NORMAN DANIELS “The Great Ego.” Novella. First appeared in Startling Stories, Spring 1944. Never reprinted.

   The first story by Norman Daniels I ever read was one of his John Keith, Man from A.P.E. spy stories from Pyramid. I didn’t know who Daniels was at the time and knew nothing of his pulp connection, but I knew I liked the book enough to look for more by him, which proved fairly easy to do as he was an extremely prolific writer for most of his entire career, from his early days in the pulps to the Gothic romances written with his wife as Dorothy Daniels. The only trick with his work was discovering which pseudonyms he was writing under other than his own name, and which genre he was writing in.

   But I confess I never really thought of him much in terms of the Science Fiction genre, which is why I was a bit surprised to see his name on the cover of Startling Stories with the lead novella illustrated by no less than the great Virgil Finlay, the work in question, “The Great Ego.”

   The story, as you might expect from Daniels and Startling, opens with a hook designed to keep you turning pages. The extremely meek and retiring Mr. Rodney St. George (…in manner of dress he might be almost dainty) is a clerk at a bank, and his superior, young and handsome Jim Downing, has asked Miss Pam Brooke, an attractive clerk at a rare book store, to identify St. George as a man who buys rare volumes at her store.

   Two marked notes, part of a large sum embezzled by a recently caught clerk named Foster, one who definitely would not be found in a rare book store, showed up at her store. To make things even more mysterious, it turns out the meek Mr. St. George has spent some $8,000 on rare books in recent months. This is certainly not a sum he earned at the bank no matter how carefully he lived.

   Like any pulp hero worth his name, Jim Downing is determined to investigate more deeply, something he soon finds he wishes he kept his nose out of. But before he can follow up, Mr. St. George foils a bank robbery, apparently by accident. Asked to identify the captured bank robber, St. George visits his cell, where magically a cute kitten appears just as the bank robber who had pleaded with St. George to free him drops dead, much the same way the embezzling clerk Foster did, from no apparent cause.

   There is much more to Mr. St. George than meets the eye, and he is ready for Jim Downing’s nosing around.

   Meanwhile Pam Brooke has been doing a little detective work on her own. She has discovered St. George has spent thousands of dollars in rare bookstores around the city. So when Downing goes to visit St. George he suspects there is more to the story than he’s been told and willing to confront the man. At which point St. George turns him into a kitten and himself into a large black cat.

   Of course Daniels manages to give the whole thing a thin patina of science since this was Startling Stories and not Weird Tales, but basically this is the sort of thing you would find in John Campbell’s Unknown, though told here with a straighter face and without the more literary efforts of a Heinlein, Leiber, De Camp, or Williamson.

   St. George can turn anyone into any animal, but he prefers cats, and his house full of cats, all former humans (including Foster and the bank robber), but he needs Downing because it turns out St. George isn’t the only one with this power. He has a rival, a deadly one, Dr. Michael Jamison.

   Downing manages to become human and escape, but no one will believe him but Pam, so he tries to enlist Jamison only to find himself ironically allied with St. George against an even madder scientist/sorcerer, the two men vying for an ancient scroll that will make one of them a virtual god.

   This fast-moving tale has a momentum of its own, despite the absurdities and proves to be a fun story as Downing and Pam find they are mankind’s last hope as the two self proclaimed gods feud with man’s fate in the balance.

   Daniels manages a nice bit of jiggery-pokery here, keeping the tale moving despite the built-in absurdity, and even allowing the hero to outwit the two madmen with a clever bit of observation about the nature of their abilities, bringing the thing to a fine apocalyptic head.

   “The Great Ego” is a well-written and playful tale, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still seriously enough to involve the reader in the fate of the attractive hero and heroine, if you are willing to give into the spirit of the thing.

   Startling may not have been in a class with Astounding, but over the years it was the home to some of the more gifted writers in the field, including Leigh Brackett, Stanley Weinbaum, Manly Wade Wellman, Ray Bradbury, Edmund Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, (Captain Future, too) and other major names, and in “The Great Ego” an unquestioned pulp — if not SF — master pulls off an entertaining tale as wild and furry as the cats that populate it.