Friday, February 28, 2014

Under the Rocks and Stones

“It is well known that inanimate objects retain psychic associations.”
—from The Cairn on the Headland (1933), by Robert E. Howard

Racial memories of past lives occur frequently in the horror and fantasy fiction of Robert E. Howard.  These visions are typically evoked by a blow to the head, though not always.  In The Little People (1970), Joan’s big brother reverts to a prehistoric Celtic tribesman at the sight of his sister being harassed by the “spawn of Hell” near a Druid ruin.  However, the essential pattern is concussion followed by bloody scenes of gore and mayhem as racial memories of ancient epic battles are re-experienced.
In The Children of the Night (1931), John O’Donnel is accidentally struck on the head with an ancient flint mallet at a gathering of antiquarian friends.  He becomes the murderous Aryara, a blond haired, blue eyed Aryan tribesman forever at war with a subterranean race of reptilian humanoids.  (He is not invited back.)  

In People of the Dark (1932), John O’Brien knocks himself out by falling down some stairs in a cave.  When he wakes up he is Conan the Reaver.  The author and reader assume that a traumatic event or mild concussion is enough to ignite prehistoric racial animosities and even ancestral personalities in an otherwise educated, sane individual.

James O’Brien, probably a close relative of John, is spared a head injury in The Cairn on the Headland (1933).  He falls asleep cradling a stone he has taken from the site of an ancient ‘cairn’.  During the night he has vivid, lifelike visions of being an ancient Celtic warrior—he is Red Cumal, “and my ax was dripping with the blood of my foes.”  He is fighting at the side of Brian Boru, the famous 10th century Irish king. They are busy ridding their country of the hateful Vikings who have enslaved them. 

The Vikings have brought with them an avatar of Odin, their fearful deity, who is fighting among them.  The Irish are victorious after a gruesome battle, and it is left to Red Cumal to dispose of the wounded remains of “the Gray Man, the One-Eyed, the god of the North”.  Though an immortal god, Odin is rendered vulnerable by the wounded flesh he had taken form in—and realizes too late that the one he has called on for help is his sworn enemy.   O’Brien’s vision of the ancient battle is the groundwork—literally—to the rest of the story, which cleverly links the ancient past, racial animosities, a helpful ghost, and the modern day pilfering of an ancient burial site.

Not a lot makes sense in The Cairn on the Headland, but then it doesn’t have to in order to be entertaining.  O’Brien’s talismanic rock was taken from a cairn, a ceremonial heaping of stones that his partner Ortali was excavating in hopes of finding gold, silver and jewels.  Fans of Howard’s horror and fantasy stories will recall that this is essentially the same opening scene as in The Horror from the Mound (1932).  (In that story, an ancient Indian Mound out west is desecrated by treasure hunters, with consequences that no one was expecting).

O’Brien had surreptitiously picked up the stone in order to bash in Ortali’s skull.  He decides against doing this and slips the stone in his pocket instead.  Ortali had been blackmailing him, threatening to tell the authorities some information that would implicate O’Brien in the suspicious death of his professor years before.  O’Brien had clashed with this professor, and while challenging him in his academic office, the professor had lunged at him with a dagger—well, it’s a long story.  (I must have gone to the wrong college…)  

At one point, Ortali picks a sprig of holly and puts it in his lapel, an act that becomes significant later on in the story.  Besides having visions of being Red Cumal a thousand years ago, O’Brien is helped by a Celtic spirit named Meve MacDonnal, who provides a spiritual weapon that comes in handy near the end.  Unlike other Howard stories, O’Brien the narrator is fairly passive in this story—he triumphs chiefly through dreams, fate and the interactions of various supernatural forces.  

The Cairn on the Headland is filled with Howard’s characteristically imaginative retelling and reworking of history and mythology.  It is interesting to read the aforementioned stories and see the development of the author’s ideas about “psychic associations” with objects and places.  There is also some interesting theology:  who knew that all you needed to revive an ancient, menacing Norse god was a sprig of holly?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Science Fiction from a True Fan

A survey of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literature of the early twentieth century would not be complete without looking at some of the less well known authors who contributed to the field.  Here and there are some gems easily overlooked in the glare of the more famous or more intensely marketed authors.  From time to time I will try to feature less familiar writers in The R’lyeh Tribune.  Astute readers will surely realize that the weird fiction of the 1920s and 1930s was about much more than resuscitated ‘Old Ones’, or space aliens with unpronounceable names, or various supernatural creatures.  There was an impressive range of ideas and styles across numerous publications of the time.

In 1954, Samuel Moskowitz published an anthology called Editor’s Choice in Science Fiction, in which he invited the editors of various pulp magazines to recommend a favorite story.  The anthology contained representative material from such publications as Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Unknown, and others.  Hugo Gernsback selected The Sublime Vigil, as his contribution to Moskowitz’ project.
The Sublime Vigil, by Chester D. Cuthbert originally appeared in Wonder Stories in 1934.  It was one of only two stories that Cuthbert ever published, the other being The Last Shrine, also in 1934.  Though he was an associate of Hugo Gernsback and later on, Forrest Ackerman and Samuel Moskowitz, he was not a fiction writer so much as an enthusiastic fan and collector of science fiction books and magazines—over 60,000 by one count.  Cuthbert was a member of First Fandom, an association of science fiction fans that formed in 1959.  Its purpose was to organize those fans who had been active before 1938—in the “Golden Age of Science Fiction’.  (The first World Science Fiction Convention was held in 1939.)   He wrote several essays about science fiction in letters to magazines.
One admirer described Cuthbert as “a central figure in the development of science fiction as a literary genre in Canada.”  He left his extensive collection to the University of Alberta in 2007.  Cuthbert passed away in March of 2009.  He was 96 at the time.

To place Cuthbert’s The Sublime Vigil in historical context, H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond came out the same year, as did Robert E. Howard’s The Haunter of the Ring and Clark Ashton Smith’s The Disinterment of Venus.  Flash Gordon made his first appearance in a comic strip, (and Donald Duck’s first cartoon movie debuted). 

Cuthbert’s short story is markedly different from the work of other writers of his time.  He is more concerned with what happens to the people and their relationships in his story.  A scientific idea underlies the tale, but is almost irrelevant to the horror and tragedy that befalls his characters as they encounter the unknown.  The story is cosmicist in perspective, to use S.T. Joshi’s term, but the warmth of the telling heightens the sense of loss.  Characters fall victim to impersonal cosmic forces, but they care about each other in spite of their powerlessness.    

An outcast named John Bancroft spends his days up on a nearby mountain.  He has been doing this for many years as the story begins, and he is still up there, in all seasons, even in the middle of a terrible storm, as the story ends.  The narrator, who became aware of Bancroft as a boy of 12, tells what he has come to know of the man over the years.  While those around him in his community continued to live out their relatively normal lives, Bancroft remained on the mountain, frozen in place and time, as a result of a terrible personal loss that occurred in that location twenty five years earlier.  There is an explanation for what has occurred—it relies on a theory of physics that was once generally held by many scientists at the time.  But it is cold comfort to the people involved.  

The Sublime Vigil is well worth reading and may be available in some of the older anthologies.  It is interesting to compare with several other stories from the same time period—an antidote to some of the excessive abstractness and lack of characterization in some pulp science fiction.  I would love to find the other story that Cuthbert wrote that year…

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Hazards of Curiosity Shops

A number of horror stories written in the early 20th century begin with a purchase made in a curiosity shop, typically from an aged representative of some ethnic minority.  Not too many of these shops are in business these days, and those that are no longer carry such eldritch merchandise as cursed amulets, strangely glowing orbs, obscure figurines or occult how-to manuals.

Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933) begins in this fashion, and is easily recognized as a Cthulhu Mythos story.  All of the trappings are present: a prehistoric pantheon of elder gods, an ancient occult textbook, and a crystal talisman that serves as a gateway to the primordial past.  Smith references the Necronomicon, the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, and such familiar Lovecraftian entities as “Yok-Zothoth” and “Kthulhut”.   

Smith’s contribution is the pre-prehistoric deity of Ubbo-Sathla, the “unbegotten source” that “lay vast and swollen and yeasty amid the vaporing slime” of a newly formed Earth.  It is possible to learn something of Ubbo-Sathla from the Book of Eibon, which also contains reference to an ancient wizard named Zon Mezzamalech.  Zon Mezzamalech possessed a “cloudy crystal” that allowed him to experience visions of the world’s distant past.  The wizard flourished in ancient Mhu Thulan, a forgotten civilization that occupied what is now Greenland, when the subcontinent enjoyed a much warmer and more congenial climate.  He also vanished mysteriously, as wizards often do.

Paul Tregardis, a writer and amateur occultist, purchases an unusual milky crystal in a curio shop.  The stone appears to glow intermittently from within.  The shopkeeper tells him that the crystal is probably palaeogean, and was originally found underneath a glacier in Greenland, in the Miocene strata.  “It may have belonged to some sorcerer of primeval Thule”, he says.  It is always helpful to talk to a knowledgeable store clerk.

Almost immediately, Tregardis is entranced by the stone, and driven to spend time contemplating its odd visual properties every day.  Intense visions follow, as well as the progressive dissolution of his personality and its replacement with another—that of the ancient wizard Zon Mezzamalech.  The wizard is on a quest to obtain knowledge about Earth’s pre-human gods.  When the psychic possession of Trigardis is complete, he takes a final leap into the temporal void and is taken back through aeons to reach Ubbo-Sathla.  What follows is the hallucinatory devolution of Tregardis/Mezzamalech into one of Earth’s most primitive life forms—he rejoins the primordial chaos at the very beginning of life on the planet.

Ubbo-Sathla features Clark Ashton Smith’s typically vivid description, circular plot, and wildly imaginative stream of consciousness writing.  As in several of his stories, there is reference to hashish, a substance which may have contributed to a style that was unique in its time.  In some respects, Smith’s fiction has a trippy, proto-hippy feel that anticipates some of the avant-garde writing of the 1960s.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Virus ‘R’ Us

Once again, the writers and creators of SyFy’s Helix have contrived to kill off a favorite character of mine.  What gives?  Back in the third episode, curmudgeonly down-to-earth Doreen Boyle, the CDC team’s crack veterinarian, was stabbed in the neck with a hypodermic and then fed to laboratory rats by the treacherous Major Sergio Balleseros.  Last night, the most evil employee of the Ilaria Corporation was dispatched in a remarkably thorough and gruesome manner.

It is day eight at Arctic Biosystems, where, with few exceptions, no one eats, drinks, sleeps, or cleans up.  There is a lot of cleaning up to do, because at least three or four people die each episode.  A bioengineered virus capable of injecting extraterrestrial DNA into its victims has filled the base with humanoids in various stages of mutation.  Zombies—they prefer to be called vectors—scuttle about the ceiling air vents like mice, while doctors from the Centers for Disease Control duke it out below with members of the Ilaria Corporation.

Last night’s episode owed a lot to Alien, with all the crawling through claustrophobic air vents and close face to face encounters with drooling vectors.  Early in the show Julia prankishly mimics the shocking dinner scene in Alien, when the larval monster emerges from Kane’s chest.  Julia, by the way, no longer has any signs or symptoms of Narvik-B infection, although she now has her father’s—Dr. Hatake’s—strange alien eyes.

Constance Sutton, the awesomely evil chief operating officer of Ilaria, had demanded that the Alan and Sarah produce a cure for the Narvik-B virus.  The corporation wants to use Narvik-B in controlled applications on the human race to “trim the herd.”  Julia, as the sole survivor of the infection, may contain the cure that the Ilaria Corporation seeks.   Much of this episode is about Sutton’s machinations to capture Julia and send her back to HQ.

Sutton is a master of malevolent corporate-speak and gets all the best lines.  After an attempt on her life in last night’s show, she dusts herself off and reassures her henchman:  “The only thing wounded is my vintage Dior.”  Admittedly, her m.o. has repeatedly been to threaten to torture and kill a brother, daughter, lover, or best friend if she does not get what she demands.  Something bad has to happen to her, as it did to Balleseros earlier.  Something eventually does.

Alan and Sarah are locked in the lab and forced by Sutton to develop a cure for the virus.  Instead, they surreptitiously develop a cure for her—an explosive device which they wire to a microscope.  In the most profound moment of the show, the two lab partners discuss the realization that they are becoming like the virus, adapting to new environments, changing, and becoming lethal themselves.  “We are mutating to survive.”  The bomb goes off just as Sutton is peering greedily into the booby-trapped microscope to examine the cure.  But it only destroys her make-up, and little else.  She is now enraged.

The assassination attempt is unsuccessful, but sets into motion a series of chaotic events.  Alan’s brother Peter is detached from the cryogenics life support system and is carried off into the air vents by marauding vectors.  Sarah disables Sutton’s guards with a sound cannon she happens to find in the lab.  Hatake is freed from incarceration and Julia is rescued from a cargo box that was bound for the Ilaria Corporation.  Balleseros sacrifices himself so that Anana can escape and go back to her village.  Daniel, who is Anana’s long lost twin brother and Hatake’s adopted son/henchman, now insists on being called ‘Miksa’ as a nod to his Arctic Native heritage.  Hatake regains control of Arctic Biosystems, encouraging his staff—now significantly downsized—to remain calm. 

Oh, and Hatake garrotes and decapitates Sutton after reminiscing with her about their tragically doomed romance and divergent career paths.  Not since the classic horror soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) has there been such an intricate, labyrinthine plot.  Helix is basically a soap opera, too.

R.I.P. Constance Sutton.  In a weirdly touching conclusion to last night’s show, Hatake installs Sutton’s head in the same location where Dr. Hvit’s was found in an earlier episode.  It is a sort of alien graveyard that fans of Futurama will appreciate.

For more information about the show, see Helix | Syfy.  Helix is on SyFy Friday nights at 10:00.