Saturday, January 31, 2015

Forbidden Tree and Forbidden Fruit in Zothique

It is not surprising that such a foundational book as the Bible should be a frequent source of inspiration for the creators of horror, science fiction and fantasy.  The nearly 70 books that comprise Holy Scripture cover the gamut of what human beings are capable of doing in the absence of moral and spiritual guidance, whether you believe that such guidance comes from above or from ethical traditions developed by humans over time.  (See also Isn’t Horror Better Than Sunday Worship?)

Though not all would agree, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos seems mainly to be a riff on the Old Testament horror of idolatry.  This is especially the case in such classic Lovecraft stories as The Call of Cthulhu (1928), The Dunwich Horror (1929) and The Horror at Red Hook (1927).  Lovecraft borrowed imagery from the Old Testament to describe modern day survivals of pagan terrors, for example, his “altar-crowned slopes of Sentinel Hill” near Dunwich.  (See also Old Testament Lovecraft)      

His colleague Clark Ashton Smith—a much stronger writer in my view—artfully reimagined biblical themes in his work, especially in stories he set in his fictional world of Zothique.  Smith was adept at creating such vividly detailed worlds; the tales he told in them contain profound insights about human nature—a depth not typically seen in Lovecraft.  S.T. Joshi notes that Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories is his most extensive, containing sixteen stories, some poetry, and even the script of a play. 

Smith’s Xeethra (1934) is closely related to other stories in the Zothique cycle, including The Dark Eidolan (1935), The Isle of the Torturers (1933), and The Planet of the Dead (1932), among others.  They are all worth reading and in my view represent some of Smith’s finest weird fiction.

In Xeethra, a humble shepherd boy of the same name stumbles upon a lush valley while herding his animals across a desert in late summer.  At one end of the valley he discovers a recent fissure in the wall of a cliff, as if the rock face had opened itself for him to explore.  Readers know intuitively that entering this cavern will be life changing for Xeethra.  The boy descends both physically and figuratively into the earth, and as he does so the story transmutes from an adventure yarn to a mythological fairy tale.

Xeethra loses his light and his way in the cave, but emerges in a vast glowing hallucinogenic garden—Smith’s version of the Garden of Eden.  The boy’s attention is drawn to “an orchard-like grove of tall, amply spreading trees, amid whose lush leafage he descried the burning of numberless dark-red fruits.”  Having just crossed the dry desert, the boy finds the fruit irresistible—perhaps even more so than Adam and Eve did in their verdent paradise.  But the apples belong to Thasaidon, a powerful demon and the principle deity in the world of Zothique. 

The consequence of eating the fruit drives the rest of the story, and is the most interesting aspect of the work.  What Smith has done is to re-imagine the Garden of Eden story, in which a forbidden fruit that grants a circumscribed knowledge is consumed, bringing damnation.  Xeethra lives in a distant future where the sun—now an engorged red giant—is dying.  Human civilization has collapsed into decadence and barbarity.  Instead of the familiar Judeo-Christian God, the inhabitants fear Thasaidon, an all-powerful but insightful and world-weary avatar of Satan.  Yet Thasaidon is not evil in the same sense that Satan is; in fact, he may be what our God will become after thousands more years of human depravity.

For Xeethra, the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit is not being cast out of paradise, but a much crueler fate.  This fruit did not come from some mere “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”—a notion that would be considered quaint in Zothique.  Hallucinogenic properties in its juice confer memory and recollection of past and future lives, effectively unsticking an individual in time, (As in Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five). 

During the rest of the narrative, it is uncertain whether Xeethra is still under the effects of the “apple”.  He finds it harder to distinguish and keep separate these different realities.  The experience is one of disorientation, not only of time and place, but of personal identity.  The boy travels across a dream scape of vibrant cities juxtaposed with ruins and beings that are beyond death.  He longs to resume the throne of distant Calyz, where he was once known as King Amero, but he also yearns to go back to the simpler life Xeethra enjoyed.

The knowledge Xeethra acquires is beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche might say.  Being able to recall and relive past lives dooms Xeethra to the torment of irreconcilable desires for one life over another—he learns ultimately that in “…all times and in all places your soul shall be part of the dark empire of Thasaidon.”

Joshi notes that Smith’s story is similar in some respects to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon (1935), possibly the worst story Lovecraft ever wrote.  Both involve a poor young man who wanders across a fantastic landscape, believing he will find his former kingdom and resume his throne.  Reportedly, Lovecraft lent a manuscript of his story to Smith, who reread it the summer of 1930.  But the resemblance is superficial.  Lovecraft’s The Quest of Iranon is a mawkish, self-pitying fairy tale about unrecognized genius—presumably, his own.  Smith’s story is much deeper, more disturbing, and more universal in its portrayal of the spiritual horrors of reincarnation.


Several other stories in Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle have been discussed in previous posts.  Interested readers may want to look at the following:

Plague as Engine of Justice (The Isle of the Torturers)

H.P. Lovecraft’s Antarian Adventures (The Planet of the Dead)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Technology and Timeframes in Weird Menace Fiction

Hugh B. Cave was a master of the weird menace or “shudder pulp” story.  This is a form characterized by fast pace, frenetic action, graphic violence and often scantily clad women.  Weird menace stories typically provide a naturalistic explanation at the end, reducing the supernatural elements of the story to phenomena explained by science, albeit weird science. 

This latter characteristic differentiates weird menace from weird fiction generally.  The preference for a naturalistic explanation of unusual events allows weird menace to overlap with other genre fiction, particularly horror and detective stories.

The closest that H.P. Lovecraft comes to weird menace is probably his 1928 story, The Shunned House.  Though devoid of women, which is typical of Lovecraft’s fiction, The Shunned House contains a pseudo-scientific explanation for the vampirish entity that attacks the main characters:

Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.  One might easily imagine an alien nucleus of substance or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial subtractions from the life-force or bodily tissue and fluids of other more palpably living things…

Lovecraft’s monstrosity is later combated with “a large and specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with peculiar screens and reflectors…” Interestingly, Lovecraft’s contraption is ineffective, and throughout the story the author seems ambivalent about whether he should emphasize science over his more customary supernaturalism.  Because of these aspects, The Shunned House represents a transitional story near the dawn of the “Golden Age” of science fiction.  (See also Lovecraft’s Haunted Houses.)

There is also a contraption in Hugh B. Cave’s The Murder Machine (1930), the product of some weird scientific research conducted by the story’s villain, Michael Strange.  Near the climax of the story, this mad scientist explains the nature of his evil device to the beleaguered Dr. Dale by asking some rhetorical questions:  You have heard of hypnotism, Dale? You have heard also of radio? Have you ever thought of combining the two?"  Dr. Strange certainly has, and the result may allow him to rule the world, beginning with London.

As in many of Cave’s formulaic stories, the pace is breathless and athletic.  Here is the timeline for the events that occur in The Murder Machine:

December 6th—Sir John Harmon visits Dr. Dale, fearful that he is losing control over his actions and thoughts.

December 7th—Dr. Dale reads morning newspaper, which reports that Franklin White has been found murdered.

December 7th—the beautiful Margot Venee, who was White’s fiancĂ©, visits Dr. Dale, just as he puts down his newspaper.  She too is afraid that she is losing control over her actions and thoughts.  She is obsessed with a spurned lover named Michael Strange, whom she left years ago.

December 7th—Dr. Dale calls his friend, Inspector Thomas Drake, of Scotland Yard, who arrives 30 minutes later.  He asks Margot some questions and offers to investigate Dr. Strange.

December 8th—Inspector Drake returns with a complete profile of Dr. Strange, who has been studying science for ten years and has become one of the greatest authorities on “mental telegraphy”.  Drake reports that Dr. Strange has previously been accused of murder by hypnotism but “has twice cleared himself by throwing scientific explanations at the police.”  (This almost always works.)

December 8th—Dr. Dale and Inspector Drake take a cab to Dr. Strange’s house; the evil doctor lives just 3 miles away.

December 8th—While Dr. Dale and another inspector named Hartnett engage Dr. Strange in conversation, Drake slips in an open window and investigates several other rooms in Strange’s residence.  This takes 30 minutes, according to the author.

December 9th—Around 3:00 a.m. Dr. Dale is unable to sleep and ponders the details of the case so far.  Suddenly he is overcome by Dr. Strange’s hypnotic thought waves, and walks back to Strange’s house.

December 9th—In little more than an hour, Dr. Dale arrives and finds Margot at Strange’s house.  She has also been drawn there by Strange’s device.  (Unbeknownst to all of them, Inspector Drake has meanwhile concocted a scheme to capture the evil Dr. Strange.)  Strange explains the nature of his machine and his role in the murder of White.  He is going to force Margot to love him, and then threatens to kill Dr. Dale as well as Inspector Hartnett. 

December 9th—Drake, who had trailed Margot to Strange’s house, suddenly appears.  He shoots at Dr. Strange, who is then incinerated as his machine explodes.

(I realize I have given away the ending, but there are hundreds more of these shudder pulp stories for interested readers to peruse.)

All of this occurs in the space of barely three days and about 7500 words.  Though preposterous, The Murder Machine is still entertaining.  The brisk pace and unanswered questions throughout seem designed to engage readers with short attention spans and who are undemanding about logic or believability.  The story contains most of the sci-fi horror tropes that have become customary since the 1940s and 1950s:  a mad scientist bent on world control, a new scientifically based technology readily adaptable for evil, a beautiful woman in grave danger, and a climax in which the villain is destroyed along with his invention—after first explaining how it works and what he plans to do with it. 

Without glorifying this shudder pulp tale too much, Cave also seems to touch on the perennial fear of new technologies, and even the nature of free will.  The author’s intent, other than a quick sale perhaps, may have been to introduce a thought provoking question in the guise of a weird menace story:  What if a device could be invented that controlled or influenced people’s thoughts and behaviors?  Have we experienced any technology like this lately?  

Hugh B. Cave and the “shudder pulps” have been discussed in several earlier posts.  Interested readers may also want to look at the following:

From Starvation to the “Slicks” and Beyond  

The Murder Machine is available at Gutenberg's Science Fiction Book Shelf:  

An excellent resource for this type of literature is Robert Kenneth Jones’ The Shudder Pulps:  A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s.  West Linn, Oregon: Fax Collector’s Editions, (1975).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Yuggoth as an E.T.N.O.

In 2006, Pluto, believed for decades to be the ninth planet of our solar system, suffered the humiliation of being downgraded to a dwarf planet.  Pluto was originally discovered back in 1930.  In that year, H.P. Lovecraft began to publish most of the sonnets that would later comprise his book of poetry, Fungi from Yuggoth.  He also published his excellent The Whisperer in Darkness, in 1931.  That story told of the depredations of a colony of extraterrestrials from the ninth planet, the fictional Yuggoth. 

Many assumed that the world of Yuggoth was modeled on the recently discovered Pluto.  Alas, most of a century later the cold dark world was reclassified, and so by implication was Yuggoth.  So the search for extreme trans-Neptunian objects, a few of which may turn out to be bona fide planets, continues.
Newly discovered bodies in the solar system must meet certain criteria to be labeled as planets:  the nominee must first orbit the sun, it must have sufficient size, mass and gravitational force to form itself into a sphere, and it must have enough gravitational force to either absorb nearby asteroids and debris or fling them out of its orbital path—that is, it must not share its orbit with another body.  These criteria were developed by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.  Pluto failed the third test; it shares its orbit with other objects in the Kuiper belt, and comes perilously close to Neptune’s orbit.  (This July, NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft will swing by Pluto for a close look.)

Pluto joins four other objects now officially classified as dwarf planets: Ceres. Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.  But there may be hundreds more, especially further out in the Kuiper belt, a disk-shaped region of the solar system composed of comets, asteroids, icy debris, and planet-like objects that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune.  Comets that pass by Earth every 200 years or less, for example Halley’s Comet, are thought to originate in the Kuiper belt, sometimes referred to as the “comet belt”. 

This week brought news of the possible discovery of two new planets, larger than Earth, in this region of the solar system.  These are “ETNOs”, or extreme trans-Neptunian objects.  Because they are invisible to direct observation with current instruments, their presence is detected through anomalies in their orbits and those of surrounding objects.  This effect is explained as the “Kozai mechanism”, in which a large body gravitationally disturbs the orbit of smaller, more distant objects. 

One scientist described this as observing a collection of asteroids in a stable orbit being “shepherded” by a distant, unknown planet of considerable magnitude.  Whether there are genuine planets far out in the Kuiper belt is still debated, but recent research suggests the possibility that planets can still form despite great distances from the center of a solar system.   Calculations suggest that the two planets are located almost 200 astronomical units from the center of our solar system—one astronomical unit being the distance of the Earth to the sun, (93 million miles).   One of these planets may be ten times the size of our planet.

The search for a ninth planet to replace Pluto continues, and with this search, Yuggoth’s location is pushed ever further out into the cold and dark of space.  This location, far out in the Kuiper belt, beyond Neptune, where comets roam and icy worlds take centuries to orbit a faraway sun, is probably what H.P. Lovecraft had in mind with his famous couplet: “I have seen the dark universe yawning/Where the black planets roll without aim—/Where they roll in their horror unheeded/Without knowledge or lustre or name.”