Monday, December 23, 2013

Eryx: A Lovecraft Collaboration

I am fortunate to live in a university town with several fine used book stores.  My favorite shop is also by far the most hazardous.  There are so many books, but so few shelves, that the sound of books falling here and there can be heard in any corner of the shop.  I was once nearly struck on the head by a very early edition of Dunsany’s Time and the Gods that had succumbed to gravity.  (I then was able to negotiate a very reasonable price with the proprietor.)   Should there ever be a fire or earthquake—the latter is rare in Michigan—no one in the store at the time will survive.

The entire north wall of the store is thick with stacks and rows of old science fiction and horror, with the really good stuff in an ancient locked cabinet under glass.  Not far from this cabinet of fiscal doom is a veritable goldmine: piles of magazines like Avon Fantasy Reader and Avon Science Fiction Reader.  These are mostly from the early 1950s, and were edited by Donald Wollheim, the author of Mimic (1942).  They do not have the same panache as the pulps of the 20s and 30s, but are still fascinating.  Beautiful women in clothing-optional settings adorn the covers with hideous monsters and malevolent robots.  (My wife gave me a marital look when I brought a few of them into the house.)

Avon Science Fiction Reader No. 3, published in 1952, contains 8 stories that originally saw print as early as 1927 (The Master Ants, by Francis Flagg) and as late as 1949 (P.N. 40 by S. Fowler Wright).  Frank Belknap Long has a story in this issue, which is illustrated on the front cover:  The Robot Empire.  But the story I was most interested in was H.P. Lovecraft’s collaboration with Kenneth Sterling, In the Walls of Eryx (1939).

L. Sprague De Camp remarks that Lovecraft and Sterling began working together on this story in 1936.  In the Walls of Eryx is an unusual story for Lovecraft: realistic, unadorned science fiction that takes place on another planet.  Per De Camp, Lovecraft was “conservative” about space travel, and did not think that manned space travel was feasible because of the risk.  Unmanned missions to the moon seemed to him likely in the near future, but trips to the nearest planets awaited the development of some as yet unknown technology.   Nevertheless, given Lovecraft’s longstanding interest in astronomy, it is interesting that he never wrote speculative fiction set on other worlds.

According to Donald Wollheim’s introductory note, Kenneth Sterling wrote the first draft of In the Walls of Eryx while he was a medical student in Providence.  He persuaded H.P. Lovecraft to review and edit the story.  Lovecraft’s revision was evidently quite thorough; the younger author insisted that his mentor also have a by-line when the story was published—in Weird Tales about two years after Lovecraft’s death.  As of 1952, Sterling had become a physician and was involved in cancer research.

S.T. Joshi reports that the idea of the invisible maze was Sterling’s, although he borrowed it from an earlier story, Edmond Hamilton’s The Monster-God of Mamurth, published in Weird Tales in 1926.  Joshi suspects that the prose is mostly Lovecraft’s, but that Sterling’s ideas are otherwise preserved.  The renowned biographer identifies several in-jokes that show up in the text.  Some of the more noxious Venusian organisms—farnoth-flies, effjay weeds, wriggling akmans—are wordplays on such pulp fiction luminaries as Farnsworth Wright and Forrest J. Ackerman.  Joshi believes these are Lovecraft’s contributions.  This is consistent with the latter’s clever, linguistic humor.

In the Walls of Eryx is a fairly straightforward tale.  It reads like the plot of an episode of Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits.  The Venusian setting and dire predicament of “Operative A-49, Kenton J Stanfield” are described with such visual detail that one can imagine watching a story like this on television.  Stanfield works for a rapacious corporation that harvests crystals needed on earth as a power source.  (Readers who grew up with Star Trek will immediately wonder if these are dilithium crystals.) 

But the ‘man-lizards’ of Venus use the crystals in their religious worship, and so a violent ‘cowboys and Indians’ struggle is in progress.   Stanfield’s situation is grim one:  he is trapped inside an invisible maze devised by the man-lizards, and faces immanent starvation and asphyxiation as his supplies dwindle.  Around the outside perimeter, the natives gawk and mock him cruelly.   In case he forgets his awful fate, there is the corpse of a colleague sharing the labyrinth with him.  Periodically there are updates on the decay of these remains, which is accelerated by the actions of various Venusian organisms lovingly described—this seems to be a Lovecraft touch. 

Later, as his condition becomes more desperate, Stanfield begins to have a philosophical change of heart.  “As the end approaches I feel more kindly toward the things.  In the scale of cosmic entity who can say which species stand higher, or more nearly approaches a space-wide organic norm—theirs or mine?”

This is not H.P. Lovecraft.

There are other qualitative differences between In the Walls of Eryx and more typical Lovecraftian fare.  The protagonist is not overwhelmed by cosmic fear or nightmarish terror.  He instead approaches his dilemma with calmness and systematically attempts to solve the problem.  The trappings of science fiction are more evident, with reasonable speculation about future technology and exobiology—given what was known about space travel and the planet Venus circa the 1930s.  The faith in science, technology and military might anticipates the science fiction of the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Most remarkable, despite his awful fate is Stanfield’s belated change of heart, and his ruminations about how humanity ought to relate to alien species in the future.  This concern sounds familiar and more contemporary than Lovecraft’s reflexive fear of ‘the other’.  In the Walls of Eryx seems to contain an early articulation of the Prime Directive.

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