The Valley Of Creation by Edmond Hamilton
One of the crowning events in the sci-fi/fantasy year 1948 was most assuredly the release of Jack Williamson’s 1940 novella Darker Than You Think as an expanded, full-length novel; it has since gone on to be acclaimed one of the greatest fictional books on the subject of lycanthropy ever written. In it, reporter Will Barbee learns that he is a primordial shapeshifter and, in one memorable sequence, runs through the night in the form of a wolf, relishing his exhilarating swiftness and grace. But this was not the only time in 1948 that the reader was presented with such a scenario. In the July issue of the 20-cent Startling Stories magazine that year, Williamson’s close friend and colleague, Edmond Hamilton, placed a 61-page, short novel entitled The Valley of Creation containing a very similar sequence. But that is where the similarity ends, and the latter work offers the reader a completely different rationale for its lead character’s predicament.
Hamilton’s tale did not cop a front-cover illustration but was nevertheless graced by no fewer than four beautiful interior pieces of artwork by the great Virgil Finlay. As was the case with Williamson’s classic, Hamilton later revised and expanded his original short novel, turning it into a full-blown novel for its release as a 1964 Ace paperback (the edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on). I have perused the original 61-page affair (thanks to the wonderful Pulp Magazine Archive website) and, by my rough count, it is around 51,000 words in length, as compared to the 55,000-word expanded version; thus, an enhancement of some 4,000 words would be my guesstimate. And, as it turns out, the book is still another terrific entertainment from Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton.
In The Valley of Creation, the reader encounters a 30-year-old American mercenary/soldier of fortune named Eric Nelson, who, along with four other hard-bitten toughs, is embroiled in a petty warlord’s squabbles in the desolate region of western China. (In an instance of the story’s updating, Nelson is mentioned as having fought in the Korean War a decade earlier.) The quintet is soon offered a job by an individual named Shan Kar, who hails from the distant valley of L’lan, and who promises the men a huge reward in platinum if they can assist him. The team agrees and, upon reaching the valley, learns that Shan Kar is part of a group called the Humanites, who reside in the futuristic-looking, glass bubble city of Anshan. On the opposite end of the valley lies a similar-looking city called Vruun, where reside men of Shan Kar’s ilk … as well as wolves, tigers, eagles and horses with abnormally high intelligence, telepathic abilities, and the desire to attain an equal status and footing as men!
No one knows how the animals of the L’lan valley have attained these abilities, although a glowing cavern north of Vruun is reputed to hold some of the answers … as well as that load of platinum. Thus, Nelson & Co. agree to wipe out the men of Vruun and the animals (the Brotherhood, as they call themselves) who would usurp the rights of humans, and later capture that legendary cavern for themselves. After a botched raid on the city of Vruun, however, Nelson is captured and subjected to one of the instruments in the possession of that city. And when he awakens, he is aghast to discover that his mind has been summarily placed into the body of Asha … a young male wolf…
Combining elements of fantasy, sword & sorcery, lost-race adventure and hard-core sci-fi into one marvelous blend, The Valley of Creation is written in a charming, highly readable style by pulpmaster Hamilton. Indeed, it almost comes off as a YA novel, and thus it did not surprise me to learn that some of my fellow members on Facebook’s Vintage Paperback and Pulp Forum page had fond memories of the book from their youth. Though seldom discussed today, the novel does seem to be well regarded: Scottish critic David Pringle, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, calls it a “rousing sword-and-sorcery type of tale, with an sf rationale, written in Hamilton’s best pulp-magazine style” (so true!), while The Science Fiction Encyclopedia deems it “strongly written, combining sword and sorcery with an sf denouement” (I concur).
Hamilton offers the reader a group of well-drawn characters, both human and animal. Nelson’s four comrades (one Chinese, one Cockney, one Dutchman, one ruthless and platinum-hungry fellow American) are a nicely differentiated bunch, and the human leader of the Brotherhood, Kree, and his beautiful daughter, Nsharra, make for interesting adversaries. Then there are the four animals who we get to know, each the leader of his respective clan: Tark, a remarkably cunning (and later, hugely likeable) wolf; Hatha, of the horse clan; Quorr, the leader of the tigers; and Ei, the surprisingly kindly (to Nelson, at least) head of the eagles. The book offers the reader a heartening message regarding the brotherhood of not just the human races, but between man and animal as well, and indeed, Nelson’s experiences while in lupine form go far in changing his own initial, benighted outlook. This is a book that all fans of Andre Norton should greatly enjoy; another writer who advocated that interspecies brotherhood message in so many of her own works.
As mentioned, Hamilton’s tale is a meld of various genres, with an emphasis on hard sci-fi by the book’s conclusion. Knowing his audience’s penchant for instruments of super-science as well as that indefinable “sense of wonder” in their reading material, he here gives us platinum “thought crowns,” which enable men to communicate with beasts; that mental transference gizmo, with which Nelson is placed into the body of a wolf; and thought recorders, with which one can listen to another’s thoughts, recorded in the far-distant past. Hamilton peppers The Valley of Creation with any number of colorful and exciting sequences, including Nelson’s awakening in Asha’s body, followed by his (understandable) shock and previously alluded to joyous sprint through the nighttime woods, his newly awakened senses taking in things that they never could before; the final battle between the Humanites and Nelson’s previous colleagues on one side, and Nelson and his recently acquired Brotherhood friends on the other, in the burning forests of L’lan; and finally, the exploration of that strangely glowing cavern and the discovery of its manifold secrets, about which the less said, the better, for the sake of any prospective readers.
Hamilton had developed into a marvelous writer at this point; his marriage to the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett, in 1946, only seemed to up his game. As an example of his winning style, evinced so effectively in The Valley of Creation, take this passage, in which Nelson sees, through Ei’s mind, what it is like to fly:
…He saw the whole valley of L’lan spread out below him, so far down that the great trees of the forest appeared as a mere roughness of texture, like a tapestry thrown over the knees of the mountains. He saw the high crags of the barrier cliffs, leaping and thrusting up into the sky, tossing the cold winds from their shoulders in flying clouds of snow, exulting in the sun. In imagination his lungs were filled with air that was thin and pure and more intoxicating than wine. He felt the surging strength of mighty wings and flung himself headlong into the buffeting, swirling gales that swept among the high peaks and fought them joyously as a swimmer fights the surf. He knew the long whistling rush of the swoop, the exquisite precision of the tilting wing, the excitement of the strike and kill…
Almost reminiscent of the descriptions in Hamilton’s 1938 short-story masterpiece “He That Hath Wings,” isn’t it?
For all its exceptional aspects, however, The Valley of Creation does come with a few minor problems. The small matter of Nelson’s ability to overhear Tark and Nsharra’s telepathic conversation on the very first page, without the aid of a thought crown, is, unfortunately, never explained (I kept hoping it would be, but alas, no). And the forest geography of L’lan, with its central north-south bisecting river, is a bit hard to visualize. Was that final conflagration on L’lan’s east or west side? Hamilton seems to shift from one location to the other. But aside from these minor gaffes, the novel is aces, and comes more than highly recommended by yours truly. You may well want to go out and get your very own pet wolf or eagle by the time you turn over that final wonderful page…
One of the Virgil Finlay illustrations that I referred to above: https://i.pinimg.com/736x/a7/2f/13/a72f1389cda3fb1efb2fb0a7e66cff51.jpg
OOPSIE! My bad! That was not an Ace paperback that I acquired (as mentioned in the second paragraph), but rather, as the photo suggests, a Lancer/Lodestone. Serves me right for acquiring so many old Aces….