Thursday, 2 May 2013

Weird Tales:
Frank Belknap Long

At an impressionable age, my brother and I both developed an unhealthy interest in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (an obsession that persists to this day, in my case at least). With assorted anthologies of the master's work duly acquired and consumed, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves scouring second hand bookshops for the even more obscure, night-haunted outpourings of the numerous other writers (influences, acquaintances and Weird Tales-affiliated contemporaries) who are generally thought of as constituting Lovecraft’s ‘circle’.

Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994) was high on the list, and the enticing 1975 Panther anthology you see above was soon in our hands. THE BLACK DRUID. Yeah, that’s the stuff. And what a cover!

A few pages into the title story however, and Frank Belknap Long was very much off the list. You’d have thought that exposure to HPL’s more fragrant meanderings might have already prepared us for what was in store, but all the same, Long’s particular brand of bizarre, artless prose and rambling, hackneyed storytelling provoked such a strong negative reaction that until recently I’d pretty much written the guy off completely, consigning this book to the shelf, leaving most of the other stories unread.

The opening paragraphs were questionable enough:

“Mr Stephen Benefield entered the library and hung his black Chesterfield overcoat on the rack which the trustees had grudgingly provided for the accommodation of inclement and cold weather accessories. There were seven other overcoats on the rack. Mr Benefield paused to count them – he was a methodical and observing man – and passed to the reference desk. When the librarian approached him he nodded amiably.
‘I wish to peruse, please, Lucian Brown’s The Cromlech Jeelos. It is No. 3268 A. I looked it up yesterday in the catalogue.’
Closing the book Mr Benefield smiled and passed it back over the desk. ‘That is the passage I was looking for,’ he explained. ‘I do not believe I shall need a copy of it. I thought it might be a very long passage, but it is so brief that I can remember enough to paraphrase it without the aid of a written copy. Thank you very much. I am Stephen Benefield, an archaeologist. I use such passages in my books.’”

But I recall that it was the author’s subsequent description of his protagonist that particularly aroused our derision:

“It is true that Mr Benefield was, in some respects, an odd looking man. His hair was absurdly long and it descended upon his forehead in a circular, antiquated bang; his hat was two sizes too small for his immoderately large head – a brachycephalic head, although he boasted twenty generations of Saxon forebears – and his socks, which his wife had purchased for him, were of heavy wool, and unsupported by garters they bulged above his shoes like the elephantine folds on the torso of an Abyssinian eunuch.”

Needless to say, reading these passages again as an adult, I can’t help but feel that we were missing the point somewhat. Although Long’s prose is certainly somewhat peculiar, I think I’m now more able to appreciate the quasi-tongue in cheek, knowingly antiquated pulp style that he was going for. Rather than laughing AT him, perhaps we should have been laughing WITH him, so to speak. Lacking the more ‘refined’ literary affectations of his fellow Weird Tales writers, Long instead writes with a kind of woolly, bellowing gusto - somewhat like the prose equivalent of Brian Blessed’s speaking voice - and most of his stories give the impression of having been hammered out at break-neck speed to reach the next issue’s deadline… which was more than likely the case I suppose, given his position as an aspirant full-time writer struggling to support a family through the worst years of the great depression.

Perhaps as a result of these pressures, the bulk of the innumerable weird tales Long cranked out through the ‘20s and 30s are indeed somewhat less than inspired. But when he did hit on something good, he hit it HARD, as is demonstrated by the handful of his more celebrated efforts compiled in the Arkham House anthology ‘Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos’, which I finally got around to reading last month.

‘The Hounds of Tindalos’ (1929) is probably his best-known tale, and indeed, it is an absolute corker. Mixing up half-understood quantum physics, medieval occultism, ‘House On The Borderland’-esque cosmic awe, proto-psychedelic indigestion of “strange drugs” and good old fashioned nameless evil into a compressed ten page dose of boggle-eyed, metaphysical madness, it is perhaps the most archetypically perfect ‘weird tale’ ever written… with the emphasis kept very much on the WEIRD.

Read it as I did, bleary-eyed after a few drinks in the final half hour before sleep, and it’s pretty wild stuff, whether in 1929, 2013, or in the dark, curved spaces before the dawn of recorded time:

“Chalmers lay stretched out upon his back in the centre of the room. He was starkly nude, and his chest and arms were covered with a peculiar bluish pus or ichor. His head lay grotesquely upon his chest. It had been completely severed from his body, and the features were twisted and torn and horribly mangled. Nowhere was there a trace of blood.

The room presented a most astonishing appearance. The intersections of the walls, ceiling and floor had been thickly smeared with plaster of paris, but at intervals fragments had cracked and fallen off, and someone had grouped these upon the floor around the murdered man so as to form a perfect triangle.

Beside the body were several sheets of charred yellow paper. These bore fantastic geometric designs and symbols and several hastily scrawled sentences. The sentences were almost illegible and so absurd in content that they furnished no possible clue to the perpetrator of the crime. ‘I am waiting and watching,’ Chalmers wrote. ‘I sit by the window and watch the walls and ceiling. I do not believe they can reach me, but I must be aware of the Doels. Perhaps they can help them break through. The satyrs will help, and they can advance through the scarlet circles. The Greeks knew a way of preventing that. It is a great pity that we have forgotten so much.’

On another sheet of paper, the badly charred remains of seven or eight fragments found by Detective-Sergeant Douglas (of the Partridgeville Reserve), was scrawled the following: ‘Good god, the plaster is falling! A terrific shock has loosened the plaster and it is falling. An earthquake perhaps! I could never have anticipated this. It is glowing dark in the room. I must phone Frank. But can he get here in time? I will try. I will recite the Einstein formula. I will - God, they are breaking through! They are breaking through! Smoke is pouring from the corners of the wall. Their tongues – aghhh –’”

Perhaps not quite as far-out, but equally entertaining, ‘The Space Eaters’ (1928) not only opens with one of the greatest non-sequitur, one sentence paragraphs of all-time (I defy you to beat “The horror came to Partridgeville in a blind fog.”), but also adopts an in-joke filled, fourth wall-breaking format that lends it a particular resonance for fans of H.P. Lovecraft and the world he inhabited.

More than just another correspondent or contemporary, Frank Belknap Long was one of the few people who could actually claim to have been a close personal friend of Lovecraft, getting to know him not merely through the voluminous exchanges of correspondence with which Lovecraft managed most of his personal relationships, but in person too. Lovecraft regularly stayed with Long’s family in Brooklyn whilst visiting New York, and the pair spent a great deal of time together during HPL’s ill-fated sojourn in the city in the mid-‘20s.
Howard & Frank, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1931

With this in mind, little is left to the imagination when ‘The Space Eaters’ introduces us to ‘Frank’, a practical, rambunctious sort of fellow who is currently ensconced in a remote farmhouse with his good friend ‘Howard’, an intense, haunted author of sanity-shaking macabre tales;

“My friend wrote short stories. He wrote to please himself, in defiance of contemporary taste, and his tales were unusual. They would have delighted Poe; they would have delighted Hawthorne, or Ambrose Bierce, or Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. They were studies of abnormal men, abnormal beasts, abnormal plants. He wrote of remote relams of imagination and horror, and the colors, sounds and odors which he dared to evoke were never seen, heard or smelt on the familiar side of the moon. He projected his creations against mind-chilling backgrounds. They stalked through still and lonely forests, over ragged mountains, and slithered down the stairs of ancient houses, and between the piles of rotting black wharves.”

Indulgent as such self-referential blather may seem to us now, I’m sure that at the time of writing neither man had any idea that their stories – confined to the pages of marginal, cheaply printed pulps – would still be being pored over by readers nearly a century later. And despite the injokey tone, I find it interesting that, whilst clearly not short on praise for his friend’s writing, Long’s actual characterisation of Lovecraft in the story is somewhat less than wholly complimentary.

“As I continued to stare at him he suddenly stopped writing and shook his head. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘I should have to invent a new language. And yet I can comprehend the thing emotionally, intuitively, if you will. If I could only convey it in a sentence somehow – the strange crawling of its fleshless spirit!’
‘Is it some new horror?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘It is not new to me. I have known and felt it for years – a horror utterly beyond anything your prosaic brain can conceive.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.”

Whilst I’m sure it was all in good fun, ‘Howard’ is nonetheless revealed to be a rather callous and unstable individual, his behaviour quickly becoming slightly unhinged as the brain-eating horrors lurking within that ‘blind fog’ descend:

“Slowly we became aware that the wails came from far away. As far away, perhaps, as Mulligan Wood.
‘A soul in torture,’ muttered Howard. ‘A poor, damned soul in the grip of the horror I’ve been telling you about – the horror I’ve known and felt for years.’
He rose unsteadily to his feet. His eyes were shining and he was breathing heavily.
I seized his shoulders and shook him. ‘You shouldn’t project yourself into your stories that way,’ I exclaimed. ‘Some poor chap is in distress. I don’t know what’s happened. Perhaps a ship foundered. I’m going to put on a slicker and find out what it’s all about. I have an idea we may be needed.’
‘We may be needed,’ repeated Howard slowly. ‘We may be needed indeed. It will not be satisfied with a single victim. Think of that great journey through space, the thirst and dreadful hungers it must have known! It is preposterous to imagine it will be content with one victim!’
Then, suddenly, a change came over him. The light went out of his eyes and his voice lost its quiver. He shivered.
‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid you’ll think I’m as mad as the yokel who was here a few minutes ago. But I can’t help identifying myself with my characters when I write. I’d described something very evil, and those yells – well they are exactly like the yells a man would make if – if..’”

Despite such ruminations on the perils of confusing fantasy with reality however, Long’s usual jaunty, good-natured tone continues to predominate, and overall ‘The Space Eaters’ emerges as another rampantly weird pulp outing, playing out like some sweaty, chronically twisted Boy’s Own adventure, as our dynamic duo of macabre scribblers don their ‘slickers’ to take on brain-sucking vampires in the dark woods and come under siege from telepathic alien evils and trepanned zombie rednecks in their cabin (shades of ‘The Evil Dead’ perhaps?), eventually making their escape via motorboat, throwing magically-charged cross gestures at the demonic apparition rising above the ill-starred forest… a poorly judged intrusion of Christianity into the bleak Lovecraftian cosmos that seems likely to have enraged HPL far more than any perceived slight on his character.

As with ‘The Hounds of Tindalos’, ‘The Space Eaters’ ends with an epilogue that sees the good-natured Frank arriving too late to prevent the powers of alien-occult damnation returning to claim his more obsessive friend, thus furnishing both stories with conclusions which could possibly be read as not-too-deeply-coded warnings re: a certain someone’s propensity to take all this abyss-gazing just a bit too seriously.

Unlike his ill-fated friend, Frank Belknap Long never seems to have much troubled the thoughts of critics, academics or high-falutin’ pop culture weirdos, but one gets the impression he probably didn’t object to relative anonymity that much, spending the remainder of life thoroughly immersed in the world of commercial pulp fiction, and earning his living as a working writer right up to the early ‘80s. Through the ‘30s and ‘40s he continued to contribute to Weird Tales and other pulps, also finding time to ghost-write several Ellery Queen mysteries alongside scripts for numerous comic books, including DC’s Superman and Green Lantern. From the late ‘50s onward he followed several of his fellow Weird Tales scribes into the lucrative(?) realm of paperback sci-fi, penning such bluntly titled epics as ‘Woman From Another Planet’ (1959) and ‘It Was The Day of the Robot’ (1963), before paying the bills into the mid ‘70s with a series of gothic mysteries, written under the name of his wife Lyda.

By this point, retirement must surely have beckoned, but Long’s connection to the by-now-legendary Lovecraft still kept his name on (a few) people’s lips, and his bibliography is rounded out with a steady stream of reminiscences, book introductions, convention appearances and fan-published chapbooks of Lovecraftian verse, all harking back to those few years he spent knocking about with that long-faced geezer from Providence.


revsven said...

*sniff* That was beautiful. I *was* that kid in the second-hand bookshop hunting the outre, myself! Somewhere, probably eldritch and non-Euclidian, the shade of an old hack must feel vindicated by such humane and measured Tribute.

Stuff like this is why I love this blog!

Third Episode of Vathek by Clark ashton Smith FTW, BTW...

Anonymous said...

That's not Belknap in that first photo (taken in 1921), that's one of HPL's amateur journalism associates:

Ben said...

James - oh no, terrible mistake on my part, makes me feel like a right idiot - I'll correct things as soon as I've posted this comment. That'll teach me to believe the internet etc... I was thinking Long's personal grooming must have undergone quite a change between the 20s and 30s.

Steve - thanks so much for your comment, really glad you enjoyed the post. Sorry also for the drop-off in email contact - just the even more unspeakable, eldritch curse of real life busy-ness getting in the way unfortunately. I'll have to consult my big book of Clark Ashton Smith stories to remind myself which one 'Episode of Vathek' is...