Saturday, October 25, 2014

A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication

Edmond Hamilton’s The Monster-God of Mamurth appeared in the August 1926 issue of Weird Tales, sharing those pages with such well known authors as A. Merritt, H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. This was Hamilton’s first story, published when he was just 21 years old.  Weird Tales itself was at that time still a relatively new periodical, having begun publication only a few years earlier. 

As an author, Hamilton was known for his prodigious output.  Earning less than a penny per word for their work, many pulp writers in the 1920s and 1930s had to emphasize volume over quality in order to avoid starvation.  (I suspect that a hundred years later, most bloggers earn about the same or less, and experience similar pressures.)    

Hamilton became one of the magazine’s most prolific authors, publishing close to 80 stories between 1926 and 1948.  He tended to write more science fiction than fantasy. The Monster-God of Mamurth, which was written very early in his career, contains elements of both genres.

In his affectionate study of the field, Alternate Worlds, The Illustrated History of Science Fiction (1975), James Gunn credits Hamilton with developing and popularizing such notions as aerial cities, extraterrestrials in metallic bodies, matter transmitters, accelerated evolution, and using a time travel device to assemble a team of historic military leaders, among other concepts.

Besides numerous short stories and novels, Hamilton wrote 18 of the 21 Captain Future serial novels that were popular among teenaged readers in the 1940s.  As the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” drew to a close in the 1950s he began writing for DC comic books like The Legion of Super-Heroes.  

Hamilton has been criticized for writing highly formulaic “space opera” stories.  These involved vast intergalactic conflagrations and an “Interstellar Patrol” that kept the peace among a council of populated, civilized planets.  Gunn describes the method Hamilton used in producing the more hackneyed examples of his work:

They were written to a formula: a super-scientist with three aides—a robot, an android, and a beautiful girl—would undertake and complete in each episode a crusade to bring a villain to justice; in the process the hero would be captured—and escape—exactly three times.

S.T. Joshi, in his impressive two volume biography, I Am Providence, The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013), cites the humorous opening paragraph of Collapsing Cosmoses (1938), a parody of contemporary science fiction writers like Edmond Hamilton.  Lovecraft had collaborated with Robert H. Barlow on this fragment, and opened the piece with:

Dam Bor glued each of his six eyes to the lenses of the cosmoscope…“That blur in the ether can be nothing less than a fleet from outside the space-time continuum we know…Give the alarm to the Inter-Cosmic Chamber of Commerce…at this rate they’ll be upon us in less than six centuries…”

Yet, unlike several of his colleagues—and certainly unlike H.P. Lovecraft—Hamilton was able to adapt to changing tastes in the genre of science fiction across several decades.  He was still actively writing and publishing as late as the 1960s and 70s.

­The Monster-God of Mamurth is a ‘lost world’ story.  It is mostly fantasy but with some science fiction elements.  Readers familiar with early 20th Century pulp fiction will recognize the contributions of other well-known authors from the time period.  The story opens as an archaeologist, near death from dehydration and exhaustion, stumbles into the desert camp of some traders.  Before he dies, he tells of his experiences among the ruins of the notorious, half-forgotten city of Mamurth.  The evil city and its mysterious temple are located somewhere in the “Igidi”, a region in the northwestern Saharan desert.  

As in A. Merritt’s The People of the Pit (1918)—see Death by a Thousand Figures of Speech—the men who hear the archaeologist’s strange narrative take his advice at the end and avoid the fearful locale.  The Monster-God of Mamurth is also reminiscent of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s earlier mythos stories, The Nameless City (1921), another terrifying adventure among ancient ruins.  As the narrator of The Monster-God of Mamurth wanders among the colossal stones and statuary, he observes disturbing otherworldly figures and hieroglyphics that foreshadow the horror he is about to discover.  (See also A Shriek in Araby.) 

But Hamilton transcends the influences of these more established authors and creates a setting and a monster that is more proto-science fiction than dark fantasy.  This first story of his appears to be an example of the gradual shift from dark fantasy to what Hugo Gernsback would call “scientifiction”.  Hamilton himself grew more influential as he became established as an author; it is not hard to find his ideas developed further in the work of others that followed.  For example, compare The Monster-God of Mamurth to H.P. Lovecraft’s 1939 sci-fi collaboration with Kenneth Sterling, In the Walls of Eryx.  (See also Eryx: A Lovecraft Collaboration).

The Monster-God of Mamurth can lately be found in a new anthology just out this fall, The Baen Big Book of Monsters, edited by Hank Davis.  The book contains a nice selection of stories from several of Hamilton’s colleagues and predecessors in weird fiction.  These include Warden Allan Curtis’ The Monster of Lake Lametrie (1899), William Hope Hodgson’s The Island of the Ud (1912) Anthony N. Rud’s Ooze (1923)—an early precursor to The Blob—Curt Siodmak’s The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika (1926), H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror (1929), and Robert E. Howard’s 1934 The Valley of the Worm, (a companion to Howard’s earlier story, Worms of the Earth).  The anthology also contains many fine examples of more contemporary monster stories.


Another story by Edmond Hamilton was discussed in a post last year as part of a series on horticultural horror: see 3. Almost But Not Quite Eden (The Seeds From Outside, published in Weird Tales in 1937).

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