Thursday, June 17, 2021

Stories by H P Lovecraft, C A Smith and E Hamilton in the October 1931 issue of Weird Tales

Today let's explore the October 1931 issue of Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.  We've already dipped our toes into this issue, reading Robert E. Howard's "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth" in January.  Today let's read stories by some other leading members of the Weird Tales crowd: H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Edmond Hamilton. 

"The Shot from Saturn" by Edmond Hamilton

If you read the papers you may be worried about China.  And Russia.  And Iran.  And maybe Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban.  Well, add Saturn to the list!  Yes, your favorite ringed planet and its citizens may soon be subject to targeted economic sanctions, no-fly zones, no-fly lists, Twitter jail, Facebook banning, and all the rest of it!

Brant and Fraser are "astronomy instructors," and a few months ago they saw something odd while observing Saturn.  Well, today their boss, Dr. Harkness, tells them that a meteor was just spotted up in the 51st state, landing a hundred miles (though I think they call them "kilometers" up there) north of Quebec in some god-forsaken forest.  Harkness is positive that this thing is linked to the mystery light B & F spotted two months ago by Saturn, that it is not just some meteor but in fact an artificial construction sent by intelligent beings who live on Saturn!  Harkness is taking Brant and three other guys with fancy diplomas up to Canadia to check it out, leaving our narrator, Fraser, to handle all their classes.  Cripes!

A month later a message with world-shattering news comes out of the forest primeval up there: Harkness was right!  The meteor really was a vehicle and inside it were four dead Saturnians!  Harkness sends Fraser a list of equipment and supplies and tells him to come up to the crash site with all that stuff and some more scientists and even some journalists.  Who is going to teach all those classes and grade all those papers?  Who cares?

When our narrator arrives at the site he is not only confronted by absolutely novel concepts of biology and technology, but a heart-rending drama!  The four of his fellow eggheads he finds are all acting strangely--their personalities seem different, they stumble over words, forget everyday facts, even walk oddly.  Worse still, Fraser's long-time pal Brant is missing!  Harkness and the others tell Fraser that Brant went insane and tried to kill them all!  Even now Brant is, they say, lurking in the woods with a pistol, and at any moment he might take a pot shot at them.

We readers of course suspect what is going on before Fraser does, and our suspicions are confirmed when Harkness announces he isn't going back to the United States to file a report or go on a lecture tour or anything--instead he and the three other scientists who first got to the site are flying to Saturn in the dead Saturnians' ship!  All the stuff Fraser was directed to bring with him is the material needed to build a "MADE IN CANADA" version of the launcher the Saturnians used to hurl their vessel here.  Fraser and everybody else is put to work on this alien-designed contraption because Harkness is on a tight deadline!

Harkness drives everybody ruthlessly to get the launching system built on schedule.  Hours before launch Brant sneaks out of the woods to tell Fraser that Harkness and their other colleagues are dead!  The Saturnians seized them, used a machine to download everything from their brains, and then killed them.  Then the Saturnians put their alien brains into the human scientists' bodies, making sure to mangle their previous alien bodies to obscure all evidence of the brain transplant operation--Fraser was told this damage was the result of the crash.  Brant, the fifth man, managed to escape.  He warns Fraser that if these Saturnian body snatchers make it back home to the ringed planet they will report that Terra is ripe for conquest and we'll all be doomed!  Fraser has to help Brant prevent the launch at all costs!

This is a good story.  Hamilton's plot is strange and fun, with human feeling and characters whose actions and motivations all make sense.  The speculative science Hamilton comes up with is also good.  Saturnian interplanetary travel technology exploits a planet's static electricity ("every in fact a huge Leyden jar that is never discharged...."), focusing the planet's charge on a ship which has been given a like charge so that it is repelled at a terrific velocity up into space.  We see so many SF stories with rockets and space warps that something totally different is fun to see.  Thumbs up for "The Shot from Saturn!"

I may like "The Shot From Saturn," but for some reason it was not reprinted until 2013, when Haffner Press included it in their The Reign of the Robots: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume 4.  A neglected gem! 

"The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake"
by Clark Ashton Smith

Here we have a Smith story that has never been anthologized, though it has appeared in numerous Smith collections in Italian and German as well as English.  I'm reading it in The End of the Story: Volume 1 of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.

"The Resurrection of the Rattlesnake" is a filler story and I'm not sure I get it.  A writer of horror stories claims he doesn't believe in the supernatural and has no fear of ghosts or other such nonsense.  (Hear, hear!)  Two friends decide to play a little joke on him--they will take the writer's stuffed rattlesnake out of his study and replace it with a live, harmless gopher-snake, which looks a little like the rattler.  If things go according to plan, the writer will think the taxidermized rattler has come to life and be scared, and a good laugh will be had by all.

Late at night when these two jokers creep into the study to make the switch, the stuffed snake is not where it usually is.  Then they spot it on the writer's desk--it moves, apparently alive, and they panic.  The pranksters bolt, but one falls and cries out in agony.  A moment later the writer and the surviving comedian return to the study to find that their friend is dead, apparently from a heart attack.  The stuffed rattlesnake is where it always is.

I guess the gopher snake had slipped away earlier and it was that serpent which panicked the mischief makers?  Maybe we are also supposed to think the jokers had accidentally brought an actual rattlesnake and not a gopher snake?  But there is no good explanation for why they didn't see the stuffed snake in its usual place when they first sneaked into the study--there really aren't sufficient clues to make us think that the writer is really a wizard or the stuffed snake (or the writer's serpent-shaped candlesticks which are mentioned twice) are cursed or whatever.  I know I don't have a logical or mathematical mind, bur I can't get this story to add up.  

Barely acceptable, and an atypical example of Smith's work which lacks the sort of stuff that makes Smith unique and compelling.  NOT an overlooked gem!

"The Strange High House in the Mist"
by H. P. Lovecraft

This one, of course, has been reprinted a million times, mostly in Lovecraft collections, but also in a number of anthologies and magazines, including August Derleth's 1959 Lovecraft-centric anthology The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces, a 1989 issue of the Serbian magazine Alef, and Marvin Kaye's 1992 Lovers & Other Monsters.  I'm reading "The Strange High House in the Mist" in my copy of the Corrected Ninth Printing of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.

isfdb classifies "The Strange High House in the Mist" as part of Lovecraft's Dream Cycle, and it does mention Kadath and Ulthar, and it does have its dreamy poetic aspects; for example, these first two lines, which are echoed in the last paragraph of the story:  
In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport.  White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan.
Atop the highest of those cliffs, an almost unscalable crag over a thousand feet above the ocean, sits a little house the people of Kingsport can sometimes see through the mist and clouds.  The citizens of Kingsport fear this house, and it is the subject of all kinds of rumors, but none have ever seen whoever it is who lives there and illuminates its little windows every night.    

A philosophy professor, Thomas Olney, a man with a wife and brats, comes on holiday to Kingsport.  Olney has a yearning to see and hear and learn new things; he visits the Terrible Old Man, whom we know from the story of that title, and he decides to climb the crag and investigate the mysterious house.  After an arduous climb he gets up there, to discover that the rumors are true--the only door into the house is on the edge of the cliff, facing the ocean--only someone who could fly could enter the house that way.

While he is snooping around outside the house he hears someone come in through the door; the bearded householder then opens a window and helps Olney inside.

Olney later has trouble remembering exactly what happened during his visit to the house high in the mist, but it seems that the resident, apparently an immortal wizard, told him many tales of Atlantis and of the peoples and gods who preceded Atlantis, and numerous fantastical callers knocked on the door that hung over the abyss, one sinister black shade to whom the wizard refused to open his door, as well as a crowd of welcome partiers, gods and nereids who played strange music and gave Olney and the wizard a ride on a giant flying sea shell.

Olney returns to Kingsport and his family, cured of his ache for new sights and strange knowledge; after the season they never return to Kingsport again.  Meanwhile, the elders of Kingsport worry that Olney's visit to the house on the cliff has wrought some change up there, and inspired in the young men of their town an unhealthy openness to exploring the old house themselves.

This is a decent mood piece; it is fantastical, lacking the more "realistic," scientific grounding of other of Lovecraft's works, and it doesn't have any of the bloodshed or horrific and mind-blowing revelations that give other Lovecraft stories a sort of punch, so I don't find it as compelling as, say, "The Shadow over Innsmouth" or "At the Mountains of Madness." 


More 1931 Weird Tales in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log!

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