Scott Nicolay

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TOD A08 Chesya Burke: Strange Crimes and Dangerous Women

In this archival podcast Scott Nicolay interviews Chesya Burke, author of The Strange Crimes of Little Africa. It originally aired on August 17, 2015. This broadcast includes bonus new content featuring a follow-up interview with Chesya and Nicole Givens Kurtz reviews The Strange Crimes of Little Africa. Then Associate Producer Anya Martinjoins Scott for an all-new News from the Weird and an exclusive preview of The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird on March 25 in Atlanta, GA. Find out more and listen here.

Stories from the Borderland #15: “The Inhabitant of the Pond” by Linda Thornton

Michael Bukowski and I began this Third Series of Stories from the Borderland with “The Cactus” by Mildred Johnson, a mysterious author with only two publication credits to her name: the first a great Weird Tale, the second a more conventional ghost story. Now we are ending with “The Inhabitant of the Pond” by Linda Thornton…another mysterious author with only two publication credits to her name: the first a great Weird Tale, the second a more conventional ghost story. Obviously Michael and I were conscious of the parallels when we chose these stories, and should the readiness with which we found two such similar examples lead you to consider what this says about the circumscribed trajectories of female authors in Weird Fiction, the flat circular nature of time, or our esthetics and intentions behind this project, then we encourage you to think with those things. Ces sont bonnes à penser.

We do not know a whole hell of a lot about Linda Thornton, but even that is more than we know about Mildred Johnson, which is essentially nothing, given the likelihood that her name itself was a pseudonym, perhaps for another, better-established writer who wrote primarily under some other name, and perhaps also in other modes and genres. We may claim with some certainty that Johnson was a woman, as I suggested in my essay on “The Cactus,” but that only narrows her identity to half the world’s literate Anglophone population c. 1950. And only maybe. The loss of original payment records from Weird Tales essentially erased any trail that might have led back to Johnson, and the death of associate editor Lamont Buchanan in 2015 has deprived us of the last living link to the magazine’s original run. In comparison, we know far more about such enigmatic Weird Tales authors as Allison V. Harding, Henry Ferris Arnold Jr., and Nictzin Dyalhis (Harding in particular has turned out to be a bottomless research K-hole, the Oak Island of Weird Fiction scholarship. See Stories from the Borderland #12).

In the case of Linda Thornton however, a direct link does survive: editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson, who published both of Thornton’s known stories. Despite some speculation that Salmonson wrote the two tales herself, she confirmed through sources close to her that Thornton is indeed a discrete person, who used what appears to be her maiden name as a nom de plume. Armed with that information and one other additional clue that Salmonson provided, I was able to track her down on social media, and…this is one sleeping dog I’m going to let lie. I will say only that Ms. “Thornton” does not appear to have any ongoing interest in Horror or Weird Fiction. It is clear there is only one book in her life now, and I will leave her to it.

Yet things must have been a little different back in 1983, and Linda Thornton’s debut that year in Salmonson’s anthology Tales by Moonlight came with a bit of fanfare. Salmonson chose “The Inhabitant of the Pond” as the volume’s closer, and in her brief intro—in which she identifies the author only as a Texan relocated to Jamaica (the Texas part at least is true, I now know)–she exercises a rarely invoked droit de l’éditeur: “It may not be kosher for an editor to admit to having a favorite yarn in a given anthology” she says…and then she admits it anyway. I cannot recall another instance where an editor named a favorite story in a volume s/he edited. Salmonson’s editorial credibility is pretty fucking legit however, so take this as evidence of the story’s exceptionality.

As unprecedented as this praise may be, it is merely the close-bracket on an even more remarkable compliment bestowed on the story by one S. King in his introduction to Tales by Moonlight: “it’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a story as nakedly frightening as The Inhabitant of the Pond, by Linda Thornton” [italics Uncle Stevie’s or maybe the typesetter’s]. Of course, when the King’s right hand giveth two scoops, the left may taketh one away: “Ms. Thornton is not yet completely in control of her prose, and at times the note warbles. There are lapses into awkwardness…” If Paul Tremblay and Jeff VanderMeer ever read this essay–let alone King’s original intro in its entirety, in which he goes into full left-handed compliment mode and describes several of the stories in the anthology as “most exquisitely awful”–they may afterward feel even more fortunate that the kind words with which King recently anointed their work filtered only from his right hand.

It seems clear that King tempered his praise for “The Inhabitant of the Pond” out of the knowledge that Thornton was a first-time author. That story—once so fresh and exciting and filled with promise—is as old now as Dante when he wrote the Inferno, but when it was new the most successful author of our time recognized in it “a voice which is still growing in power, a strong and confident talent in the refining.” The story impressed him so much that he took it as evidence “that the genre is alive and well.”

Though Stephen King has made more than a few especially good calls in his long career, Thornton did not turn out to be another Clive Barker, alas, and despite the optimism Salmonson expressed regarding her discovery in the intro to “Mother’s Boy,” Thornton’s only other published story, the genre was left to flourish or flounder without her ongoing contributions. Perhaps those two stories were all she ever had in her. Perhaps that’s just as well. And so we are left to consider her original contribution to the field on its own—that first dark story, imperfect yet powerful, disturbing and perhaps already more than a little deranged.

In many ways “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is a perfect choice for Stories from the Borderland: an all but forgotten story by an all but forgotten author, prominently praised when first published but never reprinted outside a paperback version of the original limited edition hardcover collection…coupled with a cool monster for Michael to draw, the kind whose description leaves plenty of room for him to exercise his own talents. And the whole damn thing is weird as fuck. Weird as fuck and gothic as hell. Most likely Thornton was aiming for the gothic and The Weird just came along for the ride. Most likely The Weird came from somewhere deep inside.

As a gothic tale from the early Eighties, “The Inhabitant in the Pond” possesses a peculiar timeless quality that was probably there from the start, and the thirty plus years since its publication have accentuated that aspect. Though Thornton’s prose is only mildly archaic for its time, the basic elements of the story hark back to nineteenth century models such as Poe and Richard Marsh. The cruel and almost transgressive brutality of the story’s climax seems at first to offer a more contemporary note—and that scene retains its freshness yet—but even this twist would not have been out of place in some of the darker gothic masterworks like Les Chants de Maldoror or The Monk. As for the story’s title, which in its possible allusion to a familiar story by Ramsey Campbell offers the only suggestion that Thornton’s reading extends into the twentieth century, I suspect editor Salmonson may have tied that final bow on the tale herself, as I know her devotion to the British author all too well.

The setting of “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is virtually a gothic cliché: a gloomy and decaying house of indeterminate size whose three surviving inhabitants appear to live in complete isolation. Their home could easily be a scaled-down version of the House of Usher, with the latter’s “black and lurid tarn” reduced to a “dismal spot [that] had once been a picturesque little marble-bottomed pond, with an abundance of lily pads and fish…” The isolated setting is as stark as a modernist stage set, and one wonders if Linda Thornton is not actually channeling Thornton Wilder here a bit. All interior action is restricted to the protagonist’s second floor bedroom and a few spaces mentioned in passing—kitchen, study, staircase. The single outdoor setting, which is the focus of the story, is that same “dismal spot” where the statue of a “cherub had reigned as a benevolent shade.”

By the time of the events that comprise the bulk of the narrative, fifteen years of neglect have seen the transformation of this pond into “a choked, moss-covered sanctuary for fat, torpid insects, while the guardian statue had assumed the aspect of an eroded tombstone.” On the next page the protagonist-narrator reveals that these fifteen years have also witnessed the death of both her mother and her older brother Thomas, along with the departure of any remaining servants, leaving her alone in the house with her father and her younger brother Edward. And so the stage is set.

Beyond the descriptions of lush vegetation, vaguely suggestive of the Deep South, the lack of any identifiable geographical location or historical context for the story leaves the reader with an impression of events that are happening both out of place out of time. The feeling is similar, and perhaps echoes, the effect that Poe cultivated so well in stories like “Usher,” in which it is never clear when or even in which hemisphere the tale takes place.

My surmise is this combination of effects that succeeds in “The Inhabitant of the Pond” is also a blend of the deliberate and the accidental, a somewhat wobbly shot that managed nonetheless to nail the very edge of the bullseye, part genuine talent and part beginner’s luck. The overall Poe-filtered gothic vibe probably reflects the author’s own aesthetic, whereas the minimalist theatrical construction of the tale seems more likely an artifact of the presentation of this aesthetic via her limited artistic palette. All these elements combine to create an almost numinous but slightly off-kilter version of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, positioning the reader in uncomfortable proximity to the characters. Meanwhile the spare and simple brushstrokes and dark pigments with which Thornton limns her scene, marked with spatters of sickly green for plant life and daubs of purple prose in moments of description (brother, beetle, pond), the single stained white streak of the statue to one side, all combine in a portrait that, despite the amateurish moments to which Uncle Stevie points, can yet convey a raw and genuine power. Given that Thornton’s second outing was little more than a ghost of her first (shoot me), and that she seems to have stopped dead in her writing career thereafter, we will never know whether “The Inhabitant of the Pond” was her best shot or the lost harbinger of things that might have been.

One last peculiar aspect of this story deserves mention here: the climactic scene when the giant invisible arthropod can be heard offstage smashing its way up the stairs seems much too close to the ending of another story Michael and I have already covered in this series to be coincidental, though it almost certainly is. Compare these lines from Thornton’s tale: “…at that moment there came a dreadful roaring and crashing sound from below…The thumping drew closer. It might have been a person walking, but there was never a human gait that sounded like that. Too heavy, too awkward, too fast. Too many legs…”

…to this passage from the climax of Jean Ray’s << La scolopendre >> [“The Centipede”], with which we closed the original series of Stories from the Borderland:

<<…une autre [porte] s’ouvrit aussitôt poussée formidable…Un bruit innouï, comme celui d’une foule, montait à la present, énorme, invraisemblable. L’escalier gémit. >>

“Instantly another door opened beneath some enormous force…A noise came now like none they’d ever heard before, like the impossible sound of an incredible crowd. The stairs groaned.” [translation mine]

Time and again the research that Michael and I have done for Stories from the Borderland has led us to unexpected connections between works in all literary strata and all media…but this one, which is impossible to ignore for anyone who has read both stories, seems inexplicable. << La scolopendre >> has never been published in English translation. Though Jean Ray, whose work so often inhabits the intersection of the gothic, The Weird, and the conte cruel (and which I have often described as a mix of Jim Thompson and Poe), actually seems an excellent match for Thornton’s aesthetic. Is it possible she could have read it in the original French?

Ray’s tale first appeared in the journal La Parole universitaire in 1932. It was reprinted in the 1942 collection Le Grand Nocturne, and again in 1961, in Les 25 meilleures histoires noires et fantastiques. If Thornton knows French, she most likely read it in the latter. Neither her two published stories nor her Facebook page offer any indication that she is literate in a language other than English. One might legitimately expect the sort of untranslated epigraphs and allusions of which Poe was so fond, and an appropriate quote from some continental author would have worked wonderfully well in either tale. In the end there are some rocks even I won’t overturn, and some mysteries that must remain unexplained. Isn’t this how we honor The Weird?

<< L’incertitude seule nous rend irresponsables. Il faut donc savoir la garder, —sinon, qui donc oserait accomplir quelque chose! >>

Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, L’Éve future

Here is the link to Michael Bukowski’s interpretation of the “Inhabitant” itself. I am excited to share this with you all at last, as the art has been done for some time, and as you can see, Michael put a lot of love into it. And with that, Michael and I conclude the third series of Stories from the Borderland. Thus far we have offered sixteen episodes, sixteen portraits of stories lurking just outside the unwholesome firelight of whatever passes for a canon of Weird Fiction: portraits of stories, and of the monsters that inhabit them. We both hope you have enjoyed this project as much as we have.

Though we pause here, Stories from the Borderland is not done. Michael and I have already begun to line up the stories for a fourth series, and I know his art fingers are itching for a crack at some of these creatures we are considering. In the meantime, we are collecting all sixteen episodes (#16 is the epic study of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet” that appeared only in Issue 84 of Stu Horvath’s Unwinnable Monthly (the MONSTER ISSUE). We are also planning a special panel at NecronomiCon Providence this August, at which we will reveal a new episode, with new art, LIVE, after the manner of the legendary “cartoon concerts” pioneered by Vaughn Bode and his son Mark Bode. As part of this panel, Anya Martin will also reveal some of the discoveries she made on the trail of Allison V. Harding. Finally, artist Jeanne D’Angelo and I are planning a second parallel series, tentatively titled Tales from the Crossroads, that will examine stories by canonical authors that dip the barest toe into The Weird, often with results that fully justify architect Mies Van der Rohe’s adage that “Less is more.” Our plan is also for this series to explore the increasing intersection between Weird Fiction and Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology, and the Nonhuman Turn. So if you like to look at monsters, or to stare too long into the Abyss, stick with us. We’re not done with you yet.

Stories from the Borderland #14: “Les Xipéhuz” by J.-H. Rosny aîné

First edition of "Les Xipéhuz" published by Albert Savine (1888).

First edition of “Les Xipéhuz” published by Albert Savine (1888).

A horde of conical, unstoppable, and seemingly indestructible antagonists, exterminating all organic life with mysterious heat rays, resisting every attempt at communication and impervious to all conventional weapons everywhere but a single vulnerable point…this is a familiar scenario to most of my readers, n’est-ce pas? Only I am not describing the Daleks. My subject is les Xipéhuz. The Daleks have been around for a long time—they were born the same year as me—but the Xipéhuz have been among us a good deal longer.

J.-H. Rosny’s novella “Les Xipéhuz” first appeared in 1887, as part of the collection L’Immolation, followed less than a year later by a standalone edition of Les Xipéhuz that corrected various errors in the original. Both editions came from the French publishing house of Albert Savine, soon to achieve first notoriety then bankruptcy in rapid order after publishing both the original French translation of [then scandalous] Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and a whole series of anti-Semitic titles, the latter so rabid—even during the days of the Dreyfus Affair—as to incur the crippling fines behind the demise of the press. Sadly, J.-H. Rosny aîné seems to have shared at least some degree of his original publisher’s toxic prejudice, though unlike his British counterpart, H.G. Wells, he rarely gave voice to it, either in his work or his public persona.1 Just as Rosny moved on to a new publishing house, Mercure de France, let us make note for now and move on to the story itself.

Lex Xipehuz by Michael Bukowski. Copyright 2016

Lex Xipehuz by Michael Bukowski. Copyright 2016

First however, we must address the somewhat complex and confusing identity of this story’s author. I shall do my best, but if you find the thread difficult to follow, fret not: I have been reading “Rosny” for thirty years and still can’t keep this part straight.

So…the author of “Les Xipéhuz” was either J.-H. Rosny or J.-H. Rosny aîné. Both are noms de plume. J.-H. Rosny aîné was Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856-1940), while J.-H. Rosny was Joseph Henri Honoré Boex and his brother Séraphin Justin François Boex (1859-1948), writing together. Séraphin Justin François Boex also wrote separately as J.-H. Rosny jeune. Joseph was the older brother, hence the aîné and the jeune. Like Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (best known to us under his primary nom de plume, Jean Ray) after them, both brothers Boex were Belgian, born in Brussels (Jean Ray was born in Ghent/Gand, coincidentally in 1887, the year “Les Xipéhuz” first appeared in print). Est-ce que c’est clair, à présent? Bien.

quest-for-fire-movie-poster-reviewDespite the Convention Littéraire de 1935, which definitively attributes the various parts of the collective Rosny oeuvre to one brother or the other, or both, some confusion persists as to which tales are the work of J.-H. Rosny and which belong to J.-H. Rosny aîné alone. According to the Convention, the elder Boex wrote both “Les Xipéhuz” and Rosny’s best remembered work, La Guerre de Feu, the prehistoric adventure novel brought to the big screen in 1981 as Quest for Fire (arguably the best caveman movie of all time and notable as the first film to give major exposure to both Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong).

J.-H. Rosny occupies a position of historical importance in the genesis of francophone science fiction second only to that of Jules Verne, and corresponding in English to that of the aforementioned H.G. Wells. Though the appellation “science fiction” had yet to gain currency in either tradition when Rosny and Wells began publishing, both lived long enough to see their work absorbed into it. Dans le monde francophone, science fiction cohabits a genre ecosystem with both fantasy and a third stream, the fantastique, which remains absent from the Anglosphere as a discrete category, et c’est dans la littérature fantastique that we find much of what we recognize today as The Weird, including Jean Ray, who definitely read his fellow Belgian and found some inspiration chez Rosny.2 Though today both the French and English traditions catalogue “Les Xipéhuz” as science fiction and even recognize it as one of the genre’s foundational texts, we shall consider it equally as an exemplar of the Weird Tale.

George Slusser's secodnd translation, with Danièle Chatelain, appeared in this book published by Wesleyan Press in 2012.

George Slusser’s second translation, with Danièle Chatelain, appeared in this book published by Wesleyan Press in 2012.

I am not going to define the Weird Tale, Weird Fiction, or The Weird. Let us all agree that we know The Weird when we see it—comme la pornographie, n’est-ce pas? And I know I see it in Les Xipéhuz,” more than ever after my recent experience (re)translating it into English.

If others have not viewed the story through the lens of The Weird before, it’s no real surprise. Although “Les Xipéhuz” has seen approximately half a dozen renderings into English over the past fifty years (I say approximately because George Slusser published two versions, the second translation done with Danièle Chatelain),3 previous translators seem primarily to have interested themselves in the story’s position as an important precursor of modern science fiction. It features one of the first depictions of a truly “alien” race, and in the character “Bakhoûn,” an early model for the sort of “rational” protagonist that became a hallmark of Anglophone science fiction in its later Campbellian form. Unfortunately, none of the prior English translations capture either the genuine weirdness and cosmic horror that pervade much of the story, or the almost sublime lyrical quality that Rosny’s prose achieves at its best, especially in the story’s opening sections and all its weirdest and darkest parts. Consider the tale’s opening passage, right before humanity’s first encounter with the Xipéhuz:

“Yet a full thousand years remained before that great gathering of humanity which gave rise to the civilizations of Nineveh, Babylon, and Ecbatan.

The nomadic Pjehou tribe was crossing the hostile Kzour Forest with its donkeys, horses, and cattle, heading edge on into the slanting rays of the setting sun. The song of the sunset swelled and hovered, its harmonies swirling in eddies.

Everyone was exhausted and all were silent as the tribe sought a peaceful clearing where they could light the sacred fire, prepare their evening meals, and take shelter from the elements behind a double rampart of scarlet hearths.

Opalescent clouds fled like phantom landscapes toward the four corners of the horizon, the spirits of the night played their lullaby, and still the tribe trudged on. An advance scout returned at a gallop with news of a clearing watered by a pristine spring.”4

Romanian translation featuring Bakhoûn on the cover, 1965.

Romanian translation featuring Bakhoûn on the cover, 1965.

This passage strikes me as a beautiful example of the qualities Italo Calvino defined exactly one century later as Lightness (Leggerezza) and Quickness (Rapidità). Contrast that sample now with this from the end of what more or less constitutes the story’s second act, right before the first appearance of Bakhoûn:

“From that day forward a sinister and mysterious story spread from tribe to tribe, passing in whispers from ear to ear beneath the great starry nights of Mesopotamia and gnawing at every heart: Humanity was doomed. The other, endlessly multiplying, in the forest, across the plains, indestructible, would devour the doomed race day after day. And this dark and fearful secret haunted their wretched brains and robbed them all of the will to fight, of the glowing optimism of a youthful race. The nomad who dreamt of these things no longer dared feel affection for the fertile pastures of his birth, gazing up instead at the fixed constellations with stricken pupils. The millennium of this infant people had arrived, the death knell of the world’s end, or perhaps, the resignation of the red man of the Indian prairies.

From this anguish the mystics created a bleak cult, a cult of death preached by pale prophets, the cult of Shadows stronger than the Stars, Shadows that came to engulf and devour the Holy Light, the resplendent fire.

Everywhere on the edges of the wilderness, one encountered the emaciated silhouettes of initiates, silent men who periodically wandered amongst the tribes, relating their awful dreams, the Twilight of the imminent great Night and the Death of the Sun.”5

Those two passages [the translation is mine in both] illustrate well the evocative quality of Rosny’s prose, emphasized by the contrast he presents between the first scene, depicting the nearly idyllic life of nomadic herders around the time of Göbekli Tepe, with the existential despair of the second scene following humanity’s violent encounter with an incomprehensible and implacable rival. And in the second passage we can see how fully this story is one of cosmic horror, of The Weird.

The Arno Press edition (1978) in which "Les Xipéhuz" is paired with "La Morte de la Terre: and where I first encountered this story in the 1980s.

The Arno press edition in which “Les Xipéhuz” is paired with “La Morte de la Terre: and where I first encountered this story in the 1980s.

No one can say for sure where The Weird begins in literature, in any tongue, but for all its obvious elements of what would later become science fiction, “Les Xipéhuz” is definitely a powerful and important early example of cosmic horror and The Weird. Before Kubin. Before Machen. Before Dunsany, Blackwood, Chambers, James, or Shiel. Well before Lovecraft and Hodgson. Nor is this the only tale in Rosny’s oeuvre to include a healthy dose of cosmic horror. Equally notable is his 1910 novella “La Mort de la Terre” (“The Death of the Earth”), with which “Les Xipéhuz” is often paired in translation. Both stories depict humanity struggling against an inorganic race for dominion of the Earth.

Rosny aîné knew he was onto something unique with the Xipéhuz, and he wasn’t shy about proclaiming it: Je suis le seul en France qui ait donné, avec Les Xipéhuz, un fantastique nouveau, c’est-à-dire en dehors de l’humanité” (“I am the only one in France who has created something fantastic and new, which is to say, something from beyond humanity”). Prior to “Les Xipéhuz,” alien races were always depicted as variations on the familiar anthropomorphic form, a laxity of imagination that still dominates major “science fiction” franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars. We should note however that at no point does Rosny aîné even suggest an extraterrestrial origin for the Xipéhuz. They are, like so many of The Weird’s greatest creations, akin to the Cotton-eyed Joe. Where do they come from? Where do they go? We shall never know.

Brian Stableford's translation appears in The Navigators of Space, the first of a six-book series in which he attempted to translate all of the key speculative fiction works of J.-H. Rosny aîné.

Brian Stableford’s translation appears in The Navigators of Space, the first of a six-book series in which he attempted to translate all of the key speculative fiction works of J.-H. Rosny aîné.

Rosny aîné’s accomplishment did not go unnoticed in his own time. Among those contemporaries who praised “Les Xipéhuz” was the popular novelist Alphonse Daudet (another anti-Semite, alas, and one of the most vocal), who compared it favorably to both de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” and Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. The controversial decadent author Rachilde (Marguerite Vallette-Eymery) was also a great admirer, declaring the tale downright Ibsenian. Physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin and mathematician Émile Borel also praised Rosny’s work–and “Les Xipéhuz” in particular—for its scientific legitimacy. Not only does that story contain the first literary depiction of non-carbon-based life, it also includes what is almost certainly the first portrayal of what we now call lasers, though that acronym would not be coined for seventy years yet. The Xipéhuz even use their “lasers” to communicate with glyph-like characters through a form of what we now call optical scanning. This is an exceptionally visionary detail on the author’s part, though I have never seen it acknowledged.

H.G. Wells published his first short stories the same year “Les Xipéhuz” appeared, his debut novel, The Time Machine, several years later. Comparisons between the two authors came frequently enough that Rosny aîné felt compelled to disavow any possibility of his work having influenced his more illustrious contemporary (whom he clearly admired): “Wells prefers beings that are essentially similar to those we know, while I readily imagine creatures or minerals, as in the Xipéhuz, or which are made of matter unlike our own, or which exist in a world governed by energies other than ours: the Ferromagnetics, which appear throughout Rosny’s “La Mort de la Terre” (“The Death of the Earth”) (1910) belong to one of these three categories.”6

The Lowell Bair-translated collection of Jean Ray's stories including "The Shadowy Street" (Berkeley, 1965).

The Lowell Bair-translated collection of Jean Ray’s stories including “The Shadowy Street” (Berkeley, 1965).

Rosny’s influence, and that of “Les Xipéhuz” in particular, seems more obvious in the work of his fellow Belgian fantasist, Jean Ray. One important Ray story that has never been published in English is especially noteworthy in this regard: “Les étranges études du Dr. Paukenschläger”(“The Strange Studies of Dr. Paukenschläger”). This early tale contains Ray’s first use of the term “monde intercalaire” (intercalary world), a central concept of much of his best—and weirdest—fiction. It also provides several intriguing hints as to the mysteries behind “La Ruelle Ténébreuse,” his far more famous novella about the Great Fire of Hamburg of 1842 (“The Gloomy Alley” or “The Shadowy Street” in Lowell Bair’s translation, which the VanderMeers republished in The Weird). A passage near the end of Paukenschläger seems almost a conscious echo of the scene in which Rosny first describes the Xipéhuz:

“We remainon the small sandy mound, but a weird diaphanous world, only barely visible, is juxtaposed with ours. I see the pines through an almost perfectly transparent cone filled with some sort of violently roiling smoke. A dozen large spheres, bizarre bubbles, leap about on the marsh, and the same swirling smoke fills them.”7, 8

No story stands alone, and all texts exist as part of larger assemblages that include not only other texts and their authors, but readers and editors, publishers, artists, critics, agents, and other agents. Anyone who has read previous installments of Stories from the Borderland should be well aware of the surprisingly complex chains of inspiration that connect even the most seemingly obscure weird tale backwards, forwards, all around. As unique and unprecedented as Rosny aîné’s depiction of an intelligent yet completely “alien” life form was in its time, other elements of his narrative had very definite precedents. One deserves particular attention. Though barely remembered today, its influence spread far beyond “Les Xipéhuz.”

The recent definitive edition of "Vril, The Coming Race" by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from Wesleyan University Press (2012).

The recent definitive edition of “Vril, The Coming Race” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton from Wesleyan University Press (2012).

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is best remembered today as the author of The Last Days of Pompeii and the guy who first wrote both “the pen is mightier than the sword” and the infamously heavy-handed opener “It was a dark and stormy night” (some of you may incorrectly attribute the latter to Snoopy from Peanuts). Bulwer-Lytton was a prolific and popular author in his day, and the penultimate novel he published during his life, [Vril, the Power of] The Coming Race (1871), cast a broad shadow for a long time. Many accepted it as literal or at least “occult” truth, including Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and a whole host of Nazis. The latter, of course, have always been enamored of occult lost world nonsense (that part of Indiana Jones is legit–also, all good archaeologists really do hate Nazis).

The Coming Race describes an encounter with a physically, psychically, and technologically “superior” underground race, the Vril, whose destiny is one day to replace humanity as the dominant race on the Earth’s surface. This Darwinian notion of our potential obsolescence and eventual successor is an obvious influence on both Rosny aîné and Wells, first in “Les Xipéhuz” (1887), then in The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1897), and “La Mort de la Terre” (1910), and some version of the mysterious “Vril force” is almost certainly operating in both the Xipéhuz “lasers” and the heat rays of Wells’ Martians.

"La Force Mysterieuse," Marabout (1972).

“La Force Mysterieuse,” Marabout (1972).

Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril are still just “evolved” human beings, whereas the Xipéhuz are anything but. As inscrutable as the Solaris ocean or the creatures of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X, they remain a mystery even in death, their crystalline cadavers still defying modern chemical analysis millennia later. Humanity cannot communicate with them, and Rosny aîné’s mise en scène demands the extinction of one race or the other.

Yet for all their impenetrable terror, the Xipéhuz are more awesome than frightening when we, as the Pjehou tribe, first encounter them:

“The clearing came into view, an enchanting spring winding its way between mosses and shrubs. There the nomads encountered a fantastic sight.

First came a great ring of translucent bluish cones with their pointed ends upright, each perhaps half the size of a man. Bright stripes and dark spirals streaked their surfaces. Each bore a star at its base, dazzling as the noonday sun.

Stranger still were the flat slabs that rose behind them, streaked with multicolored ellipses in patterns like birch bark. Here and there among these were other nearly cylindrical Shapes, one thin and tall, another low and squat, all brazen-hued and speckled with green, and all having the same characteristic point of light as the striped Shapes.”9

Les Xipéhuz par François Bourgeon, bandes dessinées, 1979.

Les Xipéhuz par François Bourgeon, bandes dessinées, 1979.

The excessive emphasis on Lovecraft in so much Weird Fiction scholarship has led us to associate The Weird with ugliness and grotesquerie, but its manifestation is as often a thing of terrible beauty, as in my favorite line from the Jeff VanderMeer’s Authority, when Control first sees the entrance to Area X: “He had not expected any of it to be beautiful, but it was beautiful.” Here, as well as in many of the passages where we view the Xipéhuz through Bakhoûn’s eyes, Rosny aîné shows himself adept at invoking “sensawunda,” science fiction’s contribution to the catalog of esthetic sensations that includes yugen and mono no aware. Awe, beauty, terror, wonder…all wrapped in one delicious flatbread with some roast lamb and maybe a little tzatziki sauce and rosemary…can we not recognize The Weird in this?

So humanity, meet the Xipéhuz. Their origin will ever remain a mystery, their end a tragedy, the narrative of our brief encounter with them a tale of terror, beauty, and death, the blutgeld of their genocide the inescapable heritage of our infant race, Bakhoûn’s eternal lament beneath the stars.

Poster for "Dr. Who & the Daleks" feature film from Amicus Productions (1965).

Poster for “Dr. Who & the Daleks” feature film from Amicus Productions (1965).

As for the obvious similarities between the Xipéhuz and the Daleks—which have not escaped French critics—these appear to be entirely coincidental. The creation of the Daleks, whether by Davros or by Terry Nation and Ray Cusick, is well established: they are the offspring of the unwholesome marriage of a pepperpot and some sort of malformed British roof architecture, their genocidal imperative derived from the Nazis themselves. I can find no evidence that Nation read French, and the first documented English translation of “Les Xipéhuz” was not published until 1968—five years after the debut of the Daleks. Perhaps he encountered the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain,10 which included an extract from “Les Xipéhuz” accompanied by a very Richard Powers-esque illustration of a man, presumably Bakhoûn himself, among the Xipéhuz. Maybe that illustration caught his eye—and if he could not read the story, might he not have asked someone who could to describe it to him?

“Les Xipéhuz” was the cover illustration for the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain.

“Les Xipéhuz” was the cover illustration for the 1961 French language anthology 55 histoires extraordinaires, fantastiques et insolites edited by Marcel Aymé and Pierre-André Touttain.

The closest thing I can find to an actual smoking heat ray however, is not a full translation of “Les Xipéhuz” but an English language summary of the story published in The Theosophical Review in 1903, and credited only to “A Russian.”11 This summary actually distorts the original tale in many ways, apparently in order to bring it more in line with Theosophical dogma. At least two of these changes makes the Xipéhuz even more like the Daleks: the Russian’s version describes them as “bluish conical forms…each of a grown man’s size” (italics mine), e.g. the height of a Dalek, whereas in Rosny’s original, the Xipéhuz “never attained a height much greater than a cubit and a half” (approx. 70 cm). Even more interesting is the description of the creatures’ motion as “gliding.” These details create seven points of correspondence between the Daleks and the Xipéhuz: conical form, near-indestructability, single point of vulnerability, heat ray, height, gliding locomotion, and of course, the relentless exterminating.

In the end, we can only speculate, and whether or not the Xipéhuz provided any inspiration for the Daleks is something else we shall never know: if such a connection existed, Terry Nation took that secret to the grave. Only the Daleks themselves remain, only the Xipéhuz, only our sense of wonder…

Now follow this link to artist Michael Bukowski’s blog and see his interpretation of les Xipéhuz.

Notes:

Georges Dodds translation (1988) with dedication toLeon Hennique, author and co-executor of Goncourt estate.

Georges T. Dodds translation (1986) with dedication toLeon Hennique, author and co-executor of Goncourt estate.

1 Brian Stableford goes on at great length in his introduction to The Navigators of Space (which includes his translation of “Les Xipéhuz”) regarding the literary conflict between the Goncourt Academy and Émile Zola—a conflict in which Rosny aîné took a very active part, but he says nothing of Rosny’s involvement in French nationalism or his stance during the Dreyfus Affair. Although the former is documented, we can only speculate as to the latter. An 1890 article from La Revue Indépendante gives a pretty good idea, however. The text of that article may be found here, but be warned: the racial “theories” Rosny aîné expresses therein approach a Lovecraftian level of offensiveness. This early statement is the only smoking gun I can find in this case, in either French or English sources, but it is more than nasty enough to make the point.

2The two authors eventually became friends, and Ray appears to have been visited the elder Rosny at home more than once. See here.

3It was in Slusser’s 1978 translation for Arno Press that I first encountered “Les Xipéhuz,” though I did not at the time realize I already knew J.-H. Rosny somewhat from Quest for Fire. See his appreciation of Rosny here.

French edition of Rosny's "Vamireh," Tallandier (1991).

French edition of Rosny’s “Vamireh,” Tallandier (1991).

4<< C’était mille ans avant le massement civilisateur d’où surgirent plus tard Ninive, Babylone, Ecbatane.

La tribu nomade de Pjehou, avec ses ânes, ses chevaux, son bétail, traversait la forêt farouche de Kzour, vers le crépuscule, dans la nappe des rayons obliques. Le chant du déclin s’enflait, planait, descendait des nichées harmonieuses.

Tout le monde étant très las, on se taisait, en quête d’une belle clairière où la tribu pût allumer le feu sacré, faire le repas du soir, dormir à l’abri des brutes, derrière la double rampe de brasiers rouges.

Les nues s’opalisèrent, les contrées illusoires vaguèrent aux quatre horizons, les dieux nocturnes soufflèrent le chant berceur, et la tribu marchait encore. Un éclaireur reparut au galop, annonçant la clairière et l’eau, une source pure. >>

5<< De ce jour une histoire sinistre, dissolvante, mystérieuse, alla de tribu en tribu, murmurée à l’oreille, le soir, aux larges nuits astrales de la Mésopotamie. L’homme allait périr. L’autre, toujours élargi, dans la forêt, sur les plaines, indestructible, jour par jour dévorerait la race déchue. Et la confidence, craintive et noire, hantait les pauvres cerveaux, à tous ôtait la force de lutte, le brillant optimisme des jeunes races. L’homme errant, rêvant à ces choses, n’osait plus aimer les somptueux pâturages natals, cherchait en haut, de sa prunelle accablée, l’arrêt des constellations. Ce fut l’an mil des peuples enfants, le glas de la fin du monde, ou, peut-être, la résignation de l’homme rouge des savanes indiennes.

Et, dans cette angoisse, les méditateurs venaient à un culte amer, un culte de mort que prêchaient de pâles prophètes, le culte des Ténèbres plus puissantes que les Astres, des Ténèbres qui devaient engloutir, dévorer la sainte Lumière, le feu resplendissant.

Partout, aux abords des solitudes, on rencontrait immobiles, amaigries des silhouettes d’inspirés, des hommes de silence, qui, par périodes, se répandant parmi les tribus, contaient leurs épouvantables rêves, le Crépuscule de la grande Nuit approchante, du Soleil agonisant.

Mass market paperback collection including "Les Xipéhuz" from Robert Laffont (1985).

Mass market paperback collection including “Les Xipéhuz” from Robert Laffont (1985).

6<< Wells préfère des vivants qui offrent encore une grande analogie avec ceux que nous connaissons, tandis que j’imagine volontiers des créatures ou minérales, comme dans les Xipéhuz, ou faites d’une autre matière que notre matière, ou encore existant dans un monde régi par d’autres énergies que les nôtres : les Ferromagnétaux, qui apparaissent épisodiquement dans la Mort de la Terre, appartiennent à l’une de ces trois catégories. >>

7<< Nous sommes…toujours sur le petit tertre sablonneux, mais un singulier monde diaphane, à peine visible, s’y juxtapose. Je vois le bois de sapins à travers un cône d’une transparence presque parfaite et rempli d’une sorte de fumée, violemment tourmentée. Une dizaine de grosses sphères, bulles bizarres, bondissent sur le marais, et les mêmes fumées tourbillonnantes les remplissent. >>

8Compare that passage in turn to this ominous passage from near the end of ““La Ruelle Ténébreuse”: “My grandfather and other people described how huge green flames leapt out of the wreckage all the way to the sky. They imagined they saw the faces of women of an indescribable ferocity.”

9<< La clairière apparut. La source charmante y trouait sa route entre des mousses et des arbustes. Une fantasmagorie se montra aux nomades.

C’était d’abord un grand cercle de cônes bleuâtres, translucides, la pointe en haut, chacun du volume à peu près de la moitié d’un homme. Quelques raies claires, quelques circonvolutions sombres, parsemaient leur surface; tous avaient vers la base une étoile éblouissante.

Plus loin, aussi étranges, des strates se posaient verticalement, assez semblables à de l’écorce de bouleau et madrées d’ellipses versicolores. Il y avait encore, de-ci de-là, des Formes presque cylindriques, variées d’ailleurs, les unes minces et hautes, les autres basses et trapues, toutes de couleur bronzée, pointillées de vert, toutes possédant, comme les strates, le caractéristique point de lumière. >>

10 See here.

11 See here.

Stories from the Borderland #X.1: “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet” by A.E. van Vogt

UM84-smallA special episode of STORIES FROM THE BORDERLAND by Michael Bukowski and yours truly appeared in the October 2016 monster-themed issue of Stu Horvath‘s Unwinnable Monthly magazine, available here. In it, we discuss “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet,” two stories by A.E. van Vogt that have spread their influence over almost everything you know.

TOD A17 CM Muller: A Lineage of Shadows in the Nightscript

TOD A17 CM Muller A Lineage of Shadows in the NightscriptIn this archival podcast Scott Nicolay interviews CM Muller, editor & publisher of the acclaimed new annual horror fiction journal Nightscript: An Anthology of Strange and Darksome Tales. It was recorded on October 27, 2015 and originally aired on October 28, 2015. This broadcast also includes bonus new content featuring a follow-up interview with CM Muller about the second issue of Nightscript released in September 2016.  

This archival episode is available with new exclusive material here at This Is Horror . Subscribe at iTunes  or Blubrry to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

Stories from the Borderland #13: “Heartburn” by Hortense Calisher

LFNTSTQFMN1977Many are the reason why Great Weird stories fall into the Borderlands…

Some because the memory of their authors faded after death, the obscurity blanketing them compounded by negligent, mismanaged, or utterly nonexistent estates. Others are lost in the shadows that skirt the ruined Tower of Babel, blocked from potential new audiences by the limited permeability between literary traditions in different tongues. Stefan Grabinski for example has only recently become known outside his own language, while Jean Ray appears to surface in English but once every decade or two, only to submerge again quickly before his full extent is ever glimpsed by le monde Anglophone

Because it is only over the last decade or two that The Weird has truly begun to manifest as a category of its own, many of its finest flowers grew first in other gardens, awaiting only for curious herbalists to pull aside the leaves of the larger plants that cover them. Thus are the best Weird tales often harvested from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, conventional horror, and even mainstream lit.

Meanwhile the carnival barkers of the old guard, self-appointed gatekeepers of artificial micro-canons, tirelessly call attention to their bright be-tentacled tents, peddling each the same candyfloss elaborations, invariably constructed exclusively from the work of Lovecraft, his influences, his disciples, and his epigones—all the easy pickings and low hanging fruit of Weird Fiction. Readers who look beyond that gaudy bazaar of the no-longer-so-bizarre will find lost lineages, forgotten eras, entire traditions…

Of course there are those writers whose outputs were so small they never made a dent even in their own day. Some, such as Mildred Johnson (or L—– T—–, with whom we plan to conclude this series of Stories From the Borderland a few weeks from now) wrote only one or two stories.

Last are those mainstream authors who veered into The Weird perhaps only once in their careers. Patricia Highsmith was one, and her tale “The Quest for the Blank Claverengi is one of the top three incorrect guesses for our future episodes (along with “Mimic” and “Who Goes There?”). Another was Hortense Calisher, who coincidentally shared her first name with Ms. Highsmith’s favorite pet snail. But that’s another plate o’ shrimp…

collected-stories-calisherAlthough Hortense Calisher was 37 when she published her first story—in The New Yorker, no less—and didn’t publish her first novel until she was 50, she still managed to enjoy a robust career in American letters spanning nearly 60 years, as she continued publishing until within a few years of her death at the age of 97 in 2009.

Hortense Calisher was an uncategorizable woman who led an uncategorizable life and an even more uncategorizable career. Though she herself is less than 10 years gone, she grew up in a household where the U.S. Civil War was living memory, which gave her what she described in her Paris Review interview (the 100th in that celebrated series) as “an inordinately stretched sense of time.” That phrase alone makes me regret she did not delve deeper into The Weird. She certainly worked otherwise with little or no regard for set formulae or boundaries. Her confident and carefully honed prose won her numerous prizes and awards, and it has kept her work fresh today, though precious little of it remains in print.

My first encounter with Calisher’s work came in the summer of 1974, when my family traveled to Washington, D.C. for a rare out-of-state vacation. Most likely we chose that location so my mother could attend some sort of teachers’ convention. While in our nation’s capital we stayed at the Hilton—rather posh for us at the time. Or perhaps we stayed across the street and only ate at the Hilton when we went to meet my mother for lunch—my memory is vague on that point.

TMLSMRRWE21952What I do recall with some certainty was finding two books alongside the obligatory Gideons’ Bible in a small drawer on the left side of the bed’s extended headboard, a kind of built-in nightstand. One was a biography of Conrad Hilton, and the other was a collection of short stories. The title of the latter book escapes me as well, but considering the year and the contents, it was most likely an edition of frequently reprinted Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, edited by Ray Bradbury, whose multiple editions kept “Heartburn” in print for several decades. Or perhaps it was the Popular Library anthology Suddenly, which opens with Calisher’s story—which would explain why it is the only one in the book I remember reading. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not also mention its appearance (alongside Borges[!!!], Shirley Jackson, Margaret St. Clair, and the aforementioned Ms. Highsmith in Nine Strange Stories, one of the five remarkable Scholastic anthologies edited by my personal editor-hero, the late Betty M. Owen.

41CX-K1dZNLI remember reading a single story from that book our very first night in D.C., probably while my parents were unpacking and my brother and I were settling into our temporary digs, and that story stuck with me, even if its title and its author’s name did not. I was probably hooked from the second paragraph, which begins “‘I have some kind of small animal lodged in my chest,’ said the man.”

I remember the prep school boys who passed a mysterious macro-parasite from one to another like some singular affliction or curse, a sort of internal bottle imp—and how the school’s headmaster eventually came to be its host. And the solution he discovered…

pulloutText1

Although the parasite has become a standard trope of both Weird Fiction and conventional horror, “Heartburn” is a tale with few precedents in its time. Oddly, the closet is probably “The Marmot,” a 1944 Weird Tales story by last week’s featured author, the mysterious Allison V. Harding. It is one of Harding’s few tales to be reprinted. The next major use of this trope was probably Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (which features exo-, not endo- parasites), but that novel was not serialized until the fall of 1951, the year that “Heartburn” was first published in the January issue of The American Mercury.

AmMercury-1951jan“Heartburn” was one of Calisher’s earliest stories, and one of her most enduring, primarily thanks to Bradbury. I consider it a genuine classic of midcentury Weird Fiction, and that it should be remembered as such. Of all the stories the VanderMeers chose not to include in The Weird—and other than the inexplicable absence of Hodgson, it is very hard to find fault with their omissions—this may be the most perplexing, as it seems so much to their tastes. Perhaps it just never made their radar, or perhaps I misread their tastes. I however, will always love “Heartburn.” And I will always believe…

heartburn page 1This tale was one of the bigger challenges I have thrown Michael Bukowski in this project [at least so far—Michael, what do you think about “The Damned Thing”?], and one of the joys of working with him is the way he teases out the hidden visual hints left by authors in stories with even the most vaguely described creatures. With his illustration of le parasite from “Heartburn,” he has risen to the challenge once again here.

TMLSSSTRSF1972“Heartburn” marks the midpoint not just for this Third Series of Stories From the Borderland, but for the project overall, at least so far as we have envisioned it at this time. Please visit us again next week when we look at a largely unrecognized classic of cosmic horror from the late 19th Century, a tale of strange shapes and forms that almost certainly provided a significant influence on certain of Jean Ray’s most important works. As always, guess the title, win a prize. X marks the spot.

TOD 001 Alyssa Wong: A Shitstorm in Flavortown and Marc Laidlaw: Swimming Upstream to Spawn

TOD001 (1)In this podcast Scott Nicolay interviews Marc Laidlaw, author of White Spawn, and Alyssa Wong, author of Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers.” Find out more and listen here.

The Outer Dark moves to This Is Horror

Future episodes of The Outer Dark will be hosted by This Is Horror.

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Stories from the Borderland #12: “The Damp Man” by Allison V. Harding

weird_4905The previous installment of Stories From the Borderland examined “The Cactus,” a tale by Mildred Johnson, an enigmatic female author who published only two known stories, both in Weird Tales. This week the author of our featured selection is another mysterious byline from Weird Tales. Allison V. Harding was not only the magazine’s most prolific contributing female author: she was its tenth most prolific contributor altogether, well ahead of many of the magazine’s better known male authors such as Ray Bradbury or Frank Belknap Long. And though we know much more about Harding than Mildred Johnson, she remains in many ways even more enigmatic. She may in fact be The Unique Magazine’s most enigmatic author of all, and its most enduring mystery.

To the extent that Harding is remembered today, it is primarily for a single story, “The Damp Man,” and its titular antagonist. First published in the July 1947 issue of Weird Tales, “The Damp Man” proved popular enough to spawn two sequels: “The Damp Man Returns” in September 1947—just three months after the original—and “The Damp Man Again” in May 1949 [please take a moment to appreciate the subtlety of those titles]. The final installment made the cover, with a creepy depiction of the spongy antagonist himself by artist John Giunta.

The Damp Man by Allison V. Harding“The Damp Man” is essentially the story of a woman terrorized by a stalker in 1940s Manhattan…and about how there was legally nothing she could do about it. Beneath the surface of this pulp tale lurks a disturbing statement about the lives of American women. Stalking laws—even the term “stalker” itself in its current connotation—did not enter common parlance until the late twentieth century. Linda Mallory, the Damp Man’s young victim, quickly discovers that society has stacked the deck in favor of her stalker.

Although Mallory is the story’s focal character, a male voice overlays her tale. The opening paragraphs introduce us first to Gazette reporter George Pelgrim, also young but already jaded, and chafing at being assigned to cover a women’s swimming championship, which he considers a “comedown” from his editor. Despite his smoldering resentment, Pelgrim makes a halfhearted effort to fulfill his professional responsibilities and arranges a brief interview with Miss Mallory, the winner of the competition. This is where things begin to get weird. Here as well begin SPOILERS for those who have not read the story—or played the Call of Cthulhu RPG “Damp Man: Swim Meet of Doom.”

DampManCircumstances throw Linda and George together and a mutual affection inevitably develops. For a time they manage to evade the ambling moist monstrosity whose real name is revealed to be Lother Remsdorf, Jr…but only for a time. Eventually the Damp Man simply kidnaps Ms. Mallory. In an interesting twist for a story of that era, she escapes unaided. Women in the pulps typically required rescue by men. The overall amount of detail devoted to Linda Mallory’s character, and the degree of agency ascribed to her in the story—despite her partial reliance on Pelgrim—are unusual for both the medium and the time, and despite the choice of a male narrator, these aspects speak strongly of female authorship. This is important, as new questions have arisen regarding Harding’s identity.

Artist/writer Terence E. Hanley has explored the enigma of Allison V. Harding further than anyone else. His research is impressive, and his conclusions are insightful, as when he suggests her signature story shows the influence of the classic 1941 film noir I Wake Up Screaming, with the character of the Damp Man himself drawing somewhat on the film’s sinister, obsessive, and heavyset detective Ed Cornell, portrayed by Laird Cregar. IWUS is one of the first dozen films of the original noir era, so if Hanley is correct, “The Damp Man” represents one of the earliest hybrids of The Weird and Noir, though ultimately this is true regardless of any cinematic influence. With its combination of an urban setting, a cynical investigator, an expressionistically grotesque and unnatural nemesis, and its bleak depiction of society, “The Damp Man” incorporates many key elements of noir. Hanley’s primary thesis, however, is that the author we know as Allison V. Harding may not be a woman at all.

i-wake-up-screaming-movie-poster-9999-1010679336Exactly who was Allison V. Harding, and what do we know about her? If not for Sam Moskowitz we might know nothing beyond her bibliography, as he was one of the last to examine the magazine’s payment records before their alleged destruction, and he later revealed [to Robert Weinberg?] that the cashed checks for Allison V. Harding’s stories were made out to one Jean Milligan. Because the checks were sent to a prominent New York City law firm, Moskowitz identified Milligan—incorrectly, it seems—as an attorney during Harding’s publishing years (she was more likely a legal clerk or secretary or perhaps just a client of the firm). The clincher seems to be that Milligan’s husband, author [Charles] Lamont Buchanan, served from September 1942 until September 1949 as the associate editor and art director of Weird Tales under Dorothy McIlwraith, the final editor of the magazine’s original incarnation. Buchanan is perhaps best remembered today for recruiting artist Lee Brown Coye into the Weird Tales stable.

Based on this connection, Hanley concludes that “Allison V. Harding” was actually Lamont Buchanan, not Jean Milligan (although the date of their marriage remains elusive. Jean did not take the Buchanan surname until 1953, two years after the last of the Harding stories saw print).

laird-cregar

Laird Cregar in “I Wake Up Screaming.”

Hanley’s conclusion is plausible. While Buchanan was a known author credited with the texts of sixteen illustrated books on sports and historical topics, Jean Milligan is practically a cipher, with much more information available about her parents and sisters than her. If she wrote outside the Harding nom de plume no one has ever found the evidence (other than a one time use of the name Alice B. Harcraft for the story  “Ride the El to Doom,” which reappeared later under the Harding byline). Lamont Buchanan himself ceased publishing in 1956, perhaps because the sort of illustrated books in which he specialized declined in popularity, and after a lone reference to him in his father’s 1962 obituary, husband and wife both disappear permanently from public life in the way that only the very wealthy and the very poor can do.

The Catcher in the Rye CoverBack at Tellers of Weird Tales things start to get weird on another level altogether, as Hanley goes on in later blog posts to suggest an alternative identity for the tenth most prolific contributor to Weird Tales: author J.D. Salinger. Hanley’s suggestion is based on two things. Firstly, though they may have met earlier, Buchanan attended Columbia from approximately 1937-1941, while Salinger enrolled in a night course there in 1939. Considering Salinger’s fixation on F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems natural that an old money student bearing the surname Buchanan would have engaged his interest. It is interesting to note that Jack Kerouac also enrolled in Columbia a year later but does not seem to have crossed paths with either Salinger or Buchanan—not surprising given that Kerouac was a working class football player on an athletic scholarship, while Buchanan and Salinger were older and came from higher socioeconomic strata. A decade later Salinger moved into an apartment less than two blocks from Lamont and Jean in Sutton Place, suggesting their friendship continued throughout the ‘40s, or at least that they moved in the same social circles.

Z trainThe second factor is the pronounced similarity in language and tone between the Allison V. Harding’s penultimate story, “Take the Z Train” from the May 1950 issue of Weird Tales, and The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s famous novel debuted on July 16, 1951, barely six months after “Scope,” the final tale to bear the Harding byline. If Salinger did indeed maintain his friendship with his friend and neighbor Buchanan by that time, it is likely that Jean and Lamont may have seen galleys of Catcher.

Although Hanley quickly retracts this assertion, he deserves credit for making the connection between Salinger and Allison V. Harding, a connection I do not believe has been noted elsewhere. Neither Lamont nor Jean are mentioned in any of the major Salinger biographies however. Hanley’s sole source for the Buchanan-Salinger collection is a 2012 article by veteran journalist Noel Young:

weird_tales_194707Young’s topic is a recently rediscovered 1941 interview with Salinger conducted by Shirley Ardman, who was a freshman at Columbia that year, also studying journalism. According to Young, who interviewed Ardman prior to her own demise, it was Lamont Buchanan who introduced her to Salinger. Though Young makes no mention of Buchanan’s Weird Tales tenure, he casually drops this bombshell: “Later, Shirley was to suggest that Lamont was at least in part the model for Holden Caulfield, the central figure in The Catcher in the Rye.” Only Hanley seems to have made the connection between Salinger’s Buchanan and the obscure author and pulp magazine editor.

This surprising connection suggests some interesting connections. Let us take as our starting point the revelation that Lamont Buchanan = Holden Caulfield. Maybe, maybe only partially, but if Ardman was correct, then one of the most famous protagonists in Twentieth Century American fiction inherited the literary DNA of a man who served as associate editor of Weird Tales throughout most of its last full decade.

Remember that Hanley has made the case that Lamont Buchanan was actually Allison V. Harding. Although Harding relied on male protagonists and points of view, in “The Damp Man” at least she presented a genuine female perspective along with specific insights into midcentury women’s lives, such as the experience of living in an all-women’s rooming house, of which there were nearly sixty in Manhattan during that era, the most famous of which was the legendary Barbizon, located only a few blocks from Jean and Lamont’s homes on the Upper East Side. I will posit instead that “Allison V. Harding” was the shared pseudonym of a husband and wife writing team, an early multiple-use name or collective pseudonym such as Alan Smithee or Luther Blissett, employed in much the same way that Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore were already collaborating under such pen names as Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell. Which of them wrote what, and how much, is beyond telling now. It may be that Lamont developed the stories around Jean’s ideas, or vice versa, or that one or the other of them was responsible for more of Harding’s output in later years.

weird_tales_194709The suggestion that Buchanan alone assumed the Harding name to create filler for Weird Tales begs several questions: first of all, if he alone wrote as Harding, why would he deceive his own boss? Alternatively, if Dorothy McIlwraith was in on such a secret, why would she send the checks to Jean care of her employer? This makes much more sense if Harding was either Jean by herself or a collaboration. The necessity of avoiding the impression of nepotism would itself have demanded a pseudonym. Moreover, both Jean and Lamont came from wealthy families. However Lamont’s family felt about his employment with the pulps, Jean’s family might have been even less accepting.

Although none of the Harding stories I have read come anywhere close to passing the Bechdel Test, if the name concealed a collaboration, “The Damp Man,” with its particularly feminine elements, is the smoking gun. We don’t know [yet] if Jean was a competitive swimmer or lived in an all women’s rooming house, but we do know Lamont studied journalism, which means the character of George Pelgrim incorporates some of his personality as well. If Lamont Buchanan = George Pelgrim AND Lamont Buchanan = Holden Caulfield, then George Pelgrim = Holden Caulfield, n’est-ce pas? Really not so fanciful a conclusion when one remembers Holden’s fanciful career goal, so central to the very title of The Catcher in the Rye, of serving as a sort of protector or guardian of the innocent. A wild idea perhaps…but stick with me here—things at Stories From the Borderland are about to get even wilder. I have discussed here before the unexpected connections that arise when pulp stories receive a deep reading, but this story drizzles into territory I never foresaw.

The Night Stalker, 1973.4Reading “The Damp Man” for this project quickly called to mind Eugene Tooms, the recurring elastic liver-eater from The X-Files, and from Tooms my thoughts leapt at once to The Night Stalker, the primary inspiration for The X-Files. While Scully and Mulder work for the FBI, Carl Kolchak, The Night Stalker’s protagonist is a reporter like George Pelgrim.

Harding’s story reminded me specifically of The Night Stalker’s second television pilot, The Night Strangler (1973). The latter featured as its antagonist one Dr. Richard Malcolm, a Civil War era surgeon still alive and lurking in Seattle’s underground city, emerging every 21 years to murder young women and extract their still warm pituitary glands in order to concoct his elixir of immortality. The character of Tooms most likely owes a great deal to Dr. Malcolm. Could either or both owe some debt to “The Damp Man”?

Richard Matheson wrote the scripts for both pilots. Had Matheson read “The Damp Man”? He began publishing in 1950, just three years after the original Damp Man story appeared in Weird Tales, and almost exactly one year after “The Damp Man Again.” Within three years Matheson was publishing in Weird Tales itself, so he was clearly familiar with the magazine. Did a bit of George Pelgrim creep into Carl Kolchak as Matheson reimagined Jeff Rice’s character for television? If so, then Kolchak is not only partly Pelgrim, but part Lamont Buchanan as well.

And if Kolchak is partly George Pelgrim is partly Lamont Buchanan…then Fox Mulder is as well.

returnsConsider this then: Lamont Buchanan may have been [in part] the model for Holden Caulfield. He was almost certainly the model [in part] for George Pelgrim. If George Pelgrim influenced Richard Matheson [or Jeff Rice?] in his development of Carl Kolchak, and The Night Stalker series inspired The X-Files, then could Fox Mulder be…the Catcher in the Rye? The idea makes a surprising amount of sense. It is really quite easy to envision poor broken yet brilliant Agent Mulder, tortured by his sister’s childhood abduction, as an adult version of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Which gives us then: Lamont Buchanan = Holden Caulfield/George Pelgrim = Carl Kolchak = Fox Mulder = the Catcher in the Rye?

A final connection deserves mention, though I am certain this one is pure coincidence: The X-Files was shot primarily in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, and “The Damp Man” features the only antagonist I can recall who is killed by Canada. Well, perhaps not killed, not if he returns.

Jean Milligan attended the Connecticut College for Women for two years from fall 1936 to spring 1938 before dropping out, perhaps to be the woman in her father's household after her mother's sudden death in 1938. Is she one of the young women in this photo of the freshmen class from the 1937 yearbook? Unfortunately the names are not listed, but this may well be the first photo of Allison V. Harding.

Jean Milligan attended the Connecticut College for Women for two years from fall 1936 to spring 1938 before dropping out, perhaps to help her father after her mother’s sudden death in 1938. Is she one of the young women in this photo of the freshmen class from the 1937 yearbook? Unfortunately the names are not listed, but this may be the first known photo of Allison V. Harding.

The search for Allison V. Harding took this episode of Stories From the Borderland down an unexpected and seemingly bottomless research k-hole. I am especially grateful to Anya Martin, who dove deep and returned with many new and crucial elements details from the story. We ended up logging quite a few hours during our investigation of the strange case of Allison V. Harding, and we are far from finished, so expect further announcements.

In the meantime, please follow this link to Michael Bukowski’s blog, where you can view his illustration of Lother Remsdorf, Jr., the Damp Man himself. Be warned that Michael draws all creatures and characters other than deities naked, so Lother appears unclothed there. This is appropriately creepy really, given the Damp Man’s ultimate designs on Linda Mallory. Be glad Lother never chose you for a mate.

Two more bloggers take on the mystery of Allison V. Harding:

Lesser Known Writers: Allison V. Harding

Silvia Moreno-Garcia: “Summer of Unknown Writers: Dorothy Quick and Allison V. Harding

Stories from the Borderland #11: “The Cactus” by Mildred Johnson

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“The Cactus” in its original appearance in Weird Tales, Jan. 1950.

Previous episodes of Stories From the Borderland have already considered how both the comics industry and Hollywood shamelessly plundered the old pulps for story ideas. Theodore Sturgeon’s “It!” (1940) spawned a long lineage of comic book swamp monsters, beginning with Heap in 1942, while the illicit progeny of Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Slime” from The Blob on down are almost as numerous. At least Who Goes There received credit in three out of four film adaptations—although The Crawling Horror did not, even when it was ripped off directly in a comic story with the same title in the November 1954 issue of Terror Tales.

Green Horror,” the tale of an overly amorous and aggressive cactus and the object of its unwholesome and unwelcome attentions, first appeared in the July-August 1954 issue of Fantastic Fears, only a few months before the Comics Code Authority poured its stifling load of cold wet cement over the entire medium in October 1954. Eerie Publications later reprinted the story in the November 1970 issue of Horror Tales. By that time, Eerie’s entire lineup, like Bill Gaines’ MAD magazine, had made the transition to magazine format in order to circumvent the Code.

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Horror Tales, Nov. 1970, which reprinted “Green Horror.”

From “Come Into My Parlor” and Audrey Junior to “The Seed From the Sepulchre” and John Wyndham’s triffids, I have long loved a good weird plant story. Sadly, “Green Horror” is neither very good nor very weird. More importantly, it is not very original—and although the most recent installment of Stories From the Borderland argued at length for the primacy of storytelling over originality, “Green Horror” fails in both regards, being nothing more than a blatant rip off of “The Cactus,” a story by Mildred Johnson from the January 1950 issue of Weird Tales.

Johnson was an enigmatic author who published only a pair of stories, both in The Unique Magazine. Her second outing, “The Mirror,” was a serviceable ghost story, but “The Cactus” is truly Weird. Each story saw a handful of reprints, and if not for those, she might be forgotten entirely. Was “Mildred Johnson” a pseudonym? Why was her output limited to two stories published only a few months apart? Research dead ends at Weird Tales, with at least one major list of supernatural plant stories omitting “The Cactus” entirely, so we must know her by these two stories alone.

green-horror“Green Horror” retains enough of “The Cactus” to make its origins obvious, but it discards all that gave Johnson’s story its weirdness. A comparison of the two stories therefore offers a valuable opportunity to delineate some of the elements of a good weird tale. Where Johnson demonstrates an admirable grasp of what Keats called “negative capability,” suggesting without defining and allowing mystery to manifest on its own terms, the uncredited comic adaptation strips out the unexplained and moves subtext to the center of the narrative where it becomes ridiculous and cliché.

Both versions of the story begin with an American couple stopping in an isolated area of northern Mexico, where the wife takes a cutting from a large cactus. The cactus in the comic version is a simple saguaro, while Johnson’s cactus is something weirder, one of a horde growing within what appears to be a meteor crater like the one in Arizona: “a scoop in the earth, like a great dimple.” The reader is left to decide whether these prodigious growths are some earthly varietal mutated by the uncouth properties of whatever fell out of space, or the genuine products of panspermia. Johnson’s crater cacti also exude a sweet, musky aroma from their flowers, a smell that seems as irresistible to human women as it is repugnant to their men, although this aspect is never made explicit either. “Green Horror” abandons such weird nuances and is a much lesser story without them.

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O. Henry’s “The Cactus” first appeared in the October 1902 issue of Everybody’s Magazine.

Johnson’s “The Cactus” may itself draw on O. Henry’s better known 1902 tale by the same title. Any potential parallels are vague, but the stories share a common tone—a tone that becomes far bleaker in Johnson’s rendering. If O. Henry’s story provided the essential cutting from which Johnson’s grew, the root of that allusion most likely lies in the Spanish name of Porter’s plant, which applied to Johnson’s “The Cactus” would add a deeper, creepier resonance to the tale’s sexual subtext.

As a resident of the U.S. American Southwest, I should at this point interject some factual remarks about the iconic saguaro. Although I often encounter souvenir merchandise from locales here in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau emblazoned with saguaros, their actual range is restricted to the Sonoran Desert, which means they occur naturally only in the southern portions of Arizona and California and the Mexican state of Sonora. Johnson sets her tale “about a hundred miles from Chihuahua,” which would place her crater and her cacti solidly within the state of Chihuahua (whose eponymous capital lies near its center) and the Chihuahuan Desert, whose flora are distinct from those of the warmer Sonoran zone to the west. Technically then, her cactus cannot be a saguaro. “The Cactus” is further distinguished by “liverish” flowers—saguaro flowers are white—and by two decidedly un-saguaro-esque “spikes” protruding from its crown. Whether Johnson’s botanical knowledge was significant enough for her to make these distinctions deliberately must also remain an enigma, but the spikes in particular—and her emphasis on them—suggest she meant her cactus to be something distinctly other.

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The cover of Weird Tales, Jan. 1950, which included “The Cactus.”

Edith’s cutting thrives, as does Abby’s in L.A., though in both cases men all find it repugnant. We learn via letters that Abby’s husband Robert develops a bona fide hostility toward this vegetal intruder in his home, while Edith’s handyman Mr. Krakaur tolerates her specimen, though he proclaims it “Stinks like a goat.”

As much as social mobility was shaking up in the postwar era, the lives of American women remained highly constrained c. 1950, and their available hobbies were few. Cultivating exotic plants was one socially acceptable and popular option. I recall clearly my maternal grandmother’s collections of both cacti and African violets, both of which I referenced in my story “Do You Like to Look at Monsters?” Her violet collection extended over two long walls of her cellar, while her cacti were amassed in the children’s playroom, some suspending their tentacular arms down the front of her piano. In retrospect, it seems a miracle that neither I nor any of my cousins ever had an adverse encounter with any of these spiny beasts.

My grandmother, who never learned to drive, had her violets and her cacti, and in summer, her zinnias. Edith, abandoned by her husband Ted, has her cacti. Johnson may be offering some social critique here, some satire even, though it is submerged as subtext.

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This panel from “Green Horror” illustrates the adversarial relationship between man and cactus.

If Mildred Johnson wrote under a pseudonym, I believe she was a woman nonetheless. I remember the Tiptree fiasco and refrain from any absolute assertion, but Tiptree often wrote from perspectives either male or ambiguous, which allowed her masculine counterparts to convince themselves of the truth they desired. Johnson seems to make a deliberate effort to share a female perspective and a feminine critique.

Abby’s letters meanwhile keep Edith informed of Robert’s increasing and irrational hostility toward the fast-growing plant. Eventually a call comes from the Burdens’ distraught daughter Nancy. With his wife’s grudging permission Robert had attempted to destroy the disturbing interloper with fire, only to have the burning upper half break free and “leap” upon him, impaling him on its spikes. Nancy relates the fate of a father lying dead and disfigured, and the final conscious warning of a mother now bedridden and sedated—the default treatment for women in those days. Heavy sedatives were such a common prescription for American women during that generation—remember “Mother’s Little Helper”—that it is difficult to decide whether Johnson intended this as critique or just the offhand depiction of everyday reality.

Edith gives in to her own trepidations at this point and takes action. Yet fate is fate, and she can only delay her own final confrontation with the cactus.

41AVGumqp-LIf “The Cactus” is not a great story, it is still a good one, even an important one, and it deserves an audience. Its subtle—perhaps unintentional—critique of the weird plant trope from a female perspective is memorable. In her tale the weird plant is transposed from a man-eating vegetable in some exotic jungle location to a simple cactus in a domestic setting, a setting that allows a proto-feminist critique, implicit if not deliberate. The extent to which such a critique is intended matters little: it is comprehensible, and it is valid. Whether or not Johnson embedded this consciously or whether it arose as a natural byproduct of her gender lens must remain an enigma. Like “It!” and “Slime,” her tale of transplanted cacti had satisfactory pizzazz to inspire at least one uncredited theft and just enough reprints to preserve it from almost total oblivion.

“The Cactus” is available at no cost online, but for those who prefer physical books, the volume 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories is not that hard to come by, and readers of this series will likely find much to interest them in that collection.

Of course, Stories From the Borderland is a collaborative project, and my partner Michael Bukowski’s illustration of “the cactus” may be seen simply by following this link.

Next week we dip back into Weird Tales for the pulpy narrative of a relentless antagonist and his slippery pursuit, a tale that inspired two sequels and a cover. Soggy as this story may seem today, it hit like a tiny tidal wave in its time.

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