Scott Nicolay

Ana Kai Tangata

Tag: stories from the borderland (page 1 of 2)

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.

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…

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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.

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).

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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.

Stories from the Borderland #10: “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell and “The Crawling Horror” by Thorp McClusky

AVONFR61948 “We must make friends with the many-tentacled alien idea.”
—John H. Lienhard, “Medicine and Maggots”

Hardly a week goes by without at least one reference to John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing appearing in my Facebook feed. No other film has wound its way so deeply into the collective psyche of the quirky amorphous Weird Fiction community that comprises the largest single segment of my social network. Although Carpenter’s film is essentially a science fiction film in its elements and a work of horror in its structure, a powerful consensus clearly exists that it constitutes the finest and purest exemplar of The Weird in cinema. Interestingly its closest rivals to this title, Alien (1979) and Phase IV (1974), are also science fiction/horror hybrids. This aspect of The Weird’s manifestation on the screen deserves further exploration…but not right now, not while we have other dark fissures to explore.

Carpenter’s vision is indeed masterful—a potent combination of gritty claustrophobic realism and cosmic horror, fueled by unforgettable old school special effects and note perfect editing, and driven by the performances of a cast who look like they were vat-grown for their roles, all framed within a relentless stripped down story worthy of the very best noir.

ASF38-08-0061Yet Carpenter’s The Thing is actually the third of four cinematic transformations of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella “Who Goes There?” (which Campbell originally published early in his own editorial tenure at Astounding under his sometime pseudonym Don A. Stuart). The original appearance of “Who Goes There?” on the big screen came in 1951, in Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World.

"The Thing from Another World" (1951)

“The Thing from Another World” (1951)

Today this early film version seems an inferior copy beside Carpenter’s take, and continues to draw criticism for its reduction of the original novella’s amorphous shape-shifting menace to an ambulatory vampiric vegetable instead. However, it remains genuinely creepy and effective, and it certainly affected me when I saw it as a child: the scene in which the Thing breaks into the base and the crew attack it with fire while Margaret Sheridan hides behind a mattress propped against the wall gave me one of my first recurring nightmares. The 1951 incarnation of The Thing may be an inferior copy, but it still contains a substantial dose of the original story’s DNA.

HorrorexpressCampbell’s tale next manifested on the screen in an almost unrecognizable form—the 1972 film Horror Express, which reset the story as a period piece aboard the Trans-Siberian Express c. 1906. Though the creature in this heavily Hammer-influenced version begins as a frozen anthropomorph, it ultimately manifests as a psychic shapeshifter, an essentially non-corporeal entity with the ability to absorb the memories and personality of its victims—and to mimic them. Thus despite massive differences, a key element of Campbell’s take is restored. Horror Express is another favorite of my youth. I can still remember the surprise and pleasure my father and I shared at its unusually dark and unexpected twists.

A decade later, Carpenter’s transformation returned The Thing to its roots, emphasizing the creature’s ability to create distrust and paranoia as it slowly assimilates and imitates the crew of an isolated Antarctic outpost. Parallels to the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States are obvious to anyone who was young and sexually active during the ‘80s—the paranoia and suspicion, the avoidance of physical contact, the constant concern about who was with who when. This subtext is brought to the fore in the film’s brilliant and unforgettable blood test scene. I have said before that The Weird serves well as a vehicle to engage with social issues, and Carpenter provided an ideal demonstration in The Thing.

CLRKSWRLDM2010Three decades after Carpenter’s version a prequel lurched across the screen, really almost a reboot of the 1982 film, though it also revived elements of the 1951 version. In the Jan. 2010 issue of ClarkesworldPeter Watts published a noteworthy “response” to “Who Goes There?” (and Carpenter’s film) in the tradition of Jean RhysThe Wide Sargasso Sea, retelling the story from the perspective of the alien and making it simultaneously more sympathetic, more tragic, and more horrific. There have also been comic book and radio adaptations, video games and action figures, along with countless parodies. Campbell’s vision, mostly in the form it took from Carpenter, has become part of our cultural psyche. The Thing has spread almost as widely as Blair feared, if not as quickly. Considering the way Hollywood currently operates, how long will it be before The Thing returns to the screen once more in yet another form? There is a saying that each generation has its Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps each generation will have its Thing as well. [My partner in the Stories From the Borderland project, artist Michael Bukowski, offers the definitive Thing for our time at his blog here

I am not normally one to praise or encourage remakes, sequels, prequels, or even adaptations of literary works. I would rather the cinema leave well enough alone. The problem with the 2011 version of The Thing however, is not its lack of originality. Carpenter’s version, celebrated as a truer copy, was already a twice-removed copy of the adaptation of a written work. Nor was Campbell’s novella itself necessarily so original as most readers think.

Writers in the Western World today struggle to navigate between the Scylla of artistic originality and the Charybdis of commerciality, which demands the repetition of successful formulae. While capitulation to the commercial produces homogenization, the blind worship of originality engenders an endless vomitus of shallow gimmickry. These internal tensions did not always run so deep, however.

whogoesthere-fantasypressConsider the two most influential and iconic authors in the entire Western Canon: Homer and Shakespeare. Neither showed much concern for originality, nor did their audiences demand it. Homer rewove and retold stories already centuries old by his time. Shakespeare drew his dramatic narratives from sources readily available during the Elizabethan Renaissance, most notably Holinshed’s Chronicles (it is interesting to note that his only two plays without obvious primary sources are the two with the most supernatural elements: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest). For Shakespeare and Homer, and for countless storytellers from traditional cultures, originality has never been the goal. They sought instead to tell a known story well.

Of course Shakespeare and Homer worked in far earlier times than ours, subject to different commercial imperatives, and they worked in performative media, which serves a different set of necessities than print. Today we most often encounter their work in written form, but the Iliad, the Odyssey, and all of Shakespeare’s plays were composed for the spoken word rather than the page. They have been recast and recreated–and in Homer’s case, retranslated—by each generation since, so that the works we now know are no longer the originals, nor have they been for some time, like old master paintings retouched so many times the actual brushstrokes lie buried layers beneath the surface.

who goes there-classicsillThe cult of originality expanded and spread with the growth of print media. Gutenberg predated Shakespeare by more than a century, which meant the Bard would live to see many of his plays pirated multiple times in print. The commodification of the written word is largely a product of the Renaissance, but its long evolution took on new life with modern copyright laws, a point driven home to the Weird Fiction community in 2014 by accusations that True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto had plagiarized Thomas Ligotti (legally, he did not plagiarize—he simply appropriated Ligotti’s ideas wholesale, which is apparent from the precise care he took never to use more than two consecutive words from the Grimscribe’s work in the passages he lifted).

The intensity of this fixation on originality and influence in literature achieved an apogee (or nadir?) in 1973 with critic Harold Bloom’s ridiculous The Anxiety of Influence, in which he cast the poet as a figure locked in oedipal conflict with her/his precursors. Bloom placed Shakespeare at the pinnacle of his formulation of the Western Canon, so high that no other writer can approach regardless of the depth of his/her struggle. Despite the membrane that generally separates genre and mainstream literature, we should not underestimate the penetration of Bloom’s influence into our own understanding of literary lineages in Weird Fiction: he mentored H.P. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi for a full decade, and it is easy to see Bloom’s ideas replicated and writ small in Joshi’s own miniature canon of The Weird, with Lovecraft instead of Shakespeare positioned at its imaginary yet unreachable apex.

Of course Bloom and Joshi’s model is that of the critic, not the artist, and many writers envision their relationship to their precursors differently. Last August, author John Langan presented an alternate model in a blog post that saw widespread sharing on social media. For Langan, those writers both living and dead with whose work his own maintains a dialogue, are not frightening father figures, but friends: “…the Lovecrafts and the Kings and the Barrons, are in fact allies. Their work is a testament of faith to the field in which I work.” 

TAVONFR1969Against this background of anxiety and complexity, alliances and imitation, let us return to the presumptive original model of the Thing, John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There.” First published in the August 1938 issue of Astounding, the novella went on to become one of the most celebrated stories in all of Weird Fiction. But how “original” was Campbell’s tale? Did he work alone, or did he have allies of his own—and if he did, who were they?

One obvious prototype for WGT was another novella published in Astounding just two years before Campbell’s tale and only one year before Campbell himself took over the editorship of that same magazine. H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” which ran as a serial in the February, March, and April 1936 issues (only a year before Lovecraft’s death) contains both shapeshifting monsters and an Antarctic setting. But Lovecraft never depicts his amoebic shoggoths as capable of assuming human form, an ability they did not acquire until four decades later with the late Michael Sheas 1987 novella “Fat Face.”

Lovecraft in turn had his own “allies” in the creation of “At the Mountains of Madness.” Although his tale makes explicit reference to Poe’s 1838 “novel” of Antarctic horror, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a much more obvious prototype appeared less than a year before. Weird Tales originally published “In Amundsen’s Tent,” John Martin Leahy’s tale of aliens and the Antarctic, in January 1928, then reprinted it in August 1935, just prior to the publication of Lovecraft’s novella. Despite its heavy hand with melodrama and cliché, “In Amundsen’s Tent” likely offered varying degrees of inspiration for both “At the Mountains of Madness” and “Who Goes There.” Together the three stories present a triptych of weird Antarctic horror, all published (or republished) within a tight three year window.

The shared Antarctic setting of these three tales of malevolent aliens makes their possible connections obvious. Elizabeth Leane’s excellent study “Locating the Thing: The Antarctic as Space Alien in John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There” (Science Fiction Studies. Volume 32, Issue 2, July 2005: 225-239), explores the important role of this setting as it culminates in Campbell’s novella, going so far as to consider the Thing itself as a manifestation of the frozen continent’s protean and hostile environment.

Weird_Tales_November_1936This Antarctic setting is only a device however, one that allows access to what Leane describes as the last “isolated space” of the Twentieth Century. Though essential to Leahy, Lovecraft, and Campbell as a source of both atmosphere and plot, setting is not the focus of their stories. All three narratives are creature stories first and polar stories second, and this distraction has led to one of Campbell’s likely major “allies” being all but forgotten. He never had to “thaw” this creature out—in his time it still lay right on the surface.

Thorp McClusky (1906-1975) published his first story, “Loot of the Vampire,” in the June 1936 issue of Weird Tales—the same month in which Robert E. Howard died. The story was a hit with readers, and with Howard gone and an ailing Lovecraft soon to follow, editor Farnsworth Wright briefly looked to McClusky as a potential new mainstay, especially after his second story, “The Crawling Horror,” in November 1936, proved just as popular as his first. It is this latter story we must watch closely.

Consider again the chronology of relevant publications within the three year window prior to the first printing of “Who Goes There,” which is the period during which John W. Campbell must have composed his tale.

Aug. 1935

In Amundsen’s Tent (reprint)

John Martin Leahy

Weird Tales

Feb.-Apr. 1936

At the Mountains of Madness

H.P. Lovecraft

Astounding

Nov. 1936

The Crawling Horror

Thorp McClusky

Weird Tales

Aug. 1938

Who Goes There?

Don A. Stuart, AKA

John W. Campbell, Jr.

Astounding

Observe “The Crawling Horror” lurking hitherto unnoticed in the lineup of Campbell’s recognized influences. Is this timing just coincidence, or could “Who Goes There?” actually have absorbed some part of McClusky’s tale?

“The Crawling Horror” is no narrative of Antarctic isolation and horror. McClusky set his story in a simple rural farmhouse, the home of one Hans Ludwig Brubaker, and for a brief time, his wife Hilda. The setting is pastoral, but something is amiss even before Hilda marries Hans and takes up residence in the farmhouse. The problem unfolds as Hans shares his story with Doctor Kurt, beginning when he heard the sound of something preying on the rats in the walls.

Once all the rats are gone, something happens to Hans’ cat. And then to his dogs. Hans finally sees the creature in its primary form when it attempts to absorb one of his dogs: “…a slimy sort of stuff, transparent looking, without any shape to it.” Although he is initially able to repel the thing, it soon finishes with his dogs and moves on to his neighbors…and eventually to Hilda, leading to a You-gotta-be-fuckin’-kidding scene that remains shocking even by the standards of Carpenter’s version two generations later.

CNTRYSBSTH2004“The Crawling Horror” managed several reprints and even an Italian translation between 1948 and 1969, then languished until John Pelan revived it in the first volume of his 2012 anthology The Century’s Best Horror Fiction [and it is Pelan once again whom I must thank for bringing the tale to my attention].

As far back as 1948, editor Donald A. Wollheim had no trouble recognizing the relationship between McClusky’s story and “Who Goes There?” in the brief introduction he gave the story in the Avon Fantasy Reader, No. 6. Wollheim however, seemed more concerned with classifying the shapeshifting creatures of both stories as some new sort of archetype rather than exploring any relationship between them. Unable to associate them with any existing creature, he proposed the label “vombis,” a term no doubt appropriated from Clark Ashton Smith’s May 1932 Weird Tales story “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” Yet Smith’s monsters, though squishy and boneless, are not true shapeshifters, conforming more to the trope of the mind-controlling parasites. Associating them with The Thing and the Crawling Horror seems a bit of a…stretch. Of course this lineage reappears in Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters, which most certainly also draws on “Who Goes There?”…and from there on to Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers and another cultural infestation with its own four film versions.

bodysnatchers-finneyAs Pelan points out, McClusky’s tale may even be one model for the 1958 film The Blob, which has itself spawned both a sequel and a remake, as well as 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The primary inspiration for the 1958 film however, likely came from Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Slime,” the topic of our very first installment of Stories From the Borderland. . The Weird’s lineage of amoebic blobs runs from the Shoggoth and McClusky’s Crawling Horror to Brennan on out through generations of film and fiction, with director Rob Zombie reported to be working on a second remake of The Blob even now.

Ultimately, most all stories reveal partially digested bits of other stories under a strong enough microscope, and it seems only right for Weird Fiction writers to absorb each other’s work in one way or another. Clearly, “Who Goes there?” is one of those knotenpunkte of Weird Fiction that has devoured its predecessors and spawned copies on a Shakespearean level. But what of “The Crawling Horror”? Though all but forgotten, McClusky’s eighty year old creeper may have replicated itself not only in “Who Goes There?” but “Slime” and The Blob as well. If so, it has embedded itself far more deeply in our culture than Campbell’s tale alone…and it has done so virtually right under our noses. Which story then was more successful in its viral spread? Even Blair never saw this one coming.

THVNTSTPRT1990I will even suggest that “The Crawling Horror” has at least one more significant line of propagation: consider the scenario of a malevolent entity stalking an isolated farmhouse, replacing first the household cat, then the wife, and finally the husband. Does this not also describe another essential novella of Weird Fiction? Originally published in 1972 in From Beyond the Dark Gateway #2 and repeatedly revised since? Set near Flemington, NJ, barely thirty miles from my own hometown? The story that taught me that New Jersey was every bit as good a setting for Weird Fiction as New England or Antarctica?

ceremonies-kleinI think I can see “The Crawling Horror” peering out through the eyes of T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm,” the seminal Weird Fiction novella that provided the basis for Klein’s only novel, The Ceremonies. Each story gives me a strong déjà vu of the other, and of course “The Events at Poroth Farm” is replete with references to earlier works of Weird Fiction, each of which it echoes and internalizes. Though Klein never mentions either McClusky or his story by name, he was very much “a student of the game,” as John Pelan, would say. If anyone remembered “The Crawling Horror” in 1972, it was likely Klein.

If this is the case, “The Crawling Horror” still survives, barely remembered yet supplying large parts of the genetic code for three of the most essential novellas in all Weird Fiction. Few still read Holinshed’s Chronicles today either, but it is with us in Shakespeare always. Though it may be the better told stories whose titles we retain, certain ideas possess a hidden life force of their own, walking among us in altered form, undying and unnoticed. Who really knows what lurks beneath the surface of our literary ecosystem? Watch the stories, and watch them close.

terrortalesThis is the final installment in our second series of Stories From the Borderland, and to conclude it, artist Michael Bukowski is set to infect you with an illustration of the moment in “The Crawling Horror” right before things get really disgusting here.

Stories From the Borderland may be finished for now, but if you’re following our efforts, you need not despair. Michael and I will be back with five new episodes starting in June, kicking off with a story by an author who only published two stories, both in Weird Tales. One was a decent but fairly conventional ghost story, but the other—the one Michael and I plan to showcase, is one of the great weird plant stories—and Michael and I both love weird plant stories. As always, if you can guess the title of the story in advance, you might win a prize. That prize might be a signed book, or it might be that Michael and I will allow you retain your original identity for a few months once we have assimilated the rest of the planet. Who knows? We might even keep you around for a pet.

Stories from the Borderland #9: “Feesters in the Lake” by Bob Leman

feesters-midnighthouseSeveral years ago John Pelan and I were shooting pool at Sammy C’s in Gallup, New Mexico. As usual, he was running the table, and also as usual we were shooting the shit about Weird Fiction. I put forth the proposition that H.P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre really only offered at most half a dozen or so genuinely great stories, and after that the drop-off comes on steep as the continental shelf—for the record, my picks are “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Outsider,” and maybe “The Music of Erich Zann.” I’m open to a discussion of “Pickman’s Model,” “The Festival,” and maybe a few others, but that’s pretty much it.

I went on to suggest that Clark Ashton Smith had the best batting average in Weird Fiction, at which point John immediately countered with Bob Leman, who was then only recently deceased. Leman, he said, not only never wrote a bad story, he never even wrote one that was less than a home run. I knew Leman’s work at the time, but not well. I confess I had only read “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” in the May 1984 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The titular allusion to one of my favorite science fiction writers alone ensured I could never forget that one.

FCTNBFXDZF1982I take John’s recommendations seriously—it was he who first tipped me off to Aickman, Birkin, and Jean Ray two decades ago—so I began delving further into Bob Leman’s works and life and unusual authorial trajectory. He began writing rather late in life, at 44, about the same age I first made a serious commitment to fiction. Multiple sources confirm that Leman took this step primarily to prove to himself he could do it—and do it better than most of the writers he was reading at the time. He also sought to stake out an aesthetic position in contrast to Science Fiction’s New Wave, which he held in low esteem. In retrospect his attitude seems somewhat ironic, given that his last published story was originally earmarked for Harlan Ellison’s doomed Last Dangerous Visions anthology, intended as the final installment in a series that showcased the New Wave. Leman, alas, was among the many authors who died without seeing “the book on the edge of forever” come to fruition (according to current tallies, at least one third of the authors whose work Ellison accepted for LDV are now deceased).

Bob Leman is like the Babe Ruth of Weird Fiction, pointing into the bleachers behind right field every time he steps up to the plate. Which is to say he often as not hits the ball over the left field fence instead. You may think you know what he’s swinging for, but even after he’s connected with the ball he stills seems able to make it zig and zag over the fielders’ heads in the air. A Bob Leman story never traverses familiar routes, even when it begins on familiar ground.

bob-leman-sliderI love the way Laird Barron sometimes reboots old stories, melting down their raw materials and rearranging them in fresh new forms while still leaving recognizable hints of the prototypes exposed, like faces of old coins and pagan deities still faintly visible on the surface of shining new ingots. “The Dunwich Horror” yields to “Hallucigenia.” “The Shadow Out of Time” gives us “The Forest.” And “The Whisperer in Darkness” finds new life in “The Broadsword.” In each case Barron either equals or improves on the quality of the original, and the final product always emerges as something uniquely his own, no matter how many Easter eggs of its predecessor it engulfs in the process.

Obviously Laird is not the first to engage in this kind of dialogue with Lovecraft and/or earlier Weird Fiction authors. We all transmute the blessings of our predecessors in our work. However, the largely one-to-one relationship between and recasting of stories that Laird has executed so well is far less frequent, and when it comes to the endlessly imitated Lovecraft, I would say Laird’s several forays in this direction are the best but for one: Bob Leman’s novelette “Feesters in the Lake.”

“Feesters,” of course, is Leman’s take on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Many of the elements of the earlier tale recur: the narrator whose connection to events seems oblique at first only to deepen over the course of the story, the origin of the pisciform humanoids on a tropical island, a family curse, and a sinister sea captain. Obed Marsh becomes Elihu Feester, and Uncle Caleb plays an expository role at first analogous to Zadok Allen, though Caleb is better educated and far more articulate.

Leman establishes all these elements right at the outset, and once they are in place he zooms in on a single character, a narrative focus that parallels the journey of Captain Feester departing his New England port town for inland Goster County, the setting of nearly half of Leman’s tales. It’s easy to picture the grizzled captain toting an oar over his shoulder and selecting his new home only after someone mistakes it for a winnowing fan.

FSF_0353Leman first published “Feesters in the Lake” in the October 1980 issue of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which publication first printed thirteen of his fifteen stories. The tale saw several reprints over the next two years, then languished for two decades until Jim Rockhill and John Pelan republished it along with the rest of Leman’s short fiction in a limited edition collection from Midnight House, now quite rare. A version of Rockhill’s insightful intro to that volume is free to read online however, here.  Meanwhile Rockhill continues to serve as Leman’s tireless champion, and he recently informed me that he and Pelan are working on a new Leman collection from Centipede Press. This new edition will be both revised and expanded, including one additional previously unpublished story as well as Leman’s hitherto unpublished (and sadly unfinished) novel.

Though “Feesters” incorporates many elements of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” it is no pastiche. Whereas Lovecraft belabored his effort with broad exposition, Leman constrains his narrative to the biography of Uncle Caleb…and that of the Feesters in the lake. The two tales become very different. While Lovecraft diminishes the significance of humanity, Leman thrusts it into the spotlight for an agonizing deconstruction. Perhaps the latter approach takes us deeper and darker places.

When you come up for air, visit artist Michael Bukowski’s blog page for his interpretation of one of the far-gone Feesters.  This image might make you uncomfortable, but I consider that a sign that Michael has done his job well—and he always does. Keep in mind this one depicts something once human.

Nest week Michael and I are finally going to cover “Who Goes There.” Except we’re not. Originality is overrated, and all things absorb other things. Our next featured story is the dog with which “Who Goes There” spent a little too much time alone. Guess the title in advance and you might win a prize.

Stories from the Borderland #8: “Horrer Howce” by Margaret St. Clair

stclairbestMargaret St. Clair seems poised on the edge of rediscovery. Certainly few writers in speculative fiction are more deserving of a revival—or more undeservedly neglected. I know I am not alone in thinking this way, as the VanderMeers included her work in both The Weird and the forthcoming The Big Book of Science Fiction. She receives cover billing on the latter, sixth in a list of eleven, above Philip K. Dick, Ted Chiang, and other brighter draws. Since she is hardly well enough known to serve as a draw, one might interpret their editorial intent as an effort to reestablish her name, half a century past her heyday. Perhaps the revival has already begun.

Who was Margaret St. Clair? The available details of her biography provide barely more than an outline. Feminist, Wiccan, she wrote and published freely in the postwar era, which was very much a man’s world. She employed two pseudonyms, Idris Seabright and Wilton Hazzard, but the first is obviously feminine and she rarely used the latter. She is most often remembered today for two stories: the oft-anthologized “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles,” easily the best Dunsany pastiche ever, and “Brenda.”

“Brenda” is a story in the long lineage of muck men and swamp monsters, which runs back as far as H.R. Wakefield’s 1928 “The Red Lodge,” but explodes after Theodore Sturgeon’s “It” in 1940. “It” is the cousin of Joseph Payne Brennan‘s “Slime” (Stories from the Borderland #1) and the immediate ancestor of The Heap.” Heap in turn inspired Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Bugs Bunny’s interesting nemesis Gossamer, and at least a dozen others. My personal favorite appeared in the fifth issue of the original MAD comic magazine in 1953, where the origin of Heap provides the parody within a parody of the old radio series Inner Sanctum.

mad005-outersanctum-heap“Brenda” focuses not so much on its muck man however, as on its titular character, a young girl nearly as singular and unpleasant as the foul-smelling creature she encounters in the woods. It’s a good story, one of St. Clair’s creepier works, and definitely weird, but the reason it is well remembered is it was adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in 1971. One of the weirder and more memorable episodes, in fact, if not up to the iconic status of “The Caterpillar.”

Michael Bukowski, my partner in this project, found so much inspiration in St. Clair’s work that he felt compelled to offer two illustrations with this installment, so you can see an image of Brenda’s rotten-smelling man at his blog [link], along with a creature from the story that is our actual subject this week. If you have seen the Night Gallery episode, you will see that Michael chose to present the creature as he appears in the original story, a humanoid muck man, rather than the TV version, an amorphous and leafy swamp monster that defaults back to The Heap…and looks suspiciously like the basis for Sid and Marty Krofft’s Sigmund and the Sea Monsters two years later. But “Brenda” is only a prelim. Let us move on to this week’s main attraction.

ng4

A scene from The Night Gallery episode of “Brenda.” The TV version, an amorphous and leafy swamp monster, defaults back to The Heap.

Michael and I recently discussed how much we enjoy all the unexpected connections we encounter while researching the stories for this series. We approach most of these stories as relatively simple, pulpy, and isolated tales, and before we are done, we find them embedded in webs of references and relations. This has been a surprise for us as well as a reward.

galaxy_195607Allusion comes immediate and explicit in “Horrer Howce,” right in the opening paragraph, as Dickson-Hawes, one of only two speaking characters in the story, first mentions Yeats by name then loosely quotes—or rather misquotes—“The Second Coming,” referencing a “monstrous beast” rather than a “rough beast.” The investor’s inspiration for this poetic outburst came from what he saw beyond a small panel in the wall, a “monstrous womb, alone on the seashore, slowly swelling.” The womb and whatever he saw emerge from it comprised one of Freeman’s under-development attractions for a nationwide series of horror houses Dickson-Hawes is planning.

I am tempted to consider this peephole vision of a faceless feminine form as another allusion, to Marcel Duchamp’s final masterpiece, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage (for which I was once ejected by security from the Philadelphia Museum of Art after sneaking in to view while the exhibit was closed), but Duchamp’s assemblage made no public appearance until 1969, while St. Clair’s story first appeared in the July 1956 issue of Galaxy. Any resemblance must be coincidence unless she had some personal relationship with Duchamp. Possible, but in so far as I know, undocumented. Synchronicity is all. We run into a lot of that here too.

Dickson-Hawes decides to pass on this potential feature however, despite its obviously powerful effect on him, forcing Freeman to extend the tour to other projects, less polished and more…dangerous. Safety railings in Freeman’s funhouse attractions seem as scant as those in the Star Wars universe, and he feels the need to admonish his client multiple times to keep his voice down so as not to disturb the delicate “machinery” of the attractions. Freeman implies there have been “incidents” in the past.

“What happens if I keep leaning over? Or if I drop pebbles down on it?”

“It’ll come out at you.”

weird_tales_195403

Weird Tales, March 1954, which included “Brenda.”

As the two men advance from “The Well” to the “Horrer Howce” their conversation reveals more of the economic dynamics between them. Despite his almost otherworldly skill with electronics: “Particularly radio and signaling devices. Relays. Communication problems, you might say,” Freeman is up against a wall. He has a “political past,” and Dickson-Hawes is his last potential buyer. A political past suggests Freeman ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and found himself blackballed. The McCarthy hearings were barely two years concluded when St. Clair first published “Horrer Howce,” and the witch hunts still reverberated through the American psyche (the HUAC itself continued as a standing committee until 1975). To complicate Freeman’s position further, Dickson-Hawes is his only remaining potential buyer.

Much of St. Clair’s best work—and her weirdest work—engages in a potent critique of postwar American society, with an emphasis on the rampant consumer culture that took off during that era and has dominated our society ever since. In stories such as “Gnoles,” “Horrer Howce,” and “An Egg a Month From All Over,” she satirized the same mercantile values as the cable series Mad Men, but it is “Horrer Howce” that most simply and elegantly demonstrates how the crosshairs of political oppression and cutthroat capitalism can drive a person to open strange doors. She uses The Weird as a tool for social criticism in much the same way, and with the same targets, that Philip K. Dick would do a decade later in his own weird masterpiece The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

220px-TheThreeStigmataOfPalmerEldritch(1stEd)St. Clair began the story with a long finger pointed directly at “The Second Coming.” Returning to Yeats’ poem after one has read all of “Horrer Howce,” this couplet inevitably leaps out:

Mere Anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

Whether or not Freeman makes his sale, doors are now open that should have stayed closed. But an entrepreneur with his special skills at “communication” can find customers on either side.

Please keep as quiet as possible as you go through this next door, where Michael Bukowski is waiting to introduce you to the Voom: http://yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com/2016/04/voom.html. Say hello, shake hands. You pays your money, you takes your chance.

There are fish stories, and there are fishy stories. Please join us again next week, when our fourth episode in the second series of Stories From the Borderland brings you a story that’s plenty of both, by an author who, like me, began publishing late. One of the last dangerous visionaries, you might say, whose brief career left barely more than a dozen stories, though every one of them is razor sharp. Guess the answer, win a prize. Come on in, the water’s fine.

Stories From the Borderland #7: “A Walk in the Dark” by Arthur C. Clarke

tws8I was lucky enough to grow up only a few blocks from my hometown’s public library. By the time I was eight or nine and allowed to cross Middlebrook’s busy main street on my own, I became as frequent a visitor there as my father. My family was so familiar to the regular librarians that they never had to look up our number when we checked out books. By the Sixth Grade I had graduated to the adult sections, and I became a habitué of that one aisle just past the entrance on the right, where all the books on one side were marked with blue cloth tags depicting a pipe-smoking mustachioed sleuth, while those opposite bore white squares emblazoned with a red rocketship at the nucleus of a lithium atom.

I plundered both sides of that aisle, never forgetting the blue flags sometimes concealed genuine horror amidst the drawing room mysteries (Hitch—or more properly, Robert Arthur, Jr.—you were a good and true friend), but the volumes flying the flag of the rocket were my focus. I sometimes spent as much as an hour making my selections, and once an author found my favor, I would mine her/his oeuvre as far as the collection permitted. For a period in junior high I dedicated myself to Arthur C. Clarke, reading several novels and at least four entire collections. Oddly, the only one of Clarke’s short stories I can recall with any clarity—other than “The Sentinel,” which I have since taught—is “A Walk in the Dark” (audio version  here).

Given my tastes, this is perhaps not so odd. And approaching Clarke through this one tale provides an interesting alternative to the usual biographical emphasis on his penchant for orbital calculations and similar trappings of the hard science school of science fiction. Although Clarke wrote little horror per se, many of his major works blurred the line between sensawunda and cosmic horror, especially “The Sentinel,” 2001, and Rendezvous With Rama.

richard-powers_reach-for-tomorrow_ny-ballantine-1963This consideration has led me to an interesting conjecture. I have written elsewhere about how The Weird possesses a history equal to or greater than most of the established genres, yet it has only recently begun to differentiate itself. For decades much of the best Weird Fiction buried itself in science fiction, fantasy, and conventional horror. The Weird only really began to emerge as a discrete phenomenon around the turn of the last century. My conversations with Michael Kelly and others who take a big picture view of The Weird have emphasized its essential indefinability, despite its considerable longevity. Could it be the postwar division of genre fiction in the Anglophone world actually stifled or delayed the emergence of The Weird, that The Weird had thus to await the Small Press Boom that coincided more or less with the fin de siècle? This is far too large a topic to tackle here, but my wheels are spinning, and “A Walk in the Dark” seems an excellent example of the way many great Weird Tales from much of the last century are hidden within other genres, an idea that has become an ongoing theme of this series.

Though Clarke hailed from the U.K., I see hints in his tale of two classic American short stories, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I have repeatedly mentioned the former as one of the finest examples of cosmic horror without any supernatural element, and the latter is pocket master class in establishing dread.

As simple as these stories are however, Clarke’s tale is simpler yet. On a planet at the edge of the galaxy, Armstrong must travel four miles in almost absolute dark. His vehicle has quit on him, his flashlight has also failed, the planet is at the galaxy’s edge so its sky is short on stars. Armstrong decides he can make it safely though. The planet is uninhabited, barren. It supports no known life forms to harass him. The road is distinct beneath his boots. All he needs to do is follow it without a major fall in order to reach his destination and his departing flight. A simplified version of the hard science scenario: reason overcomes the atavistic fear of the dark.

clarke-rftClarke is essentially telling a campfire tale, and its motifs are likely as old as the most ancient conjunction of campfires and tales. I am sure if I knew my Stith Thompson better I could identify the precise motifs and explore their other known occurrences. Haunted forests. Mountain passes. All this has happened before, right here on Earth, but none of it means a wit to Armstrong. He has crisscrossed the galaxy multiple times…and seen strange and terrifying things. And his struggle is his alone. No space dog accompanies him, no love triangle distracts him. He desires only to reach the spaceport before the Canopus departs so he can leave this dismal world forever

Port Sanderson, the name of his destination, is almost certainly an Easter egg, a reference to Ivan T. Sanderson, the early New Jersey cryptologist and exotic animal wrangler who provides a bridge between Charles Fort and Loren Coleman. By the time Clarke wrote “A Walk in the Dark,” Sanderson had already achieved some degree of fame–or infamy–thanks to his claimed encounter with a kongamato in Africa. The kongamato is reputed to be a large bat-like creature, a sort of Congolese Jersey Devil (Sanderson’s account of the kongamato attack also bears an interesting resemblance to the H.G. Wells story “In the Avu Observatory,” one of our earliest weird cryptozoological tales). If Clarke was name-checking Sanderson, as seems likely, he is hinting this may be a cryptid story. Of course, “Cryptid” is a more recent coinage—terms like “unknown creature” and “hidden animal” had more currency in 1950—and they fit the story even better.

photo (6)This possibility is quickly validated via Armstrong’s flashback to an old clerk’s story of the time something followed him from Carver’s Pass in the darkness, keeping always just beyond the beam of his flashlight, its presence distinguished only by the “chitinous” clicking sounds it made. This passage recalls the flashback in “To Build a Fire,” wherein the old-timer on Sulphur Creek offers advice to the story’s unnamed chechaquo protagonist. Like the chechaquo, Armstrong scoffed at the old-timer’s tale. Only that tale doesn’t seem so funny now, alone in the dark with four miles to go, and Carver’s Pass still between him and Port Sanderson.

Armstrong quickly shoves the old clerk’s campfire tale out of his mind. The planet is lifeless, his only enemies in the darkness are time and irrational fear. Except…the plant-beings of Xantil Major…except the life forms of Trantor Beta…except the massive rock out beyond Carver’s Pass, that massive rock near the entrance to a mysterious tunnel, larger than all the rest, that massive rock worn down as if “used as an enormous whetstone.” Except he doesn’t have a working flashlight like the old clerk.

Armstrong skirts the pass without incident. From there on all his dread becomes focused behind. He expects each moment to hear the chitinous clicks of giant claws at his back. But the sound never comes. What a relief the lights of Port Sanderson provide when poor Armstrong at last rounds the final bend and sees them a mere few hundred yards ahead. What a relief they provide…don’t they?

Don’t they?

I will never forget finishing this tale forty years ago, and having to remind myself it was daytime, and that I was still on Earth.

Now hurry on over to Michael Bukowski’s blog [link: http://yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-thing-in-dark.html] to see just what might be following you around on your next walk in the dark.

Stories From the Borderland returns on April 13, when we reach out to bring you one of the weirdest amusement park stories of all time. Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times—the management is not responsible for any accidents!

Stories from the Borderland #6: “Men Without Bones” by Gerald Kersh

PowersGerald Kersh’s Men Without Bones” presents a virtual case study in the awkward position of midcentury Weird Fiction. A truly—literally—pulpy tale, its original publication in 1954 came not in Weird Tales but in Esquire. By that time the pulps themselves were moribund, while new markets were arising. Michael Kelly and I recently discussed on The Outer Dark how mainstream literary journals are currently publishing some of the best Weird Fiction, but here we find ourselves more than 60 years back with a classic of unfiltered cosmic horror in a magazine whose literary reputation was already established by authors including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gide. Despite such an auspicious initial placement, regardless of at least two dozen reprints since, or the fact that it remains in print today, I will wager “Men Without Bones” remains unknown to much of The Weird’s contemporary readership.

Esquire coverAnd so too, perhaps, does Gerald Kersh. I envy most of all not those discovering just this story here, but those for whom this serves as their introduction to Kersh himself. A prodigious author, his oeuvre runs deep but provides instant rewards for scratching the surface. Championed by Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, and Nick Mamatas, identified by Harlan Ellison as his “favorite author,” Kersh is most often remembered today for Night and the City, the basis for the iconic 1950 British film noir starring Richard Widmark, remade with Robert DeNiro in 1992.

Geraldkersh

Gerald Kersh.

Kersh was a powerful man as well, a former professional wrestler with a reputation for classic strongman showmanship: tearing phone books in half, bending dimes with his teeth, chopping down trees with his beard. Though he was able to draw heavily on personal experience in his crime fiction—identifying his novels as essentially autobiographical—he wrote widely across genres and made more than one trek through The Weird. I first encountered his work over 45 years ago right alongside Lovecraft, John Collier, and E. Everett Evans, in one of Betty Owen’s anthologies for Scholastic. Kersh seems to have been a particular favorite of Owen’s as she sometimes included two of his stories in the same anthology. Though Kersh’s candle has dimmed, it has never gone out, and Valancourt Books has fortunately reprinted much of his work over the last few years.

For all Kersh’s power as a writer however, “Men Without Bones” is a story that really shouldn’t work, a literary bumblebee flight. The scenario is hackneyed, the setting all wrong for the premise, the archaeology cartoonish, the surprise ending disintegrates after only the briefest consideration. And yet it does work, precisely because of Kersh’s strength. The archaeologists from “Osbaldeston University” on their doomed expedition into the jungle may be cardboard cutouts, but they get us quickly where we need to go…where Kersh can deliver.

MWB

Two-page spread from the original Esquire publication of “Men Without Bones” by Gerald Kersh.

How often does one begin reading a story with a promising title, only to watch it fall flat, failing to deliver the anticipated frisson of The Weird? Kersh makes good on his title’s promise. There is no bait and switch. “Men Without Bones” is full of men without bones, and these gelatinous horrors are every bit as creepy and crawly as one might hope, their slow motion depredations disturbing and dreadful. If you like to look at monsters, the payoff is real: “…out of that stinking green twilight came a horde of those jellyfish things. They poured up the tree, and writhed along the branch.” There is plenty of pouring and writhing and oozing and…feeding. Vividly yet with great economy, Kersh creates one of the truly great horrors of The Weird, yet his monsters are not the complex composites of Lovecraftiana, with their feelers and claws and waving appendages, doled out in mind-shattering glimpses. The men without bones are horrific in their utter simplicity…and in their history.

Like much of the best Cosmic Horror, Kersh’s story is presented as science fiction. What poor Professor Yeoward and his assistant Dr. Goodbody entered the jungle to find was not the hideous men without bones, but something else entirely, something that fell from the heavens “in a great flame when the world was very young.” They find first more than they dreamed of, then more than they bargained for, as the greatest discovery of the century is haunted by beings from an ancient nightmare, humanity’s oldest enemies…

kersh-nightmare

Valancourt Books edition with Harlan Ellison introduction.

And then comes the ending, that classic old school O. Henry ending. It’s completely ridiculous, utterly implausible, in direct contradiction to parts of the story. It hits like a punch in the gut, but seems laughable a minute later…until you try to shake it off. Because you can’t. Ever. Just as I have never been able to look at the Mona Lisa’s smile since I read “The Ape and the Mystery” when I was seven years old. As the years go by, I find it harder and harder not to believe that Kersh was right about that one.

Interestingly Kersh’s story precedes the pseudoscientific claims of von Däniken by over a decade, as well as the sources he plagiarized, such as Robert Charroux’s Histoire inconnue des hommes depuis cent mille ans (1963) and Le matin des magiciens by Pauwels and Bergier (1963). If not for its precedence, the ending of “Men Without Bones” would seem to be deliberate mockery of these later writers’ hokum, yet if that is so Gerald Kersh was entirely prescient, a writer of such greatness he could call bullshit before the bullshit even got shat. Or…considering Kersh actually uses the phrase “Legends of a race of gods that came down from the sky” long before any of them…could it be that von Däniken, Charroux, Pauwels and Bergier, all so much given to plagiarism themselves, were actually usurping their premise from Kersh’s squishy little gem? What a grand twist that would be in the end, though perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about where anything really came from in the beginning.

GK-MWB2Michael Bukowski really…sunk his teeth into this one. You can see his portrayal of one of the little fat men who come at dusk here: http://yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com/2016/03/man-without-bones.html. For those of you who read the story after this, you will notice he worked a very clever Easter egg into his design, picking up on an unusual biological reference that Kersh employed.

Join us next week when Michael and I take you for a nighttime tour of a story by one of the most famous names in science fiction. It’s a simple story, one character, no dialogue, lots of dread. As always, guess the story in advance and you might win a prize.

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