Sunday, November 17, 2013

C. L. Moore’s Early 3D Horror

Besides Francis Stevens, another woman who achieved renown as a writer of speculative fiction was Catherine Lucille Moore.  Her career began somewhat later than Stevens’; she published in pulp magazines beginning in the mid 1930s.  She wrote science fiction and ‘sword and sorcery’ stories primarily.  Her work was remarkable for an emphasis on characters’ emotions and sensual perceptions, a feature she shared with Francis Stevens.

At the risk of gender stereotyping, both of these writers seemed less enthused about abstract speculations and technology and more interested in the horrific effects of their story subjects on individuals and society.  Characterization is generally superior, and their stories exhibit warmth, compassion and a sense of humor that is missing in the work of their male colleagues in pulp fiction.  (The latter tend to have the colder “what if” tone of a thought experiment.)

C.L. Moore’s Miracle in Three Dimensions is a science fiction story with some horror elements.  It was published in 1939 in Strange Stories, a competitor of Weird Tales.  The story may be found in an excellent anthology of speculative fiction edited by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg, entitled Rivals of Weird Tales, 30 Great Fantasy & Horror Stories From The Weird Fiction Pulps (1990).  The anthology contains selections from various pulp magazines covering the period 1927 through 1955.

Moore’s story has a very contemporary feel—the setting is the American film industry circa mid 1930s.  A cigar chomping studio executive from “Metro Cosmic” is investigating the latest thing in moving pictures.  It is a device his technician has invented that allows a three dimensional view of the actors and their actions in a scene.  (This is a very interesting story to read now, given the current popularity of 3D movies, as well as the amazing development of holographic and other 3D imaging technology in various fields—Moore was quite prescient in exploring the possibilities of visual media.)  

The device is briefly described: it involves a silvery U-shaped bar that audience members grip during the show, which is connected to an apparatus of chrome and glass resembling an enormous radio.  The inventor explains that the metal bar allows a low level electric current to stimulate the sensual nerve endings of audience members to create perceptions of touch, hearing, sight and taste.  The studio executive wonders where the screen is—but of course, one is not needed with this new technology.

The inventor demonstrates the device to the movie executive—a film clip of the latest project, a film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and he is very impressed.  The actors go through their paces and appear almost indistinguishable from a live production.  But the inventor is worried.  Is he inadvertently creating a new form of life in these images?

Subsequent demonstrations follow, involving larger groups of people.  The effects of the device are striking and also disturbing.  But something strange is beginning to happen to the actors, who suffer physical symptoms and whose behavior begins to mimic the characters in the play.  Even more troubling, the play itself begins to morph away from the original plot, taking on the features of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies instead of the familiar romantic comedy.  The author has the inventor speculate about the near universal fear among various indigenous cultures of having an individual’s image recorded in visual art or by photography:  “All of them declared and believed that too good a likeness would draw the soul out into the picture.”

In the introductory note to C.L. Moore’s story, the anthologists comment that her story was published the same year that The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, and other big screen classics were released.  For pulp fiction, Moore’s Miracle in Three Dimensions is remarkably sophisticated and far seeing.  One can view it as a cautionary tale, especially when you consider what has since transpired in the technology of visual media, as well as the remarkable pervasiveness of image recording at all levels of society.  What is happening to our souls?   

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