Friday, December 31, 2021

Whispers III: Ramsey Campbell, David Drake and Hugh B. Cave

Just a few days ago we read Frank Belknap Long's story from Whispers III, a 1981 anthology edited by Stuart David Schiff that published brand new stories as well as fiction and art that originally appeared in issues of Schiff's magazine, WhispersWhispers III is full of stories by authors we have talked about in the past here at MPorcius Fiction Log; let's read three such stories, those by Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, and Hugh B. Cave.  I'm reading the stories from the copy of Whispers III scanned into the internet archive, but if you collectors out there covet a physical copy of Lee Brown Coye's drawing from Whispers #9 that depicts a man cooking a baby (!) it looks like copies of Whispers III are available online for ten bucks.

"Heading Home" by Ramsey Campbell (1978) 

"Heading Home" first appeared in Whispers #11-12, and, a big hit, it has since been reprinted many times, including in a 2018 anthology of horror stories called The Five Senses of Horror that includes "psychological commentary by Jessica Bayliss, PhD."   Jessica Bayliss, I find, has published two YA books of fiction and is available to provide personal coaching to aspiring writers as well as to review your manuscript to make sure your characters are "super-compelling" and have "mental health diagnoses" that are "portrayed accurately."

"Heading Home" is written in the rare (outside of a Fighting Fantasy Gamebook or Choose Your Own Adventure) second-person singular.  I recognized the story as soon as I started reading it; I must have read it just a year or two before starting this blog, but had forgotten the title.  This is a quite good story that features several of my favorite topics, like immortality, mad scientists, and disastrous sexual relationships.

As the story begins, we immediately know that "you" have been attacked by your wife's lover and incapacitated and thrown down into the basement.  Campbell describes your painful climb up the stairs to the ground floor--you can hear your killers on what we yanks call the second floor, and English people like Campbell call the first floor.  As you desperately ascend the stairs and then slowly crawl to your laboratory, Campbell gradually reveals that you are a scientist who has discovered how to become almost invulnerable and immortal through the exercise of conscious and precise control over your body; for example, you can detect and cure cancers within your own body by mental effort.  Progress comes at a price, and in the course of your experiments you have found it necessary to murder children.  The biggest reveal, which  has been foreshadowed and which readers may suspect, is that your wife's lover chopped your head off, and you are just a head, struggling--successfully!--to get back to your headless body, which you will be able to reunite with.

This is a great little story that I can recommend with some enthusiasm; it deserves to be reprinted all those times and to have been psychoanalyzed by a PhD.  It is especially pleasant to recommend "Heading Home" because I have so often thought Campbell's stories long and tedious and lacking a payoff commensurate with the labor required to understand them--"Heading Home" in contrast is economical (less than four pages long) and easy to figure out and has a terrific payoff.

"King Crocodile" by David Drake (1981)

"King Crocodile" is set in Ancient Egypt, I guess during or just after the military campaign that first unified Egypt under a single pharaoh, whom Drake refers to as "Nar-mer."  Southerners have been marching north, conquering villages and towns as they go, and our protagonist, muscular fighting man Khati, is one of those Southerners, and has been given authority over one of those villages.  The story follows Khati over several days as he interacts with the natives now under his power, and as the tale proceeds we learn about his life, personality, and relationships with the more prominent villagers.

The main theme and topic of the novella (like 24 pages here) has to do with the fact that many of the villagers worship the crocodile god Sebek, but Khati hates crocodiles because a croc killed his wife, and so he encourages and even compels people to hunt and kill and eat crocodiles.  A determined local priest of Sebek warns Khati to stop this blasphemy, and then a huge crocodile kills the sons of one of the richer men in the village, threatening Khati's already shaky relationship with this prominent citizen and his governorship of the whole village.

As the story title suggests, there is a struggle over who will be king to the people of the village, Nar-mer, represented by Khati, or Sebek the crocodile, who has his own representative, that priest.  Drake presents us scenes in which Khati acts as a politician in competition for hearts and minds with the priest of Sebek, trying to win the populace to his side and make sure fear of the giant croc doesn't ruin the local economy, and scenes in which Khati acts as a warrior, battling it out with the monster crocodile.  He faces many setbacks and dicey moments, including a good horror scene in which he is trapped in the croc's den, but in the end succeeds in defeating the reptile and its priest, though we have to wonder if Khati has lost his humanity in the process.   

This is a good horror and adventure story, and it is also a story about the politics of imperialism that reminds you of accounts you hear of British rule in India and similar situations, accounts that suggest how risky it is to public order and the maintenance of imperial rule to threaten subject peoples' religions, no matter how wacky those religions may be.  Editor Schiff in his little intro to the story says Drake conducted a lot of research for "King Crocodile," and there is plenty of business about the sorts of weapons people of the period carried (we learn that metal weapons are rare, for example, and that many edged weapons are made of flint or even wood) and how Nile boats were constructed back in those days; this sort of thing adds an additional layer of interest to a story that has a pulpy Conan-like climax in which Khati rescues somebody about to be sacrificed on an altar made of a fossilized giant crocodile skull.

Thumbs up!

"King Crocodile" would be included in the 1989 Drake collection Vettius and Friends and in a 1992 Finnish anthology.   

"The Door Below" by Hugh B. Cave

This is a long mediocre thing with an overly complicated, somewhat contrived plot, a plot sort of like that of a detective story, in which an amateurish investigator guy has a theory about some murders and finds some clues that bring the true story of the murders to his attention.

Al Coppard is a middle-aged journalist.  Just two weeks ago his wife filed for divorce.  Don't feel bad for Al, though--he now has a hot girlfriend ten years younger than he, Wendy Corwin, his fellow reporter.  Al is hoping to further his career by uncovering a scandalous conspiracy involving a rich guy and, incredibly, a young boy.  You aren't supposed to like Al, I guess--the most interesting thing about "The Door Below" may be that it is some kind of attack on journalists.

As part of his pursuit of that career-making scoop, Al and Wendy paddle a boat to a lighthouse on a little half-acre island.  As they explore the island and the lighthouse we are filled in on Al's conspiracy theory.  In the lighthouse the journalos discover clues that explode Al's self-interested theory and indicate what really happened.  Then monsters attack and Al gets killed; Wendy, perhaps, escapes.

If you are truly curious about the plot of "The Door Below," read on!  

Background: The lighthouse until recently was operated by Joe Marshall, former chauffer to millionaire cosmetics manufacturer Roy Bolke.  Joe got hurt in a car crash and so Roy got him the lighthouse job.  Roy's wife Amanda was a kook who, like so many people in stories we read here at MPorcius Fiction Log, was a student of the occult.  Amanda even wrote a book about the island the lighthouse is on, in which she put forward the theory that the island is above a gateway to hell or some other dimension full of monsters.

Joe's nine-year-old grandson Danny was with Joe on the fateful day Roy and Amanda's yacht sailed by the lighthouse.  Also on the yacht was a beautiful Spanish model whom Roy was grooming to be the face of his cosmetic line.  According to Danny, Joe and Roy were talking on the radio, then Roy stopped talking, so Joe and Danny took a boat out to the yacht to see if everything was OK.  Everything was not OK--the Spanish model had vanished, but left her clothes on the deck, and Roy and Amanda were dead, their bodies drained of blood and covered in odd puncture wounds.  Joe and Danny returned to the lighthouse, and when Danny woke up in the morning his grandfather was dead, his body in the same strange condition as Roy and Amanda's.  Danny fled to shore to tell this story to the fuzz, but when the cops investigated yacht and lighthouse the bodies of Joe, Roy and Amanda had all vanished.

Al's cynical and dumb theory: Al the scandal monger thinks Danny is lying, that Joe and Roy and the Spanish model murdered Amanda and fled the country.

What really happened:  Al and Wendy get stuck on the island in the lighthouse by a storm that wrecks their row boat.  Al kills time by reading Amanda's book.  Wendy kills time by rifling through all the contents of the light house.  She finds a cassette tape recording of the radio conversation between Roy and Joe as well as a crucifix made in Spain.  With these clues these two members of the Fourth Estate  piece together what really happened that terrible day.  Amanda cast a spell that opened that door to hell and out of it came monsters who slew her and her husband.  The Spanish model survived initially because she had the crucifix.  But then she disrobed to swim to shore, absent-mindedly left the crucifix with her clothes, and got killed.  Danny pocketed the crucifix when he and his grandpa searched the boat.  When the monsters attacked the lighthouse that night, they sucked the blood out of Joe but let tasty morsel Danny sleep on because he had the crucifix on his person.

After Wendy and Al figure this stuff out, the monsters invade the lighthouse again.  Wendy has the crucifix and holds the monsters off as she runs down the stairs, leaving Al behind to be massacred.

This story is long and complicated and the time and energy one expends reading it are not adequately rewarded by the level of fun it offers: the style, the characters, the images, and the plot resolution are all pretty unremarkable.  Cave's story isn't offensively bad, but it just sits there, like filler.  We're judging this one barely acceptable.

I guess some people were impressed by the story, because "The Door Below" would go on to be the title story of a 1997 Cave collection.  It can also be found in a 1993 anthology of adventure and speculative fiction stories in which figure lighthouses. 


We'll probably read more from Whispers III soon, but first we'll be tackling a 1970 SF novel that a blog post of tarbandu's reminded me I own.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Astounding Nov 1934: M Leinster, F B Long & R Z Gallun

Back in 2020 I read John W. Campbell, Jr.'s story "Twilight," which first appeared in the November 1934 issue of Astounding.  Let's read three more stories from that issue, one each by Murray Leinster, Frank Belknap Long and Raymond Z. Gallun.

"The Mole Pirate" by Murray Leinster

This story starts with a bang when we are told that one of America's top scientists, Durran, has become America's Public Enemy Number One!  Durran recently announced that he was rejecting all conventional morality and taking up a life guided entirely by selfishness, and soon after providing humanity this sporting warning he started robbing and murdering people!  

We then meet Jack Hill, a young scientist.  Hill has invented a method of aligning the atoms of a material so that it can pass through most other materials; this process of aligning atoms can be reversed just as easily as it is initiated.  (We get a lecture on magnetism from Hill as he explains this process to a journalist.)  Before an audience of reporters and the famous white-haired European émigré Professor Eisenstein (oh, brother), Hill demonstrates the process and then reveals the thirty-foot long torpedo-like vehicle he has built that takes advantage of his process--this thing, christened the Mole,  can safely pass through walls and descend beneath the Earth's surface and so forth.  Hill takes it on its maiden voyage to show off its capabilities, bringing along an eager Eisenstein as a passenger who is full of questions on how to operate the novel machine.  As we readers already know, this man with the German accent is not Eisenstein--he's Durran in disguise and, right in front of the assembled press corps, he kicks Hill out of the vehicle he built and drives off with it!

The rest of the story, which is pretty long (isfdb categorizes "The Mole Pirate" as a novella,) describes Durran's campaign of terror as he murders innocent people, liberates criminals, and robs banks, jewelry stores, arsenals and construction sites, and Hill's desperate and ultimately successful effort to develop countermeasures that can end Durran's depredations. 

This is a decent science-oriented story--the early parts, in which we meet Durran and witness the first of his atrocities, is fun, and the science stuff feels fresh and interesting.  There is a somewhat superfluous relationship subplot tacked on to the story--Hill has a courageous and clever girlfriend who helps in the struggle against Durran, and as the story starts, her father doesn't approve of Hill, but dear old Dad comes around when Hill demonstrates his good qualities during the crisis--but this subplot doesn't substantially weigh down the story.  I'm judging "The Mole Pirate" moderately good.

Sam Moskowitz included "The Mole Pirate" in his oft-republished anthology of three short novels that has appeared variously as A Sense of Wonder, The Moon Era, and Three Stories.  In his introduction to the 1967 book, Moskowitz complains that current SF too often has "dispensed with the romance" and "literary 'magic'" that gave readers of earlier SF "emotional breathlessness as well as intellectual stimulation."  "It [recent SF] seems to make the most profound and thrilling mysteries commonplace," says Moskowitz.  I don't want to put words in Moskowitz's mouth, but he seems to be trying to say (particularly with his choice of epigraph for his intro) that 1960s SF has replaced the optimism and excitement of earlier SF at the idea that there is much more to learn about the universe and so many adventures humankind has to look forward to with cynicism and pessimism, and he does not find this substitution an improvement. 

The epigraph that precedes Moskowitz's introduction to A Sense of Wonder

Moskowitz tells us he selected the three works in A Sense of Wonder because they exemplify his idea of what "a sense of wonder" is and also have the literary merit modern practitioners claim earlier SF lacked.  "The Mole Pirate" certainly offers what I am thinking of when I use the somewhat vague term "a sense of wonder" here at this blog.  Multiple times in Leinster's novella Hill thinks about how his invention can be used to open up new avenues of exploration and trade, can lead to safer and more comfortable and more exciting lives for everybody, and once Durran is defeated we readers are lead to expect that a paradigm shift in human life, for the better, is just ahead thanks to Hill's innovation. 

"Lost Planet" by Frank Belknap Long

Like a thousand years ago, Earth people colonized Venus.  After they had built up a viable high tech civilization there, they went to war against Earth!  For five centuries the Venus people tried to conquer Terra, but their rockets were always shot down by Earth's defense forces.  Eventually Venus gave up their dream of conquest, and so deep were the psychological scars that for 300 years there was no intercourse between Venus and Earth--the people of Venus even refused to look at Earth through their telescopes!

Just recently, Venusians started looking at Earth again, only to find the mother planet deserted!  A powerful fleet of rockets was built to have another crack at Earth, and our protagonist, Flason, is on the first ship.  He parachutes down through Earth's atmosphere and wins the title of first Venusian ever to land on Earth!  

On Earth, Flason, via the media of a mass grave and a machine which presents centuries-old news broadcasts, learns the horrible truth of why Terra is abandoned--extrasolar aliens attacked, their strange gasses killing everybody and preserving their bodies so they could be used as components in macabre art installations!  Suddenly, one of those alien invaders appears, a giant thing of amorphous bat-like shape.  It is about to kill Flason when suddenly an attractive woman appears and slays the monster with a "flame ejector."  The woman tells Flason that she stowed away on his ship because she also had a desire to see Earth, and she has had a crush on him since they were kids, even though he never noticed her.

"Lost Planet" has a good premise and setting and I like the images of the desolated Earth and the monster, but in plot and character it is kind of slight.  Long does try to portray a character arc for Flason--Venusians endeavor to be cold and intellectual and are ashamed of any animalistic passions they might have, saying these emotions are a disgusting throwback to their Earth ancestry, and Flason is more bookish and intellectual than most, but then contact with Earth and the love of the woman who suddenly appears on the penultimate page of the eight-page story awakens his emotions--but it feels sort of perfunctory, almost all of that character stuff being jammed into the last two pages of the tale.      

I still like it, though.  I guess "Lost Planet" doesn't pass the Bucharest test, but maybe it deserves feminist points anyway because a woman rescues a man by killing the monster--it at least is a counterexample to the stereotype that old SF was always men rescuing women from the monsters.

"Lost Planet" would reappear in 1975 in the 72nd volume of the American edition of Perry Rhodan, of which Forrest J. Ackerman was co-editor.  

"The Machine from Ganymede" by Raymond Z. Gallun

This story is written in the style of a popular non-fiction article describing an historical event, an event taking place in the future of 1951.

There is a lot of international tension in 1951, and a scientist, Boris Lutkin, announces that he has the solution to international conflict--he has developed a superweapon and if any wars break out he will use his superweapon to resolve the war at once.  (The solution to the problem of violence is more violence!)  In a bizarre coincidence, later that very same month comes even more mind-blowing and consequential news from the world of science: astronomers have spotted phenomena in the area of Ganymede and Europa that indicate that those moons are inhabited by space faring civilizations, and that those civilizations are waging upon each other a titanic war!  

Lutkin is among those people who fear that these belligerent Jovians might in the near future try to take over Earth, and so he decides to give his superweapon to the governments of the ten most important nations in the world so Earth will be ready should aliens attack us.  (One minute he's berating us because we are too violent and the next minute he's trusting us with a superweapon--in his defense, he thinks fear of interplanetary enemies has united us all under one banner and rendered international war obsolete.)   Lutkin convenes a meeting of politicians and scientists and demonstrates to them his awesome weapon.

Lutkin's weapon is a ray projector which has an effective range of 500 miles.  Within the ray's area of effect atoms and molecules are stabilized, so no chemical reactions can take place; for example, nothing upon which the ray is playing can burn.  More importantly for military purposes, perhaps, is the fact that the ray ceases all chemical reactions within a living creature, causing instant death.

While Lutkin is giving his demonstration a flying machine less than two feet long bursts into the room, kills everybody with electrical blots, grabs the weapon and blueprints, and flies back out into space.  All of Lutkin's notes and diagrams about the weapon have been destroyed, leaving the Earth defenseless!  A short time later, astronomers watching the progress of the war among the moons of Jupiter report that the side that was losing is now winning, presumably because they have mass produced the Lutkin weapon.  Earth is in trouble!  But the story ends on a hopeful note, as Lutkin's daughter and his assistant (they were on a date during the attack instead of helping out Lutkin at the historic meeting of statesmen and geniuses, which is a little hard to believe) express their determination to rediscover the principles behind the Lutkin weapon.

This is a fun little story because it has fun concepts, and works even though there is almost no characterization or individual human drama.  "The Machine from Ganymede" has never been republished, however; luckily the internet archive is there to provide easy access to this work. 


Three entertaining stories full of science and technology and the sense that the universe is full of  knowledge and adventure we haven't yet scratched the surface of, but which is within our ability to master.  A good issue of Astounding.    


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Frank Belknap Long: "The Pearl Robber," "Medicine for Three," and "Woodland Burial"

I typed "Frank Belknap Long" into the internet archive and a bunch of different things came up; let's check out three such items, stories that, I suspect, have little or no speculative fiction content.

"The Pearl Robber" (1931)

Farnsworth Wright, remembered for helming Weird Tales, also edited the magazine Oriental Stories, which only survived for nine issues that appeared from 1930 to 1932.  Long's "The Pearl Robber," a piece of four and a half pages, appeared in the fourth issue.  

Johnny is a "Kanaka," a Pacific Islander in the employ of white people.  (Don't say "Kanaka" out loud, as it seems this is now considered a slur.  I guess you're not supposed to say "Oriental," either.  Well, don't tell anybody about this story then--it can be our little secret!)  Johnny's job is to dive for pearls for the owner of a lagoon--with a rock tied to him, he descends to the bottom, where he fills a basket with oysters to be opened on the surface and then he and the basket are hauled back up.  Johnny, entranced by their beauty, loves pearls himself, and steals when he can from his employer by opening the most promising oysters in the few seconds left after he has filled the basket and before he is hauled up.  Any pearls he finds he swallows when nobody is looking.

But today there is a mishap--a giant clam seizes Johnny's hand with a stolen pearl within it.  (When I was a kid giant clams would commonly grab people in fiction and put them at risk of drowning, but according to wikipedia this doesn't actually happen.  I could tell you the same disappointing thing about quicksand.)

Johnny loses consciousness, but his employer dives down to rescue him.  Seeing a pearl in his hand, Johnny's boss knows Johnny is a thief, so he has Johnny taken to a hospital to be x-rayed, to see if Johnny has swallowed any pearls recently.  Johnny doesn't know anything about modern technology, and his boss is so angry that he fears the doctors are torturers and the X-ray machine a torture device, and dies of fright.

An acceptable little story that you could analyze as an expose by Long of the racism of Westerners and their exploitation of the global south, and also perhaps as a reflection or example of racism in genre fiction: Long seems to sympathize with Johnny, but his portrayal of Johnny as a child-like noble savage who is in touch with the beauty of nature and put upon by money-loving whites, but is also mischievous, ignorant and weak-willed, is the kind of condescending thing some might consider as racist as if Long had portrayed him as a bloodthirsty headhunter or whatever.

It doesn't seem like "The Pearl Robber" has ever been reprinted.  

"Medicine for Three" (1934)

"Medicine for Three" doesn't appear to have been reprinted after its initial appearance in Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine.  This magazine, wikipedia and are telling me, endured for over 1000 issues, with a name change in the middle of its run from Detective Story Magazine to Street & Smith's...etcAccording to wikipedia, Wittgenstein read this magazine.      

"Medicine for Three" is a gimmicky murder mystery of like eight and a half pages.  I have to admit I don't really understand the story; maybe I'm dense (nobody ever mistook me for a Wittgenstein), or maybe Long's story doesn't make any sense.

Mrs. Simpson runs a rooming house.  Two of her tenants, a married couple, the Perkins, are always loudly quarrelling, which she can hear clearly from her own living space; she can also hear their radio.  One day, Mrs. Perkins comes to Mrs. Simpson's door to say she has to go out, and asks the landlady to remind her husband in half an hour to take his medicine.

The Perkins radio starts up, a banjo performance.  When the half hour has elapsed, Simpson taps on the Perkins's door; the radio is shut off, but Mr. Perkins doesn't come to the door.  Simpson opens the door to find Perkins dead on the floor, oozing blood.  Who killed Perkins?  And who turned off the radio?  

The cops find that Perkins was shot three times at close range.  The window of the apartment was locked from the inside, so the killer must not have escaped that way after blasting Perkins, and Perkins sat out of sight of the window, so the killer didn't fire upon him through the window--besides, there is no hole in the window, though there is a crack.  

The detective investigating the murder tells his son about it, and his son identifies something fishy about the whole story: he listens to the station the Perkins set was tuned to at the time of the murder, and there was a drama broadcast at that time, not a banjo player!  The detective, by questioning Mrs. Simpson and calling people on the phone and then by playing a psychological trick on Mrs. Perkins figures out who committed the crime and how.  Mrs. Perkins knows a vaudevillian, a "human banjo" who can imitate the sound of a banjo with his voice.  The human banjo and Mrs. Perkins worked together to kill Mr. Perkins, and after the dastardly deed was accomplished, Mrs. Perkins left, making sure Mrs. Simpson knew she had left and making sure Simpson would discover the corpse.  Then the human banjo, standing on the fire escape outside the window (locked by Mrs. Perkins) and armed with a megaphone, imitated a radio broadcast for Mrs. Simpson's benefit, until she tapped on the door.  

The things I don't understand are:

1) If Mrs. Simpson can hear quarrelling and radios in the Perkins room from her place, how is it she didn't hear three gun shots?

2) How does the human banjo, making his banjo noises with his mouth, on the other side of a glass window, hear Mrs. Simpson's tapping?

3) What is the point of this whole imitate-a-radio gag?  Why do Mrs. Perkins and the human banjo think this will make it less likely they will be accused of the murder?  Doesn't the prominence of banjo music in the narrative of the crime make it more likely a dude known for imitating a banjo will be implicated?

The style and pacing and all that of "Medicine for Three" are good enough, but the actual plot is full of holes, or, was not explained well enough for a reader of (approximately) average intelligence and education like myself to comprehend.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down. 

As an aside, allow me to say that "Medicine for Three" provides a good example of why I rarely read clue-heavy detective stories.  Part of the pleasure offered by such stories, I am told, is the opportunity to use your wits to try to figure out the mystery.  But in a story like "Medicine for Three," figuring out the mystery yourself is impossible, and if you expended brain power trying to figure it out, you'd have wasted your precious bodily energy.  I gotta conserve that energy!

"Woodland Burial" (1981)

Fifty years after "Pearl Robber" was printed, Long got this tale published in Whispers III, an anthology edited by Stuart David Schiff.  We've already read two stories that appeared in Whispers III, Sam Sneyd's "A Fly One," and Dennis Etchison's "A Dead Line,"  and the volume has stories by other writers I find worth reading, like Fritz Leiber and David Drake, as well as a cool illustration by Stephen Fabian and a shocking illo by Lee Brown Coye of a man cooking a baby.  Holy crap!

"Woodland Burial" would be republished in 1998 in one of those Barnes and Noble anthologies of short shorts edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg, and Robert Weinberg, 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories, and in 2010 in the colossal 1,100 page volume from Centipede Press's  Masters of the Weird Tale devoted to Long.

My guess that these stories would have no supernatural elements was wrong, as this one is full of supernatural elements.  

Gage is a middle-aged guy who lives out in the country.  After they got married, his wife got all skinny and unattractive, and they quarreled all the time.  Eight weeks ago he murdered her and buried her in the woods.  Now he is having an affair with another woman, Molly, and he is really enjoying himself, as Molly has a fantastic body and is an expert at having sex.  But his dead wife wreaks a terrible revenge on both Gage and the sexalicious Molly!  After a night of terrific sex, Gage wakes up to find Molly dead beside him, strangled to death by a rope made of hair just like his wife's!  Gage dashes to his wife's grave, where he is met by the local sheriff--the sheriff was lead to the grave by a squirrel, a squirrel that dropped at his feet the severed finger, complete with wedding ring, of Gage's murdered wife!

This story is more impressive than my little synopsis suggests, because Long doesn't tell it in that exact order--we learn that Gage murdered his wife early on, but learn the details of why later, and the business of the squirrel being a vehicle for Mrs. Gage's soul is foreshadowed and doesn't feel like it came out of nowhere.  Long also does an interesting unreliable narrator thing, with Gage thinking of himself as a sensitive generous peaceful guy, while his actions and other clues suggest the opposite. 

Another interesting component of this story is Gage's (and Long's) invocation of late-Seventies/early-Eighties anxieties about rising crime rates and the possibility of nuclear war, to which Gage (and Long, perhaps) link to an increase in public acceptance of corruption.  Fears of sudden death have loosened ties to the community, the story suggests, making people less concerned over whether or not their neighbors and elected officials conform to traditional standards of morality. 

The problem with "Woodland burial" is the question of who killed Molly.  It would make sense for Gage's murdered wife to rise from her grave to strangle Molly as she lies next to Gage, or to hang her in the woods and then lay her body in bed with her murderous husband, using a hank of her hair as garrote or noose, and I like that the hair was used to slay Molly--even after she got skinny, Gage found his wife's hair very beautiful, so making the hair the murder weapon is a clever expression of female jealousy and one-upmanship.  But the fact that Mrs. Gage's soul inhabits the squirrel muddies the issue--can your soul animate two bodies at a time?--and when Gage gets to the grave site, his wife's corpse is still buried.  I guess we have to conclude that the squirrel somehow strangled Molly, but a squirrel is really too small to outfight an adult human.  As with "Medicine for Three," there is a problem with the central gimmick of this story, or I am just too dim to get what Long is going for. 

Despite this confusion, I still like this story and am willing to give it a thumbs up.  Unlike a realistic detective story full of clues, this type of story doesn't rely on logic for its effects, but on emotional impact and compelling themes and images, and Long delivers on those components.          


Another exciting foray into the world of the weird, courtesy of the internet archive, website of the year this year and every year.  It is usually worth your time to go to the internet archive and just type in some person's name and see what turns up--I highly recommend it.  Stay tuned for more such explorations here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Monday, December 27, 2021

The Artificial Man by L. P. Davies

Followers of my twitter feed may recall that on December 22 of 2021 I was in Washington, D.C.--the belly of the beast!--where, when I wasn't fending off wretched beggars, I was browsing the outdoor sale carts at Second Story Books.  Among the noteworthy books on the carts this last visit was a hardcover copy of L. P. Davies's The Artificial Man.  Seeing this specimen in the wild reminded me that I owned a paperback copy of The Artificial Man and prompted me to read the novel, which was first published in England in 1965 and in America in 1967.  My paperback copy was produced by Scholastic Book Services in 1968...wait, Scholastic?  The publisher of Clifford the Big Red Dog and the Magic School Bus?  Does that mean there is not going to be any sex in this book?

The Artificial Man in some ways is like an A. E. van Vogt story, in that over the course of the novel we and the characters learn astonishing truths about the world and how it is run from behind the scenes by competing cabals of superior people, and that as the novel progresses a guy develops super powers with which he is able to trigger a paradigm shift, offering us readers something like a sense of wonder ending in which we realize that the future offers a fantastic array of mind-blowing possibilities.  Davies's novel also has some of the elements of a mystery novel and a conspiracy novel, in that there are a limited number of characters stuck in a confined area and most of them turn out to have secret identities, unspoken allegiances and covert motives that are hidden, then revealed, and then change as the story proceeds.  The Artificial Man also lightly touches on questions of politics that we often see in SF--will future governments be bigger and more intrusive, how much so, and why, and should we welcome or deplore such government expansion?

This all sounds fine, and The Artificial Man is a competently wrought novel, but I didn't enjoy it very much--I'm judging this one, like so many works of fiction that have come under my eye before it, merely acceptable.  The plot is serviceable, but the style, setting and characters are bland and inspire no emotion, and neither the action scenes nor the relationships between the characters generate any excitement.  There are plenty of little mysteries that are presented and then later solved--e.g., we wonder who among the small cast of characters shot at somebody and with what weapon, and later find out--and many times we find that what we were initially lead to believe about a character is false, but none of these twists and turns registered emotionally with me.

Alright, time for the tedious plot summary.  Alan Fraser is a science fiction writer n the 1960s who lives in a tiny isolated English village that is surrounded by hills; the entire novel takes place in this dull as dishwater location.  Fraser never leaves the village, apparently for medical reasons, he having been in a car accident ten years ago that killed his parents and left him seriously injured, though today he is, outwardly, fully recovered.  He only ever speaks to a few people, among them the housekeeper who administers to him pills everyday as well as doing the cooking and cleaning; his next door neighbor Lee, a sculptor who comes by multiple times a day to shoot the breeze; Dr. Crowther, who comes by for regular visits to give him his injections; a handful of village residents like the constable, the guy who manages the post office and the telephone switchboard, the shopkeeper and a retired military man; and the guy who drives into the village every day to deliver goods to the store.  In the early chapters of the story Alan notices odd phenomena, like when that delivery truck passes him and goes down a dead end street, but never reappears, even though it can't leave the village without coming back the way it came.  Lee and Crowther try to get him to dismiss this and similar mysterious incidents as simple confusion, or the result of one of the blackouts to which he is subject, and urge him to get back to work on his writing.

Alan receives some mysterious phone calls and gets the feeling that his neighbors are working together to make sure he is never alone, and rebelliously strikes off for the woods, where, apparently by chance, he meets a pretty girl who is on a hike.  When he returns to the village he collapses, apparently shot, but not fatally, by some kind of energy weapon.

Davies doesn't limit our view to that of Alan--there are as many--maybe more--scenes starring the other characters, and so we don't learn things along with Alan and share his bewilderment and surprise, but instead often learn things before or after he does.  

By page 100 of the 255-page book, in scenes in which Lee and Crowther talk with each other (testily, they being from different departments) and then interrogate and induct that young woman, Karen Summer, into their conspiracy, we have learned the basics of what is really going on.  It is not 1966, but 2016, and the British Commonwealth is a totalitarian socialist society in which the government controls all the media and compels you to watch propaganda TV broadcasts, tells you what job you will have, and can even reprogram your brain if you misbehave.  This dolorous development is ostensibly a response to overpopulation, a ruthless police state being required to ration food and housing and manage a system of mandatory birth control and eugenic selection of the few deemed worthy to reproduce.  Karen Summer, after a few years working as a nurse, was assigned to work at a collectivized farm nearby; as a child she was familiar with the village now controlled by Crowther and Lee and her chance meeting with Alan Fraser occurred when she sneaked away from the farm on a day off to revisit her childhood haunt.

The British Commonwealth is part of a Western Alliance that is embroiled in a cold war with Communist China, which has conquered lots of additional territory--it is implied that these conquests include India and Japan.  (The Soviet Union and its satellites are neutral.)  "Alan Fraser" was born Hagan Arnold in Australia; he had one Polynesian grandparent and was raised by a Chinese family and so was familiar with Asian culture and fluent in the Cantonese language.  The government selected Arnold to be a spy behind enemy lines, and after much training in England spent nine months in Red China.  He discovered something very important, something he couldn't describe in a mere message, so he was extracted from Asia, but on his way back to Britain the aircraft in which he was a passenger crashed; he survived, but the pain of his injuries triggered a post-hypnotic suggestion in his mind that made him forget all he knew, a bit of programming installed in Arnold to ensure he couldn't reveal anything to the Chinese should he be tortured.  Crowther and Lee have constructed the fake 1966 identity of Alan Fraser and the fake village with the object of jogging Arnold's memory and resurfacing what he discovered in China--their hope is that when Alan writes SF stories (which they have been nudging him to set in 2016 in a West vs China cold war environment) his subconscious will insert into their plots the perhaps vital intelligence Arnold uncovered on his mission.

After this big revelation much of the remaining 150 or so pages of the book concerns the tension between Lee--a big wig in the executive branch security services of the totalitarian government--and Crowther--a top scientist and leader in the second-most powerful department in the government, the medical/psychological apparatus that tinkers with peoples' brains--and their struggle to keep the operation going despite the efforts of one traitor in the village to disrupt the experiment by calling "Alan Fraser" on the phone and deprogramming the former spy and the efforts of another traitor to just shoot him dead with a laser gun.  Parallel to these plot threads is the reemergence of the Hagan Arnold personality under the influence of those phone calls and Karen's inadvertent promptings.  Arnold/Fraser starts exhibiting all kinds of awesome skills, at first super reflexes and keen senses of hearing and sight, and eventually telepathy and telekinesis--these skills help him survive attacks from the assassin and to loosen Lee and Crowther's grip on him.  

After being coerced into joining the Crowther/Lee operation, Karen is approached by the traitor who has been making those phone calls--this guy was a partner of Arnold's when they were in the spy service together.  He tells Karen that he and Arnold are individualists who are against the current tyrannical British government; though he didn't live during them, Arnold saw the 1960s as a golden age of freedom.  This rebel claims that Crowther and Lee have filled Arnold's noggin with the Fraser identity not just to retrieve info on China, but also to neutralize Arnold as a threat to the totalitarian government and to use him as a guinea pig for new psychological methods that can turn everyone in the British Commonwealth into a willing slave of the government.

Near the end of the novel we learn more about Crowther's plans, some of which contradicts the rebel's suspicions.  While Lee is chummy with the current dictator, Crowther wants to overthrow him in a coup, and under Lee's nose he has been changing Arnold's brain to not only create the Fraser personality but to stimulate those mental powers we mentioned so he will have the needed abilities to take over the country--Crowther thinks he will be able to control Arnold via drugs and hypnosis and direct him to rule in ways Crowther sees fit.  But Arnold becomes super powerful more quickly than Crowther anticipated; Arnold/Fraser's physique even goes through a radical change, developing into the kind of big-headed tiny-bodied form we often see in classic SF stories about the future evolution of humanity.

When he finally realizes Crowther is up to something, Lee calls to London for help, and a squadron of attack helicopters arrives along with the dictator of Britain himself!  Arnold/Fraser uses his telekinesis to severely injure the dictator and fake his own death, and contrives with the aid of Crowther to have his now-super brain put into the dictator's body.  Now Arnold/Fraser is in charge of the British Commonwealth, just as the rebel and Crowther might have hoped!  But he doesn't seem to share the rebel's commitment to British liberty and he certainly is not under control of Dr. fact, like the guy who evolved into a super brain in Edmond Hamilton's 1931 story "The Man Who Evolved," it looks like acquiring super power has made Arnold/Fraser contemptuous of us normal humans--he may well be an even more cruel dictator than was the man whose body he now occupies!

There is nothing egregious about The Artificial Man (though you wokesters will object to how so many of the male characters--determined men of action--dismiss women as mere impediments, as well as the characterization of Asians in the novel as a bunch of obedient kamikaze types) but there is nothing really fun or fascinating about it, either.  While set in a totalitarian world beset by overpopulation, it portrays life in such a milieu not at all, but instead confines itself to a boring little village.  Most of its main characters are secret agents or security personnel, but the scenes about espionage and assassination arouse no thrills, and the whole novel suffers from a slow deliberate pace.  I'm afraid I won't be seeking out any other books by L. P. Davies. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Henry Kuttner: "The Faceless Fiend," "The Dweller in the Tomb," "Nightmare Woman," and "My Brother, The Ghoul"

I have to return my interlibrary loan copy of the Henry Kuttner collection Terror in the House soon, so let's read four stories penned by Kuttner that have awesome titles and appeared in Thrilling Mystery in 1937.  Is there any chance they can live up to those titles?  The fact that none of these stories were reprinted until 2010 may provide a clue, but we're going to read them anyway.

"The Faceless Fiend"

Kuttner had two stories in the January 1937 issue of Thrilling Mystery, "Terror in the House" under his real name and this story under a pen name.

Harvey is walking to his fiancé Isabel's place on a foggy night.  (These stories are so often about some guy with a fiancé, it must say something about the audience to whom they are trying to appeal to or something... maybe gender studies types would say it reflects the inherent conservatism of these stories which outwardly may appear so crazy, that they and their readers take for granted conventional ideas about family formation and seek to perpetuate traditional ideas about the forms sexual relationships should take, even as they appear to be pushing the limits of what can and should be know how college professors talk.)  Harvey suddenly smells rotting flesh, and is attacked by a strange character--a man with no features on his face save for a single eye!  The one-eyed man is remarkably strong and agile, rendering resistance futile; Harvey is about to expire when his fiancé and her brother Russ appear with a flashlight, driving off Harvey's assailant flee.  Russ, who comes across as a real jerk, scoffs at the idea that a cyclops tried to murder Harvey, dismissing this traumatic event as no more than an attempted stick up by a man in a mask.  No biggie!

Russ the jerk works in a museum that is past its sell by date--Kuttner tells us it was "built before the war" and smells so bad it has very few visitors.  Isabel sometimes helps Russ with his work there, and the next day Harvey accompanies the brother and sister to this unpopular smelly museum, where we hear how a month age the night-watchman was found murdered and meet two oddballs to add to the list of suspects currently headed by Russ: the curator who seems to have a crush on Isabel, and the anti-social professor who manages the Egyptian room.

The plot of this story advances very quickly once we get to the malodorous museum.  The cyclops reappears, attacks the curator, who survives, and then Russ, (who I thought was our prime suspect--sorry Russ!), who dies, and then carries off Isabel, whose shirt comes open during the fracas.  Harvey gives chase and ends up in the Egyptian room, where he finds that the professor is in command of the monster.  Like all bad actors, he tries to shift responsibility for his actions to somebody else, claiming it was the curator who made him use the cyclops to commit robberies.  Then the curator appears, waving a gun, and forces the prof to narrate the series of events that has lead to this curator vs prof showdown.

The cyclops, whom the prof and curator call Adam, is a veteran of the war in Europe who was severely injured in an explosion; besides having his face torn off, his brain was damaged.  (Kuttner used this same gag in "Bamboo Death.")  The prof, who I guess also has some kind of medical expertise (in fiction a scientist or academic often has deep knowledge of several disciplines, which is not what I found in my own abortive academic career--the academic men and women I met were much like men and women I meet everywhere, the men primarily interested in sports, video games and TV shows and the women primarily concerned with babies, fashion and TV shows), tried to ease this poor bastard's pain with drugs and hypnotism.  The diabolical curator, however, saw in the brain-damaged and easily manipulated Adam, with his powerful physique, the perfect cat's paw, a dupe who would commit robberies and even murders on command.  The curator, getting creative, put some goop on the mentally ill veteran that made him smell like rotting flesh, thinking it would make the guy more scary.  Feeling a curator's compensation was unfairly meagre, the curator directed Adam to commit robberies, and because he was in lobe with Isabel, directed the one-eyed man to kill Harvey.  The prof, seeing things getting totally out of hand, tried to escape this sticky situation by ordering Adam to murder the curator and any witnesses, leading to the death of Russ and to this showdown.

In the ensuing fight all three of these wacky characters--Adam, the prof and the curator--join Russ in death.  Harvey and Isabel are injured, but survive.  Kuttner leaves to the reader's imagination the questions of who is going to take over the museum and whether he or she will be able to secure a grant to deodorize the place. 

Weak filler--the plot is too complicated and people's motivations are hard to take seriously, and there is nothing crazy enough to really make you sit up and take notice.

"The Dweller in the Tomb"

Jim Mason, our narrator, is on his honeymoon with blue-eyed Lucille in eerie old England.  In Sussex they stop at a castle in which Jim's Uncle Argyll now lives with his assistant, Frank Kent.  Uncle seems mighty pleased about this surprise visit!

Uncle Argyll, like so many people in horror stories, is a student of the occult.  It's not long before he's got a gun aimed at Frank, Jim and Lucille (Lucille dressed for the occasion in a filmy negligee) and is forcing them to go down into the dungeon, to the lowest vault, the seventh, because he wants to sacrifice them to the monster that is entombed under the castle--this monster is a Druid priest who learned the secret of eternal life and has been half alive down under a barred circular hatch for centuries.  Uncle Argyll believes that if he feeds the monster three people it will become his slave and teach him Druid magic.

Argyll forces Frank to open the round door and the monster, a thing with no face that drips slime and has crab-like claws, emerges.  Uncle Argyll strips Lucille naked and throws her down to the monster.  But the monster ignores her and attacks Uncle Argyll.  Uncle Argyll dies of cardiac arrest and then Frank shoots the monster with a gun he gets from someplace.  As it dies, the monster curses Frank out in modern English.

I groaned as Frank revealed the truth.  Frank's father was cheated out of all his money by Argyll years ago and committed suicide.  So Frank became Argyll's assistant and plotted a complicated revenge.  He built the fake tomb under the castle, hired a guy to wear a monster outfit, and convinced Argyll to buy the castle by giving him forged ancient documents describing the Druid monster.  Frank thought the monster attack would drive Argyll insane, not kill him, and that he (Frank) could save the day by shooting down the monster, and then act as surprised as everybody else when the monster turned out to be an imposter.  But when the imposter lived long enough after getting perforated to talk, the jig was up.

Frank tells Jim and Lucille that he has to kill them, but killing Americans isn't as easy as Frankie boy thought it would be and he ends up dead in the fight that ends the story.

I was kind of enjoying the story when I thought maybe the monster was real, and was annoyed by the reveal of Frank's convoluted and not very credible plot.  Maybe that evens out to lame filler, just barely acceptable.

"Nightmare Woman"

This story makes use of Norse mythology, employing the idea of a "mara," which we are told is a "troll woman who draws life from her victims," coming to you in the night to give you nightmares.  Martin Rand's fiancé Freda has a brother, Johnny, who is quite sick; growing steadily more anemic, losing strength every night!  A doctor is on hand, and a nurse; the sawbones says Johnny is too sick to be taken to the hospital, that the trip would kill him!  At night, a woman who glows purple is seen leaning over Johnny--when Freda and Martin try to attack the woman they fall asleep!  The nurse turns up dead, all the blood drained from her body!

Johnny and Freda's father believes in all kind of occult stuff, and so when a guy who says he is an expert on the occult drop in and promises to drive off the mara with his special skills and apparatus, Dad is willing to go along with this joker's offer of help, even though he wants $100,000 if Johnny recovers.  Martin wants to call the cops, seeing as they have a dead woman in the house with them, but the occultist says the cops will break his concentration and he won't be able to banish the mara!

After reading "The Faceless Fiend" and "The Dweller in the Tomb" I expected that this was all a hoax, that there was no mara, and I was right.  The doctor and the occultist were in cahoots with an actress wearing luminous paint; the doctor was poisoning Johnny and using a sleep drug on everybody else to simulate some kind of sleep spell.  The three criminals were going to split the 100k after play acting the defeat of the mara and after Johnny's recovery.  The nurse, an honest medical professional, realized something was up and so they murdered her, drawing all her blood so her death would look more supernatural.

Anyway, Martin saves the day in a boring fight.

Like "The Dweller in the Tomb" and "The Faceless Fiend," this one has a convoluted and totally unbelievable plot, but is even worse, there being no sex or monster or even faintly interesting action scene.  Freda's top never even comes close to coming off!  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

"My Brother, The Ghoul"

The first three stories we looked at today are each like 14 or 15 pages long in their Terror in the House appearances.  "My Brother, The Ghoul," on the other hand, is like 25 pages long, which is giving me pause: I still remember how Kuttner padded out another longish story from Thrilling Mystery, "The Power of the Snake," with totally pointless scenes. 

I was relieved to find that "My Brother, The Ghoul" is actually the best of the four stories we're reading today.  Kuttner puts more effort into setting a mood and presenting interesting images with this one; for example, in the very first paragraph we get this somewhat Lovecraftian sentence: "In the high Sierras the moonlight has a strange, indefinable quality of unearthliness, as though the unknown secrets that are hidden in the airless wastes of interstellar space had somehow comes closer--as though the veil between man and the unknown had worn thin."

Our narrator is Eugene Bentley.  He hasn't seen his twin brother Jason in years, they having grown apart because his brother became devoted to the occult and took up queer and sinister practices!  Jason, for example, founded the Flagellant Club in Hollywood, which eventually became the center of a major scandal!  Jason left Hollyweird for the high Sierras town of Kernville, where his and Eugene's Uncle Anam lives.  As our story begins, Eugene and his wife of a few months, Sandra, have come to Kernville in answer to a summons from Uncle Anam.  In Kernville they discover a mess of trouble: Jason is dead, but many townspeople fear he lives on as a ghoulish monster; Eugene is attacked and witnesses a murder, apparently perpetrated by his living dead brother; the townspeople blame Eugene for stirring up his undead twin, so that Eugene and Sandra face danger at the hands of an angry mob as well as from the ghoul.  The story ends in a Satanic temple, where Eugene and Sandra see a man torn to pieces and Sandra is placed on the altar, scheduled for sacrifice, but is granted a reprieve by Eugene's opportune acquisition of a sub-machine gun, a piece of equipment ideally suited to solving many of life's problems.

The Lovecraftian stuff turns out to be a tease--the ghoul is a guy wearing a mask--but the story is still pretty entertaining.


I find it worthwhile to read these Henry Kuttner rarities even if only one in four is actually good.  Expect to see more such material in the future here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Jack Williamson: "The Flame from Mars," "Born of the Sun" and "Xandulu"

Today we explore some early work of the second SFWA Grand Master, three 1934 pieces by Jack Williamson, two short stories published in F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding and a three-part serial published in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories.  I'm reading all these stories at our favorite website, the internet archive, in scans of the original magazines in which they appeared.

"The Flame from Mars" 

Ared Stokes, our narrator, is the 50-year-old business manager of the vast enterprise young Don Belgrand inherited.  Belgrand may have the body of an athlete but he loves science, and got himself an engineering degree.  Don has acquired the mining rights to Meteor Crater in Arizona, and has been spending his time at the crater while Ared is in New York managing Don's business empire.  Don hopes to find the meteor itself down there, and after two months, during which this brainiac invented all new mining equipment, he finds something--and it is no mere meteor!  In response to Don's summons, Ared leaves the towers of beautiful Manhattan (always a perilous course, as I can tell you and have) to meet Don in the desert, where, at the bottom of a shaft a thousand feet deep, Don tells Ared that before him is no mere space rock--that what struck the Earth here thousands of years ago was a projectile launched from our red-faced neighbor Mars!

It takes months for Don's crew to bore through the thick protective outer layer of the Martian shot, but then within its inner chamber they discover something amazing.  There's a pile of treasure, including bars of metal no Earthman has ever seen before.  But that's not the amazing thing.  What is more amazing than money? you might ask?  You already know the answer, my friend!  Sex!  Much like the explorers in Howard Wandrei's "The Other" and Frank Belknap Long's "Skyrock" and "Lichen from Eros," Don has discovered an alien woman, apparently dead, more beautiful than any Earthwoman!  

Besides the red hot Martian babe, and all that silver, gold, and unnamed metal treasure, there are machines that we today might call hologram projectors, and these have taught Don the Martian language and Martian history, particularly all about this woman, Princess Allurova, the Flame Woman.  

Forty thousand years ago Allurova's mother, a genius scientist, married a cad who cheated on her and even tried to poison her to death.  But the scientist survived, though her body was wracked by constant pain.  Her ordeal made her a ferocious misandrist, and to get revenge on all men she used her scientific skills to turn her baby daughter, born soon after she survived that murder attempt, into a superwoman!  Little Allurova was given a power, called colloquially "the Flame," that made her immortal and irresistibly beautiful, but also toxic.  All living things who touched her would die in agony and then decay into dust. Mom told Allurova how to deactivate this power, should she ever fall in love with a man, and then, her work of revenge complete, Mom committed suicide.

For years men, including the smartest and bravest men of Mars, sought Allurova, who was so irresistible.  They couldn't help themselves, and despite all warning touched the Flame Woman and perished.  This was causing so much havoc on Mars, all the best and brightest men killing themselves, that the Martian government put Allurova in a sleep capsule and put the capsule into the giant spherical shell and shot her to Earth, where she has slept for 400 centuries.  And now Don, one of the smartest and bravest men on Earth, is in love with her!

I fully expected Don to wake up this woman, touch her, and die, and Ared and Don expect the same thing.  But when Don touches Allurova he learns that her Flame power has waned over the centuries, and she is no longer toxic.  Equally conveniently, she falls in love with Don after rejecting all those Martian men.  Terra uber alles!  So we get a happy ending when I was expecting a tragic one.

I like this story, though I think I would have preferred the tragic ending I was expecting.

"The Flame from Mars" appeared in the same issue of Astounding that published Donald Wandrei's "Colossus," which we read back in 2017.  "The Flame from Mars" would not be reprinted until the year 2000 in the third volume of Haffner Press's Collected Stories of Jack Williamson; this volume also includes today's other subjects, "Born of the Sun" and "Xandulu," as well as "Wizard's Isle," which we read a few months ago.     

"Born of the Sun" 

Foster Ross is another one of these guys with the body of an athlete and the brain of a scientist; for ages he's been working on a system that will exploit the "omicron effect"* to power Mankind's first space ship.  Tonight he's all alone in the mansion his father left him, the servants having departed for the winter; later today he'll be leaving Pennsylvania for Palm Beach where awaits his fiancé, June Trevor.  Or so he thought!  His Uncle Barron suddenly drops by, after being out of touch for twelve years on a mysterious expedition, to tell Foster that a powerful cabal is trying to murder him (Barron) and only he (Foster) can save the human race by building his space ship tout de suite.

Uncle Barron explains.  During those twelve years he was a member of a secret cult of religious fanatics based in the Gobi desert.  These "orientals" were able to divine a truth that we Westerners, with our "dogmatic minds," were unable to see: the planets of our solar system are about to break up!  The cult and its diabolical leader, L'ao Ku, welcome this cataclysm, for the extermination of mankind is an essential component of their religion.  Of course, Uncle Barron's dogmatic Western mind recoiled at the idea of the extinction of the human race, and he fled the cult, hoping that his clever nephew's plans for a space ship might come to fruition in time to save at least a few members of this human race of ours.  Right on his tail were L'ao Ku's agents, armed with one of the evil genius Lao Ku's inventions, a ray gun that, when it hits you, transforms your blood into poison!

Our heroes have to fight one of the "Mongoloid" assassins on their way out of the mansion to Foster's roadster; Barron is winged by the poison ray, but they make it to Foster's factory where they start construction on the space ship and the selection of the two thousand people who will be allowed aboard when the time comes to leave this doomed world behind.  Months go by, and as the spherical space ship takes shape, and Barron becomes steadily more ill from the poison, the solar system goes haywire, with Pluto, then Neptune, and then the other planets and their major moon in turn changing color and wandering off into interstellar space.  On Earth, increasingly powerful, and oddly regular, earthquakes are felt.  Then one night the people of the Western Hemisphere watch as the mind-blowing truth of what is going on is revealed--the Moon cracks into innumerable pieces and from within emerges a huge bird monster--the planets and moons are eggs!  That's right people, eggs!  Eggs lain by the stars, who are alive!  

The Earth will go the way of Luna in just a few days, and Foster and his people rush to finish the space ship.  An angry mob, whipped up by L'ao Ku and led by his ray weapon wielding acolytes, attacks the factory and overcomes the guards and boards the space craft.  The two thousand picked superior individuals are massacred!  L'ao Ku leaves Foster and Barron alive, so they will live to see the destruction of the Earth, and leaves in his aircraft.   

North America sinks beneath the waves, driving off and drowning everyone in the mob before they can cripple the space ship.  Foster can't find June among the dead, and figures L'ao Ku must have carried her off.  He manages to repair the merely superficial damage inflicted by the mob and launches the ship on its maiden voyage, but before he can get to L'ao Ku's HQ the Earth cracks up and a starbird emerges from the fragments.  Barron is on his last legs, and Foster thinks he is going to be the last survivor of humankind, but then June Trevor appears--one of the men put her in a perfect hiding place when the "chinks" busted into the ship.  As the story ends, Barron expires, but he, and we readers, can be confident that Foster and June will give birth to a new spaceborne human race that will conquer the galaxy.

The big crazy ideas of this story are appealing, and Williamson adeptly manages the pace and tone and all that.  The inclusion of a Yellow Peril villain is perhaps unnecessary--a spontaneous mob would have been believable enough--and L'ao Ku is underused in any case; he never actually appears on screen, we just hear about him from Barron (when L'ao Ku climbs aboard the space ship Foster is already unconscious.)  This isn't a debilitating problem with "Born of the Sun," however.  I like it.  Isaac Asimov included "Born of the Sun" in his anthology of 1930s SF, Before the Golden Age (of which I own a US hardcover edition), and Forrest J. Ackerman put it in his anthology Gosh! Wow!  (Sense of Wonder) Science Fiction.

*Feel free to make your own joke here about how you thought the omicron effect was the closing of your kid's school or cancellation of your family's Christmas party.


"Xandulu" made its debut as a serial in Wonder Stories, printed in three installments.  It would be reprinted in 1999 in a Gryphon Books collection of two Williamsons novellas.

Years ago our narrator, Dr. Roscoe Brander, while adventuring all over the world with his pal, expert pilot Miles Kendon, caught a tropical disease, and since then he has been feeble, and has confined himself to his yacht, where he sits inert on the deck while his crew sails him around the world.  (There's not much on TV yet in 1934.)  One night on the Mediterranean, a biplane is spotted in the sky over the yacht, a biplane in extremis--it is in a dog fight with a bunch of transparent spheres a yard or so in diameter!  The spheres are all shot down, but the plane was damaged by the electric bolts they were projecting, and crash lands in the sea.  The yacht's crew rescues the pilot, who turns out to be Dr. Brander's old buddy Kendon, and his passenger, a beautiful babe who speaks a strange musical language.

After a rest, Kendon tells the story of how he met the pale copper-haired beauty, Su-Ildra.  Flying over the mountains between Marrakesh and the Sahara one day, he spotted a ruined city on a plateau, a city so old it must have been founded before the last Ice Age, a city so huge and composed of buildings so tall it makes New York look like a village of mud huts!  Kendon couldn't resist the urge to land and explore.  Among the ruins Kendon found a shaft a thousand feet across, a shaft that seemed bottomless.  Out of this Well flew a giant bird, Su-Ildra mounted on its back; upon landing the huge eagle died of exhaustion.

Kendon and the alabaster beauty spent weeks clearing a big enough runway from which Kendon could take off, in the process learning enough of each other's languages to communicate.  Su-Ildra, the pilot learned, fled up to the surface because of a war down in her subterranean world, Xandulu, between her peace-loving race, the Ara, and an evil race that worships a god of destruction, the Ryka.  Among the Ryka the women are tall powerful warriors, the men short skinny priests.

One of the transparent spheres came out of the Well, looking for Su-Ildra; these spheres are bubbles of energy, operated remotely, and at close range one can see in them a sort of holographic projection of the operator--the high priest of the Ryka, Bak-Toreg.  Fortunately, these spheres are fragile; they cannot persist in direct sunlight, and pop if hit by gunfire.  After destroying the sphere, Kendon and Su-Ildra took off and by an amazing coincidence ended up by Brander's yacht.

It is not long after relating the story that night falls and a swarm of the bubbles appear, more than Kendon can shoot down; Kendon is stunned by an electric bolt and one of the bubbles expands and seizes Su-Ildra and carries her off.   After the yacht gets to France, Kendon (who, like Brander, is rich) buys another plane, bids our narrator farewell, and heads for the Well and Xandulu.  

As the second installment begins it is some months later and Dr. Brander has sailed into Algiers; Kendon comes aboard and tells him of his adventure in Xandulu, where he saw, but could not extract, Su-Ildra.

Kendon flew back to the plateau city, but before he could land, his plane suffered a catastrophic malfunction and he had to bail out without his supplies and equipment.  He used his parachute to descend the Well, which is like ten miles deep and opens up in the ceiling of the vast (two hundred mile wide) circular cavern that is Xandulu, an inner world lit by artificial suns.  He landed in a sea and swam to a tiny island rock and, another amazing coincidence, found Su-Ildra all alone on this rock.  This island was the prison to which Bak-Toreg had exiled her.  

Su-Ildra is the quasi-leader/high priestess of the peaceful and almost governmentless Ara, and as such she bears a crystal in a bag about her neck.  The crystal is a communications device that, every few generations, flickers to life and puts the Ara in touch with the Flame Folk, the ancient reptile people who created Xandulu.  (The only reason that Bak-Toreg hadn't already sacrificed Su-Ildra to his god of destruction was that he had some fear of the once-mighty Flame Folk.)  When Su-Ildra unwrapped the crystal to show it to Kendon, it glowed and the Flame Folk spoke telepathically to Kendon, telling him the history of Xandulu and laying a tremendous charge on the pilot's shoulders!

The Flame Folk built that magnificent mountain city that looks down on the Sahara when they ruled the world during the before the Ice Ages.  During their rule two other intelligent races arose on Earth, our human race and the Ryka.  When the Ice Ages came, the Flame Folk created Xandulu and retreated down there, bringing with them some humans, the Ara, and some Ryka, portioning out Xandulu into three countries.  The Ryka left the surface died out during the Ice Age, though the humans left behind endured and became your and my ancestors.

Down in Xandulu, where the living was easy, the Ara became peaceful hippies, losing interest in technology and complex social organization, while the once super powerful Flame Folk's civilization lost its vitality, evolving into peaceniks psychologically unable to commit violence, even in defense of their own lives.  The Ryka, conversely, developed all kinds of high tech weaponry and took to worshipping destruction, even creating a monster god, a personification of destruction, to serve as the focus of their worship.  Embracing imperialism and a lust to destroy, the only thing holding the Ryka back from taking over all of Xandulu was their residual fear of the Flame Folk, whose technology was still much more advanced than their own.  Recently, under the rule of high priest Bak-Toreg, the Ryka's fear of the Flame Folk has eased and they have attacked and almost wiped out the Ara.  The Flame Folk tell Kendon that, as they lack the ability to fight, that he will have to stop the Ryka, whose ambitions are not confined to Xandulu--Bak-Toreg aspires to destroy the entire Earth in sacrifice to his monster god.

One of the force bubbles seizes Kendon and carries him to the high-tech city of the Ryka and deposits him in a pit in a sort of amphitheater with tens of thousands of seats, where he will be sacrificed to the monster god.  Before the crowds and the monster arrive, the Flame Folk teleport to him an invisible sword, which he uses to kill the god, a giant scorpion, as its worshippers watch in horror.  The Flame Folk spirit Kendon away with their super science before the Ryka mob can murder Kendon, but he is teleported not to that island where Su-Ildra awaits him, but back in North Africa!

As the second installment of the serial ends Kendon has purchased another plane and tells Dr. Brander that he is going back to Xandulu to find Su-Ildra.

In the third installment, eight months after Kendon bid him good-bye, Brander receives a radio message from Kendon, who is down in Xandulu.  Kendon describes over the radio his recent adventures in the underground world, in which he has decided to stay.

When he got to the little island again he found that Su-Ildra had vanished, and fell into a trap set by Bak-Toreg.  An artificial life form, like wires or vines, seizes him and starts strangling him; Kendon would have died if the Flame Folk hadn't teleported him out of the monster's clutches and to their city.  

The Flame Folk tell Kendon that Bak-Toreg has lost all fear of them, that in hours he is going to attack this city from the air and bomb it into rubble.  Just in case somebody decides to shoot back, Bak-Toreg has Su-Ildra chained up in his flier as a human shield!

Centuries ago, before the Flame Folk had become such pacifists, they built an arsenal of AFVs and bombers and anti-aircraft ray projectors against such an occasion as this.  This arsenal is still stored in a tower none of these reptilian conscientious objectors has visited in hundreds of years, the Tower of Dread.  Kendon hurries to this Tower, where a hologram teaches him how to operate an AA energy cannon.  When the Ryka Luftwaffe strikes, Kendon shoots down all of the Ryka aircraft except for the one with Bak-Toreg and Su-Ildra aboard; the head priest turns his aircraft around and heads for home.

Kendon has the Flame Folk teleport him onto the aircraft of Bak-Toreg.  He takes the powerful female Ryka aboard by surprise, pushing her over the rail to die below as she hits the surface.  Bak-Toreg has a box with a switch on it, and says that if he throws the switch it will destroy the universe.  Dramatizing the triumph of the science of psychology over the superstition that is religion, Kendon dares the High Priest to throw the switch, confident that Bak-Toreg is too scared of death to follow through on his professed beliefs.  Kendon is right, of course, takes the box and throws it overboard and then kills the dwarfish little priest with his bare hands.  Kendon has saved the world and his girlfriend!     

"Xandulu" is almost twice as long as "Born of the Sun."  Unfortunately, I don't feel like it delivers twice as much entertaining content.  Why is Brander even in the story?  Instead of having Miles Kendon tell Brander his adventures, why not just have Kendon tell his adventures to us directly in a memoir or something?  Or just have Brander at the very beginning and very end of the story, not the end and beginning of each episode?  For a while I expected Xanduluan super science to cure Brander of his malady so he could join in the fighting in Xandulu, but such a thing never happens--Brander is a cripple from start to finish of this story and he does just about nothing besides make the story longer.

Another thing that adds to the word count without adding entertainment value is how Kendon keeps leaving Xandulu and returning to it.  The plot would have been the same and more compact if, instead of going to France after Su-Idra was captured and then going back to Africa after he slew the giant scorpion, Kendon had just never left Xandulu.

A problem with the plot that has nothing to do with length is how the Flame Folk are always saving Kendon's bacon and telling him what to do.  I guess I say this all the time and here I am saying it again--stories are better when the main character's personality and decisions drive the plot, when he succeeds or fails based on his own character and ability and judgements.  

There are good things in "Xandulu," but the ratio of good stuff to sterile padding is lower than it should be.  Merely acceptable.


It is easy to see some recurring themes in the 1934 Williamson stories we have now read, today's three plus "Wizard's Isle," like religious fanatics who want to destroy the world, giant scorpions, Asian mad scientists, and wealthy young men who inherit their wealth and use it to go on adventures.  It is interesting to see Williamson working within various SF traditions and subgenres, sometimes in the same story at once: the Burroughs tradition in which a man of action finds another world and rescues a princess, the elitist traditions in which men of science are opposed by mobs of the common folk and by religious people, the Yellow Peril genre, and the sort of stories associated with "weird menace" or "shudder pulp" magazines whose appeal lies in the depiction of gore and women in peril.

Williamson has a competent writing style and does come up with engaging SF ideas, and I enjoyed these stories despite all their shortcomings, and you can be sure we'll be reading more of his work here at MPorcius Fiction Log.