Amazing Histories, December 1926: Moon-Men and Murders

A vast, spherical craft floats in the sky. From it dangle a pair of triangular objects, each emitting a purple haze; these, in turn, appear to be causing a three-funnel ocean liner to hover in mid-air. On a cliff-top ridge below, a group of naked, red-skinned humanoids with fins across their heads and shoulders watch with awe. The month was December 1926, and Amazing Stories was rounding off its first year of publication.

What exactly is happening in that cover image? Well, the magazine leaves that for the readership to decide. In this month’s editorial Hugo Gernsback announces a contest, challenging would-be Amazing contributors to send in stories of their own to accompany the illustration, with the winner receiving a cash prize of $250.

At the same time it was encouraging a new generation of talent, Amazing was still delving into the classics for material, as evidenced by its latest choice of novel to be serialised…

The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells (part 1 of 3)

It was inevitable that H. G. Wells’ turn-of-the-century novel of lunar travel would turn up in Amazing Stories at some point. The story had already been adapted into a film from Gaumont British in 1919, on top of being a likely influence on Georges Méliès’ iconic 1902 short A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), so the popular appeal of its themes and imagery had been well-established by this point.

The novel introduces us to the eccentric, self-absorbed scientist Cavor and the opportunistic businessman Bedford. The two start out seeming an unlikely partnership – in fact, they first meet when Bedford chastises Cavor for annoyingly humming to himself – but they soon find common ground when Cavor begins discussing his invention: Cavorite, a metal compound that can defy gravity. Bedford realises that Cavorite has the potential to change the world and make a lot of money, but Cavor has little interest in such time-consuming matters as business. Instead, he has his eyes set on the Moon.

And so, Cavor builds a spherical vessel capable of withstanding such a journey (“Like Jules Verne’s thing in A Trip to the Moon”, remarks Bedford – although, as it happened, Verne was unimpressed with Wells’ implausible method of propulsion). The two men successfully travel to the Moon, and encounter plant life on the surface. This is just the beginning of their discoveries, as the later instalments make clear…

“Through the Crater’s Rim” by A. Hyatt Verril

Lieutenant Hazen, an aviator, catches sight of a vast stone city while flying over Panama; he tells of his discovery to a friend, who declares that Hazen witnessed a fabled lost city. “Balboa heard of it”, he says. “The Dons spent years hunting for it and every Indian in Darien swears it exists.”

Hazen’s friend, who narrates the story, decides to set off and investigate for himself. Along the way he encounters a weird species of mobile, man-eating tree, which uses tentacle-like appendages to chase and consume hapless passers-by. Reaching the village described by Hazen, he finds it inhabited by a tribe of “outlandish beings” who walk on their hands and carry objects atop their raised feet. “I have seen some rather ugly races,” notes the protagonist, “but all of them combined and multiplied a hundredfold would be beauties compared to these dwarfed, topsy-turvy, denizens of the lost city.” He is particularly repulsed by their “shifty eyes”, “thick lipped mouths”, “fang-like teeth” and, above all, the fact that they lack ears, instead having “round, bare spots covered with light colored thin membrane like the ears of a frog.”

Seeing him smoking his pipe, the natives fall prostrate before what they take to be a fire-breathing deity. They take him before their king and, from there, he begins learning about their society. He initially suspects that their stone city was built by an earlier race, until he sees that they use domesticated tapirs as beasts of burden, at which point he concludes that the people used these animals to haul blocks of stone. He later finds out that the people of the city have stoneworking tools made from an extremely hard metal, an alloy of platinum and iridium. Observing the styles of their architecture and clothes, the explorer theorises that the people are descended from the Aztecs or Maya, and reached their current physical state through generations of inbreeding.

No story of this kind would be complete without an evil priest. Sure enough, the religious leader of this community – “a villainous looking hunchbacked dwarf with red, vicious eyes” – unmasks the explorer as a mere mortal. Just as our hero is about to be sacrificed, however, the aviator Hazen turns up to rescue him.

As the two men escape in Hazen’s plane, the protagonist tries to lighten the load by throwing an innocuous-looking object overboard. This turns out to be a bomb, which lands on an aqueduct – flooding the crater containing the lost city and wiping out the inhabitants. The explorer does not seem particularly bothered about his accidental genocide; instead, he takes heart in the fact that he has also caused the extinction of the man-eating trees.

“Through the Crater’s Rim” achieves a definite vividness, but it is a vividness deriving almost entirely from racial loathing. The protagonist’s utter physical revulsion at the inhabitants of the lost city outweighs any intrigue the story creates about the lost society, its way of life or its history.

The story’s editorial introduction mentions Robert O. Marsh’s encounter with a community of pale-skinned natives in Panama’s Darién Province earlier in the decade (Marsh would later write an entire book on this topic, White Indians of Darien). Subsequent research established that these people were albinos belonging to the Kuna ethnic group, but at the time, they were believed to be a separate race; Marsh’s exploits were a possible influence on Verrill’s story, where the lost race is similarly located in Darién. The author also has his protagonist nickname one of the natives “Zip”, presumably in reference to William Henry Johnson – an African-American circus performer who was presented as a missing link named Zip the Pinhead.

Verrill had previously contributed a “lost race” story of a very different sort to Amazing: “Beyond the Pole”, in which a traveller encounters an isolated community of sapient crustaceans. However, even those lobster-people were afforded more dignity than the backwater Mesoamericans in “Through the Crater’s Rim”.

“The Lord of the Winds” by Augusto Bissiri

Two men – one a gold prospector, the other a newspaper reporter disguised as a gold prospector – happen into each other while travelling through the deserts of California. As they talk, they find out that, for different reasons, they both hoped to meet up with a certain Professor Matheson – a reclusive scientist known as the “Lord of the Winds”. Although his experiments with weather-manipulation were ridiculed by the scientific establishment, a wealthy benefactor has given Matheson all the funds he needs to continue his work in the desert.

The two travellers meet the Professor, ostensibly to evaluate the prospector’s gems. While there, the disguised reporter begins trying to extract information from the Professor about his experiments. He reveals that he has developed a process inspired by Wilhelm Röntgen’s work with vacuum tubes; with this method, he can electrify the air of a large area using a single tube. Having performed some small-scale experiments, Matheson is now ready to take things to the next level: using a series of thirty towers, each with a large electric device, to create heavy winds. As he explains:

When I succeed in forcing at will a current of air from any place to any place, I shall have under my control the winds, and, with the winds, the clouds, and, with the clouds, the rain. Do you see now? I will regulate the seasons. I will regulate the climates. Do you know what that means? It means transforming the earth into a veritable paradise.

In Matheson’s vision of the future, drought shall be a thing of the past. More than that, Matheson dreams of ending all war: if any force should disturb the peace, he will personally send a hurricane to crush it.

But his plans never see fruition. The machines are suddenly activated to full power – we later learn that a robber, hoping to steal the prospector’s gems, accidentally turned them on – and the area is hit by catastrophic winds. Professor Matheson is killed, and the reporter prepares to shoot himself in the head so as to avoid a more painful fate, but a stray chunk of debris destroys the machinery and causes the winds to subside.

“The Lord of the Winds” is a textbook example of early science fiction at its more conservative. The story describes a device that would drastically change the world; it considers the potential benefits of this invention, then the potential downsides; and finally it destroys both the invention and its maker so that the world will never know what could have been. The protagonist actually compares the final scene of destruction to Dante’s Inferno, driving home the sense of mortal transgression receiving divine punishment.

“The Man Higher Up” by Edwin Balmer and William B. MacHarg

“The Man Higher Up”, a story from 1909, is one of a series of tales following the exploits of private detective Luther Trant. In this adventure, Trant is called in to investigate the fates of two dockside scale-checkers. One, Ed Landers, has died; the other, Will Morse, has disappeared. His client, Rentland, is himself a government agent investigating a shipping company controlled by a man named Welter: “To-day the enemies are the big, corrupting, thieving corporations like this company”, he tells Trant. “I am not ashamed to be a spy in their ranks, commissioned by the Government to catch and condemn President Welter”. Rentland believes that Welter’s company was responsible for eliminating the two scale-checkers from the scene so as to allow smuggling, customs fraud and other crimes.

Trant speaks to Edith Rowan, the stepdaughter of the dock superintendent, and finds that she was involved in a love triangle: she was in love with Will Morse, but her stepfather wanted her married to Ed Landers. The detective then meets up with a customs inspector who has also been investigating the case, and has evidence that Landers was involved with customs tampering. Together, they stand a chance of arresting some of the lower-level individuals in the criminal operation – but Trant is aiming nearer the top.

Luther Trant heads to a psychological laboratory run by one Kuno Schmalz, who has spent the last two decades investigating the effects of emotions upon the body, only for his findings to be ignored by colleagues. Teaming up with Trant, Schmalz invites Welter to take part in an experiment; the corrupt businessman, not suspecting the trap, agrees.

Schmalz hooks Welter up to a pneumograph and plethysmograph, after which he and Trant record Welter’s emotional response to a piece of evidence from the case, along with a related phrase and image. Armed with this, Trant is able to solve the case. After a quick altercation with the dock superintendent and his burly bodyguard, the detective brings Welter to justice and reunites Edith with her missing fiancé.

“The Man Higher Up” is not a story that has aged particularly well, being a routine detective yarn; it is of interest mainly due to the presence of a primitive form of lie detector. The plethysmograph, one of the implements used by Schmalz, was put to similar use by physiologist Angelo Mosso as early as 1878, so the scientific underpinnings of the story were already established – although it is hard to swallow just how easily Trant and Schmalz produce a “smoking gun”, when even modern lie detection equipment is hardly foolproof.

Lie detector devices still crop up regularly in modern crime fiction. But while “The Man Higher Up” uses a similar device as its main idea, contemporary writers are more likely to use them after running out of any other ideas.

“The Diamond Lens” by Fitz James O’Brien

Amazing reaches back to 1858 for this curious blend of science fiction, fantasy, crime and ghost story.

The protagonist is a man named Linley who, throughout his life, has been fascinated by microscopes. This interest goes back to childhood experiments with crude home-made lenses; now, as an adult, he aspires to create a revolutionary new microscope of his own. For advice, he heads to a spiritual medium and calls up the ghost of the pioneer microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. The spirit advises him that a “diamond of one hundred and forty carats, submitted to electro-magnetic currents for a long period, will experience a rearrangement of its atoms inter se” and could then serve as the lens for a microscope more powerful than any on earth.

Linley then finds out that a shady acquaintance named Simon, whom he suspects of involvement with slave-trading, owns just such a diamond; in a moment of drunken honesty, Simon admits to having stolen it from a slave in Brazil. Linley mulls over how he can extract the diamond from Simon’s possession, and eventually decides simply to murder him: “After all, what was the life of a little peddling Jew in comparison with the interests of science? Human beings are taken every day from the condemned prisons to be experimented on by surgeons.” Our anti-hero goes through with this crime, and carefully arranges Simon’s flat so as to make the murder look like a suicide.

Linley finally creates his super-microscope, and uses it to examine a dewdrop in unprecedented detail. Inside, he finds not amoebas, but an Edenic forest, complete with an Eve: a woman of microscopic size and unearthly beauty. He becomes obsessed with this woman, whom he nicknames Animula, and spies on her as she goes about her idyllic life:

I found the sylph bathing, as it were, with an expression of pleasure animating her features, in the brilliant light which surrounded her. She tossed her lustrous golden hair over her shoulders with innocent coquetry. She lay at full length in the transparent medium, in which she supported herself with ease, and gambolled with the enchanting grace that the nymph Salmacis might have exhibited when she sought to conquer the modest Hermaphroditus.

But such delights are fleeting. Only too late does Linley realise that the dewdrop has almost evaporated, and he is forced to watch as Animula withers and dies. The vision continues to haunt him, and his lingering obsession leads to him being shunned by his peers as a madman.

“The Diamond Lens” is in some ways prescient. In the early twentieth century, after embracing spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle notoriously became convinced that it was possible to photograph fairies. Here, decades before Doyle’s dubious theories, Fitz James O’Brien explores the idea of placing fairies under the microscope. The story runs on a similar blending of scientific progress and mysticism as the Spiritualist movement: to Linley, the microscopist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and the fictional occultist Comte de Gabalis are equally legitimate reference points. O’Brien’s approach to the theme is rather less optimistic than that of Doyle, however, and he ultimately delivers a poignant metaphor for the romance of the natural world perishing beneath scientific investigation.

The Second Deluge by Garrett P. Serviss (part 2 of 4)

The first instalment of Garrett P. Serviss’ novel, as published in the previous issue of Amazing, followed the astronomer Cosmo Versál as he concluded that Earth was about to be hit by a worldwide flood and that he must act as a latter-day Noah. With the second part, the novel moves its attention towards other attempts at survival.

France has developed an ark of its own: a submarine dubbed, naturally, the Jules Verne. Back in the United States, the President has escaped the flood in an airship alongside one Professor Pludder – who had previously denied the coming flood, and is now being forced to eat his proverbial words.

Meanwhile, Cosmo Versál’s ark receives an unexpected visitor: escaping the flood at the last minute is ruthless businessman Amos Blank. “After the world,” runs the novel, “had enjoyed the blessings of the reforms of business methods and social ideals that had been inaugurated by the great uprising of the people in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Amos Blank, and lesser men of his ilk, had swung back the pendulum, and re-established more firmly than ever the reign of monopoly and iniquitous privilege.”

Serviss continues to show a good balance between worldwide disaster and individual intrigue, with a colourful cross-section of society represented aboard the multiple arks.

Shorter stories

In “The Time Eliminator”, a story credited simply to “Kaw”, inventor Hamilton Fish Errell has built a device that outwardly resembles “a modern radio cabinet combined with a motion picture machine”. But this is more than a prototype television set. With three dials labelled respectively “longitude”, “latitude” and “time-space”, the machine is able to project images from anywhere on Earth, at any point in history. The protagonist explains that “every event on this earth leaves a record in light rays, whether or not a human photographer is present to snap the picture.”

Realising his invention’s espionage potential, Errell offers a demonstration to a military general, and in the process exposes a meeting in France where trade officials from multiple European powers conspire against the United States. The general is impressed by the device, while his daughter decides on the spot to marry Errell. This brief and not particularly convincing story hits on an interesting idea – one that later turned up in Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – but fails to do anything worthwhile with it.

In “The Telepathic Pick-Up” by Samuel M. Sargent Jr, one Dr. Spaulding unveils a groundbreaking invention: a telepathy radio. The device is capable of picking up “those elusive emanations – thought-waves” and its inventor hopes to use it to locate his brother Tom, who went missing while on the run from the law for embezzlement.

As Dr. Spaulding explains, the machine works by matching the user’s thoughts with those of others in the world. If the user is thinking a commonplace thought, they will be greeted with a cacophony of people thinking the same thing; and so the doctor focuses his mind upon a specific childhood incident that only he and his brother know of.

Sure enough, Dr. Spaulding picks up the thoughts of his criminal brother. However, to his horror, he finds that his brother is being sent to the electric chair. He listens helplessly as he hears the thoughts of his brother during the moment of electrocution – and even worse, continues hearing these thoughts even after Tom is pronounced dead. The electric chair, it turns out, does not kill its victims; it merely places them into a paralytic state while they remain fully conscious. Tom is then carried into the prison hospital to undergo autopsy while still living; upon hearing his brother’s thoughts at this point, Dr. Spaulding destroys his machine in a fit of horror.

Amazing hails the story as being “worthy of a Poe”, and it does indeed have similarities to Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”, printed in the magazine’s first issue. Each deals with a scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) technique being used to communicate with a person after their body has died, or appears to have died, with horrifying results for the investigator in question.

This was not the first time Amazing had run a story about a mind-reading machine; in June 1926, the magazine printed Charles S. Wolfe’s “Whispering Ether”, on a similar theme. The present issue contains another of Wolfe’s tales: “The Educated Harpoon”, from a 1920 issue of Electrical Experimenter.

Here, a detective named Joe Fenner is confronted with a baffling murder. The victim was stabbed to death in his office; but there was no way for the killer to enter the room without being seen, nor is there any sign of the murder weapon. Eventually, Fenner catches the culprit, and retrieves the implement: a radio-controlled model aeroplane, affixed with a deadly blade. The local police chief is so disturbed that he decides to destroy the invention after the murderer is convicted.

And finally…

And so another Amazing Stories issue comes to an end. But before we close the magazine, here is “Ascension”, another poem by Leland S. Copeland:

Age by age the sun is rising

Toward the apex of its way;

Seeking heights where Vega sparkles,

Many trillion miles away.

So the soul of man is climbing;

Wistful ever, mortals wind

Farther from the brute and caveman,

Dawn and morning of the mind.

Into dust fall kings and idols,

Superstition, ancient gear,

For the strength of thought is stronger

That the curb of hope or fear.

Man is breaking vain traditions,

Old injustice, legal wrong;

Giving outworn good for better,

While he thinks and toils along,

Quelling plagues, controlling nature—

Losing zest for martial fame—

Winning on this little planet

Glory for the human name.

Smiling upward, sweeping onward,

Through the night and through the day,

Mounts the soul of man still higher

Toward the apex of its way.

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