Thursday, July 22, 2021

Carl Jacobi: "A Pair of Swords," "The Cane," and "The Satanic Piano"

It's more Weird Tales!  Don't look so surprised!  Today we're reading stories from 1933 and '34 by Carl Jacobi.  All three of these tales were included in the 1947 collection Revelations in Black, as well as the monster 2014 collection Masters of the Weird Tale, and all three were also anthologized.

"A Pair of Swords" (1933)

This is a gimmicky waste of time, just two and a half pages.  A guy is in an art museum, in the room with antique weapons.  Suddenly two men accost him, men dressed like characters from The Three Musketeers.  (The story, at least here in Weird Tales, includes a typo, referring to Louis III instead of Louis XIII.  Sad!)  They ask the guy to be their second as they duel over a woman.  One is killed, and then they vanish, and the guy notices their swords on the wall.

A pointless trifle.  Ignoring my assessment, in fact not even consulting me, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg included "A Pair of Swords" in one of their Barnes & Noble anthologies, and it also showed up in the Jacobi collection The Tomb From Beyond, which has an arresting cover by Les Edwards.   


"The Cane"
(1934)

This one appears in the same issue of Weird Tales as the Conan story "Shadows in the Moonlight" (later known as "Iron Shadows in the Moon") and the Northwest Smith story "Black Thirst" (not yet known as "Thirst of Color," though it could happen.)  Not only are Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore represented in this issue, but Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith as well, so you know we'll be back to it!

But today our topic is Jacobi and "The Cane," which August Derleth included in the anthology Sleep No More and which also appeared in a Belgian anthology.

Mr. Grenning is a retired lawyer living in London.  He takes a walk every morning on the same route.  This guy collects canes, and has a different cane for everyday of the week.  Recently one broke, so he bought a new one at an auction of the estate of the recently deceased Stephen Wells.  The first day Grenning walks with his new cane, by a crazy coincidence he comes upon the funeral party of Stephen Wells, lugging the coffin out of the Wells house.  The cane seems to come to life in his hand and, pulled by it, Grenning assaults one of the pall bearers, beating him bloody before fleeing.  Grenning runs to the home of a friend, Sir Hugh Stanway.  Stanway hears this story and then goes out to investigate.

That night, Grenning succumbs to an irresistible urge to go to the Wells house, enter, and assault a beautiful woman sleeping therein, the recently widowed Mrs. Wells!  After striking her he flees.

Sir Hugh's investigations reveal that Wells got the cane in Borneo from a witch doctor, and it was said to be a magic cane that would defend its owner and avenge him on his enemies.  Also, that Mrs. Wells was not in love with her husband, but with that pall bearer guy!  The end of the story consists of the ghosts of Wells and his friend the witch doctor coming to Grenning to collect the cane, after which Mrs. Wells and her lover turn up dead, bludgeoned to death.    

Acceptable.

"The Satanic Piano" (1934)

We just encountered a dangerous piano in our last blog post, and here is another one!  In real life, you tickle the ivories--at MPorcius Fiction Log, the ivories tickle you...to death!

"The Satanic Piano" was made into a 1985 episode of Tales from the Darkside starring Lisa Bonet and was reprinted in the 1988 anthology Tales from the Darkside.

Wilson Farber is some kind of Renaissance Man--not only does he own a music shop in London, but he wrote a widely discussed book on telepathy and hypnotism!  One night our narrator, the composer and concert pianist Bancroft, gets a note from Farber, a request to see him at once, and when we get a look inside Farber's crib (as the kids say), we find that Farber is a mad scientist!  He has built a device that looks like a miniature piano (like a yard wide) with all kinds of wires and knobs and lights connected to it.  Farber demonstrates how this device can read the thoughts of a musician and play the notes he thinks about in real time and even record them for later playback.  Bancroft is astounded--this device will facilitate composing in a revolutionary way; it offers a means of overcoming all the obstacles keeping him from becoming a world-class composer, and he wants it, badly!  

Farber lets Bancroft borrow the machine for a few weeks, during which time the pianist uses it to compose several works superior to all his previous output.  The same day Farber takes back the device, Bancroft's fiancé, Martha, comes back from a trip.  Martha is worried because her maid Kari, a Jamaican obea woman who claims she can tell the future, has predicted that dangerous times are ahead for Martha!  Bancroft then has to take a three-day job playing the piano at a country estate; when he returns to London, Martha and Kari have disappeared!  Bancroft and the police search London for a week but find no clues.

It turns out Farber has captured the women and has plans to use them to improve his device--he wants the machine to compose its own music, and so has developed a way to remove a person's brain and heart and hook them up, still alive, to the machine!  Farber chooses Kari as the subject of his first attempt at this delicate operation, but, as she is a devotee of black magic, the music she produces is horrific devil music that has the power to drive people insane.  So, Farber discards the Jamaican's organs and prepares Martha for surgery, but before he can cut up his fiancé Bancroft appears on the scene, only to lose a fight with Farber, who is tougher than he looks!   Things are looking bleak for these love birds, but somehow Kari's soul is still in the machine, and with the help of the mental emanations of a bound Bancroft, Kari wrecks the device and as if fails it, in a contrived way that disappointed me, also destroys the mad scientist.

I like mad scientist stories, and on balance I like "The Satanic Piano," but it has some problems.  A machine that can read your mind, brain transplants, and black magic are all very good concepts on which to ground a weird story, but I'm afraid the third, which requires belief in the soul and supernatural beings, doesn't necessarily work well with the other more hard core sciencey ideas.  A related issue is the character of Kari and her relationship with Martha; as the story stands the plot sort of requires her to be both an evil person in league with the devil and personally devoted to Martha, and Jacobi doesn't spend any time explaining Kari's motivation or personality so that this paradox is credible in the eyes of the reader--the story would perhaps work better if Kari betrayed Martha and then in turn was betrayed by Farber.  Most of the ending is good, but the way the failing machine kills Farber could have been better.  I also think the story may be a little too long.  Still "The Satanic Piano" is worth a read, a notch above "acceptable."

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It feels good to make further progress in our exploration of 1930s Weird Tales, but next time we'll be sampling 1970s stories that, I think, will be more science- and less black magic-oriented than today's readings.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tanith Lee: "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)," "The Beautiful Biting Machine" and "The Isle is Full of Noises"

In 2015 Telos Publishing released Blood 20: Tales of Vampire Horror, a collection of stories by Tanith Lee.  I looked over the volume's table of contents at isfdb, thinking to use it as a guide to what Lee stories I should read next, and picked out three interesting titles that were readily available at the internet archive.  Let's try these stories by the talented Ms. Lee on for size.

But first, links to my blog posts about four stories presented in Blood 20 that I have already read:


"Il Bacio (Il Chiabve)" (1983)

This story made its debut in Amazing, in an issue with an ad for Star Frontiers, a game my brother and I spent many hours playing, an interview with R. A. Lafferty, and a poem by Thomas Disch.  The art in this issue is also pretty good.  Definitely an issue worth checking out.    

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" takes place in 15th-century Rome.  Four rich young men, the eldest no older than twenty, are hanging around at one of their homes, drinking, gambling, and talking.  One of the men, Valore della Scorpione, is so good-looking it is hinted that his friends have a homosexual attraction to him, and the third-person omniscient narrator suggests he is like the group's god.  Part of Scorpione's attraction to these aristocrats is that he is a bad boy, his family having a bad reputation and he being a man who owes everybody money and refuses to pay these debts.

Scorpione proposes to his cronies a way he might get out from under these debts.  He produces a key and says it is the key to the bedroom of a beautiful female relative of his, and suggests they dice for the key--the winner of the key can go to the woman's room and have his way with the lovely woman--he promises she will not resist his attentions.  If Scorpione should win the key his debts are forgiven.

As we saw recently when we read The Birthgrave and its sequels, Lee does not balk at including in her writing stuff that might offend or disgust people.  Before the dicing for the key can begin, a guest of the host arrives, a tall arrogant Jew in fashionable attire, Olivio di Giueda, a talented painter and experienced alchemist, and some of the characters and even the narrator say things that are quite anti-Semitic.  One of the four men even storms out rather than sit with a Jew, and di Giueda, with whom the host has a business relationship, takes the empty seat.

Knowing this was a vampire story before starting it, I had been primed to scrutinize each character with an eye towards whether he might be a blood-sucking fiend.  Sexy and charismatic Scorpione was, of course, a prime suspect, but when di Giueda arrived he joined Scorpione near the top of the list--not only is he tall and commanding and all that, but in his repartee with the three remaining aristocrats he seemed to be exhibiting some pretty intimate knowledge of ancient times.  Could both Scorpione and di Giudea be vampires?

The men dice for the key--Scorpione plays foolishly, as if he wants to lose.  When the dicing is over di Giudea has the key, and to the chagrin of the other gentiles, Scorpione leads the Jew off to the promised lady's bedroom.  It turns out that the key unlocks a tomb--in which lies a dazzlingly beautiful woman; she died 150 years ago of plague but, uncannily, her luscious form has been preserved.  In the tomb we readers are witnesses to eye-popping events redolent of incest and necrophilia and learn who is and who is not a vampire.

A solid icky vampire story noteworthy for the surprisingly acerbic stuff about Jews--it is hard not to think Lee is suggesting that Jews and vampires are sort of similar, that both constitute out groups whom the mainstream accuses of arrogance and of drinking Christian blood.  As I read "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" I wondered if di Giueda, the talented and well-dressed Jew who is hobnobbing with the aristocracy of 15th-century Italy, was meant to remind readers of Benjamin Disraeli, the well-dressed Jewish intellectual who became a leading politician in 19th-century Britain and friend of Queen Victoria and who thought that the Jewish people were a sort of natural aristocracy. 

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" was included in a 1993 pamphlet of essays about Lee put out by the British Fantasy Society called Tanith Lee: Mistress of Delirium, and since has appeared in three different Lee collections, including a French one.


"The Beautiful Biting Machine" (1984)

"The Beautiful Biting Machine" first appeared in a small run chapbook that was illustrated by Judy King-Rieniets and signed by Lee and King-Rieniets; five years later in 1989 it was included in the anthology Arrows of Eros.  I read the story in the 2013 collection Space is Just a Starry Night.  

This is one of those stories in which mysterious things happen and are described obscurely, and then explained fully at the end of the piece.  I have to admit that, while I was in the middle of the story, trying to figure out what was going on, I thought the story would end ambiguously and I would never really know if my guesses had been correct, and was a little disappointed that Lee just explained everything at the end.

Anyway, I'm just going to tell you what is going on in the story--remember that this blog is super-spoily by design.  

It is the future!  The human race has colonized the galaxy and has peaceful interactions with all kinds of intelligent spacefaring aliens.  Our story is set on a "pleasure planet" where a Mr. Qire owns a sort of brothel that caters to clients with a peculiar fetish by providing them a robot to have sex with.  This robot (described in detail by Lee, who also describes in detail the decor of the robot's chamber the way she customarily describes rooms and settings in her work) has the form of a sexy vampire woman--the brothel's customers are people who find the idea of being attacked by a vampire sexually arousing.  The robot has been programmed to bite people and suck their blood, but only a little blood, not a life-threatening amount, and everything is sterile and sanitary and the robot injects drugs in the johns in order to make sure their wounds heal quickly and so forth.

The sex robot is a very complex piece of machinery, and works to fine tolerances, and in fact has malfunctioned a couple of times and accidentally killed clients.  A very skilled technician is required to keep this thing in proper working order so it won't kill clients, and luckily Qire has just such a dedicated man on staff--Beldek.  

One day Beldek is in the robot's elaborate chamber, conducting delicate repairs.  One of Mr. Qire's other employees, a "runner," sneaks in to the chamber.  This runner wants to have sex with the vampire girl robot, but can't afford the fee, and Mr. Qire doesn't give freebies to the staff--the runner bitterly assumes that Beldek has sex with the robot all the time, but he is wrong.  He finds Beldek not having sex with the robot, but drinking the blood that has accumulated inside the in the course of its normal operations.  Beldek is a vampire, a real vampire, and drinking the blood legally and nonlethally collected by the robot is easier and safer than hunting victims down the way vampires had to in the old days.

Beldek has to keep his secret, of course, and kills the runner by letting him have sex with the robot (ostensibly a bribe so he'll keep mum about Beldek's secret) and signaling the robot to kill him.  

Lee stories are often full of strange and even disgusting sex, and one of the tricks in this story is--before revealing the vampiric nature of the robot--allowing us readers to think that the robot performs fellatio, that Beldek's" kink" is that he drinks other men's ejaculate, and that the runner is slain by having his penis bitten off.  

This story is well-written and cleverly constructed and all that--it is certainly not bad--but I am feeling a little underwhelmed by it, maybe because 1) Lee just tells you the answer to the mystery at the end and 2) the answer (this dude is a vampire!) is no big deal because there are hundreds of vampire stories out there and Lee herself has written dozens of them.  The idea of some freako secretly drinking other guys' semen on the regular is more shocking and sickening than the revelation that we have here yet again another story about a vampire.

For another thing, I have to question why "The Beautiful Biting Machine" is set on an extrasolar planet and why are there so many minor characters who are nonhuman.  The same exact story could have just been set on Earth in the near future and had a fully human cast.  Is all that standard space opera stuff in there to serve as chaff, to divert reader suspicions that the story is in fact about a vampire, which Lee keeps hinting with puns (Beldek is said to be "re-vamping the computer program") and motifs (the brothel is only open at night and actually sinks into the ground at sunrise?) 

Objectively this is a better story than most of the stories I read, but somehow it is rubbing me the wrong way, maybe just because I expect a lot out of Lee.  (And it doesn't help that the version I read had typos that I suspect were scanning errors, like "The door had dosed.")


"The Isle is Full of Noises" (2000)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" first appeared in Marvin Kaye's anthology Vampire Sextette, and it is in a scan of that book which I read it.  In the intro to Vampire Sextette Kaye tells us that the volume is his 22nd anthology and that it was actually Lee's idea.  Kaye also offers some interesting literary criticism, including a list of what he considers the best vampire stories (I have blogged about most of them) and a brief discussion the post-Anne Rice vampire craze.  An introduction actually worth reading.  (Remember when I took Kaye to task back in 2019 for the intro to Haunted America?)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" is like 90 pages long, set in a coastal city which a decade ago was partially flooded.  Some people, including Yse, the protagonist, live on the upper floors of buildings whose lower stories have been underwater for ten years and are today haunted by barracuda.  This is a great setting and Lee (whose work Kaye in that intro calls "poetically crafted") does a great job of bringing the image and atmosphere of such a weird and creepy place to life.  

This story is all about illusions, delusions, and fictions, our inability (and unwillingness) to distinguish truth and reality from fantasy and unreality and the way the real and unreal influence and interpenetrate each other.  Yse is a fat middle-aged woman, a writer who lives alone and pursues what little satisfaction she can by vicariously living through her characters and by following the career of a TV star she met briefly years ago, Per Laszd, a man she is in love with but with whom she has never spent a private moment.  Her friend Lucius, a gay man, seems to similarly enliven his life through fantasy--he has a scar on his neck that he sometimes claims is a shark bite and other times claims was given him by a vampire with whom he had sex.  

Large portions of "The Isle is Full of Noises" consist of chapters of a novel or long story Yse is writing about a beautiful teenager living in the early 19th century, Antoinelle.  Where Yse is independent, Antoinelle hates independence and spends her entire life dominated by others.  A cruel young man ruins her reputation, and then cruel relatives punish her by exiling her to the country where an aunt gives her the silent treatment for months.  Antoinelle then comes under the control of a powerful man with a voracious appetitive for sex, Vonderjan; it turns out Antoinelle also has an inexhaustible lust for sex.  In contrast to Yse's sexless life, Antoinelle and Vonderjan have sex for hours and hours every night, their couplings ferociously loud, Antoinelle screaming in ecstasy as her husband manipulates her body.  After taking revenge on those who had tormented Antoinelle, Vonderjan carries his bride away to a Caribbean island where he has an estate. 

Yse's writing incorporates everyday things from her daily life as well as reflecting her own unsatisfied desires.  Vonderjan is directly based on Per Laszd the TV star, for example.  Through the story Yse not only lives out her lust for Per Laszd, but inflicts on him punishment for his crime of not noticing her--after his marriage Vonderjan has a run of bad luck and his business fortunes collapse, as if Antoinelle, like a vampire, is sucking the life out of him.  Yse's story is full of clues that are probably red herrings  that Antoinelle is a vampire or that Vonderjan is a vampire; the actual vampire in Yse's story is so bizarre and surreal that Lee pushes our willing suspension of disbelief to the limit--it makes sense that she didn't present this vampire as her own creation but as that of a perhaps mentally disturbed character.

A pianoforte is washed up by the tide onto Yse's doorstep, and she has it carried into her rooms and incorporates it into the story of Antoinelle.  The blacks who work the fields on that Caribbean island sense a terrible monster has come up from the sea, and Vonderjan finds that something, a pianoforte, has indeed washed up on the island.  A monster actually does begin terrorizing the island, and it is never quite clear if the monster is just carrying the piano around with it as it stalks the island or if it actually takes the form of a piano the way a traditional vampire can take the form of a wolf.  Yse's text seems to be suggesting at times that her white and black characters experience the presence of the monster in different ways, with a mixed race man, a clerk come to the island to assess Vonderjan's estate for liquidation, able perhaps to see what is going on from both a European and an Afro-Caribbean perspective.  

Whatever the monster's relationship to the piano may be, it has six limbs and a tail and I guess is sort of like a giant monkey.  This creature climbs through the windows of the estate to have sex with women, Antoinelle among them, penetrating them with multiple appendages.  The arrival of the monster destroys Antoinelle's relationship with Vonderjan and throws the island into turmoil, so that everyone who is able to flees the island--Antoinelle stays there with the monster.

In real life, the arrival of the pianoforte seems at first to signal an improvement in Yse's looks and health and social status, but cataclysm is not far behind.  The story ends with a catastrophe that may involve Yse committing suicide and/or being seduced and murdered by a vampire disguised as Per Laszd or maybe by some monster; said vampire or monster may have climbed out of the pianoforte or out of Yse's writings.  All we can be sure about is that Yse, the pianoforte, and her writings vanish and some months later the pianoforte washes up on a shore with her broken body encased within it--some feel sharks are to blame, no doubt a callback to Lucius's shifting claims about that scar on his neck; Lee leaves us room to accept or reject the idea that vampires are real in Yse's world.          

This is a challenging literary story (it may be based on The Tempest, a play I remember nothing about) full of ambiguity and allusions as well as fetishistic sex.  While I was reading it I thought it felt long and lacking in narrative drive.   

I also feel like the monsters are a weakness in the story, and not just because a piano that walks around terrorizing people is ridiculous, and the six-limbed giant fuck monkey is like something from a pornographic parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels.  Antoinelle and Vonderjan are interesting characters with psychologies and back stories and relationships with multiple minor characters--family members, lovers, servants, etc.  The half-white, half-black clerk is also good, with his own back story and personality and relationships.  But the monster that shatters the Vonderjan marriage and upends the entire society of the island just comes out of nowhere--a six legged giant monkey who hides in a piano or disguises itself as a piano doesn't fit in the milieu of 19th-century Earth, and Yse/Lee offer no satisfying explanation of how it got there.    I guess we are supposed to see the crazy monster as the product of Yse's (crazy?) psychology--Yse tells Lucius that the monster is the product of Antoinelle and Vonderjan's sexual obsession--but there is no depth to it so it is not very interesting or very believable.  As for the vampire that perhaps had sex with Lucius and perhaps murdered Yse, like the vampire in "The Beautiful Biting Machine" it feels a little incongruous in a science fiction setting and like the piano monster in Yse's lost manuscript it isn't fleshed out enough to feel real or engage the reader's interest.  Maybe the vampire is just supposed to be a reflection of Lucius and Yse's unfulfilled desires and/or a representation of how they are frustrated because they are marginalized in our heteronormative patriarchal society, but that is just not very satisfying.    
      
So, I have my reservations about "The Isle is Full of Noises," but it is still worthwhile--all of Lee's vivid images, clever phrases, many clues that are perhaps just distractions and her focus on some of my favorite topics (like sex and suicide) outweigh the issues about which I have complained.  The story would reappear in not only Blood 20, but the Lee collections Sounds and Furies (Shakespeare again) and Tanith by Choice, a "best of" collection.


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I guess I have been pretty critical of these stories, but by any objective measure they are all good.  Tanith Lee is like Thomas Disch or Gene Wolfe in that she has real traditional literary talent, works hard to craft each story--on the level of the individual sentence as well as on the larger level of the story's structure--and often produces stories that are difficult or challenging, either because they are hard to figure out or present bold and possibly offensive subject matter or both.

Friday, July 16, 2021

From the Feb '33 issue of Weird Tales: H B Cave, C A Smith, H P Lovecraft & A Derleth

Let's take a gander at the February 1933 issue of Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.  Now, we've already read one story from its pages, Donald Wandrei's "The Fire Vampires," but the issue also includes stories from two men we venerate, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and two men whose work we (sometimes) tolerate, Hugh B. Cave and August Derleth, so let's check them out.

(I read the Cave and Derleth pieces from the scan of the February 1933 issue of WT, where they debuted, at the internet archive.  Seeking the best possible texts, I read the Lovecraft from my copy of the corrected Ninth printing of Arkham House's Dagon and Other Macabre Tales and the Smith from an electronic library copy of The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.)

"The Cult of the White Ape" by Hugh B. Cave (1933)

"The Cult of the White Ape" has been reprinted in numerous places, like Keep on the Light (less than a year after it appeared in Weird Tales) and Michael Parry's The Rivals of King Kong (in 1978) so I'm thinking this might be a good one.  Anyway, I love the idea of a killer ape--the 1933 King Kong is my favorite movie, beating out even such classics as The Driller Killer, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Gamera vs Guiron in the MPorcius film pantheon--so I am starting this blog post with high hopes!  

This novelette (14 pages here in Weird Tales) is a memoir by an administrator in the Belgian Congo, Varicks, the only white man in a remote village deep in a jungle where it is always raining.  He tells us what happened when a white couple, oafish fat drunk Betts and his pretty young wife Lucilia, moved into the area to start a rubber tree plantation.  The drunken Betts immediately trips over the local witch doctor, a deformed man with filed teeth who is reclining on the veranda of Varicks's dwelling, and then brutally kicks him.  Betts is also physically abusive to his native employees and to his wife, and even plants some of his rubber trees in a clearing said to be sacred to a secretive cult of lycanthropes.

The rubber planter goes increasingly crazy as the story progresses.  When he beats two workers to death the narrator goes to arrest him, but Betts, absolutely mad, overpowers Varicks and carries the administrator and Lucilia to that sacred clearing, binding them in front of the tower at the clearing's center.  Naked, the maniac, moving like an ape, dances around and around the tower.  When moonlight falls on the tower (Cave I think makes a mistake, having the moonlight touch the bottom of the tower before the apex) the insane planter moves to kill his captives!  Amazingly, they are rescued by a pack of white apes bigger than gorillas!  These apes are joined by snakes and great cats and reptiles, apparently local inhabitants in their lycanthropic forms; the white ape who carries Varicks and Lucilia to safety is the witch doctor in his animal form, doing Varicks a solid because he has always tried to be a fair administrator--he tended to the witch doctor's injuries after Beets kicked him, for example.  Beets is killed and apparently eaten, and the narrator and Lucilia lose consciousness, waking up back in the village.  Varicks quits his job and leaves the jungle and he and Lucilia get married.

"The Cult of the White Ape" kind of reminds me of those Somerset Maugham stories about two white guys in a colony, one of whom knows how to correctly deal with the natives while the other doesn't; lots of Maugham stories of this type also feature love triangles, as Cave's story here does.  "The Cult of the White Ape" isn't very well-written, but I guess reaches the level of "acceptable," and the plot is not bad.  The story is never boring, being full of violence and blood, and the author's treatment of the black Africans is interesting--they are obviously very alien, but are portrayed as essentially sympathetic, as victims and as meters out of justice; in the last line of the story Varicks tells us that the witch doctor is "wiser by far than any of us."

A passing grade for this one.     

"The Mandrakes" by Clark Ashton Smith (1933) 

This is one of Smith's stories of the French province of Averoigne.  In the fifteenth century, there live a wizard and a witch, a married couple who, in their hut on the edge of a village, make and sell love potions.  Ironically, their marriage is not too good--the witch is violent and impossible to get along with.  One day she attacks the wizard with a knife and in the resulting fight he kills her.  The wizard buries her body under a bed of mandrake plants.  When he harvests the mandrake roots for his potions some months later he finds the roots, which often somewhat resemble a human form, to be shockingly accurate representations of his dead wife's body!  When he cuts them they writhe and bleed!  He uses them to make potions anyway, and these love potions have a calamitous effect on all who imbibe them!  The villagers who tolerated the wizard's illegal trade when he provided them wares that facilitated their love affairs now turn on him and the authorities exact the ultimate penalty!

A brief and well crafted story with lots of fun horror and supernatural elements.  Thumbs up!  "The Mandrakes" would be reprinted in numerous Smith collections and in one of those Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg anthologies put out by Barnes & Noble.

"The Cats of Ulthar" by H. P. Lovecraft (1920)

This quite brief piece, according to isfdb part of Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle," first appeared in the amateur press publication Tryout and was reprinted in Weird Tales in 1926 and again in this 1933 issue.

In a town in some fantasy land live a couple who hate cats and capture and murder any who come into their yard.  The cat-loving townspeople are too scared of this couple to do anything about it, but one day a caravan of what we might call gypsies if we forgot we weren't supposed to say that anymore comes to town.  When a cat who is the comfort of an orphan among the travelers' ranks is (apparently) killed by the sinister couple the child calls upon the travelers' gods and after the caravan has left the cats of the town unite to eat the cat-killing couple.

"The Cats of Ulthar" has a tone sort of like a fairy tale, and I have to admit I prefer those Lovecraft stories that are presented in the form of first-person narratives and/or news clippings and scientific reports.  This story is just OK; presumably a lot of people connect to the story because they love cats, the way I connect to a story like Smith's "The Mandrakes" because it is about a topic close to my heart, the disastrous sexual relationship. 

As you might expect, besides appearing in three billion Lovecraft collections, "The Cats of Ulthar" has been included in several cat anthologies.

I almost didn't include these covers in the blog post because they are so bad, but 
decided that they are bad in a way that excites laughter and so may add entertainment value
to MPorcius Fiction Log.

"The Vanishing of Simmons" by August Derleth (1933)

If isfdb is to be believed, this story has never been reprinted, so I am readying myself for a total disaster.

Efficiency expert and amateur investigator into the occult John Simmons has vanished, and the narrator, a medical man and friend of Simmons named Sexton, tells us how it happened.  

Simmons's father, the Major, had a big estate near Richmond.  Jennie, a young "mulatto" woman worked there, as did Jennie's mother.  Simmons found Jennie attractive, but Jennie and Mom left the Major's employ when the Major heard rumors that Jennie was in a voodoo cult and his efforts to get her to abandon the practice of black magic lead to violence between himself and the two women.  The Major, a healthy man, died of a heart attack soon after this fracas--could he have been the victim of voodoo?

Simmons sold the estate and moved into town.  Jennie's mother showed up one day, selling photographs.  Simmons purchased one, a photo of a slender mixed race woman clad in the costume of a voodoo priestess; the figure was facing away from the camera, but Simmons presumed it was Jennie.  Simmons hung it up in his home where he could see it all the time and became sort of obsessed with it.

One day Simmons comes to Sexton to say the picture has changed--the woman has turned to face the camera and her face is a grotesque mask of hate!  Sexton confirms Simmons's story--the picture has changed, and looking at it is very disturbing.  Sexton takes away the picture, but he is too late--Simmons develops a mysterious injury on his chest, which first looks like a bruise and then later like a stab wound.  Then he disappears, never to be seen again.  When Sexton looks at the photo it has changed again--the woman holds a knife and laying before her on the ground, dead, is Simmons!  Sexton throws the horrifying photo into the fire, and some time later learns that Jennie and her mother have been found dead, mysteriously burned to death!

This story feels like something Derleth threw together quickly without carefully thinking it over and  without troubling to revise it.  There are passages that feel extraneous, like a preamble about "loopholes in natural laws," and others that are needlessly confusing, while some plot points feel disconnected and elements that should have been elaborated on, like Simmons's feelings for Jennie, are given short shrift.   The basic idea of voodoo practitioners using a photograph to exact revenge on white people who mistreated them is good, but the fact that Jennie and her mother leave themselves vulnerable to an obvious counter attack--or just an ordinary accident which causes damage to the photo--feels like a plot hole.  Also, why does Derleth have the voodoo priestess both kill Simmons through the picture and suck him into the picture?  Just one or the other would make more sense and be scarier--for example, if Jennie had imprisoned Simmons in the picture alive, maybe torturing or tormenting him or something, Sexton would face a terrible dilemma: burning the picture might liberate Simmons but also kill him; maybe instead of destroying the photo Sexton would feel impelled to obsessively protect it from Jennie and her cult.  

The bones of a good story are here, but not enough work was done to erect those bones and give them life, and as the tale stands I've gotta give "The Disappearance of Simmons" a thumbs down.   

**********

Our exploration of 1930s Weird Tales creeps forward on little cat feet, or maybe stomps forward on the paws of righteous apes.  Either way, progress on this weird odyssey continues.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Quest for the White Witch by Tanith Lee

You are a god, Vazkor, son of Vazkor.  And you do this thing not only to make a path to a witch's hiding place, but to prove to men what has come among them.

Two decades ago, Karrakaz, the only survivor of a long dead race of almost unkillable psychics, awoke after centuries of suspended animation to be heralded as a goddess or a witch by the barbaric nomads and sophisticated city folk she met.  Vazkor, the sorcerer and ambitious general, dominated Karrakaz and leveraged her abilities and renown in support of his usurpations and war mongering; the crises he launched shattered the social and political order, and might have made him ruler of a continent, but Karrakaz asserted her independence and turned on him, killing him.  Then she was carried away in a flying saucer.  Such was the tale described in Tanith Lee's 400-page 1975 novel The Birthgrave.

During all that excitement Vazkor found time to impregnate Karrakaz.  Karrakaz was unable to abort Vazkor's child, which had inherited her super durability, so when she gave birth she left the baby boy with some barbarian nomads.  That boy's adventures to the age of twenty were described in Lee's 1978 novel of 200 pages, Vazkor, Son of Vazkor.  When he realized who his true parents were, Tuvek, as his adoptive tribe had named him, vowed to kill the mother who had abandoned him and killed his father.  At the end of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, he as lead to believe that his mother must be on a distant southern continent he had never before heard of, and set sail for this mysterious land.  In Quest for the White Witch, also printed in 1978, Tuvek narrates for us his adventures on this continent and his pursuit of his mother.

Tuvek can't swim and doesn't know how to sail, but luckily a slave he has freed from some of his enemies and now worships Tuvek is an expert guide and sailor, and this guy accompanies our protagonist across the briny deep.  A hurricane strikes, and after he and his buddy are nearly killed Tuvek stretches his psychic muscles, first doing a little weather engineering and ending the hurricane and then walking on water--he even gives his comrade the ability to stride across the waves with him.  Able to heal or kill people instantly, and to hypnotize them into doing his will, Tuvek has no trouble taking over a merchant ship captained by a pederast and crewed by galley slaves and their brutal overseers. 

The first third or half of Quest for the White Witch has a more jocular tone than did the preceding novels.  For example, Tuvek uses his miraculous powers to play what amount to practical jokes, like hypnotizing slave overseers into lashing themselves--in the face!--with their iron-toothed whips.  And his powers are so great we can't expect anything conventionally bad to happen to him; he can knock out a dozen soldiers in an instant with a thought, and heal any of his comrades who get injured.  Fortunately, things turn grim and gross further into the narrative and the later sections are full of the tragedy and suffering we are looking for--sure, Tuvek can't be killed, but he can suffer alright! 

Tuvek's newly acquired ship and its crew, now his worshipers, carry him to the vessel's home port, a bustling city on that southern continent.  There is no intercourse between this continent and that of Tuvek's birth, and the people here have never heard of Vazkor or Karrakaz  (or so it seems.)  Tuvek takes up lodgings in a brothel that caters to male homosexuals, a favorite haunt of his ship's captain, and makes himself the talk of the town under the name of Vazkor by performing such PR stunts as healing scores of mendicants in a city park, hoping to draw the attention of and smoke out his mother.

Like 180 pages of this 300-page novel take place in this town, and Lee tells us all about the city's history, geography, social and ethnic demographics, and so on.  Tuvek gets involved in court intrigues, a duel, and sexual trysts, and he makes friends and enemies among all levels of society; significantly, a subaltern ethnic group hopes he is their god of darkness, come to restore the glory of their empire and punish the more advanced ethnic group that conquered them a century ago and now rules the city,  relegating them to membership in a slave and servant class with restricted rights (they can't own blades, for example.)  He uses his powers to heal many people, and to kill people, and Lee spends a considerable portion of her text on Tuvek's conflicting and ambiguous feelings about his power and the role he is playing in the city; like his parents he is essentially cold and callous, and finds healing masses of poor people to be irritating work.  Tuvek doesn't heal the wealthy for free, either, but instead charges them high prices to make the money he thinks he needs to track down his quarry.  His investigators fan out through the city, looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the white witch who birthed and abandoned him.  

In the middle third of the novel Tuvek, with total disregard for human life, manipulates the opposing factions within the city and engineers an uprising by those primitive colonized darkness-worshipers; he then helps the faction of the aristocracy he favors to crush this rebellion and seize power from the tired and obese old pederast sitting in the throne.  (The faction Tuvek champions is led by a young vigorous homosexual who has a crush on Tuvek.)  This campaign features disguises, secret passages, and Tuvek's first use of his powers to actually fly, something that was foreshadowed back in The Birthgrave.  Thousands of people lose their lives and important parts of the city, like the port, are wrecked; those natives who have been under the heel of the colonizers for a century are almost wiped out, even those who were not rebellious being killed by the fearful majority during the crisis.  

The marginalized autochthons achieve their revenge, however.  One title held by their god of darkness is "Shepherd of Swarms," and in some pretty disgusting scenes the city is struck by a plague of flies so thick hundreds of people die when the insects enter their mouths and nostrils and choke off their breath!  Many people who survive the plague of flies then die of the diseases the flies have brought!  Tuvek doesn't use his psychic powers to battle the plagues because he finds that the mysterious enemy behind the pestilence feeds off any sorcerous energy he radiates!  Is this plague the work of the god of darkness, or some other magician concealing him- or herself behind that image--could it be Karrakaz herself preemptively seeking to destroy Tuvek?  (The revelation of who is behind the plagues is a well-plotted and very effective little twist.)  

The city section of Quest for the White Witch ends with yet another good horror sequence, as Tuvek appears to die of the plague, and then rises from his grave, he being practically invulnerable, after all.  He finds along with him in his tomb his lover, the bisexual mother of that gay prince; she committed suicide after her son's death from plague and the taking of the throne by his rival.  Tuvek tries to raise her from the dead, but her soul has left for another plane, and he only succeeds in animating her soulless body, which acts in a violent, unhinged manner.   

As his father did before him, Vazkor son of Vazkor has devastated a city and a society in the failed pursuit of his own selfish goals, and like his mother before him he has been the cause of suffering and death to all his friends and lovers.  Suddenly, a new clue comes to his attention, and he heads out of the ravaged city to continue his quest, though his recent experiences have sobered him and he does not feel the hate for Karrakaz he felt when first he made his vow to slay her.  

At the end of The Birthgrave, Karrakaz met a kind tribe of vegetarians who oppose the incest taboo, and Tuvek met the same tribe at the end of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor.  In the final part of Quest for the White Witch, Tuvek joins a wagon caravan of kindly people who believe in free-love group marriages.  The caravan takes him to a port town when he books passage aboard a pirate ship to a third continent where Tuvek now realizes Karrakaz must to be.  He could just fly there, of course, but Tuvek has become reluctant to use his powers for selfish reasons of convenience.  (Tuvek grows as a person over the course of his two books, and of course Lee has to figure out ways to limit the use of his miraculous powers to make the story work.)

I like stories of ocean voyages, and Lee does a good job with Tuvek's long voyage across the sea with the pirates, who first adore and then detest Tuvek.  They abandon him on a barren spot of the third continent when they finally reach it, and Tuvek travels on foot through snow to a ruined city of the ancient lost race; there he meets ordinary humans who worship his mother as well as young people with traces of the blood of Karrakaz's people whom she has trained to use their latent psychic powers.  Like their ancestors, these kids are arrogant abusive jerks.

Then comes the culmination of this 900-page epic--Tuvek meets his mother.  She tells him all about Vazkor's coldness and cruelty, and her own suffering, and abandons his vow to kill her.  All well and good, we readers think.  But then comes the sense-of-wonder ending that blows our minds and perhaps turns our stomachs, the ending we have sort of been expecting for a while--Karrakaz seduces Tuvek and they have sex and we are lea to believe they will breed a new race of super beings, one that, because Karrakaz and Tuvek have learned how to be good through all their relationships and adventures among the mortals, will not be arrogant and evil but instead kind and just.  

The first half or so of Quest for the White Witch, while good, disappointed me a little because I did not appreciate the less grim tone and sort of felt the wealth of information about and the many incidents in the town were something of a sideshow from the quest for Tuvek's mother.  But the second half pours on the tragedy and horror and is really quite good.  As a whole, Quest for the White Witch has a lot to offer sword and sorcery and horror fans.   

There is also plenty of stuff in Quest for the White Witch for all you gender studies types The people of the southern continent call ships "he," not "she" as we typically do (or did; maybe we aren't supposed to do that anymore.)  Sex between men and boys is common in the city, and the city is home to a multitude of pretty boys who dress as women--it is suggested that all this pederasty and transvestism is partly a byproduct of the fact that women of the subordinated race are rarely allowed to leave home and when they do venture out they must conceal their bodies and faces.  It is also noteworthy that, while our protagonist is a heterosexual man, the plot is driven mostly by the women and gay men he interacts with, his actions being a response to them and how they make him feel.  Whether Lee portrays women and homosexuals in a positive, sympathetic, or realistic light I will leave for individual readers to judge; suffice to say Lee presents all her characters and themes in a way that is ambiguous and challenging.  Lee's depictions of colonizing and colonized populations offer another example: neither the ruling ethnicity nor the subjugated are presented in a particularly sympathetic light.  Lee doesn't seem to see it as her job to teach us how to think or how to live, but to shock, disturb and entertain us, and because she is a master at all the traditional nuts and bolts of writing--pacing, tone, painting images, etc.--and has no qualms about dealing with material both outré and horrible, she succeeds admirably in her aims.

Thumbs up for Quest for the White Witch and all the Karrakaz books, all of which appear to be widely available; note that some recent editions of Quest for the White Witch have been printed under the title Hunting the White Witch, and that the edition I own, UJ1357, has many annoying typos.         

Friday, July 9, 2021

Vazkor, Son of Vazkor by Tanith Lee

"Whoever and whatever he is, he shall suffer."  His eyes returned to me.  "Do you comprehend?"

"I comprehend that in Eshkorek the women are vipers, and the men dogs walking on their hind limbs."

In Tanith Lee's 1975 novel The Birthgrave, Karrakaz, the sole survivor of an ancient lost race of almost indestructible psykers, was impregnated by Vazkor, the human wizard and conqueror whom she both loved and hated.  Karrakaz switched her and Vazkor's super strong baby with the almost dead baby of brutish barbarian chief Ettook and his beautiful wife Tathra, and 1978's Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, is a memoir written by this super-powered changeling.  Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, is like 210 pages of text in my copy (DAW No. 272, UJ1350), split into two books, Book One relating the narrator's youth among the barbarians who raised him, Book Two his adventures after leaving the tribe as a captive of the sophisticated inhabitants of a city ravaged by the wars caused by his ambitious father. 

Karrakaz and Vazkor were not particularly sympathetic characters, and so their son, called Tuvek among the barbarians, is just following in their footsteps when on the third page of this novel he rapes a fellow teenager--but hey, she was leading him on!  Tuvek is not popular with the other kids because lovely Tathra is resented by all the other women of the tribe, the subject of their envy and jealousy as an outsider whom piggish Ettook captured on a raid.  It doesn't help that Tuvek is better at everything than everybody else--shooting a bow, throwing a spear, wrestling, etc.--and that his super body never scars--the fact that he can't wear the ritual scars and tattoos borne by all tribal warriors marks him as an outsider even more than his foreign looks.  Tuvek also has an Oedipal thing going, doting on the beautiful woman he thinks his mother and detesting his fat ugly "father." 

Tuvek, by age fifteen, is the best warrior in the tribe and has killed many enemies in the raids and battles that are so common among these nomadic tribes; by age nineteen he has killed more men than he can remember and has three wives and a dozen sons.  (Lee demonstrates the low esteem in which women are held among the tribes by having Tuvek not even keep track of how many daughters he has sired on his wives and the numerous other willing and unwilling recipients of his seed.)  A party of slave raiders from the city of Eshkorek carries off some men from the tribe--the raid is irresistible because it is preceded by a surprise artillery barrage, which leaves the barbarian tribesmen, who have no experience with gunpowder weapons, in shock and awe.

Some editions of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor, bear the title Shadowfire

Only Tuvek is brave enough to pursue the slavers.  Among the slavers are former soldiers of Vazkor's armies, and Tuvek so resembles Vazkor they think their former master has risen from the grave and are stunned, making them easy prey for Tuvek and the slaves he liberates.  Tuvek rapes a gorgeous city woman he finds in the slavers' camp and brings her to the tribe as his slave.  This woman, Demizdor, has contempt for the barbarian Tuvek and his people's primitive culture, but she can't help but fall in love with him; similarly, Tuvek, who has always treated women like possessions on the same level as his dogs and horses, finds himself feeling tenderly about the haughty Demizdor, even craving her approval and consent!  These two crazy kids try to stifle their feelings, but eventually succumb and get married, causing some upheaval in the tribe, who have it in for the beautiful outsider, Demizdor, just as they do for Tathra and Tuvek.

At the close of Book One many pivotal events happen at once and set the plot on a new course.  Tathra dies in childbirth, and the midwife reveals to Tuvek that Tathra and Ettook were not his blood parents, that he is the son of a strange woman who referred to her mate as Vazkor, the name of that warmongering tyrant Demizdor was telling him about.  Tuvek immediately conceives a hatred for his biological mother for abandoning him and because she killed his father.  His antipathy for Ettook is enflamed into a murderous rage because Tathra died trying to fulfill the chief's selfish demand for another son.  The realization his real father was a wizard triggers some of the powers he has inherited, and Tuvek uses them to kill Ettook; this first use of his psychic abilities exhausts him, and the tribesmen tie him up and gang rape Demizdor.   Tuvek and Demizdor are saved from a painful execution when, months after Tuvek seized her, a cavalry company from Eshkorek finally arrives to rescue Demizdor and capture Tuvek.  The people of Eshtorek abominate the memory of Vazkor for starting the wars that wrecked their city, and are eager to take out their bitterness on Vazkor's purported son.  A still unkinder cut is that Demizdor, back among her city slicker countrymen, now also hates Tuvek, he having dragged her from sophisticated city life into the nightmare community of Ettook's tribe of barbaric rapists. 

(Lee is not afraid to portray women as embodiments of all the age-old stereotypes men hold of women, a pack of petty, fickle, vain, jealous, envious, and phony backstabbing bitches, and a big theme of these Karrakaz books is how we resent the power over us held by those we love or desire and how our disappointment when they fail to live up to our hopes can turn our love to hate.) 

In Book Two we find that the people of the half-ruined city of Eshkorek are split into three competing factions.  The leader of one such faction kidnaps Tuvek, saving him from torture and death at the hands of the other two.  Tuvek becomes this guy's cossetted slave, a sort of pet given the job of breaking horses and held in reserve as a sort of super weapon.  Tuvek's service is rewarded with fine food and plenty of women.  There is palace intrigue, in which people, including Demizdor, try to murder Tuvek.  When Demizdor's elaborate plan to get Tuvek killed by a crazed horse succeeds only in getting him sentenced to execution, Demizor's love suddenly overcomes her hate ("You are my life," are her last words to him) and she guides Tuvek to a tunnel through which he can escape the city before she commits suicide.  (A lot of people commit suicide in this book.)

The miles-long and elaborately carved and mosaiced tunnel is the centuries-old work of Karrakaz's people (well, the work of their slaves at their direction, I guess.)  Fighting men from Eshkorek, some of Demizdor's relatives and admirers among them, pursue Tuvek through the tunnel and out the other end, and there are chases and woodcraft and ambushes and all that sort of business.  In the last quarter of the book, Tuvek meets the same generous tribe of vegetarians his mother met at the end of The Birthgrave, and they guide him to a secret island just off the coast.  There a young tribeswoman, a healer and mystic, helps Tuvek learn about his psychic powers and, perhaps thinking this is a Theodore Sturgeon story, argues against the incest taboo.  When Tuvek's pursuers catch up to him and in the ensuing fracas fell the woman, Tuvek is able to heal her mortal wound.  But the story doesn't quite end on this redemptive note: Tuvek swears a solemn oath to the shade of his father that he will kill his mother and following a clue sets sail for a lost continent on his mission of matricide.    

Vazkor, Son of Vazkor has many of the remarkable elements of The Birthgrave--rape, bestiality, incest, suicide, spouses who hate each other, parents who hate their children and vice versa, slavery--but it is somewhat less striking and compelling.  There are fewer monsters and less magic and mystery and surprise, for one thing.  The story is also less tragic and grim; one of its themes is Tuvek growing as a person and learning to treat women better, and many of the scenes with the kindly tribe of vegetarians at the end are actually sweet and cute, though the prominence of incest in these passages will sour them for some readers. 

(My copy of Vazkor, Son of Vazkor also has lots of annoying typos, which I found distracting.  Hopefully this was remedied in later editions.) 

While not as impressive as its predecessor, I still enjoyed Vazkor, Son of Vazkor and feel no hesitation about reading the final installment of this epic, Quest for the White Witch, and finding out how the saga of Karrakaz and Vazkor and their son finally shakes out.   

Weird Tales Project: 1932

Our time here on this Earth is brief, my friend.  So maybe you should think about doing something worthwhile during your short stay on this big blue marble.  Take me, for example.  I have dedicated my precious time to trying to read at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s, and then bending my grey matter to figuring out whether and why one story about a scientist or wizard from Atlantis, or a tough guy fighting an ape or a witch doctor, or an archaeologist getting eaten is better than another one.  A fulfilling life is one with a purpose, my friend, that is my advice to you.  

My manifest destiny continues to unfold--I have now read and blogged about at least one story in each issue of Weird Tales dated 1932!  Below find the list of these stories complete with links to my blog posts about them. 

(If I go for extra credit and blog about any further stories printed in a 1932 issue of Weird Tales I will add them to this list with a parenthetical note.)

Below I'll put links to the blogposts with lists for the other nine years covered in this ambitious literary project of mine--gotta catch 'em all! 

1930  1931  ----  1933  1934  1935  1936  1937  1938  1939  


January 

Clark Ashton Smith:        "The Monster of the Prophecy"





February

Robert E. Howard:        "The Thing on the Roof"
Donald Wandrei:            "The Tree-Men of M'Bwa"








March
 

Clark Ashton Smith:    "The Planet of the Dead"









April

Edmond Hamilton:         "The Earth-Brain"
Clark Ashton Smith:       "The Gorgon"  








May  

Clark Ashton Smith:      "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"
Robert E. Howard:         "The Horror from the Mound"
August Derleth:              "The Bishop Sees Through"
David Keller:                  "The Last Magician" 
Edmond Hamilton:         "The Terror Planet"
Hugh B. Cave:                "The Brotherhood of Blood"




June

Clark Ashton Smith:        "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquon"









July

Hugh B. Cave:        "The City of Crawling Death"









August

Clark Ashton Smith:        "The Maker of Gargoyles"









September

Clark Ashton Smith:    "The Empire of the Necromancers"









October

Clark Ashton Smith:    "The Testament of Athammaus"









November

Clark Ashton Smith:    "The Supernumerary Corpse"









December

Donald Wandrei:    "The Lives of Alfred Kramer"