Unknown v02n06, February 1940


Other Reviews:
Fred Smith: Once There Was A Magazine p.16-17.

Death’s Deputy • novella by L. Ron Hubbard ♥♥♥
Call of Duty • short story by Laurence Bour, Jr. ♥
The Wisdom of an Ass • novelette by Ulysses George Mihalakis [as by Silaki Ali Hassan] ♥♥♥
The Psychomorph • short story by E. A. Grosser ♥
On the Knees of the Gods (Part 2 of 3) • novella serial by J. Allan Dunn ♥♥♥+
When It Was Moonlight • short story by Manly Wade Wellman

Of Things Beyond • essay by The Editor
—And Having Writ— • Letters
Lurani • poem by Robert A. W. Lowndes [as by Paul Dennis Lavond]

This issue has what must be one of the best Unknown covers ever:1 I can see why people say that Cartier’s artwork suited the humorous aspects of the magazine. The interior artwork is by Edd Cartier, R. Isip, Virgil Finlay and M. Isip. Once again, the poor unz.org scan of the magazine makes it difficult to appreciate the artwork, especially one of the Finlay illustrations.

The lead fiction this month is a novella by L. Ron Hubbard, Death’s Deputy. I think this is probably the first work I’ve read by Hubbard and tried to think back to why that was. Initially I thought it was that his Dianetics and Scientology connections may have put me off but it was pointed out to me that the more pragmatic reason was probably Hubbard’s patchy reprint record in the 1960s and 70s.
Whatever, this long novella (about 30,000 words) tells of a Canadian Air Force Spitfire pilot2, Clayton MacLean, who is shot down, badly injured and left with disabling injuries. He ends up back in America as a civilian where one night he is transported into the presence of Destruction (who is effectively Death) and asked to work for him. When he refuses he is told he has no choice and he will either serve or die.
The rest of the story tells of the numerous people who subsequently die in his presence (including one aeroplane crash). Matters are complicated when he falls in love with Laura — but he decides he must leave her to keep her safe. Having been cured of his disabling injuries in the meantime by a doctor’s experimental technique (which the doctor subsequently takes to the grave with him) he re-enlists and ends up causing a troopship to be sunk.
After a number of high casualty bombing missions he meets up with his wife and determines to come to an accommodation with Death. I thought this a fairly good, readable pulp pot-boiler.

Laurence Bour’s Call of Duty concerns a WW1 U-boat commander who has a milky haze affecting his vision. The story develops fairly slowly to the climax, rather telegraphing the ending (doubt about the time as their position doesn’t make sense, target ships looking oddly modern, etc.) where they sink a passenger ship and then sink themselves.
The twist end (spoiler) is that the ship is the Athenia, the first casualty of WW2. A ploddingly done weird story.

Ulysses George Mihalakis’s The Wisdom of an Ass is an Arabian ‘legend’ that tells of Brahim becoming the Visier of Yafri and the appalling judgements he hands down in court. Kassim, a cobbler in the town, who had previously been dealing with disputes in a low-key local manner, is drawn into a case of poor merchandise and ends up at the wrong end of one of Brahim’s judgements. Fortunately he manages to avoid the punishment. Subsequently he encounters a djinn, repels him, and is then gifted special powers by Allah.
Kassim turns himself into an ass, places himself in the centre of a dispute between two farmers and manages to ingratiate himself into Brahim’s court, where he helps him formulate judgements. Matters come to a head when the Mufti arrives with two Caliphs on the brink of war over a valley.
This is a fairly good Arabian Nights type story for the most part, but the denouement isn’t as good as the rest of the story.

A. Grosser’s The Psychomorph is a poor short story about a creature who turns up in a ship’s cabin where both men think it looks like their wife/lover. When the wife and lover return matters have already progressed to the point where one of the men is dead and the remaining one has resolved to kill the creature. A twist end that you can see coming from miles back.

This second part of J. Allan Dunn’s serial On the Knees of the Gods gets into its stride in this instalment. Peter meets with the centaur chief Cheiron but the gift of the salve for their hooves doesn’t provide sufficient incentive for his help. Peter suggests horseshoes for the centaurs and Cheiron dispatches Peter to another of the Gods, Hephaestus, who is capable of making them.
First though, Peter has to go to Poseidon to negotiate passage across the Mediterranean. Whilst at the latter’s temple he actually meets with Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite, who tries to seduce him. He mentally calls out to Pan, who arrives and takes his place, also arranging a sea vessel to take him to Hephaestus.
At this point I found myself quite enjoying this story and it struck me that it would be very much be enjoyed by the admirers of Thomas Burnett Swann. Allan wrote over a thousand stories and novels, half of them Westerns. I suspect this may have been a labour of love, for no book version has ever been published.
The final section of this part is the actual sea journey to Hephaestus, which is equally enjoyable.

The fiction is rounded off by Manly Wade Wellman’s When It Was Moonlight, an OK short story about Edgar Allen Poe investigating a case of premature burial in his town and finding a vampire.

The non-fiction this issue is similar to last month’s: an editorial puffing next month’s contents (the start of an interesting sounding Jack Williamson serial), a poem about a mermaid that is OK, and the letters column which, inelegantly, has one page on p.6 and has the rest from p.122 onwards. The latter is rather dull and starts with a long letter about Eric Frank Russell’s article on Fortean phenomena.

A better issue than last month’s but still little in the way of the stand-out fiction I have been expecting.

  1. This cover image comes from Siren in the Night on flickr.com. Well worth a look.
  2. Hubbard obviously didn’t wear himself out on the aviation research. He refers to the Spitfire as the ‘Vickers Spitfire’, odd given that Spitfires were called just that or ‘Supermarine Spitfires’. Also his fateful initial encounter is with half a dozen H.126s: a recce plane unlikely to be flying in formation and they were not armed with 20mm cannons. Also, that calibre of shell would have probably ripped his arm off rather than injuring it.
    At the end of the story he needs help when back in the cockpit of a Spitfire and is told that several Lysanders are on the way to help him. The Lysander is probably best known for its SOE clandestine operations: it was slow and wasn’t armed until the Mk3 entered service in July 1940, several months after this story appeared.
    This information brought to you by a misspent childhood reading Commando comics and the modern wonder of Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply