Science Fiction & Fantasy


COLLECTING PULPS: A Memoir, Part 12 :
Rereading UNKNOWN and UNKNOWN WORLDS
by Walker Martin


   Why reread? I’ve known several readers and collectors who bluntly state that they seldom or never reread stories or books. They argue that there are too many new books waiting to be read, sort of the like the old saying, “So many books, so little time.”

   I love to reread but only my favorite books and stories. And only the ones that I consider to be outstanding or great. There is nothing more exasperating than to reread a book and realize that it was not even worth reading the first time. Not to mention the waste of time. That’s why I’ve always noted on a slip of paper the date read, my grade, and comments about the book. Then, decades later, I can tell at a glance what I thought of the book and whether it is worth a second reading or not.

   So aside from the enjoyment of rereading an outstanding book, why read it again? Some books demand a second (and a third and a fourth) reading because they have several layers and levels of complex meaning that you might want to explore and investigate. Also a book read in your twenties may reveal additional meanings when you reread it many years later. There have been books that I read as a young man that I didn’t have the proper maturity to truly understand but as an older reader, I now find them to be indispensable.

   Every reader has their favorite books that they have reread. Some of mine are:

         War and Peace — 3 times.

         Moby Dick — 3 times.

         The Sun Also Rises — 5 times.

         Under the Volcano — 5 times.

   In the different genres I’ve several books that I’ve reread:

   In science fiction: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination. Also the novels of Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg; the short stories of J.G. Ballard and Theodore Sturgeon.

   In the detective and crime genre: the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and Ross Macdonald.

   In the western field: the novels of Luke Short, Elmore Leonard, Elmer Kelton. Lonesome Dove is maybe the best western I’ve ever reread.

   I also have reread stories in the pulp magazines. Many literary critics make the mistake of lumping all the pulps into one sub-literary category. They think all the pulps published mediocre and poor action fiction of very little redeeming literary value. They are wrong. There is such a thing as excellent pulp fiction, and I’ve tried to point out some examples in this series on collecting pulps.

   Of course, I absolutely agree with Sturgeon’s Law which in simple terms may be explained as “90% of everything is crap.” This is a good thing to say to anyone who criticizes your tastes in reading matter. For instance if they sneer at your love for detective, SF, or western fiction, then you can state Sturgeon’s Law, which I’ve found to roughly apply to just about all forms of literary endeavor.

   In other words, I’m always looking for that less than 10% that I hope will be worth reading and rereading. As I reread my notes spread throughout thousands of books and fiction magazines, I see I’m now at a good point in my life where I’m reading mainly the good 10%. Sure, every now and then I make a mistake or blunder and find myself reading the 90% crap, but after so many years of reading, I’m getting pretty good at avoiding the stuff that is not worth reading.

   A couple months before the August Pulpfest convention, one of the committee members, knowing my love for the magazine Unknown, asked me if I would participate on a panel discussing the title. This made me think about Unknown and how I had started collecting and reading it so many years ago.

   When I first started to think about collecting it, I was just a teenager and had very little money. I had enough to buy the SF digests and paperbacks but a set of Unknown back in the 1950′s cost around $50, a sum that I never had until years later. Back then, just about all pulps were a dollar or less, a fact that is hard to believe now.

   Finally in 1963, while attending college, I managed to put aside $50 and I started scouting around for a set of the 39 issues. All I could pay was $50 but everyone I contacted wanted more. I even contacted the Werewolf Bookshop in Verona, Pennsylvania (this bookstore advertised in many of the digest SF magazines) and I still have the letter dated September 3, 1963. I stapled it into my Unknown book where I noted my thoughts and comments on the magazine. The owner stated that he had contacted three fans and only one was willing to sell and he wanted $200 for his set.

   Back in 1963 this was an outrageous sum, and it’s lucky I did not send money to the Werewolf Bookshop. It seems the owner was in the habit of sending you anything he had if he did not have the books that you ordered. Then when you complained about receiving books that you didn’t want, he would ignore your letters and keep your money. If I had sent him $200, there is no telling what he would have shipped me. Except that it would not have been a set of Unknown. I have read about and even met fellow collectors who fell victim to this scam.

   Fortunately, I eventually bought a set from Gerry de la Ree, a SF collector and dealer who lived in New Jersey. For decades in the 1960′s, 1970′s, 1980′s, Gerry mailed out monthly sale lists listing SF pulps, digests, books, and artwork. He wanted only $50 and I now had the complete set. I read several stories in scattered issues, but college and then being drafted into the army delayed my project of reading the complete set.

   However, by 1969 I was discharged and I spent six months of doing nothing but reading. I didn’t even look for a job, and I loved living in my mother’s house drinking beer and reading all day. She must of thought she raised a bum, but she was wrong. She raised a book collector and reader.

   I started reading from the first issue, March 1939 and I read each issue, every story, every word, until the end in October 1943. That’s 4 1/2 years and 39 issues. Over 250 stories ranging from novel length to short story. John W. Campbell, the editor of both Unknown and Astounding, estimated that the 7 by 10 inch pulp size issues contained 70,000 words of fiction and the 8 1/2 by 11 inch format contained 110,000 words.

   That means I read over 3 million words of fiction in 1969 when I started my project of reading the entire set. I forget how long it took me but since I was not wasting any time working, I probably read close to an issue every day or two. I then recorded my thoughts in a standard English composition notebook. I think they still make these things, black with white speckles and it says “Composition” on the front cover. With over 100 pages I could devote two pages to each issue, listing each story and author along with a grade and my comments. At the end of each year, I did a summary listing my favorites.

   During the Pulpfest panel, I read some of my comments from this notebook and a couple collectors asked me if I had such books for each magazine that I collected. I used to but I eventually switched to the system of putting a slip of paper in each magazine or book with my comments, grade, and date read. I have thousands of books and magazines with these annotations tucked inside each copy. I still have a few of the notebooks, with the Unknown comments being the most extensive. I see I have one on Weird Tales where I read and noted my reactions to reading three years of issues, 1933-1935.

   So to prepare for the panel, I reread only the stories that received an outstanding rating back in 1969. We often think that we were a different person 45 years ago and for the most part we probably were. I was in my twenties back then and ahead of me were all the usual things like getting married, raising a family, starting a career, buying houses, etc. Of course this series of essays deal with my collecting experiences. So what did I think at the age of 72 looking back on my younger self praising and exclaiming over the stories in Unknown?

   As I reread story after story, I was impressed again at the literary quality of the magazine. I guess that’s why I’m writing about the magazine again in 2014, only instead of just comments meant for my older self, I’m now writing for other collectors and readers and encouraging them to read and reread Unknown.

   What were the outstanding novels? Lest Darkness Fall and The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote the superior Harold Shea novels with Fletcher Pratt. Death’s Deputy and Fear by L. Ron Hubbard; Hell Is Forever by Alfred Bester; Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; None But Lucifer by H. L .Gold and de Camp.

   Among the shorter fiction, we have several novelettes by Henry Kuttner. I believe these stories represent the first quality fiction by Kuttner. Jane Rice also had several stories and when the magazine died in 1943, she almost stopped writing because Unknown was her favorite market. One of the sad things about Unknown ceasing publication was the fact the Jane Rice had a 33,000 word short novel that was scheduled for a future issue. But the manuscript has been lost by Street & Smith and Rice did not keep a copy. Anthony Boucher, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon also had many shorts.

   But despite all the excellent fiction in Unknown, the magazine can best be described and explained by simply looking at the art of Edd Cartier. He is Unknownwith its gnomes, demons, and fantasy figures that defy description. I once had a chance to buy an original Unknown cover painting by Cartier. In the 1980′s, someone was walking around one of the Pulpcon conventions with the painting but he wanted $2,000 for it. At the time I had bought many cover paintings but the highest price I ever had to pay was $400. One of my collector mistakes. I should have dug up the money somehow because it’s worth a fortune now.

   Cartier dropped out of fantasy and SF illustration sometime in the early fifties but I did manage to meet him around 1990 at Pulpcon in Wayne, NJ. Rusty Hevelin was running Pulpcon and he said Edd Cartier would be available to talk to one night. But it would be for only a special group of pulp collectors who Rusty would choose. Fortunately, I was one of them and it remains a Pulpcon highlight that I still remember all these years later.

   Speaking of Cartier brings up what I think of as one of John W. Campbell’s mistakes. With the July 1940 issue the cover art was discontinued. Campbell must have looking to attract more readers with a literary style cover showing a more bland, sedate listing of stories. Maybe he thought the illustrations too garish on the covers. But the lack of any cover art at all just made the magazine seem a puzzle to many newsstand browsers. One of the big reasons for cover art is to grab your attention while you are looking at scores of magazines. Without cover illustrations the magazine just was lost on the stands. Where do you put it? This experiment was tried by previous pulps like Adventure and The Popular Magazine, and it was never successful.

   I’ve owned several sets of Unknown during the last 50 years and it is still possible to pick up issues. After the panel a couple collectors told me they wanted to start collecting it and I told them to keep looking through the dealer’s room at Pulpfest because I saw several issues for sale. Usually the price is around $20 but I’ve seen higher and lower prices. Ebay also has issues.

   At present I own two sets, one is the usual individual 39 issues and one is a bound set in 14 hardcover volumes. There is an interesting story about this bound set. I only paid $400 for it at Pulpcon a few years ago and neither the dealer or me noticed that it had a signature in the first volume. When I got home I was amazed to realize that I had John W. Campbell’s personal bound set of the magazine. It was inscribed as follows, “To George Scithers, who worked hard for this set”. Signed John W. Campbell. I’ve worked hard for certain sets of magazines, so I know what he means.

   The magazine is not really rare because so many SF and fantasy collectors loved the magazine and saved their copies. It is probably the most missed of all the pulp titles. In the letter columns of old SF magazines, it is often referred to as “the late, lamented Unknown.” For several years after it ceased publication due to the war time paper restrictions, letters in Astounding kept asking when the title would be revived. Evidently Campbell intended to start it up again when paper was available. But that was not until 1948 and then Street & Smith killed off all their pulps except for Astounding in 1949.

   So Unknown remained dead but several magazines were influenced in the 1950′s. Fantasy Fiction lasted four issues in 1953; Beyond Fantasy Fiction lasted ten issues in 1953-1955; and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is still being published, has often printed Unknown type fiction.

   If you are not a collector but you still want to read some of the best fiction, there are several collections available:

UNKNOWN WORLDS: Tales From Beyond, edited by Stanley Schmidt and Martin H. Greenberg (Garland Books, 1988) This is the biggest and best collection. 25 stories and 517 pages.

RIVALS OF WEIRD TALES, edited by Weinberg, Dziemianowicz, and Greenberg. (Bonanza Books, 1990) Among stories from other magazines, there is a section of 11 stories from Unknown, amounting to 200 pages.

THE UNKNOWN, edited by D. R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1963) This paperback has 11 stories and story notes.

THE UNKNOWN FIVE, edited by D.R. Bensen (Pyramid, 1964) Another collection from Bensen.

UNKNOWN, edited by Stanley Schmidt (Baen Books, 1988) Nine of the longer stories and 304 pages. Paperback.

HELL HATH FURY, edited by George Hay (Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963) Seven stories in hardback.

OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, by A.E. Van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (Powell Publications, 1969) This paperback has seven Unknown stories by Van Vogt and wife.

   And finally there are two full-length studies of the magazine:

THE ANNOTATED GUIDE TO UNKNOWN AND UNKNOWN WORLDS, by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz (Starmont House, 1991) This is an excellent study of all aspects of the great magazine. A total of 212 pages with a long essay about the magazine, followed with detailed story annotations on every story, a story index, an author index and much more! Highly Recommended.

ONCE THERE WAS A MAGAZINE, by Fred Smith (Beccon Publications, 2002). Each issue is discussed plus author and title index.

   So ends my rereading of Unknown and I hope to return someday. I guess we shall never see a revival of the magazine. I noted over a dozen pleas from readers in Astounding, all asking when Unknown would be revived, but the October 1943 issue was the last one. A digest issue was planned and discussed in the October issue but an order for additional paper reduction came and Unknown was a victim of WW II.

REST IN PEACE: Unknown and Unknown Worlds.

NOTE:   To access earlier installments of Walker’s memoirs about his life as a pup collector, go first to this blog’s home page (link at the far upper left), then use the search box found somewhere down the right side. Use either “Walker Martin” or “Collecting Pulps” in quotes, and that should do it.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


JON STEELE – The Watchers: Book I of the Angelus Trilogy. Blue Rider Press, hardcover, May 2012. Signet, paperback, April 2013.

   “C’est le guet! Il’ a sonne l’heure! Il a sonne l’heure!”

   According to Jon Steele, the author of this massive first volume in a trilogy, those are the last words you will hear, a whispered guide to the other side, administered by angels on Earth. They are also key to this outstanding book that is equally fantasy, mystery, action thriller, and a character study of three wounded people — well, at least one of them is just a person, the others not so much so.

   The place is Lausanne, in and around the Great Cathedral. The three people are Marc Rochat, the somewhat simple-minded watchman who guards the cathedral; Katherine Taylor, a tough-minded sexually robust call girl caught up in things she doesn’t understand; and Jay Harper, a private detective who awakens in Lausanne with no idea how he got there or why he is there, but driven to solve a series of grisly murders in the city.

   For Marc Rochat. it all begins when a beautiful angel draws him from out of the shadows. To Marc, she is the angel his mother promised him when he was young.

   “Ten bells echoed down the empty street …” is how we meet Jay Harper, who has no idea why he is in Lausanne. All he knows is that he is Jay Michael Harper, age 31, and carries a card that reads his name and Guardian Services Limited, and that he is a freelance security expert.

   He saw Lausanne Cathedral reaching for the clouds. Something caught his eye in the belfry — something in the shadows of the arches and pillars. Bright as firelight floating from side to side. The light went away and the floodlights went black.

   That light is key to the mystery at hand, but it is a deeper and far older mystery than mere murder. Forces are at play which have warred for millenia and may fight their final battle in beautiful Lausanne.

   There is the Inspector, Monsieur Gabriel, and tough beautiful Officer Janssen and the sinister Komarovsky, who lures Katherine into a small private online sex show from hell for the mysterious Two Hundred, and who knows exactly who and what Jay Harper is. Those are a few of the elements of the mystery.

   I’m trying not to give too much away. There are many elements: a dying soldier in WWI, brutal murders, a voyeuristic online sex cult, the identity of the Two Hundred, the salvation of Katherine and why her salvation is key to everything, the true nature and mission of Jay Harper, the secret of Marc Rochat, the enigmatic Monsieur Gabriel, and I mustn’t forget Katherine’s cat Monsieur Booty.

   At risk, a prize that must be protected by Marc, Katherine, and Harper at all costs in a final confrontation with evil on the roof of the Lausanne Cathedral where no less is at stake than the very light of creation entrusted to a simple minded watchman — or is he?

   I suppose how you feel about this book will depend on your fancy for dark fantasy, though it is also a detective story, complete in itself, but with mystery enough left for two more volumes. It is also a study in three very different people with very similar fates, all bound together by forces they can only vaguely comprehend, and motives that are still partially obscured at the novel’s end.

   This is a big book, 743 pages in paperback, so if you don’t like thick books, three this length may slow you down a bit. I can tell you I have read Book I and Book II (Angel City) and Steele has yet to let me down or keep me anything but enthralled, the second volume ending in a cliff hanger that still has my teeth gritted. There are passages of simply lovely prose, storytelling skills too rarely seen these days, and moments of power here that will move the stoniest readers’ hearts.

   The Watchers reminded me of the kind of power that C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams once achieved in their allegorical novels, but Steele is a modern writer, and this is a very grown up book about far more than a war spilled out of the heavens onto Earth. There is still another volume to go before we find out Steele’s full plan, but I have come to trust he will bring it off, and even if he fails The Watchers stands as a brilliant one of a kind novel that fulfills the one goal so few books today seem capable of accomplishing: No matter how much I wanted to know what happens next, I didn’t want it to end.

   “C’est le guet! Il a sonne l’heure! Il a sonne l’heure!”

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TEENAGE CAVEMAN. American International Pictures, 1957. Robert Vaughn, Darah Marshall, Leslie Bradley, Frank De Kova, Charles Thompson, June Jocelyn, Ed Nelson, Robert Shayne. Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell. Director: Roger Corman.

   Teenage Caveman, a low-budget project ($70,000) with a title that conveys adolescent culture, is a far more interesting film than you might expect it to be. Directed and produced by Roger Corman, the movie’s original title was “Prehistoric World.” Which makes sense given that there are dinosaurs and strange lizard creatures lurking about in the background.

   Whatever it rightfully called, the occasionally stylish movie stars Robert Vaughn as – you guessed it – a teenage cave man. Known as “Boy,” Vaughn’s character is plagued by curiosity. Why does his society’s law forbid people to travel beyond the river? What’s there that’s so forbidden or so dangerous? Right from the get go, one is plunged into a society seemingly ossified by religious dogma and intolerance.

   By the time it’s all over, one feels as if the rug has been ripped out from under one’s feet. Perhaps there was a reason – a very good one, at that – why the Boy’s elders warned him against traveling far beyond his immediate surroundings. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that fans of Planet of the Apes will find Corman’s worldview, as conveyed in this particular film, to be not all that different from Rod Serling’s.

   So, is Teenage Caveman a good movie or is it just a silly exercise in filmmaking? The best way to answer that question is as an attorney would: “It depends.” It depends what you’re looking for or how much stock you put in Corman’s abilities to convey serious ideas with a meager budget.

   In terms of realism special effects, it’s basically a notch below a B-film. The lizards and dinosaurs, for instance, look more silly than scary. And Vaughn has to have the best coiffed haircut of any caveman since time began. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a very good actor or that he doesn’t take his role in this movie seriously. He does. And that’s what makes what could have otherwise been a total dud something worth watching, even if you have an inkling what the surprise ending is going to be.

JOHN RACKHAM – Dark Planet. Ace Double 13805, paperback original, 1971. Published back to back with The Herod Men, by Nick Kamin. Cover art by Jack Gaughan.

   I don’t read nearly as much science fiction as I used to. I don’t care for fantasy, except on occasion the humorous kind. I’m not interested in military science fiction, even though the first three Star Wars movies were a lot of fun. I don’t like long series of books in the same world or universe, especially the big fat thick ones. I know if I ever start one, either I’ll never finish or (wonder of wonders) it is what I’m looking for and it sucks all of the reading time out of my day.

   I thought I’d like the new fad, or at least I think it is, of steampunk SF and fantasy — the kind that takes place in Victorian times — but I quickly discovered that a little bit of gaslights, diesel-powered zeppelins and intricately machined robots goes a long way. (If I’m mischaracterizing the genre, I assume someone will let me know, gently, of course.)

   I assumed for a while that, even no one’s publishing it, what I like is good old-fashioned space opera, until I tried to read one of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s old Lensman series. No for me, not any more, not stickboard characters like this. Maybe I’m too old for science fiction, both the current variety and last century’s.

   Or maybe not. Coming across a duplicate copy of one of Ace’s well-remembered and long-lost Ace Doubles, I gave it a try, and while Dark Planet showed its roots far too clearly, it was a lot of fun to read. I liked it. It’s my era of Science Fiction, circa 1966-72, when I wasn’t yet 30 but had started my teaching career and life was as fine as it could be. Maybe everyone has their own particular niche in terms of favorite reading material, and could it be that I’ve only been reading the Wrong Stuff?

   Stephen Query is the protagonist in this one. He’s a misfit in the world of humanity in which he is forced to live. He doesn’t belong. He walks to the beat of a different drummer. He’s been forced out of the Space Service, where he thought he’d found a home, and sentenced to a life of drudgery and loneliness on a world with an atmosphere so noxious that it would dissolve the clothing right off your back. Sentenced there unjustly for disobeying a high-ranking officer’s direct orders. A world that’s fit only as a stopping-off and refitting station for spaceships on their way to fight in another part of the galaxy.

   But loneliness he doesn’t mind, and it comes with some dismay to learn that he has been pardoned and is forcibly ordered to ship out and off to war. But the ship is sabotaged, and he and the Admiral and the Admiral’s daughter are forced to make a crash landing on the planet.

   The Admiral’s daughter has one outstanding feature, according to the author, and that is her bosom. Her breasts are mentioned with obvious admiration several times, and on a planet where clothing dissolves, along with all other non-living material, we think — or at least I did — we have an inkling where this is going.

   Wrong. It turns out that the world, previously unexplored, is inhabited. Not only by the people who eventually rescue the unlucky trio, but there are also sentient beings on the upper levels of the planet. Not only that, but only Query can communicate with them, being a human of other talents, and not only mentally and emphatically, but in a (shall we say) in a more sensual way, or so I gathered — since we the readers do not have the same talents, but need to be given hints at times as to what is transpiring.

   Very reminiscent, I thought, of novels of the late 40s, by authors such as Henry Kuttner, in only a slightly upgraded and a bit more sophisticated telling, complete with happy ending.

   But the most enjoyable aspect of this short novel (just over 100 pages, but of small print) is that I both did and didn’t know exactly where the novel was going. Not Hugo-winning material at all, in any year, don’t get me wrong about that, but this fit the bill at exactly the time I wanted to read it. Good stuff!

  HORROR EXPRESS. Benmar Productions/Granada Films, 1972. A Spanish/British production; released in Spain as Pánico en el Transiberiano. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Telly Savalas, Julio Peña, Silvia Tortosa, Ángel del Pozo, Helga Liné, Alice Reinheart. Director: Eugenio Martín.

    “The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned, Alexander Saxton, is a true and faithful account of the events that befell the society’s expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept the responsibility for its ending in disaster. But I will leave, to the judgement of the honorable members, the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies…”

   I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I love movies that take place on trains, and all but one half of one percent of this one does, so what does that tell you? And any movie with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in it has got to be worth watching, and doubly so when they’re on the same side — well, friendly rivals, I would say.

   Christopher Lee plays Professor Saxon, a British anthropologist, on board the Trans-Siberian Express from China to Moscow, along with the frozen body of a monstrous-looking humanoid discovered in a remote Manchurian cave (as if remote and Manchurian never appeared in the same sentence before). A colleague, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing) is also on board, but only fortuitously so.

   Or even luckily so. Both men are needed, as it so happens, since the creature in its sealed crate must be responsible for the series of mysterious deaths that quickly ensue — but how? — even before the train starts off on its long trek through the isolated snow-covered Siberian wasteland — the eyes of the victims sucked purely white, their brains wiped clean, as smooth as a baby’s bottom. (We get to view the makeshift autopsy on the moving train.)

   There is an explanation, a science-fictional one, but the real fun is watching a pair of true professionals (Lee and Cushing) enjoy themselves immensely, or so they make us believe. (Cushing’s wife had died just before filming began, and he nearly backed out of his role.) As for Telly Savalas, as a loudly flamboyant Cossack officer (to put it mildly), the less said the better, at least by me.

NOTE:   The video link above is of the final four or five minutes only. To see the movie in its entirety, go here.

THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG. Columbia Pictures, 1939. Boris Karloff, Lorna Gray, Robert Wilcox, Roger Pryor, Don Beddoe, Ann Doran, Jo De Stefani, Charles, Trowbridge, Byron Foulger. Director: Nick Grinde.

   If in Night Key (reviewed recently here) Boris Karloff was a bumbling but revengeful old inventor who was seriously wronged, he was at heart a kindly old gentleman with (as I made a point in mentioning) a beautiful daughter. In The Man They Could Not Hang, Mr. Karloff is a scientist, not an inventor, and even before he is serious wronged (see below) he doesn’t have the best of dispositions to begin with.

   But after he is hanged (see the title), his quest for revenge upon the jury, the judge, prosecutor, and the members of the police force who helped convict him turns him into a mad scientist whose vengeance is clever, wicked and just plain diabolical.

   His crime? That of killing a medical student who had willingly agreed to become the subject of Dr. Henryck Savaard’s latest experiment – a crucial one indeed, one in which the student is put to death under controlled conditions, expecting to waken again by means of a strange, weird-looking apparatus in Savaard’s laboratory.

   The police are summoned before the test of the equipment is completed, however, and their intervention means the student cum guinea pig is doomed to a permanent death.

   The middle third of the movie is the slowest moving one, taking place as it does in the courtroom, with plenty of room for the prosecutor and Dr. Savaard to speak their views and respond to the other’s. Savaard suggests that being able to bring patients back to life on the operating table would mean more lives saved during surgery; nix on that, says the D.A.: a death is a death, and murder is murder.

   The last third of the film could have been the most fun, with many of well-recovered Dr. Savaard’s would-be victims locked up together in a booby-trapped house, and for the most part is it is, but the ending seems rushed. Here (not so coincidentally) is also where the mad scientist’s beautiful daughter comes into play – an essential role, to be sure, but one well telegraphed in advance.

                  

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JEREMIAS GOTTHELF – The Black Spider. New York Review of Books, paperback, 2013. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. First published as in German as “Die schwarze Spinne” in 1842.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   When I first spotted a new copy of Jeremias Gotthelf’s The Black Spider in the science fiction/fantasy section of my favorite Washington D.C. bookstore, I confess that I wasn’t familiar with either the author or the book.

   My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to purchase the novella. I’m glad I did. I read it over the course of several days, scribbling notes to myself on the margins, and I found myself eager to learn more about the life and times of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), the Swiss pastor and novelist who, under the pen name of Jeremias Gotthelf, wrote one incredibly vivid and didactic horror tale.

   The Black Spider begins with a serene pastoral Swiss setting. A family and their friends have gathered for a child’s baptism. All seems well in the world. Then one member of the baptismal party notices something odd. There’s a black piece of wood in the old house’s window post that’s noticeably short and out of place. People are curious. What is this piece of wood doing there? As the old advertisement used to say, inquiring minds want to know.

   That’s when the action really takes off. The grandfather (unlike in Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, we never learn his proper name) uses the piece of black wood as a jumping off point to tell a haunting tale about a castle, a brutal knight named Hans von Stoffeln of Swabia, oppressed peasants, and woman named Christine of Lindau who tries to outsmart the Devil. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a sinister quasi-sentient demonic arthropod that wreaks all sorts of havoc and mayhem.

   The basics of the story are as follows. Some six hundred years ago, a cruel knight forces his peasants to relocate some beech trees in order to create a shady walk by his castle. They have no idea how they are going to complete such a physically demanding task.

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Enter a strange character, a huntsman dressed in green, with a red feather in his cap, and a red beard. It’s not too long before the reader learns that this huntsman has the stench of sulfur about him. Soon after, we learn that he’s the Devil. The aforementioned Christine makes an unholy bargain with him, one that would allow the villagers to be freed from the nearly insurmountable burden of planting the trees. The deal is sealed with a kiss on the cheek. But, as with all deals with the Devil, it comes at a steep price. In this case, the Devil wants the villagers to turn over a newborn child before it is baptized.

   Without giving too much of the plot away, suffice it to say that Christine’s choice isn’t the wisest one. Soon, there’s a strange black dot on her face. Sooner still, it morphs into something far more grotesque and spine chilling:

   “But Christine was not lighthearted. The closer the day of the birth approached, the more terrible the burning in her cheek became, and the more the black spot swelled, stretching distinct legs out from its center and sprouting tiny little hairs; shiny points and stripes appeared on its back, the bump became a head, and from it flashed glinting, venomous glances, as if two eyes. Everyone shrieked at the sight of this venomous spider upon Christine’s face, rooted in her face, growing there, and they fled in fear and horror.” (pp. 53-54)

   After that, things get even weirder. The black spider comes to life and brings death. Eventually, a woman captures the spider and plugs it in a hole. There it rests for many years. Then, in an age of impiety and frivolity, the spider gets loose again. Only this time, there’s a man named Christen who, with divine assistance, is able to “thrust the spider into the ancient hole.” (p. 102).

JEREMIAS GOTTELF Black Spider

   Here, the religious message of the work becomes increasingly apparent. Faith and honesty are good; “pride and vainglory” are bad (p. 105). And as far as the aforementioned piece of black wood, it gets incorporated into the frame of a newer house and keeps the black spider imprisoned, where it supposedly remains on the day when the grandfather tells the baptismal party this very creepy story.

   Early nineteenth-century Switzerland doesn’t immediately come to mind when one thinks of either Gothic fiction or what is best described as weird fiction. Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft were all twentieth-century writers and wrote their works in an increasingly secular world. Jeremias Gotthelf, by contrast, was a more devout man who wrote in an age more steeped in faith than the aforementioned purveyors of cosmic horror. His ultimate villain was the Devil, not some strange creature from beyond space and time.

   But then again, there’s the bizarrely sentient black spider. If one reads the work critically, one sees that the author’s description of the spider at times reads less like something out of a fairy tale or a religious novella than it does out of an early twentieth-century pulp magazine:

   “The crowd flew apart, all eyes drawn to the foot to which the hand of the screaming man was pointing. On this foot sat the spider, black and huge, glowering balefully, maliciously all around. The blood froze in their veins, the breath in their breasts, and the sight in their eyes, while the spider calmly, maliciously peered about, and then the man’s foot turned black, and in his body it felt as if fire were hissingly, furiously doing battle with water; fear burst the bonds of horror, and the crowds scattered.” (p. 72)

   The Black Spider may very well be one of the first works of weird fiction ever written. For this reason, it’s well worth reading. But it’s also a good scary tale to read on an overcast day when it’s windy outside, the rain is hitting your windows, and you have some cabin fever. That’s what I did. And I loved every minute of it.

Next Page »