Short Reviews – The Dark World, by Henry Kuttner

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Dark World, by Henry Kuttner was originally published in the Summer 1946 issue of Startling Stories. The reprint reviewed was published in Winter 1954 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine, which can be found here on Archive.org.

“My Plane Crashed Over the Jungles of Sumatra, and Now I’m the Dread Lord Ganelon, but My Ex-Girlfriend is a Vampire and Wants Me Dead!”, an all-new a classic Isekai adventure from Henry Kuttner!

I talked a little bit about this story last week, but now I have some more time to get into the meat of it. The premise is that a mysterious being or act of sorcery [read “intense science magic”] caused the timeline and reality of Earth to split in two [semi-spoilers] around Arthurian times. Our world’s history proceeded as it did, but “The Dark World” saw an accelerated evolution of man’s mental powers and ability to use his mind to harness natural forces. Mutants had evolved powers that took on the aspect of certain mythic beings [werewolves, vampires, gorgons] that somewhat justified the existence of the myths in our own world.

The Dark World starts in earnest when the protagonist is pulled from Earth to the Dark World by the vampire sorceress Medea and told that he is not who he thinks he is, Edward Bond, but is actually Ganelon, Lord of the Coven, bound to the great beast Llyr. There was an Edward Bond, who was from our world—the two were forcibly switched before by magic science, and Edward Bond had been using his knowledge as a WWII fighting man to aid to rebels in the woods who were trying to stop the Covenanters. Now Ganelon is back in his body but stuck with the memories of Edward Bond and the conflict of a split personality; when trying to figure out what is going on and getting his memories back as Ganelon, he discovers that his Coven, even his own lover Medea, is preparing to sacrifice him to the beast Llyr, the only way in which he could be destroyed!

Ganelon escapes and ends up having to work with his hated enemies, the rebels in the woods, while pretending to be the good Edward Bond. There is, of course, the will he or won’t he betray the good guys in the end and the question of what he’ll do with the good girl who loved Edward Bond and witch who loved Ganelon.

I’ve seen several people say that the most interesting stuff going on science fiction and fantasy is coming out of Japan, but a lot of what’s out there is actually following many of the same paths as SFF from the 1940s and earlier; it’s just so alien to the average person that they had no idea what the normal tropes of science fiction and fantasy were.

A lot of common elements found in JRPGs are present in The Dark World—the notion that magic is another name for natural forces that can be harnessed by tools of science and “magic” as the byproduct of mutations caused by the presence of a buried undead man-god-machine hybrid are just a couple examples that might seem mind-blowing and incredibly novel to those who’ve played a Final Fantasy or Xenogears for the first time, but here they are in a rag from 1946.

I don’t know for certain that Kuttner read or was influenced at all by Kline, but it would be very unsurprising. The manner of mind transference is not at all dissimilar from Kline’s Mars and Venus books, however the minds are transferred across dimension in the same time rather than across time within the same dimension. In Kline’s stories, an individual with a near identical brain and body make-up had to exist at some point in time for a transfer to occur*. In The Dark World, the transference required that the same individual exist in both dimensions [not an easy occurrence, given the timelines’ divergence. Here, of course, the added chestnut is “what if the transferred consciousness or soul shared the memories of the host?” Where does Edward Bond end and Ganelon begin?

The Dark World is an exceptional and fantastic work, but it does have a few flaws which I suspect may be simply in Kuttner’s style of writing. Kuttner is vague on spatial details, something that I noticed in his collab with his wife “Earth’s Last Citadel” and did not know then which writer to attribute it to**, to the point where there feels like there’s not a setting—his characters act out the scenes and adventures on a sparse Shakespearean stage with nothing but that which the character is immediately interacting present. While it made Last Citadel a bit difficult to follow, it did not detract too badly from The Dark World, which was written in 1st person and thus could be chalked up to the self-absorbed and somewhat introspective nature of an unreliable villain narrator.

 

*: The handwavium here is that it’s implied in Kline’s stories that humanity actually has a common descent from peoples of Mars and Venus and therefore there would be bound to be some repetitions in Man’s limited code across the aeons—see Jupiter Ascending for a more recent interpretation of this.

**: I know that the general consensus is to assume that most of what they wrote after they were married was collaborative; I’m just going off the fact that none of what I’ve read by CL Moore in either the Best Of or the Jirel omnibus shares this difficult to describe property; in fact, I’d originally been put off enough by this aspect of Earth’s Last Citadel that, had I not found a dirt-cheap hardcover Jirel omnibus and taken a chance on it, I might have written off Moore altogether as not-my-cuppa. Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s