Thursday, May 1, 2014

Between the Wars, Beneath the Ground

The Microscopic Giants, by Paul Ernst was first published in the October 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.  This was a pulp magazine that featured speculative fiction from 1936 until 1955.   Besides reading about the “denizens of a strange land of atomic compression”, fans of the magazine encountered “giant worm-beings from beyond the solar system”, “a world where robots reign”, and “an insidious, sentient life-force on the satellite Deimos.”

Paul Ernst was a pulp fiction writer who produced numerous stories from the late 1920s until the early 1940s.  The word ‘death’ appears in the titles of many of them:

The Face at Death Corner
Death Calls With Music
Death’s Warm Fireside
Death Dives Deep
Death Opens the Door
Death’s Portrait
Concert to Death
Beyond Death’s Gateway
Mask of Death
Death in Slow Motion
Death in my House

(There are more.)

Besides Thrilling Wonder Stories, Ernst also published in Astounding Stories, Weird Tales and Amazing.  He created a fictional series involving his character Dr. Satan for Weird Tales, and another series called The Avenger.

A number of well known science fiction authors had work published with Ernst’s in Thrilling Wonder Stories, among them Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Henry Kuttner, A.E. Van Gogt, Philip José Farmer, James Blish and Jack Vance.  Thrilling Wonder Stories was credited with creating the notion of “bug-eyed monsters”, (B.E.M.s), due to the frequent appearance of these on its front cover.

(Incidentally, an excellent resource for the history of pulp science fiction can be found at

The Microscopic Giants appeared along with A. Merritt’s Rhythm of the Spheres, also known as The Last Poet and the Robots, and Edmond Hamilton’s Cosmic Quest.  Merritt and Hamilton have been discussed in earlier posts; see also 2. Poet Mastermind vs. Robot Tyranny and 3. Almost But Not Quite Eden.  

I first read The Microscopic Giants when I was around ten years old.  It was in a collection of horror stories for “daring young readers”.  I am talking about that holy of holies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum.  The story impressed me greatly, so much so, that I had to buy a copy of this anthology nearly 50 years later.

The Microscopic Giants is primarily science fiction, but with horror elements.  It was probably written sometime between the last two world wars.  It is essentially a recollection of events that took place during the Great War, in the copper mining region of northern Michigan.  The demand for copper to supply the war effort encouraged deep mining for this valuable metal.  The story takes place underground, in an unusually deep shaft that reaches a depth of over thirty thousand feet.  Miners discover a rich vein of copper ore, and also something else.

The science part of this fiction has to do with a “freak of evolution” and its effects on atomic structure and the relative densities of organic and inorganic material deep underground.  A number of stories from this time period speculate on the effects of an underground environment on human evolution; compare H.P. Lovecraft’s treatment of this theme, (The Lurking Fear) and Robert E. Howard’s, (People of the Dark).  The assumed effect is typically one of devolution—the lost race over time becomes more bestial, even reptilian, and evil. What is unique to Ernst’s tale is that the undiscovered race, though diminutive, is advanced and possesses sophisticated weaponry.

A strength of the story is its initial portrayal of a mystery:  tiny fossil footprints are discovered at the very edge of the shaft, but the prints appear to be those of shod feet—boots?  And why did the miners not notice them before?  Why do these fossil prints seem to increase in number every time someone investigates?  Ghostly apparitions in the rock begin to unnerve the men, who refuse to work the lower level.  In exasperation, the narrator and his assistant decide to camp out in the deepest section of the mine, with disastrous results.

The Microscopic Giants automatically earns weirdness points for taking place in a cave, but the author’s attention to little details ratchets up the sense of impending doom as well as the unfolding horror.  For good measure, he provides this bit of atmosphere as the characters approach a terrible discovery:

“There is no day or night underground.  Yet somehow, as Belmont and I crouched in the low level, we could know that it was not day.  We could sense that deep night held the world outside; midnight darkness in which nothing was abroad save the faint wind rattling the leaves of the trees.”

A grisly fate awaits the two men, whose terrors will be personal and intense.  But clearly in view is the long shadow of the war just ended, and a new, even more devastating one on the horizon.  For the microscopic giants—how many of them are down there anyway?—threaten to reach the surface someday, and replace a temporary, superficial peace with a devastating invasion.  

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