Lands of the Earthquake by Henry Kuttner & Under a Dim Blue Sun by Howie K. Bentley
The publishing company known as DMR Books had previously been a very solid 2 for 2 with this reader.
Earlier this year, I had hugely enjoyed DMR’s recent releases The Sapphire Goddess and The Thief of Forthe and Other Stories, showcasing as they did two undersung authors who had been popular with the Weird Tales audience of the 1920s and ‘30s; respectively, Nictzin Dyalhis and Clifford Ball.
So when I heard that DMR’s most recent release featured one of my all-time favorite writers, I quickly pounced.
The book in question is Lands of the Earthquake, by Henry Kuttner, who, along with his wife and writing partner C.L. Moore, comprised one of the sturdiest pillars of Golden Age science fiction and fantasy. The release of this title is something of a godsend for fans of this great team, as it represents the first time that this short novel has appeared in book form since its original appearance in the May 1947 issue of Startling Stories magazine (actually, I believe that it did appear in a fanzine called Pulp Vault, the No. 10 issue, in May ’92); even the recent, mammoth hardcover collections from Haffner Press that bring together 1,950 pages of Kuttner stories do not include this particular title. Thus, Lands of the Earthquake has been, for the past 72 years now, almost impossible to lay one’s hands on.
In that initial magazine appearance, Lands of the Earthquake shared the issue with Manly Wade Wellman’s “novelet” The Disc-Men of Jupiter (which copped the cover illustration by Earle Bergey), as well as Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “Columbus Was a Dope.” Remarkably, Kuttner and Moore also released 15 short stories that same year, in addition to their masterpiece novel Fury. And while Lands of the Earthquake is hardly the stellar achievement that Fury is (but then again, few 1940s sci-fi novels are), it yet remains great fun.
This short novel (56 pages in its original format; 154 here) introduces us to one William Boyce, a 30-year-old student (returning to college after WW2 service? We never do find that out…) who has been aimlessly walking the streets of NYC with a case of amnesia, at least as regards his activities of the past year. A mysterious crystal amulet in his pants pocket, the mental image of a beautiful smiling girl, and a sudden familiarity with the French language of some 600 years ago are his only clues. Strangely drawn to an abode near the East River, Boyce forces an entry, makes his way downstairs to a disused basement, lights a candle while holding that mysterious crystal … and opens a window into another dimensional realm! It is a land of perpetual twilight and eternal mists, where (to quote the blurb on the DMR cover) “space was fluid and time was not.”
In this bizarre realm, Boyce comes upon the castle of Kerak, where a group of Frenchmen and their families have been trapped for some 600 years, ever since they were ensorcelled there while en route to the Holy Land during the First Crusade! Boyce meets the castle’s mage, Tancred (interestingly, Tancred was the name of two historical figures related to that First Crusade); is brought before the practically comatose, marblelike woman known as the Oracle; and, most astonishingly, encounters his exact lookalike and namesake, the knightly castle head Guillaume de Bois! What the hell could possibly be going on here? Boyce is further mystified to learn that the walled compound at the opposite end of the valley is called the Sorcerers’ City, and that it has somehow been held in place for some “time” now, in this realm where the land itself moves but in which time is stagnant. Boyce eventually determines that the answers he seeks might lie in that forbidding Sorcerers’ City, and so trudges there through the eternal twilight and swirling mists, soon to encounter the tigerskin-clad Huntsman and his monstrous, half tiger/half human hounds, as well as Irathe, the woman who had haunted Boyce’s dreams for the past year. But Irathe, as he soon discovers, is not quite the dreamgirl that she had seemed to be…
It is fairly common knowledge that Kuttner and Moore, beginning after their marriage in 1940, collaborated so seamlessly on their projects that one could sit down at the typewriter when the other got up and continue a story in mid-sentence. Thus, it has become a literary guessing game of sorts to riddle out what each writer’s respective contribution to any individual story or novel might possibly be. Here, it is my feeling, Moore supplied much of the colorful, otherworldly descriptions, leaving the basic plotting, much of the verbiage, and all of the Crusades angle to her husband. But then again, I may very well be completely off base about this; after all, Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories were set in a medieval France very much akin to that of the French Crusaders here. Still, as I say, the magical elements, the strong female characters, and the evocation of a sustained mood of otherworldliness all do smack of Catherine Lucille.
But regardless of who was responsible for what, Lands of the Earthquake is a hugely entertaining quick read; a compellingly page-turning one, with atmosphere and color to spare. It is a hard fantasy of sorts, in which sorcerous magic is very much real (the glimpses that we get of Tancred’s workshop are brief but fascinating ones) but explained away as some kind of unknowable science. The authors pepper their yarn with imaginative grace notes, such as that magical sword that Boyce employs in an early battle; an underground tree beneath the Sorcerers’ City whose widespread roots enable the king to spy on the populace; and, quite intimidatingly, the never-quite-seen race of Lovecraftian nightmares known only as Them, whose land has drifted close to the valley. The reader will never guess what is coming next in this nonstop thrill ride, or be able to figure out the answers to any of Boyce’s many questions. So, yes, a very entertaining if lesser product from Kuttner and Moore, but one whose resurrection by DMR is a very welcome one, indeed. My only problem with Lands of the Earthquake: Since the First Crusade’s Siege of Antioch (which one of Kerak’s dwellers asks Boyce about) took place in 1098, wouldn’t those Kerak people have been marooned in limbo for 800 years, not 600? A major oopsie, one can’t help but feel, on the part of this usually impeccable writing team.
But wait … this volume is hardly done yet! What I neglected to mention up top is that this recent DMR release also serves as a tribute of sorts to those cute little “Ace doubles” of the 1950s and ‘60s; the ones featuring two complete novels, each one upside down from the other. (I believe that these types of volumes have been variously called “reversible,” “dos-a-dos” and “tete-beche” books.) And so, this DMR offering is not only the same size as an old Ace double (around 6 3/8” X 4 1/8” … and very tightly bound), but, when flipped over and turned upside down, also offers a whole other reading experience: a new, novella-length (77-page) piece called Under a Dim Blue Sun, by one Howie K. Bentley. DMR, it seems, has also released three books in a series called “Swords of Steel,” featuring “fantasy and horror stories written by heavy metal musicians,” and Bentley turns out to be one such. He is the guitarist for the power-metal band known as Cauldron Born (a nod to Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” five-parter) … and quite a promising young author as well, if his contribution here is any indication.
In Bentley’s story, which takes place during the very dark days of WW2, the reader meets U.S. Army Captain Erasmus O’Brien, who hails from the backwoods of Kentucky. O’Brien, who had recently killed the two men responsible for his father’s death, is sitting in the hoosegow when we initially encounter him, facing a death sentence or, at minimum, life behind bars. But he is offered one chance to wipe his record clean and regain his freedom: the nearly impossible task of infiltrating Hitler’s Germany and stealing the Nazis’ new experimental “UFO.” (For the record, I must admit that the use of the word “UFO” had me initially confused, as it suggested to me that the Germans had captured an extraterrestrial spacecraft for their own use. Had Bentley used another term, perhaps some confusion could have been avoided, as it turns out that the Nazis had actually built an entire fleet of the darn things for themselves. And had Bentley set his tale in the modern-day 21st century, and substituted, say, the Russians for the Nazis, the story line might have come off a tad more … credible? But that, of course, would not have been in keeping with the tone of this Golden Age pastiche.)
Anyway, long story short, O’Brien is successful in his quest (how he manages to infiltrate enemy Germany and blast off in the flying disc is never revealed by the author; this is a very fast-moving tale that wastes no time with such “minor details”) and is soon seen zipping back to the U.S.A. in his prize. Trouble arises, however, when the craft’s steering mechanism jams and the ship hurtles through hyperspace, landing O’Brien on the planet Tar-Garthis, which is currently fighting a war against the snakelike Nag-Gaina of still another planet, Ungandoth. O’Brien befriends a slave girl named Elekaina; is captured by the wicked queen S’Ang Taura; is forced to fight in an indoor arena against a jaguarman, Thargg Tanuth, from the planet Thorx-Var; and ultimately, with Elekaina’s and Tanuth’s assistance, raids the snakemen’s fortress in an effort to defeat them.
As you can tell, it is an awful lot of story to squeeze into a scant 77 pages, but Bentley makes it work, throwing in a goodly dose of violence (the arena combats that we witness are all highly sanguinary ones, and the overall body count here is fairly high), humor, action and color. To be succinct, his story is a hoot! Yes, he is guilty on occasion of some of the faults of a budding writer — some instances of fuzzy writing, some improper word usage (using “cleft” as a verb instead of “cleave”; telling us Thargg wore greaves on his forearms) — but for the most part, he writes with so much zest and panache that these minor gaffes can be easily overlooked. His tale, written in true pulp fashion, turns out to be a perfect complement to the Kuttner and Moore novel. A pity that the Bentley story also features more in the way of typos and punctuational errors than this old proofreader and copy editor finds reasonably allowable.
Anyway, there you have it: two wonderful pieces of pulp fiction; one old, one new, and both offering fine entertainment value for the discriminating reader. So yes, I am more than happy to report now that DMR Books is currently a very solid 3 for 3 with yours truly. Keep ‘em coming, guys!