Monday, February 08, 2016

Dreamer's World: A Tribute to Normal Bean [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Edmond Hamilton wrote seventy-nine stories for Weird Tales and amongst them are several classics including "Thundering Worlds," "Day of Judgment," and "He That Hath Wings" (all included in The Best of Edmond Hamilton). Farnsworth Wright and Dorothy McIlwraith, the editors of Weird Tales, never rejected a Hamilton story, nor did they push or prod him in any particular direction. Hamilton had free rein to work within the science fiction to fantasy to horror range. This freedom resulted in some of 1940s fantasy's best experiments.

Ed worked in what is now known as "portal fantasy" a decade before CS Lewis took us to Narnia. A portal fantasy is one in which a person from our world goes to another realm of the fantastic. Perhaps the most famous in Weird Tales were Nictzin Dyalhis's "The Sapphire Siren" and CL Moore's "Joirel Meets Magic" and "The Dark Land." Hamilton's portal fantasies included Brian Cullen going to the land of Celtic myth in "The Shining Land" (May 1945) and "Lost Elysium" (November 1945), also "The Shadow Folk" (September 1944), "The Inn Outside the World" (July 1945), and "Twilight of the Gods" (July 1948). Like the Harold Shea series by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (1940-1954), Hamilton liked placing everyday people into mythic situations. Unlike those Shea stories that appeared in Unknown, Hamilton's agenda is not ridicule-oriented humor, but adventure.

Amongst his Portal tales, there was one that stands alone. This was "Dreamer's World" (Weird Tales, November 1941). This story uses a similar device, a man of our world perceiving another realm, but in this case Hamilton changes the game by having the main character, Henry Stevens, a dull and ordinary man living his office-working life, only seeing this world. Henry has a plump wife named Emma and a boss named Carson who abuses him. He does nothing unusual except that when he sleeps every night he lives another life: that of Khal Kan, prince of Jotan, a sword-swinging adventurer who is everything Stevens is not.

Khal Kan, with his buddies Brusul and Zoor, go on mad adventures, like sneaking into the camp of nomads to see if their princess, Golden Wings, is truly the most beautiful of all women. Of course, she is. And when she captures Khal Kan, she has him flogged to see if he is truly husband material. So different from Henry, who thinks he must be mad, watching this exciting life take place every night. He seeks out Doctor Thorn, a psychiatrist, to figure out if he is real or Khal Kan. As the story progresses, even Khal Kan, who dreams Henry's boring life every night, wonders the same. Which of them is real?

Henry explores this at great length, but ultimately is too powerless to find out. It is up to Khal Kan to put it to the test when the Bunts, the savage villains of the piece, attack Jotan. Khal Kan and his friends (now with his new wife, Golden Wings) face the green hordes and win. Only Kan dies from a poisoned blade and we find out at last. Which was real? Khal Kan dies on the plains of Thar... and back in our mundane world, Henry Stevens dies at the same time.

Dr. Thorn tries to explain it:
"Suppose," Thorn went on, "that Henry Stevens was a unique case of that. Suppose that his mind happened to be in rapport, from the time of his birth, with the mind of another man—another man, who was not of Earth but of some world far across the universe from ours? Suppose that each man's subconscious was able to experience the other man's thoughts and feelings, when his own consciousness was relaxed and sleeping? So that each man, all his life, seemed each night to dream the other man's life?"
What Hamilton has done is use portal fantasy to pay homage to an author he admired and read as a young man: Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not to imitate him, as he does in "Kaldar-World of Antares" (Magic Carpet, April 1933), "The Snake-Men of Kaldar" (Magic Carpet, October 1933), and "The Great-Brain of Kaldar" (Weird Tales, December 1935); this series of scientific romances is clearly a pastiche of Burroughs. "Dreamer's World" is something more. It is not an homage to ERB so much as it is one to Normal Bean, the guy who wrote that first story "Under the Moons of Mars" in 1912. Burroughs had chosen the pseudonym to imply he wasn't crazy, that he had a "normal head." An editor corrected the "error" and "Norman Bean" became the author. Burroughs, disgusted at the change, used his own name after the original publication. Hamilton latches onto this early rendition of Edgar Rice Burroughs: the quiet, normal-seeming fellow, who failed job after job, dreaming away about Barsoom, and sword fights, and green, six-limbed monsters called tharks. Hamilton takes that man and calls him Henry Stevens and tells us of an alternative Burroughs who may have lived his own stories.

If you doubt me, Hamilton leaves us bread crumbs to follow. The names in the story are particularly interesting. Stevens' wife's name is Emma. Burroughs' first wife's name was also Emma (and yes, she was plump). His boss is Carson, possibly a reference to Carson of Venus. Khal Khan's name is like most of those found on Barsoom amongst the human characters: Ban-Tor, Kantos Khan, Ghan Had, Pho Lar, etc. The city to which Khal is prince is Jotan, the name of the Martian chess that Burroughs created, rules and all, for The Chessmen of Mars (1921). And if you need even more proof, the baddies, the Bunts, are referred to as green-skinned: "The Bunts are in Galoon! Hell take the green devils..." repeatedly though there seems no reason for them to be any color at all. Like Burroughs' tharks, they are the wild tribesmen of the dreamer's world. (The name Galoon is most likely a friendly joke for Hamilton's friend, Raymond Z. Gallun (pronounced Galoon), who wrote part of the story jam "The Great Illusion" in 1936 with Hamilton and others.)

Hamilton's desire to commemorate Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom series is easily understood these days. In 1941, ERB was still alive, writing short stories for Ray Palmer at Fantastic Adventures and Amazing Stories. The man who had created Tarzan had fallen from the earlier days of the weeklies, but he was still "a name" in science fiction circles. He had been active in pulp publishing since Hugo Gernsback hired him to write The Mastermind of Mars especially for Amazing Stories Annual 1927. The attack on Pearl Harbor was only weeks away from the release of "Dreamer's World." Burroughs would give up writing to become a war correspondent, effectively ending the active part of his SF career. He would die in 1950. Not until the Burroughs boom of the 1960s would his name be big news again. Hamilton's homage would be forgotten even quicker, but we can enjoy it again today. For all the young men and women who thrilled to thark armies clashing over waterless plains, the sound of the radium rifles firing. and the growls of white apes in the ruins of Mars, the reason for this story is obvious.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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