Thursday, May 14, 2015

Clues at the Scene of the Slime

Anthony M. Rud’s Ooze appeared in the very first issue of Weird Tales in March of 1923.  According to S.T. Joshi and Hank Davis, editor of the recent anthology, The Baen Big Book of Monsters (2014), the story was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s favorites.  Perhaps it inspired him to create some of his own amorphous monsters and begin submitting some of his earlier work to the nascent Weird Tales.

Lovecraft’s first contribution to the magazine would appear that fall, a collaboration with Sonia Greene in the November 1923 issue.  This was The Invisible Monster, also known as The Horror at Martin’s Beach.  Lovecraft’s story The Hound and several others, along with a cover letter he sent with his submission, began appearing in Weird Tales in 1924 under his own name.

Rud’s novelette is interesting and enjoyable for a number of reasons.  It is one of the earliest in a long line of horror entertainments to feature an enormous amoebic monster, a microscopic organism magnified by bad science into a relentless, insatiable predator.  Ooze is a good example of what is possible when weird fiction is completely devoid of supernatural trappings and assumptions.  The story is essentially a “who-done-it”, or rather a “what-done-it”, an investigation of disturbing evidence that eventually explains the mysterious disappearance of the narrator’s friends.  

Rud’s naturalistic style and the sober, careful reporting of his narrator slowly clarify and sharpen the horror of the events, which have already taken place as the story begins.  The organization and pace of the work are effective in building suspense, credibility, and dramatic imagery, as if the author slowly focused his microscope, page by page, to reveal the monstrosity at the heart of the story.   

Tales like Ooze share a number of similarities but also vary along a continuum in terms of origin and symbolism of the organism.  (For comparison, see also Joseph Payne Brennan’s 1953 story Slime, and Stephen King’s 1982 story The Raft, among several others.)  Is the monster merely exaggerated microbiology, a product of science?  Is the creature an extraterrestrial infection or invader?  Is its dark swirling protoplasm a visual metaphor for the dissolution of death, or the ensnarement of evil, or the cancerous growth of an out-of-control federal government?  Is it simply a mobile, predatory nightmare?

Probably the best known cinematic version of a gigantic voracious microbe—or perhaps, macrobe—is The Blob (1958).  However, unlike the movie, the monster in Rud’s story is man-made, an early G.M.O. or genetically modified organism. The scientist who created it had high hopes of improving food production and human genetics:

Cranmer…had devised a way in which the limiting factors in protozoic life and growth, could be nullified: in time, and with cooperation of biologists who specialized upon karyokinesis and embryology of higher forms, he hoped…to be able to grow swine the size of elephants, quail or woodcock with breasts from which a hundredweight of white meat could be cut away, and steers whose dehorned heads might butt at the third story of a skyscraper!...Such result would revolutionize the methods of food supply…It would also hold out hope for all the undersized specimens of humanity…

Despite the many benefits of genetic research in various fields of human endeavor, we still share Rud’s anxiety about tampering with DNA nearly a century after the publication of Ooze.  The hubris of scientific research is a never ending source of horror and irony in speculative fiction.  (As I write this, astrobiologists are lobbying to send a mission to the Saturnian moon of Enceladus in hopes of bringing back microorganisms from its subterranean sea.  What could go wrong with that?)

One of the victims of Cranmer’s monstrous G.M.O. is his own son Lee, a close friend of the narrator’s.  The younger Cranmer is an author who specializes in the “pseudo-scientific story”.  Here is Rud’s definition of the emerging genre of the pseudo-scientific story and his view of its importance:

In plain words, this means a yarn, based upon solid fact in the field of astronomy, chemistry, anthropology or whatnot, which carries to logical conclusion improved theories of men who devote their lives to searching out further nadirs of fact…these men are allies of science.  Often they visualize something which has not been imagined even by the best of men from whom they secure data, thus opening new horizons of possibility.

Contrast this elevated view with that of George Allan England (1877-1936), whose motivations were considerably less ennobled, (see also If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…).  Hugo Gernsback would go on to label the genre “scientifiction” a few years after the publication of Rud’s story.  Gernsback used the term in the first issue of Amazing Stories, which appeared in April of 1926. One scholar reports that the term “science fiction” was used as early as 1851, but the label seems to have come into common use in the 1930s.

Not much is known about Anthony M. Rud. He was an author and editor of pulp fiction who published his work in Argosy, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, Munsey’s Magazine and Blue Book.  He wrote science fiction, horror and detective stories, as well as one novel, from the early 1920s to the late 1930s—roughly the same time period in which H.P. Lovecraft was active.

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