The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton

At the tail end of my review of Edmond Hamilton’s The Star of Life (1947), I mentioned that this was the finest novel that I’d read by the Ohio-born author so far, and added that I now looked forward to reading Hamilton’s The Haunted Stars, which seems to enjoy an even greater reputation. Take, for example, these two sources that I have always trusted: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, in writing of Hamilton’s more mature, post-1946 novels, tells us “The best of them is probably The Haunted Stars, in which well-characterized humans face a shattering mystery on the Moon…” In his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle says of Hamilton’s book “…perhaps the best written and best characterized of all his novels.” So yes, I was indeed highly stoked to finally experience what is supposedly the finest full-length work by one of my favorite sci-fi purveyors, and now that I have, can happily report that the word on the street is true! This really is one fantastic science fiction novel!

The Haunted Stars originally appeared in 1960 as a $2.95 hardcover from the publisher Torquil, with a rather bland cover by one Brian Lewis. In February ’62, a 40-cent paperback from Pyramid Books would appear (the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire), featuring the 1924 painting “Tention Tranquille” by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky on the cover. Unfortunately, the 1965 hardcover edition from British publisher Herbert Jenkins (with a more interesting cover from Brian Lewis) seems to be the most recent English-language incarnation of the book as of this date, although a 2013 ebook from Gateway/Orion is available. Still, what with the book-search tools available online to customers today, obtaining a nice vintage copy of this Hamilton masterwork should not be especially difficult. And a good thing, too, as I can’t imagine any fan of the genre not being wowed by this truly gripping, surprisingly pensive, and wonderfully entertaining adventure.

The Haunted Stars is set in the futuristic year of, um, 1965, during the height of the Cold War. Russia has already built two bases on the lunar surface, while the U.S. trails with only one, in the Gassendi crater. Against this backdrop we meet a Boston-based, 33-year-old philology professor named Robert Fairlie, who has been called to Washington for his expert advice. But once landed in D.C., Fairlie is immediately transshipped off to Morrow Base in New Mexico, the site of the American lunar program. To his surprise, Fairlie there meets three of the country’s other top experts in ancient languages. Nils Christensen, the head of the Lunar Project, and his assistant, ex-Air Force colonel Glenn DeWitt, explain to the quartet what they are doing there. It seems that, deep inside a cave in the Gassendi crater, the remains of an alien installation had recently been discovered; scientists approximated the age of these ruins to be something on the order of 30,000 years old! Both written and recorded documents had been discovered, as well as wrecked machinery; the alien base had obviously been destroyed by an even greater alien power! Thus, Fairlie and the other language experts are given the well-nigh impossible task of deciphering and translating the alien records, in the hope that some of the ancient knowledge might be brought to light. This task is made even more imperative when someone – presumably a Russian spy – conks Fairlie on the noggin and purloins all his work notes. But eventually, the task is finished, largely due to an inspired breakthrough on Fairlie’s part. It is learned that the aliens, the Vanryn, had come from a world called Ryn, which orbits the star that we know as Altair. The secret of faster-than-light space travel is discovered as well, with which DeWitt barrels through in his campaign to construct a starship.

And this sets up the action for the second section of Hamilton’s book, in which the fanatical DeWitt, the more levelheaded Christensen, a small group of scientists and technicians, and Fairlie, the youngest of the language experts, make the hazardous journey to Altair. Their purpose: to see what remains of the defeated Vanryn after 300 centuries, and to bring home more of their secrets of fantastic superscience. But once landed on the alien world, the men find only a blasted and decimated spaceport, as well as a regressed people who have perforce abandoned the stars and live in cowering fear of their legendary vanquishers, the Llorn. Little discouraged, however, DeWitt vows to unearth those ancient Vanryn secrets … and kill everyone who refuses to go along with him…

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton science fiction book reviewsThe Star of Life had appropriately been dedicated to Hamilton’s wife, Leigh Brackett, aka “The Queen of Space Opera,” who he’d married on the last day of 1946 and who would have such a significant impact on his growth as a writer. The Haunted Stars, written 13 years later, when Hamilton was 56, was dedicated to his old friend thusly: “To Jack Williamson, who knows the starways.” And indeed, if ever there were two authors who embodied the Radium Age of science fiction, and the sense of awe and cosmic wonder that were so important to the readers back when, they are Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton and Jack Williamson, aka “The Dean of Science Fiction.” The Haunted Stars melds Hamilton’s knack for engendering that vintage sense of wonder with his more mature style, and with winning results; again, to quote from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, in his later career, the author “was writing novels which, though in the space-opera tradition, were more formidably composed and darker in texture than his run-of-the-mill performances.” That sense of wonder is indeed very pronounced here, especially so when the linguists first see photos and videos of the wrecked lunar base, and as they explore the copper-skied planet of Ryn and make first contact with its inhabitants. But despite bringing about that sense of cosmic awe in the reader, the book is at the same time quite a credible and realistic affair. Thus, the amazement that the men experience after touching down on Ryn soon turns to a feeling of resentful drudgery as they toil in the mud and rain, searching for scientific artifacts. And space flight itself, far from being a thing of glamour and comfort, is here shown to be a protracted spell of nerve-racking suspense, claustrophobia and sickness, with most of the crew confined to their beds with gushing nosebleeds soon after liftoff. Come to think of it, the last time I read a novel in which FTL travel was so harrowingly depicted was in Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump (1953), in which the lead character also frets about what might happen if they should fail to emerge from hyperspace.

And speaking of credibility, Fairlie himself makes for a very likeable as well as believable protagonist. He is consistently uncertain as to how to proceed, agonizing about whether to go on the Ryn expedition or not. He thinks endlessly about what to pack on a journey to another planet: “How many changes of underwear from here to Altair?” “Better take the extra pair of reading glasses. You might have trouble getting your prescription refilled out there.” “Take a sweater. Mother always said never go anywhere without a sweater.” He is an academic, and hardly a physical specimen, quailing when he is forced to knock a Vanryn native unconscious. And he is constantly frightened, perhaps never more so than when the dreaded Llorn make an appearance toward the novel’s end. Then again, every single character in Hamilton’s book is well drawn and credible, including the minor characters (scientists and crewmen), with natural-sounding dialogue provided for all. DeWitt is an especially fine creation; a monomaniac who will allow nothing to stand in the way of a successful fulfillment of his mission.

The book, however, is not solely concerned with space adventure, and contains some important messages about mankind’s place in the universe. It is ultimately a thoughtful novel, giving credence to Brackett’s remark in The Best of Edmond Hamilton (1977) concerning her husband’s later work: “Mood and introspection had replaced some of the driving action, and his people had acquired a full set of human insides.” And so, we get passages such as the one in which Fairlie contemplates mankind’s dubious march of progress: “How much can we take, Fairlie wondered. Can’t we ever pause in all this progress long enough to find out where we’re going?” Amid the introspection, we also find streaks of decided cynicism as regards space exploration, such as when Fairlie thinks “What kind of a trip did you have to Altair? Oh, terrible, it rained nearly the whole time we were there,” and later “We look like what we really are – a bunch of city-bred men camping in wet woods and not liking it, and it makes not a bit of difference that the woods are a long, long way from Earth.”

You may have noticed that the central conceit of this novel – the discovery of ancient alien relics on our Moon – is similar to the one in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short story “The Sentinel” (1951), in which a force field-protected pyramid is discovered there. But Hamilton’s tale takes that idea and runs with it, years before Clarke expanded his idea into the 2001 series. The Haunted Stars also contains any number of memorable sequences, including that viewing of the aliens’ lunar outpost; Fairlie listening to an audio recording of a Vanryn woman – dead now for 30,000 years – singing to the stars; the initial test of the Vanryn ion drive, made possible by Fairlie’s translations; the actual journey to Altair itself; the first encounter with the Ryn natives; the exploration of that planet’s crumbling Hall of Suns, where DeWitt hopes to learn many secrets; and the arrival of the conqueror Llorn. And the book even vouchsafes the reader several big surprises regarding mankind’s provenance and the nature of the ancient Vanryn themselves; secrets that I will refrain from discussing here. So is The Haunted Stars Hamilton’s “best-written” novel, as Pringle maintains? I would have to say yes; at least, you’re not going to find a line such as “the heavens were sown with constellations that wavered wind-bright” in any of his works of the 1920s!

In truth, The Haunted Stars is a perfectly crafted book; the work of a master after 35 years of unremitting practice. I have no quibbles to raise about Hamilton’s virtually flawless performance here … and I only say “virtually” because he at one point mentions that Gassendi lies on the eastern edge of the Mare Humorum. Do a Google Image search … doesn’t it rather seem to be on the northern? But that one minor inaccuracy is but nothing compared to the manifold terrific qualities of this most impressive work. I always have trouble doing justice to books that I especially loved – and I did really love this one – so I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me on this one: The Haunted Stars is a great science fiction novel.

Published in 1960. The Haunted Stars is a science-fiction novel written by Edmond Hamilton. It tells the story of an expedition from Earth (which is in the throes of an arms race) to a planet of the star Altair — a planet called Ryn, inhabited by humans like those on Earth. Against the wishes of Ryn’s inhabitants, the team from Earth seek information about weapons technology used in an ancient space war. Their unsuccessful search ends in dramatic contact with another species, the ancient enemy of Ryn. The novel was first published in 1960 by Torquil Books and belongs to a class of novels which add a darker tone to the popular tradition of space opera. It has been published in English, German, Italian, and Portuguese.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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