Henry Kuttner is probably one of the more tragically undervalued writers from the so-called Golden Age of SF. He and his wife C. L. Moore were “co-winners” of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. The SF Encyclopedia calls him “a journeyman of genius.” He started in 1936 as a denizen of Weird Tales, as one of the younger members in the Lovecraft Circle, though his early horror seems to take more after Robert E. Howard than Lovecraft, and by the early 1940s he had matured into one of the funniest and most reliable writers contributing regularly to Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown. Kuttner’s years-long collaboration with Moore was so seamless and fruitful that a) people can only make educated guesses as to who wrote what, and b) Moore’s own immense talent would have the doubly tragic effect of undermining Kuttner’s own talent in historical accounts. Kuttner dying prematurely in 1958 (only a month apart from another comedian of the field, C. M. Kornbluth), before he could’ve possibly returned to writing (he was busy getting his Master’s degree) may have also contributed to modern recollections of him being rather foggy.
The reality is that Kuttner’s razor-sharp wit and pessimistic sense of humor, plus a social awareness uncommon in his peers at the time, made him a major precursor to certain SF writerss in the generation following him, including Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and yes, a mature C. M. Kornbluth. He even had a massive influence on Ray Bradbury, even though the two writers have little in common in terms of worldview. Kuttner, who submitted to every publication under the sun, serves as an unintentional landmark in that his death coincided with a profound shrinking of the SFF magazine market towards the end of the ’50s. He continues to be missed.
First published in the October 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. “Exit the Professsor” is listed on ISFDB as a collaboration with Moore, but frankly I find this hard to believe; it was initially published under Kuttner’s name alone, was collected in Kuttner-specific collections (including Ballantine’s The Best of Henry Kuttner), but more importantly, it reads like a Kuttner story from start to finish. Anyway, if you want reprints then go for the aforementioned Ballantine volume (I wanna start collecting those at some point, they’re very collectable) and the most essential volume of them all, Two-Handed Engine: The Selected Stories of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Has been anthologized weirdly little.
I hope you like eccentric families, because we’ve got one for the ages here. The Hogbens are what you might imagine to be a stereotypical Appalachian (my girlfriend, a Kentucky native, informs me it’s pronounced App-uh-lach-an) family, the Hogbens, who are very redneck-y… only there’s something weird about all of them. We’ve got Saunk, our narrator, the eldest child of the family; Little Sam, the baby of the group, who has two heads and is supposed to be to telepathic; Paw, the dad, who, either because he chooses to or because he doesn’t know how to turn back, is always invisible; Maw, the mom, who… I actually don’t remember what’s weird about her; Uncle Les, who’s able to FLY on command; and Grandpaw, who speaks pseudo-Shakespearean and who is old enough to have known Roger Bacon—making him at least 700 years old. So yeah, they’re mutants.
The story kicks into gear because the Hogbens have a strange contraption, a “shotgun-gadget” that actually kills a few member of a rival family, though by the Hogbens’ own admission they don’t know how the dingus works. The family has been making a ruckess with this contraption and with people alleging strange things coming from that area, so it’s only a matter of time before a scientist gets involved: Galbraith, the titular professor. As Galbraith explains, “Our foundation is studying eugenics, and we’ve got some reports about you. They sound unbelievable.” When someone says they’re studying eugenics it’s usually a red flag; but Galbraith is here because the Hogbens are suspected (rightly) of being natural mutants, having sustained their genes for centuries now and having kept low-key by living in a rural area.
Given what I said before about Grandpaw it shouldn’t be surprising that the Hogbens’ legacy can be traced back very easily to the UK—hell, not just the UK but the British isles of the Middle Ages. One nitpick I do have is that while it makes sense to hide in a part of the world with few people if one is trying to hide one’s mustations, I’m not sure if rural Kentucky is the best choice. Anyway, Galbraith is curious and also devious enough that once he’s gotten hold of the Hogbens he all but holds them hostage, forcing one of them to either travel to New York with him to be studied or to have a science team come to their place. The Hogbens’ secret must be kept and Saunk is not above committing a little (more) murder, but Grandpaw says that there will be no more killing from this household—not that killing Galbraith would probably help the family in the long run.
What do, then?
Before I get to spoilers (there’s really not a lot to cover), I wanna talk about one thing that may prove a roadblock for some people reading this story, which is how Saunk is a redneck and that he’s the one narrating, which means the story’s action is conveyed with a pho-net-ick ack-sent, like an off-brand rendition of one of Faulkner’s more backwoods-y characters. It’s very readable, mind you; you get used to the accent quickly enough. There is, of course, the question of whether a diehard Californian like Kuttner will render a rural dialogue a) accurately, and b) with sensitivity: the answer to both is probably no. I would take more issue with this if “Exit the Professor” was a more serious story, but it’s not; it is quite mindfully a pure comedy that, had the science-fictional element been changed to fantasy, would’ve fit right at home in Unknown. Indeed it’s the story’s harking back to Kuttner’s comedic fantasies in Unknown that gives me a soft spot for it.
One last thing: there are a lot of great lines here. Saunk is a funny narrator, less because he’s trying to be funny and more because he happens to say funny things at times. When Galbraith sees the shotgun-gadget he pesters Saunk with questions, and, having little idea as to how the thing works, Saunk is very curt about it. “It puts holes in things,” he says at one point. What a lad. The brevity is what makes it funny.
There Be Spoilers Here
So they can’t kill Galbraith, lest they upset Grandpaw, and Saunk can’t go to New York for risk of exposing the family; so what now. Saunk is a bright boy, though, and he comes up with a scheme involving the shotgun-gadget. See, the shotgun-gadget doesn’t just put holes in things. Saunk uses the professor’s curiosity against him by having him mess with the dingus, aiming at a weather-cock “to be safe,” which actually results in a whole lot of toothaches in the village. “I guess half the people in town had gold fillings in their teeth.” There’s a town hall meeting, with people threatening to lynch the professor for his meddling with the shotgun-gadget, but of course, instead of helping the professor out of his problem, the hogbens decide to make it WORSE. This all reads like an epic prank gone wrong.
The dingus removes people’s gold fillings—and also false teeth. And glass eyes. And the chairs in the town hall. And people’s clothes. Kuttner seems of the belief that naked people in public are funny; a wise man he is. So you’ve got a bunch of naked hillbillies chasing after the professor wanting to tar and feather his ass, which leaves him only one option: the Hogbens. The solution the Hogbens have in mind is… a bit odd; don’t think we’re given a scientific explanation for it. Somehow they shrink the professor down to a very small size and keep him stuck in a bottle. “Sometimes we take out the bottle we keep him in and study him.” I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a ship-in-a-bottle scenario (which would be pretty cool, you have to admit) or if they just keep the professor in there and treat him like a doll. I like the climax but I’ll admit I’m not as big on the ending itself, which is abrupt.
Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy snappy jokess in your SF and how much you can tolerate stereotypes for the sake of humor, but for what it’s worth I’d say the Hogbens come out pretty well.
A Step Farther Out
I specifically picked “Exit the Professor” as something that looks lightweight and entertaining before I continue to suffer through Sos the Rope, and that’s what I got! At the same time this shows Kuttner on his own (contrary to what ISFDB tells you) and on his best behavior, channeling some of the whacky humor he’d proven a master of in the early ’40s, with a somewhat plausible science-fictional premise to boot. Unless you’re Appalachian and are easily offended then the hijinks of the story should not offend. This is short and quite chuckle-worthy, to the point where I could just quote several little echanges that caught me off guard—though that wouldn’t help anyone. Of the Kuttner stories I’ve reviewed thus far this one is my favorite. It’s like comfort food: it’s not challenging but it makes you feel good.
Given that her career as an a genre writer was cut short, on account of the premature death of her first husband Heny Kuttner, C. L. Moore’s time in the field was wide-spanning and much lauded. Nowadays (unless you’re a Weird Tales fan) she’s most recognized for her collaborations with Kuttner and the occasional solo story written during their marriage, but Moore gained cred as one of Weird Tales‘s most gifted writers within a year of her professional debut. Her planetary vampire story “Shambleau” was an instant hit and editor Farnsworth Wright cheerleaded her as a force to be reckoned with; within a year she established the two series that would define the first stage of her career, contributing to the planetary romance with Northwest Smith and the fast-growing sword-and-sorcery tradition with Jirel of Joiry. I recommend reading my review of the first Jirel story, “The Black God’s Kiss,” before continuing with this review, since today’s story very much assumes you’ve read what came before it.
First published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Because this is a direct sequel to “The Black God’s Kiss” and thus does not stand on its own, it’s be reprinted considerably fewer times than its predecessor. The good news is that you can still find it readily in Jirel of Joiry and Black God’s Kiss, collections which as far as I can tell are mostly identical and which collect the whole (rather short) series. If you’re British and/or you suck eggs then there’s the SF Gateway omnibus collecting Jirel of Joiry, Northwest Smith, and the short novel Judgment Night.
It hasn’t been long since the end of “The Black God’s Kiss,” and yet despite having had her vengeance on the rogue invader Guillaume, Jirel has been tormented by guilt. She had ventured into the dark underworld beneath the castle of Joiry and received the most cursed of weapons: a kiss from a black Buddha-like statue in a temple. Not only did the kiss kill Guillaume but it seemed to send his soul to the underworld, which is the part that’s been troubling Jirel so much. You may recall the ending of “The Black God’s Kiss” was a bit odd, maybe problematic, due to Jirel realizing—too late—that her immense hatred for Guillaume was actually lust (or “love,” but let’s be real with ourselves, what Jirel feels is not love) in disguise.
The first story was almost a subversion on the sword-and-sorcery formula with how it de-emphasized action in favor of describing, in a great detail, an environment totally alien to human experience; call it a Lovecraftian heroic fantasy. Jirel herself is heroic in that she’s quite brave, true, but she’s really an anti-heroine, having no problem with chopping dudes’ heads off if they come into her castle without her consent (this both does and does not feel like a euphemism), and it’s not like she has any virtuous plans for the world in mind. She’s also not a virginal waif who has never seen a man’s drill before, as it’s made clear to us that she’s taken on several lovers before. I’m just gonna say it: she’s a top. The sexual undertones of “The Black God’s Kiss” are more or less absent in “Black God’s Shadow,” though, as Jirel is less concerned now with satisfaction than she is with finding inner peace.
The opening scene focuses on Jirel trying and failing to sleep at night, her castle restored but her faith in herself wrecked. She considers the possibility of Guillaume, in some spirit form, wandering the underworld beneath the castle, calling her out for her act of strange cruelty.
By the power of that infernal kiss which she had braved the strange dark place underground to get as a weapon against him—by the utter strangeness of it, and the unhuman death he died, it must be that now his naked soul wandered, lost and lonely, through that nameless hell lit by strange stars, where ghosts moved in curious forms through the dark. And he asked her mercy—Guillaume, who in life had asked mercy of no living creature.
Jirel knows what she must do: return to the underworld and find some way to put Guillaume’s soul to rest. Pretty simple goal, right? And it is! This is even more straightforward on a plot level than the first story, to the point where it actually becomes a bit hard to talk about. It’s a bit shorter than “The Black God’s Kiss” but feels about the same length because of the density of Moore’s descriptions, compounded by the fact that there’s virtually no dialogue this time around. We have three characters, but without being too specific for fear of spoiling only one of them is both human and alive; therefore don’t expect to read conversations here.
Another thing to take into account is that there’s even less action here than in “The Black God’s Kiss,” with Jirel fighting off strange creatures so much here as battling the strangeness of the underworld and her own psyche, which has taken a hit since the end of the first story. The most we get prior to the (rather prolonged) climax is an encounter with an unseen venomous creature that goes after Jirel’s legs during the underworld’s starlit nighttime—a bit of horrific ambiguity that shows once again that Moore could’ve become a horror maestro on par with Lovecraft and Howard had she kept going down this path. Indeed it’s here in her early fiction that Moore is the most poetic, being preoccupied with capturing places and emotions to an extent that may read to some people as trying too hard but which nevertheless gives the Jirel of Joiry stories a unique weird-adventure atmosphere.
With that said, some of the things I found memorable from “The Black God’s Kiss,” such as Jirel’s encounter with her evil mirror image and the herd of blind white horses, are gone here, replaced with things which do not strike me as eerie or memorable. The temple where the black god dwelled in the first story is no longer on an issland connected to the rest of the underworld by an invisible bridge but is instead at the head of a river. Stuff has changed around without explanation, which I suppose makes sense given the unhuman and eldritch nature of the underworld, but there are still certain rules it abides; for example, Jirel still has to ditch her crucifix in order to see the vast underground realm for what it is.
As far as Jirel’s wandering the landscape goes there’s a bit of “second verse, same as the first” at work, but what makes this one distinct is how it refuses to turn into an action fantasy. Actually I’d go so far as to say “Black God’s Shadow” is considerably more obscure than its predecessor because it almost doesn’t work as a short story—nay, it reads almost more like a prose poem, written by someone who may or may not have survivor’s guilt. I don’t know enough about Moore’s life to speculate, but I do have to wonder what could’ve prompted her to zero in on trauma and overcoming said trauma like she does in the first two Jirel of Joiry stories. There’s a darkness lurking at the core of these stories that makes them hard to grapple with, even from a modern reader’s perspective—a meditation on guilt and the dark side of lust that rings somehow as more personal than is to be expected from a 1930s fantasy series starring a bad bitch with red hair.
I don’t like “Black God’s Shadow” as much as what came before it, but when taking the two stories as two halves of one whole I do think they work better together than each on its own. “Black God’s Shadow” is gloomier and more contemplative than its predecessor, but as I’ll explain it’s also the more uplifting of the two at the end of it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The climax is basically a standoff between Jirel and the black god, the living and demonic statue she made a deal with before, now her adversary. Guillaume’s soul is kept prisoner by the black god and Jirel has to free it while also not being taken prisoner herself. A lot happens… and yet not a whole lot if you think about it. This is a spiritual battle, but it’s more so a psychological one. Jirel has to forgive both Guillaume and herself; in other words, she has two souls to save. While Jirel is unable to resurrect the man she had killed (thankfully Moore does not pull such a deus ex machina), she is ultimately able to free his soul from the black god’s clutches. While Jirel is unsure as to where Guillaume’s soul went, his voice no longer haunts her in her mind and dreams, which means we’ve gotten about as happy an ending as we can expect. Jirel’s victory is hard-won, but she has learned to love herself again, and thus this chapter in her life has now ended.
(I have to wonder how the next story, “Jirel Meets Magic,” follows up on the sheer darkness here, but my assumption is that it won’t, which is fair. A direct acknowledgment of Jirel’s suffering henceforth is unneeded.)
A Step Farther Out
I pulled up the letters column in the February 1935 issue of Weird Tales, which has responses to the December 1934 issue, and was dismayed by how unconstructive responses to “Black God’s Shadow” were. There’s the usual “I really like this and all hail C. L. Moore” stuff, but nothing I could find about how radically different “Black God’s Shadow” is from its predecessor, despite the two very much forming a duology—even more so when we consider that Moore very likely wrote the two back-to-back and had already sold “Black God’s Shadow” to Wright before “The Black God’s Kiss” saw print. The two were printed as separate stories and not part of a serial because, I reckon, there’s a clear divide between them such that they sort of mirror each other, and would not cohere as part of a single narrative. Still, with Jirel having resolved the internal conflict that plagued her since the end of “The Black God’s Kiss,” she was free to go on other adventures, and Moore was free to not return to Jirel of Joiry for several months.
With most authors I’ve covered they’re either new to me or I don’t know enough about them to get really nostalgic and defensive about their work; unfortunately I won’t have that vantage point with Philip K. Dick. Spoilers in advance, but it’ll be virtually impossible for me to pretend to be objective about Dick, who has been for a good decade one of my top five favorite authors—inside or outside of genre fiction. I had read “classic” science fiction before but Dick was the one who turned me into an addict. You could say I like Dick a lot. From his debut in 1952 to his untimely death in 1982, Dick pushed the boundaries of what was possible in SF writing, evolving over three decades into someone who still remains a unique voice in the field—despite all the folks who owe a debt to him. He’s also, perhaps not incidentally, a perennial favorite for academics and fanboys with degrees in the growing department of science fiction studies.
Before he became one of the field’s top novelists, though, Dick started out as one of the best and most prolific of short story writers; in what was in hindsight a short time span (most of his short fiction was published before 1960), Dick sold dozens of short stories a year during his peak, with something like thirty short stories being published in 1953 alone. I don’t think even Robert Sheckley wrote this much in a single year. Yes, 1953 was a boom year for Dick, and today’s story, “Second Variety,” might be the most famous to come out of that batch, garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novelette and coming close to winning—only losing to James Blish’s “Earthman, Come Home.” Truth be told, I always found the Blish story hard to digest without prior knowledge of his Cities in Flight series, whereas Dick’s story very much works on its own terms.
First published in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If I was to go through every time this story has been collected and anthologized we’d be here all day, so I’ll restrict myself to reprints that are in print, since even then you have several options. First, if you want a free and accessible version that’s not a legal grey area, good news, somehow “Second Variety” fell out of copyright a while ago and now you can read it perfectly legit on Project Gutenberg, link here. I do recommend reading a copy that doesn’t include interior illustrations, as while the ones by Alex Ebel for the magazine publication (and on Gutenberg) are nice, they also allude to the two biggest twists in the narrative. For book reprints the best choices would be Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, The Philip K. Dick Reader, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. As for myself I also have The World Treasury of Science Fiction, a typical David G. Hartwell anthology in that it is fucking massive; proceed with caution.
Earth is fucked. The Cold War between the Americans and Soviets has long since gone hot and pretty much the whole planet has been rendered unhabitable. The American government, now in exile, has retreated to Earth’s moon. How they managed to build a moon base is beyond me. Meanwhile nearly the whole human population has either died or gone off-planet. “All but the troops.” Even the military is no longer organized, “a few thousand here, a platoon there,” with the only thing giving the soldiers a sense of cohesion being comms with the moon base. We start in one of the bunkers that are surely scattered throughout the scarred landscape, with Major Hendricks as our protagonist—a disciplined but otherwise unexceptional man who will prove to be our eyes and ears for the hell we’ll witness.
A Russian troop runs across the battlefield with a message (unbeknownst to the Americans) before getting killed and torn apart by a pack of claws—little robots that have enough agility and raw steel to slash a man’s throat. The Americans wear badges that prevent the claws from going after them, as they should, considering the claws will go after anything that’s organic; even the rats that populate the trenches and holes of the ruined earth sometimes get caught up a claw’s blades. The Russian’s message reads that the Russian encampment is looking to make peace with the Americans, a call for a cease fire that naturally the Americans are skeptical about. One soldier needs to head over to the Russian base to agree to peace. Simple enough. Hendricks volunteers and the plot, such as it starts, is a simple point-A-to-point-B mission, assuming the claws never mistake Hendricks for the enemy and assuming the Russians don’t get themselves killed by then…
The Americans were losing the war, and badly; thus a super-weapon was needed to push back the enemy, and in this case the Americans got the bright idea to build the claws. Now the claws aren’t just killer robots: these are robots that are not only rabidly bloodthirsty but also granted enough cognitive capacity to be able to reproduce themselves, in that they’re able to run their own factories where they can build and program more claws, independent of human input. Since the top brass couldn’t figure out a way to program faction loyalty into the claws (an RPG, after all, cannot know anything about nationalism), they’re designed to go after anything that moves, making them not-too-picky killers.
Hendricks leaves, but en route to his destination he comes across a boy with a teddy bear who has apparently been surviving on his own. So, the boy is named David and he has a teddy bear. Did Brian Aldiss take inspiration from “Second Variety” when writing “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” or is this one of those weird coincidences? Anyway, Hendricks takes the boy under his wing until they’re stopped by a pack of what appear to be Russian soldiers, who at first seem to take aim at Hendricks—only to shoot David, blowing him to metal pieces and revealing him to have been a claw in disguise. Hendricks has unwittingly almost let a claw into the bunker with him, having mistaken the robot for a human. It wass a good job too; other than some strange behavior that can be explained by the fact that people become unhinged when put in isolation, the claw convinced the jaded military man that it was a real boy for a time. The blurring of the line between the real and fraudulent is a theme Dick will return to many times over his career, and while “Second Variety” was not even the first example of this, it was, along with “Colony,” an effective use of the theme to invoke horror.
Speaking of which, I did say that I’d prefer you read a version that doesn’t come with illustrations, but I’ll allow the first of Ebel’s interiors, which gives away David being a claw but which I think still properly conveys the eeriness of the claws starting to replicate humanity. This is a reminder that much of what Dick wrote can be classified as horror, even though Dick is never talked about as a horror author—probably because, in the hierarchy of genres, horror, for Dick, always came second to science fiction. The two genres have had a symbiotic relationship since the days of Mary Shelley, but that’s a lecture for another time. Like I said, Ebel’s work is good.
Hendricks meets up with a small group of survivors—some Soviet troops who have been cut off from headquarters. The implication, of course, is that there’s no longer any headquarters to get in touch with. The survivors are Rudi, Klaus, and Tasso, the last of these being a young woman whose relationship with the others is unclear. It’s here, in temporary safety (but are we really safe), where we get a further explanation of the claws, including the humanoid varieties, of which “David” is one. Variety I (mind the Roman numberals) is the Wounded Soldier, Variety III is the David, but nobody’s yet found what Variety II would be—hence the title. The idea behind the varieties seems to be not just extermination but infiltration, with claws posing as humans so as to make real humans let their guard down. Apparently the varieties were not the Americans’ idea…
The claws are evolving; not only can they make more of themselves but they’re producing new models, with the varieties even being immune to the badges the American troops wear. Nobody is safe anymore. “It makes me wonder,” says Hendricks, “if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.” It’s possible for a David or a Wounded Soldier to trick an American bunker into being let in, which does not bode well for Hendricks when he eventually has to get back to HQ. Ah, but as long as the claws don’t get to the moon base…! Not to spoil things, but if you’re looking for an optimistic take on mankind’s future you make wanna look elsewhere is all I’m saying.
A lot happens in “Second Variety,” which at first glance, going by page count, looks like a novella, but with a lot of scene breaks and short punchy bits of dialogue it turns out to be not as long as it looks. Still, this is a long novelette at 15,000 words, and Dick demonstrates his mastery of economical writing by keeping the pace of the narrative at a pop-pop-pop rhythm, only giving us a single lengthy infodump towards the beginning before letting short bursts of action and dialogue speak for themselves. It’s still a long story, but given how much Dick crams in here it’s a lot of bang for one’s buck. We spend enough time in the bunker with the survivors in the story’s midpoint that we’re lulled into a sense of security—which proves to be very false indeed. Everything goes to SHIT after this point, let’s see how.
There Be Spoilers Here
The party starts to dwindle. Klaus kills Rudi on the suspicion that Rudi is a claw—or so Klaus claims. Turns out, judging from the organic remains, Rudie was not a claw, but the damage has already been done. Personally I would take this as a huge red flag with regards to Klaus, but for the time being he has plausible deniability. SURPRISE, Klaus is a claw too, only stopped from killing Hendricks as well thanks to an EMP bomb that Tasso carries, which would only really be useful against claws. You’d think this would absolve her of being a claw herself, but there’s one little problem with that: Tasso is the second variety. More successfully than David and even Klaus, Tasso manages to trick Hendricks into thinking she’s human until it’s too late to stop her. I wanna point out that this is not as much of a shock if you’re reading the magazine version or on Gutenberg, where we get an illustration showing a woman-shaped robot well before the reveal, but I also have to admit that the foreknowledge of Tasso’s nature does little to lessen the impact.
Not that Dick’s stories tend to have happy endings, but “Second Variety” has to have one of the bleakest. Hendricks has just unwittingly let a claw take a ship to the moon base where the last of the American faction will probably get annihilated. As he’s fending off an army of claws and bleeding out he reflects back on the anti-claw bomb Tasso used on Klaus, and we get one of the most haunting final lines in a ’50s SF story: “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” A charitable reading of the ending is that the claws may destroy each other, having rid themselves of humanity at last, but Dick may also be implying that the end, for better or worse, is not yet. There will be no clear end to the destruction. There are quite a few post-apocalypse narratives that sprouted following the end of World War II, but unlike those other stories, wherein the fighting has more or less stopped at least, humanity being in too much a state of disarray to make matters worse, the ruined world of “Second Variety” continues to degrade itself, with machines simply continuing humanity’s “work.”
A Step Farther Out
Admittedly part of the fun of reading “Second Variety” is understanding the historical context behind it, because this is a Cold War story from start to finish. I actually watched Screamers, which is loosely based on this, the other day, and it just didn’t have the same punch—in part because it lacked the background of Cold War paranoia. In fairness to the filmmakers, Screamers came out in 1995; the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years prior. Sure, the claws are creepy, but the overall creepiness in the short story is greatly amplified by the constant uncertainty of things. We managed to stop the real Cold War from going hot, but in the ’50s it must’ve been easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, resulting in one of Dick’s bleakest narratives. And I’m here for it! Of Dick’s short stories, “Second Variety” is one of the most memorable that I’ve read; I suspect it didn’t find its way into any of the major magazines because a) Dick was too prolific at this point, and b) the story was too dark, at a time when editors—even the more liberal ones—preferred happy endings. Really it was their loss.
The idea that George R. R. Martin, perhaps the most famous living fantasy writer (or the most famous to not be a raging transphobe) right now, used to be mostly a science fiction writer would strike a lot of people as odd, but that’s the truth. I recommend picking up both volumes of Dreamsongs, the retrospective collection that covers Martin’s essential short fiction up to the turn of the century. The stories themselves are worth it, but Martin also wrote lengthy autobiographical introductions for each section (the stories are divided into thematically appropriate sections), and keep in mind that this was back in 2003… two whole decades ago. In his intro for the section containing “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” and a few other early fantasies, Martin gets weirdly defensive about what must’ve been a recurring criticism of him in fandom at the time: that he was a science fiction writer who “sold out” and started writing fantasy once market forces shifted.
There’s no question that Martin’s priorities with genres changed radically by the time he started working on A Song of Ice and Fire, but the reality is that Martin was always more of a fantasist than a science-fictionist at heart. In the ’70s, when Martin started writing professionally, you had basically two options for getting short fantasy published: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which tended toward fantasy of the whimsical Lewis Carroll sort, and Fantastic, which welcomed adventure fantasy but sadly also paid considerably less than F&SF. Despite the pay gap, though, it was Fantastic and not F&SF where Martin cut his teeth on short fantasy, with him calling “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” his first “pure fantasy” as a pro. Of course, by 1976 Martin was not just a pro but a Hugo winner.
First published in the May 1976 issue of Fantastic, which is on the Archive. It was first collected in Songs of Stars and Shadows, but now you can easily find in the first volume of Dreamsongs. You can also read “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” totally free and legit online as a reprint in Fantasy Magazine, which can be found here. Really you have no excuse.
Martin’s third-person narrator, not quite omniscient, gives us the immediate impression that this will play out like a fairy tale—or at leaat part of a fairy tale. Like your typical fairy tale we’re given a broad outline of the plot in advance, along with something like a message we’re supposed to take from it. The narration borders on childlike, but this is ultimately still a fantasy for adults, though I’ll say right now that certain Martin hallmarks like gore and sexual assault are nowhere to be found; you can rest easy on that. Anyway, the narrator tells us that this story is incomplete, like so:
We have only the middle, or rather a piece of that middle, the smallest part of the legend, a mere fragment of the quest. A small tale within the greater, of one world where Sharra paused, and of the lonely singer Laren Dorr and how they briefly touched.
I have to admit that I assumed going in that Laren Dorr would be a woman, even though thinking about it, Laren is not exactly a feminine name. Unconscious bias maybe? Doesn’t matter, because while he’s not strictly the protagonist Laren is very much the character of interest here; he is, after all, the one who changes. Hell, there are only only two onscreen characters, plus one who is mentioned but never seen, plus a group of villains who are also unseen but who still very much lurk just outside the confines of the page. The real protagonist is Sharra, “the girl who goes between the worlds,” a warrior lady whom sadly we find out very little about. We start with Sharra, who is in pretty rough shape, having just escaped a violent encounter into Laren’s world, with a dark crown on her head that apparently lets her use gates between worlds—an ability that the Seven do not approve.
Who are the Seven? We find out basically nothing about them, aside from the fact that they are supposed to be a pretty powerful bunch—perhaps a league of sorcerers—who can see across worlds. We know they’re evil and that also they wanna get their hands on Sharra, having already separated her from her lover (whose name I can’t remember).
I’ve struggled to write about this story, despite its length, because a) the plot is very abstract, and b) very little actually happens. Sharra is a refugee in Laren’s world, and Laren, being the sole keeper of his castle, takes her in as a guest. Laren doesn’t want Sharra to leave but Sharra has to find the gate to the next world at some point. Laren is not necessarily a sorcerer but he’s certainly a powerful being on this world where he’s the only human: he has magical healing powers, for one, and is also seemingly immortal. He’s also in contact with the Seven, and may be in cahoots with them. We get this lengthy explanation for how Laren knew Sharra before she came to his world and how her arrival did not strike him as a surprise, despite him having been by himself for—let’s say a stupidly long amoutn of time.
“You are Sharra, who moves between the worlds. Centuries ago, when the hills had a different shape and the violet sun burned scarlet at the very beginning of its cycle, they came to me and told me you would come. I hate them, all Seven, and I will always hate them, but that night I welcomed the vision they gave me. They told me only your name, and that you would come here, to my world. And one thing more, but that was enough. It was a promise. A promise of an ending or a start, of a change. And any change is welcome on this world.”
Somehow this does not concern Sharra too much—certainly not enough for her to go scrambling for a gate. A few other things I feel like noting, because to his credit Martin does try to generate intrigue with the setting while failing to do so with the characters. Like I said Laren’s world is barren as far as civilization goes, with his castle being stuck in the middle of endless forest; the castle itself also seems to be alive, acting of its own accord by, for example, turning its windows into stone at night as a security measure. During the daytime, though, Sharra and Laren are free to wander and hunt outside the castle as they please—so long as Sharra does not find the gate that is surely hidden around here.
Something I’ve noticed about early Martin is that he was preoccupied with capturing mood over plot and character, sometimes to his detriment. I don’t know what was going on in his personal life at the time that made him write several stories about isolation and feeling disconnected from other people, but then again, anyone who grows up in New Jersey seems to go through a social maladjustment phase. (I wanna point out that John W. Campbell, fellow New Jerseyan and someone Martin’s been open about admiring, had kind of a shitty childhood that no doubt impacted his capacity to get along with others in adulthood.) It could also be that it was simply an artistic thing of his—one that he’s never entirely gotten over. Consider how music is great at capturing emotions but not action (hence most rock operas are kinda lame from a narrative standpoint), and how some of Martin’s fiction is clearly meant to evoke music: “A Song for Lya,” “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” “Remembering Melody,” and of course A Song of Ice and Fire.
(I mean given that it’s a series of really long novels it should be called An Album of Ice and Fire, but I can see I’m getting distracted.)
Another Martin story I’m reminded of here is “Bitterblooms,” which has a somewhat similar premise, what with someone (a girl, again) being rescued by someone who might be a sorcerer/sorceress (only it’s a woman this time!), and there’s this wiff of Stockholm Syndrome you get from the pages. The difference is that there’s a tangible sense of danger in “Bitterblooms,” an actual conflict between characters that reveals their unsavory sides and puts them to the test. Sure, you could say there’s conflict in the story I’m reviewing here: Sharra wants to leave and Laren wants her to stay. The problem is that Sharra doesn’t wanna leave that badly; she’s not desperate to rescue her lover, nor does she ever come up with a scheme to get rid of Laren. Sharra thinks strongly about leaving for about a minute and then is easily convinced to stay for God knows how long; she may even think Laren worthy of a pity fuck or five. In other words, there’s no imminent threat and no reason to worry, with even the Seven apparently taking a nap through all this.
Much of the story’s 7,000+ words is speant on Laren monologuing about how lonely he is and how much he had been hoping for the day when he and Sharra would meet and he’d be, momentarily, relieved of his loneliness; this is the fantasy equivalent of writing about the tragic tale of a man who has not gotten his dick sucked since the days before 9/11.
There Be Spoilers Here
A Step Farther Out
It took me only a lunch break to read this, but much longer to come up with something to say about it. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” is almost as pure a mood piece as you can get—at the expense of plot and even basic conflict. When I reviewed Martin’s earlier story “With Morning Comes Mistfall” (review here), I was impressed at how much he was able to do in the span of a dozen pages; sure, it too was a mood piece, but it was rich in characters, themes, and even prose style. It could just be that I much prefer Martin when he’s writing SF over fantasy, as for some reason I rarely find the latter convincing. I’m reminded of when I read “Blood of the Dragon,” which was Daenerys’s chapters from A Game of Thrones edited into a novella, and I thought much of the dialogue was cringe-inducing. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” did not make me cringe, but it did bore me more than a little. I think Martin went too far in one direction in an effort to capture a specific mood, which strikes me more as play-acting than genuine feeling, which is actually a problem some of his other early fiction has.
Last month I reviewed C. L. Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss” (review here), which was a reread and a reminder that sometimes rereads are important. As I delve deeper into the works of Moore and her first husband, Henry Kuttner, the more I think that there ought to be a major resurgance in interest with regards to these two. In the ’40s Kuttner and Moore were the writing duo in science fiction, being so seamless in their collaborations that they struggled to tell who wrote what—a layer of ambiguity that has plagued genre historians ever since. With some stories it’s safe enough to say who did what, but sometimes it comes down to “educated” guesses: a rule of thumb is that if a story post-1940 is credited to Moore alone then it probably is just her, but Kuttner sadly does not receive the same treatment for stuff published under his byline without Moore. The two as a pair contributed frequently to Astounding Science Fiction, but each would also submit to other outlets solo, and Kuttner especially appeared without Moore’s next to his quite often in Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. It might be that because Kuttner did not have as high a reputation as Moore that he was more inclined to appear in second-rate magazines.
It’s true that Kuttner was a less refined writer than his wife; his technique was more steeped in the tradition of pulp craftsmanship, being more adept at producing “raw” story over memorable lines of prose. As such, Kuttner is harder to judge on a line-by-line basis, but rather should be judged by the total effect his work has, which at its best certainly rivals Moore’s. Kuttner was also one of the great humorists of classic SFF, being one of John W. Campbell’s court jesters in the peak days of Astounding and Unknown, but the downside is that his knack for comedy can cast a veil over his talent for social commentary and, yes, a bit of philosophy. Today’s story, “The Big Night,” is relatively serious for Kuttner (though it’s still knee-deep in pulp prose), which might be why he had it initially published under the pseudonym Hudson Hastings.
First published in the June 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. The good news is that if you want a more readable digital copy you’re in luck, because for some reason this story fell out of copyright and it’s available, perfectly legally, on Project Gutenberg. As for paper reprints you only have a few options, but the ones I recommend are pretty good. First, and as will usually be a source for Kuttner/Moore reviews, there’s Two-Handed Engine, a massive tome that collects “essential” stories from Kuttner and Moore, both solo and in collaboration, and you can get a used copy for a reasonable price. There’s also the Ballantine paperback volume The Best of Henry Kuttner, which admittedly relies too much on stories that were most likely written in collaboration with Moore (Moore does not get the same treatment for her Ballantine Best Of volume). Suprisingly “The Big Night” has not been anthologized anywhere, not even for like a stray collection of pulp-era space opera stories. Oh well.
Normally when we’re introducing to spaceships, especially in pulp-era SF, there’s an attempt on the author’s part to capture a sense of wonder with the ship’s bulk and speed, but Kuttner doesn’t do that; instead we’re introduced to La Cucaracha (yes, that’s its name) with language that would be considered unflattering, her “fat body” scarred with a molten streak across her middle and with spot-welds standing in for liver spots. La Cucaracha is an old ship and she’s on her last leg, and to make matters worse her skipper, Sam Danvers, is drunk again. Danvers mostly plays second fiddle to the story’s real protagonist, Logger Hilton, the first mate.
(An aside before we continue is that I wouldn’t go into this expecting female representation at all, as there’s not a single named female character and La Cucaracha‘s crew is all-male.)
Hilton is called to talk with Danvers, or rather to talk him out of his stupor, as Danvers is indeed quite drunk and, like his ship, is very old. “He was a big man, or rather he had been once, but now the flesh had shrunk and he was beginning to stoop a little.” We aren’t told ages, but judging from some comparisons I’d say Hilton is in his forties while Danvers is in his seventies, so you know we’re not dealing with spring chickens. When we meet Danvers he’s “making a speech to an imaginary Interplanetary Trade Commission.” The ITC, as I’ll call it from now on, had recently done a routine inspection of the ship and found she’s “unsafe,” which isn’t surprising given she’s riddled with scars and she may break apart any moment. On the one hand Danvers is fundamentally a sympathetic character, and from his perspective the ITC (i.e., government regulation) is the villain, but both Danvers and Hilton know that La Cucaracha is not long for this world.
You see, La Cucaracha is a hyper-ship, which is to stay a ship that can cross hyperspace and easily venture into what’s called the Big Night—the space beyond our solar system. To get around the speed-of-light barrier in space travel authors will opt for some kind of shortcut, and jumping into hyperspace—a dimension totally removed from ours—is this story’s shortcut of choice. Interstellar travel was, up till recently, done with hyper-ships, but something has been threatening to make these great ships obsolete: long-distance teleportation. More useful for transporting cargo than people, but still teleportation presents a cheap and relatively safe alternative to hyper-ships. The implication, which Kutter might agree with, is that the introduction of “matter-transmitting” will be a net positive for interstellar relations and commerce (important because, as we’ll see, there are a few intelligent alien species to contend with), but still hyper-ships being outmoded will put thousands of men out of work.
So about those aliens. We’re introduced to several characters on the ship, not all of whome are human. There’s Hilton and Danvers; there’s Wiggins, the second mate; there’s Saxon, a fresh “recruit” who is not exactly there of his own volition; but most intriguingly for me there’s Ts’ss, a Selenite, Kuttner’s most original creation here. The Selenites are a tentacled raxce akin to octopi, and in disposition they’re rather stoic, a very old and wise race, even bearing a resemblance to Vulcans. Ts’ss is the Spock equivalent, which… look, I’ve held off on this long enough: I can’t help but make comparisons to Star Trek with this one, they’re too obvious. Even hyperspace reminds me of a ship warping, although the blinking-in-and-out-of-existence part is more stark here; you can’t see SHIT in hyperspace, you have to calculate where you’ll end up. “You had to work blind here, with instruments. And if you got on the wrong level, it was just too bad—for you!” Anyway, in a story where characters each have a single defining trait (we can’t afford more than one), Ts’ss is the closest we get to someone multi-layered, though ultimately he is still merely a support player.
At a little over 10,000 words this is a novelette, but “The Big Night” has perhaps one too many characters/subplots. There’s a subplot with the ship meeting up with a trader on a distant planet, which naturally doesn’t work out because the trading post there is set to have teleporters installed; there’s a subplot with Saxon, the new recruit, which doesn’t do much aside from provide a sort of deus ex machina for the climax; there’s a weird little detour involving another alien race that I’ll get into deeper in the spoilers section that could’ve been cut. Generally this story suffers from being overstuffed considering the simplicity (albeit effective simplicity) of its tone and thesis. Kuttner also does the thing where alien races are boiled down to traits that basically all members of that race share, but for a short story this is more forgivable than if it was a whole novel.
Kuttner was always the pessimist, but that sense of doom was usually counterbalanced by a healthy dose of humor; not so with “The Big Night.” While I just shat on this story for its pacing, I’m impressed that something from the late ’40s can be this fatalistic about the future of space travel. By most metrics the crew of La Cucaracha would probably be tried in court for smuggling and kidnapping; a fraction of the crew, including Saxon, the new guy, were shanghaied, a fact that Hilton and Danvers find bitter but ultimately a necessary evil to keep the ship going. There just aren’t enough people signing up for hyper-ships these days, and even Hilton plans to put his engineering degree to good use once this last trip is finished. The end of an age coming and nobody can stop it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The second alien race we come across are the Canopians, who are considered to be morons as far as sentient races go, albeit with one attribute that makes them indespensible space-farers: they have a real knack for navigation. While at the trading outpost Hilton gets roofied by Danvers, in a way, Hilton is well aware, not dissimilar from how the ship shanghais people, but this time it’s to get Hilton back on the ship without him putting up a fight—over the fact that Danvers recruited a Canopian. Hilton just wants to go home and be done with this whole business, but Danvers isn’t done yet. The Canopian’s skill with navigating and Saxon’s background as a teleporter engineer (a little fact that Hilton is hesitant to tell Danvers) rescue La Cucaracha from almost certain destruction during its return trip. The back end of “The Big Night” is a little too convoluted for me, and if I didn’t run it through Google Docs (Is there a more efficient way to get a word count for something?) I would’ve assumed it was a longer novelette.
By the end we’ve reached the point where the ship has some more time bought for itself, but how long is the question. Now doubt some of the crew will jump ship on the next step; there may even be threats of mutiny, which anyway is always a concern with ships. It’s here that we get my favorite bit of dialogue, which naturally comes from Ts’ss, and it really sums up Kuttner’s point in a way that borders on poetic:
“The reason I keep shipping on La Cucaracha is because I can be busy and efficient aboard, and planets aren’t for Selenites any more. We’ve lost our own world. It died long ago. But I still remember the old traditions of our Empire. If a tradition ever becomes great, it’s because of the men who dedicate themselves to it. That’s why anything ever became great. And it’s why hyper-ships came to mean something, Mr. Hilton. There were men who lived and breathed hyper-ships. Men who worshipped hyper-ships, as a man worships a god. Gods fall, but a few men will still worship at the old altars. They can’t change. If they were capable of changing, they wouldn’t have been the type of men to make their gods great.”
Ts’ss supposes that yes, teleportation is replacing the hyper-ships, but then eventually something else will come along and replace teleportation. No doubt the riders of horse carriages felt a similar sense of doom when the automobile started becoming commercially viable, or when silent movie actors had to face spoken dialogue. Some do not make the transition, and that’s a perfectly natural byproduct of change, if unfortunate. Danvers would rather die than give up his ship, and given his age that’s likely to happen whether anyone would want that or not. Some people will never give up the old ways. Kuttner doesn’t seem to be rooting for tradition here (he hardly strikes me as a conservative), but he may be saying that there’s virtue in stubbornness, if that stubbornness serves something great.
A Step Farther Out
I said at the beginning that Kuttner’s writing ought to be taken in totality, and that very much applies to “The Big Night,” a story that could’ve been a thousand words shorter but which remains, at its core, a bittersweet passing the torch in the distant future. Usually in SF we see spaceships and teleportation working in tandem, and realistically, if the two were to ever happen, they probably would not conflict so much—but still Kuttner considers, more than some other authors, the possible repurcussions of teleportation. I’m reminded specifically of the early section of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and also Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where there’s a palpable sense of an era coming to an end, and also Kirk and Danvers not being that dissimilar: both love their ships too much to pack it in just yet. Most of Kuttner’s work that I’ve read up till now has been set on Earth and in the near future or even the “present” day, but “The Big Night” makes me wonder what other space-faring SF he wrote…
Some authors are vindicated posthumously while others see their high reputations in life dwindle in death: Seabury Quinn is one of those latter authors. In the ’20s and ’30s he was almost certainly the most popular author to appear in the pages of Weird Tales; he was so popular that, as far as the disreputable realm of pulp fiction went, he was basically a celebrity. (I’m thinking of an anecdote wherein prostitutes in a New Orleans brothel recognized Quinn as that most prolific and starred contributor to Weird Tales, offering him a “round” free of charge.) His Jules de Grandin series, starring the eponymous occult detective, would alone have made him a household name, but as fate would have it both Quinn and de Grandin are overlooked nowadays—names to be checked off for people like myself who get a kick out of genre factoids. Yet Quinn was surely not bereft of talent, as he was deemed both good and overlooked enough to have “won” the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award.
No doubt a good portion of Quinn’s output was hackwork; this was not unusual among authors of the era, who had to crank out story after story to make a quick buck. All this, however, brings us to today’s story, which Quinn had apparently written out of passion and which, ironically, did not become the cover story for that month’s issue of Weird Tales. “Roads” is a Christmas story, one of such high caliber that Sam Moskowitz (who mind you was not religiously inclined to hold Christmas in special reverence) considered it the best Christmas story ever written by an American, putting it in the same league as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This is my first time with Quinn and something tells me I’ll be tracking more of his stuff down, because “Roads” fucking rules.
First published in the January 1938 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. ISFDB says there was also a highly limited chapbook release that same year, but it does not give a month of publication, which means the chapbook was probably released some months after the story’s magazine appearance. Of much more interest is the chapbook from Arkham House that released in 1948, which a) is riddled with lovely illustrations by Virgil Finlay, and b) may trick you into thinking this is a novella—a trick that even fooled the folks at Wikipedia. No, “Roads” is not a novella; the type in the Arkham House chapbook is almost laughably big, never mind the Finlay illustrations. There are two facsimile reproductions of that chapbook: one in hardcover and the other in paperback, with the former by Red Jacket Press and the latter by Shadowridge Press. The facsimiles are pretty affordable, and if you don’t mind your wallet crying that original Arkham House chapbook is still circulating in the second-hand market.
The thing about “Roads” is that I reckon it’s no longer than H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (review here), but whereas Lovecraft’s story is a novelette that just goes on and on, “Roads” is essentially three short stories for the price of one; it’s split into three distinct sections, each covering a different period in will turn out to be a very long life for the protagonist. Just how long are we talking? Wait and see…
We start in Biblical times, indeed not long after Jesus’s birth, the star over Bethlehem and all that. As should be expected, though, life in ancient Roman-occupied Jerusalem is brutish and often short, encapsulated with the opening scene, wherein some marauders try to kill and rob Our Hero™, who is very much not a man of Biblical times: he is Klaus, later (Quinn all but tells us in advance) to become Santa Claus, and he’s a decorated gladiator for Herod—and a Viking. Some of you may be raising an eyebrow at this, since the Vikings would not become a thing for several more centuries. It’s not like this was a silly little detail Quinn snuck into the narrative; no, much is made of Klaus being Nordic, and, in contrast to pretty much everyone else in the story, built like a brick shithouse. On top of being dressed for battle, Klaus carries “a double-bladed ax” and “a long two-handed sword with a wide, well-temptered blade, pointed and double-edged,” which makes me wonder how the fuck these bandits hoped to rob him.
The affair goes about as well for the bandits as you’d expect. Actually a bit better, because Klaus breaks a guy’s wrist rather than smash his head against a stone. Later opponents will not be nearly as lucky.
Klaus, being a stranger in a strange land, is not terribly picky about whom he serves; the idea seems to be that he’ll fight for you so long as you treat him with decency, and so long as you don’t order troops to go around killing infants. Right, about that. Klaus gets along surprisingly well with the Roman occupiers, who treat him basically like a good dog and who even give him a sort of pet name. “Though he had been among the Romans since before his beard was sprouted, their rendering of his simple Nordic name of Klaus to Claudius had never failed to rouse his laughter.” Trouble brews, though, when local king Herod, having been told a prophecy that another will take his place, orders men to go out and slaughter any Jewish boy under the age of two. If you’ve read the novel (or at least the Wikipedia synopsis for the novel) that “Roads” is loosely based on then this sounds like a faithful adaptation so far, insofar as the Jesus narrative is concerned.
Klaus, a natural warrior who is used to fighting with honor, is naturally repulsed when he discovers that legionaries have been marching through the streets and snatching babies from their mothers’ breasts. Although he is not aware of it at the time, Klaus does in fact save an infant Jesus from a small group of soldiers, as the kids parents (though not his real dad) try to get the hell out of Dodge. The fight between Klaus and the soldiers is one of the more shockingly violent scenes I’ve read in recent times, but it’s justified partly because of Klaus’s swordsmanship and partly because of his righteous fury that so-called honorable soldiers would carry out such an order. He fucking cuts a dude in half diagonally. A lesson a lot of people should but do not learn throughout the story is that you don’t want an angry Northman who looks and acts like he belongs in a Robert E. Howard adventure on the rampage. Anyway, Joseph and Mary thank Klaus and inform him of the massacre, and meanwhile there’s something a bit odd about their own, which naturally spooks Klaus at first.
(So Joseph says, “Only last night the Angel of the Lord forewarned me in a dream to take the young child and its mother and flee from Nazareth to Egypt, lest the soldiers of King Herod come upon us unawares.” People took dreams very seriously in Biblical times, but also Joseph taking his family out of Nazareth without warning anyone else in advance is, if you ask me, more than a little morally dubious. Indeed if you want to see the actual moral quandry that would spawn from such an action I recommend checking out José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Good novel, that one. I’m getting a little sidetracked here. Quinn is writing a compelling Christmas story, but he’s also deliberately toying with very old and revered material that some people take very seriously.)
The infant Jesus, unbeknownst to Mary and Joseph, communicates with Klaus with what I can only call telepathy. Of course we know that Jesus, being both entirely God and man, is conversing with Klaus in the former form while his baby self just stares at him and makes blup-blup sounds. It’s here that Jesus tells Klaus about the broad strokes of the rest of the plot and how he will eventually give up his warrior ways to become a friend to all children—and not only that, but that Klaus will be made immortal, something that only a couple figures in the entirety of the Bible are granted. (No one is sure what happened to Enoch; maybe he went out to get some milk.) The baby Jesus with his Jedi mind powers has this to say:
When the name of Odin is forgot, and in all the world there is no man to do him reverence at his altars, thy name and fame shall live; and laughing, happy children shall praise thy goodness and thy loving-kindness. Thou shalt live immortally in every childish heart so long as men shall celebrate my birthday.
It’s here that the first section of “Roads” ends, with Klaus and the infant Jesus parting ways, Jesus to return to the land of his birth eventually and Klaus to stay with the Romans. Between the first and second sections there’s a thirty-year time skip: Klaus, a man who should at least be pushing sixty, has not aged a day while Jesus, the man destined to rise from the dead, sees himself at the other end of his mortal life. By the time the two meet again Klaus has become the right-hand man of Pontius Pilate, who, as he is depicted in “Roads,” is a little bitchy and a little antisemitic, but who ultimately has little interest in executing or even punishing Jesus. I know I’m biased, and I’m thinking of a certain movie while reading this tale, but I keep imagining David Bowie in the role of Pontius Pilate; it must be the bitchiness and coded gayness, what with how he calls Klaus “my Claudius.” Well, you can take the Roman out of Rome but you can’t take Rome out of the Roman, or something like that…
This review may seem frontloaded with summarizing the first section, but I wanna give you some time to adjust to the nature of the story’s world before we get into spoilers, which after all are hard to define since, like I said, the broad strokes of the plot are laid out for us in advance. We know that Klaus will eventually become Santa Claus and that his role as a friend to children and the downtrodden is inextricably tied to Christianity (ironic, given that Klaus is, at least for much of the story, a devout pagan). An old platitude goes that it’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey, though, and what follows makes good on the promise made in that first section—that being that this will be one of the weirdest and most capitvating Christmas stories I’ve read in a long time.
There Be Spoilers Here
This section is basically gonna be a series of random notes for me, because while I would looooove to give a beat-by-beat rundown of this story, I’m pressed for time and also, as I said, this one is hard to spoil. As such I’m more interested in the ways Quinn messes with the Jesus narrative and other things more than the beats of the plot. Some may say the liberties Quinn took border on blasphemy, but as far as I’m concerned he’s simply taking a story that is already at least partly fabricated and moving some pieces of the jigsaw puzzle around, occasionally also adding in pieces from a totally different puzzle. In fact let’s make this a list, shall we?
Despite Pontius Pilate sending Jesus, a man Klaus had served before, to his death, Klaus remains loyal to both Pilate and Jesus, even staying by the former’s side while he’s on his death bed. At first it may seem odd that Klaus bears Pilate no ill will, but Jesus makes it clear that he is supposed to be crucified, and that while Klaus and the others are not in on the details of Jesus’s plan, Jesus tells Our Hero™ to not be too worried about it.
Speaking of the crucifixion, one of the most striking little things Quinn does, as far liberty-taking goes, is he puts Klaus in the shoes of the soldier who spears Jesus’s body between the ribs to make sure he’s dead, rather than leave him to the elements. “’Tis long since I have done that favor to a helpless man,” says Klaus, and Jesus in his spirit form thanks him for this act of mercy, however morbid it may be.
I was worried for a bit during the middle section that Quinn was pulling a Mel Gibson and overemphasizing the role Jewish religious leaders played in Jesus’s execution, and I’m still not totally convinced there isn’t some antisemitism at play here. However, while nobody likes or respects the Jewish priests, this turns out to be a running theme in the story, not just with Jewish religious leaders but Christian ones later one. Be sure to put a pin in this note.
Klaus later rescuse a girl from a collapsed building following an earthquake—a girl who will turn out to be Mrs. Claus. Oh boy, a few things to unpack here. First, Erinna is a prostitute who came from Lebanon, a fact that revolts Klaus until Jesus tells him to stop being an asshole and not slut-shame her. (Reminder that Jesus’s “cast the first stone” speech might be the oldest call against slut-shaming in the history of human literature, just so puritanical Christians in the audience are aware.) Klaus, being in need of companionship and aware that Erinna fucks like a champ (that’s right, Mrs. Claus is a SLUT), takes her as his wife, with her being made immortal as well.
With Erinna taking on the married name of Unna, as is apparently a custom for Klaus and his people, the two start traveling the world and working for a number of governments, first over a span of decades and then centuries. Quite remarkably (by that I mean implausibly), Klaus and Unna being both famous and apparently ageless does not become a problem for them until Christianity has become the majority religion in mainland Europe—so like, a few hundred years at least. What I find interesting, though, is that the immortality thing doesn’t really become a problem for them until the crusades start.
Ultimately this is still a “Christian” Christmas story, but something tells me Quinn did not get along with religious authorities, because regardless of their religion, they’re consistently depicted here as at best obnoxious and, later on, as actively murderous. When some Christian do-gooders capture Unna with the intention of executing her as a witch, Klaus shows them no mercy in rescuing his wife. Klaus is also repulsed when crusaders sack Muslim cities and murder what he considers to be innocent people in their homes. I wonder how alt-right shitheads are supposed to take all this.
While it’s implied, via crosses Klaus and Unna wear in later years, that the former eventually abandons his pagan beliefs, we never actually get a conversion scene for Klaus. This is not a preachy work wherein the heathen “sees the light” and is swayed to become a Christian; rather Klaus spreads the best potential of Christianity because he wants to follow the words of a man he respects and whom he knew personally. Giving up his sword and ax at the end to become Santa Claus (with elves and reindeer and all that) at the end is merely the conclusion to an arc that had been in mottion since the beginning.
I could keep going, by the way. The fact that Klaus, who longed to return to his homeland at the beginning, goes back north at the end to evade persecution, only to meet up with the elves (who really are akin to Tolkien’s dwarves in that they’re short and born craftsmen), a fellow persecuted race; the fact that the first time he helps a child in an impoverished town he happens to be dressed in red; the fact that his Roman name of Claudius sets up his changing his name again, this time permamently. A lot happens, and not all of it “makes sense,” but this only really matters if you’re someone asking for strict rationalization in a story that, even without Quinn’s inserts, does not and cannot entirely make sense. The result is an adaptation that’s only slightly more fantastical than the source material, and no less quirky, only it’s not preached as being gospel.
A Step Farther Out
I wouldn’t call “Roads” perfect, but I’m also not sure if I’ve read anything else quite like it. Charlatans, or just people who don’t like to have fun, would knock this story for its “flaws,” but I’d argue those flaws are what give it character—for anything bereft of flaws cannot possibly be considered human, and “Roads” is very much a human story. We have here a retelling of the Jesus narrative with Santa Claus inserted as a Viking out of both time and place, a warrior with sword and ax who becomes a friend to all children. If you ever wanted to see a totally jacked Santa Claus cut down legionaries and crusaders like they’re trees, for some godforesaken reason, then boy do I have just the thing for you. This has to be the most violent Christmas story I’ve ever read/seen that wasn’t made to be edgy on purpose, and yet I can’t say Quinn is being disingenuous; on the contrary, the violence being juxtaposed with Klaus finding his calling as the role we know he’ll ultimately play makes the latter more profound. This is a Christmas story for those true believers who also happen to be fans of Conan the Barbarian.
So Finally we’ve reached the end of my month dedicated to stories from Weird Tales. I revisited a few familiar faces and came across some others whom I had never read before. It was also nice to take a break from covering serials and novellas, much as I love them. There was a lot of hackwork in Weird Tales, and some experiments that didn’t work out, but I was reminded that at the height of its popularity, Weird Takes was easily more daring than most of the pulp magazines on the market, even being a good deal edgier than the relatively puritanical Unknown which all but succeeded it. During this month we covered space opera, vampires, mad scientists, sword and sorcery, good old-fashioned ghost stories, and everything in between. You have to admit that’s a lot of variety for one magazine!
Dorothy Quick is a name I recognize but prior to today’s story have not read anything by; specifically I know her as a contributor to Unknown, wherein her most prominent work would be a series of short stories called the Patchwork Quilt series, which sadly only has three entries and which Quick apparently abandoned by the time Unknown died. We don’t know a lot about Quick: we know she started writing SFF in the early days of genre pulp and that she basically stopped once the first incarnation of Weird Tales went under. She seems to be one of those authors whose genre output positively correlates with the state of magazine fantasy, in that once Unknown closed that was a market gone for her, and Weird Tales later closing must’ve been the last straw. She did, however, continue to write fiction in mainstream outlets. Anyway, I feel bad because I don’t have much to say about today’s story and I can’t say reading it filled me with confidence about covering Quick in the future, though I do wanna get to those Patchwork Quilt stories.
First published in the March 1937 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Judging Margaret Brundage covers, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being chaste and 10 being “Is this pornographic?,” I would give this one a 2 or a 3; it’s pretty tame. I didn’t even notice the naked girl with the orchid on her body at first. Anyway, sad reality with most pulp-era lady authors is that their stuff doesn’t get reprinted often, and “Strange Orchids” is no exception. As far as I can tell there’s only one reprint, that being Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction (ed. Patrick B. Sharp and Lisa Yaszek), which thankfully looks to be in print in hardcover and paperback. But yep, looks like those are all your options.
We start with Louise, the narrator/protagonist, telling us that everything basically turned out fine in the end: oh sure, her hair is white now from getting spooked so hard, but she came out of whatever ordeal it was fine and she even ended up with this guy she really likes. This might be the fastest way possible to defuse tension, and I don’t know why Quick informs us of the bittersweet ending so far in advance. Within just a few sentences we get one of my biggest issues with this story, which is that Louise is not in any real danger; at most she has a tough time for a bit, we already know she gets better, and thus this is a hard story to spoil.
Whilst at a friend’s party, Louise meets the other two corners of what amounts to a love triangle: Rex, who is obviously a Good Guy™ and the aforementioned handsome fella Louise gets together with; and Angus, who is so obviously the villain that it’s actually not funny. (Never trust a guy named Angus.) Just how obvious is Angus’s villainy? Well, there have been several girls who’ve gone missing as of late, under similar circumstances, and Angus over here is acting incredibly suspicious—to the point where, if not for the plot that unfolds, Angus would probably be the first white man in history to get arrested simply for acting like someone who ought to be arrested. That Angus acts creepy towards Louise, simultaneously insulting her and trying to seduce her, should already make him a suspect.
To make things slightly more complicated, Rex is a G-man who’s part of a task force looking for these missing girls; already this story strains my suspension of disbelief by depicting a federal agent as a good guy who will not do anything morally dubious. I’m getting ahead of myself, as you may guess, but there’s really not much of intrigue here. I will, however, list off a couple things—really little more than references themselves—that I found at least memorable, if not very substantive.
The first is that there are several references to homosexuality sprinkled in the text that ultimately don’t amount to anything, but which are still work mentioning considering this is the ’30s and it was uncouth to mention homosexuality in pulp fiction. Right away, during the party in the opening stretch, we have a reference to “female impersonators,” whom we’re to take as transvestites (probably the word that would’ve been used at the time, or something even less flattering). Any queer man who’s lived in the past century will be at least a little familiar with the term “female impersonator,” which seems to cover anyone from drag queens or just gay men who dress in feminine-leaning attire. Again, not flattering, but Quick even mentioning this at all is above what we’d normally expect from ’30s pulp fiction.
The other thing is the coded homosexuality of Angus, who despite seeking to own Louise (as a wife but also maybe as something else), comes off as a bitchy and effeminate gay man, even being called “Oscar Wildish” at one point. He dresses well and Louise can’t help but notice the soft whiteness of his hands, “the hands of an artist or a dreamer,” which indicate that a) he’s not used to doing menial labor, and b) he pays more attention to grooming himself more than the average man. He’s also obsessed with flowers, especially orchids (I wonder why), with flowers typically being taken as symbolically feminine. There’s another reason why Angus’s heterosexuality is rather hard to take at face value, but I’ll get to that (briefly) in the spoilers section; it’s not like I can talk about much else.
Finally, we get a reference to contemporary cinema here, which does not happen often in genre fiction from any era, let alone one where sound film was still a recent phenomenon. There’s a movie starring Lionel Barrymore (yes, related to Drew Barrymore) wherein a mad scientist “reduced people to dolls” and made them do his bidding. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be The Devil-Doll, but it goes unnamed in the story—point being it’s almost certainly a real movie. Now isn’t that fun?
Easy to forget I’m a movie buff, but whatever.
There Be Spoilers Here
Okay, I do wanna talk about the ending a bit, if only because it kinda pisses me off; not because the ending on its own is bad, but because it wastes the last chance this story had to become really interesting.
Louise and Rex hatch a plan to nab Angus, since Rex already suspects Angus (as would anyone with more than two brain cells) but lacks hard evidence with which to book him. The plan goes amiss since for some reason Angus is telepathic and can read Louise’s intentions, thus kidnapping her and having a rather protracted James Bond villain moment wherein he explains (at length) what he plans to do: namely he wants to turn Louise into another slave, hypnotized via a special kind of orchid Angus has been breeding, to go along with the other girls he has kidnapped.
But all is well! Well Rex and the other feds are unable to save the other girls, who by this point have become humanoid abominations with orchids sprouting out of their chests, they’re able to save Louise in the nick of time. They uhh, gas Angus’s mansion? I wonder how that would read to a post-World War II audience. Anyway, my main problem here is that Louise is never in real danger, in that she does basically nothing in order to save the day since Rex is at her beck and call and the feds managed to break in without her input. Despite being the narrator, and you’d think the protagonist, Louise is ultimately little more than a damsel in need of rescuing, and I have to say I expected better.
A Step Farther Out
In covering exclusively Weird Tales stories this month I’ve run the spectrum of genres that saw print in that magazine, but also a spectrum of how I feel about these stories, from the sublime (“The Black God’s Kiss”) to the putrid (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”) and everything in between, and “Strange Orchids” is certainly in that nebulous “in between” spot. This is about as middle of the road as you can get for me, in that I don’t dislike it exactly but I also don’t have anything strongly positive to say about it. If this story has committed a crime it’s the crime of being totally predictable, to the point where I was anticipating some kind of twist or catch to what seemed to me like a strictly formula affair, only to find out that no, this is not really a creative story but something that would’ve struck readers even at the time as nothing to write home about. I almost prefer something memorably bad like “The Dreams in the Witch-House” over a story so forgettable.
Clark Ashton Smith was the third of the big three contributors to Weird Tales during the height of that magazine’s first incarnation—at least with hindsight; Lovecraft or Smith would be replaced with Seabury Quinn if we’re judging by initial popularity. Smith, Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard were part of a circle who frequently exchanged letters, and there’s little doubt that this association allowed Smith any sort of exposure after he mostly stopped writing fiction; that he outlived Lovecraft and Howard by a couple decades and was able to provide commentary on this period in pulp history certainly helped. A strange thing about Smith is that he has to be one of the best writers, at least of the pulp era, who wrote fiction largely for the sake of profit: he found, early in life, that he loathed menial labor too much while also struggling to envision himself hunched over in an office—thus he turned to fiction. Smith’s initial artistic love was poetry, and by the end of his life he had turned to sculpting, but it’s his short fiction (he never wrote a novel in adulthood) that maintains his legacy.
Over a period of about five years (1930 to 1935) Smith wrote the vast majority of his 100+ short stories, amassing a body of work that’s quite big (despite the lack of anything approaching even novella length) and surprisingly varied, ranging from sword and sorcery to science fiction of the ’30s super-science variety; and it’s this latter category that today’s story very much falls into. I like Smith quite a bit, but sadly I’m gonna have to rag on him at points during this review because “Vulthoom” is… not very good. It’s not terrible, it certainly has points of interest which I’ll discuss, but Smith fails to capitalize on his talents with this outing, namely his knack as a highly lyrical prose stylist. Some people give Smith shit because his prose is highly baroque, but when Smith is on the ball there’s a distinct rhythm to his style that, aside from Lord Dunsany and maybe a couple others, is very hard to find elsewhere. In other words, the style is the substance.
First published in the September 1935 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. This is one of the more overtly lurid Brundage covers; there’s even a nipple outline! I don’t know how one would feel buying a copy of Weird Tales with a Brundage cover at a newsstand. “Vulthoom” first saw book publication in Genius Loci and Other Tales, from Arkham House, and later saw print as part of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, in the Clark collection Xiccarph. You’d think the Smith collections from Ballantine would go for a reasonable price, but these little mass market paperbacks now go for at least $30 used. As for in-print options we have The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, part of a series that collects all of Smith’s short fiction.
We start right off with what will sound like an assbackwards criticism, but hear me out: the first stretch of “Vulthoom” is too fast. Right away we’re introduced to Our Heroes™, two guys who are down on their luck and whose misfortunes have made them become friends. Haines got kicked off his former ship and is now struggling to find a new crew, while Chanler is “a professional writer of interplanetary fiction” whose money has run low. Rather than give us a scene or two where Smith shows these characters interact and grant us insight into their daily troubles, Smith instead opts to tell us outright what their problems are, which is unusually direct and unpoetic for him. We learn everything we need to about Our Heroes™ in not even half a page, but the problem is that we proceed to learn nothing more about them; they remain basically the same at the end as they do the beginning, despite the mind-bending second act.
We do at least learn some about this version of Mars, which sadly is not very imaginative either: it’s a dying planet with a somewhat feudal system of governance, and the Martians themselves are humanoid. And of course there are canals, because this is old-timey SF and Mars has to have canals. Smith’s version of the red planet is undoubtedly informed by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the pulp writers who immediately followed in his wake; what makes its saminess less excusable is that “Vulthoom” came out more than a year after Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey,” which revolutionized SF depictions of Mars by introducing aliens that are truly alien and not just humans with differences in height and skin tone. Smith was fairly inventive with his fantasy, but less so with his SF is what I’m saying.
Anyway, Haines and Chanler come across one of these Martians one night, an unusually tall guy who, apropos of nothing, informs Our Heroes™ that his master (the tall Martian is a servant) is aware of their plight and wants to make a deal with them. The men, who really should say no to strangers but who have indeed fallen on hard times, reluctantly agree to the proposition—a reluctance that will only grow once they enter a secret underground cavern. The cavern is populated by Martians who are unusually tall like the servant (so we’re told, since we never get to meet a “normal” Martian), with these Martians working for someone called Vulthoom. (This is all in the first five pages, by the way.) Vulthoom is apparently the ancient Martian equivalent of Satan, but the men theorize that the underground Martians work for an anti-government revolutionary who simply has taken on the name of Vulthoom as an alias, which is a curious theory but whose political questions come to nothing since the conflict becomes something totally different.
Even so there’s a sense of wonder to be had during this discovery of the vast cavern, with Smith allowing himself to put the plot on hold for a second to describe this new world, telling us “the improbable was verified, the fabulous had become the factual.” It’s just frustrating to me that Smith fails to play to his strengths here. As someone who often likes Smith’s fiction, I’ve gotten enough experience with him that I can point out his Achilles’ heel, namely his lack of inventiveness as a plotter. Consider his relatively grounded ghost story “Genius Loci” (review here), which is memorable not for its plot, which is pretty simple, but for its psychological intensity, atmosphere, and the rhythmic if also dense structuring of Smith’s prose. At the risk of making myself sound like a moron, “Vulthoom,” in comparison with Smith’s best like “Genius Loci” and “The Dark Eidolon,” is too readable. Characters and plot beats are laid out plainly with little to no poetic digressions, with only the setting and a certain something later on getting the full Clark Ashton Smith treatment, which ultimately makes it read like Smith is imitating a less talented and more conventional writer.
Things do spice up, though, when we meet Vulthoom—or at least hear the voice of Vulthoom, since we never actually see him. Haines and Chanler are taken to what I can only call a giant flower, which seems at first to be Vulthoom’s form but is in fact merely a tool for Vulthoom, who is… somewhere else. It’s hard to separate spoilers from non-spoilers with this one, what with how future developments are easily telegraphed, but I think it’s safe to say here that Vulthoom is a Lovecraftian creation in that it’s impossible for the human characters to comprehend him fully. What we do understand early on is that Vulthoom is leading these Martians to one day leave the red planet and eventually head for Earth, having planned all this for centuries and even putting himself and his minions through thousand-year-long periods of hybernation. I have serious questions about the chronology of the hybernation periods and Smith’s understanding of time, but I think I’ll just head to the spoilers section.
There Be Spoilers Here
Vulthoom wants Our Heroes™ to act as human ambassadors for when they make the trip for Earth, which turns out to be not as innocuous a mission as it sounds… rather predictably, I might add. The flowers release a perfume with a strong hallucinogenic effect, not to mention the capacity to control minds, and for a bit the story becomes something of an anti-drug screed. Look, I love doing some drugs myself, so I’m predisposed to roll my eyes at Smith’s finger-wagging, but I also have to admit that the scene where Haines and Chanler trip some massive balls because of the perfume is pretty entertaining, even if Smith wants to have his cake and eat it too. Oh sure, say drugs are bad while also pulling out all the stops for what equates to an acid trip sequence, whatever you say. Even when it comes to what is undoubtedly the high point of the story, my feelings are mixed.
Something about Vulthoom that I found interesting but which went underdeveloped (like basically everything else) is his androgyny. One of the men sees what he deems an attractive figure inside one of the flowers, but Smith is vague about attributing a gender to said figure, though Vulthoom himself goes by male pronouns. There’s a feminine quality to Vulthoom as both a seducer and how he’s associated with flowers and perfume, but I don’t know what Smith is trying to say here and honestly I’m not convinced he’s actually trying to say anything. It’s a shame because there’s a subtle eroticism and ambiguity with the hallucinated figure in the flower, described as “elfin” and of “symmetrical” beauty, yet Smith refrains from attributing a gender or even a sex to this figure. Vulthoom is effectively the evil temptress often found in pulp fiction of the era, only he’s said to be male…
Rather than continue to dwell on this I’ll just bring up the solution to the problem Our Heroes™ face, or rather how they hope to stall it since they can’t escape and can’t even get word back to the surface that there’s an underground plot to invade Earth. Early on we’re introduced to giant glass bottles that store a vapor which apparently causes everything to go into the aforementioned hybernation for a thousand years, which struck me as obvious, like yes of course we’ll get back to these bottles for the climax. And so we do. The victory however is arguably pyrrhic, as Vulthoom points out, since not only are the humans sacrificing themselves, but Vulthoom and his minions are merely entering a period of deep sleep prematurely; eventually they’ll be back to their usual business.
Of course, while a thousand years will pass by like the blink of an eye for Vulthoom subjectively, it’s still a long time for anything not in hybernation. A lot can change in the span of a thousand years, but perhaps wisely Smith leaves this final question unanswered.
A Step Farther Out
Smith has written well on the topics of obsession and cultish behavior, but this is not really one of those good examples. I’m more disappointed than anything. Vulthoom himself (itself?) is a fine creation, but it’s wasted on human characters who are dull as dishwater, such that Smith gives us their backstories upfront and then refuses to elaborate. One is a writer who occasionally says a stereotypical writer thing and the other doesn’t have any distinguishing features to speak of. The setting is also sadly underdeveloped; we start on the Martian surface and we’re there for about two pages before going underground. See, the thing is that Smith’s science fiction is mostly glossed over because he wasn’t a very good science-fictionist: he was a poet first, then a fantasist, and then whatever came after that. “Vulthoom” seems to be Smith deliberately writing in what was the standard super-science mode, and I have to wonder if he considered submitting it to Astounding Science Fiction before going to his regular outlet, Weird Tales. Regardless, this is far from what I consider essential Smith.
C. L. Moore is remembered by certain readers as one half of an immensely talented writing duo, the other half being her first husband, Henry Kuttner. Moore and Kuttner, from about 1940 to Kuttner’s untimely death in 1958, wrote seamlessly and prolifically together in just about every corner of SFF that was conceivable at the time. The two were actually unsure as to who wrote exactly what in their collaborations, and to this day speculations on who did what largely remain just that: speculations. Before their coming together, though, Moore was one of the most respected authors to contribute regularly to the peak era of Weird Tales, and unlike most authors her success started with her first story. “Shambleau,” Moore’s first professional sale and the first to feature spacefaring himbo Northwest Smith, made a splash when it came out in late 1933, with Farnsworth Wright being pretty open about wanting to buy whatever Moore was selling.
In the ’30s, most of Moore’s output was comprised of two series: the aforementioned Northwest Smith adventures, and also Jirel of Joiry, sword and sorcery’s first heroine. The first entry in the latter series, “The Black God’s Kiss” (definite article removed for most reprints), is a reread for me, but I now like it much more since I’ve gotten to a) read it more carefully, and b) read it in what I consider the proper context. I had first read it as part of The Future Is Female! (ed. Lisa Yaszek), which collects science fiction stories by women published prior to 1970, and with all due respect to Yaszek and a few people I know, it’s a fatal error to classify “The Black God’s Kiss” as SF. The logic seems to be that because Jirel of Joiry shares continuity with Northwest Smith, thanks to some time travel fuckery in a later entry, that means Jirel of Joiry must be, at least retroactively, considered SF as well.
The problem is that, at least in “The Black God’s Kiss,” there’s virtually nothing to support this argument in the text itself. At best the argument is misleading: when I first read “The Black God’s Kiss” I was distracted by this sword-and-sorcery story being erroneously included in an SF anthology and thus struggled to enjoy it for what it actually was. Now I’ve rectified the issue by reading this story as it was originally published, wherein it’s clearly framed as fantasy—albeit with a remarkably dark tinge, being a mix of heroic fantasy, cosmic horror, and psycho-sexual mania.
Before I enter plot synopsis mode I wanna issue a sort of content warning. Despite its vintage “The Black God’s Kiss” overflows with eroticism and sexual angst, especially in its subtext. Sexual assault is what kicks off the plot and things only get murkier from there, just so you know.
First published in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Didn’t I cover something from this issue just last month? Why yes; and eventually I’ll be sure to cover Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases.” Anyway, “The Black God’s Kiss” has been collected and anthologized quite a few times over the years. On top of the aforementioned The Future Is Female! we have The Best of C. L. Moore, part of the fabulous Ballantine best-of series, and also Black God’s Kiss, which collects all of the Jirel of Joiry stories—not that there are too many of them. One place where you won’t find this story is Two-Handed Engine, which is irritating because it’s one of the few actually essential Moore/Kuttner stories not in that collection; meanwhile there are a couple more minor stories that could’ve been replaced with “The Black God’s Kiss,” if space was a concern. Point being, you won’t have a hard time finding this one.
Moore is not fucking around, because we start in media res with a battle at the castle of Joiry having already taken place, Joiry having been invaded and with the outcome being disastrous—for the castle. Guillaume is a haughty Frenchman (as if there’s any other kind) and leader of marauders who demands the commander of the fallen troops of Joiry be brought to him, presumably for a flashy execution. However, when the commander is brought forth, Guillaume demands the commander’s helmet be removed, and this is where we get what has to be one of the first instances of the “Samus is a girl” trope—if not the first. Admittedly this tiny twist is spoiled if you know literally anything about Jirel of Joiry in advance, and also are reading a copy without any illustrations, but it’s the thought that counts. Because he is a hetereosexual man with functioning eyeballs, Guillaume’s intent with Jirel makes a 180 and turns from murder to lust.
It’s here that we get a forced kiss, the first of three kisses in the story actually, and a very pissed-off redhead. Guillaume forces a kiss on Jirel, which doesn’t go well for either of them: for Jirel for the obvious reason, and for Guillaume became he damn near gets his throat torn out when Jirel maneuvers to bite his neck. “She missed the jugular by a fraction of an inch.” Like anyone upset that his would-be rape victim would dare fight back, Guillaume knocks Jirel out, but rather than kill her he locks her up in the dungeon of her own castle—a show of mercy he’ll ultimately regret. Because this world apparently operates on Metal Gear Solid logic, Jirel knocks out the guard for her cell pretty easily and has the opportunity to sneak out of the castle, only she doesn’t do that; for one, in her defense, it’d be cowardly, but also there’s clearly something to be done about the guy who thinks he can have his way with her. The result is a rape-revenge plot with a few twists contained therein, and that’s what we’re here for.
“The Black God’s Kiss” is a novelette that very easily could’ve been a novella, had Moore wanted to flesh out the setting and background behind Joiry—only she deprives us of that backstory because really it’s not necessary to us understanding Jirel’s character. Jirel is an impressive creation, partly because she’s a Woman™, but also because this was still pretty early in the formation of sword and sorcery as a subgenre; hell, Conan had only debuted two years prior to this. Even in this first entry in the series we see multiple facets of Jirel’s character, her virtues and flaws, and there’s ambiguity about her that, at least in this story, does not sharpen into clarity. Being the heroine of a heroic fantasy plot would be enough, but Jirel is also in several ways a subversion of what was expected of female characters in pulp fiction at the time. After having escaped, she meets up with Ricky Father Gervase, the castle chaplain, who I guess was not fed to pigs when Guillaume took over, and it’s here we find out a few things of interest…
For one, it’s implied that we’re in an alternate medieval France—a world where ancient Rome was still a thing, but also the fantastic has intruded upon the normal human world. Jirel is shown to be a practicing Catholic, but she sure is not a pious one; she is French, after all. She makes it clear that Guillaume’s forced kiss was not her first; she is not the waifish virgin of most pulp fiction women, being neither waifish nor virginal. Sex and religion are not uncommon sights in the pages of Weird Tales, in that their imagery makes it in for the sake of titilation and shock value, but they’re rarely discussed by characters within those stories. “The Black God’s Kiss” is unusual for several reasons, but what struck me the most is its willingness to tackle the complex web of emotions involved in sex—and this is way before we even get to the ending! Anyway, Jirel is looking for a specific weapon she might use to wreak her vengeance on Guillaume; she doesn’t know what the weapon is, but she knows where it is.
There’s a level of the castle beneath it that goes down—far further below ground than the dungeon, a place so horrid that Jirel’s only gone there once before, and she got too spooked before she could venture that far. Gervase was with Jirel during that earlier venture to the realm below, and perhaps wisely he tries to convince Jirel to not go (for the sake of her immortal soul more than anything), only Jirel will not be convinced. As the following dialogue shows, Jirel is thinking about her immortal soul, but she’s thinking about doing terrible things to Guillaume way more:
“To wreak my vengeance upon Guillaume I would go if I knew I should burn in hell for ever.”
“But Jirel, I do not think you understand. This is a worse fate than the deepest depths of hell-fire. This is—this is beyond all the bounds of the hells we know. And I think Satan’s hottest flames were the breath of paradise, compared to what may befall there.”
“I know. Do you think I’d venture down if I could not be sure? Where else would I find such a weapon as I need, save outside God’s dominion?”
“Jirel, you shall not!”
“Gervase, I go! Will you shrive me?” The hot yellow eyes blazed into his, lambent in the starlight.
After a moment he dropped his head. “You are my lady. I will give you God’s blessing, but it will not avail you—there.”
Savor this, because with one exception this is the last bit of dialogue we get in the whole story and we’re only about five pages into it. Something I realized is that once Jirel starts making her way to the lower depths the writing becomes entirely either action or the narrator trying to capture Jirel’s mindset. Anyway, Gervae reluctantly gives Jirel his blessing and she heads off on her own to make her way to the lower depths. There’s a bit of subtle fanservice with Jirel’s getup for the journey: at the beginning of the story she wore armor bulky enough that Guillaume at first assumed she was a man, but now her attire is more flexible and revealing, wearing “a fresh shirt of doeskin” and “a brief tunic of link-mail.” She’s able to carry a sword and a dagger in her belt, but can’t bring a torch—a hindrance that may ultimately prove to be an asset.
As she finds the trap door leading to the lower depths and begins her descent, Jirel is reminded, to her horror, that the spiraling staircase going down was almost certainly not built by humans—rather the architecture seems more fit for a giant snake. I have a couple questions such as, “Who built this castle anyway?” and “If the lower depths were built by something non-human, would it have preceded the castle’s construction? How much did the builders know about this place?” Questions which go unanswered, but really we need not worry about those things. The castle of Joiry, much like an onion or an ogre, has layers, which are peeled back once the revenge plot kicks into gear. Because she doesn’t have a torch Jirel is unable to see SHIT, but it turns out there could be another reason for the unfathomable darkness of these depths—a reason that can only be deemed supernatural rather than super-scientific, at least without serious retconning.
We get what might be called a demented sense-of-wonder bit when Jirel realizes what has been causing her to be unable to see anything in the depths, and it’s here that the story switches gears from medieval fantasy to something much harder to classify, though I think “heroic Lovecraftian fantasy” might do the trick. Jirel came to this unholy place with a crucifix, a holy object, round her neck, which she finds may be preventing her from taking in her surroundings. Get this:
She lifted her hand and found the chain of her crucifix taut and vibrant around her neck. At that she smiled a little grimly, for she began to understand. The crucifix. She found her hand shaking despite herself, but she unfastened the chain and dropped the cross to the ground. Then she gasped.
All about her, as suddenly as the awakening from a dream, the nothingness had opened out into undreamed-of distances. She stood high on a hilltop under a sky spangled with strange stars. Below she caught glimpses of misty plains and valleys with mountain peaks rising far away. And at her feet a ravening circle of small, slavering, blind things leaped with clashing teeth.
They were obscene and hard to distinguish against the darkness of the hillside, and the noise they made was revolting. Her sword swung up of itself, almost, and slashed furiously at the little dark horrors leaping up around her legs. They died squashily, splattering her bare thighs with unpleasantness, and after a few had gone silent under the blade the rest fled into the dark with quick, frightened pantings, their feet making a queer splashing noise on the stones.
From here on, Jirel is on her own in her surreal nightmare adventures, the last conversation in the whole story happening between her and a ghoulish doppelganger, which tries to trick her at first but then points her towards what she wants: a temple on an small island, in the middle of a lake of stars. Here the plot gets rather hard to summarize, since it’s basically an episodic adventure wherein Jirel sees or fights off some weird thing in the midst of this vast underground realm—a realm which, given the appearance of a sky, cannot possibly be underground unless it’s an elaborate optical illusion. I’ll discuss one or two of these highlights, plus the ending in the spoilers section, but I’ll say for now that if this episodic style of fantasy storytelling is up your alley then you’ll have a lot of fun with this. The loose narrative might’ve turned me off on my initial reading, but now I can see more clearly what Moore is going for, and it must be said she’s quite good at it.
There Be Spoilers Here
The temple on the island, connected to the rest of the realm via an invisible bridge, houses a black Buddha-esque statue with one eye, “and its mouth was pursed for a kiss.” Jirel is unable to explain in words how she feels about this statue, something perhaps beyond human comprehension compels her to kiss the statue, hence the title and Margaret Brundage’s cover for the issue. After having fought off indescribable little horrors and seen some rather disconcerting stuff (the most evocative of these being a herd of blind and insane white horses, galloping through the dark fields), there’s a peculiar sense of relief—almost ecstacy—when Jirel kisses the black statue and gains what she deduces to be a poison kiss—a kiss she’ll then pass on Guillaume. Very strange, that of all the weapons she could be given a kiss of deah is what will satisfy her bloodlust.
Firstly, the kiss is clearly meant to be a stand-in for sex, as a kind of very thin metaphor; and not just one of the three kisses but all of them. Guillaume forces a kiss on Jirel, but we’re to understand that, at least subtextual, this was more than “just” a kiss; and Jirel kissing the black statue strikes me as a variation on the deal-with-the-devil plot turn (I’m thinking specifically of the film Belladonna of Sadness wherein the heroine has sex with the devil and becomes a powerful witch), even though the statue is inanimate. The black god’s kiss itself is mystifying, but it’s also a sexual experience. It may seem assbackwards that the weapon Jirel has sought requires such close content with her would-be victim, but the intimacy is deliberate since Jirel wants not only vengeance on Guillaume but also to dominate him—to have that kiss again, but on her terms this time.
This brings us to the ending, which is divisive and rather hard to explain since it’s here that the psycho-sexual angle kicks into high gear, and indeed it’s hard to rationalize what happens at the end without psychoanalysis. When Jirel hurries back to the surface (being made suddenly afraid to see the horrors of the depths with full clarity), she finds Guillaume with his men, and also Gervase, who may or may not have ratted on Jirel. The confrontation here is made all the more bewildering because there’s not even a word of dialogue in this scene, and while the narrator does a little explaining we do not get a play-by-play of Jirel’s mind. Rather than have Jirel killed on the spot, Guillaume does the heterosexual male thing and seems pretty happy to see her again, for some reason expecting a consensual kiss from her this time—which in a way he does get.
It’s not hard to imagine an alternate version of this story where Jirel and Guillaume have sex and it’s her lips down there that deliver the poison, and the strangest thing of all is that the outcome would basically be the same; more importantly, despite sex being far more overtly erotic than a kiss, the erotic power of the kiss is still perfectly intact and comprehensive. The moment of the kill is almost orgasmic for Jirel, but this is immediately followed by the lowest of lows—the realization, too late, that Guillaume living rent free in Jirel’s head this whole time was not simple due to hatred: it was also all-consuming lust which manifested as murderous obsession. Maybe not love, as the text hints at, but certainly there’s an attraction between the warrior maid and the conqueror that, under different circumstances, could have led to a wonderful partnership.
They knew he was dead. That was unmistakable in the way he lay. Jirel stood very still, looking down upon him, and strangely it seemed to her that all the lights in the world had gone out. A moment before he had been so big and vital, so magnificent in the torchlight—she could still feel his kiss upon her mouth, and the hard warmth of his arms…
Suddenly and blindingly it came upon her what she had done. She knew now why such heady violence had flooded her whenever she thought of him—knew why the light-devil in her own form had laughed so derisively—knew the price she must pay for taking a gift from a demon. She knew that there was no light anywhere in the world, now that Guillaume was gone.
Jirel regretting killing Guillaume is a character choice that some will find hard to swallow: this is, after all, akin to a rape victim falling in love with her rapist after the fact. Another way of looking at it is that Jirel, having been obsessed with Guillaume, suddenly finds her existence devoid of meaning once she’s gotten rid of the object of her obsession. Another way of looking at all this is that Moore may be suggesting that the relationship between Jirel and Guillaume is tragic, as they are (in some ways anyway) kindred spirits who have the misfortune of being on opposite sides of the battlefield. Certainly Moore did not understand consent in 1934 as we understand it now, but I can’t help but feel like she’s trying to say something about the occasional blurriness of consent, and how sexual desire may manifest in ways people can’t predict. I can speculate all I want, but it’s still impressive that the actual meaning behind “The Black God’s Kiss” remains, after nearly a century, elusive.
Oh, and to complicate thing further, we get notice at the very end of a direct sequel in the wings, “Black God’s Shadow,” which will be available in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Well, I guess I know what the next Moore story I cover will be!
A Step Farther Out
I’ll be honest, when I read “Shambleau” I enjoyed it enough but didn’t think it was all that special—though it was certainly well-written considering Moore was barely out of her teens at the time. However, on a deeper reading, “The Black God’s Kiss” strikes me as easily the more impressive venture, and it’s a shame that she basically gave up sword and sorcery once she started teaming up regularly with Kuttner given her obvious knack for it. The premise is simple, with as little context for the conflict being given as possible, and there are a few logical questions left unanswered, but this is a disturbed and deeply evocative piece that showed Moore (who, mind you, was still very early in her career) as a force to be reckoned with. The ending is not for everyone, but I’m convinced Moore knew what she was doing, especially considering she seems to have written “Black God’s Shadow” before the first story was even published. Speaking of which, there’s only a two-month gap in publication between these stories…
I’m about to talk some shit. I can’t say I’m a fan of H. P. Lovecraft, even though I’ve read a good portion of his work at this point and have liked some of it. Lovecraft, when he’s really up my alley, is pretty good: “The Rats in the Walls,” “Cool Air,” and “The Shadow Out of Time” are all bangers for me, with that last one especially standing out for its marrying of cosmic wonder with an equally strong dose of cosmic anxiety. But Lovecraft, IN MY OPINION, can also be pretty boring and full of himself, never mind his other limitations. You may notice for instance, especially in his later stories, that Lovecraft hates writing dialogue and will do anything to get around having to write basic human conversation. The irony is that, at least regarding his letter-writing, Lovecraft was very talkative; indeed the only reason we laymen even know about Lovecraft is because he formed several connections that proved valuable for preserving his work after his death. Based on his fiction alone, Lovecraft should have by all rights stayed as obscure as his close contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, whose stories are often more entertaining and who was overall the more elegant writer.
This, of course, is all just opinion, because the objective reality is that Lovecraft is the most influential horror writer of the 20th century and it’s not even close. Oh sure, Stephen King is the most popular, but popularity does not equate to influence and if we’re talking about authors whose tangibly left an impact on other authors, Lovecraft’s only serious rival would be Edgar Allan Poe. Everyone who even dabbles in cosmic horror must contend with Lovecraft’s legacy and it’s no coincidence that “Lovecraftian” horror is used interchangeably with cosmic horror; he didn’t invent the subgenre (Lovecraft made it clear that he was not the first), but he was, more than anyone, the guy who connected the dots and brought clarity to what must have seemed to a lot of people like just a bunch of stories written at different times by different people. His long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is arguably the single most important document on the history of horror fiction, and it also gives us precious insight into how Lovecraft himself—that is to say, as a keeper of the flame that is horror fiction.
A little bit of bashing, a good deal more of praise. I’m putting all this upfront because there’s gonna be more bashing to come: today’s story is… not fun. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (the hyphen removed for reprints) is a later Lovecraft story, set in what we now call the Cthulhu Mythos, and it’s what we might also call a noble failure. See, people called this story a turkey before it was even published: August Derleth admitted to not liking it, which didn’t stop him from submitting it to Farnsworth Wright, who promptly bought it. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was written a year after At the Mountains of Madness, but was published three years before that short novel on account of the latter being rejected by Wright and collecting dust. I find this all ironic since while I think At the Mountains of Madness is unspeakably boring, the poor editing of “The Dreams in the Witch-House” strikes me as less excusable.
First published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. You may notice that the aura of these Weird Tales covers has changed radically since last time we saw them, the greys being replaced with an erotic blueness. Margaret Brundage did basically all of the covers for the magazine at the very height of its popularity, so from about to 1933 to 1937, and she sure did love her female nudes. Anyway, because this is a Lovecraft story, it’s very easy to find. You can read an easily legible online version via the H. P. Lovecraft Archive, found here. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” has been collected and anthologized many times over the years, despite opinion on its quality being widely varied; if you look up a given Lovecraft collection it’s probably in there.
Before I dig into this piece of shit, there are a few nuggets in the opening stretch that may trick you into thinking you’re about to read a good Lovecraft story, like “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Colour Out of Space.” For one, this is one of the few Cthulhu Mythos stories where Arkham is the main setting, whereas more often it’s simply alluded to. If you’re a Mythos fan there are chestnuts of the series you’ll notice quickly, such as the Necronomicon and that classic college for goths and edgy white dudes everywhere, Miskatonic University. Lovecraft even tips his hat to Robert E. Howard by including Von Junzt’s book (see my review of Howard’s “The Black Stone”), albeit under a different title. These Mythos stories all radiate Lovecraft’s undying love for New Endland, and “The Dreams in the Witch-House” might be the most New England-y of them all, not only taking place in Arkham but referencing Salem, that real-life eldritch location, heavily.
Speaking of Salem, the keyword for today is “witchcraft.” The villain of the story, Keziah Mason, is a 17th century witch whose exploits very much interest our hapless protagonist, Walter Gilman, a Miskatonic student who has rented a room in the house where Keziah had lived. The house, lorded over by unhinged Christian Joe Mazurewicz, is unique both for its history (having harbored a known witch and all) and its architecture, which Gilman finds to be… a little odd. The walls and ceiling of Gilman’s room are at odd angles, and I have to wonder if Lovecraft was inspired by the angular set design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or if he had even seen that movie. (As weird as it sounds, Lovecraft really enjoyed movies, and on at least a couple occasions, including his late masterpiece “The Shadow Out of Time,” he was apparently inspired by movies he saw.) Any reasonable person would have rented some other goddamn house, but as the omniscient narrator makes clear, Gilman is not a reasonable man, with his closest ally, housemate Frank Elwood, also being a bit of an eccentric.
Back to witchcraft, Keziah was tried in Salem, in the court of one Judge Hathorne, a name that will ring a weird bell for some people. Hathorne was a real person in 17th century Salem, and was indeed the direct ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed his last name slightly to distant himself as a descendant of someone who persecuted innocent people under the guise of Puritan justice. Lovecraft was a devotee of horror literature and he sure knew his Hawthorne; indeed his enthusiasm as a student of weird and macabre fiction is what I like most about him. Keziah was set to be executed, but by means incomprehensible to normal humans was able to escape her jail cell, never to be seen again, as explained here:
She had told Judge Hathome of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through the walls of space to other spaces beyond, and had implied that such lines and curves were frequently used at certain midnight meetings in the dark valley of the white stone beyond Meadow Hill and on the unpeopled island in the river. She had spoken also of the Black Man, of her oath, and of her new secret name of Nahab. Then she had drawn those devices on the walls of her cell and vanished.
A few things to unpack here…
The gimmick of “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” aside from the feverish dreams that Gilman has, is the way in which Keziah conducts her witchcraft, because it’s not the usual toil-and-trouble routine. Lovecraft’s writing increasingly delved into the cosmic as his career progressed, and in that sense I can believe “The Dreams in the Witch-House” was written after At the Mountains of Madness; there’s a preoccupation with geometry and special awareness here that is simply not present in Lovecraft’s fiction from a decade earlier. I dare say it makes sense that an eccentric college boy would rent a space with weird dimensions so that he could study this nifty bit of local history. Besides, the witch is surely dead by now, no harm can come from it, just don’t think too much about the sleepwalking.
The other thing is that Keziah is in cahoots with what Lovecraft calls “the Black Man,” although after a certain point he stops capitalizing for no reason and calls him “the black man.” Okay. So the Black Man is a Mythos character, he’s mentioned in the Necronomicon, and contrary to what his title would imply, he’s not black: he has charcoal skin but is supposed to have “white” features, “a tall, lean man of dead black coloration but without the slightest sign of negroid features.” First off, oof. Second, I know what we’re all thinking: Lovecraft is being his usual racist self again. To an extent that’s true, because it seems he goes out of his way to word things a certain way, and also the people who are clearly of Eastern European background in the story are described in unflattering terms, but it would be a mistake to call the story racist, for reasons I don’t feel like getting too much into.
The thing about Lovecraft is that if we’re talking about his fiction, and for this site that’s mostly what we’re talking about, his racism is not exceptional, even for ’30s pulp fiction—especially for ’30s pulp fiction, considering the myriad Yellow Peril narratives from the era that were deemed perfectly acceptable. Hell, Howard’s “The Black Stone” has some rather conspicuous racist underones, as indeed does a good deal of Howard’s other fiction. The difference between Lovecraft and Howard, though, is that the latter was actually willing to depict POC… at all? And not just that but as flesh-and-blood people when he wasn’t using racist tropes. Howard being a proud Irishman, at a time when the Irish being treated by WASPs as “unclean” whites was still recent history, definitely also informs his views on race and particularly his imperfect but sympathetic views of non-white peoples; meanwhile Lovecraft grew up in a WASP bubble and he never entirely broke out of said bubble, though he did eventually try.
I’m getting sidetracked, but then this story’s not terribly interesting.
Something I should’ve mentioned earlier is Keziah’s familiar, Brown Jenkin, a half-man half-rat thing with a human face and hands/feet but the body of a rat, which admittedly is an uncanny creature design. The problem is that none of this is scary; if anything it’s a bit silly. I don’t understand why Lovecraft, a known heathen, would indulge in tropes about witches that would’ve been old hat even when he wrote this story. Of course Keziah is an ugly old hag, because she must either be that or Marilyn goddamn Monroe, and of course the ugly old hag is up to no good. I’m sorry, is the implication here that the Salem witch trials were justified? It’s such an odd marriage, between old-timey witchcraft and a subgenre of horror that was comparatively young and less superstitious. The weirdest thing of all is that the aforementioned Eastern Europeans, who are rabidly Christian and thus would discomfort Lovecraft for both their religion and their ethnicity, are obviously in the right when they shun the witch-house.
Before I head into spoilers (not that there’s much that can actually be spoiled) I wanna let you know that this story took me THREE DAYS to get through. Technically two, but I took a day off from reading before finishing it, which for a short story is damning; of course I say that, but this is a long novelette, close to 15,000 words, and it really needn’t be that long. I criticized Hao Jinfang’s “Folding Beijing” (review here) for feeling bloated to mine eyes, but let it be known that while Jingfang’s story is about a thousand words longer than Lovecraft’s, the latter still felt longer. Gilman has several acid trip dream sessions with Keziah and Brown Jenkin and soon these scenes become reptitive, with little progress outside the dreams being made, not to mention the reliance on dreams gives the whole ordeal chopped-up pacing that makes it feel longer than it is. And then there’s what I said at the beginning, with Lovecraft summarizing (not concisely, mind you) conversations rather than actually writing them. I’m amazed Wright readily accepted this, because it so obviously could’ve used an editor’s blue pen.
There Be Spoilers Here
A lot happens, but deceptively little of it is proves to be concequential. Gilman keeps having these dreams with increasing vividness, to the point where a couple of drunkards claim to have witnessed one of his sleepwalking sessions—only this time he’s accompanied by Keziah and the Black Man. It’s pretty clear to us but not to Gilman what is happening, until it’s almost too late. In his dreams, in that other dimension, Gilman finally takes the initiative and tries to stop the blood sacrifice of a child, using the crucifix Mazurewicz gave him to stun Keziah momentarily before strangling her.
I have a couple questions…
Gilman pulling out the crucifix and it actually spooking Keziah is one of the most baffling things to happen in a Lovecraft story, and as far as I can tell there’s no defense for this. Lovecraft, an avowed atheist, uses a crucifix as a deus ex machina against a witch who by all logic should not be spooked by Christian iconography, on account of her being able to, ya know, travel between dimensions and cheat death literally for centuries. I’m also baffled by the fact that there’s not a single actual subversion of what Puritans thought witchcraft to be like, even down to witches sacrificing childen to what may as well be the devil. Oh sure, the Black Man is not Satan, but the result is exactly the same.
It seems that Lovecraft wanted to elevate what would otherwise be a standard evil witch narrative with a dash of cosmic horror, but if I’m being honest this is the least convincing use of the Necronomicon, the Old Ones, and so on that I’ve seen in a Lovecraft story. Arkham may as well be Salem, and while it seems at first like Lovecraft might be setting up what would’ve been standard witch hijinks only to subvert our expectations, he ultimately chooses to play everything straight—albeit more gruesomely than one would expect. Gilman kills the witch, but Brown Jenkin kills the child and completes the sacrifice, not to mention gets out alive. The climax is a bittersweet one, with Gilman daring to be heroic and partly succeeding but still failing to save the day to an extent.
Elwood finds Gilman in his bed, dazed. “On his throat were the marks of murderous hands, and on his left ankle was a distressing rat-bite. His clothing was badly rumpled, and Joe’s crucifix was missing.” Gilman, soon rendered deaf by an unearthly sound, never regains full lucidity—and in typical fashion for a Lovecraft protagonist, he will not live much longer. One day Elwood finds him very much dead, his chest having been eaten through by what is clearly meant to be Brown Jenkin; again this is gorier than is typical for Lovecraft, but the effect is hollow. Quite reasonably, this experience drives Elwood to madness temporarily (he gets better), and Mazurewicz soon abandons the house. The old damned place is evacuated, and as far we’re concerned this is where the story ends.
BUT WAIT, WE’RE NOT DONE YET!
The house is condemned, then partly demolished. The attic, which had been kept a mystery up to this point, collapses and covers the upper level of the house, no doubt killing anyone who would have been where Gilman was. I get that this collapse could have only happened after Gilman killed the witch, but I like to think of an alternate ending where Brown Jenkin doesn’t kill Gilman and instead Our Hero™ dies in some freak accident. Would that ending make the story better? Hmmm. Nobody wants to scavenge the remains, except someone has to; and the results will be shocking to the remaining townspeople, if not to us.
Among the rubbish which had crashed through the ancient slanting ceiling were several things which made the workmen pause and call in the police. Later the police in turn called in the coroner and several professors from the university. There were bones—badly crushed and splintered, but clearly recognizable as human—whose manifestly modern date conflicted puzzlingly with the remote period at which their only possible lurking place, the low, slant-floored loft overhead, had supposedly been sealed from all human access. The coroner’s physician decided that some belonged to a small child, while certain others—found mixed with shreds of rotten brownish cloth—belonged to a rather undersized, bent female of advanced years. Careful sifting of debris also disclosed many tiny bones of rats caught in the collapse, as well as older rat-bones gnawed by small fangs in a fashion now and then highly productive of controversy and reflection.
They then find what we know to be the skeleton of Brown Jenkin, since all the features match: unusually large rodent body, but with what appear to be humanoid hands and feet. The implication is that Keziah and Brown Jenkin have been dead in this dimension for centuries, but have stayed alive in that other dimension thanks to evil maths. We also get hard evidence that what Gilman had been experiencing was real and not a dream, even though we already would’ve figured a normal rat could not have eaten through his chest like it did. It’s only here, after this lengthy epilogue, that the story actually ends and by extension ends my suffering.
Something to keep in mind is that this final scene changes NOTHING. What useful information do we get here that we did not know about before? More importantly, all the characters have by this point left the scene, so we’re not attached to the people who find the hard evidence of supernatural shenanigans. If this was supposed to be confirmation of things that were “ambiguous” before, it fails because the aforementioned happenings were not ambiguous. If Lovecraft meant it to be a twist, it fell flat.
A Step Farther Out
There you have it, the second story I’ve reviewed for this site that I just don’t like; and unlike Tanith Lee’s “Bite-Me-Not or, Fleur de Feu” (review here), where it was my first story of hers and so I gave her the benefit of the doubt, I know I caught Lovecraft on a bad day with this one. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is tedious, overly long, and more than a bit hackneyed, not so much Lovecraft repeating himself (which he does sometimes) as taking cues from older, more superstitious horror fiction. Despite enhancing the affair with some neat cosmic imagery, and treating witchcraft as like a sort of perverted mathematics, Lovecraft still plays the evil witch narrative straight from start to finish. What interests me is that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, despite sharing continuity, run the gamut from occult horror to outright science fiction, with “The Dreams in the Witch-House” falling into the former end with a few hints of the latter, and if you know me then you know which end of the spectrum I prefer. Point being, this was a chore to get through; the chances of me ever rereading it are low.