Thursday, February 25, 2021

Consciousness shuddering in the void - more 1935 fantasy: Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England and C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith

Two more fantasy books that are exact contemporaries with The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Real period specialists read a lot of third and fourth and fifth tier books, and even some real garbage.  It is educational; both of these third-tier books are instructive.  I just mean that they are not as good as The Circus of Dr. Lao, although I enjoyed them plenty.

In Joseph O’Neill’s Land Under England (1935) the Romans manning Hadrian’s Wall at some point escape into a network of underground caves, where they establish a new civilization.  The narrator discovers this lost world while searching for his father, who disappeared searching for the Romans.

Does this not sound like fun?  Modern technology and ideas knocked up against the Romans?  A Scotsman in Emperor Hadrian’s Court?  That is not this novel at all.  The underground Romans have adapted into a telepathy and mine control-based slave society.  Almost no aspect of Roman culture has survived.  The father has been “absorbed” into the collective; the narrator struggle to avoid the same fate.  The climax is a chase scene, the father pursuing the son:

I should have to make my choice soon between killing him or allowing him to seize me.  The man was mad, but he was my father.  The person who was following me had always been there, inside my father’s skin.  He had always been there, making him different from himself at times, even in the old days – a double personality, not like my mother.  (p. 266 of the Tusk edition).

A descent into the dark depths, dream-like landscapes, psychic struggle, a struggle with the father – it took me a while, but finally I saw it.  Land Under England is a genuine, no joke Freudian novel, the Oedipal conflict made literal.  I often think of fantasy as fiction that literalizes metaphors.  This is that.

C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith (1933-6) is a collection of pulpy stories, all published in Weird Tales alongside H. P. Lovecraft and Conan the Barbarian, about the Han Solo-like title character, an interplanetary smuggler who keeps running into weirdness, usually in female form, like Medusa or the Sirens, but as aliens, and then defeats them with his willpower and a shot or two from his ray gun.  The “Greek monster as space creature” idea only lasts for the first two stories, after which the inventions become more original.  “Black Thirst” features a vampire who feeds on the “beauty-force,” and creates women so beautiful that a glimpse of one nearly drives Northwest Smith mad.  The vampire feeds on these women, but lures in our hero because:

“I realized then how long it had been since I tasted the beauty of a man.  It is so rare, so different from female beauty, that I had all but forgotten it had existed.” (65, the 1981 Ace Books edition)

He plans to “nourish the roots of male beauty” before feeding.  This is pretty wild stuff for 1934 America, but the pulp magazines had different rules.  It is perhaps worth noting, what with the energy-sucking medusa and beauty-draining bisexual vampire and so on, that the “C.” in the author’s name stands for Catherine.

If I set Northwest Smith beside Land Under England, the constant scenes of mental struggle take on a different character.  The stories attempt to portray extreme states of consciousness, whether caused by sex, dreams, maybe drugs, maybe trauma.  The psychology – not of the character, but more abstractly -  becomes meaningful:

Smith’s consciousness shuddered in the void where it drifted, raged against its own helplessness, watched in horror-struck fascination the surges of billowing gray that rolled slowly into the room…  The prospect of the world’s destruction had made him sick with a hopeless dread, but the thought of his own body offered up as a sacrifice to the floating gray, leaving him to drift for eternity through voids, cracked like a whiplash against his consciousness in one flash of hot rebellion that jerked him all out of focus to the scene he watched.  (“The Cold Gray God,” 256)

I mean, if you can stand the prose, which is on the heavy side.  I found that reading one story immediately after another was a mistake.  They were published months or even years apart; that’s more like it.

Next week will be devoted 19th century French fantasy fiction.


  1. i read both of these with "horror-struck fascination" and liked them a lot...

  2. Yeah, if a reader has a taste for this stuff, these books are terrific. Maybe I will reread Jirel of Joiry soon and remind myself how it compares to Northwest Smith.

    1. i liked that one also but it didn't make me shudder, haha...