by Victoria Silverwolf
Since the demise nearly a decade ago of the fondly remembered magazine Weird Tales, there has been a dearth of markets for horror stories. Occasionally a tale of terror will appear in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but otherwise there are few places where fiction dealing with the deepest, most irrational fears of humanity can be found. Perhaps this is due to the burgeoning popularity of science fiction as an expression of modern anxieties in this age of space exploration and atomic energy.
Even at the local movie theater one is more likely to find radioactive mutants and creatures from outer space than vampires, werewolves, and mummies, though the recent revival of these Gothic monsters by the British film production company Hammer hints that the tide may be changing, as does the popularity of classic horror movies on television programs such as Shock Theater. The new publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by well-known science fiction fan Forrest J. Ackerman, also proves that there are many readers still interested in the dark side of fantasy.
A striking exception to above trend is Fantastic, which often features supernatural horror stories along with the kind of science fiction found in its sister publication Amazing. In particular, the February issue of the magazine contains at least as much of the former as the latter.
The surrealistic cover art by Leo Summers aptly conveys the mood of Fritz Leiber’s lead novelette “A Bit of the Dark World.” The story is set in modern Southern California. (Leiber has been a pioneer in bringing the supernatural into the Twentieth Century ever since his story The Automatic Pistol appeared in Weird Tales in 1940.) Four passengers are driving through steep hills near Los Angeles. In the back seat are the narrator and his lover, who are in the movie business. (In a sly nod to his roots, the author gives these characters the surnames Seabury and Quinn, Seabury Quinn having been a prolific writer of horror fiction, with hundreds of stories to his credit, many in Weird Tales.)
In the front passenger seat is their host, who is bringing them to his small but luxurious home for the night. At the wheel is a neighbor. On the way they share a strange vision at a peculiar rock formation. The driver sees nothing, and this character soon vanishes from the story. He seems intended to represent those who have no ability to sense anything beyond the physical world, and thus he is completely safe from it.
The other three are not so fortunate. As the night progresses they experience unnerving sensations; a burning smell, a metallic flavor, the feeling of cobwebs, the sound of falling gravel. Most of all they perceive vague shapes, shining black against an equally black night sky. Leiber creates an effective sense of inexplicable menace which leads to a dramatic conclusion. Four stars.
Before returning to tales of terror, Daniel F. Galouye (a likely Hugo contender for his recent novel Dark Universe) offers us a taste of his skill at creating imaginative science fiction in A Silence of Wings. Set in the far future, when humanity has made contact with many different alien species throughout the galaxy, the story takes place on a planet inhabited by flying telepaths. Although friendly to the visiting humans, they have no interest in learning about Earth technology and are to content to remain gliding from place to place in their treetop homes. The Terrans are not entirely altruistic in offering to bring advanced science to the flyers; a prime motivation is to enlist them in exploiting the planet’s resources. In a foolish attempt to force the aliens to adopt machinery, one of the humans uses logic to “prove” that their wings are far too frail to allow them to fly. Since this ability is the only thing which prevents them from being destroyed by ravenous ground-dwelling predators, a crisis ensues.
The story reads in some ways like a typical Analog story reflected in a funhouse mirror. The self-confident humans smugly think themselves superior to the local natives. The author is careful to avoid depicting them as one-dimensional villains, however, resulting in a believable set of characters. Three stars.
Although also set in a future of space travel, this time confined to the limits of the Solar System, Joseph E. Kelleam’s story The Red Flowers of Tulp is really an old-fashioned horror story decked out with science fiction trappings. It deals with three vicious space criminals who encounter the title plants at a carnival on Mars, just after reaping the benefits of their latest felony. The flowers not only talk, but predict their futures (they really serve only as a plot gimmick, and could easily be replaced by a Gypsy fortuneteller.) They state that one of the men will die by cold, one by fire, and that one will never die. The reader is not terribly surprised to discover that these predictions all come true. It’s a moderately effective tale of just desserts, worthy of two stars (three if you’re more generous than I am).
Appropriately, this month’s reprint is credited, in part, to the late H. P. Lovecraft, another veteran of Weird Tales whose name is associated with stories of terror. I suspect that “The Shadow Out of Space” is primarily the work of co-author August W. Derleth. Derleth, along with Donald Wandrei, founded the Arkham House publishing company with the goal of preserving the work of Lovecraft in hardcover. Derleth and other authors have expanded on Lovecraft’s concept of ancient, god-like beings far beyond human comprehension into the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos.”
Taking its title from Lovecraft’s 1936 story The Shadow Out of Time, this variation on the same theme was first published in The Survivor and Others, a 1957 Arkham House collection of Derleth’s elaborations on notes and outlines left by the deceased author. The story is told from the point of view of a psychiatrist examining a patient who suffers from terrifying dreams. These involve inhabiting the body of an inhuman creature in a vast library located on a distant planet. It is eventually revealed that these aliens are able to send their minds into the bodies of others, including human beings, over vast distances of space and time. Derleth weaves together many themes from Lovecraft in an apparent attempt to make a coherent whole. Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will appreciate the effort, but the story itself is rather dry, and the author forgets the important rule to show and not tell. Two stars.
We turn from cosmic terror to more mundane fears in our final story. William W. Stuart’s What If? has something of the flavor of an introspective The Twilight Zone episode. The protagonist is a fellow who has been so dominated by a willful mother and a bureaucratic job with the IRS that he is unable to make the simplest decisions on his own. When he is asked to make a trivial selection between a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, he foresees the tragic consequences of each choice. Unwilling to hurt anyone because of his actions, he goes into a catatonic state. Years later, in a psychiatric institute, he emerges from his trance and decides to act only in his own self-interest, disregarding how his decisions will harm others. Although his strange ability to predict the exact consequences of all his actions allows him to become rich and powerful very quickly, the outcome is not entirely pleasant. Three stars.
Overall, this issue provides solid entertainment, even if it may not be the best choice to read all alone in the dark…
[Then again, who reads in the dark? Best to, at least, bring a flashlight! Ed.]