While browsing the Fictionmags Index, I came across this
great, slightly goofy cover by H.W. Wessolowski (also known simply as Wesso) on
an early issue of ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE, while it was still being edited by Harry Bates. I was so taken by the cover
that I immediately wanted to use it for a Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp post, but I
also found myself wanting to read the featured story, “The Ape-Men of Xlotli”,
by an author I’d never heard of, David R. Sparks. So I checked and, what do you
know, the entire issue is available on the Internet Archive. I decided to hold
off on posting about it until I had a chance to read the stories, so now that I
have, here are my comments on them.
Sophie Wenzel Ellis is a name that’s only vaguely familiar to me. I looked her
up and found that she published only 20 stories in a career that lasted from 1919
until the late Forties, in pulps as wide-ranging as WEIRD TALES and RANGELAND
ROMANCES. “Slaves of the Dust” in this issue appears to have been one of only
three science fiction stories by her. In this one, young scientist Hale Oakham
penetrates deep into the jungles of Brazil to find the hidden laboratory of an
eccentric genius who is believed to have made some groundbreaking discoveries.
And indeed he has. In fact, he’s discovered the secret of creating life out of
inert matter, reducing various species to their component elements and then
combining them in bizarre ways and bringing them back to life. What could
possibly go wrong? I’d guess that this story was pretty heavily influenced by
THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ THE MONSTER MEN. It’s
pretty entertaining and moves right along.
Next up is an installment of a serial, “The Pirate Planet”, by Charles W.
Diffin. I didn’t read this one now, but there’s a cheap e-book edition of the
whole serial on Amazon, so I’ll probably read it that way. Diffin was a popular
SF author at the time and quite a bit of his work is available again in e-book
editions. If I like this one, I’ll probably read more by him.
Captain S.P. Meek I’ve not only heard of, I think I’ve read stories by him
before. “The Sea Terror”, in this issue, is part of his series featuring
two-fisted scientist Dr. Bird and Secret Service Operative Carnes. It finds
them investigating the mysterious sinking of a ship carrying four million
dollars in gold bars by a gigantic sea creature. Pretty predictable in most
ways, but well-written and moves along with plenty of action. Even though the
two protagonists are never developed much, I still found them likable and wouldn’t
mind reading more of the series.
Harl Vincent is another familiar name from the early days of science fiction. “Gray
Denim” starts out as a fairly standard dystopian yarn, the old plot about how
the cities have turned into towering monstrosities where the elite live in the
clouds with their robot servants, while the poor toil far below, keeping everything
running without ever seeing the sun. But then suddenly Vincent switches gears
and hands us a wild Graustarkian yarn about how an evil scientist conquers half
of Earth with the help of aliens from the other side of the Moon, and then his
son disappears, and then one of the drudges from the lower levels of New York
turns out to be lost royalty, and then everybody is zipping around in flying
machines and firing heat rays and disintegration beams at each other, and then
. . . You get the idea. Vincent packs a lot into this story, and not all of it
has aged very well. This is the weakest story in the issue, and while it's not
going to make me run out and look for more stuff by Harl Vincent, it wasn’t
terrible, just too busy and not particularly well written.
Finally we come to the story that brought us here in the first place, “The
Ape-Men of Xlotli” by David R. Sparks. It starts out great:
Kirby did not know what mountains they
were. He did know that the Mannlicher bullets of eleven bad Mexicans were
whining over his head and whizzing past the hoofs of his galloping, stolen
horse. The shots were mingled with yelps which pretty well curdled his spine.
In the circumstances, the unknown range of snowy mountains towering blue and
white above the arid, windy plateau, offering he could not tell what dangers,
seemed a paradise. Looking at them, Kirby laughed harshly to himself.
Well, that certainly got me hooked,
anyway. Kirby turns out to be Freddie Kirby, a two-fisted American aviator/adventurer
who is in Mexico training pilots for the Mexican army. When a broken fuel line
forces him to crash-land his plane in the wild northern reaches of the country,
he’s jumped by bandits, escapes, and flees into those snow-capped mountains,
where he discovers the entrance to a lost underground world populated not only
by a race of humans but also by a group of savage ape-men. Naturally, there’s a
beautiful girl Kirby falls for, and vice versa, an evil high priest, some
plotting and double-crossing, a little pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, dead but
perfectly preserved Conquistadores, and several brutal, well-written battles
against the ape-men, who are really only supporting characters in this tale,
despite its title. In other words, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before
in dozens, if not scores, of lost world/lost race yarns.
But boy, did I have a good time reading it. I couldn’t turn the digital pages
fast enough to find out what was going to happen. This story slows down now and
then, but mostly it races along at breakneck speed. The cover refers to it as a
novelette, but I think it’s at least 30,000 words long. It’s certainly long
enough to have been reprinted as half of an Ace Double in the Fifties or
Sixties, and I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t. Maybe Donald A. Wollheim
just never came across it.
As far as I can tell, this was the first story by David R. Sparks, and he
published only one other, a space opera called “The Winged Men of Orcon” in the
January 1932 issue of ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE. You can actually buy
that one as an e-book on Amazon, which I did as soon as I finished reading “The
Ape-Men of Zlotli”. Sparks himself is a mystery. I couldn’t find anything
on-line about him. But based on this story, he was a fairly talented writer and
I’m sorry there’s not more by him available.
This issue wraps up with a number of letters from readers, including one from
Forrest J Ackerman, mostly praising the stories from previous issues but
complaining about a few things, too. Letters columns in SF magazines don’t seem
to have changed much in the intervening 90+ years.
ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE eventually became ASTOUNDING SCIENCE
FICTION when it was sold to Street & Smith and later on evolved into the
digest magazine ANALOG, which is still around today, of course . . . although
it certainly doesn’t publish stories like “The Ape-Men of Zlotli” anymore.
Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual reader. As for me,
I’ll take the old stuff that transports me back to those days of reading
voraciously on my parents’ front porch. I may have downloaded this one from the
Internet, but I could almost smell the yellowing pages of an old paperback
while I was reading it. I enjoyed it, and I was content.