Friday, June 14, 2024

Weird Tales, April 1939: T McClusky, C L Moore, E Hamilton and R Bloch

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are working our way through Farnsworth Wright's famed magazine of the bizarre and unusual, Weird Tales.  We've already read at least one story from every issue published from 1930 to 1938, as the following links attest, and we are making progress on 1939--today we read four stories from the April 1939 issue, those by Thorp McClusky, C. L. Moore, Edmond Hamilton, and Robert Bloch.  (We've already read this issue's story by Moore's husband Henry Kuttner, "Hydra," and the included reprint, a 1929 collaboration between Zealia Bishop and H. P. Lovecraft, "The Curse of Yig.")

1930    1931   1932   1933    1934    1935    1936    1937    1938 

"The Red God Laughed" by Thorp McClusky 

The time: The final decade of the 21st century.  The place: New York City, home of skyscrapers 4,000 feet high.  But alas, no man, woman or child stirs, and all the machines are stilled, for a poison gas war started by an Asian power has exterminated almost all life on Earth!  Worms, fish and a few amphibians are the largest creatures to endure!

Reminding us of "Watcher of the Skies," a starship lands in this inert metropolis and its sole occupant emerges to investigate.  This tentacled invertebrate explorer is on a quest for a new home for his race, his planet being low on water, and water surprisingly rare throughout the galaxy.  We follow the visitor as he explores the bone strewn city, determines Earth is a perfect environment for his people, but suffers a terrible tragedy before he can bring the good news to his fellows--he finds an unexploded gas bomb on the roof of a skyscraper, and, not knowing what it is, tinkers with it, releasing its deadly payload and killing himself.  The red god who laughs is Mars, the god of war, who has claimed another victim and dashed the hopes of another civilization.

"The Red God Laughed" is pretty good; McClusky's style here is smooth making the story a comfortable read.  In 2001 the story would be reprinted in an anthology of stories with colors in their titles edited by Forrest J. Ackerman.  

"Hellsgarde" by C. L. Moore

Here we have one of Moore's stories of Jirel of Joiry, the sword swinging medieval french noblewoman who is always getting mixed up with wizards and taking trips to other dimensions.  This time around the plot is set in motion by Black Guy of Garlot, an evil wizard in an impregnable fortress.  Black Guy has captured twenty of Jirel's men-at-arms, and the ransom he demands is the fabled treasure kept in the haunted castle known as Hellsgarde, a long-abandoned ruin that sits in the middle of a marsh and can only be found at night!  What is the treasure it holds?  Nobody knows, but Black Guy is confident it must be awesome, so he wants it.

Jirel expects Hellsgarde to be vacant, but when she gets there she finds twenty fresh corpses before its gate, a gate which is opened by a servant to admit her.  The castle has been recently reoccupied by a lord, Alaric, and his court, all of whom Jirel finds have an odd cast to their countenances--they have the faces of people who are deformed, though their bodies are whole; Jirel is sure God stamped this look on their faces because their souls are twisted and evil.  (I guess we aren't supposed to believe this anymore, but it used to be common to believe that a person's face and body reflected his or her character.)

The sinister lord welcomes Jirel and Moore takes her time describing the red-headed beauty's vague and inconclusive, but very very tense, conversations with Alaric and the reactions of his courtiers.  We hear a lot about people meeting or failing to meet each other's eyes, Jirel shifting her cloak to show off her curvaceous mail-clad body, awkward silences, subtle frowns and faint smiles, that sort of thing.  Every word, every expression, seems to bear great significance, but what that significance is is not clear.

After an uncomfortable meal with the lord and courtiers, Jirel is led on a tour of the castle by Alaric.  Moore's stories often feature an undertone of aggressive, predatory, nonconsensual sex, and when a mysterious wind blows out all the torches, Jirel is grabbed by some super strong unknown being and kissed violently, "a more savagely violent, wetly intimate kiss than she had ever known before...."  She tries to push her assailant away, but there is no chest to push against in the dark--her molester seems to consist only of an arm and a mouth with big "wide-set" teeth.  When the fires are reignited, no assailant is in evidence and Alaric is too far from Jirel to have been the culprit--but just who, then, has "ravaged her bruised mouth"?  

Jirel comes to believe she was kissed by the ghost of Andred, the last man to rule the castle, a man whose enemies dismembered him 200 years ago and whose body parts were strewn throughout the swamp.  When Alaric realizes this he is thrilled--he and his entourage have been trying without success to contact Andred's ghost, he says because the ghost of Andred can lead them to the treasure.  Alaric's people seize Jirel and imprison her--they will use her as bait for the ghost.  Jirel escapes the dungeon and summons the horny ghost of Andred--she too wants the treasure, after all.  The ghost kisses her and carries her body to a tiny secret chamber full of bones and her soul to another dimension (of course) where one expects she will be lost forever...but Alaric and his weird courtiers are witches, and by doing a queer dance and playing eldritch music they summon Jirel's soul back to her body.  In the little chamber is the small fungus and rust covered metal-hinged leather box that contains the mysterious treasure.  Luckily for Jirel, Alaric and the witches don't really care about the treasure--that was a lie, what they really wanted was to feast on Andred--these creeps are addicted to the dark energy of the undead, the imbibing of which brings them an incomparable ecstasy.

The witches let Jirel leave with the treasure box, warning her not to open it.  As the story ends Jirel imagines that she will be able to ransom her men with the box and then Black Guy will open it and be killed by whatever horror it contains.

The plot of "Hellsgarde" is good, and I like the themes of predation and deformity, but I often complain that Moore in her Weird Tales work overwrites, making her stories too long and too repetitive, and she does that again here.  The rape-like kiss, the anxious conversation with Alaric and his circle, the disturbing music and dance, the twenty corpses impaled in front of the castle--these are all good fantasy/horror story things, but instead of describing them in a single striking paragraph Moore spends column after column describing them and Jirel's reactions to them, diluting the effect of these images and ideas instead of deepening or heightening them.  There is also a sameness to Moore's Weird Tales stories: Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry are both anti-heroes, bandit-types, and again and again they  find themselves faced with eerie psychic phenomena and end up in abstract battles of will and have to be rescued from them by some friend or ally.  

The readers of Weird Tales voted "Hellsgarde" the top story of the issue; I am willing to say it is marginally good.  

"Hellsgarde" has of course been reprinted in a stack of Moore collections, but you can also find it in L. Sprague de Camp's 1963 anthology Swords and Sorcery and a 1967 issue of The Man from UNCLE Magazine--I see that this issue of The Man From UNCLE includes an apparently uncollected story by Barry N. Malzberg, "No Grace Period."  Oy, am I going to have to spend $35 on a stupid magazine to read this story?  Are there at least pictures of girls in the magazine?

"Armies From the Past" by Edmond Hamilton 

This is a sequel to Hamilton's "Comrades of Time," which we read almost two years ago, and yet another Hamilton story in which a guy is transported to another milieu and there fights with a sword in the wars of some hot chick he has fallen in love with.  

Ethan Drew fell in love with a woman of the future in "Comrades of Time" and has been thinking about her ever since he returned to the 20th century.  As "Armies of the Past" begins he is transported to the future of two million years hence, summoned by his sweetheart's father, the time-machine building scientist.  This genius has also summoned the soldiers from across history we met in that earlier Drew story, a Puritan, a conquistador, a Viking, a crusader, etc.  Each of these guys has a characteristic one-note "voice" or "personality" but they all serve the same superfluous role in the plot, just fighting alongside Drew.

The world of circa 2,000,000 AD is a pretty dreadful one.  Skinny red-skinned aliens conquered the Earth circa 1,900,000 AD and enslaved the human race by spiking the drinking water with a drug that made the humans worship them.  Each Earth city today is inhabited by a small elite of these extraterrestrial "Masters" and mass throngs of worshipful humans.  Life was so easy for the Masters here on Earth that they long ago fell into decadence and have forgotten how to make space craft or just about any other modern device or system--their slave soldiers fight with swords and spears and ride horses around.  

The scientist and his hot daughter arrived in this period of history and set up a house for themselves in the wilderness but were attacked when discovered by the Masters and their slaves.  Instead of just moving to some other time in history themselves, they summoned Drew and their other friends from various periods of history to help them.  A flank attack by the Masters captures the scientist and his daughter while Drew and his comrades are fighting off human slaves, so Drew and company have to do the kind of thing people in adventure stories always do, namely don the clothes of the fallen enemy and sneak into the dungeons under the Masters' city and rescue their friends.  

The liberated scientist uses his time machine (which the Masters didn't sabotage, thank heavens) to summon an army of thousands drawn from different periods of history--he plucks from the past a Roman legion, a battalion of Napoleonic infantry, as well as units of Greek hoplites, mounted Sioux, crusaders, Arabs, etc.  For whatever reason, the scientist doesn't summon any fighting men who might have aircraft or ray guns or anything that would make the war easy.  

With this army our heroes take the city and exterminate the Masters and liberate the hypnotized humans.  The scientist offers to send everybody back to his appropriate time, but, amazingly, the thousands of soldiers decide they prefer this period and want to join a worldwide campaign to liberate all the Earth.  This makes sense for Drew because he is a modern man in love with the scientist's daughter, but many of the other thousands of guys presumably have friends and parents and siblings and wives and girlfriends back in their native times, not to mention the food and music and architecture and religion they grew up with; there are many elements to this story that can't bear analysis.

Barely acceptable.  Like the first Drew story and Hamilton's 1935 "The Six Sleepers," "Armies from the Past" distinguishes itself from Hamilton's other adventure stories with the gimmick of having half a dozen characters who each represent some noteworthy culture from history, but I don't find this gimmick particularly fun or interesting.  The additional five or six bland characters just clutter up the story and occupy column inches that in better stories Hamilton would fill with strange aliens or images of horror or speculations on alternate ways of organizing society or something else I would find entertaining.  To be fair, maybe other people find the dialogue of the time-travelling fighting men (e. g., the Egyptian swearing by Osiris and Bast, the coonskin cap-wearing trapper pronouncing "horses" as "hosses" and "learn" as "larn," and the Puritan wondering if a Christian should put on a pagan's clothes) amusing.  

"Armies of the Past" was been reprinted in small press books in 1977--in Robert Weinberg's anthology Lost Fantasies #6--and in 2021--in DMR Books' Hamilton collection The Avenger from Atlantis.

"The Red Swimmer" by Robert Bloch   

Lucas Treach is an Englishman, a womanizer, and a pirate!  He and his men have seized a Spanish galleon, disposed of its crew, disguised themselves as Spaniards, and sailed right into a port in the Spanish Caribbean to do the profitable business the now dead Spaniards would have done.  And Treach’s good luck just got better!  A Spanish aristocrat books passage back to Spain, and he is bringing with him all his considerable wealth. Also accompanying him is his daughter, the most beautiful woman Treach has ever seen!  Hubba hubba!

Having dinner aboard the ship with Treach, the aristocrat gets a little liquored up and lets slip some clues as to why he has to leave the Caribbean--it turns out this joker is a mad scientist/evil wizard driven out of the colonies by the persnickety local representatives of the Catholic Church!  He studied elemental magic with Moors in Spain!  In the Caribbean he conducted experiments on slaves in pursuit of means to revive the dead and achieve eternal life!  Treach, silently, dismisses this as the superstitious nonsense you expect from a Spaniard.

When he deems the ship far enough from shore, Treach reveals his true identity to the prisoners and proceeds to abuse, torture, murder, mutilate and throw them overboard.  But before they are silenced the aristocrat calls upon the spirits of the air and his beautiful daughter swallows a vial of liquid--she tells Treach it is an elixir of eternal life and promises to wreak a terrible vengeance on him.

Sure enough, a storm wrecks the ship the next day and only a handful of men, led by Treach, manage to scramble aboard a boat with some provisions and live to see the end of the tempest.  One of the survivors is a giant African, a "Krooman" with a "brutal negroid face" and "black ape-arms."  This African tries to steal all the food for himself and is killed by Treach.  This racist action scene seems a little superfluous, but it serves the plot role of limiting the amount of supplies available to the survivors and it does get a rise out of the reader. 

As the days pass the survivors, low on food and water and subjected to the fierce equatorial sun, grow more and more delirious, and men begin vanishing over the side; it becomes clear that a red form is pursuing the boat, a form which whispers to a man and then drags him under with red arms.  Undeniably, it is the Spanish girl, whom Treach blinded and then flayed alive before throwing her  overboard.  Treach is the last to survive, and eventually the mutilated girl climbs aboard the boat and inflicts upon Treach the tortures he inflicted upon her.

This is a good gory horror story, truly shocking, and not just because of the depiction of the African sailor.  Far more economical than Moore's "Hellsgarde," I beg to differ with the judgement of Weird Tales readers and prefer "The Red Swimmer" to her tale.

"The Red Swimmer" was reprinted in 1945 in England along with Hamilton's "The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" and H. O. Dickinson's "The Sex Serum" in an odd little pamphlet with a nude illustration on its cover.  In the 1980s, "The Red Swimmer" would reappear in two anthologies in which Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh had a hand, one collecting stories on the theme of curses, the other on the theme of pirates.  Aaar!


Hamilton's story is questionable filler, but the rest of these stories are good; McClusky and Bloch offer strong direct shock stories and Moore a (perhaps characteristically) florid and overwritten piece that still delivers--the day after reading "Hellsgarde" I still remember the solid plot and compelling themes and images while my annoyance at the uneconomical prose fades.  A good issue of Weird Tales!       

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