During my first, recent visit to London, besides doing all the typical touristy things, I also happened to visit several of the very fine bookstores that the great city currently offers. The used-book stores on Charing Cross Road were especially interesting to me, but I also stopped in at Forbidden Planet (so much better than the Forbidden Planet store here in NYC), the mammoth independent bookstore called Foyles, and, of course, the Waterstones on Piccadilly. It was at this gigantic bookstore, supposedly the largest in Europe, where I found the volume in question, The Moon Terror, by A.G. Birch. It was not a hard sell for me; as soon as I read that this short novel originally appeared in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, I purchased it on the spot. As it turns out, this novel made its debut in the May and June 1923 issues of “The Unique Magazine”; the third and fourth issues of a run that would eventually go on to 279, before Weird Tales folded in 1954. That May issue featured beautiful cover art by one William Fred Heitman to showcase Birch’s novel, sold for 25 cents, and today is worth a small fortune, if and when it can be found. In 1927, Weird Tales released The Moon Terror in a hardcover format along with three other stories, after which Birch’s sole writing effort dropped out of sight for 73 years … until the fine folks at the N.J. publisher Wildside Press chose to bring it back in 2000, with the same cover art (artist unknown) that had graced the 1927 edition. It was this Wildside edition that I happened to find at Waterstones, and yes, there is a certain irony in the fact that this New Yorker had to travel all the way to the U.K. to find a book from a N.J. imprint. As it turns out, though, the book was well worth the 7 pounds that I paid for it. Pulpy and un-P.C. as can be, this short novel, written by a man about whom I could find absolutely no biographical data whatsoever (hmm, come to think of it, I am only assuming that A.G. Birch is a man), also turns out to be a nonstop thrill ride that I just devoured … almost as quickly as my fish & chips, mashed peas, and Railway Porter stout at the White Swan pub!
In what appears to be the author’s only piece of fiction, the world is increasingly mystified by a series of repeated signals, apparently originating from space. This trivial mystery becomes more serious over a period of weeks, however, when the regular repetition of the signals is noticed to coincide with ever-worsening seismic events around the globe. Before long, earthquakes have caused the Sahara Desert to sink, the ocean levels to rise, the Danube to reverse its direction of flow, and railroad tunnels under the Hudson River to crack and flood. And at last, the world discovers the cause of these catastrophic events, when a radio message from someone only known as “Kwo,” who declares himself to be “the dictator of human destiny,” announces that all of Earth’s governments must disband their armies and navies, deliver one-half of the world’s gold supply, and hand over their rule … or else. But when Kwo’s demands are ignored, the quakes do indeed redouble in intensity, and only one man, astronomer Ferdinand Gresham, who had previously sojourned in the hinterlands of western China, can provide an answer. Kwo, he tells the U. S. president, is none other than Kwo-Sung-Tao, the priestly head of the ancient cult known as the Seuen H’sin, or The Sect of the Two Moons. This millennia-old group, whose scientific attainments have apparently far outstripped those in the West, now has a dual purpose in using their seismic installation: (1) to create a second moon in the Earth’s sky, by blowing out a goodly chunk of our planet into space, and (2) total domination over the Earth that remains! After receiving the green light from the president, Gresham and his friend Arthur (our narrator), along with a Naval task force aboard the destroyer Albastross, sail into the Pacific to track down the source of those quake-causing signals … a quest that takes them up the Dean Channel (yes, it’s there on your map) and toward a desperate confrontation in the wilderness of central British Columbia…
As you might have discerned, The Moon Terror fits solidly into that peculiar subgenre of pulp writing known as the “yellow peril” story, of which the most well-known examples, perhaps, are the Fu Manchu novels of British author Sax Rohmer, three of which had already appeared by 1923 (out of an eventual 13). Thus, readers venturing into Birch’s novel should be warned to expect all of the Chinese characters who appear in it to be described as either “Chinamen,” “Chinks” or (the author’s seeming favorite) “yellow devils.” (Granted, in light of their truly nefarious scheme, and the enormous destruction that is brought about by the novel’s end, that “devils” appellation really isn’t too far off the mark!) But once the reader gets past this stumbling block, a pretty entertaining time can be had here. Birch does not hold back, gleefully wiping out NYC with a tsunami and causing the Rockies to tumble down. His/her book contains any number of thrilling sequences, including our narrator and Gresham’s infiltration of a Seuen H’sin temple and the witnessing of a horrible rite; our heroes’ takeover of the Nippon, a steamer that had been hijacked by Kwo’s pirates on the high seas; and the protracted, nail-biting finale, in which Gresham, Arthur and the few remaining Navy men do battle with hordes of Seuen H’sin fanatics, with the world literally about to blow apart in moments. Birch adds verisimilitude to the tale with goodly amounts of Chinese history (the backstory of Kwo’s ancient cult is a fascinating one) and accurate geographic details, and only missteps when we are told that Mars, Uranus, Jupiter and Saturn have, respectively, two, four, five and 10 satellites; that should be two, 27, 79 and 82, but who cares, right? The author’s writing style is clean, uncluttered and descriptive, and this story really does move! Personally, I could not put the darn thing down, and tore through the book fairly relentlessly. What a film could be made out of this! Anyway, I don’t wish to oversell what is in essence a rather pulpy thriller, subsuming elements of sci-fi and horror into its “yellow peril” matrix, but darn it, it sure is fun!
But wait … this Wildside offering is not done yet! As a bonus, this volume also includes the classic tale “Ooze,” by Anthony M. Rud. Today, “Ooze” holds two claims to fame: Not only did it originally appear in the very first issue of Weird Tales, the March 1923 issue, but also copped the front-cover illustration for that issue, by one R.R. Epperly. In that inaugural issue of what was to become one of the most important magazines of the 20th century, “Ooze” was just one of no fewer than 26 stories (readers back when surely did get their 25 cents’ worth with this publication!); other writers featured in that landmark release included Otis Adelbert Kline and Farnsworth Wright, who would go on to helm the magazine as editor during its heyday. Rud, who was born in Chicago in 1893 and would only live till 1942, would also become an editor in later days, after a writing career that saw him producing in the fields of sci-fi, horror and the detective yarn. And in “Ooze,” he managed to meld all three of those disparate elements into one very pleasing tale.
On that first Weird Tales cover, “Ooze” was proclaimed to be “An Extraordinary Novelette,” which is certainly true; it is also ballyhooed as “The Tale of a Thousand Thrills,” which is most assuredly hyperbole, given the story’s 33-page length. In it, our narrator investigates the disappearance of his friend Lee Cranmer and his wife, Peggy Cranmer, both of whom had been visiting John Corliss Cranmer — Lee’s father and an eminent scientist — at his home in the backwoods of Alabama. Cranmer Sr. had been experimenting on amoebas in an effort to make their protoplasmic growth limitless, his ultimate goal being a means of enlarging poultry and bovine animals and thus increasing the world’s food supply. But all three Cranmers had gone missing, their abode had been destroyed from the inside by a mysterious whatsit, the brick wall that Cranmer Sr. had mysteriously erected around his property had been somehow breached, and traces of desiccated slime are now everywhere around the immediate vicinity. Far be it for me to reveal what is to blame … as if you couldn’t already guess by this capsule plot summary, the story’s title, and a glimpse at the tentacled monstrosity on that famous Weird Tales cover!
Rud, in this, his most famous story, manages to confuse the reader a bit by having his narrator tell his tale from alternating time periods during the story’s initial section, but things do settle down to a more straightforward exposition as we proceed. Rud doesn’t balk at making up his own words — such as “nonsensities” and “piscal,” instead of “piscan” — but manages to get the Cajun dialect just right, as our narrator interviews some of the locals for clues. Along the way, that narrator manages to get in some good words about Jules Verne, as well as the early “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells, although he seems to have little enthusiasm for Wells’ later, realistic novels (“in my humble opinion a less absorbing type”). Rud’s tale is nicely detailed and yet completely streamlined for maximum effect. It is pleasingly gruesome in parts (“Peggy was half engulfed in a squamous, rubbery something…”) and concludes with a shuddery instance of self-sacrifice. Truly, a natural for Weird Tales magazine’s inaugural issue. Following as it does The Moon Terror here, the pair makes for a very fine and wonderfully pulpish double feature; one that this reader, an admitted lover of such fare, gobbled up with relish. I may not have brought back a London tee shirt or Abbey Road tchotchke from my first visit to England, but at least this fine volume makes, for me, a very nice souvenir. More than highly recommended for Weird Tales fans and lovers of pulp fiction in general…