Unknown v03n01, March 1940

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Other Reviews:
Fred Smith: Once There Was A Magazine p.17-18.

Fiction:
The Reign of Wizardry (Part 1 of 3) • serial by Jack Williamson ♥♥♥+
Philtered Power • short story by Malcolm Jameson ♥
The Black Farm • novelette by Howard Wandrei [as by H. W. Guernsey] ♥♥
The Living Ghost • short story by E. A. Grosser ♥
Gateway • short story by Robert Arthur ♥♥
“Derm Fool” • short story by Theodore Sturgeon ♥
On the Knees of the Gods (Part 3 of 3) • serial by J. Allan Dunn ♥♥♥

Non-fiction:
The Reign of Wizardry • cover by M. Isip
Illustrations • Ed Cartier, M. Isip, Frank Kramer, Paul Orban, Koll.
Of Things Beyond • in times to come by The Editor
The Drug That Kills the Soul • essay by Edward Podolsky
A Few Notes on the Reliability of Newspaper Clippings Without Additional Remarks About Charles Fort and Others • essay by Willy Ley
And Having Writ— • reader’s letters

This issue’s cover1 by M. Isip has a bland, washed-out appearance and it is wrongly credited on the contents page to Ed Cartier. As well as not being too keen on Isip’s cover, the B&W illustrations inside the magazine from the same artist are too much at the comic book end of the art spectrum for my taste. As for Cartier, his illustrations for the Williamson piece are fine but I’m not sure his talents are best matched to the straight adventure of that piece: I would imagine he is a better fit for humorous or light fantasy. The best of this issue’s illustrations are probably by Kramer. They look better to my eye (even in this poor unz.org scan) and the one on p.85 is probably my favourite of the issue.2

Moving on to the fiction, this issue is dominated by the two serials: it opens with a good chunk of Jack Williamson’s new serial The Reign of Wizardry and closes with the last part of J. Allan Dunn’s On the Knees of the Gods. Coincidentally, both are set in classical periods: Williamson’s in Knossos, and Dunn’s in Olympus.

Williamson’s serial, The Reign of Wizardry, is a pretty good story about a pirate, Captain Firebrand, going to Knossos to depose the Minos and the sorcerers who hold power there. The story starts out at sea where Firebrand’s boat engages two war vessels from the Knossos fleet, and sinks them, before boarding a trading vessel. At this point Firebrand picks up a minor wizard called Snish, who has the ability to cast spells that can change the appearance of people so they look like others—Snish initially had the form of a golden-skinned princess. Soon after, the sorcerers of Minos send a storm and more of their navy to seek revenge and, before long, Firebrand is wrecking the trading ship on the rocks of Crete. The pair escape a metal man called Talos, and make their way to Ekoros, where the games to select the Minos are held. En route they pass through a slum area:

They crossed a stone bridge, and came into Ekoros. This was the poor section of the city, where dwelt the lesser artisans, small shopkeepers, and laborers from the docks. Flimsy buildings, three stories high, confined a powerful stench to the five-foot street.
Most of the street was a foul, brown mud, the rest a shallow open sewer in which a thin trickle of yellow slime ran through piles of decaying garbage and reeking manure. Flies made a dark cloud above the ditch, and their buzzing was an endless weary sound.

This economical but descriptive prose drives the story forward.
In the narrow slum street Firebrand skirmishes with Ariadne’s (the Minos’s daughter) guards: after defeating them, Firebrand forces her to pick up a dead child, killed by her charging chariot. This is a nice scene, one of many juicy nuggets that are embedded in this instalment and which make this is an engrossing heroic adventure: a more humane and intelligent Conan story if you will. One minor criticism: I am not sure the foreword at the start of the story is necessary.

The other serial is the last instalment of On the Knees of the Gods by J. Allan Dunn, which brings this novella to a satisfying close. Peter manages to convince forge-God Hephaetus to make the horseshoes and, after spending a night there, returns by boat to the centaur Cheiron. Satisfied, Cheiron tells him where Python can be found. Peter makes his way into the lair of Python (spoiler) and manages to recover the jewel and rescue Ephryne after piping the snake to sleep. As they leave he realises that Python is shedding his skin and depart quickly with Pan’s help. Peter had summoned Pan as Ephryne was pressing her affections on Peter with a view to marrying him.
The final section is on Olympus where Peter has one final audience with Zeus and is granted his boon of returning to his own world. There is one final complication before he achieves this.
Not as strong an instalment as last month’s perhaps, but overall a fairly good serial, and, as I said before, worth a read for Thomas Burnett Swann fans.

Unfortunately, the short fiction rather disappoints this month. The strongest candidate is The Black Farm, the novelette by Howard Wandrei. This is actually a pretty good Weird Tales-type story to start with. It tells of a farmer, Anton, that has an creature on his property he calls Mr Zero. It is a large, spherical and almost completely invisible and thus far has killed his wife and various livestock, including a cat and her litter of five kittens. He monitors its movement with help from his dog Smoke who has an acute sense of where this monster is. As the story develops his sister-in-law—initially looking for vengeance for her sister, who she believes was murdered by Anton—becomes involved. There is also a criminal on the run who goes missing in front of the eyes of his pursuers. This is a well told and absorbing story but unfortunately it comes to a fairly abrupt halt.
Philtered Power by Malcolm Jameson is a weak tale of a state assayist’s assistant first making a love potion to get a girl, and then making a potion to help his boss get money to sort their office roof.
You may have better luck with The Living Ghost by E. A. Grosser than I did—if you understand what happens at the end of this story about a lawyer who visits an elderly couple and their granddaughter. The grandparents can’t see her—she is a ghost—but other people can.
Gateway by Robert Arthur is actually OK. It is about a man (‘Horace Golder’) who is out in the park and hears an iron door open. A strangely dressed man eventually materialises out of nothing and starts oiling the joints on the door. Golder joins the man on his journey to service the rest of the doors. Along the way they have lunch and Golder picks up hints of the elysian delights that may be on the other side of these doors. When they end up in his apartment, where the last gate is, he is given the opportunity to cross over. Golder hesitates, and, as he does so, hears his wife and children coming into the apartment…
Finally, “Derm Fool” by Theodore Sturgeon tells of a couple who have been bitten by a strange snake and now regularly shed their skin. They monetise this affliction and investigate the physical process with a view to controlling it. This would probably have read slightly better at the time than it does now, but its light, slangy 1940s style dates it.

There is not much in the way of non-fiction this issue. After the usual Of Things Beyond puffing next issue’s contents, there are a couple of short essays, very short in the case of The Drug That Kills the Soul by Edward Podolsky, an unlikely ‘factoid’ about zombies supposedly. Willy Ley’s A Few Notes… is a short article debunking more far-fetched newspaper items, probably a side swipe at Fortean phenomena. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers is its message.
And Having Writ—, the letter column, has praise for L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall and Unknown’s first year of publication amongst other comments. The last letter is interesting. The correspondent discusses The Swamp Thing, which appeared in the January issue, and which he liked more than me. He says of the story:

It brought back memories of a not so distant childhood, some scant eight years or so ago, of when I lived in a small country town and often found such scenery and such atmosphere as was described so well in Walton’s yarn. There was feeling in that story. I don’t know how to put over the idea, but it was the sort of thing that makes you draw a bit nearer the fire or jerk suddenly around to look at the darkness just outside your window or perhaps stiffen at the sound of dry leaves clacking on the panes… Walton’s yarn had IT.
It speaks with the melancholy of old memories of country nights, of deserted places and cold moonlight. It is so close to reality as to be REAL in my mind. I have experienced exactly those same feelings.

What this correspondent wrote touched me, and made me think that across the decades there was a connection between us: hadn’t we both just read this story? And, as I read his letter, weren’t we both thinking about it?
I read on: the rest was about the other material in the January issue of Unknown, and then, at the end of his letter was the name of the person who had sent it in:

Ray D. Bradbury, Editor of Futuria Fantasia, Los Angeles, Calif.

In conclusion, good serials in this issue but disappointing short fiction: I am beginning to wonder if the only good stuff in Unknown is going to be long form.

  1. This cover is an edited version of one from Siren in the Night on flickr.com. Also, thanks to Fred Smith’s review (which I read after I had written mine) for pointing out the misattribution of the cover to Cartier: I had commented on the marked difference in quality from his cover work last issue. Doh.
  2. This isn’t a very good scan of the Kramer artwork on p.85 but it gives you an idea:Unknown194203kramerx600
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