Monday, July 06, 2015

The Green Splotches [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Ever see one of those stories that appears in all the anthologies, but you've never read it? For me that was "The Green Splotches" by TS Stribling. Originally published in Adventure (January 3, 1920), it was reprinted in Amazing Stories (March 1927), the four editions of Donald A Wolheim's The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (1943), then in Famous Fantastic Mysteries (August 1952) and finally in Fantastic (September 1967). For forty-seven years this story kept showing up. Why?

The fact that DAW chose it for The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, the very first mass market paperback of SF, is significant. The anthology is roughly divided into three eras: the old classics by Bierce and Wells, a middle period with Stribling and John Collier, and the later pulp era with Weinbaum, Sturgeon, Heinlein, and Campbell. So who was this TS Stribling that DAW thought him important enough to put beside the masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction? I couldn't recall any other stories by him from the early days when SF had not been named yet but was known as "Off Trail" fiction. The answer was surprising.

Thomas Sigismund Stribling (1881-1965) was a Pulitzer Prize winner! His novel, The Store, about life in the South, had won him America's greatest honor. But like many writers he had started out writing for magazines, including detective stories featuring Henry Poggioli for Adventure, Blue Book, and Red Book. In fact, writing for "The Soft Magazines" as the weeklies were known, had given him enough money to travel to South America. This is important because "The Green Splotches" (and much of his other science fiction) is set there.

The plot of the story has an American geographic expedition come to Peru to explore the Rio Infiernillo, a place so evil only two condemned murderers can be found to guide them. At the beginning of the valley the scientists find a collection of skeleton specimens, including a human, all hung up on display. Later they find a black patch that appears to not have been created by the local lava fumaroles, but is instantaneous enough to roast a nearby rabbit. The mystery deepens when one of their guides, Cesare, goes chasing after a stranger he has shot at, but doesn't return. The mystery man has left behind the green splotches of the title, a liquid filled with chlorophyll.

The scientists later encounter this stranger again and learn that he is a telepathic creature wearing the skin of their lost guide. He calls himself 1753-12,657,109-654-3 which they shorten to Mr. Three. Three explains he is from a place called One and refers to his race as The Firsts. His attitude is one of condescending amusement as the scientists try to imprison him for killing Cesare. Three and his fellows chase all the wildlife through the valley for collection, and they expect one of the geographic expedition to become one of these living specimens. In the end, the Firsts take Pablo, the other guide, leaving the scientists to witness the zeppelin-like ship take off on a shower of radium.

The characters on the expedition have their theories about what it all means. Pethwick thinks the yellow-skinned Firsts are an obscure offshoot of the Incans, possessing lost and secret technology. Professor Demetriovich thinks they are Bolsheviks. Stribling ends the story with a letter written by Gilbert H DeLong , the official administrator of the expedition. In it, he recommends the scientists for the Noble Prize, while giving his own interpretation of the record. He tells how the change in color as the ship flew off shows that the vessel was heading for space and at just above the speed of light. From the numeric name of Mr. Three and his incredible agility, DeLong deduces that the Firsts were headed for either Jupiter or Neptune. He envisions a heavy gravity planet populated by quadrillions of aliens, requiring their military lifestyle, their number names, and their interest in other forms of life (having none other on their planet). The green splotches were the blood drops of the Firsts, whom DeLong believes are plants, not animals. In this way, Stribling reveals all his secrets and finishes with a final sting. DeLong wins the Nobel Prize, not those he is advocating for; one last shot at human stupidity.

The satiric nature of the story becomes obvious when you realize the aliens are a "geographic expedition" as much as the humans. This comparison allows Stribling to make his point as Pethwick begins to associate himself with the other animal specimens. But one character stands out in this story beyond the general jibes. This is the expedition's secretary, a writer named Standifer. The author pokes a lot of fun at certain kinds of writers/critics, self-important authors of poor selling self-published books of non-fiction. Standifer despises fiction, while praising the virtues of facts found in his dull book, Reindeer in Iceland.

The story received several illustrations in its many reprints. Gernsback unwisely gives away the secret of the story by having Frank R Paul draw the spaceship on the cover and again in the illustration. Famous Fantastic Mysteries did better, beginning with the creepy skeletons and only showing the ship at the end. Stribling wrote a letter to FFM about his story. He down-plays its importance at the same time that he clearly indicates that he won't be writing anymore science fiction (that mood has passed). The editor praised his forward vision on rocket ship design, but Stribling confesses this was just dumb luck.

So, now I know what "The Green Splotches" was and why it had been reprinted so often. Stribling offers up several science fiction ideas that will appear again by other authors. The idea of aliens wearing dead people will be used in HP Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" (Weird Tales, August 1931), aliens who are plants will feature in Murray Leinster's "Proxima Centauri" (Astounding Stories, March 1935),  and humans in an alien zoo will be used in "The Human Pets of Mars" by Leslie Frances Stone (Amazing Stories, October 1936). What strikes me as best about this is that Stribling did all this, but dressed it up like a 19th century adventure story a la Haggard or Conan Doyle. This may have been in part because he wrote the story for Adventure, but it also underpins his comments on the ruthlessness of scientific expeditions and silly notions like The White Man's Burden.

I wonder now why "The Green Splotches" hasn't been seen so often since the 1950s. (I ignore the 1967 reprint which I don't think was done out of care for the story so much as because the publisher was recycling cheap reprints and therefore the motive was mostly economic. In 1967, "The Green Splotches" is cheap filler.) I think the story was cutting edge in the '20s, relevant through to the '40s, explaining why DAW used it. But after that time the number of alien visitors stories multiplies quickly. With the flying saucer period at Amazing Stories and other Ray Palmer magazines, "The Green Splotches" would have become rather mundane by the end of the '50s. (The story was adapted for Escape, the radio show on March 31, 1950, starring William N Robson, William Conrad, and Paul Frees.)

TS Stribling would write more science fiction for Adventure before winning that Pulitzer. A lost race tale, "The Web of the Sun" (January 30, 1922), Fombombo (August 20-September 20, 1923), the dystopic "Christ in Chicago" (April 8, 1926), and a tale of intelligent apes called "Mogglesby" (June 1, 1930). His last novel, These Bars of Flesh (1938) features the same kind of satiric fantasy of his earlier stories. His use of science fiction was Wellsian in that he set up situations where he could look (not always kindly) at how humans behave. (Think of Wells' "The Country of the Blind," also set in South America.) "The Green Splotches" was the first of these examinations and as such deserves its place in the Reprint Hall of Fame.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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