In his foundational essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), H.P. Lovecraft offered that the true weird tale contains “a malign or particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos…” Just such a suspension or defeat occurs near the end of Escape, a short story by Paul Ernst that was published in the July issue of Weird Tales in 1938. Escape appeared along with Henry Kuttner’s Spawn of Dagon, Clark Ashton Smith’s Mother of Toads and poems by H.P. Lovecraft, (“The Messenger”) and Robert E. Howard, (“Ships”).
Ernst’s story is an informal case study of a patient named Gannet, who has been institutionalized because of recent violent and inexplicable behavior. He is an educated man, a mathematician and an inventor. The narrator is a reporter named Freer. He is visiting the asylum in order to write a story about the treatment of the patients and the conditions in the local state institution. This allows Freer to observe Gannet and interact with him, as well as his attendant.
The patient presents as calm and reasonable to the narrator. The reporter is impressed with Gannet’s mild manner and “sad, determined eyes”. Why is he here? Yet every day the man busies himself with the construction of some kind of mysterious contraption in a corner of his cell—which no one can see, and which Gannet will not talk about. Nick, the asylum attendant, resembles almost every fictional asylum worker of book or film. He can barely repress his cynical, shop weary smirkiness. He tells Freer that staff will not approach that part of Gannet’s room, even to clean, because he becomes violent.
“It certainly looks,” I said in a low tone to the attendant, “as though there should be something there.”
Ernst cannot describe the device directly—it is invisible—so he meticulously describes Gannet’s movements as he is working on it. The reader is then able to imagine the outlines of Gannet’s work, and the cleverness of the description builds mystery. What is the device for? Readers will suspect at once that Gannet’s unusual technology will help him escape the asylum. But it is clear from Gannet’s conversation with Freer that a more profound escape is intended. Gannett comments on Freer’s occupation as a reporter:
“Your work. The madness and despair of humanity—that’s your stock in trade. You deal in war and famine and flood, in social injustice and political and civil brutalities. They’re the intimate facts of your life. I don’t see how you can live among such things. I can’t even read about them.”
Does the asylum where Gannet is incarcerated encompass the entire world? Paul Ernst wrote Escape in the late 1930s, publishing the story in 1938. The previous two years saw the start of the Spanish Civil War, the election of Adolf Hitler, the beginnings of World War II, and violent labor unrest in the United States, among other troubling events. It was a time of great anxiety around the globe. Gannet the inventor wants to escape the world that the reporter Freer documents.
H.P. Lovecraft’s character of Randolph Carter also searches for an escape from the modern world in The Silver Key (1929), which was published a decade earlier, in a relatively more peaceful time. It is interesting to compare the two stories. Carter, through the manipulation of dream and fantasy, is able to retreat to an idyllic childhood—he escapes into a personal past. He escapes from a world that he has great difficulty establishing a personal connection with, much like his creator, Lovecraft.
In Ernst’s story, Gannet’s motive is more social—he cannot abide with the evil running rampant in the world, and perhaps can see the great disaster on the horizon. Because of its nearness to the beginnings of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Ernst’s story requires an external device, the application of a weird science, to effect escape. Dreams alone will not do.
Some readers will be disappointed with the abrupt ending, which arrives without the explanation one expects, given all the detail that preceded it. But perhaps that is the story’s strongest point: the solution, the means of escaping from the troubles looming in the world of the late 1930s, was unknown and unseen.