Sunday, August 22, 2021

From the June 1934 Weird Tales: J Williamson, R E Howard, C A Smith and A Derleth & M Schorer

In our last episode, we read mid-1930s stories from Amazing full of robotics, ray guns and aliens both malignant and beneficent.  Let's stick with the mid-Thirties, but shift gears to the weird!  Today's subject: the June 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which includes numerous stories by important figures in the history of speculative fiction. Let's check out four, stories by Jack Williamson, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth in collaboration with Mark Schorer.

"Wizard's Isle" by Jack Williamson 

I haven't read much Williamson since this blog wriggled out from under the overturned rock of my mind, but in the years prior I read many Williamson novels, among them The Legion of Space, The Cometeers, One Against the Legion, Seetee Ship, The Reefs of Space (with Frederik Pohl), The Power of Blackness, Star Bridge (with James E. Gunn), The Black Sun, and Life Burst.  All those were science fiction stories featuring space travel, and I tend to think of Williamson as a pioneer of space opera and hard science fiction concepts like terraforming and antimatter, but The Black Sun has Lovecraftian elements and The Legion of Space has some serious horror elements and Williamson also wrote a famous novel about witches and werewolves--Darker Than You Think--which I have not read, so it seems he was far from averse to handling fantasy and horror themes.  Let's check out "Wizard's Isle," a Weird Tales cover story, and see to what extent it sticks to the hard sciences and how much it explores supernatural material.  

Jason Wade is a Yale man!  He has spent two years in China, "working a tin concession," or, as a college professor might put it, exploiting the labor of the developing world and stealing natural resources from the global south.  While there, he got word that his fiancĂ© back in New York, Tonia Hope, had disappeared!  He hired a Big Apple private dick by wire and got to Gotham as fast as he could--"as fast as he could" adds up to two months!  As the story begins Jason is in the P. I.'s office, learning that Tonia was probably seized by some mysterious weirdo called "Mr. Alexander," an Asian ("Oriental" is what they say in this 1934 story) also known as "Iskandar the Wizard of Life."  Iskandar has been buying millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment and is rumored to have spent millions more on some mysterious construction in the Arabian Sea which has since vanished.  Iskandar is also suspected in the kidnapping of biologist Jerry Travers, a fellow Yalie!

Jason begins his own investigation, and is almost immediately kidnapped and taken by plane to a huge ship, an artificial floating island somewhere on the ocean, to be dragged before Iskandar himself, a man half-Oriental, half-Occidental, with almond eyes, ivory skin, and feminine red lips.  The man is a genius and a sadist who used drugs and radiation to transform Jerry Travers's body into that of a giant scorpion, while keeping the man's human head and brain intact so Jerry knows the horror that has befallen him!  Jerry's wife was forced to watch this weeks-long transformation, which drove her insane before she died of misery.

You might say that Williamson is trying to exploit our fear of and disgust at things which live on both sides of boundaries, things that violate borders and do not stay within the sharply defined categories with which we are comfortable.  Is Iskandar white or Asian?  Is he male or female?  Is Jerry Travers a human or an arachnid?  The fact that Iskandar is both Western and Eastern, and a man with some feminine characteristics, and that Travers is part human and part scorpion, is meant to disturb us, to excite our horror and disgust.

Iskandar shares his plans with Jason, as evil geniuses in fiction are wont to do.  Like his namesake and ancestor Alexander of Macedon, Iskandar is going to remake the world!  The Wizard of Life is going to create a new race of supermen who will conquer and enslave homo sapiens, and beautiful blond and blue-eyed Tonia Hope, after her body is suitably altered via drugs and radiation, will be the mother of this new super race!  

Among his army of Asians, Iskandar has two Caucasian-American thugs who represent his interests in the USA--it is these jokers who captured Jason in NYC.  Iskandar orders them to throw Jason into the ocean, and as they drag him to the edge of the artificial island Jason implores them to think of themselves as white men, to help him avenge their fellow whites Mr. and Mrs. Travers and protect white woman Tonia Hope from a fate worse than death.  They scoff, saying Iskandar pays them a thousand bucks a week!  These race traitors throw Jason into the ocean, but luckily he is a strong swimmer and finds his way to a drainage outlet and crawls back into the floating island.

Right into a giant terrarium thing, a dense jungle under a huge dome.  The jungle is bathed in radiation that causes the jungle life to mutate in mind-boggling ways!  Jason is confronted by such sights as maggots two or three feet long boring into gigantic mushrooms covered in monstrous vines, and even worse nightmare visions.  Iskandar with two Chinese riflemen comes down into this mad house of evolution run wild to destroy a giant centipede which is out of control and Jason ambushes them, but after a tough fight Jason ends up captured again.

Jason is to be turned into a half-man, half-scorpion like Jerry Travers was, but when he is dragged to the radiation cell in which Travers is held the biologist recognizes Jason and attacks the Chinese soldiers.  Jerry and Jason run through the corridors of the ship's superstructure, killing Chinese soldiers, the American thugs, and finally Iskandar.  Jerry the scorpion man succumbs to the grisly gunshot wounds he suffered during the fighting, but Jason and Tonia, after shooting it out with some more Chinese, escape in the plane in which he was brought.  (Jason can fly planes as well as swim and shoot like a champ--these Yale men are well-rounded!)  Right before he died, Iskandar rotated the control that scuttled his floating island, so his experiments and the remnants of his army are lost forever beneath the waves.

An entertaining Yellow peril/mad scientist story with lots of horror and gore content that also reflects Williamson's hard science interests (Williamson was, according to wikipedia, one of the first people to write about genetic engineering and apparently coined that term.)  This is a competent weird story much akin to something our pal Edmond Hamilton might write--Hamilton and Williamson lack the sort of distinctive literary style that top shelf weirdies like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard bring to their work, but the boys from Ohio and Arizona have an interest in the sciences that distinguishes their productions from those worthies. 

"Wizard's Isle" was reprinted in England in 1945 under the title "Lady in Danger" in a sort of pamphlet with a photo of a nude woman on its cover.  It is also the title story of the third volume in Haffner Press's eight-volume series The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson

"The Haunter of the Ring" by Robert E. Howard

Speak of the devil, on the next page of Weird Tales's June '34 issue we see the title of Robert Howard's contribution to the issue and a somewhat crude drawing of a topless woman.  "The Haunter of the Ring" has of course been reprinted many times, including in the 1968 issue of Robert A. Lowndes's magazine Startling Mystery Stories (which reproduces not only the text of the tale but the drawing of the topless woman.)  

James Gordon is the great-grandson of Sir Richard Gordon of Argyle.  Sir Richard is famous for being a cruel jerk and for murdering his wife in a jealous fit.  Well, as the story opens, Jim Gordon tells his buddies, our narrator Michael O'Donnell and some Irish adventurer type named Kirowan, that he thinks he is the reincarnation of his nefarious ancestor, and his wife Evelyn is Sir Richard's reincarnated wife, Lady Elizabeth, because over the last few days Evelyn has tried to murder him three times!

Our narrator quickly links this bizarre turn of events to Joseph Roelocke, a rich guy who reads lots of books and looks like a foreigner, maybe an "Oriental."  Roelocke dated Evelyn before she married Gordon, and recently sent Evelyn a ring in the shape of a snake biting its tail as a sort of belated wedding gift.  O'Donnell and Kirowan join the Gordons at home to have a look at this ring, which Evelyn says is stuck so tight to her finger she can't get it off.  Then two more characters appear (for a story of this length there are a lot of characters), Doctor Donnelly and Bill Bain, old friends of Evelyn's family.

During their confab Evelyn gets hold of a pistol and shoots her husband, proving the truth of Gordon's incredible story of being targeted for death by his wife, but not all that reincarnation bunk.  While Donnelly and Bain tend to Gordon's wound, Kirowan and O'Donnell jump in the car and drive over to Roelocke's.  It turns out Kirowan and Roelocke, whose real name is Yosef Vrolok, studied the occult together in Hungary, but their friendship ended when Vrolok embraced the dark side!  Vrolok used his black magic to steal Kirowan's girlfriend, whom he then "debauched;" Kirowan tried to kill Vrolok, but the guy's sorcery preserved him.

Now the two foes meet again, and Kirowan exposes the truth of the curse suffered by Evelyn.  Vrolok has summoned a demon to possess Evelyn so she will murder her husband; in return Vrolok promised the demon a soul, intending the soul to be Evelyn or James Gordon's.  Kirowan works a psychological trick on Vrolok, making the wizard doubt his ability to control the demon, and this moment of weakness gives the demon a chance to kill Vrolok and carry off his soul with it to a place "outside the human universe."

(Don't worry, Gordon only suffered a graze and he and Evelyn live happily ever after.)

This story is OK.  I have to admit that it was a little disappointing that all that reincarnation business turned out to be a red herring.  Another noteworthy and perhaps disappointing thing about "The Haunter of the Ring" is how everybody in it is so passionate--all the characters are constantly yelling or weeping or threatening to beat each other up; maybe this is Howard depicting the idea that Celtic people--Irishmen and Scots--are loud and boisterous.  But after raising the temperature of the story to a fever pitch there is no cathartic violence to release all that pressure.  Instead of one of these excitable Irishmen resolving the plot through physical activity, the demon, who has no dialogue or personality, just carries off Vrolok's soul and the sorcerer collapses. 

(I can't pin this on Howard, of course, but it is also odd and something of a let down that the illustration features a woman whose breast is bared but there is no sex in the story.  The illo suggests the demon is going to try to seduce or molest or rape Evelyn, but nothing like this happens in the text.)

We also might consider this, like Williamson's "The Wizard's Isle," a yellow peril story, as Vrolok is strongly associated with the mysterious East--he is wearing a Chinese silk dressing gown with a dragon pattern on it when Kirowan and O'Donnell burst in on him, for example.

Acceptable, but not one of Howard's better works, in my opinion.    

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" by Clark Ashton Smith

"The Colossus of Ylourgne," which is one of Smith's stories of Averoigne, the French province in which all manner of supernatural events take place, is actually illustrated by Smith himself, which is fun.  This story seems to have really struck a chord with practitioners of the weird, as there have been two sequels to it written by other authors, one by Brian McNaughton in 1995 and another by Peter Rawlik in 2014.

In 1281, six years after moving to the cathedral city of Vyone, the squat little wizard Nathaire and his pupils disappear from that town, nobody is sure why or how.  Later in the year, the corpses of recently dead young men begin busting out of tombs and cemeteries all over Averoigne and marching to the abandoned castle Ylourgne in the hilly eastern reaches of Averoigne.  Two brave monks investigate the diabolical goings on at the ruined castle, and find Nathaire directing some tremendous undertaking by his pupils and a veritable army of demons and familiars.  The monks are detected by the dwarfish Nathaire and humiliatingly ejected from Ylourgne by two corpses that are possessed and animated by demons. 

One of Nathaire's former students, Gaspard du Nord, investigates the castle himself, and discovers the horrific, almost unbelievable truth!  Nathaire and his satanic followers are processing the dead bodies of young men, separating the bones from the flesh and, somehow, reconstituting the bones into gigantic bones and then clothing the titanic bones with the flesh of the dead.  Nathaire is creating a man a hundred feet tall!  After Gaspard is captured and dragged before the little wizard, Nathaire explains how this colossal figure will be animated--old and ill, Nathaire will soon die, and his soul, thanks to spells cast by his pupils, will inhabit the gargantuan body, in which Nathaire will wreak havoc upon Averoigne!

Gaspard is thrown into a dungeon full of bones and snakes, but manages to sneak out through the drainage system and witness the animation of the giant.  He flees home to Vyone as, behind him, the giant, shouting obscenities, devastates the countryside and inflicts a long list of atrocities upon the people of Averoigne.  Finally, in the cathedral town, Gaspard is able to muster enough sorcery to neutralize the giant.    

This is a terrific story about necromancy, full of grotesque and gruesome images and Smith's extravagant metaphors and esoteric verbiage:

Gaspard, returning from his plunge into Lethean emptiness, found himself gazing into the eyes of Nathaire: those eyes of liquid night and ebony, in which swam the chill, malignant fires of stars that had gone down to irremeable perdition.

Very good!  A weird classic!          

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" was the favorite story of readers of this issue of Weird Tales, and has been reprinted not only in the expected Smith collections (I read it in an electronic library copy of A Vintage from Atlantis: Volume Three of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith) but various anthologies.

For the record, in Before the Golden Age (on page 729) Asimov says that the stories
in Weird Tales were "fearfully overwritten" and that the style of H. P. Lovecraft,  
 "the author most typical of Weird Tales," "revolted" him.

"Colonel Markesan" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer

In February I read three stories from Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People, a collection of tales cowritten by Derleth and Schorer, and declared them "discouraging."  Yet here I am reading another one.  Dogged persistence, my boy, dogged persistence.

The structure and pacing and style of this story are acceptable, but it has a fatal flaw.  Our narrator is a former school teacher who, for no apparent reason, decides to take the job of live-in caretaker at some old geezer's estate near Cambridge, Mass.  The geezer, Colonel Markesan, says he has returned to this estate, which has been in his family over a century, after living in Virginia for some time.  Markesan insists the narrator remain in his room all night, and actually locks the new caretaker into his quarters after he retires.

After a week and a half or so the narrator figures out how to sneak out of the room at night and discovers that something crazy is going on, and some research at the library completes the picture.  Colonel Markesan is no colonel; rather, he is a college professor.  (The horror!)  Professor Markesan was thrown off the Harvard faculty years ago because he kept claiming there were ways to communicate with and even control the dead.  (I guess there are limits to tenure protections after all.)  He went to Virginia where he disguised himself not by changing his name, but by affecting a different title.  (Whatevs.)  Markesan died in Virginia and was buried, but rose from the grave and came to his family estate in New England in order to achieve revenge!  His revenge is to, every night, go to the graveyard where the Harvard profs who hounded him out of academia are buried, summon up there souls and make them come to the estate with him, where he berates them for being wrong about his theories about controlling the dead.

This plot is OK, but Derleth and Schorer screw it all up by not being consistent about whether Markesan and his victims are immaterial spirits or animated corpses.  Sometimes they pass through doors and walk without touching the ground, like ghosts.  Other times they can lock doors and wrestle with living humans and be damaged by edged weapons.  When the narrator and a comrade fight Markesan, Markesan's victims, who floated through the walls of their tombs when summoned by Markesan and are now assembled in the house to be humbled, suddenly become half-decayed dead bodies.

Another issue with the story is the fact that there is no reason for the undead Markesan to hire a living person to mow the lawn of his estate.  He should have just made the dead Harvard profs do it--imagine the humiliation these Brahmins would suffer from being compelled to perform manual labor!

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  With a little more care and thought, it could have worked, but Derleth and Schorer were sloppy.  Despite my attacks on the story, it was included in the 2009 collection Who Shall I Say Is Calling? and Other Stories.


The June 1934 issue of Weird Tales prints a bunch of reader letters praising C. L. Moore, including one by Donald A. Wollheim of New York City.  The future super editor not only praises Moore (whom he thinks is a man) to the skies, but expresses disappointment in Edmond Hamilton's "Corsairs of the Cosmos," saying he enjoyed the earlier Interstellar Patrol stories, but found this one the worst thing Hamilton ever committed to paper, even claiming it was "hard to read!"  Ouch!  When as an editor at Ace in 1965 Wollheim would publish a collection of Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol stories, "Corsairs of the Cosmos" was one of those left out.


  1. Not a great surprise that Asimov did not like Lovecraft's prose style. Per L Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft was rather imitating the style as he perceived it of the 17th and 18th centuries. I think it was in Before the Golden Age, Asimov praised Clifford Simak's writing and said he read Simak closely to glean out how he did it. Interesting observation but Asimov's grey prose is so unlike the rather elegant style of Simak.

    1. Yeah, Asimov praises Simak and says reading Simak's work taught him the value of an "unadorned style" on pages 222-3 of Before the Golden Age, and says he talks more about Simak's influence in The Early Asimov.