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Fiction Excerpt: “Tumithak of the Corridors”

By Charles R. Tanner

Illustrated by Chuck Lukacs
from Black Gate 5, originally published in Amazing Stories, January 1932. Copyright © 1931 by Teck Publishing Corporation. Original illustrations by Leo Morey.
It is only within the last few years that archeological science has reached a point where we may begin to appreciate the astonishing advances in science that our ancestors had achieved before the Great Invasion. Excavations in the ruins of London and New York have been especially prolific in yielding knowledge of the life that those ancestors led. That they possessed the secret of flying, and a knowledge of chemistry and electricity far beyond ours is now certain; and there is even some evidence that they surpassed us in medicine and some of the arts. Taking their civilization as whole, it is quite doubtful if we have even yet surpassed them in general knowledge.

Until the time of the Invasion, their discoveries of the secrets of Nature seem to have been made steadily in regular geometric progression, and we have good cause to believe that it was the people of earth who first solved the secret of interplanetary flight. The many romances that have been written by novelists dealing with this time testify to the interest which we of today take in the history of what we call the Golden Age.

But the present story deals neither with the days of the Invasion, nor with life as it was in the Golden Age before it. It tells instead of the life of that semi-mythical, semi-historical character, Tumithak of Loor, who, legend tells us, was the first man to rebel against the savage shelks. Although innumerable facts are still lacking, recent investigations in the Pits and Corridors have thrown much light on what was obscure in this hero’s life. That he really lived and fought is now certain to be true; that he accomplished the miracles accredited to him by legend is just as certain to be untrue.

We can feel sure, for instance, that he never lived for the two hundred and fifty years that are ascribed to him; that his wonderful strength and imperviousness to the rays of the shelks are mythical, as are doubtless the stories of his destruction of the six cities.

But our knowledge of his life increases as our credibility in the legends decreases, and the time has come when we can grasp dimly, but with a more rational viewpoint, the truth about his deeds. So, in this tale, the author makes an attempt to rationalize, to place properly in its historical setting, the early life of a great hero who dared to strike boldly for Mankind, in the days when the Beasts of Venus held all the earth in thrall…

The Boy and the Book

As far as eye could see the long somber corridor extended. Fifteen feet high and as many wide it ran on and on, its brown, glassy walls presenting an unvarying sameness. At intervals along the center line of the ceiling large glowing lights appeared, flat plates of cool white luminescence that had shone without attention for centuries. At intervals equally frequent were deep-cut doors, draped with a rough burlap-like cloth, their sills worn down by the passing generations of feet. Nowhere was the monotony of the scene broken unless it were in some places, where the corridor was crossed by another of equal simplicity.

The passage was by no means deserted. Here and there, throughout its length, scattered figures appeared — men, for the most part blue-eyed and red-haired and dressed in rough burlap tunics that were gathered at the waist by wide, pocketed belts with enormous buckles. A few women were also in evidence, differing from the men in the length of their hair and tunics. All moved with a furtive slinking air, for though it was many years since the Terror had been seen, the habits of a hundred generations were not easily thrown off. And so the hall, its frequenters, their clothes and even their habits combined to complete the somber monotone.

From somewhere far below this corridor came the steady beat and throb of some gigantic machine; a beat that continued unceasingly and was so much a part of the life of these people that it was only with difficulty that they could be brought to notice it at all, Yes its beat bore down on them, penetrated their minds and, with its steady rhythm, affected all that they did.

One part of the hall seemed to be more populous than any other. The lights here glowed brighter, the cloths that covered the doorways were cleaner and newer, and many more people appeared. Sneaking in and out of the doorways they went, for all the world like rabbits engaged in some big business enterprise.

Out of one of the side doorways, a boy and girl appeared. About fourteen years of age, they were exceptionally tall for children, apparently having already reached their full growth, though their immaturity was evident. They, too, like their elders, were blue-eyed and red-haired; a complexion due to the eternal lack of sunshine and lifelong exposure to the rays of the corridor lights. There was a certain boldness and quickness about them that caused many of the folk of the corridor to frown disapprovingly as they passed. One could see that these older ones felt that the younger generation was fast riding to destruction. Certainly, sooner or later, this boldness and loudness would bring down the Terror from the Surface.

But sublimely indifferent to the disapproval that was so in evidence around them, the two youngsters continued upon their way. They turned from the main corridor into one less brilliantly lighted, and after traversing for nearly a mile, turned into another. The hall in which they now found themselves was narrow and inclined upward at a decided angle. It was entirely deserted and the thick dust and neglected condition of the lights showed that it was long since men had lived here. The many doorways were without the draped curtains that concealed the interior of the inhabited apartments in the larger corridors; but many of the doorways were almost entirely covered with draperies of cobwebs covered with dust. The girl drew closer to the boy as they continued up the passage; but aside from this she showed no sign of fear. After some time the passageway grew steeper, and at last ended in a cul-de-sac. The two seated themselves in rubble that littered the floor and presently began to talk in a low tone.

“It must have been years since men have come here,” said the girl, softly. “Perhaps we will find something of great value which was left here when men deserted this corridor.”

“I think Tumithak is too hopeful, when he tells us of possible treasures in these halls,” answered the boy. “Surely there have been men in these halls, searching as we are, since they were abandoned.”

“Tumithak should be here by now,” the girl said after a while. “Do you think he will come?” Her eyes strove vainly to pierce the gloom down the hallway.

“Why, of course he will come, Thupra,” said her companion. “Has Tumithak ever failed to meet us as he promised?”

“But to come here, alone!” protested Thupra. “I should die of fright, Nikadur, if you weren’t here.”

“There isn’t really any danger here,” he said. “The men of Yakra could never enter these halls without passing through the main corridor. And many, many years have passed since Loor has seen a shelk.”

“Grandfather Koniak once saw a shelk,” reminded Thupra.

“Yes, but not here in Loor. He saw it in Yakra, years ago, when he fought the Yakrans as a young man. Remember, the Loorians were successful in their campaign against the Yakrans and drove them out of their city and into the corridors beyond. And then suddenly there was flame and terror, and a band of shelks appeared. Grandfather Koniak saw but one, and that one almost caught him before he escaped.” Nikadur smiled. “It is a wonderful tale, but I think we have only Grandfather Koniak’s word for it.”

“But really, Nikadur — ” the girl was beginning, when she was interrupted by a rustling noise from one of the web-hung doorways. Like a flash, boy and girl both leapt to their feet and sped in panic down the passage without so much as a single glance backward, totally unaware of the youth who had stepped from the doorway and who was now leaning against the wall, watching their flight with a cynical smile on his face.

At a glance, this youth seemed not unlike the others who lived in the corridors. The same red hair and clear translucent skin, the same rough tunic and enormous belt characterized this lad as it did all the others of Loor. But the discerning eye would have noticed in the immense brow, the narrow, hooked nose and the keen eyes, a promise of the greatness that was to some day be his.

The boy watched his fleeing friends for a moment and then gave a low bird-like whistle. Thupra stopped suddenly and turned around, and then, seeing the newcomer, called to Nikadur. The boy stopped his flight too, and together they returned, rather shamefaced, to the end of the passage.

“You frightened us, Tumithak,” said the girl, reproachfully. “What in the world were you doing in that room? Weren’t you afraid to go in there alone?”

“Nothing is in there to hurt me,” answered Tumithak, loftily. “Often and often I have browsed around through these corridors and apartments and never yet have I seen any living thing, save the spiders and the bats. I was seeking for forgotten things,” he went on, and his eyes grew suddenly brighter. “And look! I have found a book!” And, reaching into the bosom of his tunic, he drew forth his prize and exhibited it proudly to the others.

“This is an old book,” he said. “See?”

It certainly was an old book. The cover was gone, more than half the leaves were missing, and the thin metal sheets of which the leaves were composed were even beginning to oxidize on the edges. Certainly, this book had been lying forgotten for centuries.

Nikadur and Thupra looked at it in awe, the awe that an illiterate person naturally holds for all the mysteries of the magic black marks that transmit thoughts. But Tumithak could read. He was the son of Tumlook, one of the food men, the men who held the secret of preparing the synthetic food that these people lived on, and these food men, as well as doctors and the light and power men, retained many of the secrets of the wisdom of their ancestors. Foremost among these secrets was the very necessary art of reading; and as Tumithak was intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, Tumlook had early trained him in this wonderful art.

So, after the two had looked at the book and held it in their hands, and wondered, they beseeched Tumithak to read it to them. Often, they had in wide-eyed wonder as he read to them from some of the rare works the food men owned, and they never wasted a chance to watch the apparently mystifying process of changing the queer marks on the metal sheets into sounds and sentences.

Tumithak smiled at their importuning, and then, because secretly he was as anxious as they to know what the long-forgotten script contained, he motioned them to be seated on the floor beside him, and opening the book began to read:

“The manuscript of Davon Starros; written at Pitmouth, Sol 22nd, in the year of the Invasion, 161, or in the old style — AD. 3218.”

Tumithak paused.

“That is an old book,” whispered Nikadur in an awed voice, and Tumithak nodded.

“Nearly two thousand years!” he answered, “I wonder what the figures A.D. 3218 stand for?”

He puzzled over the book for a moment and then resumed his reading.

“I am an old man, in these latter days, and to one who can remember the day when men still dared to fight, now and then, for liberty, it is indeed a bitter thing to see how the race has fallen.

“There is growing up among men in these days a hopeless superstition to the effect that man can never conquer, and must never attempt to even battle with the shelks, and it is to combat this superstition that the author here writes the story of the conquest of earth, in the hope that at some future time, a man will arise who will have the courage to face the conquerors of Man and again do battle. In the hope that this man will appear and that he may know the creatures against whom he fights, this story is written.

“The scientists who tell of the days before the Invasion inform us that man was once little more than a beast. Through thousands of years he gradually worked his way upward to civilization, learning the arts of living, until he conquered all the world for his own.

“He learned the secret of producing food from the very elements themselves, he learned the secret of imitating the life-giving light of the sun, his great airships sped through the atmosphere as easily as his waterships sped through the sea. Wonderful disintegrating rays dissolved the hill that stood in his way, and as a result long canals brought water from the ocean to inaccessible deserts, making them blossom like earth’s most fertile regions. From pole to pole, man’s mighty cities grew, and from pole to pole man was supreme.’

“For thousands of years, men quarreled among themselves, and great wars tore the earth, until at last their civilization reached a point where these wars ceased. A great era of peace settled down upon the earth, sea and land alike were conquered by man, and he began to look out to the other worlds that swung about the sun, wondering if these too might not be conquered.

“It was many centuries before they learned enough to attempt a journey into the depths of space. A way had to be found to avoid the countless meteors that filled the paths between the planets. A way had to be found to insulate against the deadly cosmic rays. It seemed that no sooner was one difficulty overcome than another arose to take its place. But one after another the difficulties in the way of interplanetary flight disappeared and at last the day came when a mighty vessel, hundreds of feet long, lay ready to leap into space to explore the other worlds.”

Tumithak again paused in his reading.

“It must be a wonderful secret,” he said. “I seem to be reading words, but I do not know what they mean. Some one is going somewhere, but that’s about all I can make of it. Shall I go on?”

“Yes! Yes!” they cried; so he continued:

“It was under the command of a man named Henric Sudiven; and, of all the great company that manned it, only he returned to the world of men to tell of the terrible adventures that they met with on the planet Venus, the world to which they traveled.”

“The trip to Venus was a highly successful one, and quite uneventful. Week after week passed, while the evening star, as men called it, grew ever brighter and larger. The ship worked perfectly, and though the journey was a long one to those who were used to crossing an ocean in a single night, the time did not hang heavy on their hands. The day came when they sailed over the low rolling plains and broad valleys of Venus, under the thick mantle of clouds that forever hides the surface of that planet from the sun, and marveled at the great cities and works of civilization that were in evidence everywhere.

“After hovering over a great city for some time, they landed and were welcomed by the strange, intelligent creatures that ruled over Venus; the same creatures that we know today by the name of shelks. The shelks thought them demi-gods and would have worshipped them; but Sudiven and his companions, true products of earth’s noblest culture, scorned to dissemble; and when they had learned the language of the shelks, told them quite truthfully just who they were and from whence they came.

“The astonishment of the shelks knew no bounds. They were skilled far more than men in mechanical science; their knowledge of electricity and chemistry was quite as great; but astronomy and its kindred sciences were totally unknown to them. Imprisoned as they were under the eternal canopy of clouds that hides forever the sight of outer space, they had never dreamed of other worlds than the one they knew; and it was only with difficulty that they were at last persuaded that Sudiven’s story was true.

“But, once convinced, the attitude of the sheiks underwent a decided change. No longer were they deferential and friendly. They suspected that Jan had come only to conquer them and they determined to beat him at his own game. There was a certain lack of the more humane feelings in the make-up of the shelks, and they were quite unable to conceive of a friendly visit from strangers of another world.

“The Tellurians soon found themselves locked up in a great metal tower many miles from their space flier. In a moment of carelessness, one of Sudiven’s companions had let drop the remark that this flier was the only one yet built upon the earth, and the shelks decided to take advantage of this fact, to begin at once the conquest of earth.

“They took possession at once of the Tellurians’ vessel, and with that unity of purpose that is so characteristic of the shelks and so lacking in man, began at once the construction of a vast number of similar machines. All over the planet, the great machine-shops hummed and clattered with the noise of the work; and while the earth awaited the triumphal return of her explorers, the day of her doom drew nearer and nearer.

“But Sudiven and the other Tellurians, locked up in their tower, had not given up to despair. Time after time they attempted to escape, and there is no doubt but that the shelks would have slain them to a man, had they not hoped to extract further knowledge from them before they killed them. For once the shelks were in error; they should have slain the Tellurians, every one; for about a week before the date set for the departure of the shelks’ great fleet of machines, Sudiven and about a dozen of his companions managed to escape.

“At terrific risk they made their way across the country to the place here their space car lay. An idea can be had of the dangers of the journey when one realizes that on Venus, that is, on the inhabited side, it is always day. There was no concealing night to enable the Tellurians to travel without hope of discovery. But at last they came upon their car, guarded only by a few unarmed shelks. The battle that ensued is one that should go down in man’s history, to inspire him in all the ages to come. When it was over the shelks were all dead and only seven men were left to man the space-flier on its journey back to earth.

“For weeks, the great bullet-shaped flier sped across the vast emptiness of space and at last landed upon the earth. Sudiven alone remained alive when it landed; the others had succumbed to some strange disease, a disease that had been given to them by the shelks.

“But Sudiven was alive and remained alive long enough to warn the world. Faced with this sudden terror, the world had little time for any but defensive measures. The construction of vast underground pits and caverns was begun at once, the intention being to construct great underground cities, in which man could hide himself and from which he could emerge to conquer his enemies at his leisure. But before they were well started, the shelks arrived and the war was on!

“Never, in the days when man warred with man, had anyone dreamed of a war like this. The shelks had arrived by the millions; it was estimated that fully two hundred thousand space cars took part in the invasion. For days man’s defensive measures kept the shelks from gaining a landing space on the earth; they were forced to fly far above the surface, dropping their deadly gases and explosives where they could. From his subterranean halls, man sent up vast quantities of gases as deadly as those of the shelks, and their disintegrating rays sent hundreds of the space-cars into nothingness, killing off the shelks like flies. And from their fliers, the shelks dropped vast quantities of flaming chemicals into the pits that men had dug, chemicals that burned with terrific violence and exhausted the oxygen of the caverns, causing men to perish by the thousand.

“Ever, as men found themselves defeated by the shelks, they drove deeper and deeper into the earth, their wonderful disintegrations dissolving the rock almost as fast as man could walk through the corridor it dug. Men were forced from the Surface at last, and a million intricate warrens of corridors and passages honeycombed the earth for miles beneath the surface. It was impossible for the shelks to ever thread the mazes of the innumerable labyrinths, and so man reached a position of comparative safety.

“And thus came the deadlock.

“The Surface had become the property of the savage shelks, while far below them in the pits and corridors, man labored to hold on to the dregs of civilization that were left him. An unequal game it was, for man was sadly handicapped – the supplies of elements that produced the disintegrating rays gradually diminished, and there was no way of renewing them; they were unable to secure wood, or the thousand and one varieties of vegetation on which their industries were based; the men of one set of corridors had no way of communicating with the men of another; and always came hordes of shelks, down into the corridors, hunting men for sport!

“The only thing that enabled them to live at all was the wonderful ability to create synthetic foods out of the very rock itself.

“So it was that man’s civilization, fought for and won after centuries of struggle, collapsed in a dozen years; and over it was imposed the Terror. Men, like rabbits, lived a life of fear and trembling in their underground holes, daring less each year, as time went by, and spending all their time and energy in devising means to sink their pits deeper and deeper into the ground. Today it seems that man’s subjugation is complete. For over a hundred years, no man has dared to think of revolt against the shelks, any more than a rat would think of revolt against man. Unable to form a unified government, unable even to communicate with his brethren in the neighboring corridors, man has come to accept, far too willingly, his place as merely the highest of the lower animals. The spider-like Beasts of Venus are the supreme Masters of our planet, and -”

The manuscript had come to an end. Although the book had originally been much longer, although, indeed, what was left of it was probably little more than an introduction to some work on the life and customs of the shelks, the remainder was missing and the droning sing-song voice of Tumithak ceased as he read the concluding unfinished sentence. For several moments there was silence and then –

“How hard it was to understand,” said Thupra. “I only know that men were fighting with shelks, just as though they were Yakrans.”

“Who could have conceived such a story?” murmured Nikadur. “Men fighting with shelks: Of all the impossible tales!”

Tumithak did not answer. For quite a while he sat in silence and stared at the book as one who suddenly beheld some dazzling vision.

At last he spoke.

“Nikadur, that is history!” he exclaimed. “That is no strange impossible tale of fancy. Something tells me that those men really lived; that that war was really fought: How else can we explain the life that we live? Have we not wondered often — have not our fathers wondered before us — how our wise ancestors ever gained the wisdom to build the great pits and corridors? We know that our ancestors had great knowledge; how did they come to lose it?

“Oh, I know that no legend of ours even suggests such a thing as men ruling this world,” he went on, as he saw the incredulous look in the eyes of his companions. “But there is something — something in that book that tells me it is surely true. Just think, Nikadur! That book was written only a hundred and sixty years after the savage shelks invaded the earth! How much more that writer must have known than we who live two thousand years later. Nikadur, once men fought with shelks!” He arose, his eyes gleaming with the first glow of the fanatical light that, in after years, was to make him a man apart from his fellows, “Once men fought with shelks; and with the help of the High One, they shall do so again! Nikadur! Thupra! Some day I shall fight a shelk,” he flung his arms wide, “some day I shall slay a shelk!

“And to that I dedicate my life!”

He stood for a moment with his arms outstretched, and then, as if oblivious of their presence, he dashed down the hallway and in a moment was lost in the gloom. For a moment the two stared after him in amazement, and then, clasping hands, they walked slowly, soberly after him. They knew that something had suddenly inspired their friend, but whether it was genius or madness they could not tell. And they were not to know with certainty for many years.

Charles R. Tanner (1896 – 1974)

Frank R. Paul’s cover for the 6th issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories (November 1929) is one of the most famous pieces of the early pulp era, depicting flying saucers making off with the Eiffel Tower & Woolworth building against the blue background of space. “$300 for the best short, SHORT story written around this picture,” declared the cover caption. The winner of Gernsback’s contest, with his first published story, was a Mr. Charles R. Tanner of Ohio. “The Color of Space” appeared in the March 1930 issue of Science Wonder and related the abduction of the great Dr. Henshaw by Russian scientists, who show him this scene from the window of their spaceship while en route to Venus. As war breaks out on Earth, the Russians demand Henshaw’s scientific secrets. After looking out the window, Henshaw calmly walks out the door, stepping into New York. What the Russians had shown was trickery done with special effects — which Henshaw realized was fake when he noticed the Russians accidentally colored space blue instead of black. [In an editorial note, Gernsback said the art blunder was deliberate.] Tanner wrote some 16 SF stories between 1930-53, but is remembered today chiefly for his tales of Tumithak.

[Cover at right by Frank R. Paul]

Charles R. Tanner wrote only a handful of SF stories, and no novels. But he made his mark on the field with the Tumithak stories, a trilogy of novellas published between 1932 – 1941. Detailing the struggle to re-take the planet centuries after a brutal alien conquest, when man has been driven deep underground and descended into near-barbarism, the stories were among the most popular of the pulp era, and influenced a generation of early genre writers. “‘Tumithak of the Corridors’ was far and away the best and most exciting story I had ever read,” noted Isaac Asimov in his autobiographical anthology Before the Golden Age. “Even now, though my hair is graying, I found myself stirred very much as I had been once in junior high school… I continue to be amazed at Tanner’s realism.”

[Cover at left by Leo Morey]

The Saga of Tumithak

“Tumithak of the Corridors” was popular when it first appeared, and reader response almost guaranteed a sequel. “Tumithak in Shawm,” in which Tumithak leads a human war party to the surface to confront the shelks — discovering both an ancient cache of powerful human weapons and new shelk horrors — appeared in June 1933. Fans had to wait nearly a decade for the third tale, in which Tumithak led his rag-tag band of human warriors to victory in “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” (Super Science Stories, Nov 1941).

While researching this story we stumbled across this intriguing reference in Magic Dragon’s Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide entry on Charles Tanner:

By an amazing coincidence, I had Charles R. Tanner’s son as a student in one of the classes I taught, and he gave me a copy of a manuscript of an unpublished 4th story in the Tumithak series. I have, to date, failed to have it published…

We contacted Tanner’s son, Jim Tanner, in early 2003 and he confirmed the story, adding:

The Tumithak stories… are to be printed in book form, the three already printed ones plus an unpublished fourth one. My father would be pleased, knowing there is still an interest in his stories after so many years. Publisher’s name is North Star Press of St. Cloud… Work on the book is progressing and [it] should be published in the latter part of this year.

The Stories:

  • “Tumithak of the Corridors” (Amazing Stories, Jan 1932)
  • “Tumithak in Shawm” (Amazing Stories, June 1933)
  • “Tumithak of the Towers of Fire” (Super Science Stories, Nov 1941)
  • “Tumithak and the Ancient Word” (unpublished)

The complete version of “Tumithak of the Corridors” appears in Black Gate 5.
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