Friday, August 12, 2016

The Call from Beyond: HP Lovecraft and Clifford D Simak [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

HP Lovecraft shows up in the darnedest places. His influence is obvious in Weird Tales, but outside that magazine you had to look harder in 1950. Arkham House published Lovecraft in hard cover, but in the world of science fiction, a genre now dominated by gears and the scientific ideas of John W Campbell, HPL and cosmic horror were of little interest. But there was at least one exception...

Clifford D Simak is probably best remembered for City (1954), a series of interconnected short stories that form a kind of novel. In that book, humans migrate into space, leaving the planet to the dogs, who remember us vaguely as gods. Simak also has a lonely robot left behind and a race of intelligent ants. CDS tells it all with subtlety, wit, and pathos. He is best know for his love of ordinary people, rural settings, and human foibles. It is this predominate trend that named him the Pastoral Poet of Science Fiction. About as un-Lovecraftian as you can get...

We have to remember something about these two authors. They were very much contemporaries. HP Lovecraft wrote for Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories ("The Colour Out of Space, March 1927). Clifford Simak started writing SF in 1931 for Gernsback's Wonder Stories. Simak gave up on SF in 1935 and only returned in 1938 when John W Campbell took over at Astounding. Lovecraft died in 1937, and so missed the changes that came to SF. Both the early Simak and the more SF Lovecraft, like "At the Mountains of Madness" (Astounding, February 1936) and "A Shadow Out of Time" (Astounding Stories, June 1936) belong to this earlier era of Age of Wonder Science Fiction. Simak could have forgotten all about those days, but...

The May 1950 issue of Super Science Stories has a Simak story called "The Call From Beyond." The very title rings of Lovecraft's "From Beyond" and "The Call of Cthulhu." In this tale, a mutant named West, fleeing an Earth pogrom, comes to a moon of Pluto to find Louis Nevin, a missing scientist who is drinking himself to death as his gigantic pyramid of empties proves. Before he dies, he hints to West that a mystery lies on Pluto, in the old station supposedly abandoned and invaded by weird forces. The planet has been banned and is guarded by the space patrol because a group of scientists had been working there on several projects, including a miracle hormone that would expand human ability, and research for an interstellar drive that leads to contact with a dimensional terror so great the government of Earth must guard everyone from it. West takes Nevin's weird pet, Annabelle, and sneaks past the patrol.

On the planet, in the old base, West finds three survivors: Henderson, Cartwright, and Belden, who do little but talk in riddles about an enchanting painting and strange visitors, as well as the freakish woman-like alien called the White Singer:
A woman had appeared in the doorway, a woman with violet eyes and platinum hair and wrapped in an ermine opera cloak. She moved forward and the light from the flaring tapers fell across her face. West stiffened at the sight, felt the blood run cold as ice within his veins. For the face was not a woman’s face. It was like a furry skull, like a moth’s face that had attempted to turn human and had stuck halfway.
The scientists have sent the White Singer's sister to Earth, where she is a sensation with her beautiful but eerie voice...

The three scientists accept West, because he has Nevin's pet. They think he is in the know about their secret. They also hope that West can help them find Nevin's hidden hormone, so they tolerate him, bringing him into the group of conspirators. Cartwright tells him about how the hormone was created, and how once-successful Nevin has stolen it, hidden it, and accepted exile for his crime. He had been allowed to take only his pet and one other thing of his choice: the whiskey.

West learns about their other discovery, a method for transcending dimensions. It takes a while for the newcomer to learn all this. When Belden comes to him, he tells him he knows West is a fake. The two begin to collaborate, but Henderson kills Belden, seeing him as a traitor. West shoots Henderson in the head in a Western-style shoot-out. (Simak had recently finished writing his Western fiction before 1950, but we'll look at those stories in a future piece. The Western mechanics of a gun battle were of help to the author here.)

The finale comes when Cartwright shows West the painting he had heard so much about. In a scene reminiscent of MR James' "The Mezzotint," we see Cartwright come out of the painting and die horribly. West uses his blaster to destroy the canvas and the link to the terrible Lovecraftian beings of the other dimension. The plot to take over the Earth ends there too, for the White Singer's sister was meant to be the first in a line of fifth columnists for the eldritch beings.

West takes down a bottle of whiskey from the fireplace mantle, a last remnant of the pact the scientists had: the last man to drink the others' health. West's brain screams and expands as he drinks. He has found Nevin's hidden hormone solution. In a moment (so familiar to viewers of Limitless and the drug N-Zee-Tee), West's mind expands and he clearly sees how to fix the great spaceship and its interstellar drive. He will take that vessel to the stars.

I haven't read every Simak story or novel, but I do know most of his other stuff is different than "The Call From Beyond." He obviously had a lot of fun with the Lovecraftian elements, though they made the story unsellable to John W Campbell at Astounding. Thus Super Science Stories, a crappy low-pay mag. Critical reception for "The Call from Beyond" was probably non-existent (though that could be said of most of the contents of Super Science Stories) as science fiction didn't care about Lovecraft or his Cthulhu Mythos. If anyone did comment on this story, it would most likely be dismissive or derogatory. What is more interesting is that the horror community didn't champion the tale either. I doubt they even knew about it.

In When the Fires Burn High and the Wind Is In the North: The Pastoral Science Fiction of Clifford D Simak (2006) by Robert J Ewald, the author describes the story as "another mediocre story very beautifully illustrated by Virgil Finlay." Ewald points out that the weird, other dimensional creatures resemble the Cobblies from City, and that Simak's idea of aliens' inspiring all the supernatural monsters like goblins and ghosts would be developed later in The Goblin Reservation (1967).

Still, "The Call From Beyond" wasn't the only time Simak got Lovecraftian. In his episodic novel Where Evil Dwells (1982), he has his adventurers enter an ancient temple filled with creatures older than the gods known as The Elder Ones:
Far back in that enormous space that loomed in front of them, eyes gleamed with a fiercely golden light—more eyes now than there had been before. Some great monster was purring, and the silky, deliberate purr, like the purring of a million house cats, rumbled in the air. But behind the purring, laced into the interstices of the rumbling purr, were other sounds that were as chilling as the purr—the sliding sound of writhing wigglers that had no feet to walk on, the nervous chittering of crouchers huddling in the dark, the click-clack of scampering hooves, the wheezing and the slobbering of those who waited for a feast, tucking mushroomed napkins underneath their chins, and of the drooler that hunkered somewhere with thick ropes of saliva dripping.
Despite "The Call From Beyond" being a one-off, CDS was obviously a fan of HP Lovecraft's weird cosmic terror, and its themes did find a place within Simak's larger context, though subtly. Whenever Simak wrote of aliens such as Catface in Mastodonia (1978) he tried to capture a little Lovecraftian strangeness. Simak never sank to the humans-in-green-skin kind of short hand that science fiction sometimes suffers from. In this way, Lovecraft may have had as much influence on the early Simak as John W Campbell.

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.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails