Birthday Reviews: Howard, MacLean, Merritt, Moore, Poe, Steele

This final installment of the weekly Birthday Reviews brings us another six-pack from a large birthday gang (of a large week[1]) and these fall in pairs: two reprints from earlier reviews, two reviews of colorful debuts, and two phobic tales from Allan and Allen, the birthday boys of the nineteenth.


Robert E. Howard (1906-01-22/1936-06-11)

“Pigeons from Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938)

[Adapted from my 2019-10-30 review of Margulies’ anthology Weird Tales.]

While the anthology is good as a whole, Howard’s tremendous “Pigeons from Hell” wrecks the grade curve. The second-longest tale of the book opens with two New Englanders on a jaunt to the South ending up spending the night at a deserted mansion. One wakes up from what he tries to convince himself was a nightmare only for things to go from bad to worse, resulting in a mad dash from the house. I don’t want to spoil even the opening section but perhaps some flavor of what happened can be given by quoting a piece from when the surviving traveler, Griswell, returns to the house with Buckner, the local sheriff.

He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.

“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner.

In the second section, the two men meet with a voodoo man and fill in some details of what Buckner knew of the sordid family history of the mansion’s last inhabitants before moving to the final section and the nightmarish showdown with a “zuvembie” monster. My only complaint with this story is that the first section is so powerful that the remainder, while also powerful and maintaining suspense and interest, can’t quite match that opening. Still, that prosaic opening and initially very basic horror, straightforward narrative and stylistic approach, and skillfully joined antebellum relics and imported voodoo combine to make this effective for a likely majority of readers. Highly recommended.

Katherine MacLean (1925-01-22/2019-09-01)

“Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, November 1958)

[Adapted from my 2017-08-29 review of her collection The Trouble with You Earth People.]

“Unhuman Sacrifice” deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.


A. Merritt (1884-01-20/1943-08-21)

“Through the Dragon Glass” (All-Story Weekly, November 24, 1917)

A. Merritt made his debut with this Sehnsucht story which involves one man telling his friend of his amazing experiences with a supernatural “dragon glass” which has a triple layer of the glass itself, the compelling world within (or through) it, and the sort of gnostic foundation interpenetrating and encompassing that. It actually lacks a truly satisfying dramatic arc but is filled with enticing glimmers of substance in its colorful description.

C. L. Moore (1911-01-24/1987-04-04)

“Shambleau” (Weird Tales, November 1933)

C. L. Moore made her debut with a very different, but equally colorful story. Northwest Smith is a sort of anti-hero of the spaceways who rescues an alien girl from a multi-species Martian mob bent on destroying her. He finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her but, after a night of strange dreams, he experiences a night (and nights) of erotic pleasure and horrific revulsion and learns that old myths have their roots in reality. This story is crisply plotted until an overlong denouement throws things a little out of proportion and ends the powerful blending of disparate psychosexual elements with a sort of sputtering effect until recapturing some of the momentum at the very end and it’s odd in that Northwest Smith is introduced as a mover and shaker of a main character, yet he takes a backseat first to the girl and then to another character. Also, while not a structural problem, there’s a sort of puritan streak running through this one despite its amoral complacency about Smith’s extra-legal activities. All that aside, this is an extremely vividly imagined and memorable tale of great intensity and rightly made Moore immediately famous.


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-01-19/1849-10-07)

“The Cask of Amontillado” (Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1846)

This is a good example of Poe’s theory of the short story in which everything is directed toward producing a single effect. This doesn’t mean that everything is monotone but, rather, that a great variety of things can be deployed as long as they have the same vector and accumulate power. The premise is simply that a once rich and/or powerful man has been wronged by one who is still rich and/or powerful and, having received an insult of some kind on top of these injuries, has formulated his revenge and exacts it in the story. The plan is clever and insanely forceful. Examples of the variety of elements (mostly twistedly funny) are the way the narrator ensures he will not be bothered by servants, the victim saying he won’t die of a cough (which is more true than he realizes) coupled with the bit about masons and the trowel, the discussion of the coat of arms and, perhaps best of all, the screaming scene. This is a masterful piece of black humor and ironic art.

Allen Steele (1958-01-19)

“The War Memorial” (Asimov’s, September 1995)

Allen Steele shares a birthday and (almost) a name with Poe but doesn’t generally share much else, generally writing somewhat optimistic fiction which is often literally light years removed from the gothic, but this example of “anti-military SF” has some unusual similarities with the preceding one. The protagonist is fighting a battle on the moon, encounters some serious technical difficulties with his combat armor, and eventually contributes to an unusual “war memorial.” This is a much more sober tale but is also short, powerfully focused, dark, and effective.

[1] I started this in 2020, which was a 366-day year and 52 weeks only covers 364 days, so this last installment covers nine days (I should have posted it yesterday). Ironically, the birthdays only kick in on the nineteenth, so only cover the last six of those nine. In that sense, it’s a short week.

Review: Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones

Twin Worlds by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-681, $0.50, 157pp, 1967 [1]

If you’ve read my other reviews in this series [2], you basically know how the last verse (at least for now) of this song goes. The only significant difference is that, while Jones’ powers of invention never flag, his patience with ending stories seems to be running low.

Neil R. Jones would probably not welcome comparisons to Robert L. Forward on the one hand or Ursula K. Le Guin on the other, but the first tale deals with political unrest on “Twin Worlds” a mere 100,000 miles apart. It begins when the Zoromes enter a four-planet system – no, five! – and pick one of the two twins to land on, which they find is called Selimemigre from the first person they meet, who happens to be a good exile they can help. Said exile, Kamunioleten, tells how the evil Bemencamla (Harris?) has taken control of Dlasitap by murdering five of Kam’s fellow administrators and framing him for it. In punishment, Kam has been placed on the low end of an island which is inundated daily with the monstrous tides between the two worlds. Unfortunately, his home is springing a leak. The ship with most of the Zoromes goes to Dlasitap to find out what’s going on over there while we stay with Kam and a few Zoromes, including the Professor. After the ship has been gone an unduly long time, the Professor starts reminiscing on the Double Planet about the time he was waiting alone a (very!) long time at the Double Sun. He must stop his reveries when it turns out that workers who had supposedly come to repair the leak had, in fact, come to ensure it “accidentally” got worse and there follows a rather thrilling effort to reach high ground before the tides peak (impossible for Kam alone and not a given for the machine men trying to help him). After waiting still longer at high ground, Jameson finally resolves to try the local method of transportation to reach the other world and search for their ship. Steampunk fans will rejoice because that method involves a Verne-like bullet being fired from a steam-driven flywheel (depicted on the cover). This is dangerous, to say the least, and the doughty machine men do indeed crash-land in shallow water but are able to catch a ride hanging on to the underside of an ocean ship headed for port. There they learn all about Bem and the tardy ship. After some running about, it’s all wrapped up in moments and one of the big surprises (regarding where the Zorome ship has been) will surprise few.

A great moment in prose from this one is when Professor Jameson calculates the length of a local unit of measure and declares that it is “7.193 feet and some few inches.” Possibly topping that is this lengthy bit from immediately after Jameson and friends have crashed into the shallow bottom of the ocean:

…the water grew darker. It seemed too soon for late afternoon twilight, and the three Zoromes looked up to see a dark object hovering above them. Into the mind of Professor Jameson flashed a memory of the huge fish which had swallowed 88ZQ4 and himself when they had sunk into the depths of the hydrosphere, yet this shadowy object above them moved too mechanically and majestically to be a fish. Moreover, its movement was too sluggish for association with the marine denizens.

“A boat!” flashed 6W-438.

After that adventure, the Zoromes find themselves “On the Planet Fragment,” which is a rectangular prism or cuboid. This leads to some almost Eganesque planetary exploration with Clementine gravity, while Jones populates the bizarre surface and shallow atmosphere with a menagerie of odd creatures, from the friendly disc-shaped Uum (whom Jameson originally calls the “Disci”) who are preyed upon by the floating aerial pseudo-jellyfish Eiuks to the gigantic, hugely powerful Ooaurs from the high-gravity regions on the long end of the fragment, to the Oaos who are enemies of the Eiuk but otherwise turn out to not be what they seem. Why the Eiuk seem to only attack at night and how they can be brought down in the Land of Exhaustion (as the Uum call the high-gravity regions) but then fly away the next day, are some of the key questions and each answer is replaced by “still another of the puzzles confronting the machine men of Zor on the planet fragment.” Eventually, the nature of the Uum city of Ui, the Ooas, and more come clear after much exploring and fighting.

Though this also stops suddenly with a weird non-ending followed by an epilogue of just over a page which recounts a novel we don’t get to read, and though it also features winning prose where something “shot like a plummet into the rarefied atmosphere above” and we are always trying to defend the “tender and delectable Disci,” I enjoyed this wild tale the most of this trio.

Finally, despite the epilogue, we do experience one more adventure on the planet fragment when, in an effective in media res opening, the Zoromes have traveled to volcanic lava regions, fight the Fire Dwellers there, and eventually meet “The Music Monsters.” (Other than the alliteration, I can’t think why they’re called that. Though semi-barbaric, they are sentient, friendly to the Zoromes, and not at all monster-like. Such creatures are never otherwise called monsters.) The fighting, gambling, accidentally musical “monsters” are quite memorable, as are the very different plant-creatures encountered further along the way. Even the Eiuks make another appearance and our perspective on them undergoes an interesting change. Perhaps the best part is how the Uum have been getting along generally and do get along specifically with the “monsters” when they meet. Still, this all feels like an episodic appendix to the prior tale, though it does end well.

That ending is especially fortunate because, while Jones probably couldn’t have known it, T. O’Connor Sloane was to leave the editor’s chair of Amazing with the very issue that contained this story and Raymond Palmer was to arrive and take the magazine in another direction, so this first run of twelve stories from 1931-38 ended here. After a short while, Frederik Pohl (who was running a pair of shoe-string magazines as a teenaged editor) published another quartet of the stories in Astonishing from 1940-42. Jones published nothing from 1943-47 (indeed, aside from a 1948 fanzine story and a 1951 magazine novel, Jones’ non-Jameson career ended in 1942) but, when Ejler Jacobson took over Super Science Stories, the Jameson series grew by another five stories from 1949-1951. Nothing new appeared from 1952-66 until DAW books collected the first dozen Jameson tales in four books and added a fifth book which took one from the Pohl era, one from the Jacobson era, and added two previously unpublished tales. More silence followed until, finally, a last unpublished tale appeared in a 1989 fanzine shortly after Jones’ death.

I’m not saying I’ll never review Doomsday on Ajiat but I don’t have any intention of doing so anytime soon, so I’ll just end this with a list of the Jameson stories I enjoyed the most:

  • “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing Stories, July 1931)
  • “Into the Hydrosphere” (Amazing Stories, October 1933)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)

[1] Original publications:

  • “Twin Worlds” (Amazing Stories, April 1937)
  • “On the Planet Fragment” (Amazing Stories, October 1937)
  • “The Music-Monsters” (Amazing Stories, April 1938)

[2] Previous reviews of the Professor Jameson stories:

Birthday Reviews: Leinster, Tall, Williams

This week’s stories (celebrating writers who all happen to be having at least their 112th birthdays) include a man incapable of understanding a Power, a contacted species incapable of speech and a contacting species incapable of telepathy, and a pair of lost explorers incapable of getting themselves back home, but they are more than capable of entertaining readers.

Murray Leinster (1896-06-16/1975-06-08)

“The Power” (Astounding, September 1945)

A professor of Latin has come across some manuscripts, including three related letters which he passes on to another professor. The letters were written in Italy in 1482 by Carolus to a friend and they detail his effort to follow a dead man’s path and summon a demon – a Power – who will provide him with knowledge and power of his own. Despite how it sounds, this is very much science fiction and that’s not the only reversal or transformation, as the initially fearful mortal human comes to a different relationship with the Power which changes yet again, with a couple of varieties of pathos, before an ending with an unusual blend of disgust and hope.

Leinster was the original “Dean of Science Fiction,” who began publishing it in 1919 and has written several top-rank stories of great variety but this is more unusual than most. It’s been well-received but isn’t usually mentioned in the first breath, so is still underrated to me (as is Leinster, himself). The story’s structure is solid and the style through which Carolus’ time and mentality is conveyed is effective, he and his Power come across as genuine beings, their motivations are solid, and their relationship provokes strong and varied emotions. The tale is well-suited to tackling its theme of the constraints of conceptual frameworks which can relate to everything from revolutions in worldviews to being able to read science fiction itself, as with Samuel R. Delany’s notion of reading “protocols.” It’s a rich story, a reasonably short story (with a great last line), and seems like it should be better known. Leinster is actually represented in the SFWA Hall of Fame with “First Contact” and he certainly should be, but I think he could also have been represented by a few others, including this one.

Stephen Tall (1908-06-14/1981-01-15)

“The Invaders” (If, August 1973)

Through the eyestalks of Red Spine, we witness epochal events in the history of the “canceroids.” It starts when a rockfall kills many and they are all fed to the Eater, a mutant crab-like being many, many times the size of his fellows who does nothing but demand to be fed constantly. When he’s fed this time with such largesse, he molts, becoming even bigger. And hungrier. Then some strange little bipedal creatures with pairs of tiny eyes arrive on Red Spine’s homeworld and first contact is complicated by the fact that the canceroids can’t speak and the invaders can’t use telepathy. An unusual period of wary mutual observation follows before the two events of the enlarged Eater and the invaders come together in a transformative way.

This is a fine example in the long line of “alien POV” stories which has an interestingly conceived ecology and social structure with almost Clement-like aliens (in that one of the main things which makes Red Spine, especially, alien is simply un-human logical equanimity). All of this is (pointed and clever) cover for its ethical and economic themes but both levels work. This is part of a series of stories and isn’t the most popular one since “The Bear with the Knot on His Tail” was award-nominated and this one is atypical in the series in that it’s the only one in which we see the crew of the Stardust from an alien point-of-view, but I like this one best of all. Readers don’t have to be torn by indecision, though since both were collected with four others in The Stardust Voyages.

Robert Moore Williams (1907-06-19/1977-05-12)

“Flight of the Dawn Star” (Astounding, March 1938)

Graham and Sarl were exploring in a spaceship near the Sun when something went wrong and they found themselves hurled near a world surrounded by unrecognizable stars. With no hope of return and nothing else to do, they set off to explore this new world. They find a stupendous city which represented an inconceivably advanced civilization in its prime but which is now falling to ruin. This strikes Graham and Sarl as also inconceivable. What could have ended a civilization that could have built such a city? Then the pair find that the planet is inhabited after all, not by gods in the city, but by naked savages in the fields. Other than their nudity and carefree attitudes, they are beings much like the explorers and, it turns out, not so savage after all. They telepathically explain their blissful existence and hope the pair will join them. However the humans of a struggling Earth don’t think they’re cut out for such a life, so one of the natives offers to send them home. Both the native and the explorers have a couple of surprises in store.

This was published in Astounding fairly early in Campbell’s editorial tenure and has a kinship with Campbell’s own “Forgetfulness” (which I discussed last week), so it’s easy to see why it appealed to him. The writing initially feels awkward or overdone and the science is awkward and underdone, but this variant on Lotus-land ultimately casts a bit of a spell.

Asimov’s Centennial: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939

I’ve previously discussed the first twenty-one chapters of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, which cover his ancestry to the writing of his first fourteen stories. This post reviews the nine of those which survive. One was collected in I, Robot (1950), one in Asimov’s Mysteries (1968), six in The Early Asimov (1972), and one in the autobiography itself (1979).

His first is lost but his second, “Stowaway,” eventually appeared as “The Callistan Menace.” In it, the crew of a spaceship heads to Callisto where several ships have been mysteriously lost. The discovery of a young boy stowaway ironically provides a welcome distraction from their worries and the boy comes in handy when they reach the somewhat habitable surface and face their danger. This was a common motif even in the 30s and this particular example, among other problems, is predictable, but the structure, pace, and style are surprisingly good for just his second attempt. “Marooned off Vesta” (which was to receive a magazine-requested sequel called “Anniversary” twenty years later, both of which were collected in Asimov’s Mysteries) features another handful of guys in space facing danger (in this case, a trio is in a fragment of a ship that’s been destroyed by an asteroid and are orbiting very near to, but oh so far from, Vesta) and isn’t all that different qualitatively but just enough so that the difference between being rejected only by Astounding rather than by Astounding and Amazing makes sense. There is some misuse of characters and some contrivance, but also some “gripping” narration of the effort of the main character to save them all. Both stories show space as dangerous but reward pluck and luck and, while not exactly “good,” are fun and likable.

Asimov eventually published numerous successfully funny pieces but his fifth and ninth stories (third and fifth extant) are not. “Ring Around the Sun” features two rivals being tricked into crewing an experimental spaceship together in an effort to fly near the sun in order to deliver “mail” (which I choose to interpret as “packages of supplies”) to Venus year-round. It initially seems like a basically serious “survival in space” story like the two prior (but superior to them) when the sun-shielding tech goes awry but develops several serious problems and ends as a bad and un-cathartic joke. Similarly, “The Magnificent Possession” (which Asimov originally called “Ammonium” and is his first Earth-based tale) involves a Bert-and-Ernie-like couple of chemist/inventors developing a process of plating things to appear more attractive than gold but there is a very serious catch to the process. The main problem with this story is that the protagonists don’t behave like scientists and their nemeses certainly aren’t believable but aren’t really funny, either. I’ve read worse, but can understand this taking awhile before finally finding a down-market home for publication.

Between those two tales, Asimov wrote “The Weapon,” (only published in book form in In Memory Yet Green[1]) which, while didactic and somewhat simplistic, is interesting for several reasons, including featuring very little dialog and especially for being Asimov’s first tale with a sentient alien character, the Chief Elder of Mars, representing a feline race of pure intellect. In this tale, a human defender of democracy is seeking a weapon from the more advanced race to help in a desperate war against the forces of oppression. The Martians refuse, saying humanity must do things themselves, so the human attempts to steal the weapon from them. It’s clear where elements of this story come from as Asimov values intellect, had pet cats at the candy stores, and wrote this as Hitler’s power was waxing. However, I don’t know of a source for the impressive description of a vast lab inside Deimos, which anticipates scenes from Forbidden Planet and Star Wars. After “The Magnificent Possession” and “Trends” (discussed next), Asimov wrote “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use,” which, in addition to having a similar title, also features aliens, super-weapons, and naive didacticism, this time being an anti-colonial piece such as one might read innumerable examples of today. This time, the aliens are the emotional Venusians and, ironically, it has a pleasingly Weinbaumian Martian feel as a human and his Venusian companion explore the ruins of a great Venusian city in which the Venusian discovers the titular weapon which may free his people from human domination. (As intellect is highly prized in the other story, so the lack of it is the greatest imaginable horror in this one.)

Trends” is a second Earth-based story and the first story he sold to Astounding. (It appeared in the famed July 1939 issue along with van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” which is taken to inaugurate the Golden Age.) After the Second World War of 1940, an age of neo-Victorian religion and anti-scientific morality has kicked in, impeding a backyard inventor’s efforts to go to the Moon in 1973. It suffers from some frequently recurring problems of naivete, a superfluity of characters, and adds infodumps to the mix, but makes many interesting sociological points in a tale filled with both dialog and action which works pretty well and may be inspiring things even today, such as Allen Steele’s “The Prodigal Son.”

Even more interesting than that one, “Black Friar of the Flame” (originally “Pilgrimage”) takes the same “socio-religious movement” motif and stands it on its head as a positive, in which religious enthusiasm is used to promote social change. It is Asimov’s first tale written on a galactic and millennial (and near-novella-length) scale, anticipating the Foundation stories and even including names to conjure with such as Santinni and, especially, Trantor. This one is not consistent with the more famous Foundation universe, though, as Earth is under the heel of the reptilian overlords from Rigel with some human guardians of the Hall of Flame seeking freedom from them but it does borrow from Foundation’s methodology of translating past events into the future—in this case, a Judaean revolt from Rome and the Greco-Persian Battle of Salamis. However, it is unlike the Foundation (or most of Asimov’s work) in being oddly violent and jingoistic. There are all kinds of problems with this tale (Asimov can’t decide who the main character is, some of the reversals and the climax aren’t plausible, etc.) but there is some of that Foundational aura that is very exciting, it balances dialog with excellent description, and it was compulsively readable despite its flaws. It, too, may have inspired later things as I was constantly reminded of the recently-read To Open the Sky by Robert Silverberg and its Blue Flame socio-religious movement.

Finally, “Robbie” is another interesting precursor which seems like an almost deliberate reversal of “Flame” in that it’s a short near-future small-scale planet-bound story. In it, the title character is the robot caretaker of young Gloria and beloved by her but despised by Gloria’s mother. When the father gives in to the mother’s demands and sends the robot back, Gloria is inconsolable and the father must navigate between that Charybdis and his wife’s Scylla. This was originally a one-shot story in the vein of Lester del Rey’s famed and sentimental “Helen O’ Loy” whose only problem was in effectively conveying the sensibility of a young person without a layer of saccharine but is otherwise structurally sound and generally effective. It was changed from a robot story to a Robot Story on its publication in I, Robot with the substitution of the manufacturer’s name from Finmark Robot Corporation to U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men, the boss from Finmark to Robertson, the introduction of Susan Calvin in a silent cameo, and an explicit mention of the implicit First Law, plus numerous non-series-related changes.

So, even at this early stage, Asimov always seemed to have promise and his powers are clearly growing (inconsistently from story to story but with a clear general arc) and the seeds of his two main works are already sown.

Edit (2020-01-07): This post initially began with a digression on my reading ahead in In Memory Yet Green. I’ve removed it from this post, made it a separate post, and slightly revised this, mostly in the opening. I also modified the title to match the “series” title.


[1] In The Early Asimov, Asimov had recorded the title but thought it was lost. It was one of the very few pieces he wrote which was initially not published under his own name but as “H. B. Ogden” (in Super Science Stories), the reason for which mystifies Asimov, himself, but which may have contributed to Asimov not keeping a copy and then basically forgetting about it until coming across a mention of its sale in his records when writing the autobiography. So he reprinted it in that work.

(Amusingly, in addition to Asimov, Robert A. W. Lowndes, John Russell Fearn, and James Blish all appear in that issue under pseudonyms so maybe it was just the thing to do in that issue.)