Whenever the newspapermen want to invoke classic science fiction and fantasy from the thirties and forties, they go out of their way to dredge up a particularly lurid magazine cover from the period. Sure, even fans of the stuff get a chuckle out of the crazier ones. But the subtext is always the same: the pulps were all tacky and predictable… full of not just stereotypes that have since become unfashionable, but loaded with mediocre writing and tiresome clichés as well.
Of course, every time this topic comes up, somebody will point out that 90% of everything is crap. Based on that, one might argue that the insinuations of the journalists would therefore be pretty well accurate. And certainly, it would not be difficult to find examples of bad stories from the period. But the fact remains, someone brought up under the steady pulse of this sort of negative advertising could never be prepared for the vividness of the writing of someone like Robert E. Howard. They would never conceive that scope and the depths of Lovecraft’s stories is even possible. They would not anticipate just how striking Margaret Brundage’s cover paintings could be. Because they’d been led to believe that all of it was as on the level of the worst sort of comic books.
This sort of thing doesn’t damage the legacies of the greats all that much. And I know for myself, I used to worry about what I’d do when I’d finally gotten through all of Howard’s and Lovecraft’s material. But the fact is, those guys were far from being the only ones producing great stories during the pulp era.
Picking up a copy Battle in the Dawn, I was prepared for the worst. (That smear campaign in the media really does work!) Judging by the cover, I was in for another cheap Conan knock off like the ones which crowded the book racks of the seventies. What I actually got was a backwards extrapolation of a hero that could have been the inspiration for the mythical figure Hercules. And what’s more, everything is consistent with the science and archaeology of the author’s day. The resulting stories combine elements of science fiction and fantasy in striking manner, unlike anything I’d expect to find on the shelves at the library or bookstore.
But this isn’t some kind of academic exercise. And sure, the descriptions of hunting and javelin throwing ring true. For instance, tricks like using a cord to put a spin on a javelin so that it flies farther and faster are something you don’t see in a lot of fantasy literature. But the excitement that infuses the pulp stories of the thirties and forties is here as well. Mixed in with fictionalized versions of the first Homo Sapiens, monstrous Neanderthalers, and the diminutive Piltdown Men are depictions of lost worlds, elephant’s graveyards, and even Atlantis itself!
And yet, Manly Wade Wellman’s Atlantis is not some sort of crazy science fantasy metropolis, either. No, he looks at the volcanic rock at present day Gibraltar and derives from a volcano once could have kept the ocean out the place where the Mediterranean Sea currently resides. From there he imagines an advanced society developing in what would turn out to be the worst possible location. And had they, as some myths indicate, discovered the recipe for gunpowder, they would not only had the means to rule the entire world as de facto gods, but they would also have opened the way for their own demise.
While the Hok stories are consistently this well thought out, that doesn’t mean Wellman is opposed to epic level action. In fact, he managed to write a literary antecedent for the climax to Big Trouble in Little China!
“This fellow flouts us, he is a madman,” grumbled the deep voice, and its owner sidled his horse out to join the leader. This second speaker was squat and black-bearded, and even at the distance Hok saw that he was fierce of face and sharp eyed.
“If I am mad,” Hok threw at him, “I may come down and make you fear my bite.”
With an oath, the bearded one lifted himself in his seat, whirled a spear backward, and launched it at the defiant Hok, who stood still to watch the course of the weapon. It was sure case, but not too strong, according to cave-man standards. As it came at Hok, he swayed his big, lithe body sidewise, shot his right hand like a snake, and seized the flying shaft by the middle. Whirling it end for end, he sped it back the way it had come, with all the strength and skill of his mighty muscles behind it. Forty throats whooped, in startled anger as the black-beard spun off his beast, transfixed by his own weapon. Hok’s answering shout of laughter defied them. I had all happened in two breaths of time. (page 52-53)
And granted, the way that Hok just so happens to both be the guy that invented the bow and the sort of guy that could “accidentally” create a sword from a molten meteor similarly strains belief. But it’s how he combines his strength, cunning, and technological advantages that make the story. Because he comes back against all odds against bestial Neanderthals, but also a Loki-like figure, and even an octopus “god”, his daring raids deep into territory controlled by hostile factions never fail to entertain.
But if I’m going to read stories about cave men having epic adventure, I’m not going to be satisfied unless I get a veritable menagerie of pre-historic beasties. And yes, Wellman’s Imperial Mammoth is positively majestic:
Gragru the mammoth, tremendous beyond imagination, marched with heavy dignity to the enticing breakfast Hok had set him. A hillock of red-black hair, more than twice Hok’s height hat the shoulder, he sprouted great spiral tusks of creamy ivory, each a weight for several men. His head, a hairy boulder, had a high cranium and small, wise eyes. His long, clever trunk sniffed at one snack of juniper, and began to convey it to his mouth. (page 150)
Hok’s battle with an entire flock of pterodactyls is fantastic:
Hok had notched another arrow, and sped it into the chest of one. Before he could seize a third shaft, the other Stymph was upon him. Its talons made a clutch, scraping long furrows in his shoulder. He cursed it, and struck a mighty whipping blow with his bow-stave that staggered it in mid-flight. Clutching the supporting branch with his legs, he tore his axe from its lashing at his girdle, and got it up just in time to meet the recovering drive of the brute. Badly gashed across the narrow, evil face, the Stymph reeled downward, trying in vain to get control of its wings and rise again.
More Stymphs circled this third victim of Hok, and tore several bloody mouthfuls from it. A loud clamor rose over Hok’s head– the smell of gore was maddening the flock. Slipping his right hand through the thong on his axe handle, he looked up.
The sky was filling with Stymphs. Though never a man to recognize danger with much respect, Hok was forced to recognize it now. (pages 172-173)
And if I had any doubt that Hok was a convincing interpolation of a possible real-life inspiration of Hercules, I was completely won over with Wellman’s take on the classic battle between the Greek hero and the wild boar of Eurymanthis. The boar in this case turns out to be one of the last surviving Dinocerus ingens:
Its monstrous bulk, clad in scant-bristled hide of slate gray, stooped above the carcass. Its shallow, broad-snouted skull bent down, and powerful fangs tore the hairy hide from Gragu’s flesh, exposing the tender meat. That head lifted as Hok came into view, a head larger than that of a hippopotamus. Two small hooded eyes, cold and pale as a lizard’s, stared. The mouth sucked and chewed bloody shreds, and Hok saw down-protruding tusks, sharp as daggers. Upon the undeveloped brow, the swell of the muzzle, and the tip of the snout were hornlike knobs– three pairs of them. (page 158)
This is exactly the sort of stuff I wish I could have read before running the classic “expert” D&D module The Isle of Dread. The combination of pulp adventure with a synthesis of science and myth is eminently gameable. One reason it’s so good is that Manly Wade Wellman had first hand life experience with de facto stone age peoples. Even though the science is out of date in places, I really can’t think of a better resource for someone that’s going to run a “lost world” themed role-playing campaign.
While we tend to look back on the pulp era with more than a little condescension, the fact is that it wasn’t during the forties that Poul Anderson felt compelled to write an essay pointing out how excessively derivative and unrealistic fantasy was liable to be the end of an otherwise popular subgenre.¹ It was the seventies when the mediocrities began to overwhelm the good stuff– all culminating into a multi-genre extinction event. The fact that publishers and fans could accord Wellman with the degree of honor and recognition that they did really says a lot about them. They had far better taste than they are typically given credit for.
¹ This is a modest example of what John C. Wright refers to as The Parochialism of Anachronism. This subject is difficult to discuss with people because the fact of just how good the pulps were goes against the narrative of social evolution.