Tuesday, November 30, 2021

John W. Campbell, Jr.: "The Machine," "The Invaders," & "Rebellion"

I've been looking through 1935 issues of Astounding at the internet archive because I have developed an interest in the drawings of Elliot Dold, Jr. and Mark Marchioni.  These issues of Astounding are full of stories by future Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr., some under his real name and others under his Don A. Stuart pseudonym.  Let's check out three Don A. Stuart stories, the components of what isfdb calls "The Machine" series.  These stories would be reprinted together in 1952 in the Campbell collection The Cloak of Aesir, the 1976 collection The Best of John W. Campbell, and the 2003 collection A New Dawn, but I am experiencing them as SF fans did in 1935, in scans of the original magazines.  (Though I did take a look at the scan of the paperback printing of The Best of John W. Campbell also available at the internet archive.)  

"The Machine"

This is one of those stories about how a utopia in which the government and/or machines do all the work and provide you whatever you want is actually an unhealthy and/or unhappy place--to thrive man needs challenge and adversity!  We have seen lots of these over the years here at the blog--the ones coming to mind at once are Raymond F. Jones's "Rat Race" (because some surface elements of it are similar to "The Machine" here) and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's Fury and "Two-Handed Engine."  Maybe Campbell's story helped inspire those later stories?  In his intro to The Best of John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey suggests that when this story was published the idea was not the commonplace that it seems to me, but counterintuitive novelty.  "Every science-fiction reader," says del Rey, "wished for a day when machines would make everything easy for everybody."
  
"The Machine" is also one of those SF stories that glorifies the scientist and the engineer, portrays religion as irrational stupidity and suggests the common people are a mob of sheep one step from hysteria and self-destruction should no superior people be around to guide them.  

It is the early 22nd century.  The Machine has provided all the food and kept the weather warm and so forth since the 1950s, so almost everybody spends his or her time lounging naked or playing games half-naked.  A life with no challenge, no struggle, no goals, is not very satisfying, and a small number of people have taken up as a hobby doing stuff that people did before the arrival of the Machine, like growing food in the dirt or reading old books and plans and building a propeller plane, even refining fuel to power its engine, even though the Machine forbids flying in this dangerous thing--after all, the Machine provides perfectly safe automatic air cars for everybody!  Tal Mason is one of these hobbyists, and he just finished constructing a 1940s airplane and refining the "decane" needed to fuel it, and is our main character.

After we readers are introduced to the milieu and characters we get the paradigm shift that drives the plot.  All over the world the air cars and automatic food dispensers and televisors--all the mechanical devices that make life possible--suddenly stop working.  The Machine announces that it is leaving, and tells its wild story.  

Thousands and thousands of years ago, on a distant world, aliens much like Earth humans built the Machine and give it the command to improve life for people.  So it took over government and the economy and all the work and so forth, making life easy for everybody.  With no need to run their own lives or solve their own problems, the people over many generations became superstitious ignoramuses, worshipping the Machine as a god.  Eventually the Machine realized that giving people stuff and solving all their problems for them wasn't really improving their lives (especially if you consider the "life of the race" and not the lives of individuals) and so it abandoned them for outer space so they would have to relearn how to run their own lives and make their own way.  (In my day we called that "tough love!")

In the 1950s the Machine came to Earth and solved all our problems, eradicating disease and vermin as well as running the government and economy for us.  But now that it sees we too are becoming ignoramuses thanks to all its help it is leaving us.  Before it goes it gives us what it thinks is an encouraging speech about how the race will survive even if lots of individuals die and points out that we shouldn't worry because plenty of those hobbyists know how to grow food.  Then it departs to look for some other planet's people to help.  (And good luck to them!)  

When for the first time in their lives there is no free food and it gets cold at night, most people go psycho, becoming savages who resort to cannibalism, but Tal Mason and a minority of clever self-educated people flee to a city to the north that was abandoned in the 20th century after the Machine arrived.  There they scavenge and repair some 20th-century technology and build a community that can fend for itself and fight off attacks from the savages who come up from the south looking for women to rape and/or eat.  

Somewhat to my surprise, Campbell ends the story on a pessimistic note that overturns his "triumph of the smart people" themes in favor of his "people will be lazy if given the chance and then the race will degenerate culturally and genetically" theme.  After a few generations, the savages to the south have  mostly died out, and the descendants of the hardy settlers that followed Tal Mason and built an agricultural society in the north migrate south to where life is easier, where wild food can just be plucked off the trees.  They lose the drive to work and think and begin worshipping the memory of the long lost Machine, which they start referring to as "Gaht."

Ending the story on that equivocal note struck me as odd--was the intelligence and industry of Tal Mason all for naught?  Was Campbell trying to transmit to us the tragic sweep of real history, in which people make great efforts and do great things but their works decay and their labors are forgotten?  Did he expect to write a sequel and, as the show biz adage has it, mean to "leave 'em wanting more?"  

"The Machine" would be reprinted all on its lonesome in 1946 by Groff Conklin in his oft-reissued anthology Best of Science Fiction and in 1973 in Roger Elwood and Vic Ghidalia's Androids, Time Machines and Blue Giraffes.

"The Invaders"    

A little italicized intro (which a cursory glance indicates does not appear in the version of the story in The Best of John W. Campbell) at the head of "The Invaders" tells us it is three thousand years after the Machine abandoned Earth, and our world is a garden where no one ever worries.  

Until today, that is!  Two lovers, Jan and Meg, are relaxing next to a stream when an alien space ship lands and they, along with a bunch of other Earth people are seized by the aliens.  We got violence-against-women cannibalism and human sacrifice scenes in "The Machine," and we get a violence-against-women horror scene early in "The Invaders" when Jan watches as the three-eyed aliens dissect Meg.    

The aliens enslave everybody, and selectively breed them--Jan is a dolt, but tall and strong, and he is paired with one of the few smart humans, Wan.  It would be typical for a writer to portray aliens who dissect a human, enslave the human race and use drugs to trick humans into having sex with partners in whom they have little interest, as horrendous villains, but throughout his life and career Campbell would take counterintuitive or controversial stands, say outrageous things and play devil's advocate, if only to spark a livelier debate and generate what we might now call "outside the box" thinking.  (According to Barry Malzberg's essay in The Engines of the Night, "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," Campbell characterized this as "shaking 'em up.") 

And so the aliens are presented as heroes who are helping the human race, which has degenerated over the centuries because life was too easy.  These aliens see that mankind was once great, and by making us work hard and through eugenic breeding they are putting us back on track for greatness--Campbell uses the metaphor of finding disassembled pieces and putting them back together again.  After dramatizing all this from the point of view of the humans in Chapter I of "The Invaders," in Chapter II, presented as a report written by the leader of the alien expedition, Campbell makes all this explicit.  The brief Chapter III pushes Campbell's uncomfortable argument to the limit when he portrays the aliens euthanizing Jan when he is too old to work and breed!   

The last few, quite short, chapters of the story cover several centuries of life on Earth after the alien conquest, and like "The Machine," "The Invaders" ends on an equivocal rather than climactic or conclusive note.  When the head eugenicist who landed in the space ship and who had a soft spot for us humans gets old and dies his replacement enacts more radical and invasive methods of genetic engineering.  The aliens become adept at breeding just the classes of humans they want, strong ones to act as labor and security, for example, and smart ones to conduct research.  When one of the strains of humans bred for intelligence shows signs of independence the alien head of the eugenicist agency orders the strain discontinued and its current representatives killed.  Campbell just told us that these aliens were helping us and now he's portraying them as a bunch of tyrannical jerks!  Maybe Campbell is offering a nuanced view of imperialism, presenting a diverse cast of imperialists with varied motives, and/or portraying the way political and cultural shifts can have a host of unpredictable effects, intended and unintended, both good and bad.

"The Invaders" was the cover story of the June issue of Astounding--right there on the cover you can see Jan respond as the aliens begin dissecting Meg.  Yikes!  I don't think this one was ever published all by itself without "The Machine" and "Rebellion" flanking it.  

"Rebellion"

Three thousand years have passed since the aliens arrived on Earth.  The humans have been bred into many different types, each type fitted for a particular job, but all types are honest and obedient--insubordination and deception are unknown!  But then the development that was nipped in the bud in the end of "The Invaders" (we are told that was fifty years ago) recurs--a human bred for intelligence develops initiative.  But this time the aliens don't find out about it!  

Bar-73-R32 is the human managing director of the eugenics department.  The aliens allow humans high positions like this because our kind have been bred for centuries to never keep secrets and never lie.  Bar-73-R32 is strongly considering trying to breed smarter people capable of more original thought, and when looking at the records sees somebody tried this fifty years ago and the new independent strain was quickly destroyed by the alien authorities.  Bar-73-R32 wants to pursue the project anyway and "invents" deception, becoming the first human in thirty centuries to withhold information and feed falsities to his alien masters!  He begins breeding humans for initiative and independence, and teaching them these values, keeping all of it from the aliens.  He trains and handpicks his successor, who is even smarter and more inventive than was Bar-73-R32, and who continues the project right under the oblivious metaphorical noses (they don't have actual noses as you can see in all the illustrations of them) of the aliens.  Bar-73-R32 accepted the social order into which he was born, and only wanted to breed humans with initiative in order to aid Earth's economic and technological growth, but the independent-minded humans whose development he fostered are more independent-minded still--they want to become their own masters and kick the aliens off Earth!

In just a few generations careful breeding has produced a small elite minority of humans with super intelligence--they have photographic memories and even have psychic powers that can hypnotize, stun, or kill--and that kind of intelligence has powered research that has recovered invaluable knowledge about the human race and its history and technology, as well as about the aliens.  Campbell describes in some detail how these rebels reproduce and improve alien ray projectors and construct a secret base under a city, where it takes them just three years or so to puzzle out the scientific principles of anti-gravity used by the Machine and develop a forcefield that will make them invulnerable to the aliens' ray guns.  The aliens discover the rebel base, try to crush the rebellion, but fail utterly.  In the face of humanity's superior intelligence, the aliens have no choice but to surrender and accept exile to Venus.

Like "The Machine," "Rebellion' has stood on its own in some anthologies, being reprinted in 1974 in both a US anthology, Alden Norton's Futures Unlimited, and the German Science Fiction Stories 43, which reuses one of the relatively few Richard Powers covers that prominently features the human face, which we saw on Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life back in 2018.

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While these three stories feature scenes of violence and horror, they aren't really adventure stories--they are stories about ideas that offer a theory about how technology, political and economic conditions, and biology interact and that romanticize the engineer and the scientist who use know-how to get things done, manipulating atoms, materials, and most alarmingly human beings to get results that, in the long run, are good for human society.  Campbell's ideas are deliberately provocative--his characters are people living in a totally different environment than our own and so their values are totally different than our own and Campbell doesn't condemn them, but presents them to us for our consideration.

Campbell's "The Machine" stories are definitely interesting from an historical perspective, and I found them pretty entertaining on their merits; no doubt we'll be returning to 1930s Astounding and Campbell's Don A. Stuart stories.  But first, it's back to Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales in our next episode!

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Manly Wade Wellman: "The Horror Undying," "The Kelpie," & "The Werewolf Snarls"

My quest to read at least one story in every issue of Weird Tales with a 1930s publication date advances--today with stories by Manly Wade Wellman, a man who, besides writing plenty of science fiction and weird stories for the pulps, scripted comic books and penned works of history on the Civil War and the Old South.

Today's three stories all were reprinted in the 1973 collection Worse Things Waiting; "Horror Undying" was retitled "The Undead Soldier" for that outing and "The Werewolf Snarls" appeared under the title "Among Those Present."

"Horror Undying" AKA "The Undead Soldier" (1936)

This is a solid vampire story that reads smoothly and has some novel flourishes.  Whereas many vampire stories are clothed in the trappings of the aristocrats or decadent aesthetes of Europe, Wellman here leverages America's history of immigration and wars with Mexico and native Indian tribes in a way that is interesting.

A guy, our narrator, is taking a walk in the woods and gets lost in the middle of a blizzard.  He takes shelter in an old cabin, and pulls up some floorboards to burn for warmth--under the floor he discovers some 19th-century documents.  One such document is a privately printed pamphlet that describes how a serjeant in the U.S. Army in the 1840s, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was discovered to be the murderer of some Indians and even his own comrades, and to have cannibalistically eaten of their bodies!  Another document is a newspaper clipping that tells a similar story of cannibalism in the Army from the 1870s; a third is a wanted poster for the 1870s murderer--the illustration on the pamphlet, and a photo attached to the wanted poster, depict the same man, apparently unaged!

The man described in the documents enters the cabin--is our narrator doomed to be his latest victim?  No--a second man, a Russian priest equipped with garlic and stake and other vampire-fighter paraphernalia, busts in to slay the monster and help explain its strange and horrific career.  Wellman presents in this guy's mouth an unusual theory of lycanthropy and vampirism that would have us believe that a werewolf, which is apparently what the soldier was in the 1840s, who is killed but not burned may return to life as a vampire!  

In some ways a typical monster story but done quite well.  I like it.  "Horror Undying" would reappear in three different Wellman collections and three different anthologies.

"The Kelpie" (1936)  

Like "The Horror Undying," this is a tidy and fun little monster story.

Some dude of means has his girlfriend over to his apartment.  They are a hot item, apparently planning to get engaged.  When they try to make out on the divan they feel like they are being watched, though the only other living thing in the apartment is the little frog in the dude's big aquarium.  This guy's hobby is botany, and he's had samples of freshwater plants sent to him from Scotland upon which to experiment.  Bizarrely enough, in the sealed package with the plants came the little amphibian and a ring, which the guy casually slipped on his ring finger.

When the man is out of sight in another room, answering the phone or at the sink, using soap to try to get that unaccountably stuck ring off his finger, the woman has the hallucination that a hideous monster, a sort of frog woman, is climbing out of the aquarium, that this jealous amphibian wishes her ill because it is in love with her man!  

Or maybe it isn't an hallucination: at the end of the brief story the man is trying to explain to the police that he didn't kill his girlfriend, that those marks on her neck, much like the bite of a water snake, have nothing to do with him.

Short and to the point, the monster vividly described, an entertaining piece of work.

Donald Wollheim selected "The Kelpie" for inclusion in his reprint magazine Avon Fantasy Reader, and it went on to be included in the paperback anthology of stories from the magazine, as well as other anthologies and multiple Wellman collections.

"The Werewolf Snarls" AKA "Among Those Present" (1937)  

This one is just competent filler. 

Our narrator attends a party thrown by some wealthy hipsters who claim to know about the occult and Satanism.  It is the night of the full moon.  The hostess introduces our narrator to an ugly guy with an oddly shaped body who claims to be a werewolf!  He tells our narrator the story of how, when he was in medical school doing research on Renaissance medicine, he followed a recipe for some goop said to be able to give you the power to change your shape, and tested it on himself.  Soon after this experiment he was out on a date with a girl, on the night of the full moon, and felt irresistibly impelled to murder her with his nails and teeth!

Our narrator has been thinking this guy was just joking or perhaps insane, but now he recalls a news story about the very murder this guy is describing!  The murderer explains that he was in an insane asylum for a few years, and was recently released.  He got into contact with the hipster couple hosting this pasty, hoping they might know how to cure him.  But the hipster couple are just a pair of poseurs who invited the werewolf to this party--held on the night of a full moon!--so their friends could laugh at him.

Our narrator hurries out of the party.  Good thing, too--when he looks at the paper the next morning the headline blare that last night those hipsters and two of their guests were murdered and the killer is still at large! 

Unremarkable, but it operates without a hitch.

In 1994 "The Werewolf Snarls" was reprinted in one of those Barnes and Noble anthologies edited by three guys with long names that take a long time to type, where it was accompanied by "The Kelpie," and an Italian werewolf anthology, which also featured "The Undead Soldier"/"The Horror Undying."  


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Three comfortable and easy-to-follow stories that don't challenge you with wild new concepts or waste your time with superfluous descriptions or passages that read like they should have been edited for length or clarity.  A pleasant diversion.  Expect to see more Manly Wade Wellman here at MPorcius Fiction Log in the future. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Astounding, Sept 1935: Donald Wandrei, C L Moore & Frank Belknap Long

Through the magic of the internet archive, let's take some time to investigate the September 1935 issue of Astounding, then edited by F. Orlin Tremaine, and read stories by three people who are perhaps more famous for their relationships with Weird Tales than Astounding, Donald Wandrei, C. L. Moore, and Frank Belknap Long. 

Before we get to the stories, I want to say that I really like the illustrations in the magazine by Eliot Dold, Jr. and Marco Enrico Marchioni depicting men and women inside space craft and laboratories, surrounded by machinery and control panels.  These drawings are bold and dynamic and full of charming patterns and fun details.  

"Earth Minus" by Donald Wandrei  

"Earth Minus" has eight chapters, plus an italicized prologue and epilogue.  In the prologue we are introduced to aliens travelling across the galaxy in a disk-shaped vessel, headed for Earth.  Wandrei does a good job here of coming up with interesting aliens and alien technology, describes them in a compelling way.  It is good Wandrei is adept at describing strange and unusual sights, because that is just about all this story consists of.    

In Chapter I we meet two Earth scientists, an American and a German who has emigrated from Europe.  The native has a theory that all matter, and even thought, in the universe is connected, and all was once composed of a single unstable element or energy, what he calls monotron; this stuff has evolved or was transformed into all the elements and substances we have today.  This brainiac has developed a super powerful ray projector that can generate temperatures hotter than those in the core of the sun and pressures never before known to man, and he wants to use this thing to subject an ordinary substance to tremendous stress--maybe this unprecedented stress will cause the target to revert to monotron and prove his theory.  The German cautions him against doing this, as they have no idea whether this reversion to monotron will release dangerous radiation or cause a cataclysmic explosion or something like that.

In Chapter II Wandrei describes in detail the experiment, in which a little cube of steel is subjected to incredible stress and vanishes, perhaps reduced to its component electrons, neutrons and protons or maybe into a form of energy that has not existed since the beginning of the universe--monotronic energy.  In Chapter III we see the results of releasing this novel form of energy: weird lights glowing all over the place, animals chirping and howling in distress, and then all the explosives the world over detonating, killing multitudes of people.  In Chapter IV we shift to an ocean liner and watch in horror as it and all its passengers and crew lose solidity and melt into nothing as matter returns to its original monotronic state.  Chapter V returns us to the two scientists, who discuss the catastrophe the American has wrought and theorize its cause before themselves melting.  Chapter VI puts us on an airliner coming in to New York from England: the flight crew witnesses Manhattan skyscrapers melting.  Chapter VII is about a homeless thief in San Francisco who witnesses the destruction of that town.  In Chapter VIII we hear the scientists' last words as they melt.  

In the epilogue we see those aliens again.  They watch as the Earth enters a new state, "neither matter nor energy, but a condition between," and then fly away, worried that they and their ship may be caught up in this dangerous transformation.

Wandrei is a good writer so the individual sentences and paragraphs are effective, with all the crazy things people see before they die being sharply and vividly described.  But "Earth Minus" lacks character and plot--the characters do very little, they are just spectators.  The aliens play no real role in the story at all except to serve as spectators beyond Earth's atmosphere.  The descriptions, though effective, get repetitive; once we see one place melt, do we need to see two or three more places melt?  I'll call it acceptable.             

In 1944 "Earth Minus" would be included in the Arkham House Donald Wandrei collection The Eye and the Finger, and in 1989 the Fedogan & Bremer's Colossus: The Collected Science Fiction of Donald Wandrei.  


"Greater Glories" by C. L. Moore 

You know how in Moore's 1934 stories "The Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow" Jirel the French baroness or whatever she is spends a lot of time travelling through weird tunnels and then poking around in other dimensions?  Well in this story our nameless protagonist has a similar experience, but "Greater Glories" lacks the sex and violence which makes those Jirel stories entertaining.

This guy wakes up on an uncharted island, the only survivor of a shipwreck!  He explores the tiny island and finds no people and no food.  Uh oh.  Strange sights and sounds scare him, and he runs, right into a masonry wall!  But the wall sucks him in, as if through osmosis.  He finds himself in a series of circular tunnels and curved rooms that rhythmically throb like a human heart--he realizes he is in a building that mimics an alien life form and is animated by one or multiple noncorporeal alien beings.  These superior beings, the main character surmises, have senses that we humans lack, reminding him of a stanza from a poem.

The poem is Harry Kemp's poem of three stanzas "Blind," but Moore, without citing Kemp by name, misquotes or paraphrases the poem; in fact, the title of the story comes from a line Moore intentionally or unwittingly changed--Kemp had "Amid such unguessed glories" while Moore has "Amid such greater glories."  This snatch of verse apparently so impressed Arthur C. Clarke when he read "Greater Glories" that Clarke quoted Moore's version of the stanza in the essay "More Than Five Senses;" Clarke gushes about how powerful the verse is, without crediting Moore or Kemp, he having forgotten where he first encountered the stanza.  (Like "Greater Glories" itself, you can quickly find Kemp's poem and Clarke's essay at the internet archive.)

Moore's point in including the verse, I suppose, is to emphasize the idea that the aliens are like angels or gods compared to us lowly humans, and on the sixth page of this sixteen-page story the protagonist gets a telepathic message and we start getting some details on how awesome these aliens are.  The mysterious beings install into the protagonist's brain knowledge of how this living building was constructed by an industrious race of people over many generations, and how they then combined all their souls to inhabit the building as a single collective consciousness.  Oy, another collective consciousness story.

The consciousness transports the man to a world of gray mist in which he sees brief glimpses of plants, landscape, buildings, etc.  Some of the mist congeals and becomes a beautiful girl!  She is like a mindless zombie, but the man, by dint of concentration, gives her intelligence.  He falls in love with her!  But she starts sobbing--she isn't ready to live yet, she wants to return to formless mist!  The alien voice explains that the man called the woman's personality forth from the collective consciousness, and she cannot be happy unless she returns to the collective, but since she now has integrated into her part of the human man's soul, she cannot be happy without him, and he cannot be happy without her.  A dilemma.

I found the ending a little confusing.  It seemed like the man was absorbed into the collective along with the woman, where he found profound serenity.  "Nothing troubled him now.  The answers to all his doubts and questions and doubts and hesitancies were absorbed unasked in the great calm of that composite brain...." (Ugh, I hate stories in which people surrendering their individuality is celebrated.)  But then we see him leaving the building and returning to the beach.  I guess part of him joined the collective but part did not?  Is the part of him on the beach going to starve to death?  

This story is mind-numbingly boring.  I'm not just saying that because I prefer stories in which the collective consciousness is malignant and the hero blows it up.  And I'm not just saying that because this is one of those stories in which the protagonist is just a spectator who has no personality and doesn't make any decisions.  The bare plot outline of the story is actually not that bad, if the story were like five pages long.  But it is sixteen-god-damn-pages of repetitive descriptions of empty tunnels and things vaguely seen through mists, which is way way too many.  And then the ending is inconclusive--did this jerk surrender his individuality for perfect peace, or did he forgo true happiness to maintain his individuality?  It sounds like he did both, which is lame.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

"Greater Glories" would have to wait until the 21st century to be reprinted in 2008 by Isle Press in the collection Miracle in Three Dimensions and Other Stories.  It's no "Shambleau!"

"Skyrock" by Frank Belknap Long 

Professor Staubwasser and his assistant Adams Elliot built a high tech helicopter to investigate the crazy rumors of a huge black rock hovering high in the sky over Radir Valley.  Our story begins at the site of the crash that killed both of them.  The rescue crew that is pulling the wrecked chopper out of the dirt finds something incredible stuck to the nose of the helicopter--a huge black claw!  This talon is much like the claw of a bald eagle but must be from a bird with a wingspan of over one hundred feet, a claw big enough to seize an adult man!  Staubwesser and Elliot must have crashed because they collided with a flying monster!  

Professor Marvin Holt, aeronautical engineer and geologist, and Dan Haldane, sensationalist journalist, are at the crash site when the claw is unearthed.  These two don't get along, as Haldane has been promoting the flying rock theory that Holt thinks--or thought--was bogus, but they decide to work together to get another helicopter built to search for this giant bird and the flying rock it presumably roosts on.  Thanks to the publicity Haldane drums up, enough donations come in for Holt to build a flying machine even more advanced than the one Staubwasser and Elliot spent their last minutes in. 

Long describes the helicopter and the pressure suits the men wear up in the stratosphere in some detail, before and during their maiden voyage straight up into the wild blue yonder.  Eighteen miles above the earth, where they can see the stars, a powerful wind grabs the copter and carries them into a huge floating rock.  Their precious aircraft is wrecked, but Holt and Haldane survive to clamber out on to the surface of this little island in the sky, where they discuss--via Morse code tappings on each other's helmets--theories of how this rock got up here and has stayed up here, perhaps for millions of years.

When they explore they find a beautiful woman with exotic features entombed in crystal--a representative of a heretofore unknown race that must have flourished in prehistoric times.  Then the monster attacks!  Holt sees the creature, which I don't think Long describes very well, and runs for the wreck of the copter to get his rifle, but Haldane is hypnotized by the sight of the dead woman and the monster seizes him in its newt-like jaws and kills him.  

Holt shoots at the monster, but to no effect.  He slips and falls off the island; he falls for eighteen miles, his parachute preserving his life.  Instead of telling everybody about the flying island, the gorgeous woman of a million years ago embalmed in crystal, and the monster who ate the journalist, Holt just says the chopper fell apart and Haldane didn't make it out alive.  What?

This story is acceptable; the science stuff and adventure stuff isn't terrific, but it isn't boring or irritating, either.  And at least the characters' personalities and decisions drive the story, they aren't just victims of fate or other entities, like in the Wandrei and Moore pieces, and the story is the correct length and is not repetitive. 

I don't know why Haldane--a scientist for god's sake!--keeps his discoveries, which would revolutionize our understanding of biology, history, geology, and heaven knows what else, a secret.  Besides, it's not like somebody else isn't going to build an aircraft or a spacecraft and discover the flying island in the near future.  A poor, or at least inexplicable, decision for the ending.

It seems like "Skyrock" has never been printed anywhere else besides this issue of Astounding.  Maybe it hasn't been reprinted because the stuff Long says about helicopters has been disproven; judged on literary or entertainment grounds, Long has written and published much worse material than this.   

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All three of these stories try to inspire a sense of wonder in the reader, a sense of how vast and strange and fascinating the universe is, how little we know now and how much we might learn.  But rather than being hopeful, Wandrei's "Earth Minus" and Long's "Skyrock," and arguably Moore's "Greater Glories," are pessimistic--in the cases of the Wandrei and Long, even horrific.  Classic SF stories often glorify and romanticize the scientist and the search for knowledge and the development of new technology, but in these stories learning new things and employing innovative technology can make you miserable or get you--or everybody!--killed.  

Wandrei unleashes a crazy theory of matter and energy on the reader, while Smith gives you science and technology facts that were maybe current in 1935 but I think today are exploded, and invokes Einstein and William Beebe in his speculations about the upper atmosphere and the possibilities of a big island floating around up there.  Moore, who in a 1976 interview published in the fanzine Chacal which you can read at the internet archive said she had little interest in science and considered her writing fantasy and not science fiction, doesn't bother with any science at all.

You can look forward to more pre-war pulp deep cuts in the future here at MPoricus Fiction Log--stay tuned!

   

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Barry N. Malzberg: "Andante Lugubre," "Standards & Practices," "Darwinian Facts" and "Allegro Marcato"

Let's take a break from the 1930s and read four stories from my copy of the Barry Malzberg collection In the Stone House, printed by Arkham House in the year 2000, stories that appeared first in the 1990s.  These stories collectively take up like 35 pages, so we won't be away from the Thirties for long.

(This will be our second blog post about In the Stone HouseIn our first we read stories on the themes of JFK, Jesus Christ, black terrorists, and communist spies.

"Andante Lugubre" (1993)

Barry Malzberg loves music, and when we say he loves music we don't mean he loves the music I love, the music of Ray Davies and Peter Gabriel and Pete Townshend and David Roback, or that he loves music the way I love music, which consists of listening to youtube videos as I wash the dishes and dust my wife's collection of antique typewriters--we mean he plays the violin and knows all about Tchaikovsky, whose name I can't even spell.  Barry Malzberg is an educated man.

"Andante Lugubre" is an alternate history story in which Tchaikovsky, who was born in 1840 died in 1893 according to wikipedia, lived on to see World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Hitler.  In his late 90s, having lived in Hollywood for two decades, he attends meetings of prominent cultural and political figures like Rachmaninoff, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and Jacob Javits, meetings called to discuss how the American cultural elite should respond to the oppression inflicted upon Jews in Nazi Germany.  Malzberg focuses on how age has deteriorated the great composer physically and mentally; he smells, for example, and, unable to follow the conversation or even understand its purpose, he warns the assembled luminaries that one must keep his eyes on those Jews, who are always keeping their eyes on you.  Tchaikovsky insists that the Jews will live on and on, in the same way he has lived on and on.  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a guy I never heard of before (wikipedia is telling me he was a Jewish Austrian composer who fled Europe to become an important composer of film scores in Hollywood), pushes Tchaikovsky out of his wheelchair, almost killing the frail old man, but Tchaikovsky somehow survives.  Survives that fall, survives the 1930s and 1940s, lives on and on to the present day, after all the other famous people in the story have died, Malzberg tells us in the last paragraph of the story, in which Malzberg seems to be telling us that life and history are a meaningless chaos:

What does this mean?  It means almost nothing: it is an anomaly which defies the ability of even an ironist to assess.

This story is a little like the JFK story we read in our last Malzbergian blog post--you may need particular knowledge, in this case about Romantic composers, Hollywood in the Thirties, and New York politics, to really get a lot out of it.  Beyond that, it seems Malzberg has hit upon Tchaikovsky as a symbol of gentiles' (alleged) eternal antipathy to Jews and indifference to Jewish suffering.  But Malzberg's point may be more general than that--there are Jewish people at the meeting (like Jacob Javits and Darryl Zanuck) who are more concerned about their own careers than the Jews of Europe and are reluctant to stick their necks out to help Europe's Jewish population, and Rachmaninoff points out that when the Bolsheviks were threatening people like him and Tchaikovsky nobody from America came running to help them.  He suggests, perhaps callously, that the victims of Hitler's rule will have to fend for themselves, the way the victims of Lenin and Stalin have had to.  Maybe Malzberg's point is everybody is selfish and slow to help others in trouble.  

A downer and a puzzle complete with disgusting references to sex and physicals ailments, in which the author shows off his erudition--Barry delivers what we expect from him in this story, so thumbs up!

"Andnate Lugubre," which apparently is a technical term referring to a piece of music that is moderately slow and mournful, first lowered readers' spirits in the magazine Science Fiction Age, alongside articles urging exploration of Mars and promoting TV shows I never saw.

"Standards & Practices" (1993)

Here's another of these alternate history things.  Malzberg explores what Emily Dickinson's life might have been like if she had been born in the middle of the 20th century and moved to New York City to be an adjunct professor at CUNY.  At 38 years old, she has man trouble, partly because she is scared of catching AIDS, as well as career trouble, as there is little interest in publishing her poetry after her supporter at The New Yorker has died and CUNY doesn't need all that many adjuncts any more.  The story consists of her going to readings and parties and a sports bar and meeting men who for various reasons are unsuitable or unreachable.

I'm no Emily Dickinson expert, so maybe I am missing a lot of clever stuff in this story, but it is leaving me cold--all I'm really getting out of it is obvious it-is-sad-to-be-a-thirty-something-woman-with-no-man-and-no-kid and it-is-sad-to-be-an-academic-with-no-tenure-track-position stuff that you could write without invoking Emily Dickinson.  Maybe a Dickinson lover would really get a charge out of this story, pick up on many clever allusions.

"Standards & Practices" first appeared in F&SF as "Standards and Practices."  Our friends in Germany and Italy had the opportunity to read this story in their native languages; hopefully the frauleins and paisanos got more out of it than I did.


"Darwinian Facts" (1990)

In 1989, Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg put out a hardcover anthology called Stalkers with a red-skinned, knife-wielding, skull-faced freak on its cover.  There was no Barry Malzberg story in 1989's Stalkers.  But when a paperback edition of Stalkers came out in 1990, lo and behold, Barry's "Darwinian Facts" had been added! 

This is a hard to understand and hard to enjoy story inspired by one of Malzberg's favorite topics, the murder of John F. Kennedy.  The narrator is a fat guy who, like Jack Ruby in real life, murdered the assassin (called in this story Gregor Mendel, the same name as a major scientist who was basically the founder of modern genetics) of a president.  Some of the story relates the steps of the plot to kill the unnamed president--Mendel's recruitment by shadowy figures who supply him with an M-1 rifle, Mendel's relationship with his wife Grace, the actual murder and then Mendel's capture by the cops--but we are to understand that these passages are more or less the narrator's speculations and not to be trusted.

The narrator's own story consists of being recruited to kill Mendel while the murderer is in custody in order to hide the identity of Mendel's (and now the narrator's) employers.  One of the story's bizarre twists is that the narrator is in love with Grace Mendel, though it is not clear if the narrator has ever spoken to her, and the shadowy figures suggest that, after Gregor Mendel is dead, maybe they can facilitate a relationship between Grace and the narrator.  Anyway, after he has killed Gregor Mendel the narrator is in jail, and comes to believe that his employers are transmitting invisible rays at him that will cause him to die of cancer.  (Jack Ruby himself died of cancer while in jail.)

This story is tedious and boring, with some individual passages being long and confusing and seeming to go nowhere.  The story as a whole is cryptic, but while I was curious about the puzzle of "Andante Lugubre," the puzzle that is "Darwinian Facts" holds no appeal.  My whole life I have been hearing Kennedy and Oswald conspiracy theories and I cannot be bothered to think about them further--I could not care less which theory (if any) Malzberg believes or which he is dramatizing for the purposes of this story.

The interesting question about this story is why Malzberg named it after Charles Darwin and named his Oswald stand-in after Gregor Mendel.  Could it be that Malzberg is equating the widespread and banal assertion that "the death of Kennedy saw the end of American innocence" with the commonplace observation that the scientists, like Darwin and Mendel, who propagated the idea that human beings are essentially animals and the human race the product of predictable mechanical systems, wrought a change in how people saw human life and human civilization, damaging belief in religion and the soul and destabilizing old forms of community?  Did Darwin and Mendel assassinate the Early Modern World and give rise to our anxious Modern World the way Oswald might be said by some to have destroyed a more youthful and confident America?   

I have to give this story a thumbs down; it is not fun, it is not funny, it is not moving and it is not thought-provoking.

"Allegro Marcato" (1994)

I think "allegro marcato" refers to notes played quickly and loudly, but don't cite me, I'm no authority.  This story first appeared in By Any Other Fame, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Mike Resnick.  Are there really a lot of SF fans out there champing at the bit to read stories in which Elvis Presley is president?  Did this anthology make money for DAW?   

I don't know much about Romantic music, I don't know much about Emily Dickinson, and I don't know much about baseball, either, so I groaned when I saw Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth were characters in this story.  In this story Gehrig and Ruth are on a baseball team together and their manager is Italian-American immigrant Arturo Toscanini, who in real life was an important conductor. 

The plot of "Allegro Marcato" is that Babe Ruth has gotten arrogant and is getting drunk and fucking whores so much it is affecting his game, and the Yankees are not winning anymore, and when Toscanini tries to discipline him, the Babe goes berserk and tries to kill him.  So the team owner steps in and gets Ruth to straighten up and fly right and the Yankees start winning again.  After winning for a few years Toscanini retires from managing.  The years go by and the story ends with Toscanini dying in a nursing home, disappointed in his life, but realizing that whatever might have happened he would probably have died disappointed.

Maybe Barry here is suggesting that ball players, like conductors and composers, are passionate artists who do great things but are also prone to acting selfishly and crazily.  And that no matter what you do life is a disappointment.  Happy Thanksgiving!  

Compared to the Gregor Mendel story, this Babe Ruth story has the merit of being easy to understand, and compared to the Emily Dickinson story, it has an actual plot in which the protagonist has a conflict and the conflict is resolved (though not by the protagonist.)  But nothing really interesting happens; gotta give it a thumbs down.  Maybe people who eat, drink and sleep America's past time would like it?

**********

This has been an unfruitful crop of Malzbergs for me.  "Andante Lugubre," with its disgusting descriptions of an old man's failing body and its compelling themes--the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and the question of what responsibility people outside such tyrannies might have to the people suffering within them--won my interest.  But the others are about topics (baseball, JFK) I don't care about or tell stories (baseball dudes argue, chick has trouble getting a date) that aren't very compelling, though they do exemplify the standard Malzbergian idea that life is a nightmare over which we have no control.  Hopefully the next batch of Malzberg stories from In the Stone House will be more appealing.    

Howard Wandrei: "For Murderers Only," "The Molester," and "The Eyes of the Tiger"

As the hearty band of digital dead-enders who follow my anemic Twitter feed are aware, I became interested enough in the writing and art of Howard Wandrei to purchase a copy of The Eerie Mr. Murphy, a hardcover collection of Wandrei's work printed in 2003 by the good people at Fedogan & Bremer.  Today let's read three stories from this baby that first appeared in Spicy Mystery Stories under the pen name Robert A. Garron.

"For Murderers Only" (1936)

This is a story about a supernatural pen!  Wandrei calls it a "shank pen," and I don't quite know what that means, but I guess it is the kind of pen you have to dip into an inkwell to use.  The pen's barrel or shaft is made of amber and suspended inside the amber are six little spots that look like drops of blood.

Whippley is a painter who lives and works in a basement apartment.  The apartment was cheap to rent because the last six tenants were all dragged away and charged with murder.  The pen was owned by an earlier tenant, apparently, who left it laying around the apartment when he was carted off to the big house.  Stressed out from overwork on his current commission, a painting of a slender nude girl, Whippley has been drinking heavily.  He should finish the painting soon, though, and have a chance to relax and enjoy the pile of money he will get upon delivery of the canvas.

Today is the last day he will require the services of model Leatrice George.  George comes in and strips--Wandrei tells us all about her boyish hips and small breasts and all that.  Whippley always gives his models their checks before they start working, but he can't find his fountain pen.  So, to write out George's check he uses that strange amber pen.

Almost immediately Whippley starts acting unprofessionally, coming up with an excuse to touch the naked model.  George doesn't mind, as she knows Whippley is about to come into some money and she wants him to take her on a trip to the Caribbean.  They start horsing around, she pretending to flee his caresses, he chasing her, but disaster strikes--she knocks over the nearly-completed painting and falls over herself, damaging the canvas and suffering a bloody cut from the sharp edge of the broken wooden easel.  Enraged, Whippley strikes her, and she hits her head on a brick wall and dies.

Wandrei, appealing to yet another fetish, describes in detail how Whippley ties up the dead body, puts it in a burlap sack, weighs the sack down with little Buddha statues he owns, steals a delivery cart, puts the body in the cart with sacks of junk, etc.  While he is outside on the night streets, rummaging for junk and putting George's body in the cart, a couple walks by, thinking him a wretched beggar, tosses him a half dollar, and then leans against the wall in the doorway next door to Whippley's building to have sex.  Whippley pushes the cart past the lovers to a long pier and then into the river.  He stays away from the basement apartment for a few days.

When he returns to the apartment Whippley takes the amber pen and sits down to write a note to the landlord telling him he is leaving and asking him to pack and ship his belongings.  There are now seven spots suspended in the pen's amber barrel!  And when the painter sees the note he has written, he is horrified to find he was written a confession to the murder of Leatrice George!

Suddenly, Leatrice George's friend and fellow model--another woman Whippley has worked with, Connie Bellis--appears.  Bellis knows her friend was working with Whippley and has been keeping an eye on the basement apartment since George's disappearance.  She accuses the painter of murder and a fight ensues.  In contrast with the slender boyish George, Bellis is voluptuous, with big breasts and powerful thighs.  During the struggle most of her clothes come off.  She manages to render Whippley unconscious and calls the cops.  Whippley is in the soup...and so, we presume, is the next tenant of the apartment, who will presumably find the pen there.

"The Molester" (1937)

This is a story about an invisible space alien who comes to Earth to rape women and play practical jokes on men!

The main character of "The Molester" is a ruthless lawyer and womanizer, Edmond Scott.  A young woman comes to him with the story of how she had been on a date with her boyfriend, was suddenly knocked out, and woke up covered in bruises, having been raped.  She thinks her boyfriend must have done it, hitting her in the head from behind, though he denies it and claims he too had been knocked out, and he does have some bloody injuries.  Clues in her story tell us readers that an invisible man must have attacked her and her beau and then raped her, but Scott is only barely listening to the girl--he's studying her chest and her legs!  He is a smooth and persuasive character, and he convinces the young woman to take off her top so he can examine her bruises--this examination includes some pretty intimate touching!

Scott takes the rape victim to dinner and then a hotel, seducing her and having sex with her.  At dinner and at the hotel, odd things happen to him, like glasses tipping over, windows mysteriously opening, etc.  We readers know this is an invisible man playing pranks on Scott.  Strangest of all, while Scott and the girl are making out, they hear a weird song, the most beautiful song they have ever heard, that creates images in Scott's mind of a powerful empire of red cities, whose people are arrogant geniuses whom no one can successfully oppose.

After banging the girl Scott returns to his home in the suburbs where his wife awaits.  Scott's wife is the most beautiful of all the many women Scott has seduced, but he cheats on her because he craves novelty.  The invisible man, whom we now know is an alien, has followed Scott home and he stuns Scott with an electrical discharge and Scott has to lay there and watch the invisible alien rape his wife.

The alien leaves, and there is a flash outside.  The next morning Scott investigates the location of the flash and finds a mound of buzzing flies and squirming maggots--the invisible alien got killed climbing over the wall that surrounds Scott's estate, Scott having installed an electrified wire across the wall's top.

Scott, now realizing the pain his serial adultery has been causing everybody, decides to reform, to quit cheating on his wife and become worthy of her love.  

"The Eyes of the Tiger" (1937)

Genius chemist Evans Del Plaine is married to a beautiful 23-year old, Madeline, a woman twelve years younger than he.  Madeline is a real piece of work who has driven away his friends, ruined his reputation among his colleagues at the university, and is apt to fly into violent rages--in one such frenzy she destroyed his laboratory, smashing expensive equipment and tearing apart valuable books.  Luckily they are rich because Del Plaine has developed some lucrative drugs.

Del Plaine worries that his wife is unfaithful.  As chance would have it, when Madeline tore apart an old book of his she unwittingly revealed some hand-scrawled notes, hidden within the boards of the cover.  These notes, Del Plaine discovers, are from some forgotten chemist, recording the formula for a truth serum!  So, as our story begins, Del Plaine is sneaking into the wife's bedroom with a hypodermic needle to administer the drug to her as she sleeps and ask her questions.  The drug also includes ingredients that will ensure that she doesn't remember being awoken and interrogated, and before putting the questions to her Del Plaine takes an opportunity to grope her.  

The interrogation produces just the results Del Plaine feared--Madeline hates him, finds his touches disgusting, and only married him because she knew he was a genius who would become rich.  All their bank accounts and contracts with drug companies are in her name, and later today she is going to run away with her lover, one of his students.

Del Plaine is so shocked he collapses, paralyzed.  Or is he paralyzed because he has been hypnotized by Madeline's strange green eyes?  Madeline takes a telephone call from her lover, and then torments the paralyzed Del Plaine, rubbing her breasts in his face and taunting him for being unable to respond ("Aren't they good enough for you?" she jeered, with her green eyes ablaze") and then biting his neck, drawing blood.

Del Plaine loses consciousness and, amazingly, in dreams he experiences life as two of his ancestors (or maybe his past lives?), one in Renaissance England, another in Ancient Rome; the former has a wife much like Madeline, and the latter a slave girl like her--both girls cheat on him and murder him.  Then comes a third and final dream, in which he is a cave man and is attacked by a tiger with green eyes like Madeline's and is killed.

(Oy, I can barely believe I have run into another of the past lives stories I was just talking about in my recent Clark Ashton Smith in 1935 blog post!)

Del Plaine has died in real life as well as in his dream.  When Madeline's lover comes to pick her up he tastes blood in her kiss and sees Del Plaine, realizes she has murdered her husband by severing his jugular vein with her teeth!  Her robe falls open and the lover sees tiger stripes on Madeline's body!  He flees.

**********

"For Murderers Only" and "The Molester" are vulgar, politically incorrect, and appeal to various fetishes in an exploitative manner, but I found them entertaining.  "The Eyes of the Tiger" is similarly vulgar, potentially offensive to 2021 values, and exploitative, but quite bad.

"For Murderers Only" and "The Molester" may be crazy stories, but they are written to an acceptable standard, with sentences that are individually good, competent pacing and narrative structure, and plots that feature some novelty and hold the reader's interest.  But "The Eyes of the Tiger" is a total mess.  Many of the sentences are clumsy and multiple times words are used in distractingly unconventional ways.  The plot has three speculative fiction elements--the esoteric truth drug, the racial memory/past lives business, and the fact that Madeline somehow was or became a hypnotic tiger woman--that are each used in a lame half-assed fashion and none of which is well integrated with either of the others.  

There are a lot more Howard Wandrei Spicy Mystery Stories for us to read, but I promise that next time we see Wandrei we'll read stories from a more reputable publication, like Astounding, Weird Tales or Unknown.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Edmond Hamilton: "Master of the Genes," "The Truth Gas" and "The Great Brain of Kaldar"

Our tireless exploration of 1930s pulp magazines continues with three stories from 1935 by our friend Edmond Hamilton.  These are deep cuts--two stories from Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories that have never appeared in book form in the United States and one from Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales that would wait until 1998 for book publication.  As usual, I am reading these stories in scans of the original magazines at the internet archive. 

"Master of the Genes"

The issue of Wonder Stories that printed "Master of the Genes" also prints in the letters column an epistle from Virginia Kidd, future wife of James Blish and major literary agent--among her clients were MPorcius faves Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty.  Kidd attacks the Frank R. Paul cover of the November 1934 issue, which includes imitations of multiple Charles R. Knight paintings of dinosaurs.  Kidd praises Stanley Weinbaum, who seems to be universally beloved--H. P. Lovecraft in 1935 letters to Robert Bloch proclaims Weinbaum the only admirable writer of "pulp interplanetary stuff."  Forrest J. Ackerman and Wilson Tucker also have letters printed in the issue, the former describing a non-invasive method of looking at your own brain (!) and the latter attacking the Paul cover of the '34 August issue.  Tucker's entire letter is silly, and he also has a silly poem printed in the letters column (under a jokey pseudonym), so maybe he is joking about that August cover, which to me seems pretty good.

(Seven years ago I read Kidd's satirical story "Balls" and thought it weak, and five years ago I read Kidd's 45-page story "Flowering Season" AKA "Kangaroo Court" and denounced it as "bad."  In 2016 I read Wilson Tucker's novel Resurrection Days and found it pretty disappointing.  Frank R. Paul, thou art avenged!) 

Hugo Gernsback was seriously into using his magazines to teach people about science, and in his intro to "Master of the Genes" he tells us that Hamilton will be providing us an opportunity to learn about genetics, as well one to be chilled with fear!

Our story begins in a Brazilian prison!  I am already chilled!  Thorn Haddon and Jerry Lanham are Americans who became leaders in the revolutionary army trying to overthrow the Brazilian government, and were captured.  They are scheduled to be shot at dawn, but then a geneticist convinces the government to pardon them so they can act as his bodyguards at his lab in an Indian village on the Amazon.  On the canoe ride to the village the scientist gives a lecture on genes and chromosomes to Thorn and Jerry, and to us readers, and then explains that for years the Indians in the village have been giving birth to deformed babies, and he is trying to figure out what is causing this tragedy.

In the village Hamilton describes various deformed children, kids who lack various limbs or organs or who have extra limbs.  Jerry immediately develops a crush on the scientist's daughter, Concepcion, but she has a boy friend, Thomaz, the man who manages her father's plantation.  Thorn, on the other hand, gets busy doing a little detective work and figures out why the Indians of the village are giving birth to cyclops babies with one eye and blob babies with no bones and headless babies with eyes and mouths in their chests--the scientist is using a machine to bathe the whole area in dangerous radiation!  This villain periodically alters the type of radiation he is projecting from his lab and keeps track of which radiation causes which deformities.  A true mad scientist, Concepcion's father thinks that his atrocities are justified because they advance the cause of knowledge.     

But then the tragedy gets personal!  Concepcion and Thomaz were married secretly months ago, and Concepcion is pregnant!  When she learns her baby will be deformed she shoots herself dead, and Thomaz runs to raise an Indian mob to destroy the geneticist and all his works.  Thorn and Jerry escape, but the geneticist, after giving the Yankees his notes and imploring them to "get them to someone of scientific eminence," allows the mob to slay him.

This story is OK.  Thorn and Jerry are sort of superfluous, as they do very little besides act as spectators.  The story would work just as well or better if Concepcion and/or Thomaz had figured out what was going on--the horror and tragedy elements don't require the Americans' presence at all.  I guess Hamilton thought it useful to have American protagonists with whom American readers could identify, and that by making them fighting men he would dangle before readers the possibility of future action and adventure scenes, keeping readers who were bored by the science lectures from giving up on the story; this is just a tease--Thorn and Jerry don't fight anybody.

In 1946, "Master of the Genes" was reprinted in a 36-page British pamphlet alongside a story by Harl Vincent; it seems that this has been the only additional appearance of the story.    

"The Truth Gas"

This is another Hamilton mad scientist story.  Our pal Ed wrote lots of these.  "The Truth Gas" is a little different in that there is an element of humor in this one, and none of the death and horror of stories like "Master of the Genes," "The Mind Master," "The Death Lord," "The Man Who Evolved," and many others.

John Daly is the assistant to chemist Jason Rand.  One day Daly is late to work because he is chatting with his fiancĂ©, Lois Lane (!).  When Daly lies to his boss, blaming his tardiness of a subway break down, Rand catches him, having seen Daly with Lane from his cab.  Oops!  Rand declares that most of the trouble in the world is due to lying, and that if people could be stopped from lying, we'd be living in a utopia!  Making conversation, Daly reminds the boss of those stories they saw in the papers a while ago about efforts to develop a truth serum.

Soon after this conversation, Rand tells Daly to man the lab for the next few months because he's going on an unexpected trip.  A few weeks later everybody--in the world!--starts telling the truth, with disastrous results, as salesmen fail to conceal the shortcomings of their products and spouses admit they are sick of their husbands and wives and politicians openly admit their corruption and dishonesty and Hollywood stars express their true contempt for the cinema goers who lap up their lame films.  Lois Lane asks Daly if he likes her new dress and he tells her the truth and the engagement is off!  

The economy teeters on the brink of total collapse and international relations teeter on the brink of total war!  Daly figures out Rand must be to blame, invents nose filters to protect himself from the gas Rand is producing and emitting up in Vermont, and hurries up to the Green Mountain State to outwit Rand, destroy his machine, and restore the dishonest status quo ante.  Lois and Daly even get back together, and Rand lets Daly keep his job--no hard feelings!

This story is acceptable.  The jokes don't make you laugh, being obvious, but they make sense, so you don't find them irritating.  They also reflect, behind a light-hearted veneer, the sad reality of lives, that we are all jerks who are constantly lying to each other; Hamilton addressed this same topic--with more death--in the 1933 tale "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" and the 1934 story "The Man Who Returned."  "The Truth Gas" has never been reprinted.  (Thank God for the internet archive!)  

The issue of Wonder Stories that includes the one and only printing of "The Truth Gas" has an ad in its "The Science Fiction Swap Column" from Clark Ashton Smith:


We've blogged about the title story of the advertised booklet, "The Double Shadow," as well as two more of its half-dozen "imaginative and atmospheric tales," "The Devotee of Evil" and "The Voyage of King Euvoran."  You can listen to people read the poems from Ebony and Crystal at the internet archive.

As for this Lois Lane business, the famous character of that name first appeared in June of 1938, wikipedia is telling me.  Is there any chance she was named after this minor character in this minor Hamilton story?  Even if there isn't, it is an interesting twist of fate that Hamilton would go on to write many stories for DC Comics, including dozens that appeared in such titles as Superman, Superboy, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olson, and Superman's Girl Friend, Lois Lane, among them "Lois Lane, The Super-Maid of Krypton!" and "The Monster Who Loved Lois Lane!"     

"The Great Brain of Kaldar"

The first two stories of Kaldar, a planet in the Antares system, appeared in Farnsworth Wright's Magic Carpet magazine and told the tale of an Earthman, Stuart Merrick, who was sent to Kaldar via super technology and who there became ruler of the city state of Corla.  Well, Stu is back, in a story about people getting captured and escaping that is also a story about that old SF standby topic, the collective consciousness!

It turns out that not every citizen of Corla is thrilled to have as their ruler a man who has no roots in their fair city or even on their planet!  When Stu, accompanied by his beautiful wife Narna and his two closest advisors, sets out on a diplomatic mission to another city, the nativist anti-Stu faction makes sure the entire air boat's crew is of their number and when our four heroes are asleep they are bound and taken prisoner!  Merrick and his two friends are thrown overboard while Stu's gorgeous wife is carried away for the obvious reason.

Stu and his two buddies survive their fall from on high because they have the great good fortune to land on a huge springy fungus tree.  Before they were ejected from the flying machine, Stu and company were told by the braggadocious leader of the rebels that he and his traitorous crew were going to form an alliance with the rumored "great brain of Kaldar," said to lie to the northeast.  So our guy Stu and his comrades, after loosing their bonds and fighting some oversized blob monsters, strike out in that direction.  They meet some local humans, the Talas, people who are invisible and whose city is also invisible.  There is some confusion and the Corlan delegation gets tied up and taken prisoner again, but the invisible people quickly realize they are cool dudes and release them and even invite them to their invisible walled town for a visit.  Stu and his cronies can't stay long because Stu is eager to chase after Narna, but they tarry long enough to hear the transparent Talas' capsule history of the great brain.

Once there was a city in which everybody was very community-minded: "In that city co-operation for the good of all was the supreme aim."  This collectivist spirit naturally led to them figuring out a way to remove their brains from their bodies and connect them all together into a single huge superbrain, which was ensconced in a great chamber in a tower.  These efficiency-minded collectivists didn't just dispose of their bodies, but filled their vacant skulls with receivers so the super brain could control them remotely.  Hamilton's characters compare the city of the great brain to a huge human body, with the amasses brain as the brain (of course) and these remote controlled meat drones as the hands and fingers.

Like revolutionaries throughout history, the superbrain was not content to call it a day after having revolutionized things at home--it desired further augmentation, additional brains and additional flesh robots!  So for ages the brain has been sending its robot bodies afield to capture ordinary humans whose brains are harvested and added to the super brain and whose bodies join the brain's legion of mindless drones.  It was in response to this menace that the Talas developed a means of rendering themselves and all their belongings permanently invisible.

Two Talas join our three Corlan heroes in their commando raid on the city of the great brain.  They manage to sneak in and find Merrick's wife, but, horror of horrors, her brain has been removed and Narna is a mindless robot controlled by the collective consciousness that is the superbrain!  (The Corlan traitors suffered a similar fate, the brain not being interested in an alliance with them.)  Through her eyes the brain detects the intruders and a platoon of guards comes after them.  

Neither the Talas nor the brain has developed any firearms, it seems, as everybody fights with swords.  Hamilton has a fun time describing how the invisible swords of the Talas become visible when covered in blood.  Being invisible, the Talas have a big advantage over the robot guards, and our heroes fight their way into the great brain's chamber.  Merrick negotiates with the brain, which sits in an exposed tank where he could easily cut it to ribbons.  The Earthman expatriate agrees to leave in peace if the brain restores Narna's brain to her pretty skull--luckily it hasn't been integrated into the superbrain yet, there being a prep period that has not yet elapsed.  Stu watches while his wife's head is cut open, a mechanical apparatus removed, and her brain put back in.  When Narna is conscious they head out--the brain tries to double-cross them, but the invisible Talas cut the collective brain into mush and every zombie in the city falls over, inert.  The day is saved!

"The Great Brain of Kaldar" is an acceptable sword and planet story, largely reproducing the plot of the second Kaldar tale, "The Snake Men of Kaldar," in which a traitor seizes Narna and tries to join up with some monstrous foreigners and Merrick allies with a race of humans the Corlans have never met before to defeat the traitors and monsters and save Narna.  Making a living as a pulp writer in the 1930s meant doing repeated variations on the same themes; at least that was Edmond Hamilton's experience.

In 1989 "The Great Brain of Kaldar" reappeared in the magazine Pulp Vault, and in 1998 was included in Haffner Press's Hamilton collection Kaldar: World of Antares.

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Unexpectedly, a thread runs through all three of these 1935 stories by Edmond Hamilton: the idea of honesty and "keeping your word," and how the man who tries to be an honest plain-dealer puts himself, and maybe his entire society, at risk.  "The Truth Gas" obviously tells us that our every social interaction is lubricated by lies, and argues that civilization would collapse if we were all forced to speak our minds.  

Both "Master of the Genes" and "The Great Brain of Kaldar" depict gentlemen who keep their word and give others the benefit of the doubt, to their peril.  It seems crazy that the Brazilian government would think Thorn Haddon and Jerry Lanham, violent revolutionaries and foreigners, were so dangerous that they needed to be executed, and then just let them go, and it seems crazy that violent revolutionaries would follow the orders of a weak little scientist instead of dashing off to freedom in America or back to the jungle to continue fighting for their revolution.  But Haddon and Lanham gave the Brazilian authorities their word that they would obey the geneticist, and they do it!  When they find out the scientist is committing a crime against humanity, destroying the lives of a village of Indians in order to gain scientific data, they are full of a righteous desire to kill him, but stay their hands because they gave him their word.

Stuart Merrick, at the beginning of "The Great Brain of Kaldar," is told by one of his advisors that the pilot of the air boat is a leader of the faction that would prefer a native-born ruler, and so he should be reassigned, but Stu insists on treating this man fairly, as there is no hard evidence he is going to break any law, and even makes a show of publicly declaring his confidence in the pilot's loyalty.  Later, he similarly gives his word to the brain--the invisible Talas, however, do not, and save the Corlans' bacon by murdering the brain.


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More 1930s genre literature in the next exciting episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Robert Bloch: "The Suicide in the Study," "The Faceless God," and "The Dark Demon"

Robert Bloch was one of H. P. Lovecraft's many correspondents and one of many people who wrote stories set in what has come to be known as "The Cthulhu Mythos," a milieu in which figure alien deities like Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth, places like Arkham and Yuggoth, and forbidden books like the Necronomicon and Mysteries of the Worm.  Mysteries of the Worm is an invention of Bloch's own, which he attributed to a Ludvig Prinn, and Lovecraft, who enjoyed giving his friends nicknames, addressed some of his letters to Bloch "My dear Ludvig" or "Noble & Diabolic Dr. Prinn."  Let's read three stories today by Bloch that first appeared in Weird Tales and would all reappear in the several-times-reprinted Bloch collection titled Mysteries of the Worm; all of them mention the Necronomicon and Mysteries of the Worm.  I am reading them all in scans of the original 1930s magazines available at the internet archive.

"The Suicide in the Study" (1935)

In a March 1935 letter to Bloch, H. P. Lovecraft called "The Suicide in the Study" "excellent."  Well, let's hope we can agree!

James Allington is a 20th-century wizard!  On his bookshelf are copies of Abdul Alhazred's Necronomicon and Ludvig Prinn's Mysteries of the Worm.  Allington believes that every person's soul has two components, the good, and the evil, and he has conceived of the crazy idea that by splitting his soul in two along the fault line between them, he can split his own body in two!  He figures he will then have the novel experience of controlling two bodies with one mind!  

"[T]he greatest experiment man has ever known," as Allington calls it in his diary, has unexpected complications.  He hypnotizes himself by looking into the shiny blade of his paper-knife (wikipedia assures me this is a different tool than a mere letter opener) and his body is, as anticipated, divided into two separate physical forms.  But his mind stays in one form, a body "less than a quarter his ordinary size!"  The other portion of his body, the evil part, towers over him, a hairy ape-like monster over which he has absolutely no control!  This creature seizes the paper-knife and buries it in the little man's chest; apparently upon death the bodies are reunited, for those who find Allington and judge his death a suicide find only the single normal body.

Bloch writes this somewhat ridiculous story with enthusiasm and keeps it very short, so it is fun.  "Excellent" is too generous, but "The Suicide in the Study" is likable filler.

"The Faceless God" (1936)

"The Faceless God" begins with a graphic scene of torture and murder in the Egyptian lair of Dr. Stugatche* as the not-so-good doctor expertly directs his black servants in the gruesome process of getting some information out of an old camel-driver the hard way, and then putting this mangled individual out of his misery.  The information?  The desert location of a recently uncovered idol thousands of year old!

Bloch fills us in on the career and character of the ruthless and greedy Stugatche, and on the rumors about the idol, and then we are there with Stugatche's expedition as they find the idol, almost entirely buried in the sand.  When they realize the idol, which takes the form of a life-sized statue of a sort of sphinxlike monster that lacks facial features, is a representation of Nyarlathotep, the native workers are scared enough to resist Stugatche's orders to dig it up until he forces them to do so at gun point.  Every manager has his own unique management style!  At night, while Stugatche is sleeping, the rest of the expedition sneaks off with the camels and food after reburying the statue.  Hmm, I guess some management styles just don't work so well.

The final third or so of the story follows Stugatche as he tries to cross the desert alone; heat, lack of water, and fear of Nyarlathotep, whom Stugatche didn't believe in at the start of the story, drive him insane.  

This is a good bit of Yog-Sothery; I enjoyed the descriptions of the idol and of the legend of Nyarlathotep, and the stuff about being alone in the desert and going bonkers also works.  Thumbs up!

"The Faceless God" would reappear in many Bloch collections, and Robert A. W. Lowndes would include it in a 1965 issue of his Magazine of Horror; the cover by Gray Morrow illustrates Bloch's story.  In 1987 Gianni Pilo included "The Faceless God" in an Italian anthology of Cthulhu Mythos stories with a Boris Vallejo cover with bestiality overtones; that book also includes C. Hall Thompson's "Spawn of the Green Abyss," which I praised in January of this year.

*According to a note in my copy of Volume 7 of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. Lovecraft, edited by David E, Schultz and S. T. Joshi, some later printings of "The Faceless God" change Stugatche's name to Carnoti.  

"The Dark Demon" (1936)

"The Dark Demon" is narrated by a writer of horror stories who made friends with a more important writer of such tales, Edgar Henquist Gordon, a man whom we are told recently disappeared mysteriously.  The story is a sort of history of the two men's relationship and an explanation of the older man's strange disappearance.

Gordon became a mentor to the narrator, and shared him not only writing advice but also various secrets.  The big secret is that Gordon's stories are all based on his dreams, in which he lives among aliens in strange cities and landscapes "outside of our own cosmos."  The places and beings Gordon sees in his dreams and writes about in his stories echo descriptions in the Necronomicon and The Mysteries of the Worm and other strange old books.  

As the years go by, Gordon's stories make fewer and fewer concessions to conventional literary devices like plot, and correspondingly lose popularity.  They are written more and more from the point of view of alien creatures and espouse unpopular, alien ideas such as that evil does not exist, that good and evil are merely opinions.  The narrator sees less and less of Gordon and their friendship falls into decline, Gordon saying that he has to spend more and more time sleeping and writing, even though his work is now so unpopular he can only get it printed privately.

A serious break in their friendship occurs when Gordon starts telling the narrator that he has had these dreams all his life because he is truly in contact with an alien deity; in fact, Gordon is that deity's Messiah on Earth.  The alien god instructed Gordon to write and publish stories about life on other worlds in an effort to build up on Earth a cult that will welcome the alien's rule.  The narrator thinks poor Gordon has gone insane.  One stormy night, the narrator decides to go to Gordon's house and force him to see a doctor (nowadays we'd call this an intervention.)  Something, the narrator doesn't know what, inspires the narrator to bring a pistol with him.  At Gordon's house the narrator sees a figure sleeping on a couch in the dark--a lightning flash reveals that it is not Gordon, but a monster in Gordon's clothes, a monster that fits the description of the alien deity!  The monster has crossed into our universe by using Gordon's body as a gateway or conduit or something!  

The narrator shoots at the form, seizes Gordon's most recent writings and flees home to burn them without reading them.  When the police finally investigate Gordon's disappearance they don't find his body on that couch, just his clothes.

This story is acceptable, but no big deal; we kind of know what is going on and what will happen the whole time, and the characters Gordon and the narrator are not as exciting as the stars of the other stories we looked at today, Stugache and Allington.  The most interesting thing about "The Dark Demon" is perhaps how the relationship of Gordon and the narrator seems to be based on the relationships Lovecraft cultivated with Bloch and other young writers.  "The Dark Demon" also gives air to (without actually embodying) some of Lovecraft's theories about literature--his contempt for plot and his assertion that a truly weird story has to be written from an unconventional, or alien, point of view. 

Though it has been collected many times, including in a French collection for which it is the title story, "The Dark Demon" has never been anthologized.

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Robert Bloch, as we all know, would go on to great success writing horror stories that focus on abnormal psychology and satirical attacks on American society, especially Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and stories full of little jokes and puns.  I think I enjoy these early Lovecraftian stories more, however.  Partly this is a reflection of my own tastes and psychology, but I also think that psychological theories and pop culture criticism are ephemeral and specific, and lose power as the theories are exploded and old movies and TV programs are forgotten, while the Lovecraftian themes of alienation and deracination, the fear that life is meaningless and we are ultimately alone and at the mercy of inexplicable forces, are eternal and general.