“The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.

Since James Harris over at Classics of Science Fiction reviewed this story recently and since I’m not close to putting up any new posts, I thought I’d throw in my two cents about Aldiss’ work.

Raw Feed (1989, 2001): “The Saliva Tree”, Brian W. Aldiss, 1965.

TORDOB03A This is a fun pastiche of H. G. Wells and H. P. Lovecraft. Aldiss isn’t as terrifying as Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space“, his obvious model — though he does produce some scary moments in making his malevolent aliens tourists and giving us an image of space travel being the product of vicious, ruthless races, but he gives us gentle humor in his references to Wells (including all sorts of references to H. G. Wells titles and his inspiration for The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, and The Shape of Things to Come. Aldiss clearly reveres Wells. Aldiss gives a pleasantly Victorian love story with a rivalry between men. (He also gives us rather muted emotion, but I suspect that is part of the air he wishes to achieve.). Aldiss shows his skill in using literary symbols. The misshapen stuffed animals of Mr. Grendon are a reflection of the aliens altering Earth’s flaura and fauna. The Grendon farm uses lower animals the way the Aurigans use us. The destruction of the electrical systems — and the Grendon farm itself (symbol of socialism’s hope in the value and betterment of the common man) — symbolizes the destruction of the naïve belief in inevitable progress and the linkage of higher morality with higher technology.

Upon reading this story the second time around, I noticed a lot more allusions to the work of H.G. Wells than just (as I did the first time) some references to the titles The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds or the presence of H.G. Wells at story’s end. The first time I read it, I characterized it as a cross between H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”.MNNHSTMBST1989

To be sure the basic plot follows the Lovecraft story: an alien lands on a farm, produces changes in humans and plants and animals that causes them to grow large, feeds on the altered organisms, literally maddens some people, kills even more, and returns to space. Aldiss compresses his story timeline relative to Lovecraft’s, has his protagonist intimately involved with the events rather than hearing about them second-hand as the narrator does in the Lovecraft story, has the aliens’ presence explained as a holiday outing, and has his protagonist drive the aliens off. (Of course, in the Lovecraft tale, as typical with a Lovecraft story, humanity is powerless in front of the cosmic menace and not all of it leaves at story’s end.)

This time I noticed the phrases that alluded to (at least, I don’t remember noticing them the first time around) H.G. Wells’ titles: “men like gods”, “food of the gods” (particularly apt for the enlarging effects suffered by the people, animals, and plants on the farm), and “the shape of things to come”. Of course, we’re to assume that Wells’ (this story seems to take place shortly after the publication of The War of the Worlds) gets some future titles from protagonist Gregory Rolles. The socialism — and lack of good socialist comradery on the part of the invisible aliens — of Rolles I caught the first time around. Continue reading ““The Saliva Tree”, Or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax.”

“The Arcade”

It’s time for this week’s bit of weird fiction.

(Why, you ask, isn’t there one every week. Mostly because I’ve either already blogged about the current story under discussion at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group or I didn’t get my hands on the story under discussion).

Review: “The Arcade”, Will Murray, 2012.

Worlds of Cthulhu
Cover by Gahan WIlson

You may not recognize the name of Will Murray. He writes a lot, but most of his work is in pulp fiction both as a practioner and historian. For instance, he does a lot of historical background for Sanctum Books reprints of Doc Savage novels (which I read but don’t regularly review here) and has new adventures with that hero.

Among his other interests is H. P. Lovecraft. In addition to critical work on Lovecraft, he’s written some Lovecraftian stories including “The Sothis Radiant”.

As Robert M. Price, the editor of Worlds of Cthulhu where this story first appeared, this is a Lovecraftian story that does not “depend upon a check list of unpronounceable names and magical grimoires”.

It uses Lovecraft’s Arkham locales, specifically the town of Foxfield. That was a location Lovecraft invented but never used.

This is one of those weird tales whose charm would be broken by a plot synopsis, not that it’s particularly complex. Continue reading ““The Arcade””

“Witches’ Hollow”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: “Witches’ Hollow”, H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, 1962.DRKMKHRT3A1962

This, like other “collaborations” between Lovecraft and Derleth I’ve read, was rather lifeless. Derleth’s usual technique was simply to expand on a story note or fragment of Lovecraft’s. On its first publication in the Derleth edited Dark Mind, Dark Heart, he even puts Lovecraft’s name prominently on the story with his own name asterisked in footnote “Completed by August Derleth”.

These collaborations don’t do a thing for me emotionally, and I find them an exercise in just mentally ticking off boxes to see which of the “gods” invented by Derleth he’s going to add to his version of the “Cthulhu Mythos” — a term he coined. There’s also the usual bland domestication of Lovecraft’s vision with what are, essentially, magical relics.

Here Derleth works in some references to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” and sets the story around Arkham.  Continue reading ““Witches’ Hollow””

“The Shunned House”

I’m a bit late with this week’s weird tale, and I’m not really offering a review because I’ve already done that.

Review: “The Shunned House”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1924.277a820dd7a0f4d98d1dd010.L

On re-reading this story after a number of years, I noticed that this story has one of the earliest references to the Exeter vampire story which only got wider coverage in the 2000s. (At least the Wikipedia entry only has sources that recent.)

It also strikes me as a transition story for Lovecraft. It’s a gothic tale centered around the rumors about a house and the evil affecting it is traced through history. It strikes me that this 1924 story prefigures 1926’s “The Call of Cthulhu” which is sort of an international gothic tracing evil through history in several locations. The idea of a malevolent presence sapping people’s lives figures prefigures 1927’s “The Colour Out of Space”. The introduction of a new scientific ideas and apparatus (the acid and Crookes tube and flamethrower) point the way to greater use of science in later Lovecraft stories though only the acid works here in destroying the monster.

And here’s a picture of the shunned house still standing at 135 Benefit St in Providence, Rhode Island — just where Lovecraft put it.

135_Benefit_Street,_Providence_RI

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

 

Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 5

 

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The detailed examination of James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re still looking at that category of plots of circumstances where the setting is the modern world or the near future and the plot is built around a problem.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Past

Gunn notes this is similar to the “ancient being or primitive being in a modern human environment” plot. This plot, though, is centered around a modern man, and it is that man that provides reader identification.

This is primarily a plot of menace. Some kind of man, animal, plant, seed, or strange alien being comes into our world from the past. (Gunn doesn’t mention disease, but that’s obviously another potential menace.) The menace arrives from suspended animation, some temporal suspension, or time travel.

In threatening human supremacy in the world, this menace allows an examination and reassessment of some human trait, the assets and debits of human nature.

H. P. Lovecraft understandably gets cited as a prime example though Gunn regards his work as “more fantasy than science fiction”; however, he does concede Lovecraft did offer explanations of varying degrees of credibility. That’s a fair assessment of Lovecraft, and Lovecraft didn’t really consider himself a science fiction writer though I’d argue that, whatever the plausibility of the offered explanations, a story that offers a scientific explanation is sf on that ground alone whatever the intended emotional effect the author was going for. Gunn says Lovecraft was one of the few writers to successfully create a new mythology to be in the background of his stories. Richard Shaver’s stories are an example of failing to do that.

Understandably, Gunn cites John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” as a fine example of this plot. However, he makes no reference of its probable influence of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” on it.

All in all, Gunn is in favor of this plot as well-suited to many purposes, including a philosophical examination of humanity, and providing suspense, the all important “reader identification”, and drama.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another Dimension

Lovecraft and his followers in the Cthulhu Mythos aren’t mentioned here. Gunn sees this as a plot type in decline. (He also says Charles Fort frequently gets cited in this type of story.)

The limitation of this plot type is that it isn’t as flexible as the problems-from-the-past-encroaching- into-the-modern-world plot. It doesn’t seem to be well-suited to comment on “the nature of mankind”. (I’m not sure why Gunn thinks that. It isn’t obviously true.) What these stories mainly suggest is that “man is not the apex of creation”.

As a tool for a horror story, it works well even “though that purpose borders closely on fantasy”.

Facing Problems Introduced from Another World or Space

Obviously Gunn is right in stating this is a popular plot. The problems you can export from another place other than Earth are unlimited. The modern world can be contrasted to the strangeness outside it. Reader identification, as in all the plots set in the modern world, is high.

It also has a higher credibility, an easier suspension of disbelief, than using a plot that brings problems into the world from the past, another dimension, or the future.

It can easily provide that old sf standby, “sense of wonder”.

And Gunn makes the interesting point that it expresses science fiction’s

natural hatred of skepticism—that type of skepticism, at least, which refuses to admit the possibility of any happening out of the ordinary.

Gunn cites the popular “aliens judging Earth” variety of this plot.

He concludes with his high opinion of this plot’s literary value and ease of use for writers:

The form itself is one of the best developed in science fiction; interesting, effective, and occasionally significant stories have been written in this form, and it has promise of even greater merit if it develops its thematic possibilities along new and perhaps more productive lines.

Facing Problems Introduced from the Future

Gunn cites two stories here as excellent examples of sf craft: William Tenn’s “Child Play” and Henry Kuttner’s and C. L. Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”.

Both stories are about children’s toys from the future showing up in our world. In the Tenn story, it’s a “Bild-A-Man” kit. In the Kuttner and Moore story, it’s a toy teaching kids how to enter a fourth dimension.

But, in Gunn’s mind, those stories have no “particularly serious or significant nature”. C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” does. Specifically, it’s a commentary on overpopulation and dysgenics, and Gunn thinks, while it shows this plot, usually written and read just for pleasure, could do more.

The next post on Gunn’s thesis will look at a literary judgement Gunn got very wrong.

Prophecies and Dooms

I discovered Mark Samuels about a year-and-a half ago on his blog in his role as social and genre critic. I went on to read and review a couple of his works.

This one came to me courtesy of subscribing to Samuels’ Pateron account.

Review: Prophecies and Dooms, Mark Samuels, 2018.Prophecies and Dooms

This is Samuels in critic mode, cogent in presentation and never failing to say something interesting about his subjects no matter how familiar I was with them. Between the lines, something of Samuels’ own criteria for good weird fiction peeps through.

There were plenty of material new to me about writers I have a very peripheral knowledge of.

Samuels’ “The Root of Evil: Hanns Heinz Ewers and Alraune” certainly did not have to work hard to educate me. I only knew Ewers through his much reprinted “The Spider” and about his espionage work on behalf of Germany in World War 1-era America. Samuels looks at Ewers’ persona as a drug addict and a bisexual predator (allegedly aided by hypnotism) on men and women and his greatest work, Alraune. Ewers, in that novel, becomes the “Master-Artist Braun” who alone can control the destructive force he has created, the “mandrake-woman” Alraune.

It’s the opening essay, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it ends with a metaphor of an artist in control of his material. Continue reading “Prophecies and Dooms”

“He”

Another look at a story I’ve already covered once, but it was this Deep Ones reading over at LibraryThing, so I thought I’d say a few more things about it and defend Lovecraft on some points.

Review: “He”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1925.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

I was faint, even fainter than the hateful modernity of that accursed city had made me.

“He” is the second of what I call Lovecraft’s “I hate New York” stories.

It is also, after his “The Silver Key”, written in 1926, the most autobiographical of his stories, a hate letter to New York City and modernity.

The story opens with that cry from the heart of the narrator and continues:

I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.

The hero goes on long nocturnal jaunts to find the hidden historical curiosities of Old New York:

tottering Ionic columns and fluted pilasters and urn-headed iron fence-posts and flaring-lintelled windows and decorative fanlights.

Continue reading ““He””