Sunday, August 07, 2022

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930

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.

1 comment:

Jerry House said...

The January 1932 issue of Astounding is available online at Luminist Archive. It also has a nifty giant ape cover by Wesso. (My one hard and fast rule is, if there's a giant ape on the cover, the magazine is worth readibg.) In addition to the Sparks story, there's also tales by Harl Vincent, Francis Flagg, S. P. Meek, and Paul Ernst, as well as the beginning of a two-parter, "The Mind Master" by Arthur J. Burks. Quite an impressive line-up for that time.