Saturday, October 31, 2015

“The Männlicher is a Weapon of Precision…”

Henry S. Whitehead was a close associate of H.P. Lovecraft, and the two authors share a number of similarities.  They occasionally collaborated, though it is doubtful Lovecraft had to contribute as much to Whitehead’s work as he did with less able writers.  One of these joint efforts was the 1931 story Cassius, one of Whitehead’s better known tales.  (See also 1. Homunculus). 

S.T. Joshi notes that Lovecraft was aware of three of Whitehead’s stories set in the fictional Connecticut town of Chadbourne, of which The Chadbourne Episode (1933) was one.  It is likely that the town of Chadbourne was inspired by Lovecraft’s Arkham, and seems to have been an equally hazardous locale.  Regrettably, the two other Chadbourne stories have not been found.

The Chadbourne Episode was published a few months after Whitehead’s death, and represents a late career work.   Twenty-five of his stories appeared in Weird Tales, beginning in 1924, and several of his writings appeared posthumously in the late 1930s and 1940s. Whitehead, who served as an Episcopalian clergyman in the U.S. Virgin islands, was known for his incorporation of West Indies folklore and Vodou into distinctive horror fiction.  In a tribute to the author, Joshi quotes a reminiscence of Lovecraft’s:

“…As I glance at my curio shelf I see a long mottled snake in a jar, & reflect how good old Canevin caught & killed it with his own hands—thinking I might like a sample of Dunedin’s lurking horrors. [Whitehead later lived in Florida, where Lovecraft once visited him.]  He was not afraid of the devil himself, & the seizure of that noxious wriggler was highly typical of him.  The astonishing versatility & multiplicity of attractive qualities which he possessed sound almost fabulous to one who did not know him in person.”

The Chadbourne Episode is by far one of Gerald Canevin’s darker, more gruesome adventures.  Canevin is Whitehead’s alter ego, in the same sense that Randolph Carter was H.P. Lovecraft’s.  This story is not set in some sunny corner of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in rural Connecticut, and while it is high summer, there is a definite chill in the air.  Cats, dogs and farm animals have begun to go missing in the vicinity of Canevin’s rental property, which is initially blamed on “cattymounts”, a southerner’s term for mountain lions.  Wrong species!—the offending organism may be more porcine than feline.  When a young boy vanishes, the people of Chadbourne turn to Canevin for help.

The story opens incongruously: a girl’s blueberry picking expedition serves to foreshadow later horrific events.  The Chadbourne Episode, a relatively short story, is one of those worth re-reading, especially to appreciate Whitehead’s foreshadowing and his careful creation of the setting and principle characters.  The arrangement has an interesting symmetry.  There are two upper class families represented, the Canevins, who own an historic old farm, and their close friends, the Merrits, whose mausoleum, like the farm, have been infested and defiled by a foreign presence.  There are also two boys, one doomed, the other courageous at the scene of a final conflagration between good and evil, which is also between native and immigrant.  “The old yeoman stock had not run down appreciably in young Jed.”  Whitehead gives inordinate attention to both boys, who seem to represent American wholesomeness and possibly racial purity. 

(As a sideline, Whitehead also wrote adventure stories for boys including Baseball and Pelicans from 1926 and Pinkie at Camp Cherokee from 1931.  There is interesting commentary about Whitehead at the Wormwoodiana blog at

The author’s Gerald Canevin stories tend to have a bright, chatty, bon vivant tone that contrasts powerfully with the terrors that are revealed, serving to amplify them.  In The Chadbourne Episode, this tone is more subdued, though Canevin still shows an aristocratic bemusement at the locals, his social inferiors.  This time the supernatural investigator does not have to do any research, or apply his worldly, encyclopedic knowledge to the unfolding horror.  His peer, a physician named Tom Merritt, informs him of the threat, and essentially asks Canevin to exterminate it.  “Bring that Männlicher rifle of yours,” Merritt says, a weapon that Canevin repeatedly describes as “a weapon of precision”. 

As in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, horror—on earth at least—often has a foreign origin, or at least foreign assistance.  Could the young boy's disappearance have anything to do with the Persian immigrants who are renting the Canevin farmhouse?  Reading The Chadbourne Episode now, many decades after the trauma of World War II—and with racial and ethnic strife still a feature of current wars and political unrest—one gets a chill that goes beyond the frightening elements inside the story.  The Chadbourne Episode is much more than a tale about shooting down some local monsters.  The nightmare that Whitehead transcribed in the 1930s is still dreamed all over the world.   

As is the case with Lovecraft’s work, Whitehead almost never includes any women in his stories.  If women appear at all, they are indistinguishable from background details, as parts of the setting, as a kind of wallpaper.  And when there is a substantial female character, “she” is not actually a woman, strictly speaking.  Whitehead’s Mrs. Lorriquer, in the 1932 story of the same name, spends much of the story as a physical shell inhabited by the spirit of a profane Frenchman. 

The only women of note to appear in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction are the asexual ogress Keziah Mason, in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933), and Asenath Waite, the weird woman in The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).  Asenath is also a shell inhabited by the spirit of her sorcerer father, and later on by that of her doomed husband, Edward Pickman Derby.  Any femininity that Keziah or Asenath may have once possessed has long fled by the time they appear in these two Lovecraft stories.  (See also A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender)  In The Chadbourne Episode there is a shocking and grotesque parody of a woman, “the dam and nine whelps”, which appears near the end.  What is going on here?     

Compare the women—what few there are in the fiction of Whitehouse and Lovecraft—with female characters in the work of Clark Ashton Smith and even Robert E. Howard.  Or with the creepy Mrs. LeNormand in the recently republished 1937 novel by William Sloane, To Walk the Night (strongly recommended). 

The Chadbourne Episode will remind Lovecraft readers of similar ghoul stories like The Lurking Fear (1923) and Pickman’s Model (1927), which also depict old families that devolve over time, as well as nightmarish visions of racial and ethnic difference and fears of miscegenation.  Like these two stories, Whitehead’s tale is unresolved at the end, with a strong intimation that communities of such creatures are now thriving in American locations, far from their Asian origin.  The story is remarkably graphic and violent for its time, perhaps indicating that these fears were intensifying in the minds of many.


Happy Halloween from The R’lyeh Tribune!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Conan Meets an Extraterrestrial

Robert E. Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant (1933) is similar in some respects to his novel The People of the Black Circle (1934), though it is a shorter and much more focused tale.  Conan’s assault on the lair of a powerful wizard, which occurs in both stories, will remind video gamers of the levels of difficulty, special weaponry, and final confrontation with the evil entity at the heart of many games.  (Does anyone remember the video game Gauntlet Dark Legacy?)

In The Tower of the Elephant there are supernaturally quiet lions that must be defeated with a magic powder, and an agile, venomous monster that guards a doorway leading to magnificent jeweled wealth—or doom at the hand of a sorcerer-lich.  In both stories, lesser horrors must be circumvented first, often with ingenuity or special weapons, before the climactic battle.  (See also Conan and a Proto-Princess Leia.)

But there are interesting differences that make The Tower of the Elephant distinctive among Howard’s heroic fiction.  For one thing, there are some great quotations.  A popular one among Howard fans comes early in the story, when Conan is commenting on the differences between civilized and barbarian etiquette:

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.  

There is insightful comparison of Conan’s religious sensibilities as a Crom-worshipper with the incomprehensible, complex and decadent practices of the much older Zamoran polytheism.  The latter faith has lost its “pristine essence in a maze of formulas and rituals.”  Conan acknowledges that it is “useless to call on Crom, because he was a gloomy, savage god, and he hated weaklings.”  However, Conan’s god is a reliable source of courage and willpower.  He is good in a fight, and offers his followers the prowess needed to kill enemies, “all any god should be expected to do.”

Later in the story are what amount to two short essays of interest to both Howard and Lovecraft fans.  One is a synopsis of the history of the ancient earth, tracing the emergence of the various civilizations that Conan encounters in his wanderings.  A few years later, Howard would elaborate on these ideas in a piece called The Hyborian Age (1936), published as a three part series in The Phantagraph.  (See also Hyborian Sketches.)

The other briefer passage is adjacent to this back story, and describes the arrival of extraterrestrials from “the green planet Yag” and their early struggles to prevail against “the strange and terrible forms of life” that thrived on earth eons ago.  This is surely an echo of Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones”. Yag sounds suspiciously like “Yuggoth”.

There is also some cleverness, which is not uncommon in Howard’s writing.  In one moving scene, an ancient, elephant-like creature, blind and disabled, uses its prehensile trunk to gently touch, identify and understand the form of Conan.  It is a neat reversal of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, often told to show the limitations of partial or subjective experience when trying to obtain a comprehensive understanding of some truth.  If The Tower of the Elephant has a moral, it may be some version of this insight.

The Tower of the Elephant begins like a conventional sword-and-sorcery tale.  Conan teams up with Taurus of Nemedia, an arrogant but renowned thief.  There is interesting interplay between the men, who must rely on each other despite mutual distrust.  Taurus often expounds upon the obscure and preposterous origins of some of his equipment, while Conan sticks to the basics. The two hope to sneak into the fabulous “Tower of the Elephant” under cover of darkness to steal a legendary gemstone from Yara, an evil and all powerful sorcerer. 

But they wildly underestimate the dangers of this quest, despite some initial success.  The situation worsens markedly as they proceed from the outer walls to the interior of the strange tower.  The story has an unanticipated twist at the end, which will not be discussed much here. And readers may also be surprised to find, after several bloody deaths, a dangerous climb, and considerable suspense, a demonstration of—pity. 

This quality is unexpected in a barbarian like Conan, but so is theological insight and sociological astuteness.  These traits are also found in Howard’s brooding Puritan super hero, Solomon Kane, and give both characters surprising depth.  Besides all the action and mayhem in a typical Howard story, there is considerable nuance and philosophical rumination—but not too much.

M. Harold Page, in a humorous essay posted at Black Gate (see Understanding Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”) identifies some of the unheroic aspects of The Tower of the Elephant.  He asks why, if Conan is the protagonist of the story, does Taurus, the professional larcenist, do most of the heavy lifting.  Taurus is the one who bravely enters the room full of jewels ahead of Conan.  (The operative proverb here is ‘The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.’)

Why is Yara, the resident lich, the supposedly evil and all powerful sorcerer, uninvolved until the very end, and so easily dispatched?  Is The Tower of the Elephant merely an action tale about an adventurous theft, or did the author have something else in mind?  (Page makes an interesting comparison to J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit.)  Similar patterns can be observed in some of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, where the wandering hero is not always the most active force in the tale.  These observations recommend Howard as an author of some subtlety, more than he is given credit for.  

The Tower of the Elephant was originally published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. The story appeared with Clark Ashton Smith’s dark fantasy The Isle of the Torturers, a story in his Zothique cycle.  Sadly, the issue also contained an article memorializing Henry S. Whitehead, who had died the previous fall.  Whitehead wrote a series of unique horror tales incorporating elements of Vodou.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gaia as a Great Old One

Not every story containing tentacled horrors has its origins in Cthulhu or the pantheon he inhabits.  However, when a pulp fiction author in the early 1930s combines tentacles, the North Pole, an all-powerful pre-human entity and graphic cosmicism, it is likely that H.P. Lovecraft’s famous cephalopod monster was the inspiration.  Edmond Hamilton’s 1932 novella The Earth-Brain is markedly different from his usual fare, an interesting transformation of Lovecraft’s mythos of Great Old Ones into the vernacular of a pulp science fiction story.  (Lovecraft enthusiasts will recall that The Call of Cthulhu appeared in 1928.) 

Edmond Hamilton was a younger contemporary of Lovecraft’s, best known for his world-wrecking space operas, his Captain Future serial, and his prodigious output of pulp fiction.  He is credited with developing such familiar science fiction notions as cloud-high cities, extraterrestrials in metallic bodies, matter transmitters, and accelerated evolution, among other concepts.  Several of his space operas contain motifs that are recognizable in such later entertainments as Star Trek and Star Wars, decades later.

In The Earth-Brain, adventurer Clark Landon has become a human epicenter for unusual earthquakes and seismic activity wherever he travels in the world.  He avoids the interiors of tall buildings and keeps far away from mountains to avoid avalanches.  Cities in Newfoundland, Norway, Russia, Egypt, Italy and other places are ruined as he travels through them, and thousands die amidst the rubble.  He is wracked by guilt and terror—cursed for an act of sacrilege committed a couple of years before.  Mercifully he has enough wealth to travel unceasingly.  If he ever ran out of funds, an entire continent might go under.

While stopping briefly in New York City he encounters an old friend who happens to be the narrator of the story.  He tells his friend all about an ill-fated journey to the North Pole, a couple of years earlier.  Landon and his two partners, with the aid of two increasingly anxious natives, go on an expedition to find a mysterious mountain, notorious in Eskimo lore, “the forbidden mountain at the Earth’s top…”  Because part of the story is set in the Canadian Arctic, the “Eskimos” Hamilton describes are probably representatives of Inuit society.
After an arduous journey across an icy wilderness, the men finally discover a huge peak that seems to have one or more tunnels in its side.  Naturally Landon and his partners ignore the warnings of the two Eskimo guides, as well as the agitated behavior of their dogs, and begin to climb the mountain in order to enter one of the caves.

Impressed by the Eskimos’ terror of the locale, Landon and his team imagine the earth as a kind of gigantic organism, indifferent to the life forms that infest its surface and wonder “…whether we who consider ourselves masters of all are not but a race of microscopic parasites…”  Inside the mountain Landon encounters the awesome mind of the sentient planet Earth, a titanic multicolored ovoid with tentacles of light energy and cable-like projections that burrow into the rock beneath it.  There is a horrific struggle with the Earth Brain and Landon alone barely escapes—but only for a while.

Hamilton offers the interesting idea that Earth is one of many sentient planets travelling in various trajectories across space, each with its own brain, and each in communication with the others.  Insofar as life exists on these planets, it does so only superficially and inconsequentially.  The cosmic image unites what is essentially a monster-in-a-cave story with a cosmicist vision more congenial to the author of numerous space operas. 

Hamilton’s explanation of the nature of the Earth Brain will remind New Age enthusiasts of the concept of Gaia.  This was originally the name of a primal mother goddess from Greek mythology, but later became elaborated as a figure in Neo-pagan worship.  Gaia was also the name for an ecological insight popular in the 1980s and 1990s, that the Earth can be viewed as an organism that regulates itself as other life forms do, (i.e. the “Gaia hypothesis”).  This is very close to Hamilton’s conception of the Earth-Brain—which he developed in the early 1930s. 

Unlike much of Hamilton’s work, The Earth-Brain does not end happily, and the hero is not saved by pluck, technical know-how or unbelievably good luck.  In fact, because of his reckless presumption and for his violence against the Earth-Brain, Landon has rendered himself beyond redemption, a damned soul.  “All Earth will be wroth against you!” prophesizes one of the Eskimo guides. 

It is here where Hamilton parts ways with Lovecraft and with Cthulhu.  The latter would destroy all of humanity without any desire to single out particular individuals for abuse—nothing personal here.  True, the depredations of the Earth-Brain are a bit heavy-handed at times, and thousands die in various seismic events.  But the author seems uncomfortable with a strictly cosmicist approach.  His weird vengeful deity singles out Landon for doom, pursues him, takes a close personal interest in him, and does not rest until she finds him.  The Earth-Brain is a kind of wrathful Old Testament god reconfigured as a spiteful Gaia.    

The Earth-Brain was originally published in the April 1932 issue of Weird Tales.  It shared that issue with H.P. Lovecraft’s In the Vault, Henry S. Whitehead’s Mrs. Lorriquer, and Clark Ashton Smith’s The Gorgon.  A number of Hamilton’s stories have been reviewed in previous posts; here are several earlier discussions that show both his scope and development as a genre writer.  For example, compare an early work like Crashing Suns (1928) with a more nuanced late career story like What’s It Like Out There (1952).  One of the fascinations of reading this literature in depth is observing how an author’s work changes over time.

3. Almost But Not Quite Eden (The Seeds From Outside)
A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication (The Monster-God of Mamurth)  
Our Cerebral Future (The Man Who Evolved)
Mars and P.T.S.D. (What's It Like Out There)