How Often Do the Black Wings Beat?

Essay: How Often Do the Black Wings Beat?

Cover by Gregory Nemec

There is a H. P. Lovecraft quote at the beginning of some volumes in S. T. Joshi’s anthology series Black Wings of Cthulhu:

The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of the dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers, a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.

So, rather than doing the usual sort of review I’ve done for this series – clumping the stories by themes and motifs or noting which ones are Lovecraftian in allusion or just tone or idea, I’m going to look at how many of the stories in Black Wings of Cthulhu 5: Twenty New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror pass Lovecraft’s test.

Continue reading “How Often Do the Black Wings Beat?”

Plots of Circumstance: Mutants!

 

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My look at James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues.

We’re at the last subcategory of the “plots of circumstance”. (And, no, Gunn didn’t throw an exclamation mark in after “mutants”.)

Mutants don’t seem a plot category but a theme or motif.

Gunn says right up front that “the problem of mutations” has no set pattern of protagonist or setting. A “mutant” plot can be set in the past, present, or future. It’s the alien presence of the mutant that matters.

I double checked the “Mutants” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It confirmed my memory and Gunn’s claims that mutant stories have been around for a long time in science fiction. But most mutants in these stories before the 1940s were animals or insects and not humans. He divides these stories between mutant animals and mutant humans.

Before he gets started he makes a claim similar to what he did about the value of the disaster sub-genre of science fiction, and I object to it for similar reasons.

The rise of a new race of animal or insect life to threaten man’s dominion over the earth can be used for adventurous, satiric, or ironic purposes but little else.

Stories of animals and bugs getting above their place in the great chain of being can have the same utilitarian benefit – an analytic autopsy on what social, environmental, and technological factors make our civilization possible – as works of disaster science fiction. As an example, I would cite Charles Pellegino’s Dust.

Obviously, the development of modern science fiction, which Gunn dates to about 1930, is close in time to research showing how to actually induce mutations.

Human mutation, the creation of supermen, has a long mythological connection. The human mutant represents a crossroads for humanity: transcendence, degeneracy, or racial extinction.

To Gunn, a plot with human mutation is

a family tragedy or, in extrapolated form, the first indications of the passing of the human race. In its more universal appearance, it suggests, even more strongly, that the dominance of homo sapiens is approaching its end, mourned or un-mourned, that humanity’s climactic struggle for survival is at hand, or that the theoretical equality of men is no longer even a subject for debate and that man must learn to live heterogeneously, must learn the impractical virtues of tolerance, sympathy, and generosity, if he is to live at all.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Gunn means by that last. On a certain level, we already live with the presence of mutants in our midst. Lactose tolerance, for insistence, is a mutation not shared by everyone in the world, and human evolution is accelerating meaning, by definition, more mutations as well as more selection pressure for certain genetic traits. However, Gunn is obviously talking about the flashy, noticeable mutations brought on by an act of man (usually involving our friend the atom).  (Though, in his The Road to Science Fiction #4, Gunn picked a story about an exceptionally unflashy mutant in Algis Budrys’ “Nobody Bothers Gus” from 1955.)

Supermen

It’s hard to argue with Gunn’s summation of the superman plot:

Two primary considerations faced authors who speculated about the emergence of a race of superior beings from the human race: what constitutes significant superiority and what would be the attitude of a superior race to the parent race.

Gunn considers the first major, modern examples of this plot to be Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1936) and H. G. Wells’ Star-Begotten (1937 and from which Gunn took the title of his autobiography).

He doesn’t think Wells’ novel really addresses the attitude of the mutant toward normal humanity.

That certainly cannot be said of Stapledon’s work. As Gunn notes, in an attitude that now strikes me as prefiguring modern European cultural suicide, its mutants “decide that they cannot destroy the civilized world even to preserve themselves and the future of their species.” A mutant without the will to live is certainly not a successful mutation.

As was often the case in his work, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Gulf” is a fairly sensible presentation of the idea that a successful mutation doesn’t have to produce really exceptional improvement, just a bit of an improvement.

One, I suppose, could see Lewis Padgett (remember, that’s C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner’s mutual penname used singly or jointly) “The Piper’s Son”, part of their Baldy series, as some kind of metaphor for good relations between what we now call “market dominant minorities”). The mutants here are bald and telepathic. Their situation in the world

requires mutual acceptance and tolerance between the mutants and humans and on the mutants’ side a sacrificing of ambition and a policy of self-effacement in order to gain that acceptance and tolerance.

Gunn ends his discussion of supermen by saying the public may be getting sick of mutants in 1951, but the plot has great potential and will return because it’s so vital. And so it has.

Grotesque Humans

Obviously, grotesque people have a long history in fiction and mythology and find a use in horror. In science fiction, they became useful when an understanding of how to produce them through mutation became known.

Even now, it’s hard to argue with Gunn that “grotesque humans” are there in science fiction stories mostly as detail and not theme. He does cite the best use of the idea in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop “Tomorrow’s Children” and Judith Merrill’s “That Only a Mother”.

Mutant Insects and Animals

I think Gunn citing Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” from 1887 as one of the first examples of this is wrong. The Horla strikes me as something more akin to a human albeit of supernormal powers. On the other hand, Gunn says he’s using “animal” for any lifeform equal to or superior to man. That even includes plants. So, in that sense, “The Horla” is a defensible choice. The usual animals that get above themselves are ants and termites – a tradition stretching from at least H. G. Wells’ “The Empire of the Ants” to the strange movie Phase IV.

The usual gloomy premise behind these plots is that man is somehow not fit to be the pinnacle of creation. And, yes, this premise saw greater use between the two world wars.

Gunn divides this subcategory into three.

Mutant Insects and Animals Battling Man for Supremacy on Earth

In addition to “The Empire of the Ants”, Wells’ “The Valley of the Spiders” gets mentioned here. (Wells hasn’t been dubbed “The Father of Science Fiction” for nothing.). The amusing sounding “The Day of the Dragon” from Guy Endore gets mentioned here. In it, a scientist decides certain design flaws in alligator hearts need to be fixed. The next thing you know, “the few remnants of humanity” are huddling in New York and its subways, their survival in doubt. I wonder if they were foolish enough to head for the sewers.

Gunn thinks this plot type has “very definite limitations” and mostly of use for satire and social commentary.

Animals or Insects That Take Over Earth

Gunn has some tacit warnings to writers on using this one: it’s hard to get reader identification and present “a state of affairs already accomplished”. (It would seem one could do a story about the transition from battling uppity critters to them taking over.) However, like the previous mutant animal plot type, it’s suitable mostly for satire and commentary.

Animals or Insects Cooperating with Mankind

This is the romantic version of the mutant animal plot. Because it’s romantic, it’s not realistic, and Gunn is concerned with realistic sf.

And what animal do you think gets this treatment most? (Hint: It’s not cats.) Dogs, of course. Mention is made of a story later incorporated in Clifford D. Simak’s City, and another such look at this dog-man relationship is Eric Frank Russell’s “Follower”.

In the next look at Gunn’s thesis, we’ll start looking at “plots of creation”.

The Mind Parasites

The Lovecraft series continues with a novel and more ruminations on Lovecraft. I should add that, while the Amazon link takes you to the edition I read, Wilson scholar Gary Lachman, whose blog you’ll find on the lists of blogs I follow, wrote an introduction to a new edition.

Raw Feed (2005): The Mind Parasite, Colin Wilson, 1967.Mind Parasites

In his preface, Wilson recounts his history with H. P. Lovecraft.

His first encounter was entirely provoked by the similar title of a Lovecraft collection, The Outsider and Others with his own first work, the non-fiction The Outsider. Wilson initially found Lovecraft a sick, pessimistic recluse who weakly turned away from the world he was alienated from, taking vengeance on it in “gloomy fantasy”.

While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this seems to back up S. T. Joshi’s contention that Wilson found Lovecraft a pessimistic (Lovecraft would have said indifferent) materialist to be the polar opposite in temperament to Wilson and reacted accordingly. Wilson proceeded to put forth this view in his The Strength to Dream “in which Lovecraft figures largely.”

Later, Wilson came to see Lovecraft as one of those rare, obsessed outsiders doomed by circumstances of economics, not able to give free reign to his powers unlike more famous outsiders like Shelley, Keats, and Byron. He speculates that a financially independent Lovecraft would have given free rein to his curiosity and produced less horror and more fantasy like “The Shadow Out of Time” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. A richer Lovecraft would have had more time and energy, probably would have produced more fiction, and, if it was well received by those he respected, he would have continued to write it. Continue reading “The Mind Parasites”

“From Beyond”

The Lovecraft series.

Raw Feed (2005): “From Beyond”, H. P. Lovecraft, 1920.Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

In his introduction to this collection, T. E. D. Klein notes that Lovecraft’s protagonist are usually solitary figures or, if a friend is shown, the friend is there to show the downfall of the protagonist.

This is such a story, and I liked the change of pace.

Crawford Tillinghast is described by his best friend, the narrator, as a man who should never have studied philosophy or science. He embarks on a plan to make the invisible entities around us visible — and, in turn, we will become visible to them and (as it turns out), prey.

I liked the bitterness of the story as Tillinghast, begged by the narrator not to continue his researches, kicks him away and then, eventually, tries to get one of the newly discovered entities from beyond to kill him, all the while gloating that at last the existence of his “pets” will be proven. Of course, it is Tillinghast they ultimately kill. Continue reading ““From Beyond””

Sinister Barrier

Presumably, I’m off actually catching up on making my notes for my next article.

Since I covered another Russell novel in the last post, here’s another.

Sinister Barrier

Raw Feed (2002): Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell, 1939, 1948?.

“Introduction”, Jack L. Chalker — Brief introduction about Eric Frank Russell, who was one of John W. Campbell’s favorite short story writers before writing, at Campbell’s suggestion, his first novel, Sinister Barrier.  It was published in the first issue of the fantasy magazine Campbell started, Unknown.  Chalker also talks about Russell’s interest in Charles Fort’s works and the debt this novel owes Fort as well as Russell’s involvement with British Forteans.

Sinister Barrier  — After first reading this novel about 15 years ago, and I read it over again because, having recently read the works of Charles Fort, I wanted to spot the full amount of his influence on this novel.

Fort would be proud.

Not only is he explicitly mentioned in the first paragraph, but the novel may be the most Fortean of all sf works.  The whole premise is taken from Fort’s remark that “I think we’re property.”  Russell mostly uses the metaphor of humanity as cows to serve alien masters, our emotions of violence and anger and agony being milk and meat to them.  (And the question as to the origin — extraterrestrials or native to Earth — of the Vitons is never answered.  It is suggested at one point that humanity is a cattle species brought by the Vitons to Earth from elsewhere.)

But Russell wraps up a lot more Fortean items in his story:  the wonders and miracles of psychics and religious figures may be a Viton disinformation campaign to discredit paranormal observations (sort of the “occult police” idea from Fort’s Lo!); ball lightening is dying Vitons; UFOs are observed Vitons (Russell may have pioneered the idea of alien abduction in this book); odd coincidences of death and odd disappearances; the allegedly superstitious coastal dwellers and sailors are able, because of a diet high in iodine, able to see the Vitons more often; feelings of dread may be Viton tendrils drinking your emotions.

Russell uses other Fortean paraphernalia:  the Fortean magazine Doubt is mentioned, and, after the knowledge of the Viton’s existence is widely disseminated, the U.S. government and newspapers look through newspaper files to spot formerly hidden references to Vitons.  Russell mentions some things (like spontaneous combustion and psychic powers) that are included in Fort’s works. Other mentions of Fortean knowledge postdate Fort’s death in 1932.  I suspect they are real, and Russell used his Fortean Society membership to gain access to them.

I’m curious as to when this novel was revised.  Chalker’s introduction just says it was after WWII which is obvious due to references to Hiroshima and the 1947 harbor explosion in Texas City.  On the other hand, there are some odd omissions, the main one being no explicit references to the Japanese in WWII though, especially since an Asian Combine fighting the West features them, kamikazes are mentioned.  Other signs of post-WWII revision are a reference to Pakistan and UFOS over North Ireland in 1942.  An odd bit of prose is a reference to the 1938 disappearance of a ship Anglo-Australian and Professor Beach saying “no solution had been found in ten years” — an odd thing to say for a story set in 2015.  (I wonder if it originally had a contemporary setting with the war breaking out between American and some portion of the Axis given an original publication date of 1939.)

Russell’s prose is pulpy, sometimes carrying his metaphors on too far, sometimes it has a melodramatic vigor like the first line from Chapter 1:  “’Swift death awaits the first cow that leads a revolt against milking,’ mused Professor Peder Bjornsen.”

The plot is roughly similar to Russell’s other Fortean novel, Dreadful Sanctuary.  Both start out with a string off odd, seemingly coincidental events.  Here it’s the seemingly natural deaths of several prominent scientists.  In Dreadful Sanctuary, it was the destruction of several spaceships bound for Venus.  In both cases, the protagonist uncovers a vast conspiracy of possibly extraterrestrial origin (though in the revision of Dreadful Sanctuary the Martians are really an Earth cult and here the Vitons may be native to Earth).  In both, the protagonists meets a babe related to a dead scientist.  This novel is much more involving and epic with America embroiled in a war with the Asian Combine while simultaneously trying to defeat the Vitons and a deadline counted down in hours (though Dreadful Sanctuary with its rocket launch, also has that).

This novel ends happily with the old problem of man’s violent emotions solved (now that we’re no longer provoked by aliens we can all live in rational harmony — indeed the Asians are not subjected to vengeance but education).  Like Dreadful Sanctuary, this novel also seems to make reference to the quack theories of Albert Abrams with its reference to “shortwave therapy”.

 

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

Dreadful Sanctuary

In honor of Megan’s review of Three to Conquer at From Couch to Moon, and to note my return from travels during which, I will add, only one book was purchased (though many magazines — think of it as an alcoholic dropping the bourbon for lager), I give you more hard-bitten Eric Frank Russell.

Dreadful Sanctuary

Raw Feed (2002): Dreadful Sanctuary, Eric Frank Russell, 1948, 1963.

I decided to read this book because, like Russell’s Sinister Barrier, it is inspired by Fortean ideas according to an article on Charles Fort and Erick Frank Russell by sf author and critic David Langford. The specific inspiration was, according to Langford, Fort’s lost manuscript (written prior to his Book of the Damned) X. (Oddly enough, Damon Knight, in his biography of Fort, doesn’t mention this connection though he talks about Russell’s memberships in the Fortean Society and Sinister Barrier and also about X).

The novel is written in sort of a not always successful, sometimes forced sounding, wise-cracking style of hardboiled detective stories. The basic premise — that Earth is literally an insane asylum for the dregs of the Solar System — certainly is Fortean. (The specifics are that each of the four inner planets of the Solar System evolved separate humanoid races roughly equal in development and intelligence. Blacks evolved from Mercury. Brown-skinned people evolved on Venus. Earth natives were Orientals, and whites evolved on Mars. This also sounds a little like Theosophy.) The Martians discover space travel first. All the non-Terran humanoids discover a way of proving definite sanity, and exile (humanely in their eyes) all their insane people, the ones stopping the development of further civilization, to Earth. Sanity is a dominant gene, and some people, members of the international conspiracy known as the Norman Club (dedicated to destroying rocket expeditions to Venus in order to keep the insane Earthmen from breaking out) know their extraterrestrial origins. Some religious figures were missionaries from other planets (except the native born Confucius).

The Norman Club is in occasional contact with the Martians. At least, this is the story big, quick shooting, quick punching protagonist (and inventor — Russell has lots of radio and electronic jargon in this story set in 1972 where videophones and tv delivered papers exist) John J. Armstrong uncovers at both ends of various interrogations. However, at the end, it is strongly hinted that Dr. Horowitz, who claims to be a Martian, is really just a clever, power-hungry scientist who has talked his way into the leadership of the deluded Norman Club. Langford claims that, in editions prior to this 1963 revision, Armstrong gets to Mars and proves no society of white Martians exist. In this edition, he fails in his mission to show a Venus journey is possible and dies in space. (Talk of creating a “new psychic factor” by making this journey is very typical of sf from the 40s and 50s — the date of this novel’s original composition — since it carries a implication of a true social science.) The cult of the Norman Club is triumphant. The exact rationale of making the desperate Venus voyage at novel’s end was lost on me. If the fuel supply has been sabotaged, the extra fuel for a test flight might make a journey to Venus possible, but, given the facts presented, it would seem the spaceship would still blow up on the return trip. I’m now curious to read an earlier version of the novel. All in all, while Russell kept the plot going with conspiracy (and the rather deus ex machina super lie detector called the “schizophraser”) and lots of action, I don’t think it worked as well, especially in its hurried ending, as Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

I also found the reference to a “short-wave therapy set” peculiar. Did Russell, in 1948, somehow think the quack radionics of Albert Abrams, thoroughly discredited in the 1920s, would really pan out? On the other hand, variations of Abrams’ ideas were being sold (and scientifically tested) in the late 40s and 50s.

 

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

Poe: 19 New Tales of Terror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe

The Poe celebration continues with a retro review from March 13, 2009.

Review: Poe: 19 New Tales of Terror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow,  2009.Poe

So what does a Poe fan get in this anthology of dark fantasy, suspense, and horror?

“Inspired by” covers a lot of ground here. Sometimes the Poe reference is so dilute, an allusion to a Poe character or story or setting or even a color that it is only the author’s afterword that makes the connection clear. Sometimes Poe just triggers an associational nostalgia in the author, and the story has more to do with the author’s youth than Poe. Sometimes the stories are a not very thinly veiled retelling of Poe stories. Sometimes the author grapples directly with the meaning or implications of Poe themes and images. Sometimes, despite the stated editorial prohibition against it, Poe shows up as a character.

The first story, Kim Newman’s “Illimitable Domain“, sort of stands apart from everything else in the book. Newman’s knowledge of films and love of Poe gives us sort of a funny and, in the end, horrific alternate history in which those Roger Corman adaptations of Poe are just the beginning of Poe’s encroachment into modern popular culture. This isn’t the first time Newman has used Poe in his fiction, but those other examples have been Poe as a character. Here Poe the writer ultimately scripts reality itself. Continue reading “Poe: 19 New Tales of Terror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe”

The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5

I strongly recommend James Gunn’s six volume The Road to Science Fiction anthology series as a good look at the history of Anglophone science fiction. In the sixth volume, foreign language science fiction is covered.

However, I only reviewed this volume.

A retro review from September 2, 2003.

Review: The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5: The British Way, ed. James Gunn, 1998.Road to Science Fiction

Several novels are excerpted here. And one prominent one isn’t: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which Gunn argues is a transition from the gothic but not yet fully in the camp of self-aware science fiction. Lt. Col. Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking is the first of those future war novels written by politicians and military men determined to influence public policy. Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, still in print, is a charming tale of life and culture in a two-dimensional world. That incomparable giant of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, is represented by a selection from Star Maker, narrated by a “cosmical mind” who views the life of the universe. (Though oddly, in this volume, Gunn barely mentions his importance to the genre. For that, you must consult volume two.) The title for the section on Richard Jeffries After London; Or, Wild England is “The Craving for Catastrophe”. It is a pastoral tale of a simpler life after an unexplained disaster has befallen the country.

That craving shows up in several more tales. Killer smog hits the city in Robert Barr’s 1892 story “The Doom of London.” “The Great Fog” of H. F. Heard wipes out worldwide civilization. Life gets extinguished on an alien planet in Arthur C. Clarke’s much anthologized “The Star”. The Nature of the Catastrophe” in Michael Moorcock’s story of that name is never really explained. An amalgam of newspaper excerpts and fiction, this story unfortunately shares the oblique prose and loose setting of his Jerry Cornelius novels. Not readable in its own right, it still gives you some idea of Moorcock’s influence on the New Wave. Tanith Lee’s “Written in Water” is a last woman on Earth tale. The world that may be destroyed by an artist in J. D. Beresford “A Negligible Experiment” is our own. The disaster of John Wyndham’s “The Emptiness of Space” is a personal one. Its hero has survived a spell in cryonic suspension and fears his soul has left his body.

As you would expect, the anthology is full of several famous names. Continue reading “The Road to Science Fiction, Volume 5”