Friday, January 29, 2021

Stories from the January 1930 Weird Tales by E Hamilton, M Leinster, F B Long & A Derleth

When I'm washing the dishes or driving the car or gathering supplies at the strip mall, doing all the mindless things that make suburban life what it is, the thoughts that go through my mind are not, as perhaps my wife might prefer, on the order of, "I wonder how I might make more money?" but rather stuff like "I wonder if I have read a story from every issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s?"  The first step to answering this question was to look at the table of contents of the January 1930 Weird Tales, an investigation which revealed that I had read not a single story from the issue.  The issue does include stories by four writers of interest to me, so today we read them and set out on a quixotic quest.

"The Life-Masters" by Edmond Hamilton

This is a rare story, never having been reprinted until 2011 when it was included in The Universe-Wreckers, the third volume of Haffner Press's The Collected Edmond Hamilton.  Soon I will join the elect few people living today who have read this tale, and the even smaller number who have decided to devote a portion of their short lives to writing about it!

"The Life-Masters," which is a little on the long side (isfdb calls it a novelette) has four chapters.  You may recall that I said that much of Hamilton's 1928 "The Polar Doom" read like a newspaper account or a brief history, and that much of his 1932 tale "A Conquest of Two Worlds" read like an encyclopedia entry about a military campaign, and Chapter 1 of "The Life-Masters" is in that same vein, a sort of journalistic account of how, one day, a thick carpet of gray slime appeared on all the world's seashores.  Scientists come to believe it is protoplasm, the sort of life that first appeared on Earth eons ago and evolved into the diverse living things that inhabit the world today.  Chapter 2 follows the horrifying adventures of a chap who goes to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan (as I did so many times myself in those halcyon days when I lived in New York) a few days after the appearance of the goo, just as it becomes vigorous and voracious and begins oozing down streets and alleys, snatching people with pseudopods and devouring them, enveloping the whole island.  Millions of people are killed as similar attacks take place on coasts all over the planet and the slime proves impervious to all weapons turned against it.

In Chapter 3 we follow a scientist as he flies a plane to an island off New England--he takes off just before the attack described in Chapter 2 begins.  The world scientific community has sent this guy to the island to contact the world's greatest biologist for help figuring out what that slime is all about.  Once on the island he learns the astonishing, the mortifying truth!  That biologist had assembled a team of scientists with the goal of discovering then origin of life on Earth.  A few billion years ago protoplasm first appeared from sea silt when worked upon by cosmic rays, a process that took millions of years.  The biologist and his team constructed a "condenser" that could concentrate these cosmic rays and reproduced that prehistoric phenomenon, producing protoplasm from sea silt in short order.  They discovered that they had to concentrate just the right kind of rays, because if rays of another wavelength were concentrated, the protoplasm was instantly killed, reduced to mere dust.

Having created life where there was none before went right to the heads of these eggheads, and they declared themselves like gods and began acting like gods.  They built a supersized ray condenser that could make protoplasm arise in every body of salt water on the Earth, and put into action a diabolical three-part plan: first, let the protoplasm exterminate all life in the world, second, kill the protoplasm, then third, repopulate the planet with new and improved forms of life designed by themselves.  (The mad scientists thought the sheer cliffs of their island too steep for the protoplasm to reach them.)

The scientist who arrived in the plane learns all this after being locked up by the mad scientists, and luckily in Chapter 4 he escapes and changes the setting on the condenser, killing all the protoplasm and saving the world.

This is an acceptable mad scientist story with some fun images of people getting killed and lots of speculative science about evolution and radiation--much of Hamilton's body of work revolves around radiation and evolution, as we have seen over the course of this blog's life.   


"The Murderer" by Murray Leinster

Sitting above the name of my homeboy Hamilton on the cover of this issue of Weird Tales is that of Murray Leinster.  Like Hamilton's "The Life-Masters," Leinster's "The Murderer" is sort of rare, not having been reprinted until 1994 in 100 Wild Little Weird Tales.  Unlike Hamilton's story, which is almost 19 pages long, "The Murderer" is brief, fewer than five pages.

After murdering his rich miserly uncle so he would get the inheritance the killer hurried away from the scene of the crime, only to realize he had left his cigarette case in the murder room--if the fuzz finds it, it will tie him directly to the murder.  Back in his uncle's place, fumbling about in the dark, afraid to use his flashlight lest the neighbors see it, the murderer searches for the cigarette case but it keeps eluding his grasp, and he also gets the impression that his dead uncle is moving, if only slightly.  The murderer is driven insane by fear and knocks over the telephone, leading the operator to send the cops to the house to see what is up.  It turns out that what was shifting the corpse's clothes and limbs and moving around the critical cigarette case move was the uncle's large playful cat.    

Acceptable filler.  The illustration on the first page of the story totally spoils the story's mystery, depicting the cat trying to play with the disturbed murderer. 

"The Red Fetish" by Frank Belknap Long

I'm calling this a rare story because it has only been reprinted in the 1931 British hardcover anthology edited by Christine Campbell Thomson, Switch on the Light, Centipede Press's $450.00, 1100-page Long collection from 2010, and a print-on-demand book from Wildside Press.

Like Leinster's "The Murderer," this is a more or less realistic black humor and horror piece, but the humor and especially the horror are much more intense.  Two men have been shipwrecked on an island with no fresh water and no fruit-bearing plants, and they are enfeebled by hunger and near death from thirst.  Long dwells on their doleful physical and psychological condition, coming back again and again to such items as their narrow wrists and ankles, their blackened lips, their protruding ribs, etc.  The men are almost insane, and each often thinks of murdering the other while fearing the other plans his own murder.  The humor of the story comes from the things the men think and say in their horrible situation, and does not undermine the bleak atmosphere or tension of the story. 

Six or seven miles away is an island with fresh water and fruit trees, but it is reputedly inhabited by head-hunting cannibals, so the men have delayed swimming over to it.  By the time they finally resort to risking the passage to the cannibal island, they are quite weak.  They are nearing the cannibal island when one man is torn to pieces by sharks.  The other makes it to the island, where, some hours after he has made landfall and drunk his fill of fresh water, he is confronted by the cannibals.  He expects to be tortured, killed and eaten, but he is in luck: his comrade's head washed up on the beach before he did, and the natives consider it a gift from the survivor, whom they welcome as a friend and benefactor, maybe even a god.  For three months they give him the run of the island, and then a ship picks the castaway up to take him back to civilization.  Unfortunately, since the moment he saw his companion's severed head in the hand of one of the cannibals, he has been insane.

I have often been pretty hard on Long's work, but this is actually a pretty good story, with Long doing a decent job of describing the men's mood swings and despair, their suffering on the beach, their desperate swim and the survivor's reaction to finding potable water and then being surrounded by the cannibals.  "The Red Fetish" really held my interest.  Thumbs up!

"A Matter of Sight" by August Derleth

This two-and-a-half-page story was reprinted in the 1948 Derleth collection Not Long For this World and its 1961 paperback abridgement, and more recently in the 2009 collection That is Not Dead: The Black Magic and Occult Stories.

"A Matter of Sight" is a lame filler story, a waste of time I have to give a thumbs down to.  The narrator is riding a train in England.  A man with dark glasses sitting next to him speaks to him, claiming he has the power to see into the fourth dimension.  With this power he can see into the past of the place in which he is located.  By travelling the world he has seen, in action, Alexander, Caligula, Cleopatra, Cagliostro, and many others.  He also, apparently, can read people's minds and see for long distances, through obstructions.  Anyway, right before he and the narrator part at the terminal the man in glasses says that he was captured by the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion and lifts up his spectacles to show that his captors tore out his eyes. 

Derleth here just jams together two ideas which don't really have much to do with each other, and he doesn't build an interesting story or a convincing character around either idea.  Not good!  

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I think there were 115 issues of Weird Tales published during the 1930s, and now I can cross the first of them off my list.  We'll cross off a few more in our next episode.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

"The Secret in the Tomb," "The Grinning Ghoul," "The Mannikin" & "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" by Robert Bloch

People who write Lovecraftian stories like to create their own alien gods and their own forbidden books and put them in the pantheon alongside Lovecraft's Cthulhu and on the bookshelf alongside Lovecraft's Necronomicon.  For example, Clark Ashton Smith came up with Tsathoggua and Robert E. Howard dreamed up Nameless Cults by von Junzt.  Robert Bloch's addition to the weird card catalog was Mysteries of the Worm by Ludvig Prinn, and in 1981 a collection of Bloch's Lovecraftian stories edited by Lin Carter was printed under that name.

Back in April I expressed my love for the Tom Barber cover of Mysteries of the Worm: All the Cthulhu Mythos Stories of Robert Bloch and for Bloch's 1949 story "The Unspeakable Betrothal," one of the stories it collected.  Let's read some more stories from the collection--I have selected these tales by the infallible method of prioritizing stories whose titles sounded cool.  As I don't have a copy of Mysteries of the Worm, I'll read these stories in scans of old issues of Weird Tales at the internet archive, the essential website for the pop culture archaeologist on a budget.  It seems possible that some of these stories may have been revised for book publication, but we will be experiencing them in the same form as did Weird Tales readers back in the 1930s.

"The Secret in the Tomb" (1935)

Our narrator is the last in a long line of researchers into the occult, going back hundreds of years to an ancestor who brought forbidden lore back from a trip to the East and who collected such dangerous books as the Necronomicon and Mysteries of the Worm.  The eldest son of each generation is let in on the secrets of his father and grandfathers before him, all that esoteric learning and all those eldritch volumes, and each one, late in life, has travelled to the hidden tomb of that first investigator to learn the final secret--the secret of eternal life!  None of those men has ever returned! 

Our narrator is still young, but has gotten the urge to go to the tomb.  After spending long hours studying the magic spell needed to open the sepulchre, the metal door of which lacks keyhole or handle, he ventures forth one night to learn the alarming secret himself!

This is a fun story.  In his efforts to build atmosphere Bloch uses some unusual words ("nyctalopic" shows up in the first paragraph, and later on we are confronted by "cachinated") and questionable metaphors ("it spoke, in a voice like the hissing of a black slug"--I dealt with a lot of slugs growing up in New Jersey, but I don't remember any of them making a sound) but I found these more amusing than annoying.  I also have to admit I didn't quite know where the story was going, so I found the ending a little surprising and quite satisfying.  (Maybe other people will find it predictable.)

Thumbs up!  "The Secret in the Tomb" has not been reprinted very often, though it has resurfaced in a 1983 French Bloch collection and a 2010 German horror anthology.       

"The Grinning Ghoul" (1936)

I wrote at some length about Robert E.
Howard's "Black Canaan" in 2019

proving I went to grad school I even 
used the phrase "liminal space!"
Lovecraftian stories are full of people who learned something and were driven by this knowledge to a nervous breakdown or all the way to madness.  "The Grinning Ghoul" is the testament of such a man, a psychiatrist who, as he writes this document we are reading, is himself confined to a cell in a sanitarium! 

One day, the victim of this bitter irony tells us, he was minding his own business in his office when a new patient came by, Alexander Chaupin, he of the tall thin figure, white hair and green eyes.  The narrator spends a lot of time describing this guy; his long nails, his supple posture and graceful manner, his "sensual nostrils" (!) and his thin lips, I guess in hopes we will recognize him if we ever see him on the street, because he has apparently vanished, and he seems to have lied to the narrator about his place of work.

Chaupin described to our narrator his recurring dreams of entering a subterranean labyrinth via a secret door inside a mausoleum, where he witnessed ghouls going about their disgusting feastings on human flesh and worshippings of primal gods at altars of skulls.  Then he claimed that he had found the cemetery from his dream and gone to it, and discovered that the secret door and the underworld of ghouls was real!

The head shrinker assured Chaupin that ghouls are not real, that these imagined trips to the tomb are just more dreams, brought on by Chaupin's readings of such books as the Necronomicon and Mysteries of the Worm.  Chaupin offered to show this ghoul-haunted underworld to the narrator, and the narrator took him up on this bizarre proposal, thinking he could thus explode the poor man's delusions and cure him.

Instead of curing Chaupin, however, the narrator's expedition with the mysterious weirdo shakes the narrator's own sanity, sending him to the booby hatch where he wishes he could forget the horrible thing he saw in the mausoleum!

This story is pretty good, though I think it more predictable and a little less fun than "The Secret in the Tomb."  "The Grinning Ghoul" was included by Kurt Singer in his anthology of stories by Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, which has appeared in a number of languages and with a number of titles.  

"The Mannikin" (1937)

Like the guy in "The Grinning Ghoul," the narrator of "The Mannikin" is under the care of mental health professionals and is writing this account we are reading as a means of coming to terms with the fact that he has learned something so terrible it has threatened his sanity.  

Our dude this time out is a college professor.  Like all college professors, he moans and groans about how hard his job is and how much he needs a long break.  As I know from much direct experience, these college professors are really something!  Anyway, this Doctor of Thinkology or whatever loves trout fishing, and rents a room at a resort on Lake Kane in the rustic village of Bridgetown.  As we expect from a college professor, the narrator talks our ear off about how awesome his vacation spot is, how vulgar and unsophisticated ordinary people have not discovered and ruined it yet.  I guess Bloch also had direct experience of college professors.

In Bridgetown this snob unexpectedly runs into a former student, Simon Maglore; Maglore was one of our narrator's smartest and wealthiest students, but a loner with a morbid turn of mind who suffered from a deformity sort of like a hunched back.  Maglore wrote poems abut witches, drew pictures and molded sculptures based on his nightmares, and, it seemed, sincerely believed in sorcery and the occult--this dude even owned a copy of Mysteries of the Worm!  The narrator notices that Maglore's health seems to have deteriorated since he last saw him two years ago--the growth on his back has doubled in size!  Maglore says he has been very busy writing a monograph on witches in America.  

Asking around, the narrator learns that the Maglore family has lived on the hill above Bridgetown for generations, and has a bad reputation with the locals, who have never liked the Maglores and especially fear Simon, the sole survivor of the queer and suspicious family.  The narrator decides to pay an unexpected visit to Simon Maglore and offer unasked-for advice, that he see a doctor and maybe cut out all this hard work researching bogus and depressing superstitions because it is compromising his health.  

Clues pile up, culled from rumors learned from locals and from the narrator's interactions with him that indicate to the reader that the hump on Simon Maglore's back is a monstrous parasitic creature, joined to Simon since birth like an emaciated Siamese twin, that sometimes takes control of the entire body and pursues its own interests.  In the end the creature kills both itself and Simon when Simon tries to write down the monster's plans, which it is adamant must be kept secret.

This story is OK; I certainly like the central idea of an evil conjoined twin who tries to take over the entire body to commit crimes or whatever, but I don't think Bloch adequately connects this idea with all the Lovecraftian witch stuff about the Maglore family's history of deformity and interest in the supernatural. The idea that the monster would commit suicide rather than allow Simon to write something down also feels like a stretch.  With some revision Bloch could have made this all work better--maybe ditch the Yog Sothery and have the conjoined twin be a bank robber or rapist or something.  Oh, well.

"The Mannikin" has appeared in a bunch of anthologies as well as Bloch collections.

"Fane of the Black Pharaoh" (1937)

The copy of the December 1937 issue of Weird Tales available at the internet archive appears to have been signed by Robert Bloch, which is kind of fun.  Bloch's signature, in red, is on the story's first page.  


Captain Carteret served in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where he became fascinated by the history, the religion, the myths, the legends of Ancient Egypt.  Now that he is retired, he lives in Cairo and spends all his time investigating Egyptian mysteries, even though the professionals try to dissuade him.  So when the old man is approached by an Arab who tells him he can get him into the tomb of Nephren-Ka, a Pharaoh who was a Nyarlathotep worshiper was deposed because he demanded too many human sacrifices, Carteret jumps at the chance.  After all, on a recent trip to London, Carteret studied the story of Nephren-Ka in the British Museum's copy of the Necronomicon and a portion of The Mysteries of the Worm made available by a friend in government.  


You remember how in Lovecraft stories like At the Mountains of Madness an explorer finds a bunch of carvings or paintings on the walls of a lost city and from them can deduce the entire history of a now extinct or vanished race?  Well, the tomb to which the Arab leads Carteret has a very detailed mural painted on its walls, which are thousands of feet long.  You see, after he was deposed, Nephren-Ka sacrificed like a hundred people to Nyarlathotep and received the gift of prophecy, and painted murals on the walls of his tomb depicting Egyptian history for the next few thousand years.  The Arab who approached Carteret is one of the priests of Nyarlathotep who maintains the secret tomb, and he came to collect Carteret because he saw on the mural that Carteret would be coming by for a visit on this very day!  Carteret, who of course doesn't believe in Nyarlathotep or prophecy or any of that bunk, is amazed when he sees the murals, one section of which depicts the author of Mysteries of the Worm, Ludvig Prinn.

The plot of "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" is similar to that of "The Secret in the Tomb" and "The Grinning Ghoul"--a guy gets lured into a tomb and must face someone or something that would kill him.  In this story, to keep the tomb a secret, the priests of Nyarlathotep, guided by the mural, bring into the tomb of Nephren-Ka anybody who threatens to expose them. 

This story is just OK.  One big distracting problem is that we are told each foot of the mural shows a new image, and each image corresponds to a single day.  (Carteret is in the tomb at midnight, so yesterday's image shows him arriving in the tomb, and today's shows him being stabbed.)  Since Nephren-Ka painted the mural over two thousand years ago, the mural must be over 100 miles long!  Bloch didn't think this through, I guess.  A less significant problem is that, as foreshadowing, Carteret sees on the mural numerous European explorers being murdered within the tomb, but Ludvig Prinn, who was not murdered.  Why wasn't Prinn also killed?  This dilutes the strength of the story, in my opinion, though maybe Bloch did this so that the reader would think that maybe Carteret could escape the same way Prinn must have.

Donald Wollheim reprinted "Fane of the Black Pharaoh" in Avon Fantasy Reader, and Robert M. Price included it in his anthology of stories about Nyarlathotep.


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I like these early Lovecraftian stories better than many of Bloch's later tales, which can be full of lame jokes and psychological goop and attacks on Hollywood or denunciations of our entire society, none of which are as entertaining as a guy exploring a tomb inhabited by ghouls who hunger for human flesh.  I guess I'm a sucker for subterranean labyrinths and the living dead who lurk in them, and have been since I first opened up the 1981 Basic D&D rulebook put together by Tom Moldvay with its unforgettable Erol Otus illustrations.

Monday, January 25, 2021

"Best" science fiction stories by Robert Bloch, John W. Campbell, Jr., and Edmond Hamilton

In 1949 Merlin Press published My Best Science Fiction Story, an anthology of 25 stories by SF writers selected by the authors themselves.  In 1954 a paperback abridgement of the anthology was published by Pocket Books.  The 1954 edition is available at the internet archive, and it contains a bunch of stories by authors we care about here at MPorcius Fiction Log, including some we have yet to read, so let's take a look at them.

But first!  Links to my blog posts about the two stories in the 1954 printing of My Best Science Fiction Story that I have already read!  Sometimes I wish I had an assistant or intern to do this kind of literary scut work, tracking down old files and copying and pasting links and all that, but then I remember how I felt about the college professors I did such work for--I certainly don't want to inspire anybody to feel that way about me.

I read A. E. van Vogt's "Project Spaceship" in 2016 in my copy of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders, where it appears as "The Problem Professor."  Here in My Favorite Science Fiction Story our man Van says he selected it because in it he tackles the problems of writing about the present, which are different from the challenges of writing about the future.  ("Project Spaceship" is about how people are reluctant to fund the space program.)

I read Henry Kuttner's "Don't Look Now" in 2014 when I was reading a British paperback collection of Kuttner's work, and denounced it as a lame joke story that was not funny.  Looking at Kuttner's intro to it in My Favorite Science Fiction Story, we see that Kuttner resorted to lame jokes here as well, not even pretending to sincerely explain why he thought it his best work. 

(I like so many of Kuttner and Moore's horror and adventure stories, and much of their more serious SF work, like "Private Eye," Fury and "Two-Handed Engine," but I just don't grok their humor material.) 

Alright, now on to the main event.

"Almost Human" by Robert Bloch (1943)

In his jocular intro to "Almost Human," the author of Psycho offers a mocking taxonomy of robot stories, and then tells us this robot story is different--it is based on the Bible!  

"Almost Human" is a SF crime story.  A German professor worked for years on his plans for a robot before the Second World War led him to flee to America, where he constructs the six-foot tall mechanical man in secret.  The robot's chemical brain is much like a human's, though it can learn much faster, and he starts raising the artificial man the same way you'd raise a human child.  The prof figures the robot needs a maternal as well as a paternal figure, and hires a nurse, Lola Wilson.  Trouble!  Wilson is the girlfriend of a criminal named Duke, who set her up for this nurse job because he figured the refugee egghead must have brought some money or valuables over with him from the old country and from the inside she could facilitate the theft of it.  When Duke learns about the Prof's creation he moves in to the household himself, dominating the short fat prof by waving his gun around, and starts educating the robot in how to be a criminal, shaping it in his own image!

After the prof is eliminated (by his own creation!) Duke and Wilson decamp to a new hideout, from which Duke directs the robot in the commission of a series of profitable robberies and attendant murders.  But the robot can read books, and learns about love, and falls in love with Wilson!  Which of the two criminals, Duke or his mechanical protégé, will come out on top in this bizarre love triangle?

This is a better story than most of Bloch's output--Bloch actually does a good job with the character of Lola Wilson, who is wracked by guilt for aiding Duke in the commission of his crimes and is stricken by fear of the robot--her scenes with the robot are quite effective horror material.  Bloch also refrains from his typical puns and jokes for this story, a demonstration of restraint I very much appreciate.  Thumbs up!

"Almost Human" made its debut in Fantastic Adventures, where it appeared under a pseudonym, Tarleton Fiske, and has since been included in such anthologies as Roger Elwood's Invasion of the Robots and Michael Parry's The Rivals of Frankenstein, as well as Bloch collections.


"Blindness" by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1935)

"Blindness" first appeared in Astounding under Campbell's Don A. Stuart pen name, a few years before he himself would become editor of the magazine. It hasn't been anthologized much, but has been reprinted in many Campbell collections.  In his intro here in My Best Science Fiction Story, Campbell tells us that the version we are about to read was revised slightly, and reiterates  the main point of the story, that the biggest and flashiest discoveries and inventions are not always the most important, offering as an example the tiny and relatively simple, but revolutionary, transistor.

"Blindness" comes to us as a sort of brief biography or memoir of a scientist and it is full of hard science; it is a good example of SF that presents itself as a document written in the future and romanticizes the figure of the scientist, the seeker after knowledge who is willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the human race, but it does not portray the scientist as infallible.

Born in 1974, Malcolm Mackay devoted his life and money to developing nuclear power, which he saw as key to the economy of Earth and to space travel, a means of eliminating pollution, easing the burden of labor on the average man, and opening up vast new opportunities for everybody.  During decade after decade of work he suffered many radiation burns and injuries from explosions, but the secret of atomic power eluded him.  So, in his seventies, he decided there was only one course left to him--investigating the Sun at close range to learn the secret of the explosions that power old Sol! 

Mackay invents the necessary materials, designs the necessary space ship, and then in 2050 this crusader and his right hand man John Burns fly closer to the Sun than anybody ever has to orbit that mighty star and perform all kinds of observations and calculations.  They are totally isolated from Earth, as the Sun's radiation jams all reception of messages from Terra, and every day radiation that leaks through their shielding damages their bodies.  They are in a race against time--not only is the radiation killing them, but they didn't bring enough fuel to escape solar orbit, instead gambling that they would learn enough about the atom to build the first nuclear reactor and use its power to fly back to Earth before their orbit decayed and they crashed into the Sun! 

Mackay goes blind from all that radiation, but after three years he and Burns crack the secret of how atomic reactions work and build a reactor and an ion engine with which to propel themselves back home.  And then comes our twist ending.  The special material Mackay invented to make his space ship out of, something that could survive proximity to the Sun, has an amazing byproduct effect the implications of which he and Burns didn't think through, but which were recognized after they left.  This material is the basis for a simple device that can generate practically free energy, and while our heroes were gone it revolutionized life on Earth--Mackay went to the Sun and sacrificed his health to develop cheap energy, but he had unknowingly developed it before he even left!

This story is paragraph after paragraph of science and engineering, but there is enough human stuff to make it palatable and the surprise ending is a decent payoff.  Maybe the most interesting thing about the story for us 21st-century readers is the fact that, in real life, developing nuclear reactors was easier than portrayed in the story, and it is getting people to widely adopt them that has been the real challenge.

"The Inn Outside the World" by Edmond Hamilton (1945)

Hamilton wrote a multitude of adventure and horror stories full of battles and torture, but for his best story he chose this gimmicky philosophical tale.  I am sympathetic to the point of the story, but "The Inn Outside the World" is kind of silly and boring.

World War II has ended.  Carlus Guinard, statesman, has returned to his native land, an unnamed Balkan nation, to try to put things in order, but this is a tough job, as the population is enflamed with "intolerance," "old grudges" and perfidious ambition.  A U.S. Army officer, Lieutenant Merrill, is assigned to guard Guinard.  One night Merrill hears something going on in Guinard's room, and barges in to find the Balkan statesman messing around with some strange doohickey that looks like a watch.  The item in question is an interdimensional transport device, and Merrill ends up accidentally hitching a ride with Guinard to another universe!

It turns out that long ago a genius in Atlantis discovered how to travel to this alien dimension, which is adjacent to all history; here people from different periods of time can meet each other.  The Atlantean gave the secret of the transporter device to only a few of the greatest men of the next generation, and they gave the secret to only a few of the greatest men of the generation that followed them, and so on, so that here in this dimension people like Socrates, Spinoza, Francis Bacon and Benjamin Franklin can meet and hang out.  Of course there are rules that limit exploitation and abuse of this fabulous phenomenon, like you can't tell people from periods earlier than yours how they will die, and you can't provide direct aid to people from other periods of history.  

Guinard, one of the great men selected by the generation before him for membership in this exclusive club, was so disturbed and desperate over the awful fix his country is in that he has come to request of the various geniuses that they make an exception to the rules and help him out.  Maybe futuristic technology could hypnotize the people of the Balkans into behaving!  A debate ensues on whether the rules should be broken to help Guinard.  At one point Merrill draws his pistol to try to threaten the luminaries into helping Guinard; Julius Caesar approves of this aggressive tactic, but it fails and everybody else thinks this just proves that the 20th century is the century of jackasses.  Anyway, a guy from the far far future, who is in fact the last human being, convinces everybody that since history is determined it doesn't matter what happens, who wins and who loses, but how we conduct ourselves, whether we act with courage and kindness, or otherwise.  Guinard realizes it was a mistake to ask for help from other time periods, and a mistake to flag in his determination to do his best because the task ahead was so challenging.

I guess I agree with the story's sentiment, but Hamilton doesn't present his argument in an exciting or entertaining way, he just has some fictional jokers straightforwardly express it.  There is no drama or suspense or surprise or anything.  Barely acceptable.  

"The Inn Outside the World" first appeared in Weird Tales, as the cover story no less, and would later be included in the Hamilton collection What's It Like Out There? and Other Stories and the textbook Science Fact/Fiction.  

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I was fully expecting to enjoy the Hamilton more than the Bloch and Campbell, but Bloch and Campbell pleasantly surprised me and Hamilton disappointed me a little.  It feels like, while Bloch and Campbell actually chose stories of theirs which legitimately had plotting and characterizations superior to that in much of their work, Hamilton, instead of choosing the most well-crafted or most fun of his stories, chose the one that most baldly conveyed an important piece of wisdom.  I guess his heart was in the right place, but IMHO by 1945 Hamilton had probably written 50 or 60 stories better than "The Inn Outside the World."  

Maybe we'll look into the stories in My Best Science Fiction Story by Muray Leinster, Manly Wade Wellman and Jack Williamson in the future, but in our next episode we'll be digging further into the early career of Robert Bloch.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Tales of Future Power by Damon Knight, R A Lafferty, Felix C Gotschalk & George A Effinger

One of the books that comes up at the world's greatest website, the internet archive, when you type "science fiction anthology" into the search bar is Future Power, a 1976 book edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.  Let's check out four stories it contains, three by people we have read before, and one by an author new to me, Felix C. Gotschalk.

"The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight (1956)

This story is very famous, and has been reprinted a million times, including in at least one book I own, but I have never read it, probably because I am often not as impressed with Knight's fiction as others seem to be and so have been sort of avoiding it.  But today I take the plunge!  

It is a utopian future in which everybody is nice, due to eugenic breeding or genetic engineering or something, and everybody gets free food and free clothes and so on from the government.  But our narrator isn't so nice!  He spends his time interrupting people's leisure, playing cruel tricks on them, vandalizing their homes, and because there are no police and everybody is too docile to fight back, he has kept up this campaign of harassment for decades!  In the middle of the story we learn that, instead of imprisoning or executing this malefactor when it became clear that he was different from everybody else, the authorities wired his brain so that if he actually tries to physically harm a person he will have an incapacitating epileptic fit, and tinkered with his body chemistry so he smells bad, so everybody can easily identify him.  Thus are the inoffensive and toothless normies protected from him.  As for punishment, people are enjoined to shun him, refuse to speak to him or touch him--he has been excommunicated from the human race.  

Then comes the kicker: in this society of easy living where everybody is sweet and benign, everybody is also unambitious and uncreative and has bad taste--only the narrator, he of the bloodlust, has any kind of artistic talent or drive to create.  Besides travelling around the globe to terrorize innocent people, whom he calls "the dulls," he also carves from wood little figures and leaves them hither and thither.  Attached to his little figures are notes; the narrator's dream is that somewhere there is some other person with some artistic taste and ability, and that such a person will see one of the figures, be moved to examine it and find the note, and become the narrator's friend.  What we might see as the second kicker of the story is that the note is a call for the person who reads it to begin a campaign of murder against the "dulls," who are powerless to defend themselves.

It is pretty common for SF stories to point out that a utopian life will ruin humanity, that mankind is at its best when struggling to overcome some obstacle or achieve some goal.  The thing Knight does here that we see less commonly and which is interesting is to acknowledge the reality that those of us who have encountered artists at close range know all too well--that artists are mostly selfish jerks who think they are better than everybody else and have no compunction about exploiting and abusing other people.  One of the tensions in the story is the fact that the reader may have difficulty deciding who in the story to identify with--the dulls or the murderous artist who is confident he is better than everybody else?  Who does Damon Knight identify with?  If you have read the interview of Knight and his wife Kate Wilhem in Charles Platt's Dream Makers*, in which the two of them come off as self-important jerks who think they are too good for the world, well, you might have an idea.   

"Country of the Kind" is a pretty good story; it is no mystery why all the big anthologists like Judith Merril and Brian Aldiss and Kingsley Amis and on and on have selected it after it first appeared in Anthony Boucher's F&SF.  

*I strongly recommend Dream Makers and its sequel to anybody interested in 20th century SF; it is full of fun insights and anecdotes and SF gossip--Knight has interesting things to say about Darrell Schweitzer and Barry Malzberg, for example, and Wilhelm talks is similarly interesting ways about Larry Niven.  Check them out at the indispensable internet archive.  


"Smoe and the Implicit Clay" by R. A. Lafferty (1976)  

Most of the stories in Future Power seem to have been specifically written for the anthology, and Lafferty's is one of these.  I think "Smoe and the Implicit Clay" may have only ever appeared in Future Power, so all you Lafferty collectors have to get on the stick and get a copy.   (Don't fret, cheapos and povs, it looks like you can get one at AbeBooks for less than ten smackers.)  (Another parenthetical comment: it looks like Future Power never had a paperback printing--I guess the hardcover didn't sell too well.  This is noteworthy, as the names on the cover include so many critical darlings, from Lafferty and Wolfe to Tiptree and LeGuin.)    

"Smoe and the Implicit Clay" starts as an extended joke on the "Kilroy was Here"/Mr. Chad/Smoe phenomenon, which is mostly associated with WWII.  In brief, Allied servicemen would often find distinctive graffiti in unexpected places, places which were previously inaccessible or to which they had expected to be the first English-speaking people to have access, giving the impression that some mysterious character was preceding them and watching them, someone essentially invisible and unknowable.  In Lafferty's story, which takes place in a future when Earthmen have explored hundreds of alien planets, the government is investigating the vague suspicion that somebody, nobody knows who, was on those alien planets before the Terran explorers arrived, someone able to usually hide his presence and, if detected, was able to somehow make his memory fade in the mind of those who had spotted him.

Colonel Crazelton, a man who "always seemed like a volcano waiting its turn to erupt" and the super computer Epikt, who is a show off and comedian who manifests itself, in this instance, as a humanoid "extension" in the form of a cigar smoking fat man, are leading the investigation, and Epikt has called in Donners, a man who has been on more initial landing teams than anybody.  After an interview, the three take a space taxi to another planet, one that has been explored and been declared uninhabited, and there they discover the truth: Indians and buffalo are the first people and animals, implicit in all clay and on every continent and world, and as they are integral to all masses of land, of course they preceded all explorers.  (Native Americans are a particular interest of Lafferty's.)  This discovery, and their new relationships with the Indians on this planet, have a profound effect on all three of our main characters.

"Smoe and the Implicit Clay" offers a little of the horrendous violence that is played for laughs but perhaps conveys some sort of deeper meaning, that we often see in Lafferty stories.  For example, we are told repeatedly that because Indians are implicit in the soil everywhere, that when we walk around we are, more or less, treading on the faces of people.  This knowledge shakes Colonel Crazleton, who feels guilty, knowing that every step he takes is an act of "murder" and "oppression."  On the other hand, the self-important and emotional computer Epikt embraces this phenomena--the Indians on the alien planet tore off parts of his mobile extension for their own uses, and, in pursuit of vengeance, Epikt's next extension comes equipped with boots with long spikes!  

A characteristic, and characteristically good Lafferty story, full of fun wackiness and thought provoking ideas.  Lafferty is known as a conservative (in the last story we read by him he seemed to be regretting that the Renaissance and the Reformation occurred--that is some hard core conservatism!) but the idea in this story that every step a white man takes is an act of oppression against nonwhites seems to prefigure the cutting edge thinking of 2021 lefties!  Lafferty is full of surprises and you can't expect him to stay put in any box in which you try to confine him.  

Good; Lafferty fans should make sure to read this story, even if it is not available in any Lafferty collections.

"The Day of the Big Test" by Felix C. Gotschalk (1976)

Here is another story that has only ever appeared in Future Power.  I don't think I have ever read anything by Gotschalk, whom wikipedia says was a psychologist and an idiosyncratic writer--the brief and surprisingly tendentious wikipedia article compares him to Lafferty and to David R. Bunch.    

"The Day of the Big Test" is just what you expect it to be based on the title, a slice of life story from the bureaucratized socialistic future in which you take tests and those tests determine where you live and what sort of consumer goods you get.  Our narrator is seven years old, and he rides a self-driving aircar from his skyscraper apartment home in Newark to the test facility in Princeton.  The story mostly consists of him describing his conversation with the guy who administers the test and the test itself.  The narrator is a self-important jackass--whether we are supposed to find him amusing or annoying, I am not sure.  The test questions provide us readers clues as to what sort of society the story takes place in and, I guess, Gotschalk means to shock or amuse us with their implications.  For example, the government erases parts of the brains of people who misbehave.  The narrator, we learn, is very knowledgeable, but doesn't know who Dwight Eisenhower was, or what Coca-Cola was, or what a house is.  There are also hints that boys and men in this future often make use of government-issued masturbation machines that stimulate the prostate, and have cyber sex with girls and women in aircars on similar flight paths via umbilical connections, similarly to how military aircraft are refueled while in-flight.  And there's a bunch of other high tech stuff and cultural stuff.

As for the plot, the narrator tests in the 92nd percentile so his family gets to move from Newark, New Jersey to Binghampton, New York, and other privileges.

This story is just OK; it is more like a setting than a full story, it feels like the early chapter of a novel that is supposed to set the scene before the actual plot starts.  Lacking in human drama and any point of view, it is not terribly entertaining.  And I have to say that the prose and structure of "The Day of the Big Test"" feel like those of typical SF--not at all bad, but certainly not as idiosyncratic as Lafferty or Bunch.

"Contentment, Satisfaction, Cheer, Well-Being, Gladness, Joy, Comfort, and Not Having to Get Up Early Any More" by George Alec Effinger (1976)

This story's long title makes you think it must be a joke and check the page count in hopes it will be short.  Uh oh, this thing is over twenty pages long.  Well, let's hope for the best.

It is over 500 years in the future.  The world is united under one government, and split into six administrative territories, each with a ruler called a "Representative": Tom rules North America, Chuck rules Europe, Nelson rules South America, etc.  Most cultural and ethnic differences have faded away--we are told of Africa that is covered in cities that are indistinguishable from Brooklyn or Queens, all the large animals are gone, and that in an effort to maintain some semblance of tradition, people have to be hired to pretend to be desert nomads and goat herders.

The first part of the story describes (in deliberately vague terms) Tom's maneuvers to force Nelson and several other rulers to retire so he can take over South America and other regions.  The people of these regions don't really find their lives have changed much with this change of ruler.

The second part of the story is about the supercomputer which contains the sum of all human knowledge and helps the government do most of its work.  Terminals in everybody's homes allow them to access books and other information, and buy and sell things in this practically cashless society--the computer keeps track of every person's accounts and transactions; without the government ID that is used for all purchases, one cannot buy food or clothes or even, Effinger points out, "find sexual gratification."  Tom and the other Representatives know everything about everybody thanks to the computer, and because all voting is done via the terminals, they can manipulate the programs that do the tallying to make sure they win the elections.

In the third part of the story Tom manipulates all the other Representatives into retiring, so he is sole ruler of the world.  Then after a few years he gives all his responsibilities to the computer and retires himself, joining the other retired politicians in California where they play card and have little dinner parties.

It is time to use one of the stock phrases of cultural criticism: "subverting expectations."  "Subverting expectations" is the lens I will use to try to see something interesting in this boring and flat story.  Perhaps Effinger here is subverting our expectations that the government has a big effect on our lives, that people who pursue rulership of the world are violent and evil, and that letting a computer run your life--and everybody else's life!--will lead to a horrible outcome; in the story changes in government have no effect on people's lives, the guys who rule the world are just quotidian office workers, and letting a computer run everything is no big deal.  I guess Effinger does subvert those expectations, but not in a way that is convincing and not in a way that is very entertaining. 

Maybe the interesting thing about this story is its criticism of what we might now call globalism, the way a civilization that embraces the entire world, with a single government and a single market, leads to cultural homogenization.  Effinger suggests that almost nobody among the citizenry cares about politics and what the government does anymore because all cultures and ethnicites have faded away--everybody everywhere is the same, with the same beliefs and tastes and interests, making people apathetic and boring.  Maybe the expectations Effinger is subverting are traditional fears that powerful governments will cause mass murder and mass impoverishment, and suggesting instead that what we need to fear is government that causes deracination and disengagement.    

Despite my efforts to find something interesting here, I have to give this story a negative vote--it is just boring, neither the plot, style, nor characters offering anything compelling to the reader. 

"Contentment, Satisfaction, Cheer, Well-Being, Gladness, Joy, Comfort, and Not Having to Get Up Early Any More" would reappear in 1978 in the Effinger collection, Dirty Tricks.

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We sometimes hear that science fiction is the literature of ideas, and these four stories are certainly about ideas.  The Knight, Gotschalk and Effinger are, at least in part, explorations of what will happen to people culturally and psychologically if the government can (somehow) provide for everybody's material wants and physical safety.  (When we read science fiction we have to ignore the fact that, in real life, governments have always been pretty bad at providing for people's needs and safety, in the same way we ignore the fact that in real life there is no hyperspace and no telepathy and no time travel.)  Of these three, the Knight is the best because there is some surprise and some human drama, while the Gotschalk is cold and the Effinger flat and boring.

But the most entertaining story of the four is Lafferty's, because instead of being yet another SF story about overweening government ostensibly acting in our best interests and thereby turning us into a world of lameos, it feels fresh and new because it unleashes on you some totally crazy ideas you never even thought of before, taking you by surprise, and manages to make those crazy ideas work together and make some kind of sense.  So, bravo to Lafferty.

**********

More science fiction stories by divers hands in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.   

Friday, January 22, 2021

"The Children of the Night," "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," "The Dark Man" and "People of the Dark" by Robert E. Howard

I was thinking of buying Brian Aldiss's trilogy of semi-autobiographical Horatio Stubbs books, which are, I hear, about two of my favorite topics, fighting in a war and difficult sexual relationships, but what is this I see here in my snail mail receptacle?  Multiple speeding tickets from Montgomery County, land of the robotic speed trap?  I don't live in Montgomery County, but sometimes I have to drive through it, and America's 17th most affluent county is a veritable gauntlet of cameras which photograph you if you are going a measly 42 miles-an-hour and send you a $40.00 ticket.  I have learned to my pain that these electronic robber barons are all too willing to ticket you multiple times in a single day, and then, like some kind of Chinese water torturer, send the tickets one at a time over a series of days, so, even though you earned the tickets a few hours apart, a week might pass between the first and last of the tickets that will be arriving in your mail box.  Maybe Barry N. Malzberg is right, maybe machines are consuming us!

Anyway, let's look on the bright side and use modern technology to read something for free, the e-copy of Wildside Press's People of the Dark: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume 3, which I borrowed from the public library of Grandview Heights, Ohio, using the hoopla software.  I talked about Joe R. Lansdale's intro to this volume in our last episode; now let's grapple with some Howard stories that haven't yet passed before our eyes.

(More technology: at his great website Stephen Fabian explains that he created the cover for People of the Dark by using his computer to combine two earlier works of his, one an illustration for a William Hope Hodgson book and the other a private commission.)

"The Children of the Night" (1931)

Six smart guys are hanging around in their host's study, where he has various strange artifacts and lots of old books on history and witchcraft.  These brainiacs talk about disputes and controversies related to European history and ethnicity, like whether it was some Mongoloids or some Mediterraneans who first colonized the British Isles and gave rise to later legends about goblins and trolls, whether people ever really did worship Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth, and why the Lombards in just a few centuries "changed from a long-headed to a round-headed race."  One of these guys, Ketrick, a guy whose eyes the narrator says have an oddly Chinese appearance in the middle of his otherwise ordinary British face, starts swinging around a Neolithic flint mallet and accidentally hits our narrator in the head, knocking him out.  

The narrator wakes up in ancient times, clad in a loin cloth, bearing a bronze axe, his consciousness having been shifted back in time to ancient Britain, to the body of one of the blonde Sword People, Aryara.  The narrator hasn't joined Aryara during a happy time in that long forgotten dude's life--in fact, he is the sole survivor of a hunting party of six that has been overwhelmed by short hideous men whose voices are like those of snakes!  These creeps, known to the Sword People as The Children of the Night, left Aryara for dead after knocking him out, and then mutilated his friends.  Aryara jumps up and takes the evildoers by surprise and beats the hell out of them.

From Aryara's mind the narrator learns all about the relationship of the Sword People to the dark Picts and these squat evil Children.  When Aryara is finally killed by a throng of the Children the narrator wakes up back in the 20th century an expert on migrations from Continental Europe to the British Isles and the true sources of those legends of goblins and trolls.  He also has achieved race consciousness, inspired by the direct knowledge that he is an Aryan, a descendent of Aryara's people, people who thrive while living as nomads and conquerors, and fall into weakness if they become farmers or city-dwellers.  More chillingly, he now realizes that among Ketrick's many English and Celtic ancestors there must be one ancestor who was one of the Children of the Night, and it is the narrator's duty to his race to kill Ketrick!  As the story ends the narrator is plotting Ketrick's murder; he doesn't care if he is hanged for this crime, because his duty to his people means more to him than his own life!

All the anthropology material can be a little tedious, but the idea of guys' subconscious or paranormally revived racial memories leading them to try to murder their friends is good horror fiction stuff.  This story is not bad.  Obviously any discussion of ethnic solidarity and race consciousness among white people that is the least bit sympathetic to the idea would be a big no-no today, but if you're looking for the conventional wisdom of the educated establishment of 2021 in a 90-year-old issue of Weird Tales, you are looking in the wrong place.      

Besides mentioning Lovecraft and Cthulhu by name, "The Children of the Night" also references Bran Mak Morn, and it has appeared in collections of Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories as well as anthologies of Cthulhu Mythos tales. 


"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" (1931)

Turlogh O'Brien is an Irish adventurer, a Gael cast out by his people to wander the world.  He was a passenger on a French merchant ship when it was taken by Vikings and as the story begins he is the Norsemen's prisoner.  All the Frenchies were killed, but among the Norsemen is a Saxon from Wessex, Athelstane, who knows Turlogh and insists the Vikings spare him.

A storm casts the Viking ship onto the reef around a mysterious island and all the Vikings perish in the shark-infested waters; Turlogh and Athelstane manage to survive.  Suddenly a gorgeous topless blonde appears!  It is Brunhild, a Norsewoman who was washed up on this beach ten years ago when she was fifteen.  The brown-skinned natives of this island, The Isle of the Gods, thought the white girl must be some kind of goddess, and the ruthless and manipulative Brunhild was soon ruling the place alongside a good-looking native.  The people of Isle live in the vast city Bal-Sagoth, a fortified town bigger than Rome or Byzantium, built by their ancient ancestors, where they worship a multitude of deities, among them a monster bird god, something like an oversized Phorusrhacos, I suppose.

Brunhild's reign came to a sudden end just recently, when she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her and she had him killed.  What can I say, life is cheap in Bal-Sagoth, where they are always sacrificing people to their various monster gods.  Brunhild had underestimated the popularity of her boyfriend among the masses; their response to her execution of this alleged philanderer is to depose her and exile her to the part of the island where that bird god lives, isolated from the city by a shark-infested swamp.  When Brunhild bursts on to the beach before Turlogh and Athelstane she is fleeing the giant bird, which our heroes dispatch handily.

Seeing Turlogh and Athelstane, who wear mail and helmets over their bulging muscles, in action inspires Brunhild.  The people of Bal-Sagoth have no armor, and are gullible and fickle, so the former queen figures that if she returns to the city with these musclemen, with the head of the bird god in hand as proof of their prowess, they can overawe the city mob, who will put Brunhild's voluptuous bottom back where it belongs, on the throne!  The fighting men agree to this scheme, and these three white people build a raft to get over that swamp and make their way to Bal-Sagoth, the city of brown people, to take over.

The current king, a puppet of the priestly class, is eliminated post haste when he accepts Brunhild's challenge that he fight Athelstane one-on-one.  The citizens proclaim Brunhild their queen once again.  But the head priest, a powerful wizard who has learned the secrets of eternal life and of breeding men with beasts to augment the islands supply of monster gods, is conspiring in the city's many subterranean chambers!  Wholesale chaos ensues when a monster god bursts into Brunhild's chamber via a secret door and Turlogh and Athelstane must battle wizardry and monsters in defense of her and of their own lives.  Can these musclemen foil the sorcery of an immortal magician?  And can the old and tired civilization of Bal-Sagoth survive when, during all this revolutionary chaos, an army of red-skinned raiders storms the city?  

"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" is a fun adventure caper full of some of our favorite things: dangerous women, unspeakably horrible monsters, evil wizards, dark labyrinths.  Unlike the rest of the Howard stories we are talking about today, it has some interesting characters who have interesting relationships with each other.  I like it!

Nineteen years after its debut in Weird Tales, Donald Wollheim included "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" in Avon Fantasy Reader No. 12, under the sexier title "The Blonde Goddess of Bal-Sagoth."  The story has been included in many Howard collections, and was the title story of one 1977 German collection.  


"The Dark Man" (1931)

Turlogh O'Brien is back!  In "The Dark Man," which first appeared in Weird Tales just two months after the debut of "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," our Irish buddy Turlogh is on an Irish beach, asking to borrow a fisherman's boat.  We get a long description of Turlogh and his equipment, which we didn't really get in "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth;" maybe this one, though published later, was written earlier?  It does seem to take place earlier.

Anyway, Turlogh needs a boat because a Viking raider, Thorfel, has kidnapped a princess of Turlogh's people, Moira daughter of Murtagh, and Turlogh is going to sail all by himself to Scotland to Thorfel's island in the Hebrides to rescue her.  Here we see the passionate dedication of Turlogh to his people, even though they had outlawed him.  I'm sure he's not going on this suicide mission because Moira is a striking beauty with fair skin, shiny black hair, and grey eyes!

On the way to the Hebrides Turlogh stops at a mysterious little island to get water and comes upon the site of a recent battle; Viking warriors lay dead among the dead bodies of a small dark people Turlogh has never seen before, and in the center of the carnage is a black statue of a man.  Turlogh thinks the statue must be a representation of some king or god, and that the dark people fought to defend it, and he takes up the statue, which is made of some alien material which is surprisingly light, and brings it with him to Thorfel's island.  Turlogh has the uncanny feeling that the statue is giving him luck, guiding his boat to just the best possible approach to Thorfel's lair.

Turlogh spies on the big party Thorfel is throwing, where tiny black-haired Moira sits in fear among the huge blonde Vikings.  Thorfel declares he is going to marry Moira, and has even dragged a Christian priest to this pagan celebration to officiate, a sop to what he considers Moira's silly beliefs.  Moira refuses to marry the Viking, and kills herself Lucretia-style with a dagger--enraged, Turlogh leaps into the hall and tries to fight the dozens of Vikings there.  Luckily the magic of the Dark Man statue, and the statue's worshippers who appear moments later, preserve Turlogh's life and the Vikings are wiped out--even the women and children are massacred by the small dark men!

The little dark men explain that they are the last of the Picts and the statue is of their last king, Bran Mak Morn, who kicked the Romans out of North Britain; the statue was made by a wizard during Bran's reign and through it the spirit of Bran tries to look out for the remnant of his people.  In these stories we're reading today Howard tries to not only provide you the thrills of fights and killings and women in danger of being raped--he also tries to to give you a feeling of the sweep of history, and all through "The Dark Man" the characters think about or talk about how the Celts, who took Britain from the Picts, are in turn being broken by the Danes, as well as how the new religion of Christianity is displacing paganism, and how the spirit of the Dark Man statue is so ancient it considers the cultures of both the Vikings and the Christians to be young.

"The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" is similar in some ways to "The Dark Man," but the former is the superior--it has more monsters, scarier magic, and relationships among the two heroes and the female lead that add something to the caper--"The Dark Man" lacks such relationships.  "The Dark Man" is still a pretty good sword and sorcery story, however. 

"The Dark Man" has appeared in many Howard collections, for some serving as the title story.


"People of the Dark" (1932)
 
Let's read the title story of this collection, which appeared in Strange Tales and has never been anthologized, though it has appeared in numerous Howard collections. 

Howard is not afraid to reuse names, and this story includes a black-haired reaver named Conan, though he is not the famous Conan of Cimmeria but a medieval Irishman, and a 20th-century man named Richard Brent, but I don't think this is the same Richard Brent who appears in "Black Hound of Death." 

"People of the Dark" has a lot in common with "The Children of the Night," Howard using some of the same devices and themes here as in that story.  Our narrator, John O'Brien, a 20th-century American man living in England, is the kind of guy who ponders theories that a primitive race of Mongoloids inhabited the British Isles before the Picts, and he is also the kind of guy who plots the murder of one of his friends!  O'Brien is in love with Eleanor Bland, a hot blonde with grey eyes, but Bland is in love with Richard Brent.  I guess our narrator doesn't have the kind of friends or family that will impart to him the wisdom that there are a lot of fish in the sea, because he decides the way to solve his problem is to ambush and murder Brent when Brent is out exploring Dagon's Cave.  Inside the cave, before he finds Brent, O'Brien falls and hits his head; he wakes up to find himself in the body of Conan the Gael raider of centuries ago.

Conan has a wound on his head because he fell and was knocked out while chasing a gorgeous blonde, Tamera, who had fled into the infamous Cavern of the Children of the Night.  Conan knows Tamera from when he visited her village during peacetime; when he and his fellow Gaelic pirates decided to raid this village, Conan thought he'd take this opportunity to kidnap Tamera, but then her boyfriend, Vertorix, who swings a mean axe, interfered.  When it looked like Conan was about to get the upper hand over Vertorix, the two English people retreated into that haunted Cavern, where Conan got knocked out.

Having recovered, Conan ventures deeper into the cavern and finds that Tamera and her beau have been captured by the Children of the Night, short hissing men with ophidian features, and tied to an altar to await sacrifice.  He rescues them, and the three run hither and thither through winding tunnels and up and down stairs, looking for an exit, sometimes stopping to fight the pursuing hordes of savage troglodytes.  In the fighting Conan becomes separated from the two Britons; John O'Brien wakes up in the 20th century after Conan escapes the Cavern but Tamera and Vertorix jump off a cliff to their deaths rather than be recaptured.

John O'Brien follows the route Conan took to the evil temple and through various tunnels and stairways.  He spots Eleanor Bland and his rival Brent, standing just where Tamara and Vertorix died, and realizes they are just as much reincarnated souls of those medieval lovers as he is of Conan.  Centuries ago his desire for Tamara led to her and Vertorix's death, but John O'Brien gets an opportunity to redeem himself when the last of the Children of the Night appears and attacks Bland and Brent--O'Brien uses the weapon he brought to murder Brent with to instead save him and Bland.

"People of the Dark" is alright; maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't just read "The Children of the Night," which is quite similar, but more grim.


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All of these stories are entertaining, though "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth," which lacks any cumbersome framing device and which has the most interesting character--ambitious and ruthless blonde goddess Brunhild--and the only truly interesting relationships, is certainly the best.  

No doubt there is more sword and sorcery and more of the weird in our future, but in our next episode I think we'll tackle something more on the science fiction side of SF.    

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

1932 Weird Tales by Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth and David H. Keller

One of my favorite weird stories is Clark Ashton Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," which was first published in the May 1932 issue of Weird Tales.  (I expressed my love for this classic tale of exploration, terror, and possession on the red planet Mars back in 2019.)  Along with Smith's name in the table of contents of that 1932 issue of the unique magazine we see a bunch of other familiar names--why don't we check out stories by Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth and David H. Keller that were experienced by horror fans alongside "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"?  I'll be reading the versions of the stories that appeared in that May 1932 magazine via the scan of it available at the internet archive, though all four of the stories we are talking about today can be found in book form in one place or another. 

"The Terror Planet" by Edmond Hamilton

It took 81 years for "The Terror Planet" to appear in book form, but it finally did so in 2013 in Volume Four of Haffner Press's The Collected Edmond Hamilton.  We can surmise from this that "The Terror Planet" didn't exactly set the world on fire, but we can't let that stop us from reading it--maybe it is an overlooked gem.

For years the scientific establishment (jerks!) has been ridiculing astronomer Robert Hunt's theory that Uranus is habitable.  But in the same way that I, MPorcius, am capable not only of washing the dishes here at MPorcius headquarters, but also do the laundry and swiffer the floors, Hunt is not only a forward-thinking astronomer, but also a physicist and engineer of a revolutionary caliber.  He has figured out a way to bend and focus "the lines of radiated gravitational force" and has built the machine that can do it.  By affixing this machine to an airtight steel bell, like a diving bell, Hunt has created a vehicle with which to travel between planets.

At least that is the way he puts it.  The scientific world is full of rivalries and interpersonal strife, and there is another scientist, Harker Crail, who helped Hunt with his space-bell.  Hunt kicked Crail off the project when Crail not only wanted to make money off the device (heaven forbid!) but started making time with Hunt's slender dark-haired sister Jean!  We certainly don't want men who are distracted by a desire for money and sex working on our scientific projects now, do we?

The fourth character in this drama is our narrator, Devlin.  Hunt is planning to head to Uranus tonight and spend a few days there collecting proof that every 12-year-old comedian's favorite planet is habitable, so he wired his old university pal Devlin to come by to look after Jean while he is gone.  (Rob, why don't you let this chick run her own god-damned life for ten seconds?)  Anyway, as we readers expected, Crail shows up with a pistol to steal the space-bell and in the ensuing fracas all four of these goofs end up in the space-bell as it hurtles to Uranus.  The rushed takeoff knocks everybody unconscious, and they don't wake up until they are on the surface of Uranus! 

On Uranus they have Edgar Rice Burroughs-style adventures.  Reminding us that Hamilton loves to write about evolution, and reminding us of the planet Althar in his superior space opera The Star of Life, and reminding us a little of Burroughs's own Chessmen of Mars, Uranus is inhabited by three distinct races of humans, all descended from the same basic stock.  One group focused on the intellect above all else and have evolved into creatures with big heads and tiny impotent bodies, while another group has focused on physical development and evolved into a horde of savage quadrupeds.  A third group dedicated to balance still looks and acts like ordinary people like you and me.  Hunt, Devlin, Jean and Crail get mixed up in the endless war between the beast-man horde and the city-dwelling balanced people; the balanced men have aircraft and an effective weapons system that shoots acid, but when Crail becomes leader of the beast-men his scientific expertise is enough to give these hairy brutes a decisive advantage.  To save the balanced men, Devlin acts as ambassador to the aloof brain-men, who come to the rescue with their irresistible weaponry.  Devlin kills Crail in hand-to-hand combat, and the three surviving Earthers return to mother Terra, where we are led to believe that Devlin and Jean will get married.  

This is a routine but successful little adventure story; Hamilton is a pro at this sort of thing.  I guess maybe we should call it acceptable filler, though Hamilton does try to mix up the formula a bit by including novel propulsion systems and weapons (the brain-men hypnotize all the beast-men into committing suicide, for example) instead of just relying on the standard issue rockets and ray guns.        

"The Horror from the Mound" by Robert E. Howard

One of the many places "The Horror from the Mound" has been reprinted is in the 2005 collection People of the Dark, the third volume of Wildside Press's The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard.  In his introduction to People of the Dark, fellow Texan Joe R. Lansdale talks about how Howard's work strongly reflects the culture of the Lone Star State: "...no matter how wild the story, how bizarre the idea, or what location he claimed for it, I assure you, Howard was always writing about Texas and Texans."  Lansdale particularly points to "The Horror from the Mound," a favorite of his, as exhibiting such "hallmarks" of Howard's fiction, and of the people of Texas, as self-reliance, courage and confidence.

(Lansdale in this intro also compares Howard to Edgar Rice Burroughs and suggests that something Howard wrote that appears in the paperback collection Wolfshead inspired him to quit college and "make my own way by my wits, doing work of my choosing...."  Lansdale's is a pretty interesting little essay that fans of Howard and Lansdale should read if they have the chance.  I borrowed an electronic version of People of the Dark from a library in Ohio to which I still have electronic access even though I've lived in Maryland for like three years now.) 

Steve Brill is a cowboy who decided to take up farming, but, thanks to bad weather, his farm is a disaster and he's got money troubles.  There is an Indian burial mound on the property he is leasing, and, despite the dire warnings of Lopez, his Mexican neighbor, Brill decides to bust into the mound to see if there is anything of value in there.  Howard tells us that Texas cowboys "live by impulse," so Brill wastes no time getting to work even though the day is almost over--he starts plying his pick and shovel even though the sun is setting.  

Brill is half done digging into the tomb when it gets so dark he decides to go get a lantern.  When he gets back he finds the tomb has been opened and is empty!  No doubt his Mexican neighbor (Brill calls him a "Greaser" and a "Spig") stole the treasure while Brill wasn't looking!  All that talk of a curse was just an effort to deter Brill from getting at the treasure!  Brill heads over to Lopez's hut, and there his night of terror truly begins, the night during which Brill will learn the astonishing and horrifying truth of the mound from Lopez and be forced to fight for his life against no ordinary foe.

This is a good action-horror story, with satisfying suspense and a good, characteristically Howardian, climactic fight to the death.  We've all read and seen a billion vampire stories, but somehow this one manages to hold the reader's attention and feel fresh and exciting.  Lansdale is right to favor it; as I recall, I also concurred with his high opinion of Robert Bloch's "The Animal Fair"--it seems that Joe. R. Lansdale has good taste!     

"The Horror From the Mound" is included in four different paperback printings of Wolfshead. The Lancer editions have Frazetta covers and an introduction which strongly impressed Joe R. Lansdale that consists of text from a letter Howard wrote to H. P. Lovecraft; the Bantam edition has a Lehr cover and an essay by Robert Bloch in which Bloch compares Howard's work to the theories of Carl Jung

"The Last Magician" by David H. Keller

Weird Tales readers loved "The Last Magician;" according to Sam Moskowitz's research, it was the most popular story in the issue, receiving 26 positive notices from readers ("Vaults of Yoh-Vombis"  only received 25.)  It looks like it has never been anthologized, though, just reprinted in Keller collections produced by small presses.

The bulk of "The Last Magician" is kind of tedious, a long-winded story with poor pacing that appeals to the self-importance and persecution complex of the cognitive elite who feel superior to, resentful of, and underappreciated by, the masses of normies.  Honestly, it feels a little childish.  Fiction in general, and SF in particular, often consists of wish fulfillment fantasies, but "The Last Magician" is more obvious and less artful than most such indulgences.

A young wizard, age 30, returns to the seaside castle of his master, age 90, to tell a tale of how ungrateful the world has been to him and his fellows.  The old wizard trained a Brotherhood of twenty-one men in the ways of white magic, and they went out into the world and did wonderful things, improving the economy and everybody's life.  But envious merchants, jealous priests, and corrupt rulers conspired to capture and torture to death twenty of the white wizards and their families--only this guy managed to escape, after seeing his wife killed and having one of his hands chopped off.

The master wizard explains that it was ever thus!  He tells the tedious story of how, before the birth of Man, the world used to be ruled by colossal behemoth monsters, monsters hundreds of miles long!  When they died out they were succeeded by still huge but somewhat smaller monsters.  When they died out, beasts like cave bears, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats roamed the Earth.  The first humans came down from the trees at the same time, and had to fight an endless war with the bears and cats, spending most of their time hiding in caves from these ferocious beasts.  The bears and cats would have exterminated the human race if it had not been for the first wizards, who taught mankind how to kill the beasts!  But did mankind appreciate the invaluable service provided by the selfless smarties?  No!  All through history manipulative priests and the ignorant masses have hunted down and oppressed the smart people who give and give and never get anything in return, just abuse!  Sixty years ago a mob of witch hunters even killed the master's own wife!  Today almost no wizards survive because of this persecution.  

This ridiculous and tendentious history seems to take forever for the master wizard to relate--Keller spends a particularly large volume of ink describing how the wizards made life-sized model bears and used them to train their fellow cave men in bear anatomy so they would know the best place to jab a bear with a spear.  (Keller's story actually reminds me of The Kinks' brilliant spoof of the self importance of educators, "Education," which describes the miraculous effect of education on a cave man.)  These model bears lead to the fortuitous discovery of the principles behind the voodoo doll.

In the story's ending we see the various silly elements of the master's history come together.  You see, the country where the Brotherhood of Twenty-One were murdered lies on one of those ancient hundred-mile-long monsters, and said leviathan is not dead, it is merely resting!  The master makes a three-dimensional map of the monster out of dirt and twigs and so forth, and then, by poking and prodding it, disturbs the sleep of the behemoth, so that it shifts, causing earthquakes that destroy the corrupt politicians, the jealous priests and the stupid masses of the ungrateful country.  The master sends his pupil away to another land, and then kills the monster, totally destroying the region and himself--the master goes to heaven to be with his long dead wife.

A story to warm the heart of every nerd who has ever been called names and dreamnt of exterminating the human race in revenge.  

"The Last Magician" is ambitious, and an interesting artifact that perhaps provides insight into the psychology of Keller himself and speculative fiction fans in general, but it is not what I would call a good story.  There is something so remarkable about it, however, that I don't regret reading it...I guess I am giving "The Last Magician" an "acceptable" rating.                 

"The Bishop Sees Through" by August Derleth 

This is a trifling little story, competent but very slight, I guess written to fill space in the magazine.  It has only been reprinted once, in the 2009 collection "Who Shall I Say is Calling?" and Other Stories

The Bishop's chauffer is driving him down the coast road in a ferocious rainstorm to visit the Count.  Visibility is so poor the driver gets lost and stops by a Georgian house to ask directions.  The Bishop gamely goes to the door and is greeted by a butler, who warns him not to take the coast road, as it has been washed out near the Count's, and gives directions to an alternate route.

On his friend's arrival, the Count tells the Bishop he knows of no landslide.  Later, during their visit, somebody phones to warn the Count about the landslide--it seems that that butler, somehow, knew about the landslide before it happened and saved the Bishop's (and the chauffer's) life!  The Count believes in ghosts and the second sight and so on, and thinks this an example of a paranormal phenomenon, but the Bishop is a skeptic.  On the way home he has his chauffer stop at the Georgian house so he can ask the butler how he knew about the landslide earlier than anybody else, but there is no house--where it sat earlier in the evening is only a Georgian ruin!

Acceptable.

**********

The Howard story is quite good, and the Hamilton and Derleth pieces, while routine, are successful.  The Keller story has many problems, but is certainly memorable and noteworthy.  Considering that it also includes the very good "Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," you'd have to say this is a pretty good issue of Weird Tales.