The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis by Nictzin Dyalhis
Unless you have perused the pages of the dozen or so Weird Tales anthologies that have been released over the past 50-plus years, odds are that you have not come across the name “Nictzin Dyalhis.” But during the 15-year period 1925 – 1940, Dyalhis was extraordinarily popular with the readers of that legendary pulp magazine, despite the fact that he only had eight stories published therein during that decade and a half. And of those eight, four were voted by the readers as the most popular of the issues in which they appeared, and five of them copped the front-cover illustration. This reader had previously encountered three of those tales in various anthologies, had loved them all, and was curious to read more. The only problem was, an anthology of Dyalhis’ work had never been compiled, until the fine folks at DMR released, this past summer, The Sapphire Goddess: The Fantasies of Nictzin Dyalhis.
This handsome volume features front- and back-cover paintings by the famed Weird Tales artist Margaret Brundage (for the tales “The Sapphire Goddess” and “The Sea-Witch,” respectively) and gathers not only all eight of the author’s Weird Tales contributions, but also one tale from a rival magazine, so that the reader can have all nine of Nictzin’s sci-fi and fantasy works together. (The author’s four other stories, two of which appeared in 1922 issues of Adventure magazine, one in the 12/33 Underworld magazine, and one in the 8/34 Complete Underworld Novelettes magazine, are, unfortunately, not present in this collection.) The DMR volume allows readers to make the acquaintance of a near-forgotten master of beautifully written tales of the fantastic; one who well deserves to be brought back into the public spotlight.
Before I proceed to discuss all nine stories here individually, a brief word on Dyalhis himself; very brief, actually. Clear-cut facts on the author’s life are few and often contradictory; the Massachusetts-born writer clearly valued his privacy. As to that most unusual name of his, while many have conjectured that it might have been an exotic reshaping of a more common name, such as “Nicholas Dallas,” Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright would later admit that checks made out to the author did have the name “Nictzin Dyalhis” written on them. As D. M. Ritzlin tells us in the collection’s intro (Ritzlin on Nictzin … try saying that three times quickly!), “It’s only fitting that a man so adept at fictionalizing the details of his life would become a pulp writer.” And what a pulp writer he was, as this very fine and long overdue collection from DMR demonstrates over and over.
The tales are presented in strict chronological order. First up, thus, is Dyalhis’ first story for Weird Tales, “When the Green Star Waned,” from the April 1925 issue. In this one, scientists from the planet Venhez notice that all sound and light vibrations from planet Aerth have slowly ceased, and send a crew of seven — our narrator, the historian Hak Iri; chief scientist Ron Ti; commander of the Venhezian space forces, the massive Hul Jok; language expert Mor Ag; medical wonder worker Vir Dax; chief diplomat Toj Qul; and Lan Apo, a telepath — to investigate. Once landed on Aerth, the heroic septet discovers the problem: Practically indescribable creatures from the Aerth’s Moun, using their blue-colored, man-eating blob pets, have conquered mankind and made slaves of humanity. Crudely written as this story is, and boasting some very questionable science (Space has pressure? Music can be heard in the vacuum of space?), it sure is fun, and was voted by Weird Tales readers as the best story of 1925! Today, it is historically important for being the first sci-fi tale to use the term “blaster” for a ray-emitting weapon, although, naturally, given the tale’s oddball spellings, it is given here as “blastor.”
In the borderline psychedelic story “The Eternal Conflict” (from the 10/25 Weird Tales), a businessman who is secretly a member of an “Occult Order” is tapped by the Goddess of Love herself to do a little investigating. Our hero is sent to a nameless hellish domain (later revealed to actually be Hell), during which time he is eaten by a lizard/toad monster, only to later uncover a plot by Lucifer himself! Dyalhis’ mind-boggling tale, a must for all the “stoners” out there, concludes with a battle between the forces of Satan and those of the Love Goddess, in the depths of outer space, while our disembodied hero looks on. The author’s imagination was seemingly working on overtime during this truly pyrotechnic sequence, with the fallen angel and God’s right-hand gal hurling inconceivable energies at each other. A truly epic tale here, that the author managed to tell in the space of a mere 45 pages.
In “He Refused to Stay Dead” (from the 5/27 issue of Ghost Stories magazine), we are given the collection’s first tale dealing with the theme of reincarnation … in this case, actually, a triple reincarnation. Here, an Englishman, whose wife is a devotee of occult lore, discovers from ancient manuscripts that the body of a Viking raider, one Thorulf Swordhand, lies buried beneath a hill on his property. The couple decides to search for the Viking’s remains and disinter the body, breaking the protective seal on the door of his burial mound and releasing … well, why ruin the fun for any prospective readers? Suffice it to say that this is one beautifully written story, with a tense buildup and one socko of a conclusion; an ample demonstration that its author was not just adept in the fields of fantasy and sci-fi, but also in the arena of horror.
“The Dark Lore” (10/27 Weird Tales) is still another remarkable story of unbridled imagination, narrated by a beautiful but completely evil woman, Lura Veyle (vile?), who was not only a miserably rotten human being, but also a student of the titular dark lore. Lura summons up a demon from Hell, named Hesperus, and agrees to become his consort, uh, down under. (And I don’t mean in Australia!) But soon enough, Lura is thrown over for another wicked woman, and does indeed suffer all the torments of Hell as a consequence. She is given to a grotesque brute named Grarhorg as a plaything, escapes through the Gorge of the Gray Shine, battles living skeletons, walks across the Lake of the Dark Blue Ooze, fights off purple octopus creatures, trudges through a region of darkness, is torn limb from limb by Medusa women, and fetches up on a barren planet where she begs for forgiveness and ultimate redemption, in this truly flabbergasting thrill ride … one that featured the expression “twilight zone” a full 32 years before that classic TV show , incidentally!
“The Oath of Hul Jok” (9/28 Weird Tales) is a fairly direct sequel to “When the Green Star Waned,” although it takes place some years later. In this one (which features texting around 70 years before the fact!), the last remaining Lunarion, who’d been put on display at Venhez’ Planetary Museum of Strange Things, escapes from its confinement and uses its mental powers to abduct the “Love-Girls” of the seven heroes from that first story. And so, that septet of friends blasts off for Aerth again in their Aethir-Torp, to rescue their womenfolk and, later, assist the enslaved Aerthlings in fighting off the Yakshasin, a hybrid race that has resulted from the Lunarions mating with the people of Aerth. This tale proves to be a wonderful sequel, indeed, and it is to be regretted that Dyalhis did not go on to write many more stories centering around these magnificent seven Venhezians, each with his own special talent.
Next up in this superlative collection is “The Red Witch” (4/32 Weird Tales), another tale of multiple reincarnation. Here, museum worker Randall Crone marries the beautiful Rhoda Day, even though the poor woman is continually being harassed by the spectral image of Athak, an Ice Age warrior who is claiming her as his long-lost object of infatuation. In a remarkable and extended central sequence, Randall is vouchsafed a vision wherein he was Ran Kron, husband of the witch daughter Red Dawn, and initially a blood brother, and later an enemy, of Athak. The Crones’ married life grows even more problematic when the shade of Athak manages to manifest itself physically here in the present, leading to a chilling battle royale in the couple’s own backyard. Truly, a very wonderful piece of work here from Mr. Dyalhis, and worth the price of admission for that terrifically atmospheric Ice Age section alone; almost like something out of H. Rider Haggard’s posthumous novel Allan and the Ice Gods (1927)…
An exemplar of hard-core fantasy, but to my mind the weakest offering in this collection, strangely enough, “The Sapphire Goddess” (2/34 Weird Tales) yet starts off in slam-bang fashion right out of the gate. When a suicidal, 48-year-old man mentally wills himself anywhere out of this world, he is somehow propelled into another dimension of sorts, in which he is the amnesiac King Karan of Octolan! Along with two loyal retainers, Karan goes on a quest to locate his wife, Mehul-Ira, who has mysteriously vanished, and gets embroiled in the middle of a feud between two warring wizards, Djl Grm and Agnor Halit. A fun and fast-moving story, to be sure, and full of colorful spectacle, but the tale somehow seems incomplete, as if it could have been merely the opening salvo of some tremendous, multi-issue serial…
Much more to my liking, however, is “The Sea-Witch” (12/37 Weird Tales), an oft-anthologized fantasy masterpiece. In this one, an elderly recluse, John Craig, rescues a naked and lovely young woman who has emerged from the surf during a terrible storm. Heldra Helstrom is given a place to stay in Craig’s home, and soon reveals herself to be some kind of Norsemaiden wonder-worker. Again, a triple reincarnation comes into play here, as Heldra’s mission of vengeance makes itself known. Surely one of Dyalhis’ most beautifully written works, this story combines imaginative touches, pronounced eroticism, supernatural magic, and a haunting denouement into one spellbinding and memorable tale, indeed. My only quibble: Ran was a Norse sea goddess, not a god, as John Craig tells us.
To wrap up this collection, “Heart of Atlantan” (9/40 Weird Tales) is Nictzin’s explanation for how the continent of Atlantis met its destruction. The story is narrated by Tekala, a priestess of the sun god Kalkan, and who has been summoned during a modern-day séance by two anthropologists and their hunchbacked, female medium. “At the least, it may entertain you,” Tekala says of her story, and boy, does it ever! Tekala’s beautifully detailed and exciting tale culminates in tragedy not only for her aeons-old homeland, but for her three auditors in the 20th century, as well. It is a wonderful conclusion to a wonder-filled volume of tales.
To read this collection is to lament that Nictzin Dyalhis did not produce more than these nine stories of outré spectacle. All lovers of vintage sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp fiction in general should most assuredly pounce. Next up for me: another collection from DMR, gathering together the works of another forgotten Weird Tales author, Clifford Ball. Stay tuned…
Colored me intrigued by this guy’s name! The stories do not sound like my cup of java, but they are certainly characteristic of a time period.
SMH, Marion…how can blue-colored blob pets and purple octopi monsters NOT be anyone’s cup of java?!?!
Purple octopi monsters ARE a draw, it’s true.
I’ll do you a favor. https://www.stockvault.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Octopus-26.jpg Now you don’t have to read the book! :)
I took some photos very much like that on my visit to Seattle. Mine aren’t as clear, though, and I appreciate the thought!
I’m a “sucker” for a good purple-octopus picture! (See what I did there?) :)
Yes. Yes, I do see.