Another recent reading for the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing.
Review: “The Space-Eaters”, Frank Belknap Long, 1927.
In his H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi says the following:
This story can be said to have two distinctive qualities. It is the first work to involve Lovecraft as a character … and – although this point is somewhat debatable – it is the first “addition” to Lovecraft’s mythos.
And yet, to be perfectly honest, “The Space-Eaters” is a preposterous and ridiculous story.
Well, I’ve certainly read worse stories in and out of the Mythos. But it’s not a good story, and I’ve briefly talked about it before.
I don’t think it is a Cthulhu Mythos story. It references none of the locations, blasphemous tomes, or “deities” of that vast conception carried on for 90 some years now. The brain-eating menace from space isn’t even given a name.
The story is 32 pages long, and, for most of that, Long fails to create any sense of menace or wonder except for a couple brief scenes.
The story has Howard, a writer, and Frank, his narrator and friend. Yes, that’s Howard as in Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Frank as in Frank Belknap Long.
Lovecraft’s only requirement for his fictional portrayal was that he be shown as “LEAN” since he was a bit pudgy during his recent failed marriage and exile in New York City and had lost the weight.
Writer Howard opens the story complaining of his inability to write a horror that “transcends everything” and then goes on a riff imagining a horror that “could eat their way to us through space!”.
Long seems to be having a bit of fun with his friend Lovecraft and making some sly, personal jokes because the very first page of the story sums up Howard’s opinion, not all that favorable, of many of the authors Lovecraft mentions favorably in his Supernatural Horror in Literature: Bram Stoker, Anne Radcliffe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s idol Edgar Allan Poe even gets criticized has having “really accomplished very little with his Lady Ushers, and liquescent Valdemars”.
Howard also trembles and gets angry at several points in the story whereas I think of Lovecraft as probably often stoic or good-humored with only occasional outbursts of exasperation or anger.
Howard also laments that he is not a mathematician and cannot glimpse the “strange curves and angles” of the fourth dimension. This may, as well as bringing to mind Long’s far better tale of menacing geometry, “The Hounds of Tindalos”, may be a reference to Lovecraft’s lack of mathematical aptitude keeping him from his intended career as an astronomer.
Anyway, a local man, Henry Wells shows up Frank’s house, with an odd story and an odd injury.
And here is where Long makes his biggest mistake.
A classical opening gambit for a Mythos story is to make some grand philosophical observation based on the events later in the story. Perhaps the best examples from Lovecraft’s work are the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness”.
Long wants us to swallow the coincidence that Howard’s opening speculations are realized in random later events.
Wells has an odd hole in the right side of his. It’s clean and bloodless and may just go into the middle of his brain.
He tells us how he got it. He was driving his horse and cart that foggy night through Mulligan Wood, a rather sinister place whose menacing vegetation may be a reference to Lovecraft’s recently completed “The Colour Out of Space”. He feels something odd drop on his head, something soft and with a jelly-like consistency.
Then he sees what looks like a thin white arm, and just the arm, descend from the tree tops and grope around the ground.
Wells and his horse bolt away, but then he feels a lancing, ice cold pain in his skull, passes out for ten minutes and then goes to Frank’s house.
Howard thinks this is a splendid story, an “accidental tour de force”, and that Wells’ wound is self-inflicted, that Wells is crazy.
Wells is not happy to be thought a liar and is overcome with pain again and runs into the night.
Frank and Howard decide they really should go find him and get a doctor, so they go into Mulligan Wood. After seeing the shapes of “venomous tongues and leering eyes” in the fog, they find the screaming Wells and take him back to the house, tie him up, and call for Dr. Smith.
Smith doesn’t think Wells is going to last long, and one of two effective episodes in the story is his probing of Wells’ head and wound.
Smith is aghast. He believes they are dealing with an alien menace, and Frank’s house is now marked for destruction.
Howard and Frank agree a menace is out in the foggy night and head for Frank’s launch and the sea. Mulligan Wood is alive with ominous dronings and humming.
They make it to the launch and, at sea, they see a “vast, formless shape” above the forest which has, unaccountably, started to burn.
And here Long makes his second mistake. The alien menace is kept at bay with some burning cotton from the boat and the sign of the cross. Banal folk magic defeating cosmic menace is a mistake Lovecraft made in “The Dreams of the Witch House”.
And there concludes the first part of the story.
The second part has Howard trying to turn the whole thing into a story. Frank thinks that’s a blasphemous violation of “the privacies of the mind”, that the story is too convincing, too real. The event should be suppressed. (Which picks up a theme of many of Lovecraft’s stories: the suppression of the truth by individuals and institutions.)
Howard refuses, and, in the concluding third section, Frank gets a strange call from Howard. “They’ve come back! … I have become a priest of the Devil.”.
Frank goes to Howard’s house where he sees strange shafts of light penetrating Howard’s head, Howard who is lying on the floor, his hands before his eyes as if blotting out a hellish vision.
And when strange sounds come from Howard’s mouth, Frank makes the sign of the cross, the house starts burning, and Frank leaves his dead friend on the floor.
More reviews of Lovecraft related material are indexed on the Lovecraft page.
And more reviews of fantastic fiction in general are indexed on the title and author/editor pages.