Unknown v03n03, May 1940


Other Reviews:
Fred Smith: Once There Was A Magazine— p.19-20.

The Roaring Trumpet • novella by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt ♥♥♥♥
Mad Hatter • short story by Winston K. Marks
Well of the Angels • novelette by E. Hoffmann Price ♥♥♥
The Pipes of Pan • short story by Lester del Rey ♥♥
The Reign of Wizardry (Part 3 of 3) • serial by Jack Williamson ♥♥♥

The Roaring Trumpet • cover by M. Isip
Interior Artwork • Edd Cartier, Don Hewitt, R. Isip, Charles Schneeman
Of Things Beyond • essay by The Editor
Eighty Percent • essay by Willy Ley

This month’s cover1 by Manuel Isip illustrates the lead novella, The Roaring Trumpet, and is a much better work than his bland effort for March. The interior illustrations are also better than normal, largely due to a couple of particularly stunning images by Ed Cartier.2

Before L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt were known for their ‘Gavagan’s Bar’ stories,3 they collaborated on their ‘Incompleat Enchanter’ tales of which The Roaring Trumpet is the first.4
This is a superior fantasy novella that tells of a modern American psychologist, Harold Shea, transported to the world of Norse myth during Fimbulwinter. After a set-up chapter where he meets with his colleagues, and they discuss the matter of travelling to other realities, Shea decides to give it a go. Using logic formulae, he ends up in a grey, misty world where it is snowing and almost immediately meets a one-eyed man on a horse who turns out to be the god Odinn. Shea finds out his identity at an inn at the Crossroads of the World, where he also meets the gods Thor, Loki and Frey amongst others. Soon he is travelling with them to find lost hammers and swords, fighting Giants, escaping the attentions of dragons, being imprisoned by Trolls, etc., all against the coming of the Time, of Ragnarok.
This has a strong start and finish with some parts which are premium fantasy storytelling. Indeed, much of the entertainment value of this is watching Shea trying to fit into this strange world and usually failing dismally, such as the scene in the inn where Shea comes by the name ‘Turnip Harald’. Eventually, in a later scene in the dungeons where he attempts to hoax a troll jailor by ‘magically’ reducing the size of his nose, he most spectacularly does fit in. The other thing this has going for it, compared with the SF of the time, is that it hasn’t dated at all.

Mad Hatter by Winston K. Marks leads off the short fiction and is as bad as the previous novella was good. A man who designs hats for a living has a small man (referred to as a pixy) appear from one of his drawers. There then follows a lot of alcohol abuse in an attempt to make him disappear—some of which is recommended by a doctor friend:

“You know, I shouldn’t be at all surprised that what you really need is a good bender. Buy yourself a quart and drink it all yourself. You artists need relaxation. Get yourself really plastered, and I bet that when the hangover wears off you’ll find out you’ve had some fun.”

This story is more preposterous for its attitude to drink than for the fantasy elements.
The novelette by E. Hoffman Price, Well of the Angels, is quite a good story about an expat oil employee who is stuck in Iraq and cannot leave because of his contract. He gets the middle-aged Arab office boy to take him to ruins in the desert to learn to be a magician. Unexpectedly, he is granted the magical power to leave by Harut and Marut, two fallen Angels who were tempted by Satan. Subsequently, a woman he met at the entrance to the pit where the Angels were, and an old school friend who is an archaeologist, come into his life. This is a well told piece and has a convincing sense of time and place. Strange, though, how words that would have been exotic and largely unheard of by readers in the 1940s: ‘Mosul’, ‘Kurd’, ‘Yezidi’, etc. are so commonplace now.
The final piece of short fiction is The Pipes of Pan by Lester del Rey. This story starts off with the god Pan at the deathbed of his last believer. After the man’s death Pan is a god no more and has to enter the world of humanity and get a job. This all becomes increasingly unlikely towards the end of the story but it is a pleasant enough journey getting there.

Jack Williamson’s serial The Reign of Wizardry has its third and final part in this issue. Thesis discovers that the bull in the cave (spoiler) is actually Cyron, a pirate crewmember, armed with a horn. Together they manage to use Thesis’ sword Northstar to find their way out of the cave, and they eventually exit at the small temple of Cybele where Thesis retrieves the magic charm given to him by Ariadne. Next, they go to Amir’s encampment to rescue the enslaved pirates and start a rebellion. Finally, they head to Knossos for a showdown, which involves perhaps a bit more than is necessary of people and gods not actually being who or what they seem.
This part was not as good as the first two and stretches credulity at points, but it is a reasonable end to what was, for the most part, a pretty good read.

There are only a couple of pieces of non-fiction5 in this issue. As ever, Of Things Beyond, is mostly puff for the next issue, specifically Norvell Page’s Without Horns, and goes into detail about mutations and modern X-Ray’s, radium, etc., at some length. At the end of the column Campbell states that the next issue will:

[Include] shorter material, of course, to total our usual eighty thousand words of fantasy.
Incidentally, that fact—that one copy of Unknown contains considerably more text than the average two-dollar book—rather surprises most people. You’re invited to check it if you don’t quite believe that the rather slim-seeming magazine can contain so much.

It is certainly a chunky publication with a lot of reading in it: possibly the nearest modern equivalent for wordage would be the bimonthly The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. However, Unknown came out every month, and so did Astounding and there were plenty of other magazines around as well (but no TV or computers to distract).
The essay by Willey Ley, Eighty Percent, is a rather rambling piece that starts with the fact that we only use 20% of our brain and it leaps from there to telepathy and clairvoyance, etc. Some of the assertions seem dubious:

If a needless organ should be brought into existence, so to speak as a by-product, the body would soon thrust a duty on it.

What, like my appendix? Some of the conclusions drawn seem debateable as well, such as the body finding a function for the eighty per cent of unused brain or getting rid of it: I don’t think evolution works that way.

In conclusion, the de Camp & Pratt, Price and Williamson stories make this the best 1940 issue of Unknown so far.

  1. This cover is another edited image from Siren in the Night on flickr.com.
  2. The two illustrations that really caught my eye were:Unknown194005Cartier1bwUnknown194005Cartier2b
  3. See The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction #2, Winter-Spring 1950.
  4. For the background to how de Camp and Pratt met, and for details of their collaboration, see Fletcher and I, an essay by de Camp that can be found in various editions of the ‘Enchanter’ stories (mine was in the 1979 Sphere edition of The Incompleat Enchanter). One quote is of particular interest: “I will say only that they were heroic fantasy, or swordplay-and-sorcery fiction, long before these terms were invented. While Robert E. Howard is justly hailed as the major American pioneer in this subgenre, neither Pratt nor I, when we started the Shea stories, had ever read a Conan story or ever heard enough about Howard to recognise his name.” (p.xiii) In another part of the essay, de Camp mentions that Pratt “despised” the Conan stories: “He had no use for heroes who merely battered their way out of traps by their bulging thews, without using their brains.” (p.ix)
    Two other points regarding this story: a quick cut and paste of de Camp & Pratt’s story from the PDF to Word gives a count of 36,000 words: a long novella. It also contains a line describing how magic works: “Another is the law of contagion: that things once in contact continue to interact from a distance after separation.” (p.11) Compare and contrast to the recent news headlines about quantum entanglement…
  5. Adverts aren’t non-fiction but sometimes they can be almost as fascinating. One from this issue urges women to: “ENLIST In the Women’s Field Army of the American Society for the Control of Cancer, and help in the intensive war against this disease. EDUCATE yourself and others to recognize early symptoms that may indicate cancer. SAVE some of the 150,000 who will die this year unless promptly treated. Early cancer can be cured” (p.154) And there was me thinking that the idea of early detection and treatment of cancer was a modern thing.

Leave a Reply