about "Twilight" is Campbell's testimonials to the power of music.  I guess Campbell loved music.  Kevlin sings songs he heard seven million years in the future to Jim, and they convey to Jim a haunting, intimate familiarity with the lives and culture and psychology of those people of the far future.  Kevlin hears plenty of music in that far future, and describes how it expresses the story of human civilization over the ages, the evolving spirit of the human race.  Campbell also has Kevlin tell Jim that "Negro music" is the best music of our 20th-century civilization, though I don't know whether such sentiments grant Campbell a more comfortable cell in SJW jail or consign him to a deeper oubliette.

Kevlin is from the dawn of man's maturity in the 31st century, and the people he met in the future of seven million years from now were men of the twilight of the human race, men lacking verve and drive and curiosity, and so Kevlin could not bear to remain among them.  So he worked on a time machine and tried to project himself home; he missed, landing in 1932, but we are to assume that, after leaving Jim, he gets to work on another, more precise, time machine, and makes it home to 3059, and maybe investigates further the world of seven million years after us, to see if he can revive among those future lame-os the spirit of the human race.

This story is pretty good, Campbell succeeding in placing his interesting ideas about future technological, social and biological developments in a story with at least some emotional resonance.

"Twilight" first appeared in Astounding, the magazine Campbell would later famously helm for decades, and has appeared in many anthologies and collections, among them The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) edited by our buddy Donald Wollheim, Who Goes There? (1948) with its striking Hannes Bok cover, and Beyond Tomorrow (1965) edited by Damon Knight. 


"The Brain Stealers of Mars" (1936)

Alright, here is the story that got me started on this course of readings from the body of work of John W. Campbell, Jr.  "The Brain Stealers of Mars" first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  The title and venue make one expect an adventure story, so let's hope these 18 pages (I'm reading "The Brain Stealers of Mars" from my hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age) are full of thrills and chills.

Rod Blake and Ted Penton are inventors--the kind of inventors who don't let the letter of the law get in the way of scientific progress!  Research on atomic power was illegal, but Blake and Penton went ahead and built Earth's first atomic-powered space ship anyway, and for good measure fashioned themselves an arsenal of ray guns that includes handy pistols as well as a model the size of the kind of artillery you'd expect to see on a cruiser--the "ten-inch ion-gun!"  Then they took off to explore first the Moon, then Venus and then Mars.  This story is about their adventures on the red planet, where they arrive about three months after leaving Earth.

Blake and Penton are collecting plant samples on Mars when they encounter a creature that can read your mind and change shape to match any thing--animal, vegetable or mineral--you think of, including yourself!  These creatures, the thushol, are not intelligent in the conventional sense--they are not creative--but they have perfect memories and can thus imitate intelligent life they have observed or whose minds they have read.  So ably can they mimic intelligent behavior that they are practically indistinguishable from the real person they are imitating.

B & P also meet on Mars a race of centaurs who once had a high-tech space faring civilization--in fact, Earth legends of centaurs were spawned by these Martians' visits to Terra in the past.  But currently the centaurs' technology and social organization is inferior that of Earthmen; the decline of this Martian civilization is a result of their conflict with the thushol.  The centaurs are now in a state of apathy, the thushol having infiltrated their society--a third of the centaur population are in reality thushols who have slain and devoured centaurs and taken their places!  The centaurs have resigned themselves to this horrific state of affairs and try not to think about the fact that their children, spouses and friends may in fact be the murderers of their loved ones.  They reason that if your child is really an alien monster, but acts exactly as your child used to, so that you can't tell it is a monster, isn't it better not to pry into your child's true identity and just proceed as if the creature really is your child?
"If we killed one we suspected, we might be wrong, which would kill our own child.  If we didn't, and just believe it our own child anyway, it at least gave us the comfort of believing it.  And if the imitation is so perfect one can't tell the difference, what is the difference?"
Mars in the planet where the people think ignorance is bliss!

The thushol would like to come to Earth, and much of "The Brain-Stealers of Mars" is about their efforts to imitate objects on B & P's ship, and more importantly B & P themselves, so they can hitch a free ride to Terra, and about B & P's methods, based on logic and science, to distinguish between legit Earthborn material and things and people that are thushols in disguise who must be kept away from Earth at all costs. 

"The Brain Stealers of Mars" is a pedestrian sort of adventure in which science explains everything and provides the key to Earthmen's survival, but it also raises challenging questions about the nature of intelligence and identity.  Not bad.

"The Brain Stealers of Mars" would reappear in Alien Worlds, a 1964 anthology with Roger Elwood's name on the cover; a note at isfdb suggests Elwood was anonymously helped in compiling this book by Sam Moskowitz, the SF historian to whom Asimov dedicates Before the Golden Age.  More recently, "The Brain Stealers of Mars" was included in a 2018 issue of Black Infinity, a 200-page magazine of reprints with a cover inspired by EC comics that depicts a woman in a spacesuit about to throw a grenade at some diabolical aliens.  You go, girl.


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These stories aren't great, but they do all deal with big "sense of wonder" ideas, like the rise and decline of sophisticated societies over the course of thousands (or millions) of years and the ways technological change can cause social change.  Maybe someday I will check out more of the Don A. Stuart stories a teen-aged Asimov found too "quiet" and "downbeat" (in 2003 NEFSA Press put out a collection of all of them entitled A New Dawn with an intro by our pal Barry N. Malzberg) and some of the continuing adventures of Rod Blake and Ted Benton chronicled in Thrilling Wonder Stories under such titles as "The Double Minds" and "The Immortality Seekers."

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

"The Dead Woman," "The Golden Bough" and "The Typewriter" by David H. Keller

Recently we read two stories by David H. Keller, the psychiatrist who turned his hand to writing weird fiction.  Let's read three more, stories I have selected because H. P. Lovecraft mentioned them in his correspondence.  These stories are all about one of my favorite topics--the disastrous sexual relationship, in this case catastrophically failed marriages.

"The Dead Woman" (1934)

In letters you can find in Volume 9 of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. Lovecraft, HPL calls "The Dead Woman" "excellent" and "splendidly realistic."  "The Dead Woman" was first printed in Fantasy Magazine, a fanzine; I am reading a reprint of the story in a scan of a 1939 issue of Strange Stories.  You might recognize this issue of Strange Stories because it contains Henry Kuttner's "Cursed Be the City," which I read early last year, and "Bells of Horror," which I read long ago and often think of rereading.

Most of the text of "The Dead Woman" is the testimony of a Mr. Thompson, a middle-aged accountant in the employ of some business firm, to a doctor.  From the title of the story, and obvious clues in the first few introductory third-person paragraphs of the tale, we know he has killed his wife with a knife, though Keller doesn't come out and say it.  The first-person narration makes clear that the Thompson marriage was in trouble--they were unable to have children, which was heartbreaking for Mrs. Thompson, and a distance was growing between them, and Mr. Thompson was getting distracted and making mistakes at work, perhaps putting his job and their financial security at risk.  They started sleeping in separate rooms, ostensibly because Mrs. Thompson's coughing kept Mr. Thompson awake and he needed to be alert at the office, and Mrs. Thompson stopped speaking to Mr. Thompson.  When Mrs. Thompson's cough went away he began to see signs she was actually dead, even though she was still able to walk around and when he brought in doctors to look at her they said she was more or less healthy.  These signs--most remarkably the flies that are attracted to his wife, and the "little worm" he sees crawl out of her as she sleeps--are, I guess, hallucinations suffered by Mr. Thompson that reflect, metaphorically, that their marriage is dead, or one or the other (or both of them) is "dead inside."  Believing his wife should be laid to rest, Thompson decided to put her in a trunk, but the trunk was too small, so he carved her up with a knife so she would fit inside, literally killing her.     

This is a pretty good story--a mainstream story with no magic or space aliens--with interesting psychological and sociological angles.  An example: Mr. Thompson starts washing the dishes obsessively, a reflection of his own mental state and the fact that his wife has abandoned her half of the marriage bargain, doing no house work and instead just sitting around listlessly, looking out the window, so that Mr. Thompson has to look after their home as well as toil outside to bring in the needed money.  In 1936 "The Dead WOman" was included by Christine Campbell Thomson in her anthology Nightmare by Daylight.


"The Golden Bough" (1934)

Here we have a candidate for "lamest
WT cover of all time." 
This one appeared in Marvel Tales; in a December 7, 1934 letter to F. Lee Baldwin, Lovecraft says it is "the best story [in that issue of Marvel Tales] by a long shot," and in a letter written on December 29 of the same year to William F. Anger he declares "The Golden Bough" "...the only really good thing in the issue."  Weird Tales in 1942 reprinted the story, and it is in a scan of that magazine that I am reading it.

This story is like a (dark) fairy tale.  Paul Gallien is a prince, but no longer has a throne--maybe the commies took over his country?  As suits a fairy tale, the political and geographic background of this story is pretty vague--it takes place in a sort of neverland.  Fortunately, Gallien is still rich.  He has just married a woman, Constance Martin, about whom he knows little.  The night after their wedding Constance has a dream of a house in a forest, and declares she wants to live there.  So Gallien gets behind the wheel and they drive at random through Europe, more or less eastward, expecting to stumble on the house of Constance's dream.  Eventually, they do--it is an old castle on a hill in a deep forest.  The caretaker of the castle is an old woman who says when she was young that the owner of the castle, her lover, went off to war and never returned.  What country the castle is in and what war the lover is supposed to have fought in is not clear, at least to me, though the old woman is Italian, or at least speaks Italian.

The Galliens move in--Constance doesn't ever want to leave and even makes Paul push the car off a cliff (!).  The main plot of "The Golden Bough" involves a pipe-playing guy (whom Keller eventually comes out and tells us is Pan) who lives in the woods, whose nightly serenade draws Constance out of bed to him.  She dances with this weirdo and his troupe of dancing goats and geese while poor Paul sleeps unawares.  The piper convinces Constance to perform an elaborate spell, getting mistletoe from a special tree and water from a special pool and cultivating a vine on the post of her and Paul's bed.  At night the leafy vine embraces Constance, filling her with joy.  When Paul realizes what is going on he hires some laborers and buys lead pipes in the village and drains the pool; the vine needs daily watering and withers tout suite.  When she cries and demands to know why her husband drained the pool, Paul tells Constance it was because he was worried about malaria, which I thought was pretty funny.

That night Constance's long hair comes to life and murders Paul.  Constance hears the piper's serenade and cuts her hair off with the shears Paul used to cut down the dead vine, and goes out to dance with Pan and his menagerie.  Pan turns out to be an even bigger piece of shit than we thought, though--he draws the widow over to the cliff and tricks her into falling down to where lies Paul's car, so her shattered body is integrated with the shattered pieces of the automobile.  Pan then has a good laugh.

I guess the point of this story is that the gods are capricious and cruel, women are both gullible and manipulative, and men are at the mercy of these selfish, pitiless and emotional beings, even men who are rich, even men who always try to do the right thing.  This is the kind of knowledge you gain just by living with your eyes open, but of course probably shouldn't vocalize in mixed company.

"The Golden Bough" is an acceptable filler story.  Personally, I'm generally not crazy about stories that feel like a fable or fairy tale.  Maybe we should consider how this story fits into the standard Lovecraftian view that life is meaningless and the universe is inexplicable and good and evil are merely opinions with no concrete value.  I have to admit I expected the piper to just use Constance for sex and derive enjoyment from humiliating rich sucker Paul; when Paul got killed I was somewhat surprised, and when Constance was killed I was even more surprised--this wasn't just a story about women betraying men and men exploiting women, as I had been coming to expect, but an all out "we are doomed no matter how we behave" piece of nihilism.  Ouch! 

Though never anthologized, "The Golden Bough" has appeared in Keller collections like Arkham House's 1952 Tales from Underwood and Ramble House's 2010 Keller Memento--these collections also include "The Dead Woman."   


"The Typewriter" (1936)

I really like the cover,  by Clay Ferguson, Jr,.
 on the sole issue of Fanciful Tales
Here's a story that has only ever appeared in one place, a fanzine edited by that towering figure among the pantheon of SF editors, Donald A. Wollheim.  H. P. Lovecraft got a hold of three copies of Fanciful Tales (it includes a reprint of Lovecraft's own 1921 "The Nameless City") and in a December 13, 1936 letter to Wilson Shepherd wrote of the 'zine:
I like the contents immensely--especially R E H's splendid posthumous poem.  Derleth's story is good, though Keller's is rather undistinctive.*
HPL also helpfully points out that there are 59 "misprints" in "The Nameless City" as it appears in Fanciful Tales.  I'm not surprised, because the reader of "The Typewriter" is subjected to a ferocious barrage of typos and spelling errors.

"The Typewriter" is an acceptable Twilight Zone-style story.  It starts like a mainstream story, with a woman complaining to her husband that he doesn't spend enough time with her, that he is always sitting in his library, reading, thinking, and typing, that he never goes out to see friends or eat nice meals or whatever, that everything in his life revolves around his work as a writer.  It comes out that the writer's big best-selling book was a love story featuring a female character who has captured the public's imagination and become a sort of symbol of the perfect woman and the perfect love--the writer's wife is jealous of this woman, thinks her husband is spending all his time thinking about this fictional woman instead of his flesh and blood wife.

We learn about the writer's bizarre career path.  He was a bond salesman, but all his life wanted to write.  In a dream he saw a typewriter in a pawn shop--he went to the shop and found that the machine was really there!  He quit his job and wrote his novel on this special typewriter--it was as if the female protagonist of the book was telling him what to write!  He easily sold the book and since then he has made far more money than he would have as a bond salesman.  And he has not stopped receiving brainwaves from the exemplar of the female--he is now typing the sequel!

Wifey puts a sedative in her husband's coffee.  It is clear that the typewriter is the key to all this, so she takes an axe and chops the typewriter.  As the blow lands she hears a woman's scream and then hubby staggers into the room with a wound in his skull and collapses over the smashed typewriter.

Having the writer suffer an injury from the typer getting wrecked is a bit much--I'm afraid that the weird elements of this story are a little half baked.  But otherwise this story isn't bad, a psychiatrist's view of female psychology and marriage that rings true (at least to me.)

*Robert E. Howard's "Solomon Kane's Homecoming" and August Derleth's "The Man from Dark Valley."

**********

One good, two acceptable--not a bad record.  Maybe we'll read more Keller in the future.

I feel like we've had a long string of weird and fantasy stories--well, all you members of the slide rule club will be glad to hear that the next blog post will be about 1930s stories which, I think, will be about hard science!

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the July 1931 Weird Tales: D H Keller, C A Smith & H P Lovecraft

Having been suitably impressed by the style and psychological concepts of David H. Keller's "The Thing in the Cellar," I looked at the isfdb page listing Keller's works, thinking to read something else by him.  My eye alighted on the title, "The Toad God," which struck a chord with me because I like frogs and toads and think the idea of worshiping a batrachian deity is very fun.  Unfortunately, the 1939 issue of Strange Stories in which "The Toad God" makes its sole appearance is not available at the internet archive, and it looks like the only copies on ebay or amazon run over a hundred dollars.  Too bad, because this looks like a great issue of Strange Stories, with an astonishingly grotesque cover and stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Henry Kuttner, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch.  (We actually have already read one of the Kuttner stories in the magazine, "The Hunt.")

Shifting gears, I decided to read Keller's "The Seeds of Death," which was first published in the July 1931 Weird Tales, and, according to Sam Moskowitz's 1983 article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940," the most popular story in the issue.  SF historian Moskowitz, who had acquired Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright's notes, tells us that 21 people wrote in to Weird Tales to praise "The Seeds of Death."  The second place story in the July '31 issue was the reprint of Lovecraft's "The Outsider" with 19 "votes."  I figured I'd reread "The Outsider," and the Clark Ashton Smith story that appears in this issue of WT, "The Venus of Azombeii," as well as ghe Keller.

"The Seeds of Death" by David H. Keller (1931)

The first sentence of this story feels like a joke.  "The Duke of Freud was distinctly unhappy."  Duke of Freud?  Is that a nickname?  Is it a typo?  Neither--this guy, whose name we eventually learn is Ferdinand, is a Spanish aristocrat, currently hanging out in New York, and no reference is made to the similarity of his title or duchy or dukedom or whatever it is to the name of the father of psychoanalysis.

The Duke is a womanizer, and he is unhappy because he just spent an entire year's budget on jewelry and the woman he gave the jewels too just left him.  The Duke has some very strict bankers watching over his finances and they won't be allowing him access to any more money this year, so the Duke looks in the wants ads for a job!  Duke, baby, I've tried this myself, and nothing good will come of it!  If you need a TV or something, just steal one from Target and say you are participating in a mostly peaceful protest!

Through the want ads the Duke finds a job, and as I could have predicted, it is a doozy.  James Garey's brother disappeared while visiting a beautiful woman, Helen Moyennes, at her castle in Spain.  Garey has learned that several other men have similarly disappeared at that woman's castle.  He wants help investigating his brother's vanishing, and the Duke, as a Spaniard and a womanizer accustomed to hanging with people who live in castles, is an ideal applicant and is hired.

The plan is for Garey to visit the Moyennes woman, and then for the Duke to arrive at the castle three or four days later.  Garey will leave secret messages in the castle for the Duke that, should Garey also disappear, will help the Duke figure out what happened to him and the other men.  In the event, when the duke arrives Garey has indeed vanished, but his secret messages are not very helpful.  The Duke does succeed in impressing Helen Moyennes--she calls him "a real man" after he takes her on a dangerous drive on mountain roads.  (When I drive dangerously on mountain roads my wife just calls me a maniac.)  Moyennes, it is revealed, has had her eye on the Duke even when he was back in New York--she gives him as a gift the jewels he gave to the woman who dumped him!  She hints that she wants to marry the Duke and live out her life with him.

When the Duke presses her to explain what happened to all the men who preceded him, she tells a crazy story about discovering strange seeds which, when eaten, paralyze a person and then grow in his stomach, living off his tissues, until he is a mummified husk and out his mouth and nose emerge beautiful orchids.  These orchids have strange properties, apparently having absorbed some of the animal life of their hosts--Helen wears flowers that she has picked from the bodies of her victims, and their long stamens and pistils move, caressing her breasts and face like a lover!  These blossoms bring the greatest of pleasures to the diabolical Helen, and she has been tricking the men into ingesting the seeds in order to assure herself a fresh supply of these beloved joy-sparking orchids!  As she shows Ferdinand, the many guest rooms of the castle are each tenanted by a dead or paralyzed man, each hosting a crop of orchids in a different stage of their life cycle.

Ferdinand is inclined to kill Helen, and I am right there with him, but Helen's servants also have guns, and will blast him the instant he blasts her.  Ferdinand and Helen are both gamblers, and she proposes a life and death game that will determine which of them should eat one of the seeds and become the fertile ground for the next crop of weird orchids.  She cheats, and Ferdinand joins the Garey brothers in a lingering death, becoming the host to another batch of the orchids whose caresses give Helen's otherwise lonely life meaning.

Not great, but acceptable.  In some ways this is more of a mystery than a weird story.  Christine Campbell Thomson included "The Seeds of Death" in her 1931 anthology At Dead of Night, and Robert A. W. Lowndes selected it for republication in his Magazine of Horror in 1964. 

"The Venus of Azombeii" by Clark Ashton Smith (1931)

I'm reading this one in a scan of the 2015 anthology, The End of the Story, which will, I presume, have a text closer to Smith's original intent, if somebody at Weird Tales in 1931 saw fit to make any alterations to Smith's manuscript.

Julius Marsden of San Francisco spent two years travelling in Africa, a continent which had long fascinated him.  He brought back with him a finely crafted foot-tall statuette carved from black wood, the image of a woman much like the famous Venus de' Medici, but with more African features.  The narrator of the frame story, one of the reclusive Marsden's few friends, also notices that Marsden seems nervous and unhealthy, and his health declines rapidly until, like two months after his return from Africa, he is a shriveled wreck of a man--a mysterious disease seems to have actually shrink him.  Marsden gives his friend a manuscript to be read after he has died and three quarters of the story consists of this manuscript, which describes the astonishing ups and downs of Marden's last few months in Africa.

Marsden was being rowed up a river by some "negroid Mohammedans" when they approached an area they called "Azombeii."  The Muslim boatmen were so scared of the people of Azombeii, explaining they were pagans who worshiped a goddess Wanaos and kept to themselves, having never been pacified by the Muslims who conquered this region long ago or the Germans who currently administer the area, that, after Marsden expressed interest in meeting the Azombeii, they abandoned him in the jungle, sneaking off while he slept.

Upon awakening Marsden met a woman of great beauty, a woman with black skin but features much like a particularly comely Italian or Greek.  This was the queen of the Azombeii, Mybaloe.  She lead him to her village.  The Azombeii, Marsden found, were better-looking, cleaner and more organized than any African pagans he had run into before.  They hated Muslims, but adored white people.  Talking to one member of the tribe who had been to Nigeria and spoke English, Marsden came to believe that in ancient times a party of Romans settled with this tribe, which explains their mixed race character, their worship of a goddess much like Venus, and the sculptures much like the Venus de' Medici in the village.

Marsden quickly fell in love with Mybaloe, who was kind and clever and sweet as well as beautiful, and with the blessing of almost every person in the village they were married in an orgiastic ceremony in a cavern that serves as the Azombeii temple to Venus.  But one guy resented Marsden, high priest Mergawe, the feared witch doctor!  Until Marsden showed up with his white skin, Mergawe had figured he would be marrying gorgeous Mybaloe!

Marsden's life for some weeks was a paradise--he was married to a beautiful queen, living in communion with nature:
I lived as never before, and never again, to the full capacity of my physical being.  I knew, as an aborigine knows, the mystic impact of perfume and color and savor and tactual sensation.  Through the flesh of Mybaloe, I touched the primal reality of the physical world.
But there was trouble in paradise!  While Mybaloe was away on some diplomatic mission to a sub-village or something like that, Mergawe pushed Marsden into a pool full of crocodiles!  Mybaloe, warned by a premonition of evil, arrived just in time to jump into the pool, kill two crocs with her dagger, and pull Marsden to safety!

Mergawe was driven from the village, but he was not through working his evil!  He contrived to poison Marsden with a magic potion that would shrivel him up after months of agony!  When she realized this, Mybaloe, refusing to live on without her husband, drank some of the poison herself!  That is real love!  The Azombeii caught Mergawe and threw him to the crocs.

Marsden and Mybaloe decided it would be too upsetting to watch each other shrink and die, so they agreed that he should return to America.  She gaves him one of the statuettes of Venus carved by a Roman long ago as a keepsake.

"The Venus of Azombeii" is not bad.  Obviously its equating of good looks and civilization and intelligence with Europeans and the opposite with Africans would be unacceptable today.  The story also exhibits such noble savage tropes as the idea that nonwhites are close to nature and the physical world and benefit thereby.  Perhaps a little more surprising is the way Smith connects the idea that Africans are oversexed with the European goddess Aphrodite/Venus.  Seeing a woman rescue a man from crocodiles by killing them with a knife was also unexpected--when the queen suddenly appeared on the scene as Marsden was being chased down by the crocs, weapon in hand, I expected her to give the blade to Marsden so he could fight the reptiles!

Where "The Venus of Azombeii" falls a little short is in the plot and structure.  There is a lack of suspense and surprise in the second half of the story--as soon as Mergawe is introduced we know how Marsden got sick, for example.  The story also lacks a proper climax, Smith failing to raise the emotional pitch higher with the poisoning than he already had with the wedding and the fight with the crocodiles.  The whole crocodile scene, though I like it, doesn't really add to the plot or atmosphere--other scenes establish Mergawe's animosity towards Marsden and Mybaloe's dedication to Marsden.  Maybe the crocodile business was added to the story so there would be some action?  Another odd choice Smith makes in constructing the tale makes me wonder if the crocs were added late in the development of the story.  After Marsden and Mybaloe have drunk the poison, Mergawe is forced to drink it himself--this is poetic justice, he will die the same miserable death as his victims.  But then the villagers just throw him to the crocs, so the potion has no chance to take effect on him.  This strikes me as muddying the narrative. 

Marginally good.  "The Venus of Azombeii" has never been anthologized, but has appeared in numerous Smith collections, including as the title story of one Italian collection.


"The Outsider" by H. P. Lovecraft (1926)

"The Outsider" appears in the June 1931 issue of Weird Tales as a "Weird Story Reprint," having debuted in a 1926 issue of the magazine.  I believe "The Outsider" is one of the more widely acclaimed of Lovecraft's stories, with critics saying it is one of his best--it was also the title story of an early anthology of Lovecraft stories.  But when I read "The Outsider" as a teen in a book I borrowed from the library, I remember thinking it was a big letdown; I reached the end of it and thought, "That's it?"  We'll see how I feel upon a reread some 35 years later.

(I'm reading the version in my Corrected Eleventh Printing of The Dunwich Horror and Others.)

Having reread it, I can see how "The Outsider" would appeal to people who have no friends and have no success with the opposite sex and don't get along with their parents and feel out of step with their time, disagreeing with mainstream politics and disliking the popular culture of their nation and generation and so on.  And the writing isn't bad.  But there is almost no story here, it is almost like a prose poem, a mood piece describing a setting and a character but little plot.

Basically, a guy is living in a crumbling old castle with slimy walls, all alone, and can't remember ever hearing a human voice and has only the vaguest and faintest memories of ever meeting another person.  He has never seen the sun or moon or stars because the castle is surrounded by a dense forest of trees taller than the castle walls.  This story doesn't make logical sense--it makes emotional sense--it is like a dream (isfdb categorizes "The Outsider" as part of Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle.")  The story's images, the castle and forest for example, are not particularly sharp, do not conjure up a clear picture in the mind, but instead achieve a feeling.  One example of the emotionally resonant but illogical nature of the story is the fact that the narrator doesn't know what he looks like; he has never seen his reflection... nor looked down at his own body?

The castle has a tall tower whose stairs have partially collapsed--this tower, it seems, extends above the tree tops, and so one day the narrator takes the risk of climbing it in hopes of seeing the sky for the first time.  One of the most dreamlike elements of the story is how, when he climbs through the trapdoor at the top of the stairs, he finds he is not in the expected room atop the tower but in a ground level tomb in a cemetery.  As he passed through the trap door he entered another world.  And he is stuck in this new world, because he can't open the trapdoor again.

In this world he wanders around, coming to a castle, perhaps the castle he inhabited in the other world, but at an earlier or later time--he finds it is well lit and full of people attending a party.  When he tries to join the party, everybody flees in terror.  Then he sees himself in a mirror--he's a hideous monster, perhaps an animated corpse.

Maybe we are to think that the narrator is dead, and the first castle and forest were hell or just a dream he dreamed in his grave--now he is risen from the grave and back in the real world.  But this world is also dreamlike; the church at the cemetery, the castle with the party, and the meadows between them, make one think of Europe, but on the last page of the story the narrator's description of how he spends his time in this new world mentions the Nile and the Great Pyramid, as if it is Egypt.

I can sympathize with a character who is alienated and deracinated, who is wholly divorced from his ancestors and contemporaries, but I'm not crazy about surreal and dream-like stories and about mysteries which are not resolved.  I like stories in which the images are sharp and the characters have believable motivations and some kind of resolution is achieved.  So to me "The Outsider" is just OK, maybe marginally good; I guess here I am going against the conventional wisdom.

**********

I feel like I've been a real hard ass today, a real stickler, even though none of these stories is actually bad, and each of them is an interesting specimen with some unusual elements and each is certainly worth reading.     

More stories from before you were born in our next episode!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

1930s Weird Tales from Robert E Howard, Robert Bloch, David H Keller and Thorp McClusky


Poking around isfdb and the internet archive, those websites indispensable yo the speculative fiction enthusiast, as I composed my recent blog post on three Clark Ashton Smith stories that have been pretty widely anthologized, a number of stories by other writers came to my attention and set my antenna quivering.  Today we scratch the itch engendered by four of those stories, two by pop culture sensations who have left their marks on Hollywood and the American psyche, two by guys I'm not very familiar with.

"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" AKA "Shadows in Zamboula" by Robert E. Howard (1935)

That's Zabibi on the cover, forced to dance
by Totrasmek among illusions she
believes to be venomous serpents
This one came to mind because I saw it on the contents list of L. Sprague de Camp's anthology The Spell of Seven. (The Spell of Seven is illustrated by Virgil Finlay, and those interested in Finlay's work can check out the illos, which I don't think I have ever seen elsewhere, at the internet archive's copy of de Camp's anthology.) "Shadows in Zamboula" has appeared in a billion Conan collections since its debut in Weird Tales, but does not seem to have been anthologized much, so maybe we have to suspect this is not Howard at his best. I must have read the story ten or twelve years ago in my copy of The Conquering Sword of Conan (2005), where it appears as "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula," but I don't remember anything about it.  Today's rereading of the story is from that volume, edited by Patrice Louinet.

Zamboula is a desert city on a major trade route, its population multicultural, or, as one of Conan's comrades, a desert nomad, puts it, an "accursed city which Stygians built and which Hyrkanians rule--where white, brown, and black folk mingle together to produce hybrids of all unholy hues and breeds...."  This buddy of Conan's warns the blue-eyed barbarian not to stay in the tavern of hook-nosed Aram Baksh, saying he is rumored to murder travelers who partake of his hospitality, but Conan has paid for his room in advance and, after a day of losing at the gambling tables, the Cimmerian checks in at the tavern on the edge of town anyway.

Conan soon learns that Aram Baksh supplements his income by letting cannibals--huge black men with teeth filed to points and hair sculpted into horns with mud--come in to the tavern at night to murder his guests and drag the bodies off to a human barbecue out in the desert.  Conan, with his keen senses and powerful muscles and straight-bladed broadsword, is able not only to save himself, but a sexy dancing girl the cannibals have caught.  The dancing girl, Zabibi, says that everybody in Zamboula knows to stay indoors at night because of the cannibals, but she had to run out of her house because her boyfriend, army officer Alafdhal, had gone insane and tried to kill her.  Why is she dating an insane guy when with that body of hers she could date just about any man she wanted?  Well, her boyfriend isn't insane normally, but she bought from a priest of Hanuman, Totrasmek, a love potion to use on him, and that duplicitous cleric gave her a potion that insteaddrove Alafdhal bonkers, presumably because Totrasmek envied Zabibi and Alafdhal's relationship.  At least that is what she tells Conan.
A French translation of Conan the
Wanderer
, which includes "Shadows
 in Zamboula," with a fun cover
Zabibi convinces Conan to find Alafdhal and subdue him, and then accompany her to the shrine of Hanuman the ape-god to exact revenge from Totrasmek.  In the shrine, Zabibi is captured and Conan is temporarily disarmed and has to fight hand-to-hand against an Eastern muscleman who has been strangling human sacrifices all his life!  Conan proves the better strangler.  "You fool...I think you never saw a man from the West before."  We learn the truth about the relationships and identities of Zabibi, Alafdhal and Totrasmek, and Conan rescues the dancing girl and kills the priest.  Then Conan satisfies his own appetite for revenge, disfiguring Aram Baksh so the cannibals he habitually feeds won't recognize him and then handing the tavern owner over to the blacks to be cooked and eaten.   

Obviously this story about black cannibals, Near Eastern thieves and mixed race dancing girls who use lies and sex appeal to get what they want out of men--and the white muscleman who foils all their schemes--is full of wrongthink and if you value your career, your friendships and your access to the internet you shouldn't read it, and you certainly shouldn't announce online that you enjoyed it.  But "Man-Eaters of Zamboula" is a fun caper.  The pace is fast, and Howard does a good job of painting a vivid picture of a totally crazy place full of crazy people and making it, somehow, internally consistent and believable.  Every crazy thing that happened brought a smile to my face.  Gotta give this one a thumbs up....but let's keep that between ourselves.

"The Feast in the Abbey" by Robert Bloch (1935)

"The Feast in the Abbey" appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales as Clark Ashton Smith's "The Dark Eidolon."  Readers voted Bloch's story the best in the issue, which seems to have caused some surprise and even consternation.  In a March 27, 1935 letter to William F. Anger, H. P. Lovecraft praises Bloch, but asserts it is "absurd to compare anything in the issue with 'The Dark Eidolon'" and hints at the possibility of "the fan vote" having been "deliberately whipped up."  HPL dismissively opines that "After all, the vote of the readers means almost nothing--including as it does vast hordes of the ignorant, the tasteless, & the superficial."  HPL is one hell of a snob.

A Frenchman, our narrator, is riding through Flanders, headed for his brother's home.  Caught in a storm, he stops at a monastery in a forest, where the abbot puts him up and invites him to dinner.  Bloch describes in detail the furnishings of this monastery, which are extravagant and rich in an unseemly way, and totally lacking in Christian ornament.  At the lush and luxurious dinner--Bloch lists all the different fruits and courses that are served, and the ceremony attending the carving of the roast that is the main course--the forty monks display terrible table manners.  They also tell ghost stories and legends and sing ribald songs.  Finally, the abbot tells the legend of the mysterious abandoned priory which at night demons render magnificent in order to beguile travelers--no doubt he refers to this very abbey!  Even worse, he lifts the lid off a platter to reveal the head of the narrator's brother, indicating that the roast, of which the narrator partook, was his brother's flesh!

The narrator wakes up in the woods, hurries to his brother's home, and is told his brother is missing.  Mon Dieu!

This story is merely acceptable, a gimmick surrounded by laborious overwriting. 

"The Feast in the Abbey" has reappeared in various Bloch collections and horror anthologies, including 1945's The Opener of the Way and 1969's The Unspeakable People.


"The Thing in the Cellar" by David H. Keller (1932)

I don't think I've ever read anything by Keller before, though I have seen his name many times.  "The Thing in the Cellar" caught my eye when I looked over the contents list of John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction.  "The Thing in the Cellar" is quite short, and has been reprinted numerous times in books like Pelan's, Groff Conklin's The Supernatural Reader and Mary Danby's 65 Great Spine Chillers.  It first appeared in the same issue of Weird Tales in which Clark Ashton Smith's "Planet of the Dead" made its debut. 

This is a good story written in a smooth colloquial style, though it is vulnerable to the charge that it has no real resolution.  A London house has a cellar of inordinate size, full of hundreds of years worth of junk; the door in the kitchen that leads to this cellar is peculiarly heavy and strong.  The family living in the house today have a single child, Tommy.  Since birth, the child has been scared when in the kitchen, and his fear grows in proportion to how loosely the door to the cellar is secured.  Tommy isn't so bad when the door to the cellar is locked--in fact he will caress and even kiss the stout lock--but if the door is actually open he will cry and if possible flee the kitchen.  Because his mother spends lots of time in the kitchen doing house work, as a small child Tommy has often had to play in the kitchen, and one of his favorite kitchen games is shoving bits of cloth and paper and junk in the space between the bottom of the cellar door and the floor.

Tommy's behavior is bewildering and annoying to his hard-working and not very well educated parents, and when he is six years old they take him to a doctor and explain their problem.  The physician suggests they drive Tommy's fears away by forcing him to sit in the kitchen alone with the cellar door open for an hour--he will realize that there is nothing down there that can harm him, something he should have realized long ago, because his mother goes down into the cellar every day and nothing has ever happened to her.  The physician, that evening, talks to a psychiatrist friend who warns him his advice was bad, so the doctor visits Tommy's parents that night to rescind his advice.  Too late--when the doctor gets there he finds that Tommy, left alone in the kitchen, the cellar door left wide open, has been severely mauled and killed--by what agent it is impossible to comprehend.

The atmosphere, pacing and style of this story are quite good, and all the psychological stuff rings true (Keller was a psychiatrist himself) and I am giving "The Thing in the Cellar" a thumbs up, but the lack of any explanation of what killed Tommy and why it never harmed or made itself known to his mother is a little frustrating.


"The Crawling Horror" by Thorp McClusky (1936)

Here's another piece I spotted in the contents list of John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction.  Thorp McClusky has two dozen short story credits at isfdb, and I have never read any of them.  Here's our chance to get some clue as to what he is all about.

The first part of "The Crawling Horror" is the narrative of bachelor farmer Hans Brubaker, as told to a country doctor, Kurt.  Brubaker relates how he heard the rats fighting in his home's walls, and then how he spotted a new cat in the neighborhood, and how the cat population of his farm abruptly declined.  Following this he saw a slimy transparent blob creature of some fifty pounds hanging around one of his dogs, inside the house--when he touched it the blob quickly escaped by sliding under a door.  Later, his dogs fought each other; after Hans euthanized the injured loser of the fight--the dog touched by the blob--its corpse disappeared.  Brubaker later encountered a dog which looked like the dead dog--this dog didn't respond to Brubaker's familiar calls.  A while later Hans saw a teen-aged boy walk down the road, and he sensed that this boy was not truly human.

Not long after telling his story to Doctor Kurt, Brubaker marries an outgoing blue-eyed blonde, Hilda Lang.  Hilda loves Hans, believes his monster story, and wants to be at his side to support him if there is danger.  The rest of "The Crawling Horror" is told directly by Doctor Kurt, relating how he helps the Brubakers protect their home from this blob that can change shape, appearing human when need be, and can dissolve and absorb flesh.  The narrator theorizes that this blob, which can pass through narrow cracks, is the source of the legend of the vampire, of the Slavic practice of carefully sealing up coffins.  In a gory scene the monster dissolves and absorbs Hilda.  It appears, however, that Hilda's soul is still alive within the monster, along with the souls of its other victims.  Hans, a man of indomitable will, allows the monster to try to absorb him, but he masters it instead of the other way around, retaining his human form but becoming the first among equals of a sort of composite person--he looks like Hans, but within him live not only his own soul but that of Hilda, other people the monster absorbed, and the evil consciousness of the monster itself, which struggles to take over the body.  (The presence of additional souls in Hans's body are symbolized by Hans looking the same as ever but being much heavier--floorboards bend under his weight.)

The pacing and style of this story are good, and the horror scenes work, but the monster's powers and characteristics are inconsistent and confusing.  Sometimes it burns people like acid, other times people can touch it safely, even wrestle with it.  The creature takes over Hilda's soul by dissolving her physical body and killing her--Kurt sees her carcass, the skin and muscles of her back absent, entrails hanging out, bones exposed--but the monster also appears to steal a dog's soul without damaging the canine's body--the dog lives after the blob oozes away, but is listless, without will, barely fighting back when attacked by the other Brubaker dog, which somehow senses it is an enemy.  And in the final battle of wills between the monster and Hans, it's like Hans's normal human body absorbs the blob instead of the other way around.

Acceptable, maybe marginally good.  "The Crawling Horror" first oozed onto the public stage in the same issue of Weird Tales as Robert E. Howard's "The Black Hound of Death," which like "Shadows in Zamboula" should probably be considered a no-go zone, it being the story of a vengeful werewolf and his collaboration with a violent African-American criminal.  Donald Wollheim liked "The Crawling Horror," including it in an issue of the Avon Fantasy Reader (as the cover story!) and in the anthology The Macabre Reader.  In his intro to "The Crawling Horror" in Avon Fantasy Reader, Wollheim points out the similarity of the story's monster to that in John W. Campbell's 1938 "Who Goes There?" and says that some SF fans have come up with a collective name for a shape-shifting monster: "vombis."  I've never heard the word "vombis" before, so maybe this moniker hasn't stuck.

When I realized "Who Goes There?" came out like two years after "The Crawling Horror," I wondered if maybe Campbell was inspired by McClusky's story.  But a note at isfdb indicates that Isaac Asimov, in Before the Golden Age, an anthology I own, wrote that "Who Goes There?" was a rewrite of Campbell's 1936 story "Brain-Stealers of Mars," which appeared in Thrilling Wonder a month after "The Crawling Horror" was printed in Weird Tales.  I'll have to read "Brain-Stealers of Mars" for myself, but if the monster in that story is the same as that in "Who Goes There?" it seems like McClusky and Campbell hit upon the same idea for a monster at about the same time.     


**********

"The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" is a good Conan story, and the Keller story and the McCulsky story, though they have their problems, have good elements.  As for Bloch's "The Feast in the Abbey," well, it is not terrible, and it is of historical importance, I guess.

I feel safe in predicting more gore and terror in the near future here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Clark Ashton Smith: "The Hunters from Beyond," "The Isle of the Torturers," & "The Dark Eidolon"

In 2009 Prime Books published The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith, a collection of 18 stories.  I actually saw and handled a copy of this book in a Des Moines library when it was relatively new; I think I read the Gene Wolfe intro but nothing else from it.  Today let's hunt up some of its contents from the internet archive and get an idea what editor Robert Weinberg thinks are weird poet, sculptor, draughtsman and author Smith's finest stories.

Nota bene: I've already blogged about seven of the stories to be found in The Return of the Sorcerer:

"The City of Singing Flame"
"Beyond the Singing Flame"
"The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"
"The Monster of the Prophecy" 
"The Empire of the Necromancers"
"The Devotee of Evil"
"The Enchantress of Sylaire"

Let's read three that have cool names, "The Hunters from Beyond," "The Isle of the Torturers" and "The Dark Eidolon."  I have actually read all these stories before, in the early 2000s in the Gollancz volume The Emperor of Dreams, but I don't remember them well at all.  I'd read them there again but I don't have my copy of The Emperor of Dreams with me here in the Old Line State.

"The Hunters from Beyond" (1932)

"The Hunters from Beyond" was first published in an issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror for which it is the cover storyIt has been reprinted many times, including by Robert A. Lowndes in a 1970 issue of Magazine of Horror, where Lowndes tells us that it shares a narrator with the two Singing Flame stories, and was published after those tales, though "Internal evidence suggests that the present story was written earlier than the two science fiction adventures...."

Our narrator, Philip Hastane, a writer of weird stories and I guess a sort of simulacra of H. P. Lovecraft, is in San Francisco to visit a cousin who is a sculptor, Cyprian Sincaul, whom he has not seen in years.  (Smith himself was a Californian.)  Being early for his appointment, Philip stops at a bookstore and looks through a volume of Goya's prints known as Los Disparates or Proverbs.  When he glances up he sees a hideous hairless monster with skin like a mummy's, a skull like an ape's and a jaw like a fanged dog's!  In horror, he drops the valuable book, drawing the attention of the bookstore owner.  The gargoyle vanishes, and, in a daze, our hero buys the book and leaves.

When the narrator gets to his cousin's studio he is shocked to see that Cyprian, whose work was formerly boring and mediocre, is now brilliant and striking!  The studio is chock full of figures in various materials, all of them horrible monsters the sight of which chills the soul!  Cyprian hints that this fine work has been inspired by his witnessing true supernatural phenomena, by looking into other worlds: "The world in which we live isn't the only world; and some of the others lie closer at hand than you think."  Philip finds himself telling Cyprian about the apparition in the bookstore, and Cyprian pulls the cover off an unfinished group of figures--a horrified naked girl being harassed by seven ravenous gargoyles exactly like the one Phil saw in the shop!  Then, from behind a Chinese screen, emerges the model for the girl, a half-Irish, half-Italian beauty.  Fully dressed, she talks quietly to Cyprian and departs.

When our boy Phil leaves his creepy cousin's studio he finds the beautiful young woman waiting for him downstairs.  She introduces herself as Marta Fitzgerald.  She is in love with Cyprian and is scared all these crazy sculptures are driving him insane, and begs Philip to do something to make Cyprian stop producing them--it seems like Cyprian is up to some stuff so crazy, so incredible, that Marta can't even bring herself to describe it, only darkly hint at it.  Philip has to tell her there is really nothing he can do, that he has no influence over his cousin and an artist has to pursue his vision to the utmost, etc.

The next day, after a rough evening and night of oppressive thoughts, scary dreams and horrifying visions, Philip is awakened by a call from Cyprian--Marta has disappeared!  Back at the studio, Cyprian explains to Philip that he can summon the incorporeal forms of monsters from other dimensions--these creatures can't physically harm you, but they will try to convince you to return to their hell with them.  Cyprian says that if you have a strong will you can easily resist their entreaties, but apparently at the most recent modelling session Marta had a nervous breakdown--or voluntarily sacrificed herself in hopes of saving Cyprian!--as the monsters were slavering over her and they dragged her away to their horrific dimension!  After Cyprian has finished his bizarre confession a naked Marta reappears, but she is a mindless idiot: her body is intact, but the hunters from beyond have devoured her mind and soul, leaving her beautiful body an empty shell.  Cyprian smashes all his sculptures--only he and Philip will have any memory of his finest work.

This story is pretty good--there are no real surprises, but the images and pacing and style work; I guess you could call it a highly competent but typical weird story.

"The Isle of the Torturers" (1933)

"The Isle of the Torturers" made its debut in Weird Tales in the same issue as one of the most famous of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, "The Tower of the Elephant."  It is a story of Zothique, Smith's far future dying Earth setting.  As you know well, a dying Earth setting may be in the far future but instead of computers and robots and space stations it is full of swords and sorcery and feudalism and that sort of business.

As so many astrologers have predicted, from space comes the Silver Death, a plague that can kill you in minutes, turning you into a stiff pale corpse!  Young King Fulbra finds that his kingdom, Yoros, has been almost entirely depopulated!  You might think he is still alive because he was all alone up in his tower, maybe refraining from touching his face and washing his hands a lot--like a lot a lot--but it was probably because his wizard Vemdeez had made him a magic ring.

Vemdeez is now a stiff silvery corpse like just about everybody else, but a few days ago he advised Fulbra to, after the plague had gone through, sail to the island of Cyntrom.  Fulbra finds three slaves have survived because they were stationed in the lower vaults, and these guys man his barge as they set sail for Cyntrom.  (The survival of these three slaves is a weakness of the story, I cannot deny.)

A storm hits, and the barge is driven to the island of Uccastrog, the famous Isle of the Torturers, home of wizards who can control the weather and use this power to drive sailors into their clutches so they can torture them.  This particular storm has not only snared Fulbra and his three slaves, but another ship full of merchants and sailors the islanders can torture.  Thank God in real life when there is a medical emergency everybody bands together and nobody would think of looting the department store or burning down the police station--I wouldn't want to live in Smith's fantasy world where people are jerks and a plague is the perfect time to commit even more crimes than usual!

I'm the kind of person who just eats his Oreos whole in a few seconds, crunching up an entire package in like four minutes, but we all know those people who lovingly take an Oreo apart and lick the goop out over the course of an eternity.  Well, these people on Uccastrog are like those Oreo lickers, except in the torture game--once they have you in their power they torture you for years in elaborate and subtle ways, making sure you don't die or go insane and thus escape them.  In Weird Tales, "Isle of the Torturers" is ten pages of text.  On the fifth page Fulbra is brought before the king of Uccastrog, Ildrac, and put in a special dungeon cell.  The fourth wall of this cell is made of glass, and looks into the ocean--through it Fulbra can see horrible sea monsters.  The islanders torture Fulbra's three slaves and then throw the corpses into the water where Fulbra can see them through the glass.  Smith then provides us several pages describing the hellish physical and psychological tortures inflicted on Fulbra.  These tortures have to be read to be believed--Smith must have been a real wacky guy to come up with this stuff.  (I did learn a new word: adipocere.  Yuck.)  The story ends in a way that was clearly foreshadowed early on.  Fulbra pulls a Brer Rabbit trick on the Torturers, getting them to remove his magic ring.  The Silver Death has been living dormant in his body, suppressed by the ring, but with the ring's removal the plague kills Fulbra in moments, liberating him from torture, and then spreads throughout the island, killing everybody, including Ildrac.

"Isle of the Torturers" is just alright; it feels a little slow and labored, overwritten, and lacks emotion and surprise.  As I have suggested, how the story will end is clear by the fourth or fifth page, and after that the entire appeal of the story is Smith's inventive and dreadful catalog of tortures, which I have to admit are pretty disturbing, but in a cold way--we don't really care about the characters.

"Isle of the Torturers" has appeared in numerous Smith collections, and one of those British anthologies by Christine Campbell Thompson, this one called Keep on the Light.  (Keep on the Light also includes a better than average Robert E. Howard story, "Worms of the Earth.")

"The Dark Eidolon" (1935)

Another Zothique tale from Weird Tales"The Dark Eidolon" was selected by L. Sprague de Camp for his 1965 anthology The Spell of Seven (which also features Fritz Leiber's "Bazaar of the Bizarre" and Robert E. Howard's "Shadows in Zamboula") and by John Pelan for his massive anthology The Century's Best Horror Fiction, which includes a number of stories the MPorcius staff recommends, like Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks," Anthony Boucher's "They Bite," C. L. Moore's "Shambleau," Donald Wandrei's "The Red Brain," and C. M. Eddy's "The Loved Dead."

Zotulla is the decadent and evil emperor of Xylac, and spends all his time in his palace drinking and playing with his concubines and engaging in darker, more cruel, luxuries.  One night Zotulla proclaims a feast, and provides wine to all the people of his capital city of Ummaos.  Everybody in town falls asleep, and when they wake up a colossal mansion with domes and columns and balconies aplenty has mysteriously appeared across the street from Zotulla's palace, where yesterday there was an empty city common.  What wizardry is this?  Zotulla sends some chamberlains over to inquire what is up, and at the imposing new edifice they are greeted by an animated skeleton wearing a black turban, a skeleton taller than any man then living, the risen remains of a member of a warrior race now forgotten.  This horrifying revenant tells them the name of Zotulla's new neighbor: Namirrha!  Uh oh, Namirrha is one of the most famous, and famously evil, sorcerers in Zothique, a guy even kings and emperors are afraid of!

We readers are aware, because Smith opened the story by telling us, that Namirrha, before going off to the desert and meeting an evil wizard and being trained by him in the black arts, was a wretched beggar boy of Ummaos, and when Zotulla was still just the prince (before murdering his dad) his horse callously rode over the little beggar boy.  Namirrha, decades later, has come to Ummaos for revenge over this slight, which Zotulla doesn't even remember.

The rest of the story details Namirrha's revenge, Zotulla's futile efforts to escape it, and the strain Namirrha's campaign of vengeance puts on his relationship with the evil god Thasaidon, his primary patron.  Thasaidon has no beef with Zotulla and his subjects throughout the empire of Xylac, they being almost as evil as Namirrha, so to work some diabolical magicks Namirrha contacts other maleficent entities, rivals of Thasaidon's who live among the stars, an expedient fraught with peril.  After several pages of shocking tortures and abominable horrors all the mortal characters and the entire empire of Xylac have been destroyed, only the diabolical god Thasaidon remaining to observe the devastation.

Of the three Clark Ashton Smith stories I am looking at today, "The Dark Eidolon" is the best.  (H. P. Lovecraft loved it; in letters printed in Volumes 7 and 9 of Hippocampus Press's The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft he called it "magnificent," and "a notable masterpiece" and "one of the finest things appearing in W.T. recently.")  The magic and the monsters are good, the plot feels more fresh and has some surprises, and the characters are more interesting--unlike the people in "The Hunters from Beyond" and "The Isle of the Torturers," who were mostly flat one-note victims or tormentors who don't really make any decisions, Namirrha, Thasaidon, Zotulla, and even Zotulla's favorite concubine Obexah, whom we are told hails from Uccastrog, all have motives and make decisions (and suffer horrendous fates) that reflect their personalities.  Granted, the final torture and destruction scenes are somewhat too long, but they do showcase Smith's expansive and macabre (and totally politically incorrect, by today's standards) imagination.


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All three of these stories are worthwhile.  "The Hunters from Beyond" is a solid specimen of an archetypal weird tale, while "The Isle of the Torturers" and "The Dark Eidolon" are remarkable for their apocalypticism, sadism, and nihilism.  Smith really seems to revel in atrocity and genocide here, with individuals suffering agonizing deaths and entire empires being exterminated.  These are true horror stories, with no trace of justice or goodness evident in them--both the innocent and the guilty suffer terribly and accomplish nothing before being reduced to oblivion.

More weird stories in our next episode--if you can take it!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Swords Against Wizardry by Fritz Leiber

My copy
In our last blog post we discussed stories which have never been printed in a book and which I assume are read today by almost nobody.  Today we talk about stories which have been printed in book form again and again and have been read by millions of people and about which you can read at scores of websites.  For today we continue MPorcius Fiction Log's series of posts on my reread of my 1980s editions of the first six books that tell the saga of Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser with the fourth of those books, Swords Against Wizardry.

Swords Against Wizardry first appeared in 1968, and that edition is advertised as a novel, but Swords Against Wizardry is, in fact, a collection of four stories.  I own the twelfth printing, from 1986.  At the internet archive can be found a scan of a 95¢ edition from 1974--this edition includes a frontispiece by Jeff Jones that my copy lacks.  Rats!  Both copies include a dedication to Harry Otto Fischer, Leiber's friend and the co-creator of F&GM.  In addition, the second story in the book, "Stardock," is dedicated to Poul Anderson and Paul Turner.  Anderson is of himself of course a Grandmaster of science fiction and fantasy, about whose work I have written several times at this here website, but Paul Turner I am not familiar with.  A Paul Turner translated Thomas More's Utopia in 1965, and a Paul Turner (maybe the same one, though I am doubtful) conducted interviews for Vertex magazine in 1973, including an interview of Anderson.  Something of a mystery.

"In the Witch's Tent" (1968)

This German anthology of
fantasy stories includes both "In the
Witch's Tent" and "Stardock"
I think this story was written new for this book, and is a sort of prologue for "Stardock."  In a crummy northern town, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser consult a witch who breathes in opium smoke from a brazier to bring on a prophetic trance.  Leiber goes to town describing how ugly this woman is--her tongue is like a gray maggot, her skin like burned bacon, her teeth like old tree stumps, etc.  The Mouser thinks her magic a scam, but the less cynical Fafhrd is eager to hear her prophecy.  Our heroes never learn what she has to say, however, as her oracular oration is interrupted by an attack on her tent, F&GM the target.  The way F&GM escape the assault is clever and fun, reminding me of the action scenes I so enjoyed in "The Seven Black Priests."  I don't think this little piece (just five pages of text) adds to the plot of the book, but it is entertaining, so, thumbs up!

"Stardock" (1965)

"Stardock" made its debut in Fantastic, in an issue otherwise devoted to reprints--even the cover is a reprint from 1939 by Frank R. Paul!  The reprints inside are from big names like Asimov, Sturgeon, Simak and Emsh (his 1950s illustrations for the Asimov and Sturgeon are included) so maybe people didn't mind all the reprints.  I recall thinking "Stardock" was a better than average F&GM story, and I reread it in the '90s while riding a bus across the country with my wife (then girlfriend), so I remember it reasonably well but am still looking forward to it.

Stardock is a mountain in the Cold Waste, where Fafhrd grew up.  Many legends are told of the mountain, for example, that it is where the gods made the stars and launched them up into the sky.  These legends forbid any mortal man from climbing the mountain.  But a few months ago Fafhrd and the Mouser found in an ancient tower in the desert hundreds of miles away a scrap with a little verse on it, saying that atop Stardock awaits a tremendous treasure.  So they have traveled all this way to seek it.  Strangely, other bold men seem to have learned of the treasure atop Stardock at the same time our heroes did, and are also on their way up the forbidding mountain.

In "In the Witch's Tent" Leiber put a lot of effort into describing the witch's hideous visage, and in this story he gives us all kinds of details of the mountain and the process of our heroes' ascent.  We get a blow-by-blow account as they face a diverse array of bedeviling obstacles--steep climbs, avalanches, monsters, attacks from rival climbers.  This is all compelling--nerve-wracking even.  The most mysterious of obstacles is presented by invisible flying monsters, and the invisible people who ride them.

First edition
At the top many mysteries are revealed.  The race of invisible people is dying out--new blood, virile heroic blood, is needed.  So their king has ordered his men to fly their invisible beasts (much like huge skates or rays, but with many tentacles) about the world, leaving in out of the way places those verses enticing heroes to Stardock.  The king plans to murder respondents and steal their seed without their consent and use it to fertilize his two daughters, but upon seeing Fafhrd and the Mouser while flying their own monster beasts, the princesses contrive to save F&GM's lives and be fertilized the old-fashioned way.  These invisible princesses, though their bodies are in form like those of human women, "are somewhat like queen bees," so that one night of lovemaking is enough to sire an entire race of halfbreeds, hopefully instilled with hybrid vigor.

In "Stardock" Leiber does all the action and adventure stuff very well, and I think the way he depicts the relationship between Fafhrd and the Mouser is another of the story's strengths.  A story about a guy who climbs a mountain, kills monsters and impregnates a princess who doesn't want to tie him down (after all, the world is full of princesses!) obviously fulfills a wish-fulfillment function, but men don't only face frustrations in their career lives and sex lives--making friends and keeping them without compromising your own sense of who you are is another life challenge, and so the warm and manly friendship between Fafhrd and the Mouser, which Leiber skillfully renders so it is touching but not sappy, and actually believable, is very appealing.

Cat lovers--and everybody knows SF people love cats--will enjoy the fact that F&GM bring with them up the mountain an "ice-cat" the size of a cheetah, and there are plenty of scenes of affection and camaraderie between this feline and our human heroes.  (Believably enough, the cat declines to accompany Fafhrd and the Mouser when they make their narrow escape from Stardock and the princesses' murderous male relatives, instead opting to stick around with the princesses in the lap of luxury that is their invisible castle.) 

"Stardock" handles many of the same themes as "The Jewels in the Forest" (fighting men are attracted to a deadly trap by scraps of text, fight each other, and discover jewels connected to the stars) and "When the Sea-King's Away" (not-quite human girls want to have sex with F&GM but before this desire can be consummated the women must outwit their king and F&GM must navigate a perilous milieu and fight weird monsters) but is better than those earlier tales.  I can enthusiastically endorse this one--nine out of ten invisible glow-in-the-dark jewels!

"The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" (1968)

A version of "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" appeared in Fantastic in the same year that Swords Against Wizardry was published.  This is another issue consisting mostly of reprints, including a reprinted cover.  I guess times were tough for Fantastic, though this issue does include a new story by the critically acclaimed James Tiptree, Jr.  "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" has been reprinted in a few anthologies, including 1976's Kingdoms of Sorcery edited by Lin Carter and Sean Richards' 1981 The Barbarian Swordsmen, which somewhat obliquely advertises the Milius/Schwarzenegger Conan film and Quest for Fire, the French caveman movie bolstered by contributions from English geniuses Anthony Burgess and Desmond Morris.

"The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" feels like it was written to act as a bridge between "Stardock" and the next story, "Lords of Quarmall," showing how the heroes lost the invaluable jewels gained in the last story and how they got themselves mixed up in the adventure chronicled in the next story.  (The magazine version of the story leaves out all references to Quarmall, however.)  "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" is also a story about sexual relationships, and the differences between men and women: women manipulate and dominate men through lies, trickery and the deployment of their sexual favors, and we see that while what men truly relish is not reward but challenge and triumph, women love love love money and seek the easiest possible means of acquiring it.  Joanna Russ's character Alyx makes a brief appearance; in the story's last line she silently deplores Fafhrd's behavior.  You might say this story is in a tense dialogue with feminism: on the one hand it shows women of ability contending with men as equals and besting them, depicting men who look down on women or consider them as sex objects getting their comeuppance.  On the other hand, the story suggests that the goals of women and their means of achieving them are not creditable or admirable, and that men should perhaps build their lives around relationships with other men and strive to secure those relationships from destabilizing desires, like those for money and women.

Remember how I told you "Stardock" was a believable depiction of an ideal male friendship?  Well, at the start of "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar" we get more of the "believable" and less of the "ideal" when we learn that F&GM are not getting along so well, quarreling on the long road back to Lankhmar over how to sell the odd gems they acquired atop Stardock.  So, they split up the gems and in Lankhmar go their separate ways.  They meet up again when on the same night they each try to sell their share of the jewels to different fences who happen to live next door to each other.  (This kind of paralellism, which at times feels like a joke, perhaps suggests F&GM share a soul--remember how in "Induction" Leiber hinted that the men were "two long-sundered matching fragments of a greater hero"--even when separated they are living the same lives.)  Fafhrd's fence is a woman who has sex with all her clients as part of her process of assessing whether they are worthy business associates.  The Mouser believes he is dealing with a blind man who has as his assistant a beautiful young woman.  The Mouser considers Fafhrd foolish for dealing with a woman, and in response Fafhrd basically calls him a sexist.

Both men are tricked by the women and robbed of the jewels for which they risked their lives a hundred times on Stardock.  (It turns out there is no blind fence--that assistant just impersonates him by throwing her voice in the dark room where "he" meets potential sellers.)  Leiber comes up with more or less clever ways in which F&GM have carefully prepared themselves to avoid being robbed, and the women's strategies of overcoming these precautions.  In a pivotal scene we observe the two women alone, apparently lesbian lovers, bragging about their success and laughing at the foolishness of men and their desire for adventure.  The women plan on going on vacation to the beach.

When they realize their jewels have been stolen, Fafhrd and the Mouser are too ashamed over having been beaten by women to stay in Lankhmar and try to get their treasure back.  Each separately contracts with an agent from the city of Quarmall to perform some services there.  (In the magazine version the Mouser just disappears and Fafhrd just gets drunk and falls asleep in a tavern.)

This story isn't bad, but it is perhaps more interesting for its dramatization of ideas about gender than its fantasy/adventure elements.


"The Lords of Quarmall" (1964)

The 95¢ edition of Swords Against Wizardry may have that Jeff Jones drawing that my $2.95 edition lacks, but my edition has an Author's Introduction dated October 19, 1973 in which Leiber describes how in 1936 his friend Harry Otto Fischer started "The Lords of Quarmall" but did not finish it.  Leiber identifies by page number and description all the sections Fischer wrote, and tells us he finished the story himself 25 years later.  "The Lords of Quarmall" first appeared in two parts in Fantastic--the editorial in the issue with Part One quotes Leiber extensively and tells us a little about Fischer and his career and friendship with Leiber.

Quarmall is an underground city ruled by a dynasty of cruel wizards; once Quarmall was a surface city that ruled an empire, but over the centuries its empire shrank until little more than a castle and some vineyards remained.  As the empire receded, the lords of Quarmall built a city underground, now a labyrinth of bewildering depth and breadth.  In the castle on the surface lives the King, currently Quarmal, working his astrologies in his towers and the magicks which draw to Quarmall slaves to satisfy the underground city's voracious appetite for labor.  Below, specially bred slaves walk treadmills that work the fans that draw into the labyrinth's depths, circulate, and then expel the air from above breathed by the king's subterranean-dwelling, mushroom- and rat-eating subjects.  The Upper Levels of underground Quarmall are ruled by Prince Hasjarl, an energetic sadist whose eyes are always closed but who knows all that happens about him, an erratic and emotional man who delights in inflicting tortures.  The Lower Levels are ruled by Prince Gwaay, a man meditative and intellectual.  These brothers hate each other and each covets the throne of Quarmall, but deference to Dad and tradition keeps them from fighting a civil war directly.  Instead, Hasjarl's two dozen magi tirelessly chant and trace runes and work voodoo dolls, endeavoring to infect Gwaay with some manner of curse or disease, while Gwaay's dozen magicians never cease performing the counterspells that keep Gwaay from suffering "the Red Plague," or "The Boneless Death" or any of the other 24 maladies sorcerously projected at him.   

Hasjarl has secretly hired and smuggled into Quarmall a mighty warrior to act as his bodyguard, and, upon hearing rumors of this, Gwaay has similarly contracted the services of a skilled fighting man.  Of course, these experienced killers are Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though neither knows the identity of his much-speculated-upon opposite number.  As the story begins Fafhrd has been in Hasjarl's employ a week and the Mouser in Gwaay's three days, and they are both bored of life in dim smelly Quarmall and each misses the other's companionship.

Fafhrd, though a pirate and a thief, is fundamentally a decent sort and finds Hasjarl's hobby of torturing people, in particular women, disturbing, and so when King Quarmal commands that his sons attend a dinner with him to hear his latest horoscope, the barbarian from the frozen North takes this opportunity to liberate a woman from the torture chamber.  At the same time, with Gwaay away, the Mouser gets his mitts on a pretty servant girl.  Between the Upper and Lower levels is a sort of no-man's-land of chambers and corridors neither Hasjarl nor Gwaay carefully maintains, and Fafhrd and the Mouser are both lead to this untenanted region by their female companions to have sex.  (More apparently comic paralellism.)  Both of these women have regular boyfriends with whom they customarily rendezvous in this no-man's-land, and Leiber demonstrates how cold and callous life is in Quarmall by having these boyfriends show up only to be summarily killed--the girls then have sex with the outsiders who have slain their lovers before said lovers' bodies have grown cold.

A translation of Swords Against
Wizardry
appears in this German collection
This story is long, like 90 pages in Swords Against Wizardry, and there are many scenes in which F&GM do not figure.  King Quarmal casts his horoscope, Hasjarl and Gwaay play chess, Fafhrd reads a history of Quarmall written by Ninguable of the Seven Eyes and the entire test is reproduced for us.  In these long passages written by Fischer we learn in detail the history of Quarmall, the physical appearances and relationships of Quarmal, Hasjarl, Gwaay, Quarmal's half brother and second in command, Flindach, and his head eunuch, Brilla.  The main plot of "Lords of Quarmall" concerns Quarmal's scheme to preserve Quarmall--he fears Hasjarl and Gwaay are too radical and irresponsible to run the subterranean kingdom, but iron tradition prevents a father from killing his sons, so Quarmal concocts a scheme that will get them to destroy each other and open the way for his third son, yet unborn and growing in his favorite concubine's womb, on the throne.  This plan involves disguises and much theatrics (remember Leiber came from a theatrical family and was an actor himself), and within it F&GM are little more than pawns who briefly take center stage.

In the end Quarmal succeeds, Quarmall is preserved, and F&GM, reunited, leave the weird city with the girls.

When I first read "Lords of Quarmall" back in the '80s, I wasn't crazy about it, so many pages being spent on descriptions and machinations which had nothing to do with Fafhrd and the Mouser, who weren't even working together for like 90% of the piece.  Reading it decades later, I can appreciate all the details of how ugly Hasjarl, King Quarmal and Flindach are (Quarmal and Flindach's mother was a mer-woman who bequeathed to them strange eyes) and all the magical stuff.  (The Rube Goldberg nature of Quarmal's plan to get his adult sons to kill each other, the success of which seems to rely on coincidences, still seems a little unbelievable, though.)  This is a good story, though it is somewhat lacking in the things I personally love about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

**********

"Stardock" joins "Lean Times in Lankhmar" and "The Seven Black Priests" as one of the very top Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, and the other three pieces in Swords Against Wizardry certainly have their charms.  More Fafhrd and the Mouser in future installments of MPorcius Fiction Log!