Short Reviews – The Haunted Level, by Cassiter Wright

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Haunted Level by Cassiter Wright appeared in the June 1944 issue of The Wide World. I seriously looked for this but I couldn’t even find a shot of the cover; it has a guy with a mustache in a beater and a hat standing in a jungle pointing out across a lagoon.

Taking a break from old SF pulps, I decided to take a look at some contemporary WWII era adventure mags. Don’t let the subtitle fool you; in this “Magazine for Men” you won’t find titillating ladies (not manly enough!) nor the tom-shennanigannery of flesh-ripping weasels. No, here you will find tales of blood and empire and manly men doing manly things to keep the British Empire great (and manly). Those without ridiculous mustaches on stiff upper lips need not apply!

Now, I also gather that The Wide World poses itself as a “True Story”/ “True Adventure” type magazine, so a lot of these stories will probably be from the angle of “Let me tell you about this awesome thing that happened to me in X part of the Empire” (Cassiter Wright, for instance, is “a veteran mining engineer”); whether they be fact or fiction, I’ll not speculate on heavily, but from the very outset it looks like these are going to be some great stories and well told.

Continue reading


Retro Fandom Friday (on a Thursday) – Weird Tales Edition

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Been awhile since I’ve done one of these, but now’s as good a time as any. I’m done with the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales, so it’s time to take a look at the fan letters to try to answer the time-old question: who was reading the pulps?

Turns out, Ladies, Ladies, Ladies!

Continue reading

Short Reviews – The Devils of Po Sung, by Bassett Morgan

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Devils of Po Sung by Bassett Morgan appeared in the December 1927 issue of Weird Tales and was the featured Weird Story Reprint in the March 1939 issue. A scanned pdf of this issue can be found here at

I’ll admit, at first I had a bit of a tough time getting into The Devils of Po Sung. The florid narrative prose was challenge enough, but every character (except for the devil mongrel Chinaman, ironically enough) speaks in very thick vernacular and/or pidgin. The story begins a bit clunky and actually hits a lot of the notes and “tropes that the pulps were known for” – remarkable because this is really the first I’ve encountered it – I almost gave up on this one. But I’m really glad I didn’t, and once this story hit its stride, I could see why they chose to reprint it.

Captain McTeague is a trader in skins and pearls from Papua.  Papua’s full of evil shamans, debbil-debbils, head-hunters, and worse, but money is money and there’s plenty to be made by a man brave enough to deal with it all. A wicked tribal warlord-slash-witchman named Tukmoo had been known for having the best pearl lagoon in Papua, but suddenly he’s out of the picture, the pearl supply has started to dry up, and McTeague wants to know why. At the suggestion of the Chinese middleman the old shaman uses, McTeague goes down the coast to seek out Tukmoo only to be caught in a storm and then chased by a ship belonging to the one man more dreadful than Tukmoo: Po Sung.

“McTeague knew as much as any other man about Po Sung. He was a Mongolian tainted with the worst of other strains of heritage. He spoke excellent English, was suave in company of Europeans and had so huge a grasp of trade that he was a valued confidant of port merchants and diplomats for some years while he perfected his own sovereignty in hidden realms of wealth. Po Sung was like a giant octopus with tentacles reaching to every compass point. Now that he was growing old he had brazenly disdained the guise of decency and his true colors, secure from vengeance in some backwater shelter where he devised and executed his schemes unmolested.”

Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Cirsova!

The Cirsova blog is 7 years old today!

And instead of celebrating, I feel like I need to add some clarifying commentary to the ongoing war between SFF and Hard Bros SF.

Both sides have misrepresented or misunderstood the role that the Futurians and other sundry communist agitators played in the scifi divide. In fact, the ghost of Damon Knight is laughing at you guys for playing into their hands.

The Futurians weren’t exactly the ones writing or pushing Hard Science Fiction over Soft Science Fiction. What WAS happening, however, was that communists in the fandom were leveraging the nudniks against the editors and fans of more adventure-centric fiction.

Despite what you may have heard, the pulps were fairly progressive, exploring a wide range of social topics, except they still had a focus on individuality, struggle against unjust authority, and were frequently anti-Communist. To repeat the cringy boomertarian meme, “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.”

The Futurians and their literary adjacents were often writing utopianist thinky-stories that aimed to make a socialist future more palatable within the fandom. While many today are focusing on a hard sci-fi vs. soft/”pulpy” sci-fi divide, they’re forgetting that there were really three kinds of SFF stories: Adventure, Riddle/Puzzle, and Thinky Stories.

Sci-fi wasn’t being disconnected from Fantasy–what was happening was that the Thinky Story crowd used some hardliners of the Riddle/Puzzle-only crowd to denigrate the aspects of the Adventure stuff that they found unseemly: dames, the implausible, and in some case AmericaTM. From there, they would press the attack that it was white, capitalist, and imperialist. By undermining the aspects of SFF that some folks would today refer to as “superversive” by attacking at the editorial level and within the fandom, the socialist Thinky Story crowd was able to clear the way for more subversive fiction.

Sci-fi’s disconnection from Fantasy had far more to do with the Satanic Panic and Serious Sci-FiTM folks wanting to distance themselves from elf-shit.

But everyone at each other’s throats over scifi vs. fantasy? Congrats, you’ve been played.

Short Reviews – The Stratosphere Menace, by Ralph Milne Farley

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Stratosphere Menace by Ralph Milne Farley appeared in the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales. A scanned pdf of this issue can be found here at

This story presented a bit of a quandary for me. Though I’m building my familiarity with the pulps slowly but surely, I’m still sometimes caught out by a story like this where I’m unsure as to which degree of self-awareness the piece was written.

In the case of The Stratosphere Menace, we have either an incredibly mediocre science fiction story, the kind of which the pulps are “known for”, or a brilliant and biting satire of the stodgier sort of scientifiction with a mad scientist and a barely competent military that stops him by merest accident. I choose to approach this piece as the latter, and I think there are just enough cues in the text to justify my reading of it as such.

Continue reading