• Short Story Review: “Vulthoom” by Clark Ashton Smith

    (Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, September 1935.)

    Who Goes There?

    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.

    Placing Coordinates

    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.

    Enhancing Image

    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.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore

    (Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, October 1934.)

    Who Goes There?

    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.

    Placing Coordinates

    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.

    Enhancing Image

    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…

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Dreams in the Witch-House” by H. P. Lovecraft

    (Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, July 1933.)

    Who Goes There?

    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.

    Placing Coordinates

    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.

    Enhancing Image

    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.


    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.

    See you next time.

  • The Observatory: Scanners (Do Not) Live in Vain

    (My copy of the April 1969 issue of F&SF, cover by Bert Tanner. Mind the tape and torn corner!)

    Today we’ll be talking about one of my favorite topics that is not myself: preservation. The question of preservation is one that has haunted the SFF landscape since at least the ’40s, when we started seeing select stories from the magazines get immortalized via hardcover anthology reprints. Adventures in Time and Space (ed. Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas) and The Best of Science Fiction (ed. Groff Conklin), published the same year, were big deals at the time because they were chunky hardcover volumes funded by mainstream publishers (Random House and Crown Publishers respectively) which rescued stories deemed worthy of rescue from the brittle pages of pulp magazines. And these were quite literally pulp magazines, both in the quality of the paper and the dimensions of the volumes, although by 1946 Astounding Science Fiction had transitioned to the relatively sturdier digest format; but even this would not be enough.

    The truth is, magazines are not built to last; they have been, for as long as we’ve had them, meant as disposabls, with exceptions. Presumably the format of a magazine determines both its monetary value and how likely it is to withstand the merciless forces of time: for example, the aforementioned pulp magazines were cheap and nowadays, if you could find them at all, would be all torn and battered and tanned almost being recognitions. Conversely you have something like Omni, or even that phase in Analog‘s life where it tried out the bedsheet format, whose volumes are extraordinarily tall and wide, and made of fine smooth paper that would not tan or tear so easily, the result being that these are fine collector’s items. Seeing, however, that the digest format has been the standard since the death of the pulps, by far the most likely format you’ll find for a vintage SFF magazine is the digest format. Consider that in 1965 all of the surviving SFF magazines on the US market had virtually identical dimensions, with the difference in hardiness between say, Analog and F&SF, being now more subtle.

    I’ve learned from first-hand experience that collecting F&SF from the ’60s and ’70s is a bit of a dangerous game, because for some reason copies of this magazines and era are especially brittle. Pictues above is my copy of the April 1969 issue, which didn’t start out with the tape forcibly marrying the front cover to the body of the magazine: the front cover just sort of tore itself off completely while I was going through its pages one day. At first the idea of taping a magazine together struck me as a little dirty, but then I realized that it’s better to have that than a volume with a missing front cover. I have another F&SF issue from 1969 whose spine snapped clean in half, the volume now being held together by the thin paper on the spine and Allah’s infinite mercy. I have several volumes which feels as though they might break apart in my hands if I handle them no less gently than my girlfriend during a much needed cuddling session.

    Indeed some magazines are hardier. I have a good portion of Bova-era Analog on my shelf and these bastards have barely seen damage in the half-century that they’ve been in someone’s possession. But there are a couple exceptions where the spine (it’s usually the spine) has now encountered a crisis of faith and is no longer as sure if it wants to stay in one piece. And the less said about my copies of Galaxy Science Fiction (the ’60s ones, the ’70s ones are basically fine) the better. My point being that the magazines I physically have are old and must be handled with care—a good deal more care than needs be shown towards a hardcover or even paperback volume of the same vintage. These things were not meant to last.

    The vast majority of the magazines I use for my review site are not physical copies but digital scans, either from the Internet Archive or Luminist. I’m pretty shameless about this because I think it’s necessary, for both my wallet and for the sake of preserving magazines, to rely on scans, which of course means we need people with physical copies and the tech with which to scan them and upload them to the internet. Scanners are some of the most important people in keeping track of our field’s history, despite them often being anonymous and looked down upon by anti-piracy purists. Scanners are what make my review site possible; without them I probably would’ve never become an SFF blogger, and I also probably would not have fallen head over heels for the rich and eccentric history of SFF magazines. I started getting into this business a couple years back, entirely thanks to scanners making issues of Galaxy—a magazine that went under more than forty years ago—avaulable online. Thing is, you’re only getting a small fraction of the picture, especially for short fiction, if you ignore this history.

    The legality of uploading free copies of magazines, which after contain stories which have probably not fallen out of copyright, to the internet is murky, but what’s not murky is the necessity of doing this if one hopes to make these magazines available to the public. The spreading of online scans in recent years has made it so that these volumes, which contain material that has never been reprinted anywhere (usually editorials, science articles, and book columns, but also sometimes fiction), are no longer restricted to the hands of collectors. While there’s definitely still value in owning second-hand physical copies of magazines (I do it myself, as you know), even if you don’t intend to scan the materials for posterity, someone like me who digs through back issues like a raccoon digs through garbage will find it infinitely more useful to go to online archives for his reading materials. My wallet and my shelf space remain intact!

    Scanner do this for the same reason I do it, and more or less with the same exceptions: they don’t do it for profit, as they don’t expect to get even a dime out of it; they do it, and I do it, for the love of the field. There are several sites which upload scans of vintage magazines, but to this day there are specific issues which either have yet to be preserved online or which remain, as far as we know, basically lost forever. The phrase “lost media” is a perennial favorite for people who are into real-life stories of the spooky, macabre, and the unexplained, but usually there’s nothing spooky or morbid about lost media; a lot of the time media becomes lost for the simplest and most mundane of reasons. Episodes of an old-timey game show or adventure serial become lost media because the studio wiped the tapes; issues of vintage magazines become lost media because these magazines were made to be disgarded and forgotten, and so nobody kept them.

    Of course, this is all true for print magazines. Online magazines face a different issue, which will require its own editorial in the future, because scanners, helpful as they are, cannot scan magazines which have never seen paper. Consider the sad fate of Sci Fiction, the award-winning fiction department of the Sci-Fi Channel’s website, a revolutionary online magazine that produced several much-anthologized works—and yet you can only now access Sci Fiction via the Wayback Machine. Sci Fiction also got shut down, despite the quality of its fiction, because it failed to be profitable for the Sci-Fi Channel, and that’s an issue still very much haunting modern online magazines like Clarkesworld and Uncanny Magazine. Amazon (who after all can never be trusted) recently announcing that they will discontinue the Kindle Newsstand, a point of revenue for several online magazines, will force supporters to find alternative routes like direct donations and Patreon if they haven’t already.

    The lifeblood of the SFF magazine is always being threatened in some way, it seems. There was the bubble followed by the implosion of pulp magazines in the ’50s, then the threat original anthologies posed to magazines in the ’60s onward, and of course the paperback has been a consistent threat to magazines, all but driving serials to extinction (worth its own future editorial), for the past several decades. Despite being a cornerstone of the field’s history, magazines must be kept alive via guerilla tactics and current subscribers finding backup means for supporting them. Scanners, ultimately, are a byproduct of a medium which must be stored in the heavens of the internet or else become handfuls of dust.

  • Short Story Review: “The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard

    (Cover by C. C. Senf. Weird Tales, November 1931.)

    Who Goes There?

    I’ve covered Robert E. Howard on this site before not long ago; actually it was just last month with one of the longer Conan serials. Howard is one of the most important voices in the history of fantasy literature and he reached truly astonishing heights and put out an intimidatingly large body of work despite having committed suicide when he was only thirty. He began writing professionally as a teenager and never stopped until his death, and even then there was a healthy amount of work released posthumously. Given how well an “immature” Howard reads, it’s nothing short of tragic that we only barely got to see his writing reach a mature state by the end, but what we have is still one of the most impressive and versatile oeuvres to come out of pulp fiction. That for some reason Howard basically never got around to writing SF is in itself a bit tragic, and one has to wonder what would’ve happened had he lived to be direct contemporaries with his descendants.

    While Howard is most known for Conan the Cimmerian, Kull the Conqueror, and other adventure characters, he also wrote a ton of horror, sometimes involving series regulars like Solomon Kane but more often venturing into different territory altogether. He even got a Retro Hugo nomination for his voodoo zombie story “Pigeons from Hell,” and indeed while his horror lacks the deliberate pacing of H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, he compensates with that usual Howard brand of energized plotting. Today’s story, “The Black Stone,” is very much Howard trying to write a Lovecraftian (as in it’s clearly a Lovecraft homage) tale, but for better or worse it’s better this is still Howard’s show.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive; later reprinted as a “classic” in the November 1953 issue, which you can find here. The convenient thing about Howard is that he’s famous and has also been dead for a very long time. “The Black Stone” is easy to find online for free, even being included in the Library of America’s Story of the Week program, which you can find here. If you want printed copies then you can find it in LOA’s American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, although it looks like it might be out of print. More readily available is The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, a delightfully thick and heavy volume which, astonishingly, still contains only a small fraction of Howard’s output. Because “The Black Stone” is set in the Cthulhu Mythos (although it wasn’t called that when Lovecraft and Howard were alive), it’s been anthologized alongside other Lovecraftian tales, the most available of these probably being Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

    Enhancing Image

    The unnamed narrator of “The Black Stone” is a bit unusual for a Howard protagonist in that he’s not a warrior or a tough guy at all, but a bookish dweeb who travels to Hungary basically for the lulz. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that: the narrator is a linguist and archaeologist (or something like that), and like any good protagonist in a Lovecraftian narrative he also has a soft spot for the macabre. Here we start with Von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, also known as the Black Book, with Von Junzt being a 19th century studier of the uncanny and unexplainable. “Reading what Von Junzt dared put in print arouses uneasy speculations as to what it was that he dared not tell.” During his reading of Von Junzt’s book, the narrator catches mention of a mysterious object which Von Junzt doesn’t spill much ink over but which the narrator finds himself immensely curious about: the Black Stone.

    The narrator cross-references Von Junzt’s writing (however scant) about the Black Stone with a few other documents, incidentally all early-to-mid 19th century, and struggles to distinguish fact from legend—though the legend, if true, would make quite the story. The Black Stone is supposedly a black monolith standing alone in the mountains of Hungary, near a village called Stregoicavar, roughly translating to “Witch-Town.” Nobody knows who built the Black Stone, but it possesses such power that even to gaze upon it apparently causes it to haunt one’s dreams, and to watch it on Midsummer Night (early on we’re given the pagan connection) for reasons unknown have driven people to insanity, then death. The narrator, being a perfectly reasonable man (I’m kidding), decides to travel to Hungary and see for himself what the fuss is about.

    Mind you that we’re only just getting started.

    Howard has a talent for compressing a novel’s worth of information into a much smaller space, and “The Black Stone” might be the most stark example of this I’ve seen yet; there’s enough backstory here for a narrative ten times the length. We haven’t even gotten to the thing with the Ottoman Turks yet. Okay, so we’re in Hungary, in an especially mountainous part of the country no less, and the narrator has come to Stregoicavar to inquire about the Black Stone; first he talks with the local tavern-keepr, then a schoolmaster about the village’s history. It’s—well, it’s a long story. You see, the Hungarians in the village are fairely recent settlers; they were not the first inhabitants of the village. Centuries prior there were people in the lowlands and people in the mountains, round Stegoicavar, and these latter peoples were of a different ethnic sort. The mountain people were half-castes: “the sturdy, original Magyar-Slavic stock had mixed and intermarried with a degraded aboriginal race until the breeds had blended, producing an unsavory amalgamation.” If this sounds problematic, boy do I have a tree to sell you.

    Anyway, the original half-caste people of Stregoicavar, who were apparently pagans who kidnapped women and children from the lowland people, are not around anymore; they had been exterminated by the Turks, who had swept through Stregoicavar and had not left one person standing. Which even for warfare sounds a bit extreme; one would at least expect the Turks to have taken some as slaves, but for reasons unknown they gave no quarter, ridding the village and environs of the half-caste peoples and inadvertently making way for the lowland “pure” whites to settle.

    Right, so there was an invasion…

    The Hungarians, in 1526, entered Stregoicavar to push back the Turks, and by this point the mountain people had already been exterminated. Count Boris Vladinoff, in a nearby castle, had acquired a chest from a slain Turkish scribe, but nobody ever opened the chest or even discovered it, as the Count died suddenly in an artillery strike and, for some reason, the ruins of his castle have never been excavated. Keep this in mind for later. So the Turks had come into Stregoicavar and then were forced to retreat, and all seemed well for the lowland peoples, who then came in to occupy the village that had been made vacant before and which was now free once again. Only… they never could figure out what the deal with the black monolith in the woods was… only they figured out, the hard way, that this is not something to be touched or even seen for long.

    We had a rough idea of what the Black Stone looked like before, but it’s only upon the narrator inspecting it first-hand that we get a detailed description. Mind you this is only part of a very long paragraph:

    It was octagonal in shape, some sixteen feet in height and about a foot and a half thick. It had once evidently been highly polished, but now the surface was thickly dinted as if savage efforts had been made to demolish it; but the hammers had done little more than to flake off small bits of stone and mutilate the characters which once had evidently marched in a spiraling line round and round the shaft to the top. Up to ten feet from the base these characters were almost completely blotted out, so that it was very difficult to trace their direction. Higher up they were plainer, and I managed to squirm part of the way up the shaft and scan them at close range. All were more or less defaced, but I was positive that they symbolized no language now remembered on the face of the earth.

    The engravings on the monolith would have only made sense to the original worshippers, who, all being dead now, no longer have opportunity to explain it to our unusually curious narrator. Personally I would’ve just fucked right off if I found this thing in the woods, but then I also wouldn’t be caught dead going to some backwater corner of Hungary. And yet the mysteriousness of the Black Stone has its allure, no doubt, and because Our Hero™ is a dumbass he thinks it would be just swell if he were to camp out in the vicinity and catch the monolith do its supposed freaky thing on Midsummer Night. Now, if you know even a little bit about paganism (or Hollywood depictions of paganism—I’m glancing warily at Midsommar) then you can predict the pagan connection and what will come next. What intrigues me, and what held my attention so sternly when reading this story, was how Howard couched what should be a derivative (and somewhat offensive) devil-worshipper narrative in so much history and lore.

    I won’t spend much time talking about the back end of the story, partly because it’s at this point that we’re funneled from a busy backstory to a relatively straightforward plot in the present, and partly because I’ll be brutally honest with you, my beloved reader, for a second here: I’m pressed for time and while I’d love to write more about what’s probably my favorite horror story of Howard’s so far (I’ve read several), I must surely be on my way and meet the deadline I’ve set for myself.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    On Midsummer Night the narrator sets up camp near (but not too close) the monolith, presumably with some popcorm that he had microwaved in advance. I don’t know what this dude is expecting. Regardless, something very strange happens: Our Hero™ gets a free show that he didn’t expect, and ultimately he very much will not want. People start gathering round the Black Stone and, in one of those things silly old-timey people think pagans do, they dance around it and make some real noise. There’s a masked man with a thing round his neck that looks like it’s meant to carry a jewel, or perhaps a small idol, which the narrator deduces is a priest or elder of the cult. We’re then presented with a young naked woman and infant—possibly hers, possibly not; I don’t know which possibility is worse.

    In what genuinely reminds me of a scene out of Blood Meridian, the priest takes the infant and, swinging it around, slams it down AND BASHES ITS FUCKING SKULL IN. WHAT THE FUCK? I mean, the Conan stories I’ve read have been violent as shit, but this is the single most gut-churning bit of violence I’ve read from him yet. The woman herself is beaten pretty severely, to the point where when she crawls toward the monolith she leaves a trail of blood in the grass, which can’t be good.

    But that’s not the worst part of; well actually it is the worst part, but it’s not the only thing that would make you run in the opposite direction really fast. In the climax of the blood sacrifice, the mad priest has seemingly conjured a thing which the bloodied woman is meant to satisfy. “I opened my mouth to scream my horror and loathing, but only a dry rattle sounded; a huge monstrous toad-like thing squatted on the top of the monolith!” The toad-like creature, certainly not human but perhaps eerily close enough to humanoid, accepts the woman, although we never find out exactly happens to her—though probably her fate is similar to the baby’s. To make things even stranger, when the narrator wakes up (after having passed out), there is not even one sign of what had happened the previous night—no blood, no footprints in the grass, nothing.

    And yet it was certainly not something he had imagined!

    The narrator, working tirelessly, finds the castle of the late Count (who, mind you, would’ve been dead about 400 years) and uncovers what the Count had taken from the Turkish scribe, who had been so spooked by what he’d found that he never told anyone about it. In the Count’s chest of things is a parchment with Turkish writing, which the narrator can only make out pieces of—but enough to get the picture. More importantly he finds an idol of the toad-like creature—an idol which the priest would have been wearing during the sacrifice. The bad news is that what narrator saw last night was not a dream or him tripping balls; the good news is that he was not seeing a blood sacrifice in real time, but the projection of one. The people who worshipped this abomination have been dead for centuries, and even the creature itself had been slain “with flame and ancient steel blessed in old times by Muhammad, and with incantations that were old when Arabia was young.” So yeah, the Turks were basically in the right to massacre the village, as they murdered the cultists and their god.

    At the end the narrator gets rids of the parchment and idol, drowning them in a river where hopefully no one will find them. Unusually for a Lovecraftian protagonist there’s no implication that the narrator will go insane or kill himself at the end; he is able, somehow, to retain his sanity, if only by the skin of his teeth. (Howard’s characters generally have stronger willpowers than Lovecraft’s.) And yet the knowledge that there may be other such beasts which walk the earth and acquire human worshippers may prove too much in the long run, and because this story got incorporated into the Cthulhu Mythos we know this much to be true.

    A Step Farther Out

    Apparently Howard got hooked on “The Rats in the Walls,” which distinctly is not cosmic horror (even the supernatural aspect is debatable) but which carries the theme of ancestral memories. Not unlike “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Black Stone” is intriguing partly because of its problematic elements; there’s some language Howard uses that’s rather unfortunate, and the topic of genocide is handled crassly. There’s racism crammed in which sadly is inextricably linked with the horror element; the fear of race-mixing, of “pure” white blood being tainted with something else, seems a chestnut of classic cosmic horror. At the same time, Howard does things here that Lovecraft probably wouldn’t, including a gruesome climax that juxtaposes pagan sexuality with death. The setting is also pretty unique, taking us away from even the outskirts of urbanity and placing us somewhere very distant from America or even modern civilization. A lot of the story’s eeriness is accomplished simply through Howard’s use of the location, and in things that took place long before the narrator was even born. The backstory has more meat than the story proper, which in this case is not really a negative; the backstory is the pearl inside the mollusk.

    Is it assbackwards that I’ve reviewed a Cthulhu Mythos tale written by someone who is not Lovecraft before I got to Lovecraft himself? Well yes—but don’t worry, we’ll be getting to Lovecraft, and one of his more famous short stories, soon… very soon…

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Star-Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton

    (Cover by Hugh Rankin. Weird Tales, February 1929.)

    Who Goes There?

    For a certain generation of SF readers (many of whom are now dead), Edmond Hamilton was one of the quintessential pulp writers—for both good and ill. Hamilton debuted in 1926, in Weird Tales, and he remained a loyal contributor to that magazine for the next two decades, churning out what were then called “weird-scientific” tales; that’s right, a cross between weird fiction and SF. Aside from maybe E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson, nobody embodied the virtues and constraints of ’30s pulp SF writing like Hamilton did. Too unrefined to appear in Astounding Science Fiction once John W. Campbell took over, Hamilton remained a regular presence in the second-rate magazines. Hamilton in the late ’40s and through the ’50s proved a different and relatively more refined beast, though, compared to his pre-World War II output, and it’s possible that his marriage to fellow author Leigh Brackett inspired him to better his craft, even if he did not put out as much work as a result.

    Now listen…

    Anyone who writes a story of such high caliber as “What’s It Like Out There?” is at least worth keeping track of; you write a story that good and you get a golden ticket basically for life. While Hamilton no doubt wrote a lot of forgettable stuff for money’s sake (the Captain Future series being the most infamous example), he was also quite capable of artistry. With all that said, “The Star-Stealers,” today’s story, is very much Hamilton in pulp adventure mode, being an entry in his Interstellar Patrol series—worthy of remembrance for, if nothing else, being some of the very first space opera ever written, almost parallel to E. E. Smith’s Skylark series. You could even say that space opera has two dads, such that modern/famous space opera like Star Wars have at least a little Hamilton in their DNA.

    Placing Coordinates

    “The Star-Stealers” (it’s reprinted sometimes with the hyphen, sometimes not) was first published in the February 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive, and with a pretty eye-catching Hugh Rankin cover! It was collected in the Interstellar Patrol volume (containing most but for some reason not all the entries) Crashing Suns. The two big anthologies to find this story in nowadays are the out-of-print but easy to find The Space Opera Renaissance (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), which contains “The Star-Stealers” and a few other pulp examples and juxtaposes them with works from the ’90s onward. But the big anthology, indeed the biggest, is The Big Book of Science Fiction (ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), which I cited in another review not long ago and whose contents I’ll no doubt mine again. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the VanderMeers, being devotees of weird fiction, picked this one.

    Enhancing Image

    Our Heroes™ are traversing the stars when they’re called back to home base rather abruptly, and so start at eighty times the speed of light back to our soler system, which naturally is the birthplace of the Federation of this series. Because there’s always a human federation with these things. Also try not to think too hard about how spaceships in this series are able to just casually break physics in half or else we’ll be here all day; Edmond Hamilton was a science-fictionist and he really put emphasis on the latter word. Anyway, the captain/protagonist/narrator of the battle cruiser at the story’s center is called home because there’s a pretty serious issue that only he and maybe a few other qualified captains can handle, and the issue has to be one of the first Big Dumb Objects in SF.

    The BDO in question is a dark star that has apparently been dislodged from its solar system—a renogade planet that’s heading for our solar system at an impossible (for us, not for the characters) speed. Now, SF has a long proud (sometimes not so proud) tradition of BDOs, perhaps the most famous of them all being Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, but “The Star-Stealers” is innovative for combining space opera with the BDO narrative. “Innovative” is the keyword here. I’m about to sound rather harsh and dismissive about Hamilton’s story, but we needs be reminded that pioneers must always contend with later, more refined variations on what they took the pains to introduce.

    With that said, this is all rather a bit silly, and only about to get sillier.

    In order to get into the correct headspace for “The Star-Stealers” you have to put aside the Wile E. Coyote physics and take everything at face value—that the internal logic of the story is perfectly reasonable and understood by its characters and just roll with it. Unfortunately I found I was… not quite able to do this. It could be that I’ve read another later Hamilton to have set up unfair expectations for his very early work, but I do prefer the pulpy but more serious Hamilton of “What’s It Like Out There?” and City at World’s End. Or even the slightly more sophisticated stories of his ’30s output. “The Star-Stealers” is an important milestone, but it’s also primitive, and I suspect its lack of presence (or indeed the lack of the Interstellar Patrol series generally) in The Best of Edmond Hamilton implies that Brackett did not think too highly of her husband’s early space opera.

    Anyway, the idea is for the captain to take a fleet of ships and do something about the runaway dark star before it enters our solar system and seriously messes with the planets’ stability. Something not to worry about with Hamilton is modesty: there will always be more of a given thing than what is needed. For instance, we probably don’t need fifty damn ships for this expedition, but given how many ships the Federation has… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The fleet must meet up with and divert the dark star before it gets in range of our solar system and quite possibly dislodges our sun. Up to this point in this story we’re led to believe that the dark star being rogue was the result of some freak accident that would only make sense on old-timey super-science logic, but assuming you didn’t forget (like I did, how embarrassing) about “The Star-Stealers” being the cover story for this issue and what that cover illustrates, you know there’s more going on here. This would not be as much of adventure if we were just dealing with a BDO.

    Upon investigating the dark star closely, the crew find that a) it has an atmosphere, which we shouldn’t think too hard about, and b) the assumed “dead” star is actually not that dead; in fact it’s teeming with alien life. We find a whole civilization here, with buildings shaped like pyramids containing similarly shaped alien beings. Now, to Hamilton’s credit, the aliens here are pretty freaky-looking: they’re a few things but they’re certainly not humanoid. Actually this has to be one of the first instances in SF (at least pulp SF) where we see so-called starfish aliens. And of course, because this is an interplanetary adventure yarn, the aliens have no interest in befriending or even conversing with the crew—indeed destroying basically the entire fleet before Our Heroes™ have even hit the ground.

    Here we get a good description of the aliens:

    Imagine an upright cone of black flesh, several feet in diameter and three or more in height, supported by a dozen or more smooth long tentacles which branched from its lower end—supple, boneless octopus-arms which held the cone-body upright and which served both as arms and legs. And near the top of that cone trunk were the only features, the twin tiny orifices which were the ears and a single round and red-rimmed white eye, set between them. Thus were these beings in appearance, black tentacle-creatures, moving in unending swirling throngs through streets and squares and buildings of their glowing city.

    Our Heroes™, the one ship out of a fleet of fifty that didn’t get blown up, are taken prisoner and at least one (a bit of a redshirt) gets vivisected like he was some animal. So we have a bit of a weird situation on our hands, with starfish aliens that perform horrible tests on beings they evidently deem lesser. The question then becomes of how the surviving crew is gonna break out of prison, get back to the ship (since the aliens have not taken it apart, at least not yet), and call for reinforcements before the dark star enters our solar system. Even with the presence of aliens sentient enough to have built their own civilization, the dark star heading towards our sun could still be an accident, but we find out that’s not the case…

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The starfish aliens intend to steal (get it?) our sun via a gravitational device, strengthening the dark star’s already immense pull and basically swiping our sun out of the solar system as it passes through, the results of which would obviously be disastrous. If this barely makes sense to you, don’t worry, even Bugs Bunny would call the aliens’ plan a bit zany. Again I struggle to take what’s happening seriously because of the goddamn Looney Tunes logic of it, although Hamilton’s melodramatic style employed here both helps and hurts it. On the one hand it’s easy to see how a reader in 1929 would find the action exhilarating, especially because space opera was such a young subgenre and SF had rarely if ever ventured beyond our solar system up to this point; on the other, it is so silly. The image of Our Heroes™ breaking out of prison, one of the pyramid buildings, and fighting off one of the aliens (the inspiration for the cover) is fun but also frivolous—both the story’s salvation and its damnation.

    I may be slightly too old and “cultured” to be reading this.

    Going on a mini-rant here, but my criticisms of “The Star-Stealers” are not so unique to it as more a general (you could say unfair) criticism of space opera as a concept. Oh sure, space opera in SF literature has come a long way since the days of Hamilton and Williamson, what with a far more “sophisticated” writer like Peter F. superseding Edmond for modern readers, but space opera remains very much a gosh-wow subspecies of SF, this especially still being the case for film and TV. There’s a valid criticism to be made, for instance, of the so-called Kelvin Star Trek series of movies (I like Beyond a lot myself, for the record), that those movies put a much higher priority on space action than the TV show they’re based on, but that’s only true insofar as comparing one Star Trek product with another Star Trek product.

    In actuality, the pew pew action of the Kelvin movies has a precedent much older than the original Star Trek series, rather calling back to what made space opera during the super-science era of SF so appealing—but also so laughably primitive now. I’m not even getting into Star Wars again; I think my point’s been made. What made Star Trek, the original series, so unique was that while it was technically a space opera (it ticks enough boxes), it subverts tropes in the subgenre (while admittedly making new ones) that are still worth subverting. Smashing spaceships together like they’re toys was and still is a thing in space opera, but in Star Trek the best solution to a problem was often a non-violent one; conversely the epic space battles of the new movies are not the product of newfangled Hollywood meddling but rather descended from a very old storytelling philosophy.

    Speaking of which, the solution to the problem in “The Star-Stealers” is to smash spaceships together like they’re toys. Somehow one ship out of the fleet that had gotten its shit kicked in earlier managed to evade the aliens and bring word back to the Federation, so that once Our Heroes™ have gotten back to their own ship they’re met with another fleet—only this time it’s hundreds rather than dozens of ships. The gravitational device the aliens use is disabled and the dark star is finally sent on its merry way, only now far away from our solar system. The day is saved! To Hamilton’s credit, the climactic space battle is pretty epic, being almost a novel’s worth of action condensed into the back end of a novelette, even if we knew from the beginning that everything would turn out fine.

    A Step Farther Out

    We all have our thresholds. A lot of people now find the Foundation trilogy a hard pill to swallow, due to Isaac Asimov’s minimalist and dialogue-heavy style, while others fault his lack of eagerness to write female characters. Time comes for us all, and what was considered the shit half a century ago will probably not pass muster now. Go back and read some “classic” New Wave stories and see how many of them make you cringe. This is a nice way of saying that while it no doubt has its place, I found it impossible to take “The Star-Stealers” seriously—which strikes me as a shame, because it obviously has its appeal. What Hamilton lacks in finesse he compensates with scope; it’s a shame, then, that his “science” fiction now almost reads as fantasy, and not the kind of fantasy with elves and ogres. I didn’t dislike it, but I feel I may have hit my threshold with SF of such a vintage as “The Star-Stealers.” I take comfort, however, in knowing Hamilton was capable of better, and that indeed he would improve tremendously.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Canal” by Everil Worrell

    (Cover by Hugh Rankin. Weird Tales, December 1927.)

    Who Goes There?

    We don’t know much about Everil Worrell, which sadly is the case for most pulp-era female authors, whose legacies have only been partly rescued by modern faminists and allies. Clearly there is much work left to be done. We do know that Worrell contributed to Weird Tales fairly regularly—and virtually nowhere else; she more or less retired from writing fiction after the first incarnation of Weird Tales went under. She never wrote any novels. Hell, you can collect all of her short fiction in a slim-enough volume. While her work as a whole remains obscure, she does have at least one canonical piece of vampire fiction under her belt: “The Canal,” which H. P. Lovecraft liked enough to mention said fondness in multiple letters. I can sort of understand why Lovecraft liked this one, but while it shares a few traits with Lovecraft’s own fiction it is certainly not cosmic.

    “The Canal” is Worrell’s most famous story and it’s one of those that was deemed popular enough back in the day to be reprinted in Weird Tales as a classic; its publication history is also a bit tangled. There are apparently two versions of “The Canal,” one that was printed in Weird Tales twice and one that was “revised,” either by Worrell or by August Derleth for an anthology he edited, to have a very different ending. Not that I’m big on the original version’s ending, but from what I’ve heard the revised ending is worse. To my surprise there are multiple reviews of this story online, but even so, if you would allow me to have my own take on things…

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the December 1927 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive; was later reprinted in the April 1935 issue, which can be found here. Be warned that ISFDB doesn’t do a good job at differentiating the original version from the revised version, though it at least tells us The Vampire Archives (ed. Otto Penzler) uses the latter, and of course that version made its first appearance in The Sleeping and the Dead, edited by Derleth. You may also be curious to look out for H. P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Weird Tales (ed. Douglas A. Anderson), which is what it says on the tin. Surprisingly “The Canal” is not on Project Gutenberg, which means either a) it’s just a bit too obscure to have been picked up yet, or more likely b) some evil scumfuck has not let the copyright expire for it. You have options, but if you wanna be on the safe side and be sure you’re reading the version that Worrell first wrote then the Weird Tales publications are your best bet.

    Enhancing Image

    The narrator is a recent college grad who also happens to be one of those people who, had he been born in 1990 and not 1900, would surely be jamming out to My Chemical Romance in the 2000s. He would either be a scene kid or really into goth rock. Outside of his office job (which he doesn’t like, naturally), he doesn’t really socialize with people, and much prefers to go on nightly walks by yourself. Going out for strolls is one of those things you did to pass the time in the era before TV, which, in fairness, at least there’s potential for exercise here.

    The narrator being a moody loner who thinks of a walk by the local cemetery as fun is very Lovecraft-esque, I’ll say that—or at least it appeals to Lovecraft’s sensibilities. We even get a reference to Poe early in the story. Oh baby, this is the kind of shit that appeals to me. I’m a student of the macabre and Worrell knows how to tick my boxes.

    Anyway, going back to the office job, the narrator’s co-workers have set up camp in the woods, right by the river, as what I have to imagine as like a team-building thing, although why these are called “pleasure” camps eludes me. Not that the narrator is enthused about this either. “At night these camps were a string of sparkling lights and tiny, leaping campfires, and the tinkle of music carried faintly far across the calmly flowing water. That far bank of the river was no place for an eccentric, solitary man to love.” Wandering off on his own, the narrator comes to the canal by the river, filled with mostly stagnant water, and oddly smelling of decay—and it’s here that the plot really kicks into motion.

    There’s a boat in the canal, stationary, not going anywhere in the stagnant water, and on that boat is a woman, more beautiful than any the narrator has seen before. We don’t get the woman’s name, but we know that her power to seduce is strong and that something is not right about her; given that I’ve said before that this is a vampire tale, you can guess what that something is. What’s important, though, is that for our solitary young man this is practically love at first sight, even though the woman is acting strange: for one, she won’t let him get on the boat. She’s also nocturnal, only coming out of the boat at night; meanwhile her father guards the boat by day while she sleeps. Nothing to see here!

    The following exchange, in which the woman explains her arrangement with her father (whom we don’t see), is pretty odd:

    “In the night time, my father sleeps. In the daytime, I sleep. How could I talk to you, or introduce you to my father then? If you came on board this boat in the daytime, you would find my father—and you would be sorry. As for me, I would be sleeping. I could never introduce you to my father, do you see?”

    “You sleep soundly, you and your father.” Again there was pique in my voice.

    “Yes, we sleep soundly.”

    “And always at different times?”

    “Always at different times. We are on guard—one of us is always on guard. We have been hardly used, down there in your city. And we have taken refuge here. And we are always—always—on guard.”

    I dunno, man.

    The woman and her father used to live in the city, but no longer—for reasons the woman is conspicuously vague about. The point is that both the woman and the narrator find the city oppressive (for different reasons, as it turns out), and at first this sounds like a match made in heaven. Both are solitary, fed up with the fuss and conformity of urban life, and very goth. Without knowing what he’s getting into, the narrator swears allegiance to the woman and promises to meet her only at the time and place she wants, which, ya know, is not something a rational person ought to do.

    There’s a good deal of gripe about with regards to the narrator’s stupidity, but I have to give props to Worrell for not shying away from the erotic aspect of vampires, which is virtually always there anyway. The vampire as seducer goes back to at least Carmilla (who gets bonus points for lesbianism), and it’s a tradition that would be well held up in Weird Tales but not so much in Unknown, partly for reasons of subverting tradition but also because the latter magazine is considerably more puritanical. At least here the narrator, despite his “eccentric” demeanor, is very much in love and, more implicitly, is very much horny. The narrator’s struggle (by his own admission) to think straight is what allows there to be conflict with stakes at all.

    The setup is simple. There are only two characters worth anything, maybe a third if you count the narrator’s pesky co-worker. Worrell turns what almost feels like a one-act play into a short story with a real atmosphere of its own, even if it could also work on the stage. There is one thing, however, that would be hard to do justice on the stage, and that’s the ending—the thing that August Derleth meddled with for the story’s first book appearance, possibly with or without Worrell’s input (we’re not sure on that). As such, since it’s easily the most unexpected element, I’ll discuss the ending and not much else in the spoilers section.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    The woman being a vampire is not a twist; for one “The Canal” is consistently labeled as a vampire story, but even if you didn’t know that the woman being a vampire is extremely telegraphed. The narrator hears about a vampire victim (bite on the neck and everything) from his co-worker and to his horror it lines up with the woman’s own story of fleeing the city. Upon remembering his vampire lore like a good goth boy (especially the part about vampires not being able to cross running water), the narrator concludes that he’s fallen head over heels for a dark creature of the night. The father being dead (as in dead dead, not undead) is a good twist, though. For some reason the woman did not turn her father into a vampire; he helped her out of the city, “but died without becoming like her.” The backstory for the woman is never entirely given away, which I like, since there remains at least a bit of mystery and frankly you can’t have a good horror yarn without some questions left unanswered.

    I think the ending itself is too short. After the vampires break out and infiltrate the camp site, we’re given very little time when the narrator attests to planting dynamite along the canal and killing himself once he’s done his job. This is a lot to lay on a reader in the space of a single page. While the narrator committing suicide and doing a little bit of terrorism is alluded to at the beginning of the story, there’s basically no transition between the attack on the camp site in the climax and the narrator’s resolve to get rid of the vampires at the very end. Still, this is at least more unconventional than the ending Derleth gave us for the “revised” edition, in which apparently the narrator kills the woman with a stake mid-embrace, which is more romantic but also more cliched for vampire fiction.

    A Step Farther Out

    I liked it. It didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything. This is the first original Weird Tales story we’re covering and it definitely feels like one, being overtly Gothic, even namedropping Edgar Allan Poe, and balancing a mix of horror with barely suppressed sexual angst. It’s lurid: the whole plot kicks off because the narrator gets a boner over meeting a chick in the woods this one time. I’m also mixed on the ending, but at the very least I can’t say it was expected; the woman being a vampire is obvious from the get-go, but the ending is… not. With all that said, if I have to read another vampire story in the next month, after having reviewed like three of the damn things last October, I’m gonna [YASS] myself.

    See you next time.

  • Short Story Review: “The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells

    (Cover by Andrew Brosnatch. Weird Tales, November 1925.)

    Who Goes There?

    H. G. Wells is one of those authors who really needs no introduction. Of the forerunners to the great experiment we call science fiction, Wells was arguably the most influential and most talented; he was at least certainly the most direct ancestor to the likes of Heinlein and Asimov; he was also one of the first SF authors I remember reading with any enthusiasm. I picked up copies of The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau as a middle schooler and I was thus introduced to classic literature and classic science fiction in one swoop. Mind you that I—well, I didn’t like reading much up to that point in my life; I was a late bloomer when it came to the whole reading for fun thing. The Time Machine especially might’ve rewired my brain a bit, and I’ve gone back to it several times since then—which is easy, considering it’s really a novella. Point being, even though I don’t tend to think of him as one of my favorite authors, I owe quite a lot to Wells, as so do the rest of us who think of science fiction as our home turf.

    Wells wrote a lot and lived a long time, but his legacy gets boiled down to a handful of novels that were written close together and a smattering of short stories and novellas that were written during that same period. This is fine, because with such pioneering works as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Wells’s legacy was secured. It may seem odd to see him in the pages of Weird Tales, but consider both the story to follow and also how “weird” much of Wells’s fiction is. The Invisible Man would surely have been serialized in Weird Tales had it been published three decades later, and the beast men of The Island of Dr. Moreau are such grotesque creations as to make the average horror writer nod in gratitude. “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” is a mind-bending tale about seeing several places simultaneously, and actually “The Stolen Body” feels like a bit of a companion to that earlier short story.

    Placing Coordinates

    First published in the November 1898 issue of The Strand Magazine, but we’re reading “The Stolen Body” as it appeared in the November 1925 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Curiously, despite being a reprint, it was made the cover story. In what has to be one of the faster magazine reprints it also appeared just over two years later in the January 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, which you can find here. Because this is Wells it’s not hard to find. It was included in the collection Twelve Stories and a Dream, which is on Project Gutenberg. If you want a paper copy then your best bet is probably Selected Stories of H. G. Wells from Modern Library, which seems to still be in print. You have options is all I’m saying.

    Enhancing Image

    We start with two friends, Mr. Bessel and Mr. Vincey, who have the crippling combination of being bored and also into paranormal shit. This is Victorian England; people did some wild shit just to pass the time. Bessel thinks he can separate his spirit from his body by sheer force of will—as in he can hypnotize himself and astral project into Vincey’s apartment. Hypnotism is a running thing in SF of this vintage, and would sometimes even show up in Campbellian SF a few decades later. The most famous example in old-timey fiction might be Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a horror yarn that, curiously, could also be considered science fiction; it certainly convinced Gernsback enough to print it in Amazing Stories, as would “The Stolen Body” be a few years later.

    Bessel simply trying hard enough in order to achieve this supernatural end also reminds me of another Wells story, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” but whereas that story makes no attempt to explain itself in rational terms, we’ll find “The Stolen Body” to be couched in science fictional rationalism. Anyway, the idea is that the spirit of Bessel will appear to Vincey, then Vincey will take a picture of this spirit before Bessel returns to his body. Well, the first part of the experiment works. Bessel’s spirit does indeed appear to Vincey, but for one, Vincey is too slow to take a picture with what admittedly has to be a slow and clunky camera, and second, when Vincey heads over to Bessel’s place, he’s nowhere to be found. For reasons unknown, Bessel has all but vanished into thin air. To make things even weirder, Bessel seems to have trashed his own apartment before vanishing—but then maybe there was foul play involved?

    The answer is “yes” and also “no.”

    What follows is very strange. Vincey has a series of vivid dreams in which he’s confronted with Bessel’s spirit, but he also sees Bessel—the man, or at least the body of the man—go on a rampage through the streets at night, assaulting people with a cane and blabbering the word “Life!” over and over. When Vincey wakes up, he finds that the dream was not really a dream; Bessel really did go on a rampage during the night, and at the same time that Vincey was sleeping. Vincey and Mr. Hart, a mutual friend, take this information to the police, and are told that not only was Vincey’s vision a projection of what really happened, but that despite quite a few eye witnesses, Bessel has not been found since the rampage.

    They confirmed Mr. Vincey’s overnight experiences and added fresh circumstances, some of an even graver character than those he knew—a list of smashed glass along the upper half of Tottenham Court Road, an attack upon a policeman in Hampstead Road, and an atrocious assault upon a woman. All these outrages were committed between half-past 12 and a quarter to 2 in the morning, and between those hours—and, indeed, from the very moment of Mr. Bessel’s first rush from his rooms at half-past 9 in the evening—they could trace the deepening violence of his fantastic career. For the last hour, at least from before 1, that is, until a quarter to 2, he had run amuck through London, eluding with amazing agility every effort to stop or capture him.

    But after a quarter of 2 he had vanished. Up to that hour witnesses were multitudinous. Dozens of people had seen him, fled from him or pursued him, and then things suddenly came to an end. At a quarter to 2 he had been seen running down the Euston Road towards Baker Street, flourishing a can of burning colza oil and jerking splashes of flame therefrom at the windows of the houses he passed. But none of the policemen on Euston Road beyond the Waxwork Exhibition, nor any of those in the side streets down which he must have passed had he left the Euston Road, had seen anything of him. Abruptly he disappeared. Nothing of his subsequent doings came to light in spite of the keenest inquiry.

    How Vincey was able to have a vision of something that happened simultaneously with his sleeping will be explained later, but it’s certainly hard to rationalize—thus an irrational explanation, never mind a solution, will have to do. Vincey gets in contact with a local medium, which strikes me as unusually dishonest for Wells since he depicts mediums as well-meaning people and not the con artists they actually are. Anyway, putting aside my intense ambivalence towards mediums and ghost hunters and whatnot, the visit pays off immensely, even if the message we get from what seems to be Bessel’s spirit is cryptic. The medium, as if hypnotized herself, writes down a message in what Vincey recognizes as Bessel’s handwriting, and with nothing else to go on the police use this clue to find Bessel, who following his deliriam from the previous night had apparently fallen down a shaft at a construction site and was unable to get out on his own.

    A few broken bones aside, Bessel is in fine shape, and more importantly he acts like himself again. That’s basically the end of the story, if we were to map this whole thing out linearly, but there are still questions begging to be answered, such as “Why did Bessel go on that mad rampage?” and “How come Vincey was able to see said rampage in his dream as it was happening in the real world?” But those are spoilers…

    Wells’s characters are not knowing for being all that colorful, with a few notable exceptions (Dr. Moreau and his henchman/boytoy Montgomery are far more memorable than the narrator), with “The Stolen Body” being an especially pronounced example. Bessel, Vincey, and the few other characters worth mentioning at all are very vanilla, and it struck me at some point while reading that there’s very little dialogue. We don’t even get Bessel and Vincey’s first names if I remember right. They serve their purpose, though; clearly Wells is far more interested in mapping out this strange sequence of events than having the characters act as the story’s anchor. We’re supposed to find these supernatural shenanigans as adequate compensation for the lack of actual character drama, and I think it worked out.

    Anyway, we don’t go to Wells for the characters. It’d be like if you went to Hal Clement for characters, or Vernor Vinge; these writers are much more about the visionary potential of fiction than the potential of human drama. “The Stolen Body” isn’t scary, really, but it’s certainly perplexing, making us wonder what the hell is going on and where Bessel could have gone to during his astral projection. What makes “The Stolen Body” very much worth a recommendation is that it’s not simply a ghost story—it’s a ghost story as written by a real man of science, a man who refuses to let any substantial question go unanswered. It’s like when James Blish tried to rationalize werewolves in “There Shall Be No Darkness” (review here), except Wells’s rationalizing is a bit less labored, if also less eccentric.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    You may be thinking, “Brian, you handsome devil, why did you give away the end of the story in the non-spoiler section? What could you even have left to consider a spoiler?” Well that’s where you’d be mistaken, because we haven’t gotten Bessel’s side of the story up till now. While we know he more or less ended up fine, how we got to finding him in a shaft where he could’ve only been found with some supernatural assistance was not explained. Wells does something very peculiar here in that he rewinds the clock and retells most of the story, but from Bessel’s perspective.

    So what happened when Bessel hypnotized himself and left his own body? Wasn’t he able to get back into it? How else could he have gone on that rampage, albeit seemingly in a state of shock? Well…

    He enters a world that could be considered the shadow realm—a level of existence beyond the natural world. A world without sound, separated from the natural world by what seems like a glass pane. It’s uncanny and certainly intriguing, but Bessel finds that he can’t return to his body with ease; in fact, he soon finds that he’s not the only one looking for a body around here. While Bessel is currently apart from his body, he’s not technically dead, which I guess leaves it open to possession. (Is that how it works? I don’t think too hard about it.) There are spirits in this realm—people in limbo, between the living and the departed, neither alive nor totally dead. One of these spirits invades Bessel’s body and, after presumably being stuck in spirit form for a long time, immediately goes nuts with it.

    A few problems Bessel must solve: the obvious is that he has to get back into his body, but he can’t do that if someone else has it; the second, arguably bigger problem is making contact with Vincey or someone who might help him get back itno his body; the third is hoping to God or whoever it is that the spirit that hijacked his body doesn’t kill it somehow. Indeed that second problem takes up most of the back end of the story, and goes a long way in explaining some earlier events that might seem inexplicable to us.

    For instance, Vincey has the dream about Bessel going on his rampage because the real Bessel messes with his… pineal gland. Lovecraft fans may note that this peculiar little gland in the brain gets used as a plot device in that dude’s early story “From Beyond,” with similarly supernatural but far more negative results. Apparently writers in the 19th and early 20th century were fucking stoked about all the weird little things in the human body, like the appendix and all that. The pineal gland in old-timey (we’re talking pre-Campbellian SF, it’s that old) SF serves as basically one’s third eye, which Bessel opens for Vincey; he witnesses the rampage as it’s occurring, though he doesn’t realize that until later.

    Confused slightly? Don’t worry, Wells catches us up:

    And now the attentive reader begins to understand Mr. Bessel’s interpretation of the first part of this strange story. The being whose frantic rush through London had inflicted so much injury and disaster had indeed Mr. Bessel’s body, but it was not Mr. Bessel. It was an evil spirit out of that strange world beyond existence, into which Mr. Bessel had so rashly ventured. For twenty hours it held possession of him, and for all those twenty hours the dispossessed spirit-body of Mr. Bessel was going to and fro in that unheard-of middle world of shadows seeking help in vain. He spent many hours beating at the minds of Mr. Vincey and of his friend Mr. Hart. Each, as we know, he roused by his efforts. But the language that might convey his situation to these helpers across the gulf he did not know; his feeble fingers groped vainly and powerlessly in their brains. Once, indeed, as we have already told, he was able to turn Mr. Vincey aside from his path so that he encountered the stolen body in its career, but he could not make him understand the thing that had happened; he was unable to draw any help from that encounter…

    Also, while Bessel isn’t allowed to talk to normal people, he can make indirect messages through people’s pineal glands if they’re juiced up enough, I guess, hence, the medium writing down Bessel’s cryptic message and even mimicking Bessel’s handwriting. Bessel has to fight other spirits for control of the medium’s body, but he gets in there just long enough to let Vincey know what happened to his body and where it is.

    Meanwhile the spirit, having had an accident and fallen down the shaft, breaking a few bones in the process, is not happy to be in Bessel’s body anymore and eventually leaves it, allowing Bessel to return. He’s hurt badly and the whole experience has been pretty traumatic, never mind, outlandish, but he’s more or less fine at the end. What lingers far more than the physical pain is the knowledge that, for a relatively brief time, he experienced the afterlife—and it SUCKS.

    A Step Farther Out

    Is it science fiction? Is it supernatural horror? It’s kinda both. It’s interesting to look back at pre-Gernsbackian SF and see how these writers were playing with genre boundaries when they didn’t even know what that genre was yet. Wells was on to something, though, and it’s no wonder that “The Stolen Body” was reprinted in two genre magazines a few decades after initial publication—because no doubt Hugo Gernsback would have bought it even if it had never been published before. As it turns out, scientific (or often pseudo-scientific) concerns did not change much among those who were “in the know” between the tail end of the 19th century and around the time of the stock market crash. What makes an artifact like “The Stolen Body” especially interesting is that because our understanding of the human body has advanced so much since Wells’s time, Victorian superstition about ghosts and whatnot now sounds more fantastical than it would’ve at the time. Wells was a materialist, but even so he appealed to Victorian fears about damnation and voices from beyond the grave.

    Wells would become a more frequent contributor to Amazing Stories, but “The Stolen Body” was not his last appearance in Weird Tales and if you know enough about his work it’s not hard to see why. It’s strange, considering how much he is known as an optimist and utopian socialist, that so much of Wells’s fiction could be classified as horror; indeed he is much more famous for crafting bad futures than good ones. Whereas The Time Machine shows a bad distant future, hundreds of thousands of years from now, “The Stolen Body” shows a much more immediate but still horrific (at least on a personal level) future: the life that comes after death.

    See you next time.

  • Things Beyond: March 2023

    (Cover by Margaret Brundage. Weird Tales, July 1933.)

    Weird Tales, across incarnations, has been arguably the most important outlet for dark fantasy and horror in the American market for the past century now. Yes, it’s been that long. The first issue of Weird Tales is marked March 1923 and would have appeared on newsstands in February (I’m not splitting hairs), and while it wasn’t immediately impressive it would become the quintessential pulp horror magazine within a decade. Given the nature of my site and how important Weird Tales is, I thought it appropriate (not to mention a break away from tackling serials) to do a month-long tribute by reviewing entirely short stories from this magazine’s pages—but make no mistake, this is not an attempt to cover its incredibly wide-spanning history. What I’m doing rather is to cover the most famous period of Weird Tales: from the mid-1920s to the end of the 1930s.

    In a way this is not so much a tribute to Weird Tales as to the man who, more than anyone, made it the legend it now is: Farnsworth Wright. Wright hopped on as editor with the November 1924 issue and stayed until failing health forced him to step down after the March 1940 issue; he died only a few months later. But in the decade and a half that Wright was editor there was a profound change in the magazine’s contents, as it went from focusing on unassuming ghost stories to encompassing a wider range of “weird” fiction, including but not limited to sword and sorcery, operatic science fiction, and of course, cosmic horror. Ghost stories remained a firm part of the magazine’s identity, but under Wright we saw several big forerunners to modern horror and fantasy, including H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and indeed Weird Tales was the birthplace of both Conan the Barbarian and the Cthulhu Mythos.

    Weird Tales was not that friendly to novellas unless they were serialized, and anyway I figured it’d be more accurate a representation to review all short stories this month, which also allows for a more diverse set of authors. We’ve got some famous ones here, but also some deep cuts that I’m very much interested in exploring.

    Anyway, here are the short stories:

    1. “The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells. From the November 1925 issue. This is the first true reprint I’ll be reviewing for Remembrance. “The Stolen Body” was first published in the November 1898 issue of The Strand Magazine, but we’re reading it as it appeared in Weird Tales, and apparently Wright (or somebody) deemed it major enough to make it the cover story despite its reprint status. Wells is someone who needs no introduction, and this is a story from his peak era.
    2. “The Canal” by Everil Worrell. From the December 1927 issue. Not much is known about this author, but her vampire story “The Canal” has been reprinted several times over the years, including as a “classic” reprint in Weird Tales itself. Lovecraft was apparently a big admirer of this one, and he also didn’t seem immediately aware that Worrell was a woman. There’s a later revised version with a different ending, but we’re reading its first magazine appearance.
    3. “The Star-Stealers” by Edmond Hamilton. From the February 1929 issue. Hamilton had made his debut in Weird Tales, and he soon proved to be the most prolific contributor of “weird-scientific stories,” or ya know, just science fiction. “The Star-Stealers” is the second entry in the episodic Interstellar Patrol series, which while not often read now was an early exmaple of space opera, which Hamilton helped codify alongside E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson.
    4. “The Black Stone” by Robert E. Howard. From the November 1931 issue. This has to be the fastest I’ve returned to an author for my site, since only last month I finished covering Howard’s Conan serial The People of the Black Circle. “The Black Stone,” however, is not sword and sorcery but cosmic horror, and it’s supposed to be one of the best old-school Lovecraftian narratives, on top of being one of the first examples of someone taking cues from Lovecraft’s work.
    5. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” by H. P. Lovecraft. From the July 1933 issue. Speaking of which, it’d be impossible to do a Weird Tales tribute without covering its most famous contributor, although Lovecraft was certainly not that at the time. Wright and Lovecraft did not get along, with Wright rejecting At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Still, this is one of his more famous short stories, and it even got adapted for TV recently.
    6. “The Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore. From the October 1934 issue. The only reread of the bunch, and that’s because I honestly did not give this one the attention I should have when I encountered it a couple years ago. Moore is now more known for collaborating with her husband Henry Kuttner, but she started as one of the more popular authors in Weird Tales. “The Black God’s Kiss” is the first in the Jirel of Jory series, featuring the titular sword-and-sorcery heroine.
    7. “Vulthoom” by Clark Ashton Smith. From the September 1935 issue. The literary sorcerer returns! Smith was, for a brief time, one of the most prolific contributors to Weird Tales, although he mostly retired from writing fiction by the time Wright left. “Vulthoom” is a “late” Smith story, and you can tell because it was one of only a few he put out in 1935. It’s also a comparitibely rare example of Smith doing SF, with the setting being not Earth but a haunted Mars.
    8. “Strange Orchids” by Dorothy Quick. From the March 1937 issue. As with Worrell we don’t know much about Quick, and unlike “The Canal” this has not been reprinted so often. I do remember first seeing Quick’s name in Unknown, the magazine that for a brief time usurped Weird Tales, but she appeared more in the latter; she basically stopped writing fiction once the first incarnation of Weird Tales shut down. Probably the most obscure pick of the bunch.
    9. “Roads” by Seabury Quinn. From the January 1938 issue. Quinn was the most popular author to appear in Weird Tales during the Wright era, and yet his reputation dwindled enough since his death that he later “won” the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. The posthumous obscurity could be because a lot of what Quinn wrote was hackwork, but “Roads” is distinct for apparently being one of those pieces that Quinn wrote out of passion, being an earnestly told Christmas story.

    I know Halloween was only like five months ago, but truth be told it’s always Halloween in my heart. If I could get away with just reading and reviewing spooky fiction I probably would; nothing warms my bones like a good horror yarn. The greatest hits from Weird Tales are still cited after nearly a century, but I suspect there are also deeper cuts (especially by female authors, as there would’ve been several) that are worth our attention. We have a healthy variety of authors and a good deal of diversity as to this magazine’s contents, ranging from the supernatural to the weird-scientific.

    But enough buildup…

    It’s time to venture into the eerie, the uncanny, and the WEIRD!

  • Serial Review: Needle by Hal Clement (Part 2/2)

    (Cover by Chesley Bonestell. Astounding, June 1949.)

    Who Goes There?

    While not the first author to write what we’d call hard SF, Hal Clement, more than any other, codified this particular mode of writing. Making his debut in 1942 when he was still in his teens, not to mention an undergraduate, Clement helped introduce a degree of science-fictional hardness that previously was rarely seen, and was not considered part of some greater collective effort to put the science in science fiction. It’s about as hard-headed as you can get, and yet there’s also an undeniable joy in Clement’s writing—more specifically how eager he is to build and explore eccentric planets and alien races. He was not the first planet builder, but he was arguably the best of his generation to do this. Mission of Gravity and other stories set in that continuity alone would’ve cemented his legacy, but Clement kept writing reliably (if not prolifically) until his death in 2003.

    Needle was Clement’s debut novel; while he had been active in the field for half a dozen years at this point, he would’ve only been about 26 when he wrote it. It was the first in a series of rapid-fire novels for Clement, being followed in only a few years by Iceworld and his most famous work, Mission of Gravity. A criticism (positive or negative) often made about Clement is that he seems far more invested in making rounded characters out of his aliens than his humans, and this certainly remains the case with Needle. Despite involving a teen boy as his partner in crime-solving, the hero and the character most worthy of our empathy is a four-pound blob that can barely get around on his own.

    Placing Coordinates

    Part 2 was published in the June 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Did you know that Needle was up for the Retro Hugo for Best Novel of 1950, but was withdrawn on the grounds that it was first published (albeit in abridged form) the previous year? Anyway, your best bet at finding the book version outside of used bookshops is to pick up the omnibus The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter, which contains Iceworld and Close to Critical.

    Enhancing Image

    We had spent the back end of Part 1 off the island and on the mainland, where Bob goes to school, but now we’re back home. Bob’s father had apparently called him to return home early; up to this point we had not gotten a single word out of the father, but now he’s gonna be an actual cjharacter alongside Bob’s mother, though let’s not make a mistake here and act like these are complex characters.

    If Part 1 showed Clement in his element, the concluding installment forces him to write about the thing he’s the least interested in: other people. Not that Bob was a Shakespearean figure before this, but it’s when we’re introduced to the father and more of Bob’s friends that we realize that the island setting might be even more isolated than previously thought. While the friendship between Bob and the Hunter feels earned enough, this is the only character relationship in the novel to feel even close to organic—not that there’s much in the way of competition. Much of the interest here comes from the Hunter’s paternalistic relationship with his host, the latter being just old enough to understand the mechanics of the situation but still too immature to probably act responsibly on his own. The Hunter’s role as a parental figure has deepened, made more profound by the fact that Bob’s parents are pretty relaxed folks.

    This is especially true when it comes to injuries, and doubly so now that Bob is aware that he has an alien that can heal wounds up to a point onboard. Take the following, for example:

    The alien, unlike his host, was able to see one good point in connection with the mishap; it might cure the boy of the unfortunate tendency he had been developing, of leaving the care of his body to the Hunter. The latter said nothing of the sort, of course—it might have been taken amiss, as Bob lay awake that night trying to keep as much of himself as possible out of contact with the sheets. He had not been so careless for years, and was inclined to blame it on his coming home at such an odd time. The Hunter did not dispute the matter. He could not have eliminated the pain without the risk of permanent damage to Bob’s sensory nerves, and probably would not have done so anyway.

    Truth be told there’s not much more to say here without getting into spoilers, since this is the installment where we finally find out where the hell the fugitive could be hiding. To Clement’s credit he clearly did his homework and he’s putting a great deal of effort into making the mystery challenging from a scientific angle. There’s no easy fix for the Hunter finding the fugitive and even communicating with Bob proves a challenge, although not to put too find a point on it, but the reveal still comes too easily. Again, I wanna be fair here since crossing SF with mystery was all but unheard of at this point in the former’s history and Clement was sailing waters that basically had not been charted. I don’t blame him either for the very matter-of-fact prose style, which is typical of Clement but also goes a long way to give the proceedings a sense of realisim; if it seems too stoic and inelegant that’s still preferrable over being unnecessarily overblown.

    There Be Spoilers Here

    After trying and failing to find the culprit among Bob’s friends, the Hunter ends up finding the culprit much closer to home—literally. After some rather odd remarks from Bob’s dad, the Hunter deduces correctly that the father, unbeknownst to himself, has become the host for the fugitive. This makes sense considering it would’ve been easiest for the fugitive to enter someone’s body while they’re unconscious, and the chances of getting the father to be fine with being host for a four-pound alien blob would be low. Is it convenient that the person containing the fugitive happens to live under the same roof as Our Heroes™? Absolutely, but there’s a lot of potential for having a parental figure (unknowingly) assist the villain—potential which sadly, though not unexpectedly, Clement fails to exploit.

    Needle is a novel that starts off quite interesting and becomes marginally less so by the climax, and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that Astounding, while being the top SF magazine of the day, also had a puritanical streak, with stories being made squeaky clean for publication on the off chance there profanity in the manuscript. While Clement’s novel is deeply concerned with biology, the sexual side of the equation goes unacknowledged, with the result being that any attempt at a Freudian analysis would hit a road block. Because Bob gets to act like a perfectly rational (i.e., too rational) human being and because he and his dad don’t seem to have a strenuous relationship, there’s potential for drama with the latter being host to villain that goes unrealized.

    It’s also totally possible that, had even the censors not kept an eye on him, Clement would’ve still gone the totally pragmatic route and put out a novel concerned with the surface mechanics of its scenario but not the very obvious psycho-sexual material at hand. Had this been written by Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard, the basic plot beats remaining the same, we would’ve gotten a radically different novel.

    Anyway, Bob and the Hunter naturally find an ingenious solution to getting the fugitive to come out of the father’s body and kill him and all is well at the end, with Bob agreeing to keep Hunter as his symbiote since the latter, by his own admission, can’t leave Earth. Killing the fugitive rather than arresting him sounds a bit cruel, but then arresting is not an option when you’re lightyears from home and thus you can’t bring the criminal to any prison belonging to your race. Something I like about the one scene we get of the fugitive talking is that much is implied in his dialogue with the Hunter but there are gaps in their history that are left deliberately unfilled. We knew already that the fugitive is not to be trusted, but it’s only here that we get it from the horse’s mouth, with the fugitive admitting to having betrayed previous hosts for personal gain.

    Clement intelligently hints at a whole alien civilization while only letting us see two of its inhabitants, letting us imagine for ourselves what this society of aliens biologically wholly different from humans (they’re technically viruses, going by the definition Clement gives us) might look like. It’s a shame then that he does not care as much about making the human setting come to life, despite the novelty of a tropical SF story from this era.

    A Step Farther Out

    I would say I was disappointed, but I did have my expectations in check. I’m tempted to say that the lack of development with the human characters was due to length, but this is par for the course with Clement: his aliens are always more interesting than his humans. Whereas someone like Philip K. Dick would’ve taken this premise in a darker direction, diving more into psychological intrigue, Clement is content to use the reveal simply as a convenient out for Our Hero™, sadly neglecting how thematically ripe the material is. We still get a curious mashup of cold-blooded science fiction and a detective looking for a malevolent blob that doesn’t wanna be found. I haven’t read too many mysteries in my time, but I tend to find the first half—the setup—more gripping than the payoff, which might just be the nature of the genre. Not that the conclusion to a mystery being a letdown is too big a mark against this short novel or any of its ilk; it’s just that the mystery is often so much better than the mystery being solved.

    See you next time.