Throughout 2022, I’ll be reviewing short stories. Some of these may be classics, others forgotten. The two things that all will have in common is that they are part of my personal collection and they will be selected through a randomization process. What works and authors I look at will be entirely selected by a roll of the dice.
“The Yeast Men,” which originally appeared in the April 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, was the second science fiction story published by David H. Keller, M.D., as his byline often read. He had actually been publishing as early as 1895, with the story “Aunt Martha” in Bath Weekly, under one of many pseudonyms that he used. He is believed to have been the first psychiatrist to write science fiction.
When Hugo Gernsback launched Science Wonder Stories in 1929, he listed Keller as the magazine’s Associate Science Editor. Keller also served as the editor of Gernsback’s Sexology magazine from 1934 to 1938. Keller lived from 1880 to 1966. He served in the US Medical Corps during World War II. A fan of H.P. Lovecraft, Keller was able to provide August Derleth with a sizable loan to keep Arkham House from going bankrupt during a period when there were cashflow issues.
“The Yeast Men” is set in 1930 in the fictitious European countries of Eupenia and Moronia. Premier Plautz of Eupenia is planning ahead for the next war with Moronia with the plan of utterly destroying the neighboring country, much as Cato the Elder ended every speech by calling for the destruction of Carthage, Plautz ends each speech calling for the destruction of Moronia.
Astounding Science Fiction, March 1944, containing “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill. Cover by William Timmins
Pulp writer Cleve Cartmill (1908 – 1964) is probably best known for writing the story that prompted an FBI visit to John W. Campbell’s office at Astounding. The story in question, “Deadline” (March, 1944), featured a bomb eerily similar to the one being developed by the Manhattan Project at the time. As an educated science fiction audience, Black Gate readers probably do not need that old story re-hashed. Instead, I’ll tell you about three of Cartmill’s fantasy stories published in Unknown, all of which are interesting and worth reading.
Historically, Cartmill is considered a competent but undistinguished pulp writer. In A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes — “Cartmill wrote with an easy and colloquial fluidity that made his stories eminently readable.” I agree. But I also think there’s more to him than that. In the three pulp fantasy stories I’ll be reviewing here — “Bit of Tapestry” (1941), “Wheesht!” (1943), and “Hell Hath Fury” (1943) — Cartmill examines some deeper themes including free will and what makes us human. Although he doesn’t always follow through on these ideas, you are asked to think about them.
As a heads up, there will be heavy spoilers in this article.
The City of the Singing Flame (Timescape, 1981). Cover by Rowena Morrill
We’ve written a lot about Clark Ashton Smith at Black Gate. Like, a lot. Over two dozen articles over the last decade or so by my count, by many of our top writers, including Brian Murphy, Matthew David Surridge, Fletcher Vredenburgh, Thomas Parker, James Maliszewski, M Harold Page, Steven H Silver, John R. Fultz — and especially Ryan Harvey, who’s penned a third of our coverage all on his own.
I’m not an expert on Smith — far from it. Although he published in the pulp magazines I was obsessed with as a teen, I didn’t discover him until relatively late. He had no novels to his name, and was virtually ignored by the editors who assembled the ubiquitous science fiction anthologies I devoured in my youth (I know Isaac Asimov, whose name was on every second anthology I read, strongly disliked Smith’s work, and that was pretty much the kiss of death for SF writers in the 80s).
It wasn’t until David Hartwell, editor of the ambitious Timescape imprint at Pocket Books, reprinted much of Smith’s back catalog in a trio of handsome paperbacks that I corrected this injustice. And specifically, it wasn’t until I laid eyes on Rowena Morrill’s beautiful cover for The City of the Singing Flame in 1981 that I was finally introduced to the rich and fascinating work of Clark Ashton Smith.
The first printing of John Meyers Meyers’ The Harp and the Blade was serialized in seven parts in the pulp magazine Argosy from June through early August of 1940. Although the Rudolph Belarski painting on the cover of the June 22 issue might suggest that The Harp and the Blade is a fantasy, it is not. It is instead a straight adventure story set in medieval France.
What makes this story really interesting is its feeling of reality and the aliveness of the characters. We do not observe the story as if a Hollywood piece, at a comfortable distance from the action. Nor do we wallow in the filth, fleas, and mud. We are shown the reality of battle, the value of a laugh with friends, the necessity of a drink, and the delight of a kiss from one’s wife. The characters’ values are also of paramount importance, with clear demarcations made between good and bad. When there is a case of muddy morals, there is also a rationale, which may not be to our liking, but which makes sense for the characters involved.
The question is never asked — what makes life worth living? Instead, we are shown the answer in the simple things that the hero wants and that his blood-brother already has. This is a man’s tale, not grandiose, but heartfelt and homey as brown bread and good ale.
This installment of the Weird Tales Deep Read continues our examination of 1936 with the February issue, which would have ranked among the best ever if not for a terrible cover story that dragged the rating down to a still very respectable 2.1, making it the year’s second best issue. We see some very familiar authors, including C. L. Moore, Paul Ernst, Robert E. Howard (who managed to appear in ten of the eleven ‘36 issues, largely because of two serials), and H.P. Lovecraft (with a reprint).
The best of issue once again comes down to Howard and Moore, and Howard again gets the nod by a hair. Of the 11 stories eight (73%) are set in the United States, and one each (9%) on Mars and an unnamed Jovian moon, China and other Asian territories, and in a fictitious realm. Eight (73%) are set in contemporary times, two in the past (18%) and one (9%) in the future.
Robots Have No Tails (Lancer, 1973). Cover by Ron Walotsky
Try this one on for size…you go to sleep one night and have a lively dream. You see yourself doing wonderful things, creating new devices based on principles so advanced you can’t even image how they could be. You don’t question the fact that it is a dream because you know that, normally, you could never build such fabulous, world-changing technologies. It’s all kind of fuzzy though — what you’re building, the people you’re interacting with, everything.
When you wake in the morning you discover any number of strange devices in your house. You have no idea what they are, how they work, or where they came from. The phone rings. Apparently, there are several people to whom you now owe a lot money. You’ve never met any of them before but they seem to know you. Is it a scam? You hope so because one of them is suing you for breach of contract. Another is taking you to court for assault and battery. What happened? Could your dreams have been real somehow? Regardless, it seems that you’re now morally responsible for a whole lot of trouble.
This is essentially the premise of Henry Kuttner’s five Galloway/Gallegher stories: “Time Locker” (1943), “The World Is Mine” (1943), “The Proud Robot” (1943), “Gallegher Plus” (1943), and “Ex Machina” (1948).
I’m going to change the focus of the Weird Tales deep read slightly, to hopefully give a somewhat more coherent view of the magazine by focusing on a particular year, while still maintaining the month-at-a time format. First up is January 1936, followed by the ten subsequent issues published that year. (One issue was bi-monthly, and I’ve already covered the July issue, so you can just check that particular installment in the link provided below if you’re so inclined).
The January ‘36 WT is full of familiar names. Seabury Quinn, August Derleth, Paul Ernst, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft (with a reprint) all appear in the line up. The issue grades out to a respectable 2.44, largely avoiding poor stories but also scoring only a few outstanding ones. The two vying for best of issue were Moore’s Jirel and Howard’s Conan, the second installment of the longest Conan tale he was to write. Howard gets the nod on a toss-up.
Weird Tales, January 1945. Cover by Margaret Brundage
This time we’re jumping ahead in our deep read of the Unique Magazine, to the January 1945 issue. The old guard has largely changed. Howard has been dead for almost six years, Lovecraft out-lived him less than a year. C. L. Moore hadn’t published in WT since 1939, Clark Ashton Smith longer. (Reprints not considered,) That doesn’t mean there were no familiar names. Seabury Quinn, August Derleth, Edmond Hamilton, and others continued to contribute. New writers, like Ray Bradbury, were coming on. Though the Golden Age was definitely over, that doesn’t mean the magazine didn’t publish quality material.
I think most people are familiar with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). (Certainly, there’s a delightful musical from 1948 featuring Bing Crosby that I loved as a kid.) Twain’s hero is an engineer from Connecticut who receives a blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to King Arthur’s England. Although the story is a social satire, it celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values, among other things. Although not a satire, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965) by H. Beam Piper, similarly celebrates good old American ingenuity and values, but takes place on an alternate 20th century timeline instead of the far past. It’s Piper’s last work and part of his Paratime universe.
In this article I’m going give you six (relatively) spoiler-free reasons to read the book, and one reason that has a spoiler, but that I think will only enhance your enjoyment of the work.
The Midnight Mail Takes Off for Mars, by Elliott Dold.
From Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories, April-May 1931
I’ve written from time to time about original science fiction art delivered to us by our Friendly Neighborhood Mailman.
Among the various original black and white interior illustrations we own from the science fiction pulps, this is our earliest, appearing 90 years ago. By artist Elliott Dold, it ran as a frontispiece in the April-May 1931 issue of Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories. It was not for any particular story; instead it was a one page feature showing “An Incident of the Future: The Midnight Mail Takes Off for Mars.”
Dold was the art editor of this short-lived title; the April-May 1931 issue was the first of only two. He appears to have been the editor as well, though some sources state that Dold’s brother, Douglas, was the editor. Both Elliott and Douglas, as well as the publisher of Miracle, Harold Hersey, had worked together previously over at the Clayton pulp chain. Elliott and Douglas each had a story appear in Miracle; Douglas’ in the first issue, Elliott’s in the second, dated June-July 1931. In an interview in the October-November 1934 issue of Fantasy Magazine, Elliott discusses how Miracle was his brainchild – he’d talked Hersey into publishing it, and obtained all the stories, as well as doing all the art. He blamed its cessation on an illness which made it impossible for him to work on it. Perhaps coincidentally, during this same period his brother Douglas passed away, on May 6, 1931.