Catherine Moore and Henry Kuttner, generally acknowledged to be the preeminent husband-and-wife writing team in sci-fi history, initially had their novella Earth’s Last Citadel released in the pages of Argosy magazine in 1943 (indeed, it was the very last piece of science fiction to be serialized in that publication). It was finally published in book form 21 years later. This is a pretty way-out piece of sci-fi/fantasy that reveals its debt to a handful of writers who had been major influences on the pair, particularly the florid early works of Abraham Merritt.
In it, four participants in the conflict known as World War II are shanghaied from the beaches of Tunisia and brought billions of years into Earth’s future. The quartet includes Alan Drake, a U.S. Army Intelligence officer; Sir Colin Douglas, a Scotch physicist whom Drake had been rescuing; Karen Martin, an adventuress working for the Nazis; and Mike Smith, an Americanized German also working for der Fuhrer. The four are forced to put their differences aside when they reawaken and discover a moribund Earth, populated by giant worms and wailing flying creatures and shrouded in perpetual mists.
This early section of the book is very well done indeed; a bravura piece of outre and descriptive writing that really makes the reader feel the desolation of the landscape. Later, our band of confused heroes becomes involved with the jewellike, underground city of Carcasilla, the barbarous Terasi, AND a sentient, alien vortex of energy that is trying to suck the life out of Earth’s last survivors. It is in the authors’ descriptions of the fantastic, gravity-defying city of Carcasilla that their fondness for the hyperadjectival purple prose of A. Merritt is most noticeable, but nobody tops ol’ Abe in this department. There are also tips of the chapeau to the works of H. Rider Haggard, the so-called “Father of the Lost Race Novel,” not least of all with the inclusion of a fountain of light energy that bestows virtual immortality; only a very slight variant of Haggard’s Fountain of Life in his classic 1887 novel She. Kuttner’s love of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with whom Kuttner corresponded in the 1930s, is certainly hinted at in his descriptions of the life-draining Alien, a nameless entity so very different from terrestrial life that it might as well have leaped gibbering from the pages of the Cthulhu mythos.
Earth’s Last Citadel is a brief, fast-moving tale, and at 128 pages can easily be consumed in a few sittings. Typical for Kuttner and Moore, it is a perfect blending of their respective talents, and should satisfy most lovers of Golden Age sci-fi and colorful fantasy. As for me, I was a tad dissatisfied with the book’s refusal to answer all my questions (such as why and how our heroes and the central Alien got into this mess to begin with!), and with how difficult it is at times to visualize certain aspects of the Carcasillan landscape. (The city’s architecture is almost surreal, with its waterfall steps, liquid towers, etc.) Still, forcing a reader to exercise his/her imagination to the full certainly isn’t the worst fault a writer can be guilty of! And to be completely honest, Earth’s Last Citadel had me fairly riveted throughout….