Unknown v03n04, June 1940

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Other Reviews:
Fred Smith: Once There Was A Magazine— p.20-21.

Fiction:
But Without Horns • novella by Norvell W. Page
The Kraken • short story by L. Ron Hubbard [as by Frederick Engelhardt] ♥♥
Transparent Stuff • short story by Dorothy Quick ♥♥
The Man from Nowhere • short story by Frank Belknap Long ♥
Master Gerald of Cambray • novelette by Nat Schachner ♥♥♥+

Non-fiction:
But Without Horns • Cartier
Interior artwork • Cartier, Kolliker, Quick, F. Kramer, M. Isip
Of Things Beyond • editorial by The Editor
Dying Tramp • poem by Edgar Daniel Kramer

This month’s issue has the last full colour artwork that Unknown would feature on its covers. Campbell uses most of his editorial, Of Things Beyond, to discuss the change to a sober text-based cover:

Unknown, simply, is not an ordinary magazine. It does not, generally speaking, appeal to the usual audience of the standard-type magazine. We have decided on this experimental issue, because of this, in an effort to determine what other types of newsstand buyers might be attracted by a somewhat different approach.
To the nonreader of fantasy, to one who does not understand the attitude and philosophy of Unknown, the covers may appear simply monstrous rather than the semicaricatures they are. They are not, and have not been intended as illustrations, but as expressive of a general theme.

To those who know and enjoy Unknown, the cover, like any other wrapper, is comparatively unimportant. For the others—we’re trying an experiment. Your comments—cracks or otherwise—appreciated. p.6

More information is given about the change a couple of pages further on:1

We’ve made the July cover look very dignified. We’re going to ask your dealer to display it with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints. P.8

The covers would never go back to the way they were. I’ll be interested to see what the readership think of the possibility of no more Cartier covers in future issues.

Given the desire to reach out to a more upmarket readership the first of the stories this issue is a peculiar choice, given that it is a dreadful pulp potboiler. Perhaps Campbell was just getting it out of the way before the new ‘slick’ readership arrived.
But Without Horns by Norvell W. Page opens with FBI agent Walter Kildering trying to enter a barricaded FBI headquarters and finding considerable resistance. Agents have been murdered in Metropolis and bankers who have been robbed have gone insane. The FBI chief fears for his life and/or sanity. Kildering attempts to talk his way in as he knows the villain’s identity and needs to tell his boss:

“I mean, sir”—Kildering’s voice was cold with urgency—“that he destroys whoever opposes him, either by death or by insanity! We must reach the chief at once!”
For an instant, Overholt’s eyes strained wide with the shock of the words. He began an oath that didn’t quite come out. Then he shook his head. He smiled, even chuckled a little.
“I can’t argue with your logic, Kildering,” he said. “As usual, it is faultless. But there’s one thing you can’t get past. No man can drive another man insane at will—and certainly he can’t do it unless he can get through our guard to reach the chief! It just isn’t possible. What have you been doing, Kildering, reading ghost stories?”
p.12

There are several pages of this kind of thing, as well as a lot of bluster, gymnastics and unlikely gunplay involving his fellow agents before Kildering manages to force his way into the chief’s office to tell him he can save him from the super-villain John Miller. Needless to say at this point the chief turns mad and attempts to shoot Kildering.
The rest of this very, very long story tells of Kildering and two other agent’s renegade attempt to find and neutralise John Miller, who we later are told is a mutant who has not only been killing agents and robbing banks but has also been abducting young woman to breed a new race like himself. Miller also has the ability to asphyxiate people by some form of electrical induction, known to the citizenry as the ‘blue death’: anyone near electrical equipment is vulnerable. As it happens only the ubermensch are killed off: part of Miller’s plan is to form an utopian, moneyless society.
This last is one of the story’s more interesting aspects and, for the record, here are some of the others in no particular order. The first is from when the agents tail three female associates of Miller after they kill a number of electrical plant workers. As the women return home one of their number, who died from the blue death at the power plant, is thrown out of the car. The agents recover the body and then use it as a means of entry into the women’s house by tossing it through the window before entering and smacking the other two around in an attempt to get information. I didn’t approve of any of this but the weirdness of it certainly got my attention. Miller’s ability to drive people insane also provides a couple of interesting moments: there is an attempt by Miller to drive Kildering insane while he is driving that produces a good scene, and the long-term result of this attack is that later on all three agents start shooting up morphine to prevent further assaults. As you would. The other two things I liked were the descriptions of the mass pyres of ‘blue death’ bodies in the city, and the fact that the supervillain John Miller never appears: he is always off-stage.
Don’t let these intriguing snippets fool you: they are needles in a haystack of shredded pulp (at a rough guess 38,000 words of it).

If I felt I was being overly mean to Page’s story those thoughts vanished on reading the next one. It isn’t brilliant but The Kraken by L. Ron Hubbard is a noticeable improvement in quality. This contemporary story is about a U-boat dodging a destroyer depth-charge attack only to fall into the arms, or tentacles, of a giant kraken. After a short fight the kraken drags the U-boat back to its lair in a massive underwater cavern. This is all quite realistic, apart from the lack of compression sickness at the end, and maybe the captain’s final act.

Transparent Stuff by Dorothy Quick is the second of her ‘Patchwork Quilt’ stories. The quilt in question is a witches’ one that lets the holder touch a panel of it and experience an historical life. In this one the woman touching the quilt inhabits the body of a Babylonian princess called Star. Star is to be married off by her father to one of the royal men of the neighbouring states, but she does not care for any of her suitors. With the help of a priest called Abeshu she summons the goddess Ishtar and asks for her help. Subsequently, she meets a young man called Belzar and falls in love, but there is still much palace intrigue to come.

The Man from Nowhere by Frank Belknap Long concerns a man called North meeting a painter of some strange artwork at a party. He later walks home with him whereupon he observes several minor events that appear to be either a time or causality reversals:

From a cellar honkatonk a man and woman emerged, staggering backwards The man was slurring his syllables, his voice raised in drunken protest.
“I thoush we wash having asnother,” he complained. “Whash the idea?”
“It wasn’t my idea,” shrilled the woman. “We just went into the place.”
The man ceased suddenly to stagger. As he moved with the woman across the street his shoulders straightened and his voice shed its sibilancy.
“Listen, Jane,” he pleaded. “I’m all right now. I can take care of myself. Stop pulling me backward.”
“What happened to us?” exclaimed the woman. “ We were pie-eyed and now we’re . . . we’re completely sober.”
p.115

After he leaves the artist he finds that he has a tingling in his hand and sees that his fingers have bent and coiled backwards. Immediately after this he survives an automobile accident and the story cuts to the next day, and a conversation between North and Revell, the artist:

“You say I was run down before the car struck me. Good heavens, man, do you realize what you’re saying?”
“I realize perfectly […] The accident happened incompletely. That’s why you were merely shaken up a bit.”
“But my hand—”
“Your hand’s all right now, isn’t it? Stop worrying. I’ve told you what happened. I was feeling a little high last night and I let myself go. One gets tired of working with pigments exclusively. I knew a little of the . . . the instability would flow into you when I shook your hand. But I also knew it would wear off in a few hours. You don’t seem to realize that I saved your life.”
p.116-117

After this, North’s girlfriend gets involved and there are other surreal occurrences. These are explained, and the story rather perfunctorily wrapped up, in a letter from the painter to North at the very end. This story has a potentially intriguing idea which is rather confusingly and disappointingly executed. It has a nice first line though:

Beyond the fact that he had never been born, Revell was no different from other men. p.112

I came to the last piece of fiction, Nat Schachner’s long novelette (borderline novella) Master Gerald of Cambray, with some trepidation. I found the author’s Cold in the March 1940 Astounding a rather crude pulp story and thought that this would be the same. I was pleasantly surprised.
It starts in mid-thirteenth century Paris with the Englishman Guy of Salisbury being woken by the beadle to tell him he has been summoned to the Rector’s Court:

“It is true, Master Guy” he said. “The noble rector of the university demands your presence immediately you are ready. There is a complaint.”
Guy rubbed his pate a moment to dispel the mingled fumes of wine and sleep. Then he heaved slowly to his feet and stared—six-feet of bone and whipcord muscles—at the beadle.
“The Rector’s Court?” he demanded sharply. “What wish they of me?” His eye flicked to the illicit unsheathed sword that stood in a corner, its point embedded in the unpainted floor. Bright flecks of spilled wine had dried upon its hilt; but near the tip there were darker, more somber spots of rusty brown.
The beadle turned his discreet gaze away from the weapon. He knew better than to see that which the rules of Paris forbade to students. He gripped his wand of office more firmly.
“The man, Hugues, innkeeper of La Cloche Perse,” he explained in apologetic fashion, “died past midnight.”
Guy shrugged. “The more fool he. I did but pink him when he rushed on me with screams and tirades.”
“You do not know your strength,” Jean Corbin declared, eying his comrade’s gigantic dimensions with admiration. “You pierced him clean through the body.”
p.126

This provides an accurate idea of both Master Guy’s character and the violent times he lives in.
Guy is dealt with leniently by the court, the greatest of his punishments being the payment of some wine to them. It is at the court that he notices an odd looking fellow who is also being dealt with. Gerald Cambray is dressed oddly, speaks awful Latin, and claims to teach at a university called ‘Harvard’ in ‘America.’ After being ridiculed by the court for his speech, dress and supposed university, Guy takes him in hand and agrees to enrol him in the English nation and set him up as a professor of astronomy.
The rest of the story develops as you would expect: Cambray is an inadvertent time-traveller and struggles to cope with the squalor and violence of the times. In due course his heretical teachings attract the wrong kind of attention, with predictable results. What sets this story apart from similar tales is that Schachner provides a vivid, visceral and engrossing account of university life in Paris in 1263. He had published a non-fiction book in 1939 called The Mediaeval Universities, and it is obvious that some of the research from that book was used for this readable and entertaining story.2

The only other non-fiction is this issue is an OK poem, Dying Tramp by Edgar Daniel Kramer.

I couldn’t make a judgement on the artwork as I was reading a poor quality unz.org scan, but I noticed some lousy layout on p.33, where one of the pictures has a couple of column lines of story quotation at the bottom of the left hand column and a couple of lines of the story itself at the bottom of the right. There is no need for this given there is space at the end of the story.

It is worth digging out this issue for the Schachner story.

  1.  The page with next month’s cover information:unknown194006inx600b
  2. The Mediaeval Universities (as by Nathan Schachner) is available at Hathi Trust. Chapter seven (Paris—A University of Masters) is the most pertinent chapter. I was surprised to see this story has never been reprinted, so if you want to read it you’ll probably have to go to unz.org.

3 thoughts on “Unknown v03n04, June 1940

  1. Walker Martin

    I agree this is not one of the better issues. But I like the Cartier cover a lot. Speaking of covers, I think it was a big mistake for the magazine to switch to the so called “dignified covers”. There was only a small niche audience for fantasy fiction and the pictorial covers showed what the magazine was about and thus attracted fantasy lovers. The dignified cover just looked like some uninteresting literary quarterly.

    Reply
    1. paul.fraser@sfmagazines.com Post author

      Agreed, but I had initially thought so because of the loss of those great Cartier covers. Your point about niche audience for fantasy magazines had not occurred to me.
      I looked out one of the later issues to see what the readers had to say but they were still talking about February’s issue. Have you seen any mention anywhere of how the change affected the circulation numbers?

      Reply
  2. Walker Martin

    Street & Smith did not show or talk about the impact on circulation but personally I cannot imagine that the dignified covers increased the numbers at all. In 1948 when the big UNKNOWN annual came out they went back to the pictorial cover format.

    In the late 1920’s Adventure magazine tried to make their magazine more dignified with non-pictorial covers and the experiment failed. Later they admitted the circulation did not increase like they had hoped and the readers preferred the painted covers. Also I think the fact that ASTOUNDING never tried non-pictorial covers indicates they were not happy with what happened with the UNKNOWN experiment.

    Reply

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