Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Vampire Master by Edmond Hamilton

"Mother leapt to my side, bent over me.  'Do not fear, Olivia,' she said, mockingly.  'After tonight you'll be one of us and will know yourself the taste of young rich blood....'"

Like a vampire with its fangs imbedded deep in a young lady's throat, Weird Tales still has an unbreakable grip on MPorcius Fiction Log.  In our last episode we read a story by Edmond Hamilton, prolific contributor to SF magazines and husband of Leigh Brackett, that was published in Weird Tales under the pen name Hugh Davidson.  Today we read another, "The Vampire Master," a serial that appeared across four issues of Farnsworth Wright's famous magazine from October 1933 to January 1934.  These four issues feature some of Margaret Brundage's best covers, superior not just because they are among her sexiest (though yeah, they are pretty hot) but because here Brundage made quite good use of color and offered up some compelling compositions.  
 
"The Vampire Master" stars Dr. John Dale, a guy with an office in Lower Manhattan full of books on the occult.  Dale has a medical degree as well as broad experience and book-learning on the subject of the supernatural, and has devoted himself to fighting evil.  His secretary and assistant is Harley Owen, our narrator.  One day a Dr. Henderson, an elderly physician from Maysville, a village upstate, comes calling.  Henderson begs Dr. Dale's help because Maysville is under attack from a vampire!

"The Vampire Master" is split into 14 chapters, four appearing in the early installments and two in the final.  In Chapter 1, we meet the characters, who unfortunately Hamilton fails to give much personality.  Dale has a van dyke and is in his early 40s, while Henderson is old, and that is about it.  More significantly we learn what Hamilton's vision of vampires is in this story.  In "The Vampire Master" the vampires are wholly unsympathetic, they are 100% pure Grade A evil.  They can be repelled by the cross, but Hamilton divorces his story from Christianity, having Dale claim that "the cross is no mere token of a religious sect, but is an age-old symbol that has been used by the peoples of the earth in all times to combat evil forces."  I think this is one of Hamilton's missteps.  If you want to write a scientific vampire story which abandons religious ideas I think you should probably abandon the whole business of using a cross to repel vampires.  You can make some chemical argument for garlic and silver and sunlight scaring or harming the living dead, but for a simple image of two intersecting lines to repel them, I think there has to be some kind of mystical explanation.  And Hamilton doesn't even go the full secular route, but just replaces the rich and familiar mythology of Christianity with two sentences of nonsense he pulled out of the air about the cross being "a symbol through which the benign forces of the universe can convey themselves to oppress the malign ones...."  Lame.

In Chapter 2, Henderson tells the sad story of that is the recent history of prominent Maysville family the Raltons.  Like half a month ago, wealthy James Ralton's wife Allene suddenly began to suffer from anemia, growing weaker every day until she finally died after two weeks of illness, despite all of Henderson's ministrations.  Then the Raltons' older daughter Olivia fell ill with the exact same symptoms!  She even has the same little marks on her neck that Henderson had ignored when he saw them on Allene's neck.  Henderson realized what this must mean, that there was a vampire in the neighborhood, so he rushed down to the Big Apple to get the aid of the only man he could think of who might know how to fight a vampire.  Dale asks what else has been going on in Maysville, and quickly deduces that the vampire leading the fanged insurrection against Maysville's elite is a man named Gerritt Geisert who just recently came to town, moving into an abandoned 18th-century home owned by his family in a lonely valley full of abandoned 18th-century houses.  Dr. Dale has a book on his shelf that apparently nobody in Maysville has read, one that tells you a vampire named Gerritt Geisert was driven out of that valley near Maysville in the early 1700s after terrorizing the region.  This guy Geisert must be a 200-year-old living dead monster presenting himself as his own descendant.  

In Chapter 3 Dale and Owen are up in Maysville and meet Ralston and his daughters Olivia and Virginia, as well as Olivia's fiancé, Edward Harmon.  In Chapter 4 the men all wait in Olivia's room at night, hoping to ambush the vampire should it appear, and it does--it is Olivia's mother and James Ralston's wife, Allene, risen from her coffin to drink the blood of her own daughter!  With crosses they drive her off, and then Gerritt Geisert himself shows up, acting like a friendly neighbor, unaware that Dle has blown his cover.  When Dale accuses him of being a vampire Geisert admits it and tries to kill him, but again crosses are employed and he is sent packing.

In Chapter 5 the men go to the Ralston tomb to destroy Allene Ralston by putting a stake through her heart and chopping off her head, but they find that her coffin is not in its vault!  Investigating where Mrs. Ralton may currently be residing, Dale and company learn that Geisert has murdered and turned into a vampire a second person, the young man Arthur Newton; Newgton's grave is also empty!

Chapter 6 sees Dale, Owen and Harmon drive out on an unmaintained road to the old Geisert place, where nobody has lived for like 200 years.  They search the house but can't find the sleeping vampires, so decide to hide in the house, in a loft, overnight; by this method they are able to spy on the vampires' operations in Chapter 7.  These scenes in which we observe the relationship of Geisert, vampire master, to his subordinate vampires are good--when the newest vampire, Newton, returns from drinking somebody's blood Geisert bites Newton's neck and takes for himself most of the life-giving fluid, giving rise to much whining complaint from the younger bloodsucker.  When a few drops land on the floor, Allene Ralston and Arthur Newton wrestle over the opportunity to lick them up!

The vampires retire to the cellar as sunrise approaches, and Dale and company search the cellar after daybreak, but cannot find the secret door that must conceal the chamber where lie the three monsters inside their coffins.  They leave, planning on coming back with sledgehammers so they can just smash the cellar walls down.  In Chapter 8 our heroes learn that there is another young woman in town, Alice Wilsey, who is suffering the same "anemia" that killed Allene and currently plagues Olivia.  This Wilsey girl was Arthur Newton's fiancé!  Dale, Henderson and the narrator go to see her, but she vigorously resists all help, though the marks on her neck leave no doubt but that she is the victim of one of the living dead!  In Chapter 9, somewhat implausibly, Dale, Owen and even old Henderson somehow sneak into negligee-clad Alice's room without her noticing and hide in her closet to wait for a vampire to come visiting.  It is pretty hard to believe a young woman wouldn't notice three men hiding together in her closet, mere feet away from her.  I also think Hamilton has too many scenes in which Dale and Owen hide in the shadows waiting for vampires to appear.  

Anyway, Newton comes through the window and they have a romantic dialogue: Alice Wilsey is eager for him to turn her into a vampire so she can spend all eternity with him!  This Newton must be a real ladykiller!  Our heroes drive Newton off with their crosses, but Alice is far from grateful to them for delaying her post-mortem union with her dreamboat.

While our three foremost vampire fighters were hanging around in Alice Wilsey's bedroom watching  her eagerly await her demonic inamorato's visit, Edward Harmon was sitting in Olivia Ralton's bedroom, protecting his fiancé.  In Chapter 10 we find out how that went--not too good!  Geisert and Allene Ralton stopped by, and with their devilish powers put Harmon to sleep and hypnotized Olivia into taking all that garlic off the windows so the vampires could come right on in and suck the last of her blood!  When Dale gets to her all he can do is pump her full of drugs so she has the strength to tell him the story of her murder with her dying breaths!  As she finally expires her eyes seem to glow red--now that she is dead, she is herself a vampire!  Dale wants to drive a shaft through her chest and chop her head off right then and there!  But her father and fiancé refuse to follow the science, and Dale gives in to their begging that her destruction wait until after her funeral!

In Chapter 11, Dale, Owen and the elderly Henderson return to the cellar of the 18th-century Geisert home with sledges and chisels and spend hours breaking through a wall.  I'm amazed old doc Henderson hasn't had a heart attack from all this labor, not to mention the excitement of watching a girl in her negligee all night.  Anyway, somewhat hilariously, when the men finally bust open the wall they find that the vampires have, like Saddam Hussein, taken up the practice of sleeping in a different place every day and there is no sign of them.  Cripes!  They start searching the other decaying 18th-century houses in this long-abandoned valley but have no luck.  Exhausted, they return to the Raltons' place and are greeted with more bad news--Olivia, from her coffin in the Ralton library, started talking to Edward Harmon and hypnotized him into setting aside all the garlic and crosses Dale put on the coffin and letting her out!  This accomplished, she wanted to drink her fiancé's blood, but Geisert arrived and told her to pick up her coffin and hurry on out of there. 
'But his blood is mine--and I won't go until I have it!' cried Olivia....

'I say no, and I am master!' thundered Geisert, his eyes hell-red.  'You will learn now to obey me as the others do.'
Perhaps the best thing about "The Vampire Master" is how Hamilton portrays all the vampires as selfish jerks who respect power and nothing else and hate each other and everything else; Geisert the master has to constantly browbeat his rebellious subordinate vampires to keep them in line.  More recently there has been a trend of making vampires sympathetic, of making of them allegories of oppressed minorities or sexy rebels against our square society, but Hamilton in this story relentlessly portrays them as diabolically evil, monsters of animal cunning and animal hunger.

When Harmon got in Geisert's way the master vampire just picked him up and threw him across the room, breaking his back so that he dies after telling Dale and Owen his story.

In Chapter 12 our heroes learn that Alice Wilsey has been killed by her fiance, Arthur Newton, and this time around Dale and Owen was no time driving a stake though her heart--it takes three blows to penetrate all the way through, and between the first and final swings of the sledge Alice's body writhes like a dying snake as she unleashes a hellish scream!  Then, off with her head.


In Chapter 13 the vampires bust into the Ralton place and James Ralton dies of a heart attack, giving the invaders a good laugh.  Virginia is seized and first her sister, then her mother, and then Geisert, drink her blood.  The monsters let her live for now, and depart.  Dale comes up with the scheme of ambushing the vampires when they come back for a second drink from poor Virginia and shooting them with special bullets they have cast that have a cross shape at their points.  Reinforcements arrive in the form of Hugh Rillard, Virginia's fiancé.  Instead of all the armed men huddling together with Virginia in the same room of the house, where they can all watch each other's backs and keep each other awake and share ammo if necessary, the men leave Virginia in the house alone and each of the four of them, Dale, Owen, elderly Dr. Henderson, and young Rillard, hides in the bushes on a different side of the house to wait for the blood suckers.

Dale's plans don't always work out so well, and neither does this one.  The vampires use their hypnotic powers on Virginia Ralton and she steps out of the house, telling Rillard she is just taking a little walk, and he thinks nothing of it!  A few hours later she returns, dazed like a zombie, the vampires having drunk more of her blood.   When the sun rises her consciousness returns, but her memory of her abuse at the hands of the monsters is too vague for her to direct the men to their lair.

Chapter 14 covers the final struggle.  That night Dale has Virginia tied to a chair, and the men all sit round her.  They have to hold the girl down when Geisert works his spell on her and she thrashes about, spitting at her protectors, straining to escape with such passion the ropes cut her flesh.  Yikes!  Arthur Newton comes crashing through a window and tries to carry off Virginia, but is shot down and then staked and beheaded.  He loosened Virginia's bonds, however, and she is off and running.  The men chase her to one of those abandoned 18th-century houses, where they fight Geisert, Allene Ralton and Olivia Ralton and ultimately destroy them, freeing Virginia to try to live a happy life even though her entire family has been wiped out by vampires.  Build back better, Virginia, build back better.

I think that in my exhaustive summary of "The Vampire Master" I have pointed out the good and bad points of Hamilton's story.  The style and pacing and so forth are unremarkable but not bad; the story never feels slow or boring.  The vampires and the violent scenes are good, but the heroes and victims are forgettable--maybe if the narrator had been one of the men whose fiancés was being tormented, or maybe if Virginia had been the narrator, the story would have packed more of an emotional punch.  As it stands, this is an acceptable piece of entertainment, but no big deal.  

"The Vampire Master" has only ever been reprinted as the title story of a 2000 Hamilton collection put out by the good people at Haffner Press.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Edmond Hamilton: "The Mind Master," "The Horror City" and "Snake-Man"

Like a giant snake coiled round a helpless goat, Weird Tales still has an unshakable grip on MPorcius Fiction Log.  Today we explore three stories about scientists making trouble and getting in trouble by Edmond Hamilton, one of this website's particular favorites, that were printed in the unique magazine in the early 1930s and were not reprinted until after humanity had triumphed over the dreaded Y2K bug.  

"The Mind Master" (1930)

My wife grew up in northern Iowa, in a region that is flat and lacking in trees, so she loves to drive through Pennsylvania with its forested mountains, something we have done quite a number of times, having lived in New York City (PBUH), the Des Moines area and in Columbus, Ohio, and having friends and family in all those places and in Pittsburgh as well.  "The Mind Master" begins with just such a drive through central PA, though while the wife and I mostly kept to publicly-maintained highways and stopped at antique stores and reputable hotels, this story's narrator is on a "rude and narrow road" leading to the summit of a "grim and forbidding" mountain.

Our narrator is Darley, a bacteriologist, and he has come to this isolated mountain top to visit Dain, a fellow scientist who has built a laboratory in this remote locale, the location of which he warns Darley to never reveal to their colleagues back at the Foundation.  Powering this guy's extensive and well-appointed lab out here in the boonies are two windmills (I guess nowadays we call them wind turbines)--this guy might be a mad scientist, but he's green!  

After a quick look around the lab--except for one room, which Dain declares temporarily off-limits--Darley and his host sit and smoke pipes and shoot the breeze, not having seen each other in a while.  Darley is just back from a long trip to Africa, during which time Dain left the Foundation.  We readers get a clue about why he might have left those stuffy goody-two-shoes at the Foundation when we hear Dain talking offhandedly about some of his Frankensteininan forays into the unknown, like when he was experimenting with grafting limbs from one species of animal onto another species, and trying to keep the heads of animals alive after they have been separated from their bodies.  Dain asks what's shaking down at the good old Foundation, seeing as he hasn't really been keeping in touch with the boys, and is told that two of the scientists there vanished six months after Dain left, and since then famous scientists from all over North America have been disappearing.  

You know how the one thing in the universe most likely to make you laugh is when your mother or your wife grits her teeth and says "Don't you dare laugh..."?  Well, nothing makes a guy want to explore a room than being told to keep away from it.  So, when the sound of voices wakes him up later that night, Darley surreptitiously listens at the door to that part of the lab Dain has requested he not enter, and hears the voices of those twelve missing scientists, whom it sounds like are here working at Dain's direction.  And they aren't developing a cancer cure, a way to improve crop yields, or new flavors of ice cream, like good little scientists, either--they are doing R&D on some horrendous new weapons!*  And Dain is going to use these weapons to blackmail and terrorize people into making him world dictator!  (Not unlike the mad scientist in Hamilton's "The Death Lord," which we read earlier this month.)  But why would these geniuses, who all seemed like such nice guys when Darley met them over the years, want to help Dain take over the world?  

*Interestingly, some of these weapons, considered speculative in this story, are today in pretty wide use. 

The illustration on the title page of the story gives the game away--Dain has lured each of the scientists here and decapitated them and attached their heads to machines that will keep them alive.  By inflicting pain on them with the flip of a switch he has been able to persuade them into doing his will, and he plans to do the same to Darley--he wants to add bacteriological warfare agents to the remote control aircraft, cluster bombs, deaths rays, and poisons in his arsenal.  But Darley gets the upper hand in a hand to hand struggle, and we are treated to scenes of Dain suffering turnabout-is-fair-play justice as the disembodied boffins bray for revenge, and then for a death that is preferable to life as a bodiless head.

(Note to next of kin--I am not judging these scientists, but personally I would prefer life as a disembodied head to death.) 

An acceptable mad scientist story.  Unfortunately Hamilton doesn't take time to give us a look into the mind of the mad scientist so we can see why he wants to take over the world--those are some of the best parts of these mad scientist stories, like in "The Plant Revolt" when a guy declared he was killing all us oxygen breathers in the interest of dismantling animal supremacy and seeking justice for all the centuries of oppression suffered by plants.

"The Mind Master" would go unreprinted until 2013 when it was included in Haffner Press's The Collected Edmond Hamilton: Volume 4: Reign of the Robots.      

"The Horror City" (1931)

The Arabian desert, an expanse of almost a million square miles, is unexplored and uncharted.  Several expeditions have tried to fly across it, but their planes never returned.  So our narrator, Kirkland, and his two colleagues, Harmon and Hunter, members of the topographical department of some New York museum, are going to fly a plane over the desert in yet another effort to map it from the air.  I can see volunteering for a suicide mission if you were living in Detroit or Gary or something, but leaving the greatest city in the world to die atop a pile of sand?  Well, you gotta be able to suspend disbelief if you are going to read these stories, I guess.

Kirkland and company soon find out why those other expeditions never returned.  A powerful wind seizes their plane and carries them, practically out of control, to a city of black stone entirely covered by an opaque black dome.  The winds almost suck them into a hole in the crown of the dome, but Kirkland, who is at the controls, just barely manages to pull the plane out of those winds and land nearby.  After fixing some minor damage to their plane, Kirkland, Harmon and Hunter spot another plane close by, one that seems to have made a crash landing--it is one of the two planes from the last expedition!  Our heroes decide they have to investigate that domed city to see if any of their predecessors are alive in there.

Unable to find a door or gate in the city wall, our guys climb through a high window and follow a tunnel carved through the thick wall, coming to an opening that looks down into a hall.  They are shocked to see the inhabitants of this hidden city--intelligent black octopus creatures, taller than humans, who have dozens of tentacles, some of which they use to walk while with others they carry and manipulate objects.

The topographers explore the city, keeping to the shadows and peering around corners, and manage to escape notice while they look into laboratories and observatories and power plants, the sort of stuff that would be of interest to any budding scientists and engineers who might have been reading Weird Tales back in the day.  If you blundered into a human city and sneaked around looking into windows you'd mostly see people watching TV or arguing with the spouse, but these ogre-sized cephalopod people have themselves a city of science here.

Eventually Kirkland, Harmon and Hunter are spotted and have to fight with their automatic pistols and then flee through the corridors of the dome-shrouded, artificially illuminated city.  They blunder into the tentacles of two octopus people, and are shocked to hear them speak English, and even more shocked to hear their claims to be Austin and Cooper, two men they know who were members of the most recent lost expedition!  These poor bastards who still self-identify as bipeds relate to Kirkland and the two Hs the fate of their expedition and the Cliffs Notes of the amazing history of this weird city.

The black city was built long long ago by human beings, a race isolated from the rest of humanity that had developed super science and could synthesize food.  They beat the heat of the desert by putting up that dome as a shade, and by developing a super-sized central air conditioning system that sucks cold air from the stratosphere down into the city--it is that powerful AC unit that foils all attempts to fly over the desert.  These desert people also outwitted the Grim Reaper by figuring out how to perform brain transplants and building artificial octopus-like bodies into which to move their brains.  On the rare occasion that outsiders find the city, the natives insist on doing them the favor of putting their brains into octopus bodies; you know, so they will fit in.

Austin and Cooper help Kirkland and the two Hs escape, first guiding them to an exit near their plane and then, while the topographers scurry across the sands, sabotaging the giant AC unit, pushing it to its limit so the winds generated inside the city cause the city to collapse, killing themselves and everybody else inside.  These men would rather die than live eternally in an artificial octopus body.

(Note to next of kin--I am not judging these explorers, but personally I would prefer life in an artificial octopus body to death.)                          

This is an OK story bringing together two common weird themes, the lost city and brain/soul transfers.  Hamilton adds a gruesome sort of horror element, as he often does to his SF stories, by describing how Austin and Cooper had to watch each other having their brains removed from their bodies, and, even more wild perhaps, how they were anesthetized but not rendered unconscious for the transplant operation and so were fully aware as they were separated from their cisbodies. 

Like "The Mind Master," "The Horror City" would have to wait until the 21st century and The Collected Edmond Hamilton: Volume 4: Reign of the Robots before it would again see print.

"Snake-Man" (1933)

The January 1933 issue of Weird Tales includes Robert E. Howard's story "The Scarlet Citadel," in which we learned about Howard and Conan's theory of government when I blogged about it in 2019, as well as Hamilton's "Snake-Man," which I blog about today.  "Snake-Man" was printed under a pseudonym used by Hamilton, I believe, four times, Hugh Davidson.  

John Hemmerick is a middle-aged university professor who travels the world studying snakes.  (Yes, some people do have cool jobs...not safe jobs, maybe, but cool jobs.)  Today he arrives by train in a little inland Florida village, the only passenger on the train taking the spur that leads to the place.  He is met by our narrator, young lawyer Frank Rawlins, and Pete Winton, who owns a garage.  The two local men drive Hemmerick to an old decaying house like five miles out of town, on the edge of the swamp where the herpetologist plans to look for specimens.  

Hemmerick spends a few days finding lots of exciting snakes and caging them up.  Then Rawlins and Winton pay him a visit to tell him a crazy story he might be interested in: a local black farmer saw a huge snake steal away with one of his goats.  Hemmerick examines the foot-wide track left by the serpent and confirms it must have been a snake, but no snake that size is known to live in Florida.  Uncle Wally, a local African-American with a reputation as a conjure-man, suggests it was no normal snake, but a snake-man who seized the goat!  Such a creature lives as a human by day but at night transforms into a big snake!  Hemmerick says he heard many such stories while in Africa, but dismisses them as superstition.  Uncle Wally warns Hemmerick that the snake man may take exception to the way the professor is capturing all those snakes.

A few more days pass, during which the huge snake continues to steal livestock from the local farmers, both black and white; those who see it claim it has glowing red eyes.  After the snake chases a woman and child--they just barely escape into their house--the townspeople decide the monster must be destroyed, and turn to Hemmerick for help tracking it down.  Led by deputy sheriff Ross Sanders and guided by Hemmerick, the white men of the town hunt the swamp for hours and hours, but with no luck.

Rawlins and Winton tell Sanders that they saw some of the huge snake's tracks at the old house where Hemmerick is staying, but the prof discouraged them from hunting for the reptile around there, as it might scare away the snakes he is trying to collect.  Sanders suggests the three of them, without telling the scientist, hang around the rotting house while Hemmerick is away looking for specimens and ambush the snake if it comes by for another visit.  They will make sure to leave before Hemmerick comes back from his nightly forays into the swamp.  (One of the weaknesses of the story is the deference Sanders, who represents the law and government in this town and is responsible for the safety of its inhabitants' lives and property, shows to a strange outsider--if the cops here in suburban Maryland were looking for a suspected murderer on my block I don't think they would honor my request to be quiet because I'm in a Zoom meeting with a client.)

The three amigos spot the snake and blast it with their shotguns, but when they rush over to look at the body they find, as we readers expected, the torn corpse not of a serpent but of a middle-aged college professor. They know no white man will believe their story, so they will have to let the world believe they killed Hemmerick by mistake.  Damn, that's the kind of thing that goes on your permanent record!  

I thought the ending of "Snake-Man" a little anticlimactic and disappointing.  Shouldn't Hemmerick give a speech or put up a fight or something?  We never really learn if he is an enthusiastic snake-man who wants to eat people, or more like a Dr. Jekyll who barely knows what he is doing when in snake form.  Couldn't Uncle Wally be there at the end, using his charms or providing folk wisdom to the skeptical white characters, a sort of van Helsing figure?  There were hints during the main body of the story designed to make you suspicious of Uncle Wally--maybe Uncle Wally and Hemmerick should both have been snake men and should have fought for dominance of the swamp or for the allegiance of the local black community or something.  Oh, well.

Acceptable.  Maybe historians of SF would be interested to compare Hamilton's relatively bland and inoffensive treatment of African-American characters here with that of Robert E. Howard in his striking and quite racist story "Black Canaan."  In 2000 "Snake-Man" was included in Haffner Press's The Vampire Master and Other Tales of Terror.  

**********

These stories are all competent but I can't help but think that with some more effort--in particular, greater exploration of the character and motive of their villains--they could have been a lot better.   

More 1930s Weird Tales in our next episode!

Monday, February 15, 2021

"Genius Loci," "The Charnel God" and "The Weaver in the Vault" by Clark Ashton Smith

When I lived in Ohio, through the Grandview Heights Public Library I got hooked up with the hoopla service which allows you to "borrow" e-books to read on your computer.  I haven't lived in the Buckeye State for a while, but my hoopla account lives on.  Today let's read three stories from an e-text of the fourth volume of Night Shade Books' five-volume series The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, 2009's The Maze of the Enchanter

The cover of The Maze of the Enchanter is a wacky collage by Jason Van Hollander that integrates a portrait of Smith, one of those gorgeous Demetre Chiparus sculptures of a super-skinny girl, a photo of Saturn, and other images I can't easily identify.  (A visit to Van Hollander's website is worth your time if you are into horror and the weird.)  The introduction is by Gahan Wilson.  I actually don't like Gahan Wilson's work, but this intro is pretty good; besides praising Smith, Wilson talks about his own youthful reading and relates a fun little second- or third-hand anecdote about Smith.

Smith was often forced to make alterations to his stories demanded by editors in order to secure sales--as the editors of The Maze of the Enchanter, Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, tell us, Smith needed the money to support his infirm parents, and so was in no position to refuse such requests.  Connors and Hilger have endeavored in this book to present versions of the stories whose texts are as close as possible to Smith's original intent--this, and all the interesting notes they provide on each of the stories, makes the book worth a look for all you fans of the weird out there. 

I have already blogged about the Weird Tales versions of four stories in The Maze of the Enchanter, "The Isle of the Torturers" and "The Dark Eidolon," in one post and in another "The Ice-Demon" and "The Voyage of King Euvoran," the latter of which appeared in Weird Tales under the title "The Quest of Gazolba."  (I guess as the result of an oversight, "The Ice-Demon" is missing from the e-book of The Maze of the Enchanter.)  Three other pieces, "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Flower-Women" and "Vulthoom" I read in Xiccarph, a 1972 collection edited by Lin Carter.   

"Genius Loci" (1933)

"Genius Loci," like all the stories we are talking about today, first appeared in Weird Tales and then was included in the 1948 Arkham House collection Genius Loci and Other Tales, and since then has won the nod from Peter Straub and Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for inclusion in big important anthologies, the kinds of anthologies that are trying to prescribe a canon.

I know I don't need to mansplain to the well-educated audience of MPorcius Fiction Log that, in the religion of ancient Rome, every person, place, group, institution, or thing had a sort of guiding or protective spirit inextricably linked to it, its genius, and that the genius of a place is called a "genius loci."  I will note that whenever this concept comes up I think of Casanova; in his memoirs, when Casanova has bad luck or does something foolish on a whim, he often says that he was "led by his evil genius," and, conversely, when he has an idea that brings about a welcome outcome or when he meets good fortune, sometimes he credits his "good genius."  I always have found this idea clever and fun, and of course a useful way for a guy who travels all over Europe cheating and stealing and getting into trouble to abdicate responsibility for his actions.

The narrator of "Genius Loci" is a writer who lives in the country, on an "uncultivated ranch."  His friend, landscape painter Francis Amberville, is visiting for two weeks.  Amberville has found a meadow where dead trees sit around a stagnant pond, a place where no birds or insects seem to go, a place that somehow scares him but also fascinates him.  Our narrator can sense the evil of the place in Amberville's drawings of it, which are a contrast to Amberville's typical work, which is warm and cheery.  The meadow, the writer surmises from Amberville's description, is on land owned by the Chapman family that is now vacant; old man Chapman, a surly unfriendly sort, died a few months ago, apparently quite near this meadow.

Amberville keeps going to the meadow to paint, and goes from being an amiable and affable guy to a sullen jerk--it seems the meadow is having a negative effect on his personality.  Amberville has a sweet and kind fiancé, and the writer invites her to join them, thinking her presence will snap Amberville out of his funk.  Instead, a terrible tragedy occurs.  The fiancé is not strong-willed, and when the spirit of the evil meadow finally breaks Amberville and he drowns himself in the scummy pool, he brings the girl with him.  The narrator arrives at the meadow shortly after the disaster, and sees a sort of vision of the two young couple's souls rising from their floating corpses to join the soul of old man Chapman--"they merged in one, becoming an androgynous face, neither young nor old..."--and then be absorbed by whatever malign spirit dwells in the unhealthy trees and stagnant water of the meadow.  The narrator, having seen this horrifying phenomenon and being in possession of Amberville's powerful and evocative drawings and paintings of the evil meadow, fears he will eventually be drawn to a similar death.

This story is well-written and well constructed, but somehow it didn't really move me.  Nothing really surprising or crazy happens, there is no sex or gore, the characters don't have any interesting quirks or relationships.  It works, there is nothing wrong with it, but it is no where near as striking and memorable as what I consider Smith's best work, like "The Dweller in the Gulf," "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" or "The Testament of Athammaus."    

Back in late 2013 I sat in a public library and read the quite good Tanith Lee story in 
The Weird and wrote a rave review of it

"The Charnel God" (1934)        

In our last episode we read the Hugh B. Cave story in the March 1934 Weird Tales, and today we read Smith's piece from that issue, "The Charnel God," which is a great title.  The story's magazine appearance is illustrated by Smith himself, which is fun, though the drawing is sort of amateurish--I guess the polite term is naïve.  

A pretty common theme of horror stories is premature burial--a person has some rare malady that makes him appear dead, and he gets buried and wakes up to find himself in a coffin or tomb or whatever.  In "The Charnel God," one of Smith's tales of Zothique, a far future dying earth setting full of magicians and people who fight with swords, a young woman has one of these maladies, and she gets carried off by the authorities for disposal even though her husband insists she is still alive.

The people of the city of Zul-Bha-Sair worship the god Mordiggian, and all who die within the city become the god's property.  It is said that Mordiggian eats the dead, though rumors run rampant that the priests abuse the bodies in all manner of ways before, or instead of, feeding them to Mordiggian.  Phariom and his wife Elaith were just passing through when, in the inn, Elaith has one of her spells and doctors pronounce her dead and the priests of Mordiggian come to collect their god's property.  Phariom tries to fight the masked and gloved priests, but they are expert fighters and beat him senseless.  When he wakes up he hurries to the mysterious temple, hoping to somehow rescue Elaith.

"The Charnel God," like 14 pages in its Weird Tales appearance, is split into four chapters.  Chapter III is devoted to a necromancer, Abnon-Tha.  As we expect of all people with authority and power, the priests of Mordiggian are corrupt and Abnon-Tha often bribes them so they will permit him to conduct experiments on the corpses brought in to the temple.  He has never been permitted to leave the temple with a person who has died, however, even when he has managed to reanimate them. 

Abnon-Tha desires a beautiful noblewoman, Arctela, and has hatched a scheme to make her his slave.  He has slain her with a spell that leaves no mark on her body, and plans to reanimate her and then abscond with her from the city.  

In the fourth chapter Phariom and Abnon-Tha meet in the temple at the long table upon which the dead await Mordiggian.  Arctela lies beside the still living but inert Elaith.  Our cast learns the truth about the god, and his preternaturally agile priests, and struggle to escape the temple alive.

This is a good grim unheroic sword and sorcery horror story.  Because in a Clark Ashton Smith story there is no expectation of justice or an ending which sees the protagonist triumph, I had no idea what was going to happen, which makes every scene in which a guy whips out a dagger or sword or starts casting a spell compelling because you have no idea who is going to come out on top and who is going to be killed and/or humbled, though looking back on the story now, on all three of these stories, in fact, I wonder if they don't share a theme of the futility of resisting fate and authority, no matter how alien or cruel. 

In France, Genius Loci and Other Tales was retitled and split into two volumes.
On the covers we see the priests of Mordiggian without their masks and gloves, 
and poor Arctela, who has been reanimated as an automaton with
no will but to serve the necromancer Abnon-Tha.
            
"The Weaver in the Vault" (1934)

Here's an issue of Weird Tales we haven't looked into before, one which is adorned by one of Margaret Brundage's more amazing BDSM covers.  Brundage's work often looks flat and static, but those attributes are appropriate for this theme and composition.  A better than average performance from her.

"The Weaver in the Vault" is another tale of Zothique.  Speaking of the canon, "The Weaver in the Vault" is one of the stories that is included in the 2014 Penguin Classics collection of Smith tales, The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies.  Clark Ashton Smith has arrived!    

Famorgh is the fifty-ninth king of Tasuun.  He sends three fighting men on a quest to retrieve the remains of the founder of his dynasty, which lie in a tomb ninety miles away in the long-abandoned city of Chaon Gacca.  En route to this desolate destination, the three men share grim rumors, theories and anecdotes about why Chaon Gacca was abandoned, the fate of those who have visited the place since it was deserted, and why the king wants them to collect the mummy or bones of his ancestor.  

The men enter the ruined city and explore the tomb, where an outré tragedy befalls them.  An earthquake strikes, and the three warriors are crushed in a cave-in, two killed at once while the third lies immobilized, his legs shattered and under a huge chunk of stone.  As he dies over a period of days, this last survivor watches a truly alien monster, a floating sphere of energy, absorb his friends and with the energy it has stolen from them weave a glowing construction of filaments and strands, like a spider's web of shifting colors, that fills the tomb before fading away, a sort of ephemeral art installation.  We readers know that when he eventually dies this third warrior will too serve as the raw material for a short-lived alien work of art. 

"The Weaver in the Vault" is well-written, but after all the engaging stuff about the journey and the exploration of the city and tomb, the surreal ending is a little anti-climactic.  The ending certainly qualifies as weird, as it depicts an incomprehensible other and a black fate from which there is no hope of escape and which can in no way be said to represent any kind of justice or moral order, but is it entertaining?  Not very.   


**********

Three well-written downers in which people, no matter how talented, brave or innocent they may be, are destroyed by their social superiors or forces that are beyond comprehension.  "Genius Loci" and "The Weaver in the Vault" are both mildly good (a step above my oft-used grade of "acceptable,") though very different in that the former sort of hews closely to what we expect while the latter is truly strange but not in a particularly exciting way.  For me "The Charnel God" is the most satisfying of the three pieces we are looking at today, a good mix of sex, violence, terror and surprise, with characters who act in explicable ways in a compelling setting.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Hugh B. Cave: "The City of Crawling Death," "The Crawling Curse," and "The Black Gargoyle"

In case I've never mentioned it, I lived in New York City from the late '90s through the oughts and every day I miss the towering skyscrapers, the bustling crowds, liberation from the automobile, the ships and boats on the river, Central Park, the Greek vases, Roman sculptures and English paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and still more things.  In the "still more" category is the New York Public Library, which would often get small press SF books.  One such book was a new book by Hugh B. Cave, who, somewhat amazingly, lived to the year 2004 after being born in 1910.  I borrowed this book, which I think must have been The Mountains of Madness, and was taken aback by how bad it was.  Since then Cave has been on my black list, though in 2015 I offered him a parole hearing and read a 1979 story of his--the story was mediocre, and he was not granted a reprieve. 

Well, today as part of my project of blogging about at least one story from each and every issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s, I am giving Cave another chance and reading three of his stories that appeared in the Unique Magazine.  Have I been wrong to avoid this winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Life Achievement, the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and the International Horror Guild Living Legend Award?

"The City of Crawling Death" (1932)   

Remember that movie Them! in which the U. S. Army fights ants the size of box trucks with tommy guns and flame throwers?  And of course the Joan Collins giant ant movie, Empire of the Ants?  Good times, good times.  Cave's "The City of Crawling Death" also stars giant ants, these ones in the Amazon.  But good times will not be had!

Raould Trench is a man's man who finds science talk boring.  Professor Heinrich Murgusson is a scientist who is always tinkering away at a device which Trench can't begin to understand.  These two are travelling up the Amazon in search of Doctor Richard Lourd, who disappeared two years ago.  They are accompanied by a big strong local man, Manuelo, whom Trench and Murgusson call "the Portygee."  In a town near the limit of that territory where the white man has left his stamp our three protagonists encounter an Englishman who tells them of a town three days upriver that has been taken over by ants the size of your fist.  Trench and Murgusson suspect these ants have something to do with Lourd's failure to return to civilization.

Manuelo rows them upriver, to regions few white men have ever laid eyes on.  When they get to the town they heard about they find that, sure enough, it has been taken over by ants.  These ants, however,  have grown since that limey saw them--they are six feet long and three feet high!  Through his binoculars Trench sees that Lourd is being held captive by the ants!  There is a fight, and Manuelo is captured by the ants as well!

"The City of Crawling Death" is a simple-minded and poorly written action story, like something a kid would write.  There is no style or personality or atmosphere or emotion to this story.  It is full of bad sentences that I had to reread, and then reread again before dismissing them because I was confused by their nonsense:

Trench glanced down at the canvas-topped stool.  Upon it lay a heavy wooden box--a square thing of greenish metal, sealed on all sides, with a narrow lens-like aperture in front.

"When I connect the lens with that forty-pound Maxim of ours, the machine-gun is a machine, Trench.  A machine!"

There is no reason for the enemies to be ants--Cave doesn't write them as if they are ants.  He says they have developed a human intelligence, and again and again calls their antennae "tentacles" and has the giant ants use them to grasp and hold prey and to open and close doors.  They don't do any of the interesting things ants do, so Cave could just as easily had the enemy be aliens or a black magic cult or a lost Roman legion or something.    

Anyway, Trench and Murgusson sneak into the village of the ants and unbind Manuelo and Lourd, and then the four men race to the boat.  The ants are right behind them, but on the boat is a Maxim machine gun to which Maurgusson has attached some prisms and a lens, thus turning it into a death ray projector, with which he wipes out the horde of ants.

Bad!

Unsurprisingly, "The City of Crawling Death" (which isn't about a city, but a village where none of the characters dies) has never been reprinted.

"The Crawling Curse" (1933)

Vesker is a Dutchman living in Indonesia who has some medical training and no scruples.  Tenegai LaRoque is half French, half native, a decent guy with a beautiful French wife, Renee.  Vesker and Renee desire each other, so they plot together and Vesker ambushes LaRoque and murders him with a lead pipe.  Then he cuts the poor guy into pieces and tosses the pieces into three different bodies of water.  But LaRoque's mother was a sorceress and a few days later, where Vesker is living with the faithless Renee, one of LaRoque's arms comes hunting them, crawling up to the door, crawling through a window, terrifying the servant boy, strangling Renee.  Vesker hides Renee's body, and then tries to learn about the sorcery used by LaRoque's mother by talking to some British guy he meets at a party, an expert on native magic.  

This limey foreshadows the next torment LaRoque's mother is going to inflict on Vesker.  Her tribe has mastered a type of black magic they use to kill people in a particularly gruesome fashion: you steal your target's clothes and put them on a dead body, and as the body decays, so does the owner of the clothes, though he is still alive!  LaRoque's arm crawls into Vesker's bedroom and drags off some clothes as he watches in disbelief; the clothes of course are soon being worn by Renee's concealed corpse.

This is a good black magic horror story, full of twisted necrophiliac overtones (Vesker spends quite a bit of time touching Renee's dead body--caressing it immediately after her death and then undressing it after the animated arm has attired it in his clothes) and creepy or sickening images.  Cave does a good job setting a tone and pacing the story and describing Vesker's lust and fear and all that.  It is almost hard to believe that this is the same guy who dumped the piece of junk that is "The City of Crawling Death" on Farnsworth Wright (and which Wright proceeded to drop on the rest of us.)  

Thumbs up for "The Crawling Curse."  In 1977 LaRoque's arm crawled again in the collection Murgunstrumm and Others.  Maybe I should use that book's table of contents as a guide to what Cave stories I should read instead of just selecting them haphazardly the way I do everything in my life. 

"The Black Gargoyle" (1933)

Cave's "The Black Gargoyle" is the cover story of an issue of Weird Tales that includes two stories we have already read in book form, Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft's "Winged Death," a story I quite liked, and Edmond Hamilton's fun space war extravaganza "Thundering Worlds."  "The Black Gargoyle" would be reprinted in The Corpse Maker, a 1988 collection from a small publishing house, Starmont, part of their Popular Culture Studies series.  In the same series they published an entire book on Cave's life and career, so I guess if I want help picking the Hugh B. Cave silver from the Hugh B. Cave dross, they are the people to call upon.

Indonesia again.  Our narrator and his buddy Martin are passing through, on their way to join a museum expedition.  Gomez, head of the garrison at an outpost they stop at, puts the two men up in a vacant native hut full of centipedes and insects and decorated with disturbing artifacts, like skulls and a preserved head and a hideous mask.      

The outpost is an unpleasant place to be.  Gomez keeps the natives under control through ruthless punishments and fear, and he enjoys telling stories detailing the cruel and unusual ways he has disciplined and executed malefactors and rulebreakers.  At night there are all kinds of scary noises from the jungle, including what sounds like human screaming.  These screams have unnerved a young white government employee, Trellegen, who has been at the outpost for about a month with his beautiful wife.  Gomez claims the screams are the work of natives who resent his authority and think they can scare him into abandoning his post, but after hearing the screams himself, Martin suspects it is the sadistic and manipulative Gomez who is producing the screams in an effort to scare Trellegen, perhaps as a way of driving a wedge between the young man and his gorgeous wife.     

Gomez shoots down a native servant for (he says) stealing whiskey, and when the dead man's brother-in-law comes by to ask what happened, Gomez tells the guy that Trellegen was the shooter!

A crazy series of events follows, what you might call a comedy of errors but with horrific consequences.  Martin has the dumb idea of scaring Trellegen by putting on the hideous mask and sneaking up on him, thinking a shock that turns out to be harmless will cure the guy's nerves, toughen him up so he can face down Gomez.  The same night Martin is putting this moronic scheme into action the brother-in-law guy comes to town to murder Trellegen, and in the dark mistakes Martin for Trellegen and throws his parang at him--luckily, it is just a flesh wound.  Meanwhile, the sight of Martin at her window drives Mrs. Trellegen hysterical, and her incoherent description of the mask, which of course she only saw briefly and in low light, makes her husband think it was Gomez at the window.  Trellegen, forgetting his own fears now that he has to protect his beloved wife, takes a revolver and goes to Gomez's shack to deal with him.  The narrator tags along, and in the shack they are confronted with an unbelievable sight--a severed human head with tentacles growing out of the stump of its neck has apparently killed Gomez and is now devouring the man's face.  Trellegen shoots the head dead.

The narrator soon learns, by reading Gomez's journal, that the head was the preserved head in the hut shared by he and Martin, the head of a native sorcerer who had sworn revenge on Gomez as Gomez tortured him to death.  It seems the screams that initially gave Trellegen so much anxiety were the head's, reflective of the growing pains of growing tentacles.  Martin and the narrator bury the remains of Gomez and the avenging head, and lie to the authorities about everything; the Trellegens leave the outpost for a more comfortable locale.

This story is just OK; some of the elements are just a little too silly for it to be a truly effective horror story.      

**********

We may well encounter more stories by Hugh B. Cave in future installments of MPorcius Fiction Log, but I may try to stick to stories that have been selected by editors for inclusion in later books as a means of avoiding another embarrassment like "The City of Crawling Death."  

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Donald Wandrei: "The Tree-Men of M'Bwa," "The Lives of Alfred Kramer" and "Spawn of the Sea"

As regular readers of MPorcius Fiction Log (God have mercy on their souls) are aware, I aspire to blog about at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales produced in the 1930s.  In pursuit of this lofty goal, today we read three stories by Donald Wandrei, member of the Lovecraft circle, cofounder of Arkham House, poet, and winner of the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.  These stories would later appear in book form, but I am reading the versions printed in Weird Tales in the 1930s via scans freely available at the internet archive.

(We have already read some of Wandrei's stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log: from Astounding--"Raiders of the Universes" and "Colossus"--and from Weird Tales--"The Fire Vampires," "Something From Above," and "The Red Brain.")

"The Tree-Men of M'Bwa" (1932)

The narrator of "The Tree-Men of M'Bwa" is a big game hunter who travels around the world bagging rare beasts so they can be stuffed and put on display in museums.  Talk about a dream job!  He's a passenger on a boat travelling along the African coast, en route to the site of his next big expedition.  When the boat stops at a smelly little coast town, he strikes up a conversation with the only other white man in the local bar, a man who is missing both of his legs.  When the legless guy, geologist Daniel Richards, learns that the narrator plans on crossing the Mountains of the Moon, he warns him against it, and tells the story of how he lost his lower limbs. 

Richards was mapping uncharted territory and looking for valuable mineral deposits a few years ago, and, after crossing the Mountains of the Moon, his local guides abandoned him rather than explore a hill Richards thought was interesting.  Richards ignored their warnings and went up the hill on his own.  On the other side of the hill was a strange circular valley where no grass grew on the ground and no insects buzzed in the air.  At the center of the clearing sat a strange red object that seemed to have a different shape every time he looked at it--was it a pyramid or an obelisk or an orb?  The red object was surrounded by peculiar trees that looked like crude sculptures of men, trees with no leaves or branches, just two limbs much like a man's arms; the tallest tree looked least like a man, while the smallest looked quite like a human being, and, in fact, was looking at Richards!  

Before you know it, Richards is fixed in the soil alongside that smallest "tree man," having been overpowered by a zombie named M'Bwa who is over a thousand years old and shanghaied into the ranks of the tree men.  The second most recent draftee, the tree man right next to Richards, explains that a being from another dimension arrived here in Africa before the sinking of Atlantis and resides in that weird red shape-shifting object behind them, The Whirling Flux.  This alien turned M'Bwa into a zombie so he act as The Whirling Flux's eternal guardian.  This tree-man has gradually becoming less man and more tree for twenty years, and the effort of talking to Richards exhausts his humanity--he never speaks again.

Richards is spared a similar vegetative doom when a colleague of his comes looking for him a few weeks later.  Swinging and throwing a machete like nobody's business, this hero manages to outfight M'Bwa and cut Richards out of the earth.  The two white men only just barely escape, as the alien's powers put M'Bwa back together again with ease after he's been chopped apart.  We don't get a happy ending, though.  On the way back to civilization, Richards's savior dies of malaria, and Richards can't bring himself to return to the West--every month he has to have the fresh shoots that are growing out of the stumps of his legs pruned off!

This is a pretty good Lovecraftian story, with all kinds of fun elements: fear of the exotic Other, an inscrutable alien, the living dead, and plenty of body horror with people being dismembered and their bodies responding in shockingly unnatural ways.  Thumbs up!

"The Tree-Men of M'Bwa" has never been anthologized, but has been included in the Wandrei collections The Eye and the Finger (1944)  and Don't Dream (1997.)         

I enjoy Margaret Brundage's sexually
provocative covers as much as the next guy,
but much of her work looks pretty wan
beside that of John Allen St. John, who has a 
knowledge of human anatomy and an 
ability to convey motion that she sorely lacks 

"The Lives of Alfred Kramer" (1932)

We recently read stories by those top tier members of the Weird Tales crowd Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith in which 20th-century people experience the phenomenon of racial memory and have their consciousnesses thrown back into the past so they can live out stressful events in the lives of their ancestors, only to wake up back in their native century.  In "The Lives of Alfred Kramer," Donald Wandrei takes a crack at these themes.

Our narrator is on a long train ride, and can't sleep, and so ends up shooting the breeze with a weird dude, Alfred Kramer.  Kramer smells odd, his eyes have no pupils, and he doesn't move his mouth when he speaks.  Most of the story's word count is taken up with Kramer's discussion of his theories and narrative of his life.

In his youth Kramer had a recurring dream in which he was standing in the woods, wielding a knife before a stone altar upon which lay a beautiful naked girl.  Certain this was a memory of an actual event passed on genetically by his ancestors, Kramer studied dreams, the brain, and psychiatry in hopes of discovering a way of unlocking more of the ancestral memories that he was sure were locked up in his grey cells.  Eventually he developed a machine that used "Kappa rays" to energize the brain cells, and, in dreams, relived remarkable adventures from the lives of his father and grandfather, like witnessing the great Chicago fire of 1871 and surviving a shipwreck in 1809.   Kramer kept using the machine, and the dreams progressively depicted older and older events, until he was a Druid high priest in the 5th or 6th century.  

I guess we've all heard those stories about politicians who extol the public schools and defend them from reform but send their own brats to private schools or who tell you to not go on a trip because of coronavirus but then go on a trip themselves.  Well, Alfred Kramer's Druidic ancestor was one of these hypocritical jackasses who enforces painful regulations on others but exempts himself.  In this recovered ancient memory, it's time to sacrifice yet another virgin to the gods, and when the high priest realizes that the virgin going under his knife this time around is the girl he has a crush on, he contrives a Rube Goldberg contraption to help her escape. 

Kramer didn't stop his investigations there, but continued unearthing still older memories.  One ancestor witnessed Jesus Christ perform a miracle, another narrowly escaped the sinking of Atlantis, another was the cave man who figured out how to cook meat.  Kramer's Kappa-ray-enhanced brain coughs up older and older memories, his dreams put him in the role of progressively more primitive ancestors, featuring many fights over women, the topic that is illustrated on the title page of the story here in its Weird Tales appearance.  (Alas, the illo is not nearly as sexy as it sounds.)

So busy was he experiencing these dreams and then writing them down that Kramer had not looked in a mirror in days.  When he finally decides to take a break from reliving the adventures of the cave men whose genes he has inherited and goes to the washroom we get the story's twist ending, which made me laugh out loud.  The Kappa rays don't just unlock old racial memories, they alter your body to match the body of the ancestor whose memory you have relived.  Kramer's 20th century brain is now encased in the body of a "massive, shaggy beast-like man of fifty thousand years ago!" 

Kramer stopped using the Kappa rays but it was too late, his body chemistry has been permanently altered, and the dreams continue every time he sleeps.  The chronological gap between different dreams increases, and when Kramer falls asleep on the train our narrator witnesses the final horror--Kramer's mask and concealing clothes slip off, revealing that he has reverted to a quivering pile of protoplasmic slime.    

All the historical anecdotes get tedious, but the totally crazy and hilarious twist at the end, which took me by surprise (I thought Kramer was just having his life force expended and would be a sort of emaciated lich or something under the mask, not primordial ooze!), makes the slog worth it.  

People who have read my last blog post, in which I griped about stuff in stories by August Derleth and Mark Shorer that made no sense, may wonder why I like the twist in Wanderi's story here, which is also quite nonsensical.  (At one point was Kramer a monkey or a rodent or a Devonian tetrapod behind that mask?  How could he talk?)  The difference is that Wandrei's silliness is fun, and that its diversion from logic streamlines the story, getting us efficiently to our awesome "man has become slime!" conclusion.  The absurd elements of the Derleth-Shorer stories we talked about in our last blog post were just inherently boring impediments that slowed the story down and should have been excised in the drafting or copy-editing process.   

Like "The Tree-Men of M'Bwa," "The Lives of Alfred Kramer" can be found in both The Eye and the Finger and Don't Dream

"Spawn of the Sea" (1933)

More slime!  Weird Tales, it seems, is just crawling with fiction about menacing slime and blobs.  Just recently we read a story by Edmond Hamilton about primordial slime which almost exterminates all life on Earth, and then a story by Clark Ashton Smith about a blob monster bigger than the Empire State Building that devours entire jungles on Venus, and today we have already seen a guy turn into protoplasmic slime in one story by Donald Wandrei, and here in "Spawn of the Sea" we have another carnivorous pile of goop!

There is a brief frame story in which a guy finds a manuscript in an old bottle--the first page of the document is faded, so he can't be sure of the date on it, but it seems it must have been written in the 18th century or the early 19th century.  The rest of the tale is the legible portions of the manuscript.

The message in the bottle was penned by a gentleman, a passenger on a ship.  While in the tropics, the ship is struck by a terrific storm.  The masts fall over, the hold is full of water, etc, so the captain and everybody else thinks the ship is about to sink and so the order is given to abandon ship.  In the chaos, the narrator is knocked unconscious by a falling piece of rigging or something and doesn't make it off the vessel.  When he wakes up, like 48 hours later, the sea is calm and the ship in fact has not sunk, though it is no more than a drifting wreck.  Only one other person is on the ship, a scumbag who failed to leave with the others because the captain shot him in the leg when he tried to get aboard a life boat in front of some women and children.

The ship drifts for weeks.  Some strange chemicals were being transported by the ship, along with some seeds, and in the storm when the crates down in the hold broke they got mixed up.  Somehow, this mixture developed into a carnivorous blob monster, a big heap of slime that can detect other life and reach out pseudopods to capture it.  (A similar thing happened in Donald Wollheim's 1951 "The Rag Thing," which I read many moons ago.)  Day after day, the men toil up on the deck, desperately trying to build a boat or raft that will carry them away from this horrible predicament, all the while able to hear and smell the monster that is down in the hold moving around, hungering for their flesh and endeavoring to get its tentacles on them.  Wandrei does a good job describing the odor and the sounds of the monster and the fear it instills in the two men who are threatened not only by the monster, but by each other and the ocean itself.  

This is a good one--thumbs up!  After its maiden voyage in Weird Tales, "Spawn of the Sea" set sail again in the 1965 Wandrei collection Strange Harvest and again in the 1994 anthology Sea-Cursed.


**********

"Spawn of the Sea" is quite good, "The Tree-Men of M'Bwa" is solid, and "The Lives of Alfred Kramer" is weak in the middle there but has a very fun ending, so a decent showing by Donald Wandrei today here at MPorcius Fiction Log.           

Monday, February 8, 2021

August Derleth and Mark Schorer: "The Pacer," "They Shall Rise" and "Death Holds the Post"

Mark Schorer was a college professor who taught at Harvard and UC Berkeley and a writer whose stories appeared in the magazines you are supposed to read, like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's.  He was also childhood friends with August Derleth, and the two of them co-wrote a bunch of science fiction and horror stories, most of which first appeared in Weird Tales and were eventually collected in the 1966 book Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People.  Let's sample some of these collaborations in old issues of Weird Tales you can read gratis at the internet archive.

"The Pacer" (1930)

Larkins, a somewhat snooty writer who wears a monocle, rents a house in London for the winter, even though the house, once the domicile of the deceased Brent, a mentally unbalanced scientist who had some crazy theories about the soul and how one might retrieve a soul from the afterlife and put it into a living body, is reputed to be haunted.  Sure enough, one day when Larkins is typing away at his latest novel down on the ground floor, he hears footsteps and banging from the floor above, from the locked room that he has been subtly enjoined to never open.

Larkins, by reading old newspapers, corresponding with one of Brent's old colleagues, and searching around the house and its yard for clues, pieces together what is going on but also puts his own life and soul in peril.  I found it a little confusing, but I think Brent convinced some poor bum to participate in an experiment in which Brent would push the bum's soul out of his body and summon a dead person's soul from the ether the (Brent thought Heaven and Hell merely myth) to put into the bum's body.  But instead of a human soul Brent summoned the soul of some embodiment of evil.  Brent killed the bum's body and buried it in the yard, but the monster soul did not return to the ether; rather, it hung around the buried corpse and the house and made all those noises and attacked people who went into the locked room to investigate, killing them and stealing their souls.  There is a hint that if the monster takes Larkins's soul it will have accumulated enough souls to accomplish some work, maybe some horrible deed, maybe just returning to the ether.

I like the style in which this story is written, and the pacing and all that, but I am not sure Derleth and Schorer did a good job of connecting the corpse, the monster and the noises in the room.  People only get killed, apparently, when they open the door to the locked room, which would make more sense if the body was in the room, but it isn't, it is outside.  Why doesn't the monster attack when people are in the yard, or in other rooms of the house (the corpse is underground, so closer to at least one ground floor room than to the locked second story room)?  The monster is actually able to leave the locked room to kill people who have opened the room's door.  If the monster is immaterial, just a soul, how does it make all that noise?  To my mind, the story would be better if Brent had secreted the bum's body inside the room from which the noises issue, in a dumbwaiter or chimney or between the walls or under the floor boards or something, and/or people only got killed in the room.      

I think "The Pacer" may include a revealing little inside joke--Larkins is making up his novel as he writes it, with no idea where it is going, and one wonders if this is a reflection pf Derleth and/or Schorer's practice, perhaps in this very story.  Maybe they decided to write a story about a closed room from which footsteps are heard, and wrote the beginning of the story, but then could only come up with half-baked ideas for how to resolve the story and explain the noises.

I'll say this one is OK; the premise and the beginning and middle are good, but somehow the resolution doesn't quite work.          

"The Pacer" has been reprinted a number of times, including by Robert A. W. Lowndes in his Magazine of Horror in 1964 and Kurt Singer in his Horror Omnibus in 1965.

Pictured on the right is the 1966 paperback edition of Horror Omnibus, ed. Kurt Singer

"They Shall Rise" (1936)

Like so many weird stories, this is the written testimonial or memoir of a guy who went through a terrible ordeal and now suffers mental instability.  He has tried to tell people his story, but was unable to get out the words, and so now tries to write them down.

This shattered man is Valens, until recently a medical student in Wisconsin.  His constant companion in school was his classmate, Stan Elson.  These two guys spent a lot of time in the school lab, dissecting cadavers.  An old guy in clothes that went out of style decades ago showed up at the school, saying he was Doctor Septimus Brock from Scotland, on a tour of the USA looking at the laboratories at medical schools.  This guy was so strange, with a weird voice, pale skin, and a mechanical way of moving, he disturbed everybody he met.  Derleth and Schorer provide many clues that indicate to us readers, if not the people at the med school, that Brock is in fact dead and has somehow reanimated himself.

Valens thought he recognized Brock's mug from someplace, and looked through his books, finding an entry on Brock in a reference work as well as a paper written by Brock.  Brock was born over 100 years ago, and in his old age was thought insane and locked up, but escaped and disappeared.  Brock's paper presents his passionate belief that the living mistreat the dead and so the dead should rise up and get their revenge; in the monograph Brock suggests he will raise an army of the dead and accomplish this feat of what we today would call social justice.  

Valens ultimately succeeds in destroying Brock and saving the world from a revolution of the dead, but in the process Elson is killed and Valens loses his sanity and ability to vocalize, as we saw in the beginning.  

The premise of "They Shall Rise" is OK, but many scenes and elements of the story just don't ring true, with people acting in ways that make no sense; it is impossible to suspend disbelief in the story because again and again the reader is confronted with instances of large numbers of people witnessing strange events that indicate Brock is up to no good but doing nothing in response.  For example, the college newspaper is full of stories of disturbances at medical school laboratories all over the country, and each disturbance is connected with the appearance of an old man with a green umbrella.  But when Brock walks into a classroom full of medical students, green umbrella in hand, the very day after a bunch of cadavers was found outside the cadaver storage room, none of the students nor their professor puts two and two together.  Valens never considers just calling the police, who must know about the disturbances around the country because at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia these disturbances have lead to the deaths of students.  And that is only a sample of the nonsensical things in the story (we might also, for example, ask why Brock doesn't give a false name or wear different clothes--doesn't he know his name and attire are recorded in books and newspapers?)

(If I was to play devil's advocate here, I'd say we have reason to believe Brock is a master hypnotist who scrambles the brains of everybody he meets, which is why everybody acts irrationally around him and doesn't take the obvious steps that would stop him, but Derleth and Schorer don't make this clear, and Valens doesn't do anything to overcome this hypnotic power, he just shoots Brock with a pistol.)

Gotta give this one a thumbs down; it is like a rough draft the authors never bothered to whip into shape.          

"They Shall Rise" debuted in the same issue of Weird Tales as the fifth installment of Robert E. Howard's quite good The Hour of the Dragon and Carl Jacobi's quite bad "The Face in the Wind" and has reappeared in a couple of anthologies and a few Derleth collections, including some European books with striking cover illustrations.

"Death Holds the Post" (1936)

This is a story of the French Foreign Legion in Algeria.  When word got to the French fort at Surdez that the fort at Mechar was under attack, fifty men marched from Surdez to Mechar to help out.  Only one of those men returns, to report that they found  Mechar in the hands of an army of animated corpses, and said army ambushed and wiped out the detachment from Surdez!  At first the commander at Surdez doesn't credit the sole survivor's crazy story, but then additional info comes to light that corroborates his bizarre claims, including word that a German mad scientist who believes he can animate the dead has escaped a sanitarium and is suspected of having made his way to Algeria!

The commander comes up with a plan--one of his men will pretend to be dead in order to infiltrate Mechar and find out what is going on in there.  The plan succeeds; our main character gets inside the fortress walls and observes the German's methods: he pours an elixir into dead soldiers' mouths, and then uses hypnotism on them.  The hypnotism is key: when the main character shoots the German down all the living dead collapse, inert once more.

Like the other two stories we are talking about today, "Death Holds the Post" feels a little shoddy, like it is not quite finished, the various moving parts not quite meshing.  Having reanimation be a two-step process involving chemistry and hypnosis seems a little silly; obviously for the plot to work there must be some connection between the German madman and the corpses, so killing Herr Doktor deactivates the living dead, but why also include the elixir?  The elixir is a weak link in the story: pouring an elixir into a dead person's mouth seems like a futile exercise, as a corpse can't swallow and its blood is no longer circulating.  When the hero is playing possum the German puts the elixir in his mouth, and it is a little odd that this presumably powerful drug has no side effects on a living person, and you also have to wonder how a trained doctor who spends all his time among corpses doesn't realize the legionary is alive when he touches him.

Barely acceptable.  "Death Holds the Post" has reappeared in a few Derleth collections, including a Dutch one in 1968 and in anthologies such as Baen's Phantom Regiments in 1990.


**********

These stories were pretty discouraging.  I don't think I'll be reading any August Derleth stories for a while.