Unknown v02n05, January 1940


Other Reviews:
Fred Smith: Once There Was A Magazine— p.15-16.

Soldiers of the Black Goat • novella by Marian O’Hearn ♥♥
Swamp Train • short story by Harry Walton ♥♥
The Sea Thing • short story by A. E. van Vogt ♥♥♥
Doubled in Brass • short story by Lester del Rey ♥
On the Knees of the Gods (Part 1 of 3) • novella serial by J. Allan Dunn ♥♥

Soldiers of the Black Goat • Cover by H. W. Scott
Artwork • Charles Schneeman, Frank Kramer, Paul Orban, M. Isip
Of Things Beyond • essay by The Editor
—And Having Writ— • Letters
Look About You • poem by Theodore Sturgeon
It Happens Twice at Least • essay by Willy Ley

I recently read a blog piece1 that listed all the magazine issues that would have fiction eligible for the 2016 Retro Hugo Awards (covering 1940). I thought it might be an idea to have a look at some of them so I would be able to cast a meaningful vote. Since then my progress has been nothing short of glacial, but I read a few of them and this was the first to fall under my eye.

This issue of Unknown, the legendary companion magazine to Astounding, is the first I have read. Although I have one or two physical copies of the magazine this one was a digital copy that seems to have originally been posted on unz.org.Unfortunately, the scan quality is not great, which is not a problem for the textual matter but the interior illustrations have been reproduced badly.

Beyond the striking cover by Scott, there are adverts (which give the impression that all people did in the forties was apply for correspondence courses and strap themselves into rupture corsets in between swigging Listerine), a contents page, and an editorial that isn’t much more than a puff piece for the next issue’s contents. After that there is a letter column that includes correspondence from P. S. Miller and Eric Frank Russell (the latter involves some argy-bargy pointed at L. Sprague de Camp about introspection, science and the rumblings of war). A number of strong opinions are expressed about the interior and exterior artwork (the illustrations in this issue seem fine to me with the exception of the Orban ones for the van Vogt story, which seemed a little crude).

The fiction starts with Marian O’Hearn’s long novella Soldiers of the Black Goat. The writer’s real name was Anita Allen, and she would contribute a further three part serial to Unknown (Spark of Allah, July-September 1940) and then would never be heard of again in the fantasy field.3 This long novella tells of the Salem witch, Hester Gurney, and how she saves a woman who is accused of witchcraft by secreting her away. Gurney proceeds with a long campaign of manipulation of various individuals: the executioner, the judge, etc. Subsequently, she finds out that they are part of a group who have been benefiting from the confiscated property and land of various accused woman after they have been burnt at the stake. While this story is quite readable and moves at a decent pace it is nevertheless too long and also suffers for a fantasy novella of having very little actual witchcraft/fantasy in it: most of the manipulation she does is by force of will or reputation, or by the use of Cannabis sativa or other drugs.
In some respects more a story of local politics than anything else, but worth a look.

Next up is Harry Walton’s Swamp Train. This is an atmospheric story that starts with a con-man, Rister, murdering his accomplice in a marsh and disposing of the car. He walks to a local town where he has a strange encounter with a man outside the local store before leaving on a train. Onboard he meets the father of a friend of his. The friend was sent to the electric chair, and the father still blames Rister for leading him astray.
Unfortunately, the denouement of this didn’t really work for me as it doesn’t really fit together, and requires coincidental. Readable, though.

A. E. van Vogt’s The Shark God is fairly good story about a shark-God who takes human form to come ashore and murder a group of men who are shark fishing. He manages to dispose of one of the men before matters become increasingly difficult. Towards the end the men realise what it is that they are dealing with and a struggle ensues.

Lester del Rey’s Doubled in Brass, is a series story about an elf who is a coppersmith. He helps his human partner’s son to get his girl. Slightly fey uncomplicated story that has little going for it apart from the rabbits going on bicycle trips with the elf. Oh, and this prescient quote:

Things had indeed changed since the day when he awoke in the hills where his people had retired in sleep to escape the poisonous fumes of coal. p.108

The serial by J. Allen Dunn that starts in this issue, On the Knees of the Gods, is based on what I presume is standard Greek mythology. Peter Brent is an American archaeologist-hobbyist travelling through Greece who comes across a village. There he becomes embroiled in a dispute between a young boy and a thug. Rescued from his predicament by one of the locals, an artist called Burton, they arrange to journey to together to Arcadia.
At this point there is something of a discontinuity in the narrative as Burton the artist is not present in the next chapter where Peter is lured ‘through the laurel’ by the God Pan. On the other side of the laurel bush he finds himself in the world of Greek mythology. Nectar and a visit to Zeus follows, and he is given the task of recovering a jewel and a female hostage from Python. Pan takes him to where he can try to find Cheiron, the chief of the centaurs who may assist him with his task.
OK start apart from the discontinuity (which makes me wonder if the text was trimmed for size) and a bit too much data dumping about the Gods, their relations and feuds.

Willy Ley’s article is about series of events, like the ‘things come in threes’ phenomenon. Ley believes that this happens and discusses patterns he has noticed. I think he is mistakenly trying to impose a pattern on chaotic events. Also, the article does rather seem to stop in mid flow: I flicked the page and found myself in the letter column. There is also a short poem by Theodore Sturgeon which I did not care for.

In conclusion, this issue was something of a disappointment. Not only was there no stand-out fiction but the whole issue had a rather dated feel to it: perhaps not surprising for a magazine that is over 75 years old! Perhaps it isn’t possible to go this far back in SF magazine history and still find material that is worth reading.

  1. Amazing Stories blog.
  2. There are a number or websites and forums that provide digital copies of old pulp magazines: unz.org, archive.org, etc. I realise that the copyright status of some of the work included in these scans is questionable, but it does make available a vast amount of work that would be a lot harder to source.
  3. Will Murray’s article The Unknown Unknown shows a short novel by O’Hearn titled No Soul, No Death had been accepted by John Campbell for Unknown but did not appear before that magazine folded. Believed lost.


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