Monday, February 25, 2013

Famous Fantasy Writers in a Five-Way

Uh, story that is.  A five-way story.

Get your minds out the gutter.  This isn't that kind of blog.  It's suitable for the whole family.  Yesterday's post not withstanding.

And you guys in the back knock off the giggling.  Geez, what I put up with.

Anyway, the story I'm talking about is "The Challenge from Beyond", the fantasy version.  I don't have a copy of the science fiction version, which is long out of print.

I first read this story when I was in high school.  I was 14 when I discovered C. L. Moore, so I couldn't have been any younger than that, but I doubt I was older than 15.  I found a beat up copy of the anthology Horrors Unkown at a yard sale and picked it up primarily on the strength of a couple of early Ray Bradbury stories I'd never heard of.

Everything else was just bonus, including a Northwest Smith story by C. L. Moore, "Werewoman", which I'll discuss in my series on Northwest Smith.

The lead story in the anthology was a round robin fantasy, "The Challenge From Beyond", in which C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a chapter.  I'll discuss it with spoilers below.

The story was published in the September 1935 issue of The Fantasy Magazine, edited by Julius Schwartz.  According to the notes in Horrors Unknown written by Sam Moskowitz, who edited the anthology,  the two stories titled "The Challenge From Beyond" were written in honor of The Fantasy Magazine's third anniversary issue.

The science fiction story was written by Stanley G. Weinbaum, Donald Wandrei, Edward E. Smith, Harl Vincent, and Murray Leinster.  I've not read it, nor, as I said above, have a copy of it.  As a set, the reputations of the fantasy authors have fared better than those of the science fiction writers.
C. L. Moore

C. L. Moore opens the story by putting geologist George Campbell on a camping trip.  Awakened by a varmit getting into his supplies, he's about to throw a stone he picked up in the dark at the animal.  He stops when realizes that what he holds in his hand isn't a normal stone.  Shining his flashlight upon it, he discovers it's a crystal cube.  It's extremely old, with the corners almost rounded.  Inside is a small plate with some type of writing on it that seems to briefly glow after he turns off his flashlight. He's fascinated and speculates on the origin of such an artifact.  He decides to wait until morning to examine the object more closely.

A. Merritt takes up the next section of the story.  Of all the authors who participated in this project, Merritt is the one whose name is most likely to be unfamiliar to contemporary readers.  The irony is that at the time this story was written he was the most well known, the biggest name if you will.  Recently Black Gate editor John O'Neill mentioned he had obtained a copy of Merritt's only short story collection, The Fox Woman, and said he intended to review it at some point.  I've got a copy on my shelf. Maybe I can beat him to it.  (Not likely, given my time constraints.)

Abraham Merritt
Anyway, Merritt picks up the story with Campbell, not being able to get back to sleep, deciding to investigate the crystal with his flashlight.  The thing does seem to glow briefly after he shines his light on it.  He plays around with the crystal and his light, and suddenly he finds himself being pulled into the crystal.  Merritt's portion of the story ends with Campbell being sucked across the void.  Merritt leaves it up to H. P. Lovecraft to tell the reader where he'll end up.

Of the writers involved in this story, H. P. Lovecraft has grown the most in reputation, although Howard is seeing a resurgence.  Lovecraft's portion of the story is by far the longest.  All of the other writers' contributions are between two and three pages.  Lovecraft's is over seven.  Much of it is an info dump describing a race of beings in another galaxy or universe (Lovecraft appears to use the words interchangeably).  They resemble giant worm or catepillars, and early in their history they discover the means of space travel.  They use this ability to conquer any races they encounter.

H. P. Lovecraft
Their method is to send small crystals into the void, programmed to activate when they land on planets.  Any life form which picks up the cube finds itself transported to the home world of the worms, while a member of that race is transported into the body of the life form.  The imposter poses as a member of whichever species it has switched bodies with.  Some species the worms destroy, some they simply take over the bodies.  Of course, Lovecraft adds a great deal of pseudohistorical gobbledygook about occult theories from human history and such. 

Lovecraft ends his portion of the story with Campbell discovering he inhabits the body of one of the worms, which Lovecraft is now describing as a centipede.

Robert E. Howard
If Lovecraft essentially inserted a Lovecraft story into the tale, Robert E. Howard did the same with his portion.  Campbell decides that the pleasures of humanity have bored him.  He wants to live a life filled with new sensations.  So he does what any Howard hero would do.  He grabs a sharp instrument which the scientist in the room with him only thinks of as a scientific instrument, not a weapon, kills the scientist, and goes on a rampage. 

The god worshipped by these worms/caterpillars/centipedes/whatever is a sphere.  Campbell locates the room where the god is held, kills the priests, and holds the god captive until he's made emperor.

And so it falls to Frank Belknap Long to resolve the story.  He takes an interesting approach.  Alternating paragraphs, he tells how the worm inhabiting Campbell's body dies (It seems nothing can control the animal urges of a human being except a human being) and how Campbell, with the god's aid, rules the world as a benevolent dictator.
Frank Belknap Long

As a story, "The Challenge From Beyond" doesn't work especially well.  Moore and Merritt's portions fit together rather seamlessly.  The problem comes in with Lovecraft and Howard.  Each takes the story in an entirely different direction.  Not that there's anything wrong with this in principle, but it can be rather jarring.  Especially if the character of the protagonist seems to change.  Howard's portrayal of Campbell seems at odds to that presented by Moore and Merritt.

Lovecraft really doesn't do much with Campbell, instead using his portion of the story as an infodump.  Campbell learns the history Lovecraft presents by absorbing it from the brain of the body he finds himself inhabiting.  The only real problem I have with Lovecraft's portion is the length.  I think he could have left out some of his material and still had a strong, if not stronger, contribution.

I suspect the contributions of Lovecraft and Howard seem a little jarring to me because both writers had such strong personalities and distinct visions and authorial voices.  When writing alone these qualities are assets.  In collaboration, they can cause problems.  Still part of the fun of this type of writing is to try to leave an impossible situation for the next guy to try to resolve.

Long does a good job of tying everything together except that after Campbell has gone on a killing rampage, I find him being a good and benevolent ruler a little hard to swallow.  I will say that Long's prose is strong.

Overall, this isn't the greatest or best work of any of these authors.  That's not surprising since Moore and Merritt don't write enough to really establish a story, and Lovecraft, Howard, and Long have to deal with what the other have left them.  Still, this is a fun piece, and while definitely a product of its time, a small gem simply for who the contributors are.

"The Challenge From Beyond" is currently available in Adventures in Science Fantasy by Robert E. Howard and published by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.

1 comment:

  1. Round robins rarely hold up, even with an all-star team. (e.g.; Ghor, Kin-slayer) Too many cooks.