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…