Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Weirdness of Ultraviolet Light

Writing to Clark Ashton Smith in July of 1932, H.P. Lovecraft offered his opinion on the direction of weird fiction in the first half of the twentieth century:

What to my mind forms the essence of sound weird literature today is not so much the contradiction of reality as the hypothetical extension of reality.

Earlier in this letter he had concluded that “the pendulum will swing back more or less, though of course spectral tales can never occupy the place they did when intelligent and cultivated people believed in the supernatural.” 

This is a different and evolving perspective when compared to earlier remarks Lovecraft made about the nature of weird fiction in his masterful Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927).  Describing the characteristics of weird fiction, which he derived from a thorough historical survey of the genre up to his time, Lovecraft concluded that such literature typically contains a “breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” and “a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature...”  

Five years later, Lovecraft modified this insight to acknowledge the growing importance of realism and science in speculative literature.  Stories that once depicted the “defeat of those fixed laws of Nature” now began to deal with “the hypothetical extension of reality.”  It is tempting to see in these remarks an acknowledgment of the emerging genre of science fiction, only a decade away from its “Golden Age”.  Both Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft dabbled in science fiction, with mixed results.  Neither were especially successful at it, though their attempts are interesting.

Clark Ashton Smith’s “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” (1930) is one such attempt, which combines elements of pulp science fiction and crime stories of the time period.  It appeared in Amazing Detective Tales, a magazine edited by Hugo Gernsback.  It was Gernsback’s second attempt at establishing a science fiction magazine.  (It was originally called Scientific Detective Monthly.)  The magazine lasted only about a year and a half, following several name changes, and tended to feature “gadget stories” of which Smith’s was one.  Other authors who published in Amazing Detective Tales and its variants included David H. Keller, Edmond Hamilton and Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason.

“A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” (1930) is not one of Smith’s better stories, and the author himself was apparently unhappy with the result.  The plot is fairly preposterous.  The narrator is furious for over a decade because his best friend married the only woman he ever loved.  He schemes to commit the perfect murder by knifing his rival while both are in the fourth dimension, leaving no trace of the crime upon his return.  Ramsey Campbell notes that the author sends his evil protagonist to a weird landscape—this happens by way of trans-dimensional device derived from weird science—but traps him there with nothing to do but observe the corpse of his victim for eternity.

Nevertheless “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension” is interesting for various reasons and worth perusal.  Smith’s description of the alternate dimension is moody and effective—nightmarish in tone and reminiscent of scenes in his darker fantasies.  The device that allows the narrator and his victim to be transported to the fourth dimension is comparable in some ways to the one depicted in H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934). Both stories feature weird scientist villains and unsuspecting victims trapped by incomprehensible technology and its effects, though in both tales the evil inventor becomes a victim himself when the invention malfunctions.  Justice is achieved via ultraviolet radiation.

Here is Clark Ashton Smith’s explanation of how his character’s trans-dimensional portal works:

…the desired vibration was attained by condensing ultra-violet rays in a refractive apparatus made of certain very sensitive materials which I will not name.  The resultant power was stored in a kind of battery, and could be emitted from a vibratory disk suspended above an ordinary office chair, exposing everything beneath the disk to the influence of the new vibration.  The range of the influence could be closely regulated by means of an insulative attachment.  By the use of the apparatus, I finally succeeded in precipitating various articles into the fourth dimension…they were functioning as atomic entities in a world where all things had the same vibratory rate that had been artificially induced by means of my mechanism.

This seems fairly straightforward.  It simply involves applying special vibrations to alter the locations of things at the atomic level, the basis for various sci-fi transportation technologies for decades.  In Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Tillinghast’s invention also makes use of ultraviolet waves, not so much to transport matter into another dimension as to render objects and entities in other dimensions visible to our dormant sense organs, in particular by stimulating the pineal gland, “the great sense organ of organs”.  The hazard in this is that said entities can also view us.  “Don’t move”, cautions Tillinghast, “for in these rays we are able to be seen as well as to see.”

Though discovered in the early nineteenth century, ultraviolet wavelengths were extensively researched in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of technological developments in the production and measurement of artificial light as well as theoretical advances in the physics of electromagnetic radiation.  For example, it was in the 1920s that scientists determined that the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects the earth from solar ultraviolet radiation.  The first ultraviolet lamp or “black light” was invented in 1935.  As with the weirdly glowing substance radium, increased scientific attention to ultra violet radiation led to its appearance as an important element in the speculative fiction of the time.

Having already fed the servants to various entities made visible by his invention, Tillinghast contrives to have the narrator suffer the same fate:

You tried to stop me; you discouraged me when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get; you were afraid of the cosmic truth, you damned coward, but now I’ve got you!  What swept up the servants?  What made them scream so loud?...Don’t know, eh!  You’ll know soon enough…

It is typical of Lovecraft that his characters become aware of a ghastly cosmic threat but then wait passively and anxiously for their inescapable demise.  Smith’s protagonist at least concocts a plan and actively pursues it into the fourth dimension, albeit for evil purposes.  Is it that these stories depict “evil” as active and decisive, while “good” is usually helpless, passive, uninformed?  “From Beyond” however is unique in being one of the relatively few Lovecraft stories in which a firearm is discharged against the approaching horror.

In the context of ultraviolet radiation and its appearance in weird fiction, it is worth mentioning an earlier story written by Francis Stevens, her often anthologized “Unseen—Unfeared” (1919).  In Stevens’ story, “actinic rays” are used by a mad photographer—too much time alone in a dark room!—to reveal a world of invisible monstrosity.  (Actinic waves are defined as short wavelength radiation capable of producing photochemical effects, like ultraviolet light.)  Writing a decade before Lovecraft and Smith, Stevens’ depiction of this alternate universe is Hawthorne-like in its emphasis on moral depravity:

Out of the ether—out of omnipresent ether from whose intangible substance the mind of God made the planets, all living things, and man—man has made there!  By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lust and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!

(See also Don’t Look Now, But….)         

In Stevens’ story, ultraviolet light reveals humanity’s true nature; in Lovecraft’s story, ultraviolet radiation reveals phenomena separate from and uncontrolled by mankind; in Smith’s “A Murder in the Fourth Dimension”,  ultraviolet light is a device by which one man attempts to enhance the efficacy of murdering another—which perhaps brings this weird illumination back to Stevens’ and Hawthorne’s sensibility. 

These examples show the arc of development Lovecraft identified in the weird fiction of his time, moving from “the contradiction of reality” to “the hypothetical extension of reality”.  And all three stories illustrate—in spectral black light—how emerging technology and scientific understanding enter and inform our nightmares, and from there emerge as speculative fiction—documentation to ponder and enjoy.

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