Short Story Review: “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish

(Cover artist uncredited. Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1950.)

Who Goes There?

James Blish is one of the defining practitioners of ’50s SF, although his legacy is sort of a mixed bag and he has not retained nearly the level of popularity of, say, Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. Like Asimov, Blish spent his formative years as part of the Futurians, a left-leaning New York-based fan group (although Blish’s politics were much murkier). Thus, Blish hung out with the likes of Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril, Donald Wollheim, and C. M. Kornbluth. The Futurians would have an incalculably large impact on the history of the field, and like Kornbluth and others, Blish got his professional start in the early ’40s writing for Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. Also like Kornbluth, Blish would go on hiatus during America’s involvement in World War II, and would not return until the tail end of the ’40s, by this point having metamorphized into his “mature” phase.

1950 was an especially important year for Blish, as he started his epic Cities in Flight series with the novelette “Okie,” in the April 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. That same month (although technically it would’ve been a month prior) we got “There Shall Be No Darkness,” one of the most notable SF-horror efforts of its era. The story was considered major enough (or at least fit enough for adaptation, and I would agree on that) to be made into a film, titled The Beast Must Die. But whereas as the source material is more concerned with rationalizing lycanthropy in scientific terms (it is, as I’ll explain, totally SF and not fantasy), the film looks to be more of a straight murder mystery. The Beast Must Die remains the only film adaptation of Blish’s work, which is a big shame because something like “A Work of Art” or “Surface Tension” could work great as a short film—maybe in the next season of Love, Death & Robots?

Little bit of trivia: Blish’s A Case of Conscience is so far (assuming they bring back the Retro Hugos) the only story to have won the Hugo twice, as the novel version won the Best Novel Hugo in 1959 while the novella version (which from what I’ve heard is the first third of the novel) won the Retro Hugo for Best Novella. This is also if we’re not counting Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which won both a special series Hugo and a couple Retro Hugos.

Placing Coordinates

First appeared in the April 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. Was later reprinted in the January 1969 issue of Magazine of Horror, also on the Archive. Unless you have a real phobia of two-columned writing (in which case you should not be reading old-fashioned SFF magazines like yours truly), it’s pretty easy to find online. Ah, but those book reprints! Because “There Shall Be No Darkness” is a somewhat famous story we have some options here. Firstly there’s A Treasury of Modern Fantasy by Terry Carr and Martin H. Greenberg; as I said in my review of C. L. Moore’s “Daemon,” this and Masters of Fantasy are the same anthology. There’s also The Fantasy Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg, which seems to have a pretty loose conception of “fantasy” but whose contents are nonetheless of exceptional quality.

For single-author collections we have some good ones. If you’re a collector then I would suggest The Best of James Blish, as part of the Ballantine/Del Rey Best Of series from the ’70s and ’80s; these babies are old but gold, and their covers all range from good to excellent, making them fine collectors’ items. More recent, and even being in print, is Works of Art, which strives to be a more comprehensive collection of Blish’s short fiction. It’s a fancy hardcover from NESFA Press and it’s reasonably affordable (if you consider $30 to be reasonable). This is definitely one of that more reprinted stories I’ve reviewed thus far.

Enhancing Image

We start at a house party, the people therein being functionally the entire cast; there are something like eight or nine people at the party, but only six of them are plot-crucial, so I’ll focus on those. We’ve got Paul Foote, Jan Jarmoskowski, Doris Gilmore, Chris Lundgren, and Tom and Caroline Newcliffe, the host and hostess respectively. Tom and Caroline are filthy rich, and it’s not a coincidence that all the guests have to do with the arts and sciences—Painter being a painter, Jan and Doris being pianists (Doris actually being a former student of Jan’s, though they’re only seven years apart in age), and Chris being a psychiatrist as well as the story’s resident Mr. Exposition. Paul is the protagonist by virtue of the fact that he’s the POV character for most of it (I say most, put a pin in that one), since he’s not much of a hero; he’s more or less an ordinary guy who thinks, right from the beginning, that there’s something suspicious going on at the party.

There was another person in the room but Foote could not tell who it was. When he turned his unfocused eyes to count, his mind went back on him and he never managed to reach a total. But somehow there was the impression of another presence that had not been of the party before.

Jarmoskowski was not the presence. He had been there before. But he had something to do with it. There was an eighth presence now and it had something to do with Jarmoskowski.

What was it?

What is off about Jan, exactly? For one, his index and middle fingers are the same length, which admittedly is a little weird. Paul also notes that throughout dinner, Jan keeps stratching the palms of his hands (which also look unusually hairy), and, perhaps most telling, his canines are more pronounced than one would expect. If you’re in a werewolf story and you’re aware that you’re in a werewolf story, these all sound like very obvious signs that the person is a werewolf, but Paul is working off a hunch here—a hunch he acts on when he thinks the time is right. Unfortunately for Paul, he does something you’re very much not supposed to do in a horror story: confront the person who is probably (i.e., almost certainly) the killer by himself. I’m not sure what compelled Paul to do all this in the first place, as it’s not implied that he believed in werewolves before all this, though we soon find out that a certain other character knows a lot more than he lets on.

When Paul interrogates Jan, silver knife in hand (it has to be silver), we get what is very much not a twist but which feels like it could be one in another writer’s hands, which is Jan’s transformation. From what I’ve heard, The Beast Must Die tries really hard to save the werewolf reveal until the third act, but in “There Shall Be No Darkness,” there is no such stalling; we get a confirmation of Jan’s lycanthropy less than a third into the story, and frankly, it was telegraphed pretty strongly in advance. If you’re looking for a straight murder mystery, you’ll be let down, but Blish is clearly going for something else here. This is not, contrary to my initial expectations, a rehash of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” The reveal of Jan as the werewolf is not what the story is about; rather, the reveal of the werewolf serves as only the beginning of what makes this story so interesting: its science-fictional rationalization for lycanthropy.

Normally we would waist a lot of time with Paul trying to convince the other guests that there’s a werewolf on the property, but not so! Doris happened to catch a glimpse of Jan in his wolf form, mistaking him at first for one of the mansion’s dogs, though Jan is a big black wolf with red eyes. It’s a cool design, and it’s no surprise that Virgil Finlay would use it as inspiration for his badass interior art—ya know, the thing that convinced me to pick up this story in the first place. Finlay sure can get it.

Now, about how lycanthropy works in this story, because while it is inventive, and Blish’s attempt is an ambitious one, he can’t make it work 100%. Firstly, lycanthropy is treated basically like a physical illness with psychological ramifications, like a combination of tuberculosis and epilepsy. Like with TB back in ye olden times, someone with lycanthropy is rendered an outcast, even if the people casting them out can’t quite articulate what’s wrong with them. There is a truckload of technobabble Blish employs to make it sound like it makes sense, but basically a lycanthrope is able to manipulate organic matter to such an extent that they’re able to morph into animals whose skeletal structures are similar enough—at will! Hence, a lycanthrope can change into a wolf. This even extends to their clothes, assuming the clothes are made of organic material like cotton or what have you.

A lot of questions are raised with regards to how lycanthropy works here, and while Blish doesn’t answer all these questions, the mechanics behind lycanthropy are surprisingly not the most far-fetched thing in this story. But we’ll get to that in the spoilers section. Point being, werewolves are a bit different in “There Shall Be No Darkness,” but there are consistencies that will strike horror veterans as familiar; for one, Paul was right to confront Jan with a silver weapon, as lycanthropes are in fact weak to silver. They’re also weak to wolfsbane (called wolfbane in-story) and related plants, which was actually what made Jan scratch himself and act irritable—he was having an allergic reaction to the plants around the mansion.

We get all this information from Chris Lundgren, who, on top of being an apparently highly respected psychiatrist, is also experienced in dealing with lycanthropes. It’s not surprising, then, that he’s the first to believe Paul’s claim that Jan is a werewolf; what is surprising is that despite having known Jan for some time, Chris remained unaware of his lycanthropy while Paul, the average dude, had his suspicions. Regardless, without Chris the story would be standard horror as opposed to horror-tinged sicnec eifction, which is certainly unique; rarely is a story’s genre dependant on a single character. None of these characters is written with too much depth, and like I said, Chris is Mr. Exposition, but it says something of Blish’s vision and storytelling prowess that things remain very much engaging.

The question then becomes one of how to deal with Jan. Silver would work great, but the only silver Our Heroes™ have that could be used for weaponry is knives and candlesticks. They try melting some of the silver to make homegrown bullets, since the Newcliffes are hunters and have some guns to go around, but these prove to be woefully inaccurate, never mind possibly dangerous to the shooter. Ambushing Jan would be incredibly unlikely, due to his agility, so a hand-to-paw fight would probably not end well. Not helping matters is a snow storm which eventually turns into a blizzard, essentially trapping everyone on the property while Jan is on the prowl. “Why doesn’t he just go off somewhere and never be seen again?” Well, the explanation is a weird one: basically, Jan specifically has Doris in mind for his next victim, or at the very least is drawn to her, since during the first stretch of the story he imagined a pentagram on her hand which marked her. The obsession with the pentagram apparently last seven days, which is why Jan doesn’t escape right away.

Blish is very fond of putting science and religion in the boxing ring and seeing who wins, and while it certainly doesn’t go as in-depth as A Case of Conscience, there’s a bit of science-versus-religion with “There Shall Be No Darkness.” It’s all but said that Jan is a Christian, and a particularly superstitious one at that. According to Chris the vision of the pentagram is a hallucination lycanthropes have might compell them to unleash beastly violence (hence my earlier comparison to epilepsy, what with afflicted people having visions because of their seizures), but Jan probably believes the pentagram carries real metaphysical weight. Indeed, the larger effort to understand a mythical creature like the werewolf in scientific terms seems to be Blish trying to reconcile science with supernatural forces.

There Be Spoilers Here

What to do about the silver bullet problem? You’ll never guess. I said before that the Newcliffes are a rich couple, but what happens strains suspension of disbelief so hard that it actually put ths werewolf technobabble in perspective. Tom Newcliffe orders a shipment of guns and silver bullets to be FLOWN IN OVERNIGHT, DURING A SNOW STORM. This would be hard enough to take if the story was set in modern times and Tom had an Amazon Prime account, never mind the cartoon shit that we get here. Perhaps more than anything else, this passage tells me that Blish could’ve had a masterpiece on his hands if he had so much as gone through one more rewrite; alas, this was the ’50s (or more accurately the late ’40s) and people writing for the pulps were not inclined to revise too much.

I wanna take this moment to talk about where and when “There Shall Be No Darkness” was published, because I think it explains the story’s unique but unrefined nature. Thrilling Wonder Stories was, along with its sister magazine Startling Stories, a second-rate SFF magazine in an era when Astounding was king; there was no question that Campbell’s magazine paid the most and had the most prestigious image. Which is not to say there weren’t alternatives! Albeit not many, especially for a horror tale like Blish’s. Weird Tales was still going, and you could argue “There Shall Be No Darkness” is what could’ve been called a “weird-scientific” tale, but it’s totally possible that Weird Tales paid an even lower rate at this point than Thrilling Wonder Stories. I wouldn’t know off the top of my head. It almost certainly would not have appealed to Campbell, whose tastes were starting to narrow, and who very soon would unleash a cataclysm upon the field: Dianetics.

Maybe it was for the best that Blish’s story ended up where it did.

A lot happens in “There Shall Be No Darkness,” much of it best experienced without having the whole thing spelled out, so I won’t delve too much here. It’s a long and complex story; ISFDB erroneously cites it as a novella, when really it comes out to about thirty book pages, but that mistake says something about its density. I’ll zero in on the climax, which I think actually leans closer to tragedy than horror. Following the deaths of a couple characters, and with Jan nowhere to be seen, Paul contemplates what might happen if Jan were to escape off the property and spread the disease of lycanthropy far and wide (lycanthropy being an infectious disease, not unlike our modern conception of zombies). We arrive at perhaps the most Blish-esque passage, which seems to forecast one of Blish’s chief concerns during his mature phase: mankind’s metaphysical place in the universe.

Maybe God is on the side of the werewolves.

The blasphemy of an exhausted mind. Yet he could not put it from him. Suppose Jarmoskowski should conquer his compulsion and lie out of sight until the seven days were over. Then he could disappear. It was a big country. It would not be necessary for him to kill all his victims—just those he actually needed for food. But he could nip a good many. Every other one, say.

And from wherever he lived the circle of lycanthropy would grow and widen and engulf—

Maybe God had decided that proper humans had made a mess of running the world, had decided to give the nosferatu, the undead, a chance at it. Perhaps the human race was on the threshold of that darkness into which he had looked throughout last night.

But Jan comes back—to Doris. Perhaps he hasn’t killed her yet because he loves her, and she’s had a crush on him for years; if not for the current circumstances, they might be perfect for each other. Like something out of the book of Genesis, Jan tempts Doris by making her an offer, and a pretty simple one: he bites her, “infects” her with his disease, and they run off together, two lycanthropes who will have nothing except each other. Despite what Paul suspects, lycanthropy is a genetic dead end; it can only be spread via infection, and lycanthropes, no matter where they go, will be treated as pariahs. Could two lycanthropes also breed in order to continue this pseudo-species? Probably. Blish isn’t very clear on that, but then, oddly less so than the earlier Jack Williamson novella “Darker Than You Think,” “There Shall Be No Darkness” is not really concerned with sex. Regardless, lycanthropy sounds like a fine recipe for succumbing to madness, then death.

Paul, who we’re told has a habit of eavesdropping, uses his habit for good this time when he stops by Doris’s room and catches the two talking, and… well, you can get what happens next. Not that Jan seems to mind dying too much; for him it would either be that or living an impossible dream with Doris. Think living day after day as a werewolf would be cool? Think again! Of course, it seems like in werwolf media a person’s life expectancy whittles down to a fraction of what it would normally be if they become a werewolf; if authorities or werwolf hunters don’t get them then their own inevitable self-loathing will. Damn near every werewolf narrative I can think of is ultimately a tragic one, in the sense that we get a grim end that comes about because of a combination of circumstances and the main character’s flaws. In the context of the story, lycanthropy may as well be a terminal illness, and Jan no longer wants to be treated—he just wants it to end.

A Step Farther Out

I would highly recommend “There Shall Be No Darkness,” even though I think it’s obviously flawed in parts. A problem I’ve often encountered with Blish (except for “A Work of Art,” which I think is a masterpiece) is that his prose does not quite match up with the breadth of his ideas. You could make that criticism with a lot of old-timey SFF authors, especially guys like Philip K. Dick and A. E. van Vogt whose raw prose does not do justice to what they’re writing about, but Blish was heavily inspired by the modernists of all people! He was a big fan of James Joyce! He thought Joyce’s “The Dead” was the best short story ever written. Clearly he wanted to be like Joyce, or at least a D. H. Lawrence, but like most SFF writers (especially from that period), Blish was not a poet; he did not have a delicate ear for the English language. I say all this because “There Shall Be No Darkness” is a very good story that feels like it could’ve been a truly great story, and in that it feels both deeply satisfying and disappointing at the same time.

Well, that’s spooky month for you. Despite the fact that I’ve covered three vampire stories this month, I have to admit I’m more fond of werewolves; it’s just a shame that there don’t seem to be as many werewolf stories as vampire stories. I can think of several reprint anthologies wholly dedicated to vampire stories, but werewolves don’t get that much love. If you’re looking for some vintage but inventive werewolf action, then today’s story will almost certainly do the trick. I’m quite fond of it.

See you next time.


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