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 fiancé, 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).

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