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.

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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!

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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 Luminist.org.

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.”

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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 Luminist.org.

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.

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Short Reviews – The Quest of Iranon, by H.P. Lovecraft

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Quest of Iranon, by H.P. Lovecraft appeared in the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales. It can be found all over the place, but you won’t have to download a pdf if you go here.

Look at this loser

 

The Quest of Iranon may be the first old pulp story I’ve read and reviewed for Short Reviews that I’d already read before. While I’m a big fan of Lovecraft, I tend to prefer his science-fiction and horror to his more strictly fantasy outings. Dreamworld stuff is all right when it’s well-grounded, but much of his Dreamworld stuff I’ve generally found weaker, and The Quest of Iranon is perhaps one of my least favorites.

Iranon is a traveling bard from the city of blah, in the valley of bloop, who finds himself wandering in the lands of blarg. He longs for his wondrous city of blah and sings songs that are beautiful and haunting. He does so wandering ageless from place to place until either he’s sick of the place or the place is sick of him. Okay, so that is not entirely fair to the story, but this, of all the Lovecraft I’ve read, feels the most derivative of Dunsany.

While there is, I suppose, some lovely symbolism in this piece and pathos-evoking tragedy in the twist that Iranon was just some schlub who made up his magnificent city with which none can compare, it’s hard to escape the feel of it being merely Dunsanian homage, especially when you’ve seen Dunsany do as much or more with fewer words. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is this piece in which an author dies disillusioned of his creation, one so wonderful that the real world paled in the author’s mind, was published posthumously and alongside a story as bad as August Derleth’s The Return of Hastur.

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am about this story in the comments!

Short Reviews – The Return of Hastur, by August Derleth

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Return of Hastur, by August Derleth, appeared in the March 1939 issue of Weird Tales. You really shouldn’t read it, but if you must, it can be found here with other, much better, stories at Luminist.org.

Going into The Return of Hastur, I was certain that August Derleth was going to be pretty bad from his reputation alone, but he turned out to be on the nose exactly as bad as I thought he would be in the very ways I knew he would be bad. The Return of Hastur drips will all of the greasy, slimy hallmarks of fan-fiction that drives me up the wall any time I hear or see the word “Lovecraftian”.

This is one of those stories where the Call of Cthulhu “Burn the Books” meme comes from. The Mary Sue’s friend and client has left in his will that someone needs to burn his house down along with several books in his library. In the very first page, we have the Innsmouth Turnpike, where said friend had an estate off of, and name-drops of Arkham, Miskatonic University, De Vermis Mysteriis, Cultes des Ghoules, Unassprechlichen Kulten, the Book of Eibon, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Necronomicon, and Abdul Alhazred. ON THE FIRST PAGE. We get it, Derleth, you know all of the evil books and places from Lovecraft; you’re a big fan.

The Return of Hastur briefly flirts with being less than completely terrible, intimating certain strange things about the friend’s death, weird sounds following the wake, foul smells of a rapidly putrefying body, and some added drama of a relative willing to contest the will – obviously the man was crazy, and specifying the destruction of valuable property could testify to the state of mind of someone not all there. So, uh… the books aren’t going to get burned right away.

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