Saturday, November 26, 2016

Gods of the North, by Robert E. Howard

The clangor of the swords had died away, the shouting of the slaughter was hushed; silence lay on the red-stained snow. The bleak pale sun that glittered so blindingly from the ice-fields and the snow-covered plains struck sheens of silver from rent corselet and broken blade, where the dead lay as they had fallen. The nerveless hand yet gripped the broken hilt; helmeted heads back-drawn in the death-throes, tilted red beards and golden beards grimly upward, as if in last invocation to Ymir the frost-giant, god of a warrior-race.

Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face.

Both were tall men, built like tigers. Their shields were gone, their corselets battered and dinted. Blood dried on their mail; their swords were stained red. Their horned helmets showed the marks of fierce strokes. One was beardless and black­maned. The locks and beard of the other were red as the blood on the sunlit snow.

"Man," said he, "tell me your name, so that my brothers in Vanaheim may know who was the last of Wulfhere's band to fall before the sword of Heimdul."

"Not in Vanaheim," growled the black-haired warrior, "but in Valhalla will you tell your brothers that you met Conan of Cimmeria."

Heimdul roared and leaped, and his sword flashed in deathly arc. Conan staggered and his vision was filled with red sparks as the singing blade crashed on his helmet, shivering into bits of blue fire. But as he reeled he thrust with all the power of his broad shoulders behind the humming blade. The sharp point tore through brass scales and bones and heart, and the red-haired warrior died at Conan's feet.

The Cimmerian stood upright, trailing his sword, a sudden sick weariness assailing him. The glare of the sun on the snow cut his eyes like a knife and the sky seemed shrunken and strangely apart. He turned away from the trampled expanse where yellow-bearded warriors lay locked with red-haired slayers in the embrace of death. A few steps he took, and the glare of the snow fields was suddenly dimmed. A rushing wave of blindness engulfed him and he sank down into the snow, supporting himself on one mailed arm, seeking to shake the blindness out of his eyes as a lion might shake his mane.

A silvery laugh cut through his dizziness, and his sight cleared slowly. He looked up; there was a strangeness about all the landscape that he could not place or define — an unfamiliar tinge to earth and sky. But he did not think long of this. Before him, swaying like a sapling in the wind, stood a woman. Her body was like ivory to his dazed gaze, and save for a light veil of gossamer, she was naked as the day. Her slender bare feet were whiter than the snow they spurned. She laughed down at the bewildered warrior. Her laughter was sweeter than the rippling of silvery fountains, and poisonous with cruel mockery.

"Who are you?" asked the Cimmerian. "Whence come you?"

"What matter?" Her voice was more musical than a silver-stringed harp, but it was edged with cruelty.

"Call up your men," said he, grasping his sword. "Yet though my strength fail me, they shall not take me alive. I see that you are of the Vanir."

"Have I said so?"

His gaze went again to her unruly locks, which at first glance he had thought to be red. Now he saw that they were neither red nor yellow but a glorious compound of both colors. He gazed spell-bound. Her hair was like elfin-gold; the sun struck it so dazzlingly that he could scarcely bear to look upon it. Her eyes were likewise neither wholly blue nor wholly grey, but of shifting colors and dancing lights and clouds of colors he could not define. Her full red lips smiled, and from her slender feet to the blinding crown of her billowy hair, her ivory body was as perfect as the dream of a god. Conan's pulse hammered in his temples.

"I can not tell," said he, "whether you are of Vanaheim and mine enemy, or of Asgard and my friend. Far have I wandered, but a woman like you I have never seen. Your locks blind me with their brightness. Never have I seen such hair, not even among the fairest daughters of the Æsir. By Ymir — "

"Who are you to swear by Ymir?" she mocked. "What know you of the gods of ice and snow, you who have come up from the south to adventure among an alien people?"

"By the dark gods of my own race!" he cried in anger. "Though I am not of the golden-haired Æsir, none has been more forward in sword-play! This day I have seen four score men fall, and I alone have survived the field where Wulfhere's reavers met the wolves of Bragi. Tell me, woman, have you seen the flash of mail out across the snow-plains, or seen armed men moving upon the ice?"

"I have seen the hoar-frost glittering in the sun," she answered. "I have heard the wind whispering across the everlasting snows."

He shook his head with a sigh.

"Niord should have come up with us before the battle joined. I fear he and his fighting-men have been ambushed. Wulfhere and his warriors lie dead.

"I had thought there was no village within many leagues of this spot, for the war carried us far, but you can not have come a great distance over these snows, naked as you are. Lead me to your tribe, if you are of Asgard, for I am faint with blows and the weariness of strife."

"My village is further than you can walk, Conan of Cimmeria," she laughed. Spreading her arms wide, she swayed before him, her golden head lolling sensuously, her scintillant eyes half shadowed beneath their long silken lashes. "Am I not beautiful, oh man?"

"Like Dawn running naked on the snows," he muttered, his eyes burning like those of a wolf.

"Then why do you not rise and follow me? Who is the strong warrior who falls down before me?" she chanted in maddening mockery. "Lie down and die in the snow with the other fools, Conan of the black hair. You can not follow where I would lead."

With an oath the Cimmerian heaved himself up on his feet, his blue eyes blazing, his dark scarred face contorted. Rage shook his soul, but desire for the taunting figure before him hammered at his temples and drove his wild blood fiercely through his veins. Passion fierce as physical agony flooded his whole being, so that earth and sky swam red to his dizzy gaze. In the madness that swept upon him, weariness and faintness were swept away.

He spoke no word as he drove at her, fingers spread to grip her soft flesh. With a shriek of laughter she leaped back and ran, laughing at him over her white shoulder. With a low growl Conan followed. He had forgotten the fight, forgotten the mailed warriors who lay in their blood, forgotten Niord and the reavers who had failed to reach the fight. He had thought only for the slender white shape which seemed to float rather than run before him.

Out across the white blinding plain the chase led. The trampled red field fell out of sight behind him, but still Conan kept on with the silent tenacity of his race. His mailed feet broke through the frozen crust; he sank deep in the drifts and forged through them by sheer strength. But the girl danced across the snow light as a feather floating across a pool; her naked feet barely left their imprint on the hoar-­frost that overlaid the crust. In spite of the fire in his veins, the cold bit through the warrior's mail and fur-lined tunic; but the girl in her gossamer veil ran as lightly: as gaily as if she danced through the palm and rose gardens of Poitain.

On and on she led, and Conan followed. Black curses drooled through the Cimmerian's parched lips. The great veins in his temples swelled and throbbed and his teeth gnashed.

"You can not escape me!" he roared. "Lead me into a trap and I'll pile the heads of your kinsmen at your feet! Hide from me and I'll tear apart the mountains to find you! I'll follow you to hell!"

Her maddening laughter floated back to him, and foam flew from the barbarian's lips. Further and further into the wastes she led him. The land changed; the wide plains gave way to low hills, marching upward in broken ranges. Far to the north he caught a glimpse of towering mountains, blue with the distance, or white with the eternal snows. Above these mountains shone the flaring rays of the borealis. They spread fan-wise into the sky, frosty blades of cold flaming light, changing in color, growing and brightening.

Above him the skies glowed and crackled with strange lights and gleams. The snow shone weirdly, now frosty blue, now icy crimson, now cold silver. Through a shimmering icy realm of enchantment Conan plunged doggedly onward, in a crystalline maze where the only reality was the white body dancing across the glittering snow beyond his reach - ever beyond his reach.

He did not wonder at the strangeness of it all, not even when two gigantic figures rose up to bar his way. The scales of their mail were white with hoar-frost; their helmets and their axes were covered with ice. Snow sprinkled their locks; in their beards were spikes of icicles; their eyes were cold as the lights that streamed above them.

"Brothers!" cried the girl, dancing between them. "Look who follows! I have brought you a man to slay! Take his heart that we may lay it smoking on our father's board!"

The giants answered with roars like the grinding of ice-bergs on a frozen shore and heaved up their shining axes as the maddened Cimmerian hurled himself upon them. A frosty blade flashed before his eyes, blinding him with its brightness, and he gave back a terrible stroke that sheared through his foe's thigh. With a groan the victim fell, and at the instant Conan was dashed into the snow, his left shoulder numb from the blow of the survivor, from which the Cimmerian's mail had barely saved his life. Conan saw the remaining giant looming high above him like a colossus carved of ice, etched against the cold glowing sky. The axe fell, to sink through the snow and deep into the frozen earth as Conan hurled himself aside and leaped to his feet. The giant roared and wrenched his axe free, but even as he did, Conan's sword sang down. The giant's knees bent and he sank slowly into the snow, which turned crimson with the blood that gushed from his half-severed neck.

Conan wheeled, to see the girl standing a short distance away, staring at him in wide-eyed horror, all the mockery gone from her face. He cried out fiercely and the blood-drops flew from his sword as his hand shook in the intensity of his passion.

"Call the rest of your brothers!" he cried. "I'll give their hearts to the wolves! You can not escape me - "

With a cry of fright she turned and ran fleetly. She did not laugh now, nor mock him over her white shoulder. She ran as for her life, and though he strained every nerve and thew, until his temples were like to burst and the snow swam red to his gaze, she drew away from him, dwindling in the witch-fire of the skies, until she was a figure no bigger than a child, then a dancing white flame on the snow, then a dim blur in the distance. But grinding his teeth until the blood started from his gums, he reeled on, and he saw the blur grow to a dancing white flame, and the flame to a figure big as a child; and then she was running less than a hundred paces ahead of him, and slowly the space narrowed, foot by foot.

She was running with effort now, her golden locks blowing free; he heard the quick panting of her breath, and saw a flash of fear in the look she cast over her white shoulder. The grim endurance of the barbarian had served him well. The speed ebbed from her flashing white legs; she reeled in her gait. In his untamed soul leaped up the fires of hell she had fanned so well. With an inhuman roar he closed in on her, just as she wheeled with a haunting cry and flung out her arms to fend him off.

His sword fell into the snow as he crushed her to him. Her lithe body bent backward as she fought with desperate frenzy in his iron arms. Her golden hair blew about his face, blinding him with its sheen; the feel of her slender body twisting in his mailed arms drove him to blinder madness. His strong fingers sank deep into her smooth flesh; and that flesh was cold as ice. It was as if he embraced not a woman of human flesh and blood, but a woman of flaming ice. She writhed her golden head aside, striving to avoid the fierce kisses that bruised her red lips.

"You are cold as the snows," he mumbled dazedly. "I will warm you with the fire in my own blood — "

With a scream and a desperate wrench she slipped from his arms, leaving her single gossamer garment in his grasp. She sprang back and faced him, her golden locks in wild disarray, her white bosom heaving, her beautiful eyes blazing with terror. For an instant he stood frozen, awed by her terrible beauty as she posed naked against the snows.

And in that instant she flung her arms toward the lights that glowed in the skies above her and cried out in a voice that rang in Conan's ears for ever after: "Ymir! Oh, my father, save me!"

Conan was leaping forward, arms spread to seize her, when with a crack like the breaking of an ice mountain, the whole skies leaped into icy fire. The girl's ivory body was suddenly enveloped in a cold blue flame so blinding that the Cimmerian threw up his hands to shield his eyes from the intolerable blaze. A fleeting instant, skies and snowy hills were bathed in crackling white flames, blue darts of icy light, and frozen crimson fires. Then Conan staggered and cried out. The girl was gone. The glowing snow lay empty and bare; high above his head the witch-lights flashed and played in a frosty sky gone mad, and among the distant blue mountains there sounded a rolling thunder as of a gigantic war-chariot rushing behind steeds whose frantic hoofs struck lightning from the snows and echoes from the skies.

Then suddenly the borealis, the snow-clad hills and the blazing heavens reeled drunkenly to Conan's sight; thousands of fire-balls burst with showers of sparks, and the sky itself became a titanic wheel which rained stars as it spun. Under his feet the snowy hills heaved up like a wave, and the Cimmerian crumpled into the snows to lie motionless.

In a cold dark universe, whose sun was extinguished eons ago, Conan felt the movement of life, alien and unguessed. An earthquake had him in its grip and was shaking him to and fro, at the same time chafing his hands and feet until he yelled in pain and fury and groped for his sword.

"He's coming to, Horsa," said a voice. "Haste — we must rub the frost out of his limbs, if he's ever to wield sword again."

"He won't open his left hand," growled another. "He's clutching something — "

Conan opened his eyes and stared into the bearded faces that bent over him. He was surrounded by tall golden-haired warriors in mail and furs.

"Conan! You live!"

"By Crom, Niord," gasped the Cimmerian. 'Am I alive, or are we all dead and in Valhalla?"

"We live," grunted the Æsir, busy over Conan's half-frozen feet. "We had to fight our way through an ambush, or we had come up with you before the battle was joined. The corpses were scarce cold when we came upon the field. We did not find you among the dead, so we followed your spoor. In Ymir's name, Conan, why did you wander off into the wastes of the north? We have followed your tracks in the snow for hours. Had a blizzard come up and hidden them, we had never found you, by Ymir!"

"Swear not so often by Ymir," uneasily muttered a warrior, glancing at the distant mountains. "This is his land and the god bides among yonder mountains, the legends say."

"I saw a woman," Conan answered hazily. "We met Bragi's men in the plains. I know not how long we fought. I alone lived. I was dizzy and faint. The land lay like a dream before me. Only now do all things seem natural and familiar. The woman came and taunted me. She was beautiful as a frozen flame from hell. A strange madness fell upon me when I looked at her, so I forgot all else in the world. I followed her. Did you not find her tracks? Or the giants in icy mail I slew?"

Niord shook his head.

"We found only your tracks in the snow, Conan."

"Then it may be I am mad," said Conan dazedly. "Yet you yourself are no more real to me than was the golden-locked witch who fled naked across the snows before me. Yet from under my very hands she vanished in icy flame."

"He is delirious," whispered a warrior.

"Not so!" cried an older man, whose eyes were wild and weird. "It was Atali, the daughter of Ymir, the frost-giant! To fields of the dead she comes, and shows herself to the dying! Myself when a boy I saw her, when I lay half-slain on the bloody field of Wolraven. I saw her walk among the dead in the snows, her naked body gleaming like ivory and her golden hair unbearably bright in the moonlight. I lay and howled like a dying dog because I could not crawl after her. She lures men from stricken fields into the wastelands to be slain by her brothers, the ice-giants, who lay men's red hearts smoking on Ymir's board. The Cimmerian has seen Atali, the frost-giant's daughter!"

"Bah!" grunted Horsa. "Old Gorm's mind was touched in his youth by a sword cut on the head. Conan was delirious from the fury of battle — look how his helmet is dinted. Any of those blows might have addled his brain. It was an hallucination he followed into the wastes. He is from the south; what does he know of Atali?"

"You speak truth, perhaps," muttered Conan. "It was all strange and weird ­— by Crom!"

He broke off, glaring at the object that still dangled from his clenched left fist; the others gaped silently at the veil he held up - a wisp of gossamer that was never spun by human distaff.


("Gods of the North" by Robert E. Howard is in the public domain.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Bleak Shore, by Fritz Leiber

"So you think a man can cheat death and outwit doom?" said the small, pale man, whose bulging forehead was shadowed by a black cowl. 
The Gray Mouser, holding the dice box ready for a throw, paused and quickly looked sideways at the questioner. 
"I said that a cunning man can cheat death for a long time." 
The Silver Eel bustled with pleasantly raucous excitement. Fighting men predominated and the clank of swordsmen's harness mingled with the thump of tankards, providing a deep obbligato to the shrill laughter of the women. Swaggering guardsmen elbowed the insolent bravos of the young lords. Grinning slaves bearing open wine jars dodged nimbly between. In one corner a slave girl was dancing, the jingle of her silver anklet bells inaudible in the din. Outside the small, tight-shuttered windows a dry, whistling wind from the south filled the air with dust that eddied between the cobblestones and hazed the stars. But here all was jovial confusion. 
The Gray Mouser was one of a dozen at the gaming table. He was dressed all in gray—jerkin, silken shirt, and mouse-skin cap—but his dark, flashing eyes and cryptic smile made him seem more alive than any of the others, save for the huge copper-haired barbarian next to him, who laughed immoderately and drank tankards of the sour wine of Lankhmar as if it were beer. 
"They say you're a skilled swordsman and have come close to death many times," continued the small, pale man in the black robe, his thin lips barely parting as he spoke the words. 
But the Mouser had made his throw, and the odd dice of Lankhmar had stopped with the matching symbols of the eel and serpent uppermost, and he was raking in triangular golden coins. The barbarian answered for him. 
"Yes, the gray one handles a sword daintily enough—almost as well as myself. He's also a great cheat at dice." 
"Are you, then, Fafhrd?" asked the other. "And do you, too, truly think a man can cheat death, be he ever so cunning a cheat at dice?" 
The barbarian showed his white teeth in a grin and peered puzzledly at the small, pale man whose somber appearance and manner contrasted so strangely with the revelers throning the low-ceilinged tavern fumy with wine. 
"You guess right again," he said in a bantering tone. "I am Fafhrd, a Northerner, ready to pit my wits against any doom." He nudged his companion. "Look, Mouser, what do you think of this little black-coated mouse who's sneaked in through a crack in the floor and wants to talk with you and me about death?" 
The man in black did not seem to notice the jesting insult. Again his bloodless lips hardly moved, yet his words were unaffected by the surrounding clamor, and impinged on the ears of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser with peculiar clarity. 
"It is said you two came close to death in the Forbidden City of the Black Idols, and in the stone trap of Angarngi, and on the misty island in the Sea of Monsters. It is also said that you have walked with doom on the Cold Waste and through the Mazes of Klesh. But who may be sure of these things, and whether death and doom were truly near? Who knows but what you are both braggarts who have boasted once too often? Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?" 
Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. the Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: "In what words might death call?" 
"That would depend," said the small man. "He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Secret of Kralitz, by Henry Kuttner

I awoke from profound sleep to find two black-swathed forms standing silently beside me, their faces pale blurs in the gloom. As I blinked to clear my sleep-dimmed eyes, one of them beckoned impatiently, and suddenly I realized the purpose of this midnight summons. For years I had been expecting it, ever since my father, the Baron Kralitz, had revealed to me the secret and the curse that hung over our ancient house. And so, without a word, I rose and followed my guides as they led me along the gloomy corridors of the castle that had been my home since birth. 
As I proceeded there rose up in my mind the stern face of my father, and in my ears rang his solemn words as he told me of the legendary curse of the House of Kralitz, the unknown secret that was imparted to the eldest son of each generation—at a certain time. 
"When?" I had asked my father as he lay on his death-bed, fighting back the approach of dissolution. 
"When you are able to understand," he had told me, watching my face intently from beneath his tufted white brows. "Some are told the secret sooner than others. Since the first Baron Kralitz the secret has been handed down——" 
He clutched at his breast and paused. It was fully five minutes before he had gathered his strength to speak again in his rolling, powerful voice. No gasping, death-bed confessions for the Baron Kralitz! 
He said at last, "You have seen the ruins of the old monastery near the village, Franz. The first Baron burnt it and put the monks to the sword. The Abbot interfered too often with the Baron's whims. A girl sought shelter and the Abbot refused to give her up at the Baron's demand. His patience was at an end—you know the tales they still tell about him. 
"He slew the Abbot, burned the monastery, and took the girl. Before he died the Abbot cursed his slayer, and cursed his sons for unborn generations. And it is the nature of this curse that is the secret of our house. 
"I may not tell you what the curse is. Do not seek to discover it before it is revealed to you. Wait patiently, and in due time you will be taken by the warders of the secret down the stairway to the underground cavern. And then you will learn the secret of Kralitz." 
As the last word passed my father's lips he died, his stern face still set in its harsh lines.
(Franz continues his investigation at Project Gutenberg...)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

O Ugly Bird!, by Manly Wade Wellman

I swear I'm licked before I start, trying to tell you all what Mr. Onselm looked like. Words give out sometimes. The way you're purely frozen to death for fit words to tell the favor of the girl you love. And Mr. Onselm and I pure poison hated each other from the start. That's a way that love and hate are alike.
He's what folks in the country call a low man, meaning he's short and small. But a low man is low other ways than in inches, sometimes. Mr. Onselm's shoulders didn't wide out as far as his big ears, and they sank and sagged. His thin legs bowed in at the knee and out at the shank, like two sickles put point to point. His neck was as thin as a carrot, and on it his head looked like a swollen-up pale gourd. Thin hair, gray as tree moss. Loose mouth, a little bit open to show long, straight teeth. Not much chin. The right eye squinted, mean and dark, while the hike of his brow stretched the left one wide open. His good clothes fitted his mean body as if they were cut to its measure. Those good clothes of his were almost as much out of match to the rest of him as his long, soft, pink hands, the hands of a man who'd never had to work a tap's worth. 
You see now what I mean? I can't say just how he looked, only that he looked hateful. 
I first met him when I was coming down from that high mountain's comb, along an animal trail—maybe a deer made it. I was making to go on across the valley and through a pass, on to Hark Mountain where I'd heard tell was the Bottomless Pool. No special reason, just I had the notion to go there. The valley had trees in it, and through and among the trees I saw, here and there down the slope, patchy places and cabins and yards. 
I hoped to myself I might could get fed at one of the cabins, for I'd run clear out of eating some spell back. I didn't have any money, nary coin of it; just only my hickory shirt and blue jeans pants and torn old army shoes, and my guitar on its sling cord. But I knew the mountain folks. If they've got anything to eat, a decent-spoken stranger can get the half part of it. Town folks ain't always the same way about that. 
Down the slope I picked my way, favoring the guitar just in case I slipped and fell down, and in an hour I'd made it to the first patch. The cabin was two rooms, dog-trotted and open through the middle. Beyond it was a shed and a pigpen. In the yard was the man of the house, talking to who I found out later was Mr. Onselm. 
"You don't have any meat at all?" Mr. Onselm inquired him, and Mr. Onselm's voice was the last you'd expect his sort of man to have, it was full of broad low music, like an organ in a big town church. But I decided not to ask him to sing when I'd taken another closer glimpse of him—sickle-legged and gourd-headed, and pale and puny in his fine-fitting clothes. For, small as he was, he looked mad and dangerous; and the man of the place, though he was a big, strong-seeming old gentleman with a square jaw, looked scared. 
"I been right short this year, Mr. Onselm," he said, and it was a half-begging way he said it. "The last bit of meat I done fished out of the brine on Tuesday. And I'd sure enough rather not to kill the pig till December." 
Mr. Onselm tramped over to the pen and looked in. The pig was a friendly-acting one; it reared up with its front feet against the boards and grunted up, the way you'd know he hoped for something nice to eat. Mr. Onselm spit into the pen. 
"All right," he said, granting a favor. "But I want some meal." 
He sickle-legged back toward the cabin. A brown barrel stood out in the dog trot. Mr. Onselm flung off the cover and pinched up some meal between the tips of his pink fingers. "Get me a sack," he told the man.
The man went quick indoors, and quick out he came, with the sack. Mr. Onselm held it open while the man scooped out enough meal to fill it up. Then Mr. Onselm twisted the neck tight shut and the man lashed the neck with twine. Finally Mr. Onselm looked up and saw me standing there with my guitar under my arm. 
"Who are you?" he asked, sort of crooning. 
"My name's John," I said. 
"John what?" Then he never waited for me to tell him John what. "Where did you steal that guitar?" 
"This was given to me," I replied him. "I strung it with the silver wires myself." 
"Silver," said Mr. Onselm, and he opened his squint eye by a trifle bit. 
"Yes, sir." With my left hand I clamped a chord. With my right thumb I picked the silver strings to a whisper. I began to make up a song:

"Mister Onselm,
They do what you tell 'em—"

"That will do," said Mr. Onselm, not so singingly, and I stopped with the half-made-up song. He relaxed and let his eye go back to a squint again. 
"They do what I tell 'em," he said, halfway to himself. "Not bad."
(John the Balladeer continues his tale at

Pulp Radio Wednesday: The Lone Ranger - "Crooked Banker and Sheriff"

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Devil's Asteroid, by Manly Wade Wellman

It was not very large, as asteroids go, but about it clung a silvery mist of atmosphere. Deeper flashes through the mist betokened water, and green patches hinted of rich vegetation. The space-patroller circled the little world knowledgeably, like a wasp buzzing around an apple. In the control room, by the forward ports, the Martian skipper addressed his Terrestrial companion.
"I wissh you joy of yourr new home," he purred. Like many Martians, he was braced upright on his lower tentacles by hoops and buckles around his bladdery body, so that he had roughly a human form, over which lay a strange loose armor of light plates. In the breathing hole of his petal-tufted skull was lodged an artificial voice-box that achieved words. "I rregrret—"
Fitzhugh Parr glowered back. He was tall, even for a man of Earth, and his long-jawed young face darkened with wrath. "Regret nothing," he snapped. "You're jolly glad to drop me on this little hell."
"Hell?" repeated the Martian reproachfully. "But it iss a ssplendid miniaturre worrld—nineteen of yourr miless in diameterr, with arrtificial grravity centerr to hold airr and waterr; ssown, too, with Terresstrrial plantss. And companionss of yourr own rrace."
"There's a catch," rejoined Parr. "Something you Martian swine think is a heap big joke. I can see that, captain."
The tufted head wagged. "Underr trreaty between Marrs and Earrth, judgess of one planet cannot ssentence to death crriminalss frrom the otherr, not even forr murrderr—"
"It wasn't for murder!" exploded Parr. "I struck in self-defense!"
"I cannot arrgue the point. Yourr victim wass a high official perrhapss inssolent, but you Earrth folk forrget how eassy ourr crraniumss crrack underr yourr blowss. Anyway, you do not die—you arre exiled. Prreparre to dissembarrk."
Behind them three Martian space-hands, sprawling like squids near the control-board, made flutelike comments to each other. The tentacle of each twiddled an electro-automatic pistol.
"Rremove tunic and bootss," directed the skipper. "You will not need them. Quickly, ssirr!"
Parr glared at the levelled weapons of the space-hands, then shucked his upper garment and kicked off his boots. He stood up straight and lean-muscled, in a pair of duck shorts. His fists clenched at his sides.
"Now we grround," the skipper continued, and even as he spoke there came the shock of the landfall. The inner panel opened, then the outer hatch. Sunlight beat into the chamber. "Goodbye," said the skipper formally. "You have thirrty ssecondss, Earrth time, to walk clearr of our blasstss beforre we take off. Marrch."
Parr strode out upon dark, rich soil. He sensed behind him the silent quiver of Martian laughter, and felt a new ecstasy of hate for his late guards, their race, and the red planet that spawned them. Not until he heard the rumble and swish of the ship's departure did he take note of the little world that was now his prison home.
At first view it wasn't really bad. At second, it wasn't really strange. The sky, by virtue of an Earth-type atmosphere, shone blue with wispy clouds, and around the small plain on which he stood sprouted clumps and thickets of green tropical trees. Heathery ferns, with white and yellow edges to their leaves, grew under his bare feet. The sun, hovering at zenith, gave a July warmth to the air. The narrow horizon was very near, of course, but the variety of thickets and the broken nature of the land beyond kept it from seeming too different from the skyline of Earth. Parr decided that he might learn to endure, even to enjoy. Meanwhile, what about the other Terrestrials exiled here? And, as Parr wondered, he heard their sudden, excited voices.
Threats and oaths rent the balmy air. Through the turmoil resounded solid blows. Parr broke into a run, shoved through some broad-leafed bushes, and found himself in the midst of the excitement.
(Parr continues his adventure at the Gutenberg Project)

Monday, November 21, 2016

READ: The Golgotha Dancers, by Manly Wade Wellman

While I enjoy the holiday week, unearth my Harlan Ellison collection from my old room, and mull over the thoughts of the past week or so on Google+, I will be posting links to free pulp stories.  


The Golgotha Dancers, by Manly Wade Wellman

I had come to the Art Museum to see the special show of Goya prints, but that particular gallery was so crowded that I could hardly get in, much less see or savor anything; wherefore I walked out again. I wandered through the other wings with their rows and rows of oils, their Greek and Roman sculptures, their stern ranks of medieval armors, their Oriental porcelains, their Egyptian gods. At length, by chance and not by design, I came to the head of a certain rear stairway. Other habitués of the museum will know the one I mean when I remind them that Arnold Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead hangs on the wall of the landing. 
I started down, relishing in advance the impression Böcklin's picture would make with its high brown rocks and black poplars, its midnight sky and gloomy film of sea, its single white figure erect in the bow of the beach-nosing skiff. But, as I descended, I saw that The Isle of the Dead was not in its accustomed position on the wall. In that space, arresting even in the bad light and from the up-angle of the stairs, hung a gilt-framed painting I had never seen or heard of in all my museum-haunting years. 
I gazed at it, one will imagine, all the way down to the landing. Then I had a close, searching look, and a final appraising stare from the lip of the landing above the lower half of the flight. So far as I can learn—and I have been diligent in my research—the thing is unknown even to the best-informed of art experts. Perhaps it is as well that I describe it in detail. 
It seemed to represent action upon a small plateau or table rock, drab and bare, with a twilight sky deepening into a starless evening. This setting, restrainedly worked up in blue-grays and blue-blacks, was not the first thing to catch the eye, however. The front of the picture was filled with lively dancing creatures, as pink, plump and naked as cherubs and as patently evil as the meditations of Satan in his rare idle moments. 
I counted those dancers. There were twelve of them, ranged in a half-circle, and they were cavorting in evident glee around a central object—a prone cross, which appeared to be made of two stout logs with some of the bark still upon them. To this cross a pair of the pink things—that makes fourteen—kneeling and swinging blocky-looking hammers or mauls, spiked a human figure. 
I say human when I speak of that figure, and I withhold the word in describing the dancers and their hammer-wielding fellows. There is a reason. The supine victim on the cross was a beautifully represented male body, as clear and anatomically correct as an illustration in a surgical textbook. The head was writhed around, as if in pain, and I could not see the face or its expression; but in the tortured tenseness of the muscles, in the slaty white sheen of the skin with jagged streaks of vivid gore upon it, agonized nature was plain and doubly plain. I could almost see the painted limbs writhe against the transfixing nails. 
By the same token, the dancers and hammerers were so dynamically done as to seem half in motion before my eyes. So much for the sound skill of the painter. Yet, where the crucified prisoner was all clarity, these others were all fog. No lines, no angles, no muscles—their features could not be seen or sensed. I was not even sure if they had hair or not. It was as if each was picked out with a ray of light in that surrounding dusk, light that revealed and yet shimmered indistinctly; light, too, that had absolutely nothing of comfort or honesty in it.
"Hold on, there!" came a sharp challenge from the stairs behind and below me. "What are you doing? And what's that picture doing?"

(Our art critic continues his story at the Gutenberg Project...) 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Great Conversation: John C. Wright

Per Wikipedia, "The Great Conversation is the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors. This process is characterized by authors in the Western canon making comparisons and allusions to the works of earlier authors." 

While the Great Conversation is thought to encompass the entire body of Western literature, similar conversations can be seen in weird fiction.  In Appendix N, Zelazny conversed, for lack of a better term, with Kuttner, who conversed with Lovecraft, who in turn was part of a tradition of authors building on foundations created decades earlier by Ambrose Bierce.  This one conversation of authors alluding and building off of their predecessors lasted over 100 years, and is still going, once you factor in such upstarts as Gaiman, Butcher, Correia, and even Scooby Doo.  Likewise Farmer and Moorcock both conversed with Dent who took his own inspirations from Burroughs.  A well read reader can recognize these allusions first hand, while those working to remedy their ignorance of great swathes of the conversation, like myself, rely on the works of critics to clarify particular exchanges.  What readers don't usually get to see is the author's intent. 

So to find on John C. Wright's blog notes for his own turn at the Great Conversation provides a rare opportunity, not just for seeing into the mind of a writer, but to see how canon is relevant to the story teller.  As Wright says:
That one solitary reader for whom I write this article can rest assured: THE HERMETIC MILLENNIA is deliberately intended by the author to be something of a variation, or even a rebuttal, to certain science fiction author’s ideas with which I disagree, or which, at the least, I think not presented convincingly.
As a word of warning, those adverse to spoilers should not read further, either in this article or Wright's own. 

The first of many ideas to be taken behind the woodshed is Asimov's psychohistory.

Let us take FOUNDATION, for example. The conceit there is that the Second Foundation, discoverers first of the predictive science of history, and later, for no apparent reason, discovers Way Cool Mind Powers, could guide the galaxy through the Dark Ages with something like a Soviet Five Year Plan for the economy writ large. And then, having saved the galaxy from the scourge of barbarism, the human race would all live happily ever after under the soul-crushing absolute rule of the Imperial family, the Praetorian Guard, the Senatorial clans and their clients, not to mention the Mandarins of the Second Foundation who can control history itself, and your brain. Whoop-to-do, fun.
(Why is the reader supposed to root for these guys? Sign me up with the Mule.)
What is wrong with this idea, or, at least, it seems wrong to me, is that the members of the Second Foundation are still human beings, still as filled with powerlust and ambition and sentimentality and selfishness as any other human beings, despite knowing a science to predict the future.
Like many Campbelline works, Foundation hinged upon the idea that man was malleable and that a small cabal of enlightened ones could ultimately improve the breed.  Wright takes that idea and shows it to be the murderous disaster that history has repeatedly proved it to be.  The centuries of the Hermetic Millenia are filled with hemoclasm after hemoclasm and extinctions as, invariably, the races of Man do not measure up to the designs of the Secret Kings.  Other Campbelline writers such as Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and van Vogt take their turn under Wright's microscope, including the fan-favorite Slans, who appear as the radiotelepathic Locusts bereft of individuality yet overflowing in pride.

However, Wright's turn at the Great Conversation is not just negative criticism of Campbell:

Then I did the clever thing I had hoped my readers would catch: I made at least one member of these terrible races with their terrible customs into heroes and heroines, each in his own way...

My biggest worry was that I had taken this step too far, that I had made the heroes from these various variant forms of humanity so likeable, so loveable, that readers would in disgust think that I was advocating living under the social systems designed by evil Hermeticists to break the human spirit.
I was afraid readers would think I was advocating Chimerical eugenics or militarism, Witchy mysticism, Nymphlike hedonism, and so on, because in each case I show the good as well as the bad of these ideals.
That is not the point at all. I am pointing out that evil social systems cannot break the human spirit. You will find good people even in the worst of worlds.
 Wright's conversation is not limited to science fiction.
So, finally, we reach the crux of the matter. I had to invent enough posthuman races, variant humanities, enough attempts to force mankind to the next step of evolution, to give some weight to the conceit of what is basically a transhumanist arms race.
Instead of making them up at random, I based them off of a specific progression in human history and psychology which leads to slavery, because the point of what the evil psychohistorians in my yarn were trying to do was to break the human spirit before the aliens arrive, so that Man would submit to them, and live, rather than prove recalcitrant and useless, and be slain.
The steps are loss of ambition in the Sylphs; which leads to loss of reason in the Witches; which leads to loss of empathy in the Chimerae; leads to loss of chastity in the Nymphs; which leads to the loss of the sense of man as more dignified than the animals in the Hormagaunts; which leads to a loss of individuality in the Locusts; and, in the Melusine, this leads to a telepathic serfdom, a helotry of each thought and memory, far more terrible than any merely physical slavery ever endured.
The progression, put in simpler terms, runs from sloth to envy to wrath to lust to gluttony to avarice to pride.
The Seven Deadly Sins appear, one by one, marching through Wright's future history, as they have through Dante's Inferno and an entire host of works, literary and popular, to include comic books like Shazam! (Also known by its plagiarists as DC's Captain Marvel).

This is how canon works.  Each generation of writers takes and examines the works of those who went before, incorporates a little from each in admiration or critique, and, in turn, inspires future generations.  Here, as though trapped in amber, we are gifted to an annotated exchange in the Great Conversation.

Pulp Radio Wednesday: The Shadow - "The Reincarnation of Michael"

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


 If there is a living man who can be said to be the intellectual heart of the various counter-reformations of today's science fiction and fantasy, it is Tom Simon.  His reflections on writing and SFF inspired the Superversive movement and Human Wave science fiction.  While he prefers Tolkeinesque epic fantasy, his criticism of fantasy, both in what works and what does not, even inform the Pulp Reformation. 

One of his more recent ideas is legosity:
Legosity, then, is the quality that makes an idea go easily into stories. Things that have legosity tend to connect together easily, like Lego bricks. They are adaptable and reusable; their play-value is not exhausted in one telling. There are thousands of stories about Robin Hood, and tens of thousands about vampires. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, monsters, perils, and things of nameless dread: these are some of the simple bricks that have gone into stories from time immemorial. They are conceptual Lego, and they are free for anybody to use.

Because they are free, they are taken for granted; because they are not original, they are not striking. They don’t contribute to any story’s ozamatazThe Wheel of Time contains barrels of conceptual Lego, swiped or stolen or recycled from every great story-cycle known to Western man: which, I believe, was the author’s intention. But it has precious little originality. When you take it apart to play with the pieces, you find that all the pieces are somebody else’s. From Dune, you have the secret magic sisterhood that controls the fates of families and nations, the Bene Gesserit (renamed Aes Sedai); and the shockingly male creature that sets the world on its ear by having access to the magic and ignoring the sisterhood, the Kwisatz Haderach (renamed Dragon Reborn); and the wild desert-dwelling people who have a hard-won lore of their own, with whom nobody can tangle and not regret it – the Fremen (renamed Aiel). From Tolkien – well, the very first page of Jordan’s interminable saga mentions ‘the Third Age’ and ‘the Mountains of Mist’, and if that isn’t straight-up theft with the serial numbers left in blatant sight, I don’t know what it is. Nobody writes Wheel of Time fan fiction – at least none worth speaking of – for The Wheel of Time is itself fan fiction, in which all the fandoms collide together.

The works or franchises that I mentioned earlier, the ones that have long-lived and fruitful fandoms – the ones, as I put it, with ozamataz – all have this in common: they have original toys. They contribute new conceptual Lego to the barrel. ‘Who can invent a new leaf, or a new story?’ Tolkien asked – and then answered his own question, by inventing a whole botanical garden of new leaves, and resurrecting old ones that had been forgotten since the Middle Ages. It is this quality of primary invention – the new ideas, the new toys – that I shall refer to as ‘legosity’ hereafter.
 Many a literary movement has died out for lack of legosity.  New Wave and Mundane SF both died out for the same reason: no one wanted to pick up their toys and play.  Or, to be fair to the couple of writers in the Pulp Reformation inspired by New Wave, not enough did to sustain popular interest in the ideas.  The challenge for the Pulp Reformation is to find enough legosity to inspires people to not only want to read more but to tell their own stories in the same vein.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Questions for Investigation

I've been using my Google+ account as a scratch pad lately, thinking out loud about a few half-formed ideas. So that I can keep better track of them, and also in hopes that someone might batter the errors out of them, I've posted them here.


Did science fiction survive the death of Campbell in 1971?

By science fiction, I mean the branch of stories written for, against, in reaction to, or grew out from the Campbell revolution. I'd include, at the very least, Campbell, Futurian, and New Wave. Other rocketship stories exist outside of this group, but, unlike the Campbell strain of science fiction, they aren't typically considered to be the legitimate bearers of the mantle of SF.

There is no one smoking gun for what killed off a lot of weird literature in the 1970s, from new tax structures making backlists liabilities to the death of fiction magazines to rising pagecounts and an explosion of epic fantasy driving publishers away from the shorter weird tales. The newer editors of the 70s did not have their roots in the weird pulps and magazines either. But Campbell's death was mourned, not only for the loss of the man, but, as writer Barry Malzberg recounted of a friend's reaction to Campbell's death, "The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there's no one to get mad at us anymore."

Did Campbell science fiction survive this time, or was it supplanted by other rocketship tales in the 70s, as epic fantasy replaced sword and sorcery and the summer blockbuster replaced the dour artistic films of the same time? My gut now says no, but had I listened to my gut, I would have thought Campbell science fiction to be a more universal literature instead of being a literature of a clique. But while I might not yet have proof for a hunch, I am interested in hanging the pinyata out there for others to whack away at it.

In response, Jeffro Johnson pointed out that:
Something was out of whack when Asimov came backfrom nonfiction to do alien masturbation and low gee awkward sex. Heinlein was doing mega-novels about a guy traveling in time to have sex with his mom. Clarke? You know what he was doing in Sri Lanka and "Childhoods End" takes on an entirely different meaning because of it. These guys define the field for most people... these guys are what reformers are trying to move back to... but I'm telling you, this is batshit crazy stuff. If you think of this crap displacing Burroughs, Merritt, Brackett, Vance, Wellman, and Williamson, it's just plain bizarre.
And, indeed, Asimov and Heinlein's old man phases started after Campbell's death...


When did the idea that the pre-Campbell weird tales and the pulps suck become common?

I have a hard time believing that it was prevalent during the 30s through the early 70s. Many of the early Campbell writers were friends with Lovecraft and his Mythos circle. Others wrote for Weird Tales and similar non-Campbell pulps even as they wrote for Campbell. In fact, working in the pulps was a tradition that lasted decades. Kuttner wrote his own hero pulp. Bester wrote for the Shadow radio plays and even turned a Shadow script into the Demolished Man. Farmer wrote Tarzan novels and a fannish account of Doc Savage. Delaney wrote Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories for the comics.

Outside the pulps, Moorcock was Lester Dent's greatest disciple, using the Doc Savage author's pulp form and structure to create his early fantasies. Even Harlan Ellison used hero pulp radio plays to unironically convey the innocence of childhood in his stories.

Was it introduced by the anti-heroic Futurians? Or did the attitude arise after the 1970s, when the book editors took over from the magazine editors and no longer knew of the pulps or the magazines? Whenever it entered fannish thought, it created a lingering bit of "common knowledge" that just ain't so.

Friday, November 11, 2016


I confess to a curiosity about other international movements that share the spirit of the pulps. Whether its Japanese doujinshi and light novels, Chinese xianxia alchemist fantasies, or European serials like Perry Rhodan, other cultures have put their unique stamp on the stories of rocketships and swordslingers.  Yet the heirs of Campbell tend to ignore these stories when crying for diversity in science fiction and fantasy.

Fortunately, a movie based on a long running French comic named Valerian and Laureline is coming to theaters:

From Wikipedia:
The series focuses on the adventures of the dark-haired Valérian, a spatio-temporal agent, and his redheaded female colleague, Laureline, as they travel the universe through space and time. Valérian is a classical hero, kind-hearted, strong and brave who follows the orders of his superiors even if he feels, deep down, that it is the wrong thing to do. On the other hand, his partner Laureline combines her superior intelligence, determination and independence with sex-appeal. Influenced by classic literary science fiction, the series mixes space opera with time travel plots. Christin's scripts are noted for their humour, complexity and strongly humanist and left-wing liberal political ideas while Mézières' art is characterised by its vivid depictions of the alien worlds and species Valérian and Laureline encounter on their adventures. The series is considered a landmark in European comics and pop culture, and influenced other media as well: traces of its concepts, storylines and designs can be found on science fiction films such as Star Wars and The Fifth Element.
I hope it does well so that similar works can be introduced to American audiences.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Breakfast in the Ruins, by Barry Malzberg

As part of the slow process of digesting "Our Pulp Fiction Heritage", I started reading through one of the sources listed within: Barry Malzberg's Breakfast in the Ruins.  Written mostly in 1980, it offers a critical yet lionized view of publishing history in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when science fiction was separate from fiction and magazines replaced the pulps.

In it, he describes how the Campbell branch of science fiction was centered around a group of about 50 people doing 90% of the editing and writing. Entering the field at the time was reliant on access to this Central Fifty, as he called them. He says that it is possible to speculate that an entire alternative science fiction likely languished in the slush piles without those connections. And yet to work in the field, you had to be current on what that Central Fifty was doing because the train of thought in the genre was moving so quickly. I had previously considered science fiction to be a regional literature centered around New York and its SF clubs.  Malzberg instead indicates that science fiction was instead a literature of a clique.  One wonders if this contributed to the limited appeal of science fiction through the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Henry Kuttner rises high in the esteem of these pages, greater than either the ABC Big Three or van Vogt, Asimov, and Heinlein.  His wife and writing partner, Catherine "C. L." Moore, unfortunately, was an afterthought.  Since the couple often worked together in such creative harmony that neither could tell who wrote which passage, seeing her credit denied was a disappointment.  I look forward to acquainting myself with both of their works.

Further observations include Malzberg noticing that to the new science fiction editors of the 70s, science fiction began with Ellison in the 60s and they had slight knowledge of the Campbells or the pulps.  This was due in part to the collapse of the magazine markets and the rise of the book as the main serving of science fiction stories.  Unfortunately, this would be yet another in a series of erasures divorcing science fiction from its past. 

Take these observations with a grain of salt.  Malzberg provides a somewhat heroic view of the  clique of science fiction writers, even when dealing with their faults.


UPDATE:  As I prefer to have quotes for support when possible, here are Barry Malzberg's word on the insularity of Campbell science fiction:
1) "Modern" science fiction, generally dated as having begun in late 1937 with the ascent of Campbell, was a literature centered around a compact group of people. It was no Bloomsbury but there could have been no more than fifty core figures who did 90 percent of the writing and the editing. All of them knew one another, most knew one another well, lived together, married one another, collaborated, bought each other's material, married each other's wives and so on. For a field which was conceptually based upon expansion, the smashing of barriers, the far-reaching and so on, science fiction was amazingly insular. One could fairly speculate that this insularity and parochialism were the understandable attempts of frightened human beings faced with terra incognita to hold on to one another and to make their personal lives as limited and interconnected as possible. It could be speculated further that this parochialism shut off an entire alternative science fiction. (Alexei Panshin has intimated this possibility but not this particular set of reasons.) Who is to know what writers and manuscripts not connected in any way to the Central Fifty languished in slush piles or in stamped, self-addressed envelopes? Science fiction simply was not for them; it was being cooked up in offices and bars and bedrooms and apartment houses; people would stream from Central to write it all up in their own way and send it back in (and then write up next month's issue taking up the stuff already laid down in print), but the field was based on personal access and very few writers and stories were getting into the magazines without personal acquaintance with other writers and with the editors. The first thing that Damon Knight did in the forties as a science fiction writer manque was to accept Fred Pohl's invitation to come out from Oregon to Brooklyn and live with the Futurian Club; the young Asimov was introduced to present contributors by Campbell before Asimov had sold a word; Malcolm Jameson, pensioned off by the Navy for medical reasons, began to write science fiction (and became, briefly, an Astounding regular in the mid-forties) at the urgings of his old friend and fellow Navy officer Robert A. Heinlein.
Malzberg on the editors of the 1970s and 80s:
Conglomeratization of publishing has had and will probably continue to have a numbing effect upon most work that does not fit neatly into the balance sheet, "literary" work, that is to say, or work of political or social controversy. But it is less a question here of censorship than of self-censorship; given only a marginal understanding of science fiction and only a superficial grasp of its history (to most contemporary science fiction editors "modern" science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties), these editors tend to publish what looks like science fiction and their view is necessarily parochial and, granted the nature of Conglomeratization, not without fear. "Most science fiction editors seem mostly to seek the assurance that they are doing nothing wrong," Samuel R. Delany writes in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, "and since I cannot grant them this assurance I stay away from most of them."


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A First Glance through "Our Pulp Fiction Heritage"

I was recently shown the excellent essay "Our Pulp Fiction Heritage and the Significance of Moldering Magazines" written by Robert Bee.  First among its many gems is an account of the many pennames used by science fiction writers, using Appendix N authors Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore as an example.
Although fans and scholars have traced many of these pennames, much pseudonymous work has not been reprinted. The husband and wife writing team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore relied on at least seventeen pennames. Although there have been several anthologies of Moore and Kuttner's work, much of their writing, which helped shape the development and maturation of SF as a genre, remains between the covers of various pulp magazines (Kuttner and Moore, Two-Handed Engine). This fact is unfortunate because Kuttner and Moore were at times overshadowed by their pseudonyms and were not given credit for the sheer breadth and quality of their work. Some pulp magazines had issues largely written by Kuttner and Moore under various pseudonyms. They were such an effective writing team that if one of them stepped away from the typewriter for a minute the other could take over the story where the other writer left off (Clute, Encyclopedia, 827). Their stories were varied enough that some of their pennames conveyed a "heteronym," a term coined by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa who wrote his poetry and prose under a variety of pen names. Pessoa's heteronyms differ from pseudonyms in that he invented a biography and a different writing style for each of his "other selves." Kuttner and Moore's strongest heteronyms include "Lewis Padgett" and "Laurence O'Donnell." The Lewis Padgett stories, largely published in Astounding during the 40s and 50s include classics such as "The Twonky" and "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," and the Baldy series about persecuted supermen. The Padgett stories are slick, clever SF, with humor and complicated plots. The Lawrence O'Donnell stories, most notably "Clash by Night" and "Fury" are thematically complex with strong characterization and literary touches such as epigraphs, quotations, and mythological references. Kuttner and Moore also wrote under other pennames several superb science fantasy and far future novels for Startling Stories during the 40s. Kuttner and Moore's pennames conveyed distinct enough styles that fans might list their favorite writers as one or more Kuttner and Moore pseudonyms without connecting the pennames back to the original writers.
I am in awe of the skill needed, not just individually in the creation of distinct heteronyms, but also needed to work so seamlessly together as a team and in the other's heteronymic style.

It also makes me wonder what lost works of Appendix N are hidden in the moldering pages of the pulps.

Pulp Radio Wednesday: The Haunting Hour - "The Lonesome Corpse"

Monday, November 7, 2016

Morality From Structure, Take 1

While writing the post on Michael Moorcock's Three Day Novel, I discovered that Moorcock had said that "morality and structure are very closely linked".  At first blush, I wondered how morality might arise from amoral structure.

How quickly we forget our old friends.

The five act structure is an old favorite of mine, and is among the first lessons I learned in lit crit and in writing.  I explained it during the Puppy of the Month Book Club's October reading of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber.

The five act structure is a storytelling device that developed out of Classical Greek and Elizabethan English drama.  It divides a story into seven parts: an introduction, inciting action, rising action, the turning point, falling action, resolution, and denouement.  The introduction establishes characters and setting.  The inciting action is the event that creates the story's problem.  The rising action describes the events leading to the turning point, where the main character makes a decision that gives him the means to solve the problem.  The falling action whisks the characters towards the resolution, where the plans created by the turning point succeed or fail.  Afterward, the denouement tells of the repercussions from the resolution and reveals secrets if needed.  These parts are also placed at certain points in narrative space.  The turning point is always at the center of the story, with the inciting action and resolution at equidistant points from the center.  This means that a story's rising action will be as long as the falling action, and the same with the introduction and the denouement.  Analyses of dramatic works with narrative problems often show that the turning point was moved out of the center, creating too much or too little rising or falling action, breaking the proportions of the story.  Or, in the case of Save the Cat dramatic structures, no turning point exists at all.  The story is active, driven by the characters' choices, instead of passively relying on the current of events to carry characters along to the conclusion.
Stripping it down to its basics, the hero makes a choice to solve a problem, then he makes a choice on how to solve the problem, and then, in the resolution, we see if his choices worked.  The story in five act structure stems from the hero's choices.

Now, morality can be described as the evaluation of choices against a code of conduct, be it Biblical, C. S. Lewis's Tao, or some other system.  The five act structure, with its emphasis on choice, becomes a vehicle for examining those choices.  Discussions from morality flow out of the structure naturally, as the resolution itself is an evaluation of the hero's choices.  Drama arises out of the question "did the hero make the right choice?".  The five act structure itself, however, is not the code of conduct, as, being amoral, it cannot make a moral judgement.

It must also be noted that stories may and do use other structures, whether it is Moorcock's "six days to save the world" or Save the Cat's three act structure.  The three act structure has become the most common structure of the day. Wikipedia explains it as such:
In this structure, a film's plot is set up within the first twenty to thirty minutes. Then the main character protagonist experiences a 'plot point' that provides a goal to achieve. About half the movie's running time focuses on the character's struggle to achieve this goal. This second act is the 'Confrontation' period. Field also refers to the 'Midpoint', a more subtle turning point in the plot that happens at approximately page 60 (of a 120-page screenplay). This turning point is often an apparently devastating reversal of the main character's fortune. The final third (the third act) of the film depicts a climactic struggle by the protagonist to finally achieve (or not achieve) his or her goal and the aftermath of this struggle.
The three act structure is more passive than the five act, relying on external events driving the hero's fortunes to provide the drama as opposed to the hero's choices.  Moral examination does not readily flow out of the three act structure. That strumpet Fortune is a fickle goddess, bestowing favor on whim and not worth.

It is no accident that the rise of grey goo accompanied the rise of three act structure. 

That Moorcock is right about morality flowing from structure was never in doubt.   Morality arises from the choices made by the hero.  However, the structures that rely on choice as the story's engine are better equipped for the investigation than others.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Michael Moorcock's Three Day Novel

In his early days of writing, famed fantasy and Appendix N writer Michael Moorcock was a disciple of Lester Dent's Master Plot.  In the first chapter of the now out of print Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, "Six Days to Save the World", he describes the writing techniques he used to write his early novels in three days each.

Because Death is No Obstacle is out of print, I am using excerpts from Wet Asphalt, no doubt quoting far more than needed.  As always, this advice is offered to give insight into the writing process and not to dictate from a mountaintop on how to write.
"If you're going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared."
"[The formula is] The Maltese Falcon. Or the Holy Grail. You use the quest theme, basically. In The Maltese Falcon it's a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Black Bird. In Mort D'Arthur it's also a lot of people after the same thing, which is the Holy Grail. That's the formula for Westerns too: everybody's after the gold of El Dorado or whatever."
"The formula depends on that sense of a human being up against superhuman forces, whether it's Big Business, or politics, or supernatural Evil, or whatever. The hero is fallible in their terms, and doesn't really want to be mixed up with them. He's always just about to walk out when something else comes along that involves him on a personal level." 
"There is an event every four pages, for example -- and notes. Lists of things you're going to use. Lists of coherent images; coherent to you or generically coherent. You think: 'Right, Stormbringer: swords; shields; horns", and so on." 
"[I prepared] a complete structure. Not a plot, exactly, but a structure where the demands were clear. I knew what narrative problems I had to solve at every point. I then wrote them at white heat; and a lot of it was inspiration: the image I needed would come immediately [when] I needed it. Really, it's just looking around the room, looking at ordinary objects and turning them into what you need. A mirror: a mirror that absorbs the souls of the damned."
"You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other." 
"The imagery comes before the action, because the action's actually unimportant. An object to be obtained -- limited time to obtain it. It's easily developed, once you work the structure out." 
"Time is the important element in any action adventure story. In fact, you get the action and adventure out of the element of time. It's a classic formula: "We've only got six days to save the world!" Immediately you've set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four and finally, in the classic formula anyway, there's only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?" 
"Once you've started, you keep it rolling. You can't afford to have anything stop it." 
"The whole reason you plan everything beforehand is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you've actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do." 
"I was also planting mysteries that I hadn't explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn't matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you're going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I'll put this in here because I might need it later." 
"You start off with a mystery. Every time you reveal a bit of it, you have to do something else to increase it. A good detective story will have the same thing. "My God, so that's why Lady Carruthers's butler Jenkins was peering at the keyhole that evening. But where was Mrs. Jenkins?" 
"What I do is divide my total 60,000 words into four sections, 15,000 words apiece, say; then divide each into six chapters. ... In section one the hero will say, "There's no way I can save the world in six days unless I start by getting the first object of power". That gives you an immediate goal, and an immediate time element, as well as an overriding time element. With each section divided into six chapters, each chapter must then contain something which will move the action forward and contribute to that immediate goal. 
"Very often it's something like: attack of the bandits -- defeat of the bandits -- nothing particularly complex, but it's another way you can achieve recognition: by making the structure of a chapter a miniature of the overall structure of the book, so everything feels coherent. The more you're dealing with incoherence, with chaos, the more you need to underpin everything with simple logic and basic forms that will keep everything tight. Otherwise the thing just starts to spread out into muddle and abstraction. 
"So you don't have any encounter without information coming out of it. In the simplest form, Elric has a fight and kills somebody, but as they die they tell him who kidnapped his wife. Again, it's a question of economy. Everything has to have a narrative function." 
"First, [Lester Dent] says, split your six-thousand-word story up into four fifteen hundred word parts. Part one, hit your hero with a heap of trouble. Part two, double it. Part three, put him in so much trouble there's no way he could ever possibly get out of it. Then -- now this could be Lester Dent or it could be what I learnt when I was on Sexton Blake Library, I forget -- you must never have a revelation of something that wasn't already established; so, you couldn't unmask a murderer who wasn't a character established already. All your main characters have to be in the first third. All you main themes and everything else has to be established in the first third, developed in the second third, and resolved in the last third."  
"There's always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn't allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero's morbid speeches, and so on...The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can't have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, 'What? Dragons? Demons? You've got to be joking!' The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don't want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you've got to have somebody around who'll act as a sort of chorus." 
"'When in doubt, descend into a minor character.' So when you've reached an impasse, and you can't move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character 's viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think." 
One last note: later in the book, Moorcock talks about how he is also fond of using stock characters, especially those from the Commedia Dell'Arte.
Moorcock takes the essential story of a Doc Savage novel, the treasure hunt, and applies it to fantasy.  Imagery, time, and character roles are all key elements to the pre-writing needed prior to the actual writing.  Using the Commedia dell'arte also gives a stock set of character types to draw from.

Also of interest in the comments is a discussion on how to scale Dent's 6,000 word formula into a 60,000 word short novel. With novels currently in the 100,000-200,000 word range, the formula could also be scaled readily into 120,000 and 180,000 forms.  However, brevity suits the pulp style better than the length of a modern doorstopper as recent authorized Doc Savage novels, such as The Sinister Shadow, suffer a bit when compared to the originals because of their length.

UPDATE:  The introduction to Death is No Obstacle yielded this tidbit as well:
And he also takes for granted a due sense of the serious nature of the entire project of storytelling. “If you believe, as I do, in simple good and tangible evil, and that evil starts with petty greed and tends to get the ascendancy, you've got to find ways of expressing that in fiction, while still giving everything its proper shadings and subtleties," he says.
For Moorcock, fiction is primarily and essentially a moral entertainment. He believes, he says, that "morality and structure are very closely linked."
Let me repeat that.  "Morality and structure are very closely linked."   Misha Burnett's Five Pillars proposed that moral conflict is a necessity of the pulp style, whether it is directly questioned by a pulp detective under stress or the Shadow's vengeful war on crime.  I have also been reaching towards an idea of structure as a sixth pillar, whether it be the five act structure, various writers' master plots, the repetitions of "Rattle of Bones", or six days to save the world.  That these two pillars might be in fact unified is on the surface counter-intuitive, as there is nothing inherently moral about five act structure.  Certainly, this thought will require further investigation.