Short Reviews – Hellhounds of the Cosmos by Clifford D. Simak

Friday , 5, August 2016 8 Comments

Hellhounds of the Cosmos by Clifford D. Simak appeared in the June 1932 issue of Astounding Stories.Astounding banner

After the first couple pages into Hellhounds of the Cosmos, I did not expect to be as completely blown away by weird the way I was in its second half.

Hellhounds starts out with what seems to be an otherwise typical setup – invincible aliens that look like shadowy amorphous blobs have been showing up and destroying major cities all over Earth. These shadowy monsters are known simply as the Horror. At this point, I’m yawning, expecting pseudo-Lovecraftian hackery but without the subversive winks (or gonzo pacing) of a Gardner F. Fox. The Scientist Dr. Silas White’s Flatlandesque explanation of the 4th dimensional nature of the invaders piques my interest a bit, as does the prospect of his sending one of the reporters with his volunteers to fight the threat on its own dimension, but things have dragged a bit up to the point where everyone is sent through the portal.

Then this happens:

[Henry Woods] felt solid ground under his feet, and his eyes, snapping open, saw an alien land. It was a land of somber color, with great gray moors, and beetling black cliffs. There was something queer about it, an intangible quality that baffled him.


He looked about him, expecting to see his companions. He saw no one. He was absolutely alone in that desolate brooding land. Something dreadful had happened! Was he the only one to be safely transported from the third dimension? Had some horrible accident occurred? Was he alone?


Sudden panic seized him. If something had happened, if the others were not here, might it not be possible that the machine would not be able to bring him back to his own dimension? Was he doomed to remain marooned forever in this terrible plane?


He looked down at his body and gasped in dismay. It was not his body!


It was a grotesque caricature of a body, a horrible profane mass of flesh, like a phantasmagoric beast snatched from the dreams of a lunatic.


It was real, however. He felt it with his hands, but they were not hands. They were something like hands; they served the same purpose that hands served in the third dimension. He was, he realized, a being of the fourth dimension, but in his fourth-dimensional brain still clung hard-fighting remnants of that faithful old third-dimensional brain. He could not, as yet, see with fourth-dimensional eyes, think purely fourth-dimensional thoughts. He had not oriented himself as yet to this new plane of existence. He was seeing the fourth dimension through the blurred lenses of millions of eons of third-dimensional existence. He was seeing it much more clearly than he had seen it in the half-globe atop the machine in Dr. White’s laboratory, but he would not see it clearly until every vestige of the third dimension was wiped from him. That, he knew, would come in time.


He felt his weird body with those things that served as hands, and he found, beneath his groping, unearthly fingers, great rolling muscles, powerful tendons, and hard, well-conditioned flesh. A sense of well-being surged through him and he growled like an animal, like an animal of that horrible fourth plane.


But the terrible sounds that came from between his slobbering lips were not those of his own voice, they were the voices of many men.


Then he knew. He was not alone. Here, in this one body were the bodies, the brains, the power, the spirit, of those other ninety-eight men. In the fourth dimension, all the millions of third-dimensional things were one. Perhaps that particular portion of the third dimension called the Earth had sprung from, or degenerated from, one single unit of a dissolving, worn-out fourth dimension. The third dimension, warped back to a higher plane, was automatically obeying the mystic laws of evolution by reforming in the shape of that old ancestor, unimaginably removed in time from the race he had begot. He was no longer Henry Woods, newspaperman; he was an entity that had given birth, in the dim ages when the Earth was born, to a third dimension. Nor was he alone. This body of his was composed of other sons of that ancient entity.


In something that Michael Moorcock would later swipe for his weirder Eternal Champion tales, Henry Woods finds himself to be a part of 4th dimensional superbeing Mal Shaff, nemesis of the cruel Ouglat. Unlike Sailor on the Seas of Fate, the threat to our world is real and immediate – Ouglat has been sending extensions of himself into the 3rd dimension and is behind the invasion!

These two cosmic horrors slug it out in a nightmarish otherworld as those back on Earth lend their support, sending more and more volunteers into the portal to become one with Mal Shaff so that it can overpower Ouglat.

I’ll admit, this was a story that really took me by surprise. While it is placed in a very “sciency” frame, with the scientist, his lab and machines and elaborate scientific explanations for the nature of the threat and how to combat it, it ends for Mal Shaff and the being once known as Henry Woods in “Great palaces of shining jewels, and weird nights of inhuman joy where hellish flames lit deep, black caverns.” An almost alchemical transformation has taken place where, through science, the world of science is left behind for a world of mysticism. Heady stuff and a fun read once you get past Dr. White’s longwinded explanations.

Check it here on Project Gutenberg.

  • PCBushi says:

    That’s heady stuff. Solid post, Alex.

    Moorcock…another name on The List I have yet to become acquainted with!

    • Alex says:

      I could take or leave Moorcock. His stuff is kinda proto-Edgelord.

      Elric’s weakness and moral ambivalence is almost annoyingly antithetical to Burroughsian archetype. While the Burroughsian is aspirant, Elric is a hero with neither strength nor goodness, hence why he got really popular among teenage nerds as an anti-jock rage fantasy.

      Moorcock did cool shit with Hawkwind, though.

      • Tom says:

        Elric was deliberately the anti-Conan, and Moorcock himself was of course a self-important leftist who couldn’t abide Tolkien. But he nevertheless had his moments.

        • Alex says:

          From what I gather, he had a lot of them in the Elric books I never got to because I burned out a little more than half-way through. Elric may be a bit nihilistic to begin with, but the chronologically ordered telling brings an extra degree of forced meaninglessness to keep the fix-ups from interfering with canon.

        • Alex says:

          of the 2nd-4th Elric books, the Eternal Champion battle with the two amorphous wizard things was literally the only part I remember, and that’s mostly because of how kludgy it was.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      If dipping into Appendix N for the joy of reading good fiction I recommend putting Moorcock at the bottom of the list.

      It has lots of cool elements incorporated into D&D but they are all surface stuff. They are not utilized in any interesting way they just sort of happen for no reason and the actual character of Elric ranges from abysmally melancholy to non-existent. Honestly I like his blatantly evil cousin more who is the card board cut out comic book villain of the books. At least I knew his motivations for doing anything.

  • Alan Ziebarth says:

    For the past twenty years I have been collecting pulp magazines from the twenties and thirties. And also reading a lot of the wonderful books put out by Haffner Press. The people of that time always talk about the Sense of Wonder in these tales. But very often I get the Sense of WTF. And that makes these stories all the more fun. You really never know what is going to happen since many of these authors were creating the stories without decades of writings to draw upon.

    • Alex says:

      The wild and strange is definitely norm for a lot of these.
      If you mean in the sense of genre ossification that they didn’t have as much to retread within SFF itself, that’s true, but a lot was being pulled from late 19th century writings on spiritualism, theosophy, phrenology, Atlantis, etc. and being mixed in with contemporary scientific publications. They had a canon; most folks just don’t know what it was because there’s not a handy list like what we have with Appendix N.

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