Starmont House had a wonderful thing going for itself in the early 1990s. The Seattle-based publisher, with its line of Facsimile Fiction, was taking the old pulp magazines of the ’30s and ’40s, making photocopies of selected stories, and packaging them in a line of reasonably priced paperback and hardcover editions; a genuine blessing for all fans of these old, rapidly moldering monthlies. Secret of the Earth Star, number 6 in the Facsimile Fiction line, in a series that stretched to at least 14, collects eight (NOT seven, as the book’s cover proclaims) wonderful stories from Henry Kuttner, one of the sturdiest pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. Alone and in collaboration with the equally talented C.L. Moore (his wife and writing partner after 1940), Kuttner churned out hundreds of short stories for the pulps of his day, in assorted categories. This volume shows how very adept he and Moore were in the fields of not only sci-fi, but also fantasy, horror and humorous, whimsical tales, as well. Taken from the pages of Amazing Stories (founded in 1926 by sci-fi pioneer Hugo Gernsback), Fantastic Adventures (a companion magazine to Amazing Stories), Planet Stories (one of the more sensational and lurid sci-fi pulps) and Weird Tales (one of the most famous of all pulps, surely), the eight stories are all presented here in two columns of vertical type per page, complete with artwork and any miscellanea that might have been on those pages. All eight stories are, not surprisingly, eminently readable today.
The collection kicks off in a big way with the title piece, “Secret of the Earth Star” (which initially appeared in the Aug. ’42 issue of Amazing Stories). This exciting tale, the longest in the collection, is basically a 21st century updating of the classic Foreign Legion actioner Beau Geste; I had coincidentally just seen the 1939 film the day before reading this tale, and recognized its provenance immediately. As in the film, and P.C. Wren’s source novel, here, three brothers join the Legion to escape the consequences of a jewel robbery, but in Kuttner’s tale, they encounter a subterranean Egyptian civilization that is trying to resurrect Atlantis and destroy the rest of the world! It is a wonderfully exciting, fast-moving story, concluding with a surprise twist, as in the 1939 film, and even giving us a Brian Donlevy stand-in in the form of the intimidating Commander Desquer. Loved this one!
Up next is “World Without Air” (Fantastic Adventures, Aug. ’40), which tells of the plight of a group of “medicine farmers” living on Planetoid 31, whose lives are completely dependent on the monopoly that sells them oxygen. How the farmers solve their O2 problems is very cleverly detailed here, in this early instance of “hard” sci-fi; fans of author Hal Clement should particularly enjoy this piece.
One of the more way-out tales in the bunch, “What Hath Me?” (Planet Stories, Spring ’46), follows. Here, a spaceman named Derek Stuart awakens on the asteroid known as Asgard, and is used as a pawn in a battle between entities whose evolutionary processes have been sped up to the point that they are more like gods than men. This tale easily attains to that sense of cosmic wonder so essential to good pulp sci-fi, and is a bravura demonstration of Kuttner and Moore’s imaginative and writing abilities.
“Dragon Moon” (Weird Tales, Jan. ’41) is the fourth adventure that Kuttner wrote featuring Elak of Atlantis. It is the best of the four stories featuring the ex-prince, wanderer and adventurer, and a sequel of sorts to Elak’s first outing, “Thunder in the Dawn.” Here, Elak and his drunken companion Lycon again help the Druid priest Dalan in driving invaders from the northernmost kingdom of Cyrena; this time, the troublemaker is an entity known only as Karkora, a soul-sucking white shadow of necromantic origin. Vintage sword and sorcery doesn’t get too much better than this one!
“I, The Vampire” (Weird Tales, Feb. ’37, and thus indubitably written by Kuttner alone) tells the story of the Chevalier Futaine, a traditional bloodsucker who invades Hollywood, CA. This story is both highly pleasing and genuinely scary, capping off with a moving and surprising finale. An early winner from Mr. Kuttner, and sporting the amusing line “WEIRD TALES are told about his former life in Paris”!
“The Elixir of Invisibility” (Fantastic Adventures, Oct. ’40) is easily the most humorous tale of the bunch, featuring a crazy scientist, his hapless assistant, a bubbleheaded fiancée, an invisible crook, an invisible dog and all manner of assorted mishegas. A madcap jaunt, with any number of laff-out-loud moments.
“The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt” (also from the Oct. ’40 Fantastic Adventures; Kuttner often placed more than one story in a magazine per issue, under different pen names; such was his prolific nature) is the shortest tale in the collection, and tells us of a married lawyer who is something of a doubting Thomas. The only thing is, whatever Cobalt doubts, immediately ceases to exist … retroactively, so that it has never existed at all! A clever little story, one that could have been perfectly adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone, and with a most ingenious twist ending, as well.
This Starmont volume concludes with the extremely amusing “Under Your Spell” (Weird Tales, March ’43), in which the proprietor of a Times Square magic store is compelled by the Olympian god Mercury to go on the vaudeville circuit with him. This is still another wildly imaginative, effortlessly humorous story that fans of author Thorne Smith — and his 1931 classic The Night Life of the Gods — might find especially appealing; a perfect capper to 157 pages of Kuttner wonders in this Starmont collection. All fans of well-crafted, pulp sci-fi and fantasy will surely be pleased with this terrific little package. I know I was!