Saturday, May 31, 2014

Spending Time in a Bottle

Though less well known today, P. Schuyler Miller was a frequent contributor to a number of pulp science fiction magazines beginning in the 1930s.  At the time, he was a popular writer of short stories and reviews.  As with many pulp science fiction writers, then and now, an early interest in science fiction and fantasy led him to begin writing and publishing his own stories in his teen years. He placed his first story in Wonder Stories in the summer of 1930.  

A chemist and an amateur archaeologist, he was especially interested in the history of the Iroquois Indians of his home state of New York.  He was also an advocate of historical preservation and natural resource conservation.   He worked as a technical writer for General Electric in the 1940s, and later for the Fisher Scientific Company in the 1950s until his death in 1974. 

Most of Miller’s fiction was published in the 1930s and 1940s, in such magazines as Amazing Stories, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Weird Tales, among others.  In Weird Tales he published such stories as Spawn (1939), John Cawder's Wife (1943), Plane and Fancy (1944), Ship-in-a-Bottle (1945), and Ghost (1946).   A fan and correspondent of Robert E. Howard, he later helped put together a bibliography of that author’s work.  He wrote less fiction after 1945 and shifted to science fiction book reviews.

Additional detail about this author may be found at these helpful sites:

Fancyclopedia , (part of Fanac-the Fan History Project,
Tellers of Weird Tales

SFE—The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Ship-in-a-Bottle (1955) is a “curiosity shop” tale, reminiscent of such stories as E.F. Benson’s The Witch-Ball (1928), Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933), and many others.  (A subcategory of this type of horror is the “used book store” motif; see for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s 1938 fragment, The Book).  For an earlier discussion of this type of horror story, see The Hazards of Curiosity Shops.  These stories often begin with a purchase made from some decrepit, out of the way establishment, typically from an aged and suspicious representative of some ethnic minority.

Whatever it is—trinket, figurine, bit of jewelry, ancient tool or weapon—the item contains strange supernatural powers.  It may transport the new owner to some awful location, conjure a ghost, reveal some forgotten trauma, invoke an evil supernatural entity, or transform the owner’s personality by some process of psychic possession.  An underlying assumption seems to be that a gateway to another world can be acquired fairly inexpensively if bought second hand in one of these shops.  Readers may wonder whether financially struggling writers of horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature were forced to frequent shops like these.  The motif shows up fairly often.

What is atypical of Ship-in-a-Bottle is that the shopkeeper has a direct role in the ensuing horror, instead of being merely the agent of the transaction and nothing more.  As the title suggests, the found object is a weirdly lifelike ship in a bottle, with convincingly depicted sailors enduring some sort of prolonged predicament at sea.  The story begins with a reminiscence; the narrator first sees the bottle during a childhood visit to a curiosity shop with his father. 

The depiction of the neighborhood and the mysterious shop as seen through the eyes of a child may remind readers of some of Ray Bradbury’s earlier work from the 1950s.  The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957) and especially Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) come to mind.

Ship-in-a-Bottle is difficult to categorize, because it contains elements of horror, the ghost story, childhood autobiography, and alternate universe stories.  It is a much stronger story than Miller’s earlier work, The Arrhenius Horror (1931), which was reviewed in a previous post, (see How to Make a Silicon Life Form).  That story contained some interesting ideas, (panspermia), but also many of the weaknesses typical of the pulp science fiction of the time.  In Ship-in-a-Bottle, there is much deeper characterization, a wonderful sense of place, and careful attention to detail in creating mood and temporal disorientation.  The effect is similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s in The Festival (1925), He (1926), and The Silver Key (1929).

The narrator of Ship-in-a-Bottle returns to the shop 30 years later and finds that little has changed, although there are signs of the passage of time.  Readers will suspect that the location of the shop is special in some way; the narrator, describing the immediate neighborhood, remarks that it “was like the stern of a galleon crowded between grimy barges.”  Details about the interior of the shop suggest it is more like the cargo hold of some old boat than a used merchandise store. 

Something has happened to time in this locale.  When the narrator gazes into the bottle again after so many years, he is startled to see that the ship has also undergone change over time:  “The listless sails seemed browner and some of them were furled as though the captain had given up hope of wind.”   The tiny ship and its miniature crew, the shopkeeper, and the curiosity shop are all linked in this nautical time loop.  Justice of some kind is accomplished near the end of the story, but the author leaves much unexplained in the wake of the freed ship.

Ship-in-a-Bottle contains some of the same pleasing symmetry and circularity one finds in stories by Clark Ashton Smith—the story ends where it began.  The type and quality of the story seems to anticipate the more personal and autobiographical tone of work by Bradbury and other fantasists.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Back to Averoigne

In the early 1930s, Clark Ashton Smith wrote a series of closely related stories set in a richly imagined medieval setting, where Christendom shares an uneasy co-existence with pagan sorcery and Satanism.  The Holiness of Azédarac is one of these, originally published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales.  Smith’s typical preoccupation with near universal corruption and decadence clouds any clear demarcation between the Christian good guys—usually monks of the Benedictine order—and the pagan bad guys.  He avoids taking any side in the struggle between such differing world views, and heroes can emerge from either corner.   

It is interesting to compare The Holiness of Azédarac with The Beast of Averoigne, published earlier in the same year, (See also 4. And Finally, a Pestilent Extraterrestrial Snak...).  In a sense, both stories have happy, though unexpected resolutions.  However, the reader is left with a sense that neither good nor evil have triumphed in the end.  This unresolved tension makes these stories memorable and haunting.

Other stories in the “Averoigne” cycle include A Rendezvous in Averoigne (1931), The Maker of Gargoyles (1932), The Colossus of Ylourgne (1933) and The Disinterment of Venus (1934).  In all, there are about 11 of these stories, and most were published in Weird Tales.

The Holiness of Azédarac is an intentionally ironic title, because Azédarac is anything but holy.  Nominally the Bishop of Ximes, he is in fact a sorcerer, and very knowledgeable of the Old Ones and their ways.  It is the Book of Eibon that he is most likely to consult, rather than the Old or New Testaments, and it seems very probable that his expertise in occult matters helped him advance in the church hierarchy.

It is amusing to spot the Lovecraftian references in this story.  Azédarac swears “By the ram with a Thousand Ewes”—not to be confused with Shub-Niggurath, the Goat with a Thousand Young.  Traditional members of the Cthulhu Mythos have francophonized names:  Iog-Sotôt (Yog-Sothoth), Sodagui (Tsathoggua), and so forth.

The pious Brother Ambrose discovers the truth about Azédarac, and takes the Book of Eibon with him to present as evidence to his uncle, Archbishop Clement of Yvones.  Eager to protect his position, Azédarac sends his henchman to intercept Ambrose.  An early Machiavellian, Azédarac at one point explains:

“It is regrettable…that any question of my holiness and devotional probity should have been raised among the clergy of Averoigne…the chief difference between myself and many other ecclesiastics is, that I serve the Devil wittingly and of my own free will, while they do the same in sanctimonious blindness.”

Through subterfuge, the henchman is to get Ambrose to drink a special potion that he has created, using an ancient formula—and he succeeds in this task.

The potion is not a poison, but a substance that can send its imbiber backward in time.  This is an idea that shows up in other stories by Smith and some of his colleagues.  For example, one of Frank Belknap Long’s characters experiments with a drug called Liao in The Hounds of Tindalos (1929), achieving even more drastic results than Azédarac.  In Smith’s The Chain of Aforgoman (1935), an author takes a drug called souvara that takes him back to his previous incarnations, causing him to spontaneously combust in the present.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s Hypnos (1923), two men use exotic drugs to explore the nature of reality.  Though not specifically referenced, some time travel is implied in their hallucinatory experiences.

After drinking Azédarac’s potion, Brother Ambrose travels back to the time of the Druids, materializing on one of their sacrificial altars.  He is about to have his heart ceremonially removed by a Druid priest when he is rescued by a beautiful enchantress Moriamis.  She also knows the formula for the time travel potions, and is actually a spurned lover of Azédarac.  Will she help Brother Ambrose get back to the future in time to thwart the evil Azédarac?  But it turns out that Azédarac and Brother Ambrose are not the only ones with a plan…  

The Holiness of Azédarac is a pleasure to read—several of Smith’s Averoigne stories are—for its surprising ending, clever word play, and vivid detailed setting.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Another Horror From the Home State

As a native Michigander, I can affirm that my state is an excellent location for horror films.  There are ample dark forests with isolated cabins, haunted light houses, a post-apocalyptic urban setting in the D, and mysterious inland seas surrounding the state on three sides.  So it is hard to avoid watching a horror movie that is set somewhere in the home state.  The last one I saw, The Cabining (2013), was located in the Lake Charlevoix area near Boyne City, on the far northwestern shore of the Lower Peninsula.  This is a beautiful rustic area, with clear, cold lakes surrounded by pine forest.  The Cabining was an amusing parody of “cabin-in-the-woods” slasher films.  (See A Horror from the Home State).

Anna Rasmussen’s taut family drama, Blood Lake:  Attack of the Killer Lampreys (2014) is also set in Lake Charlevoix, a lovely but apparently very hazardous resort town in northern Michigan.   It showed on Animal Planet last night.  The film gleefully strives for over the top B movie exuberance and inanity.  The primal yuck factor or PYF, (see 1. Calculating the Primal Yuck Factor (PYF) in Ho... ) is frequently ratcheted up with scenes of physical mutilation and violation by primitive, verminous creatures.  It is fervently hoped that Christopher Lloyd—who plays the cantankerous mayor—lives and works long enough in film to prevent his horrid toilet seat episode from becoming his last movie appearance.     

Rasmussen also assisted in developing SyFy’s memorable Sharknado (2013), which depicts a hurricane swamped Los Angeles overrun by thousands of opportunistic sharks.  In Blood Lake, it is lampreys that have the numbers against the beleaguered human population.  Rasmussen also worked on the film Social Nightmare (2013), about a young woman whose hope of being admitted to a reputable college is ruined when pictures of her are posted on the web.

Fisheries and Wildlife Department expert Michael Parker has been spending too much time at work.  He has grown disconnected and uninvolved with his wife and two children.  What will it take to encourage him to get his priorities straight?  He is clueless about his teenage daughter’s desire to be more independent and engaged with her peers, and oblivious to his young son’s loneliness and poor self-esteem.  Parker routinely overrules his sensible wife Kate regarding household and family matters, ignoring her input and leaving her seething with frustration.   He even fails to check in with them when the town is overrun by ferocious swarms of blood sucking lampreys.

Ancient and hideous, a lamprey is an eel like fish with a sucker mouth.  It attaches to other fish to suck out their blood and bodily fluids—it is a disgusting parasite.  However, lampreys are edible, and were a favorite of the ancient Romans as well as the upper classes in Europe.  King Henry I of England reportedly died from eating too many lampreys, and Queen Elizabeth II was served a pie made of lampreys at her coronation. 

In Blood Lake, Mayor Ackerman, before having his alimentary canal rudely roto-rootered by one of the creatures, cracks that a solution to the problem would simply be to catch and eat them.  “I’m going to work on some lamprey recipes,” he says as he dismisses the heroic Fisheries and Wildlife agents.  In a subtly ironic moment, he is eviscerated moments later.

Most Michiganders avoid eating lampreys, unless very hungry.  But Michigan does have a serious lamprey problem.  Petromyzin marinus, the Sea Lamprey, arrived in Lake Michigan as early as 1936, by way of its connections with the other Great Lakes, from its origin in the Atlantic Ocean.  It has seriously reduced the populations of several economically important native fish, such as whitefish and trout.

Blood Lake is basically a series of cartoony set ups for lamprey driven carnage.  There is no attempt to explain the appearance of the ugly fish in such large numbers, how they are able to survive out of water for so long, or their recent change in dietary preferences—they have simply shifted en masse from dining on the internal bodily fluids of fish to that of humans.  (Mysteriously, the lampreys do not attack the one canine character while he is swimming, and leave ducks completely untouched.)

Throughout the movie, the lamprey’s biological capabilities are expanded:  they can leap ten feet, will attack when very hungry, and can individually lay hundreds of thousands of eggs a time.  They are definitely plague material.  When they begin emerging from toilets and the faucets of bathroom sinks, the film leaves all credibility behind and becomes a metaphor for contagion and infection.  Everything depends on keeping them from sneaking into Lake Charlevoix from a nearby river, entering Lake Michigan via channels between the lakes, finding their way to the Mississippi, and from there infesting “every waterway in America”. 

Blood Lake owes a lot to Alein (1979)—there is the obligatory emergence of one of the creatures from the abdomen of a victim—and memorable parasite movies like Night of the Creeps (1986) and Slither (2006).  The attacking lampreys behave much like the alien parasites in those two movies.   

There are some amusing scenes in Blood Lake when the marauding lampreys are defeated with a curling iron, a weedwacker, and barbecue lighter fluid.  The Parker family all take turns rescuing each other from the deadly leaping parasites. They even pick up an adorable, sad eyed Irish Setter at the endthe dog had saved the boy earlier in the film by nibbling off one of the attacking fish.  But at least one lamprey survives the final conflagration.  Remember that in Michigan, “You’re never more than 6 miles from a lake.”  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weird Fiction About Antarctica

Almost a decade before H.P. Lovecraft published his classic, At the Mountains of Madness (1936), Weird Tales published another story set in Antarctica, John Martin Leahy’s, In Amundsen’s Tent (1928).  Both stories and a number of others were inspired in part by various expeditions to this mysterious continent, beginning in the late 1890s.  These culminated in the famous effort led by Roald Amundsen, who was the first to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911.  Robert Scott’s team also reached the pole about a month later, but he and all of his men perished in the attempt.  Norway, Great Britain, and several other countries sent expeditions to the continent, with variable success and mortality rates. Then, as now, exploration of Antarctica was difficult and hazardous.

The last ‘unknown continent’ was a source of great speculation for several weird fiction writers in the 1920s and 1930s.  What was down there?  Besides Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, another famous story of this kind was John W. Campbell’s short novel Who Goes There? (1938). It was published in Astounding Science Fiction just a couple years after Lovecraft’s Antarctic adventure.  Who Goes There? was the basis for the film The Thing From Another World (1951), and its subsequent remakes in 1982 (The Thing) and 2011.  (The latest version was actually a “prequel”.)  Though difficult to substantiate, it is not implausible that the germ of an idea later developed by Lovecraft and Campbell has its origins in Leahy’s earlier story.

The mood and setting of Leahy’s In Amundsen’s Tent will remind readers strongly of The Thing, although the author provides very little graphic detail about what is discovered in the desolate camp.  In some respects, Leahy’s and Campbell’s stories are versions of the “derelict tale”, where an apparently abandoned camp stands in for an empty ship found at sea.  William Hope Hodgson has written a number of these; see for example his The Stone Ship (1914) or The Mystery of the Derelict (1914).  The basic motif is the discovery of an ominously vacant vessel.  Where are all the people?  What happened to them?  Unraveling the mystery nearly always includes the present party sharing the same fate as the original crew.   

In Leahy’s story, the revelation of an unsuspected horror, and the narrator’s fear of subsequent insanity suggests a Lovecraftian influence.  And there is a considerable amount of the histrionic text one finds in Lovecraft’s “purple prose”.  Here is an editorial comment about a passage in the journal of Robert Drumgold, of one of the doomed explorers:

“No man can ever know what the three explorers went through in their struggle to escape the doom from which there was no escape—a doom the mystery and horror of which perhaps surpass in gruesomeness what the  most dreadful gothic imagination ever conceived in its utterest abandonment to delirium and madness.”

The stories by Leahy and Campbell differ in some interesting ways from Lovecraft’s.  All three suggest that humanity is imperiled by an unknown entity lurking near the South Pole.   Unlike Lovecraft’s tale, the alien life form in the other stories may be a relatively recent arrival, its discovery an inadvertent consequence of scientific exploration.  Chance has kept the horror confined and frozen in Antarctica.  For the polar explorers, however, the threat is immediate and probably unavoidable; the entity is a predator of some kind, and just about everyone in the story is consumed by it. 

In Lovecraft’s tale the discovery is essentially archeological.   Strictly speaking, the creatures are not alien so much as Earth’s original occupants.   According to Leahy and Campbell, the threat comes from somewhere in outer space.  For Lovecraft, as is typical of many of his stories, the horror comes from knowledge of something that was unknown about the past, something that is still present and potentially devastating.

In Amundsen’s Tent, a three man expedition to Antarctica arrives at the deserted camp of an earlier trio of explorers.  In the tent is the journal of one Robert Drumgold, who with two other men perished mysteriously near the South Pole.  (Also in the tent is Mr. Drumgold’s head.) 

The rest of the story is told in passages from Drumgold’s journal.  His party had discovered yet another abandoned camp, that of none other than the famous Norwegian explorer, Amundsen.  The other men in Drumgold’s party in turn observe the contents of Amundsen’s tent, sticking their heads in between the front flaps. Inside is a malevolent creature so horrifying that it drives them both insane.  The creature then pursues the doomed chronicler of these events across the snow and ice.  He dutifully records his demise up to the very last possible moment.  (Shades of “—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…”)

Some readers will be disappointed that Leahy was not more forthcoming with an explanation or with the visual details of his alien entity.  However, the story is effective in maintaining a mood of terror and awe in the face of an incomprehensible and totally “other” being.  Why should a creature from the depths of space resemble any life form we are familiar with?

John Martin Leahy (1886-1967) wrote and illustrated short stories for a number of pulp fiction magazines. He published one novel, Drome, in 1952.  Originally the novel had been serialized in Weird Tales beginning in 1927.  The story dealt with a subterranean civilization and weird ecology miles beneath the surface of Mount Rainier.

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As of this date, The R’lyeh Tribune is one year old!  This site will continue to provide discussion of early 20th century horror, science fiction and fantasy literature, as well as other topics on occasion.  Reader's comments and suggestions are always welcome.