book reviews

By Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint

Prime Press

HERE is an acknowledged classic of fantasy, first published in 1921; much praised since then, several times reprinted, venerated by connoisseurs - and all this despite the fact that the book has no vestige of merit whatever.

Hall, who wrote 39 of the book's 48 chapters, had these faults:

He was style deaf. Sample, from the prologue: "For years he had been battering down the skepticism that had bulwarked itself in the material." Another, from p. 273: "... he had backtracked on his previous acts so as to side in with the facts. . ."

He was totally innocent of grammar. This is not an exaggeration, Hall could not tell a noun from an adjective, nor a verb from either; (p. 20) "She is fire and flesh and carnal ... at whose feet fools and wise men would slavishly frolic and folly."

He was so little at home in the English language that he could not lay hands on the commonest idiom without mangling it. Three samples, out of dozens: "It was a stagger for both young men. (p. 264). There was a resemblance to Rhamda Avec that ran almost to counterpart. (p.172) It was a long hark back to our childhood.... (p.30).

He was credulous without limit. The myths solemnly subscribed to in this book - none of them having anything to do with the plot -- incldue the intuition of women, the character-judgment of dogs, "animal magnetism," "psychic vibrations," and the influence of the intelligence on the color of the eyes.

He had no power of observation. "The men about him purchased cigars and cigarettes, and , as is the habit of all smokers, strolled off with delighted relish." (p.1)

He had no empathy, and, I might add, no sense of humor. This is his notion of writing like a woman: "I am but a girl; . . .I should be jealous and I should hate her; it is the way of woman... . . I am a girl and I like attention; all girls do . . . I had all of a girl's wild fears and fancies. . . I am a girl, of course..." (Pp. 101-103)

His knowledge of science, if he had any, is not discoverable in these pages. He used "ether", "force" and "vibration" synonymously. On page 85 a chemist refers to a stone's thermal properties as "magnetism." ("Magnetic", like "sequence", "intrinsic", "incandescense" and "irridescense" ((sic,sic)) is a word Hall kept tossing at random, hoping to hit something with it eventually. For example: She (a dog named Queen) caught him by the trouser leg and drew him back. She crowded us away from the curtains. It was almost magnetic." (p.95)

Hall was incapable of remembering what he had already written or looking forward to what he was about to write, except when it was inappropriate to do so. For example, the book opens with the introduction of a character known as Rhamda Avec (didn't I say Hall had no sense of humor?): "Rhamda" is a title, but the narrator does not know this, no one who uses the name in dialog knows it, and the reader is not supposed to find out about it until p.58. Nevertheless, Avec is consistently referred to as "the Rhamda," And then, on p.171, we get this: By this time Watson was convinced that the word indicated some sort of title. (Emphasis mine, in both cases.)

This Rhamda is a mysterious personage who, it goes on to appear, has come through the Blind Spot -- an intermittent passageway between the Earth and another world. Somehow connected with the Spot is a blue jewel with odd properties, which the Rhamda spends the first half of the book trying to recover from one of the four protagonists; but, inasmuch as he refuses to tell anybody what he wants, what it is, who he is, or what happened to kindly old Dr. Holcomb -- who vanished through the Spot shortly after being seen with the Rhamda -- it's not surprising that he never gets it.

Later on we lose him, somehow; an entirely new villain appears -- the Bar Senestro, if you please -- and it eventually turns out that the Rhamda has no ulterior motives at all, but simply wanted to help everybody by getting the jewel back to where it belonged. This being so, it is hard to understand why he stalked around like a silent-movie villain for twenty odd chapters.

The behavior of the other characters is equally puzzling. There is another tourist from the far side of the Spot wandering around in the forepart of the book -- the Nervina. She also wants the jewel returned to the Rhamda but is angry at him -- no reason given -- and she won't tell anybody anything, either.

It becomes evident early in the story that the Rhamda can't or won't take the jewel by force, and yet two of the protagonists wear it, in turn, for a total of two years, even though it is evidently killing them.

Still earlier, 14 pages are devoted to the introduction of the jewel. On page 40, one of the protagonists shows it to two others and a long dialog ensues; on page 54, he disappears into the Spot. In between, it occurs to nobody to ask, "Where did you get it?" and, as a result, nobody finds out until page 72.

"Hall," says Forrest J. Ackerman's introduction, "contributed a great knowledge of history and anthropology, while Flint's fortes were physics and medicine." Flint's understanding of physics may be judged by this sentence from page 147. (The stone "inducts" sound. They seal it in an air-tight canister; the sound stops.) "Ah!" cried Harold, "it's a question of radioactivity, then! . . ."

Flint's nine chapters, written in a gushing, mock-hearty style, which is an immeasurable relief after Hall's illiteracy, do inject some movement into the story and contribute a good deal of common sense: "Work on that ring; I was a fool not to get busy sooner." This is true, and applies with much greater force to protagonist No. 2, who, instead of following up the only lead he had, apparently spent twelve months mooning around the old house on Chatterton Place, reading the collected works of Madame Blavatsky.

But Flint's memory was as frail as Hall's. On page 149, an extraordinary heavy lump of stone, which Harold can barely lift with a spade, is discovered for the first time in the pile of dirt which Jerome had previously dug up, sifted minutely, and shoveled through a doorway into the next room in the cellar.

Flint's numerous new characters do nothing, say nothin' -- although at great length -- and now Hall takes over again, this time on the other side of the Spot, where we meet new people, including a woman with . . . . "a wonderful fold of rich brown hair, tastefully done. . ." Most of Hall's women have this oddity; in this case it sounds like something between an envelope and a crepe suzette. We also rediscover Dr. Holcomb, comfortably established as the reincarnation of a local demi-god, and the story winds up in a very conventional melange of pageantry, witchcraft and good clean sport which Merritt might have written in an off week.

We learn from Dr. Holcomb the importance of the Blind Spot: "It will silence the skeptics and form a bulwark for all religion." Working together, our friends succeed in restoring the missing jewels to their place, return to Earth and close the Spot. The eligible members of the party are neatly married off and all ends happily.

The Rhamda Avec, having been mislaid twenty-one chapters back, remains so. We are left to wonder where he is, who built the Spot, what in the world all the characters thought they were up to, what the story was about in the first place, and - most of all - why anybody, even Ackerman, even Moskowitz, ever took this schoolboy novel seriously.

Reviewed by DAMON KNIGHT

Edited by Darrell C. Richardson

Fantasy Pub. Co., Inc.
Los Angeles -- $3.00

DURING his incredibly varied and prolific writing career, Frederick S. Faust ("Max Brand") produced only half-a-dozen actual fantasies and one science fiction novel. His reputation, it seems, lies almost solely in the Western story field and in the exploits of a somewhat dubious pair of medical practitioners portrayed on the screen by Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore. Since 1919 publishers have placed 125 of his two-gun tales between hard covers and at least that many others still remain unpublished.

Why then, the interest in his work on the part of so many science fiction and fantasy readers who would never touch a horse-opera with a ten foot pole? The answer is paradoxical. Despite the fact that he has often been tagged "King of the Western writers," Faust never wrote a Western in his life! Just as Ray Bradbury writes science-fantasy and not science fiction, Faust wrote Western fantasy and not Westerns. One regional expert called Faust's West "a weird and terrible place, wholly unrelated to fact." Serious students of historical Americana would find this very true, just as astronomers, were they to examine THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, would find the moons of Mars rising on the wrong side of the planet! Writers like Faust and Bradbury are not in the least concerned with authentic and technical detail. Their stage settings are not meant to be convincing. To carp about such points is to miss entirely the writer's intent, which is to illuminate sharply his characters and situations against a fresh and unobtrusive backdrop.

In 1915, at Berkeley's University of California, Fred Faust was a brilliant young man of 23, a recipient of every writing honor the school could bestow, editor of "The Pelican" and other campus publications, playwright (with the late Sidney Howard) and a sensitive and promising poet. Ahead of him the future lay bright and shining. That future, for a variety of reasons, was never realized. Faust went on to become, under eighteen pseudonyms, the world's most prolific writer, a legend while still living, yet a tragic and frustrated man whose frenzied search for personal fulfillment led to his death at 52 (as a war correspondent for Harpers) on a bloody Italian hillside in 1944.

Behind him me left two slim volumes of poetry and thirty million words of fiction. In the main he was writing for the ravenous pulp market of the Twenties, eager to digest every morsel he tossed to it. Therefore, the greater part of his output was, of necessity, contrived and hastily written. He was, however, until the day of his death, capable of fine writing. Within the mass of material he produced (he averaged a novel every ten days for years) a superlative story would crop up now and again. Into these he poured his great passion for living, his intense knowledge of and love for the Greek and Medieval classics and, most important from the standpoint of the fantasy reader, his soaring imagination.

His heroes, be they Western sheriffs or New York detectives, were cast in the Olympian mold; demigods in the guise of men. Their phenomenal skill with any manner of weapon, their close affinity to "four-footed creatures of wood and mountain," their fabulous deeds and hairbreadth escapes place them firmly in the realm of traditional fantasy. In fact, one of Faust's greatest Western characters, "Dan Barry," was a direct reincarnation of the god Pan. Among the "residue of boiled pulp" as TIME recently and unjustly termed Faust's output) there is a rich legacy of fantasy waiting to reward the reader patient enough to seek it out. For my part, I will always be grateful to "Max Brand" for providing, during my 'teens, a host of wonderfully stirring tales.

In this volume Darrell Richardson has collected under one cover some dozen critical articles on Faust by professionals and amateurs. In addition to writing the longest biography of Faust to appear thus far, Mr. Richardson has compiled a staggering and awesome index to all Faust tales, pulp through slicks. The net result is a fairly comprehensive evaluationof Faust as a creative artist and an individual. While this book fails to capture completely the legendary and complex personality of its subject, it does present an intriguing record of a writer whose best work, whether it be classed as Western, history or historical adventure, is most surely fantasy on a highly imaginative and poetic level.

A great deal of effort and enthusiasm has gone into this volume. I heartily recommend it to every fantasy reader and collector.

Reviewed by W. F. NOLAN

Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entry by Judy Bemis

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