Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Six

Wars and Worlds, Past and Future

I began yesterday with an anniversary, the sixtieth anniversary of the last issue of Weird Tales. I'll begin today with another anniversary: seventy-five years ago next month, in September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus setting off the Second World War.

Before the war, science fiction was for a few fans. If the general public knew anything at all about the genre, it was in an offhand way. "Buck Rogers stuff" they called it. Science fiction was in the comics and in movie serials. It was something for kids. But in the run-up to the war, science fiction became serious, at least for one night in 1938.

In March of that year, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and immediately began agitating for annexation of the Sudetenland. The crisis continued into the summer and the spectre of war loomed. Then, in September, the European powers came upon a solution--or a dissolution. In the first weeks of October, Germany took control of German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia and war was averted--at least for another eleven months.

On the evening of October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a dramatization of H.G. Welles' War of the Worlds as a kind of documentary account of supposedly real, contemporary events. Some listeners who tuned in late believed that Martians really had invaded Earth--specifically New Jersey--and panic ensued. Just how many believed it and how much panic was caused by it is open to question. The point is that science fiction, perhaps for the first time, demonstrated its power over the popular imagination.

The First World War had been preceded by what is now called "Invasion Literature." That genre, new to the late nineteenth century, may have given rise to science fiction, as in the original book, The War of the Worlds (1896). The first war also saw advances in the science and technology of killing people, for example, airplanes, tanks, aerial bombs, submarine warfare, and poison gas. Science fiction came along during and after the war as well, but there seems to have been a kind of retrenchment (no pun intended) in fantasy fiction. Weird Tales, despite its first cover--a science fiction cover--turned to the past and to monsters of the past for most of its subject matter.

The Second World War is another story. After the advances of that war, there was no going back. The dreams of the prewar science fiction fan seemed to be coming about, for now there were rockets, guided missiles, radar, jet-powered aircraft, pressurized cabins (essential for space travel), and most importantly, atomic power. Those starveling fans of the prewar era tended to be visionaries. They were liberal, progressive, futuristic, technocratic, Utopian, even communist in their beliefs. The scientific and technological developments of the war seemed to bear out their faith in the future. (1)

Still, monsters out of the past continued to show up in movies of the 1940s, and science fiction was largely still in pulp magazines and comic strips. In the movies of the early and mid '40s, there were vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy, apemen, madmen, ghosts, and zombies. (2) But if you look at a list of horror movies from the 1940s (Wikipedia has a list--yes, I know, it's Wikipedia, but it is a list), you'll notice the number of titles dropping off precipitously after the war. There are probably all kinds of reasons for that, but it seems to me that a populace that had just experienced real-life horrors--the horrors of war, mass death, genocide--would hardly have had a taste for fictional monsters. The number of science fiction movies was also low in the postwar era, but in the 1950s, science fiction took off like a rocket. If I had to guess, I would say two developments caused that. One--the splitting of the atom--was real but anticipated by science fiction. The other--flying saucers--was only partly real but otherwise made from whole cloth by a science fiction writer, Raymond A. Palmer.

To be continued . . .

(1) If fantasy is about the past and science fiction is about the future, then I wonder if there is any correlation between the authors of those respective genres and their political beliefs. It's really easy to pick out examples that fit a hypothesis: H.P. Lovecraft, a fantasist obsessed with the past and with decadence, was notoriously conservative, a Tory in twentieth century America. Frederik Pohl, a forward-looking science fictioneer, was liberal or progressive in his beliefs. Some of his cohorts were outright Communists, if only for awhile. But that hypothesis goes only so far. I would not put Robert A. Heinlein in the liberal or leftist category, for example.
(2) It seems to me that there is too little notice given to a new type of horror movie of the 1940s, that is, for want of a better term, the Weird Tales-type horror movie. I can think of three examples: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). All were produced by Val Lewton, who had written for Weird Tales. The first two were directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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