Thursday, April 20, 2017

Edmond Hamilton, The Horror on the Asteroid (1933)

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror. London: Philip Allan, 1936
The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror. New Jersey: Gregg Press, June 1975

The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror at ISFdb
The Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror at IBList

Overall Rating:     6/10


In the midst of the Depression, Edmond Hamilton was approached by publisher Philip Allan to put together a hardcover collection of his short stories. This was an unusual move by the British publisher, since few books made of stories gathered from the pulps were given the hardcover treatment. In fact, it would be another thirteen years before Hamilton would see his next hardcover publication: the novel The Star Kings (Frederick Fell, October 1949). Hamilton's blend of speculation and adventure was popular escapism for the time, and in the ten years from his first story publication in 1926, he had already published a vast number of works and saw print in most of the pulps.

Hamilton's popularity began shortly after his first story publication in August 1926 ("The Monster-God of Mamurth in Weird Tales), and his productivity in the next few years is impressive. His fiction was fuelled by ideas, interesting and often far-fetched premises that were brought forth most often in an adventurous setting. His stories were conventional and little effort was placed on character; instead he focused on elevating his fantasy-science premises through an energetic narrative. Most often he relied on the conventions of the period, such as using a framing narrative in which a reliable, rational and highly average third party re-tells the fantastic tale of an adventurer or mad scientist, or the Archaeological tale of lost civilizations. He included few female characters, admittedly few characters in total, and normally avoided romantic sub-plots: in this collection of six stories, only three women appear and only one is an active character while the third is the mother of the second who is only mentioned. The men are either mad scientists, mad adventurers, ambitious reporters, space men, or simply the average witness or re-layer of the incredible events. As such most of the stories read quickly, similarly, and offer little aside from the actual premise for a reader to recall post reading.

The stories presented in this anthology are each a mix of adventure and speculation. The interesting idea is weaved into a high octane plot, usually a combination of fantasy and horror more than of science fiction. The speculative ideas, based on facets such as evolution, the expanding universe and the arctic circle, have some scientific basis, but the technology and presentation help to date the publication of these works. Overall it is an interesting and somewhat enjoyable bit of pulp history, though there also exists some overwrought silliness amid the fun, and one story in particular that has over time become near enraging in its presentation.


The Horror on the Asteroid     7/10
Weird Tales, September 1933

A spaceship nearing Jupiter is struck by meteors and the survivors are forced to escape to a nearby habitable asteroid. They gather in a clearing and soon enough notice some local animal life along with a couple of other crashed vessels from Earth.Shortly after landing, the castaways begin acting aggressively and even violently, and our hero radio operator along with a female civilian passenger try to discover the fate of the passengers of the previously crashed vessels. My favourite story in the collection, there is genuine mystery here and the dated writing in this one is surprisingly enjoyable. The mysterious does become obvious to the reader early enough, but not in a disappointing way.

The voyage in the story is essentially that of a boat transposed into space, and the asteroid is essentially a deserted island that someone like Robinson Crusoe might inhabit. The crew is referred to as sailors, and the ship carries "lifeboats" fixed to its sides. Mixed in with naval jargon are "space phones" and "rocket-pistols" in order to separate it from the sea. However, since Hamilton is exploring an interesting idea pertaining to evolution, this story would not have been possible set on Earth.


The Accursed Galaxy     6/10
Astounding Stories, July 1935

An ambitious reporter and a determined scientist team up to uncover the secret of an odd asteroid that crashed near the reporter's isolated home. This story involves a far-fetched (fantastical rather than scientific) approach to the expanding universe, in that the galaxies are fleeing our own, placing our home in the centre of the universe and defying Galileo.


The Man Who Saw Everything     3/10
Wonder Stories, November 1933 as The Man With X-Ray Eyes

Yet another pairing of a determined (mad) scientist and over-eager ambitious reporter. The reporter is offered the ability to have his sight forever altered in receiving the ability to see through all non-organic matter. Our reporter quickly learns that people are selfish, and that there is a lot of suffering in this world.

I have a great issue with this story in that it promotes social ignorance: spoilers ahead. After his disillusionment when learning that politicians and upstanding community members are self-interested and fraudulent, our "hero" wanders the streets, disillusioned. He walks by a hospital and sees the wounded, by an asylum and sees the psychologically ill, by a prison where he sees the condemned, and through a poverty-stricken neighbourhood where he witnesses poverty. In addition, he discovers that his bride-to-be is with him only because she thinks she cannot do better. Then he kills himself. Perhaps the intention is simply to illustrate what a difficult society it is in which we live, amid corruption, poverty and disease, yet the conclusion indicates that the average individual is better off being unaware of this reality, and that we should not have our eyes opened to the challenges in our society and simply continue to live with blinders.

The protagonist is an ambitious and self-interested reporter, who is in essence just as bad as the corrupt politicians and businessmen and philanthropists he spies on. His motive in becoming all-seeing is to amass fortune and fame. Though it is at least partly for the love of a woman, if that love lends itself to this heightened selfishness, it is more obsession or desperation than actual love. Hamilton's choice to present this story through the point of view of such an individual helps lead to my interpretation. Had he created a more empathetic and socially conscious person, the story would promote charity and philanthropy rather than willful blindness. Moreover, you would think a reporter interested in "truth" and determined to reveal society in the form that it exists would not be so blinded to the world around him, and rather would explore that world and bring his observations to the masses. In this our "hero" fails in his profession.

In addition, the character creates a division of us & them between social and economic classes. Even our working class reporter is distinctly separated from the poverty stricken families he encounters. There is a clear division created by the author, and this avoidance of the reality in which many live in preference to an alienating us & them attitude is the story's ultimate failure.


The Earth-Brain     6/10
Weird Tales, April 1932

Using that all-too-common trope of a narration within a narration (wherein our trustworthy and rational narrator tells of a conversation with an acquaintance who takes over the first person reign to tell his own fantastic story), we learn about an expedition to the arctic pole and its tragic results. The detailed account essentially leads us to learn that the sole survivor of the expedition is being chased by earthquakes, something we piece together in the first few pages. An interesting and highly fantastical read that is entertaining despite being overly long. I admit I like tales of exploration, particularly in isolated wintry conditions, so those scenes held my interest the most. Because the reader is given the overview at the beginning, the story does not hold any surprises; I assume Hamilton chose this approach so that the surprise element is not the narrator's fate but instead what it is our explorers discover at the pole. The downfall is that our climax occurs at a mid-way point and the latter part of the tale reads like an epilogue.

What I did not like (spoiler ahead) is that the pursued is continuing to move from populous area to populous area despite the fact that these earthquakes are causing so much death and destruction. While he does throw himself into a fissure in order to put an end to this chaos, this occurs quite late and the guilt he experiences for all the chaos he is responsible for really should have driven him to suicide much earlier.


Cover of the August 1926 issue of
Weird Tales
The Monster-God of Mamurth     6/10
Weird Tales, August 1926


Hamilton's first published short story tells of an explorer's journey to a lost North African city. Yet another double narrated piece, in this one framing narrator is a merchant who is re-telling the fantastical tale told to him and his partner by a dying archaeologist. The inclusion of the partner is to indicate that is a witness of, if not the archaeological experience, at least the first-hand telling of it. This oft-seen premise does present an interesting idea and hence elevates it from so many of the common archaeological tales published in the 1920s. In particular, a panic-rendered flight through an invisible structure is certainly an anxiety-conducing experience, let alone being pursued by an invisible spider creature.

This story was selected as the second classic reprint for Black Gate.


The Man Who Evolved     5/10
Wonder Stories, April 1931

Friendly biologist Dr. John Pollard has invited two former students to his secluded residence, not just for dinner, to help him our in his experiment: he has built a machine that can propel a person into the future of evolution! Reluctantly the boys agree, and they witness Pollard's change in fifty million year intervals. Overly melodramatic, the plot is repetitive as we watch the progressive change, and it is predictable and generally quite bland.


For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)