In his famous short story of 1858 entitled “The Diamond Lens,” Irish-American author Fitz-James O’Brien gave his readers a tale of a scientist who invents a new type of microscope and with it discovers a woman living in a droplet of water. This fascinating premise of humanoid life existing in a microscopic realm was later amplified by NYC-born author Ray Cummings, whose 1919 novella “The Girl in the Golden Atom” told of a chemist who’d discovered a beautiful female living in the subatomic world of his mother’s wedding ring (!), and later invented a miniaturization drug that enabled him to pay this woman a visit. Cummings’ novella was such a success that he came out with a sequel the following year, “People of the Golden Atom”; the two novellas would later be fixed up and combined to form the 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom, which, like O’Brien’s seminal story, is considered something of a classic today. In the interest of full disclosure, I am compelled to admit that I have never read either of these two works before, although I have been meaning to do so for years now. But 13 years after Cummings’ novel was released, yet another author would pen a work on a similar theme, and that one I have just experienced. The book in question was written by the curiously named Festus Pragnell, and itself bears the curious title The Green Man of Graypec.
The Green Man of Graypec was initially released as a three-part serial in the July – September 1935 issues of Hugo Gernsback’s Wonder Stories (cover price: 15 cents). It would then enjoy a somewhat complicated albeit healthy printing history. In 1936, the British publisher Philip Allan, Inc. released it as a hardcover, with its name changed, for some obscure reason, to The Green Man of Kilsona, and with the subhead “The Ape-Man of the Electron World.” There would then be a 1950 hardcover from the American publisher Greenberg, with the novel’s original title restored – and cover artwork by the great Hannes Bok – followed by a slew of foreign-language editions: a German one in 1952 (bearing the title Kampf in Atom!), a Portuguese one in 1954 (O estranho mundo de Kilsona), a French one in 1955 (Kilsona Monde Atomique), another German edition in 1959 (Die grunen Manner von Graypec), and finally, an Italian edition in 1981 (Il popolo verde). The edition from the fine folks at Armchair Fiction, which was released in 2013, and bearing the same Hannes Bok artwork as had graced the 1950 hardcover, is thus the book’s first English-language release in 63 years, and its very first paperback incarnation as well. So yes, the book, although largely forgotten today, and enjoying nothing like the classic status of the O’Brien and Cummings works, has nevertheless had its fair share of printings.
As for Pragnell himself, he was originally born Frank William Pragnell in Worcestershire, U.K., in 1905. A constable, clerk and later author, Pragnell would adopt his father’s name, Festus, for his fictional creations. Before his death in 1977, at the age of 72, Pragnell would release almost two dozen sci-fi short stories – a good half of them dealing with the exploits of one Don Hargreaves on the planet Mars – in addition to his 1935 novel, and a 1946 novel entitled The Terror From Timorkal, dealing with the search for a rare African mineral that could be used as a kind of superweapon.
Now, regarding the book in question, The Green Man of Graypec is narrated to us by a 28-year-old American tennis champ named Learoy Spofforth, who tells his tale while awaiting trial for the murder of his brother Charles. As he intriguingly tells us at the outset, “My birth was 28 years ago, yet I am more than 88 years old – half of me, that is; the other half is dead, and if still alive would be thousands of years of age…” Apparently, Learoy had agreed to assist his scientist brother in an experiment … with dire results. Charles had recently invented a novel type of microscope, so large that it filled an entire room, and with it had actually seen sentient beings living on the very atoms of matter. Hoping to establish communication with them, Charles had later placed a device over Learoy’s head and, when finally able to zoom in on a proper planet/atom, and find a suitable subject thereon, had attempted to transfer that atomic creature’s memories into his brother’s head! Uh, what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, what had happened is that Learoy’s mind / spirit / essence had somehow been transferred into the atom denizen’s noggin … seemingly irreversibly!
Thus, Learoy had found himself sharing the consciousness of a green-furred caveman named Kastrove, of the Graypec tribe, in this subatomic world of Kilsona. As the young Kastrove, he would soon fall in love with Issa, a blonde, human-looking maiden from the slightly more advanced (but nevertheless still degraded) alternate Kilsonian branch, those of Teth-Shorgo. Kastrove and Issa would eventually wed and have a child, and Learoy was almost becoming resigned to living out his days in this bizarre subworld, when major trouble had loomed. The Larbies, a race that had conquered the world of Kilsona hundreds of years earlier, soon arrived to claim their annual tribute of Graypec soldiers to fight in the desert wars against the diminutive men of Gorlem, the only resistance left to the Larbies’ dominion.
A cute name, “Larbies,” isn’t it? You’d never guess that these are rather horrible crustacean entities, possibly arisen from the Kilsonian oceanic bottom! Boasting the features of both giant lobsters and crabs, the Larbies were also masters of the art of hypnosis, with which they had subjugated the humans and cavepeople of Kilsona for centuries. Both Kastrove and Issa had been brought to the desert to fight in that ongoing war against the Gorlemites, but our hero had soon formulated other ideas, when he learned that the men of Gorlem weren’t quite the fiends that Issa had made them out to be…
During the course of his novel, Pragnell reveals himself to be an adequate wordsmith at best, and I can only assume that O’Brien and Cummings were a little more sophisticated in their narrative style. The Green Man of Graypec is very simply written, coming off at times almost like a YA novel (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that). Many of the book’s descriptions of landscape, incident and history are a bit too sketchily drawn, and the novel could surely have benefited from some greater detail. Pragnell paints in broad strokes, as it were, and the net effect was to leave me wanting more. The author is also guilty of some instances of faulty grammar here and there, always a turnoff for this reader. Thus, we get lines such as “…the standards of intelligence in the wilds is always improving,” and “A group of warriors were ready…” And yet, seeing as how this narrative is supposedly being penned by a homicidal maniac sitting in a cell while awaiting trial, perhaps the simplicity of diction and the paucity of detail may be forgiven. As for the grammatical gaffes, they really should have been caught by one of the Wonder Stories editors, so I suppose Pragnell might be let off the hook again.
And to the author’s credit, The Green Man of Graypec really does move, and what with its reader-friendly manner of presentation, the pages really do seem to fly by. The book, at bottom, is a quick, immensely readable page-turner, and Pragnell happily supplies us with any number of memorable scenes. And so, we get Learoy’s initial advent in Kilsona, finding himself in the body of a green-furred apeman and in the midst of a battle with the crash-landed Issa; Kastrove’s (and Kastrove’s father’s) battle with Grawtok, an immense bully in the Graypec tribe; the cavemen’s hunt for the ollideps, a horse-sized creature with a round body and long neck … and capable of jumping 20 feet into the air; the remarkably suspenseful sequence just before the arrival of the Larbies, with an atmosphere of creeping dread pervading the Graypec tribe; the desert training that Kastrove is compelled to undergo; and the final battle between the Larbies and the Gorlemites. Two wonderful minor sequences must include Kastrove’s father giving him words of wisdom regarding women, and an aged caveman giving Kastrove advice after somehow reading his mind and divining his background. Pragnell also treats his readers to some pleasing instances of superscience, of the kind much beloved by the fans of 1930s and ‘40s sci-fi. Besides Charles’ marvelous and humongous microscope, capable of peering into the subatomic worlds, we have the handguns that the folks of both Graypec and Teth-Shorgo utilize, which fire not only exploding bullets, but also a blue-colored paralyzing gas and a slow-acting death ray; desert sand cars on caterpillar tracks (I never could quite properly visualize these, actually); the Larbie flying vessels that fire devastating heat rays; and an ultrasonic weapon, of which the less said, I suppose, the better.
Another enjoyable feature of Pragnell’s book is the four-page info dump that comprises Chapter 18, and which gives us a hasty/sketchy history of Kilsona. Coming rather late in the book, this chapter kinda sorta manages to answer several questions that had been bugging the reader throughout: How is it that there are two such distinct humanoid life-forms on Kilsona – those from Graypec and those from Teth-Shorgo? Who are the Gorlemites and where did they come from? And where are the Larbies from, and why are they at war with all the others? It is a fascinating little segment, but once again, I needed more. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the humorous bit that Pragnell throws into his novel in the form of a Kilsonian writer named H. Geewells, who had, centuries earlier, predicted a devastating war on Kilsona in his book War From the Clouds. Pragnell, apparently, was a great fan of H. G. Wells, author of the wonderful novel The War in the Air (1908), and Wells himself would generously write of Pragnell’s book “I think it’s a very good story, indeed, of the fantastic scientific type and I was much amused and pleased to find myself … in it.” High praise, indeed, from one of the seminal greats of the genre.
Further good news about this particular edition of The Green Man of Graypec is that it is thankfully not plagued by so many of the typos that have been the hallmark of other Armchair releases … although you’d never guess that by looking at the book’s back cover. How many errors do you see there? I count a good three … five, if I’m being really nitpicky. Fortunately, Pragnell’s story itself is fairly delightful to read, in an undemanding sort of way. I am sufficiently impressed that I would be willing to read that Terror From Timorkal book … if I ever do manage to find a copy at a reasonable price. But finding that might be harder than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack … or a lost brother amongst all the atoms in the microworlds…