Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Conclusion

H.P. Lovecraft was by all accounts generous. In a final act of generosity, he gave his work to all of us by allowing it to lapse into the public domain. He didn't intend for that to happen, I guess, but he didn't do much to keep it from happening, either. Now anyone can write a Cthulhu story without first securing any rights or trademarks from anyone else. In his lifetime, Lovecraft allowed and even encouraged his fellow authors to use and adapt his creations. I don't think he would have minded that C. Hall Thompson wrote stories in his manner. He may even have taken Thompson under his wing had he lived.

August Derleth, on the other hand, was, by appearances, stingy, greedy, and envious. He seems to have wanted it all for himself. He was, essentially, a fanboy, and like the fanboys of today, he jealously guarded the things that he thought were his. These are my toys, he seems to have said, and you can't play with them. He didn't say that to Robert Bloch, who wrote one of the best post-Lovecraft Cthulhu stories, "Notebook  Found in a Deserted House" (Weird Tales, May 1951), but then Bloch was one of Lovecraft's circle. He had already received an imprimatur from the master himself. (He was also a better and more popular writer than Derleth.) But Derleth said it more or less to C. Hall Thompson, who was younger, a newcomer, and less powerful and influential than Bloch or anyone else from Lovecraft's original circle. Thompson may also have committed an unforgivable sin in Derleth's eyes: he had done a better job at writing a Cthulhu story than had Derleth in his recent and pretty awful novel Lurker at the Threshold (1945). Worse yet, Thompson was popular and his stories well liked. Weird Tales published four of them and paid Thompson for his efforts. Perhaps worst of all, he played with the toys that Derleth had thought were his own. Like I have said, no one will ever know whether Arthur Pendragon was really C. Hall Thompson unless and until a letter or original typescript or some other sound piece of evidence turns up. For now, I guess, we'll just have to read, discuss, study, and speculate about--alternatively, to simply enjoy--two stories from more than half a century ago, written by the mysterious and pseudonymous Arthur Pendragon, and four more by C. Hall Thompson from a time that is rapidly receding beyond living memory.

"The Crib of Hell," originally in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination in May 1965, was reprinted in Strange Fantasy No. 9 in the summer of 1969. Strange Fantasy reused part of Gray Morrow's cover art for Fantastic, the part on the right. It also spelled Arthur Pendragon's name as Pendragan, as Fantastic had done previously. I'm not sure why the name would have been spelled differently in the bylines for two stories that theoretically came from the same author, but you never know about these things. Maybe it was simply a misspelling. Or maybe it was another attempt to throw Derleth off the trail. Or maybe, just maybe, Pendragon/Pendragan was two different authors, the true identities of whom are now lost and not likely to turn up anytime soon.

Text copyright 2019, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Part Five

Arthur Pendragon's two stories in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination:

"The Dunstable Horror" (Apr. 1964) is a long short story told in the first person by a character called Thomas Grail, a British paleographer who arrives in Dunstable in "northern New England" in March 1920 "to find and study the long-buried records of the Massaquoit tribe of red Indians." (p. 52) These records are in the form of pictograms drawn with berry juice on birchbark and packed in ash to prevent their deterioration. Grail is also searching for the grave of the Massaquoit sorcerer Pauquatoag. With the help of Mr. Varnum, a local sawmill owner, Grail finds the grave and the rolls of birchbark records. In the process, though, an ancient curse placed by Pauquatoag upon Varnum's family is carried out, and Grail is forced to flee for his life and sanity, as Lovecraftian heroes so often are. (The curse comes about because of a sexual encounter between a white man and an Indian woman. Lovecraft of course would never have included such an element of plot in his work.) Incidentally, the tale told in "The Dunstable Horror" is only part of a book of memoirs written by Grail. You have to wonder what else he witnessed in his career.

"The Dunstable Horror" includes the following elements:
  • Lovecraftian conventions, structure, language, mood, plot, etc. In fact the blurb at the beginning of the story describes it as "A Gothic, Lovecraftian tale . . ."
  • A Lovecraftian setting in "northern New England," presumably in the wilds of Maine.
  • Lovecraftian place names in the town Dunstable and the river Penaubsket.
  • A blasted sort of landscape where nothing will grow (a "roughly circular fifteen acre clearing"  [p. 61]).
  • A remote and terrifying backwoods setting.
  • A mysterious dying-off of animals.
  • An ancient curse and an ancient vengeance visited upon the heir of the curse.
  • The "eerie call of a night-roving whippoorwill" (p. 63).
  • The dreaded adverbized color: "The light filtered greenly . . ." (p. 60).
  • Found series of manuscripts, one kept in the home of Mr. Varnum, the other recovered at an Indian burial ground deep in the woods.
  • Exotic, literary, and otherwise unusual names in those of Thomas Grail and the deceased Prester Varnum.
Some of these are characteristic of H.P. Lovecraft's stories or of pulp fiction in general. At least three, though, also appear prominently in stories by C. Hall Thompson: the Lovecraftian place names, the found manuscript used to help explain the events of the story, and the unusual names of the characters. (The "northern New England" setting is also in Thompson's "Clay.") So is this evidence of authorship by Thompson? Maybe, but it's still pretty weak. (1) I will say, though, that the writing style in "The Dunstable Horror" is far more restrained than in the work of either Lovecraft or Thompson, at least the early Thompson of 1946-1947. Thompson's style in "Clay," from 1948, is more restrained than in his previous stories, but it still has some Lovecraftian excess. If Pendragon was Thompson, then maybe he no longer wrote at forty-one as he had at age twenty-three, but then who does?

"The Crib of Hell" (May 1965) is novelette-length, and unlike all previous stories I have covered in this series, it is told in the third person. It takes place in Sabbathday, a seacoast town not far from Dunstable in "northern New England." (What's wrong with just saying Maine?) The year is 1924. The house is Cullum House, a "gray New England Gothic mansion." There is a woman with the Poesque name of Ligeia. There are also gothic elements, including witchcraft and a consorting with the devil (hence the "crib" of the title). Unfortunately, I have seen only fragments of this story in an online source. To me it reads like a potboiler, and in terms of style it seems to be the work of someone other than the author of "The Dunstable Horror." Now I wonder whether Arthur Pendragon (or Pendragan as it's spelled here) was a house name at Fantastic used by more than one author. It's pretty late in the game to make a supposition like that one, but then my series on the Thompson-Pendragon controversy was bound to be anticlimactic anyway. And I have to admit that there really isn't a controversy, but you've got to call it something. Now all that remains is a conclusion, and so I write:

To be concluded . . . 

(1) More on "The Dunstable Horror":

First, there are anachronisms, both of which would have come naturally to an author who came of age during the 1930s and '40s. Mr. Varnum asks Thomas Grail, "Did you find your Indian comic books?" (p. 61). Comic books didn't come into existence until the 1930s. Grail describes an entity as like "a mad surrealist's rendering of the Angel of Death" (p. 71). Surrealism did not begin until a manifesto issued in 1924. However, Grail may have been writing this after surrealism had become well known as an art movement.

Second, there is reference to the hair of a corpse growing after death. This was once a common myth. Another once common myth: the last thing that a man sees before he dies is imprinted upon his retinas. C. Hall Thompson referred to the retina-imprint myth in his story "The Pale Criminal."

Third, Pendragon seems to have had some knowledge of anomalous phenomena, describing a phantom blue glow like swamp gas moving through the woods, also translatable chronicles of events made by American Indians. Swamp gas has been used as an explanation for lots of things, most famously the UFO sightings in Washtenaw County, Michigan, in 1966. Indians are now known to have drawn pictograms on rolled pieces of birchbark, as in Pendragon's story. However, these are not known to be chronicles. In the 1950s, though, there was controversy over the Walam Olum, supposedly a chronicle of the Lenape Indians of the Mid-Atlantic region (C. Hall Thompson's home region, too). The Indiana Historical Society even published a book-length study of the Walam Olum. And, although the fifteen-acre circle in "The Dunstable Horror" may be intended to remind us of "the blasted heath" in "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft, it makes me think of the Devil's Tramping Ground in North Carolina.

Copyright 2019, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Part Four

C. Hall Thompson's four stories for Weird Tales:
  • "Spawn of the Green Abyss" (Nov. 1946) is novelette-length and told in the first person by the character James Arkwright, a man convicted of murder and awaiting execution. Within Arkwright's narrative is embedded a manuscript by another man that explains some of what happens in the story. The main action in "Spawn of the Green Abyss" takes place, I think, in the 1940s at a place called Kalesmouth, "sprawled on a forlorn peninsula off New Jersey's northeastern coast." There are elements of  "The Shadow over Innsmouth," "Dagon," and "The Call of Cthulhu" in "Spawn of the Green Abyss." The name of the town Kalesmouth sounds Lovecraftian, as do the names of the characters or beings Zoth Syra, Yoth Zara, and Yoth Kala. There is even a Shoggoth-like creature. But there are no overtly Lovecraftian proper nouns. I didn't find any reaction to "Spawn of the Green Abyss" in the letters column of Weird Tales. We'll have to take the word of Robert Weinberg and others that the tale was popular and well received. August Derleth could not have been very pleased, though. (Aquaman [2018] bears some similarity to "Spawn of the Green Abyss" as well, but the makers of the movie need not have looked any further than "The Shadow over Innsmouth" for inspiration.)
  • "The Will of Claude Ashur" (July 1947) is also novelette-length and told in the first person. It is written from an insane asylum by a patient whom doctors believe to be insane. (You can't blame them.) Set in Inneswich, New Jersey, beginning in the early 1900s and ending in the 1920s, with a climax in 1925-1926 or so (the timeline is a little messed up), "The Will of Claude Ashur" is the most Lovecraftian of Thompson's stories. First the title character, then his brother, travel to Arkham and Miskatonic University for different and opposing reasons. Claude Ashur occupies a room in Pickham Square, where he paints a ghastly portrait of his father. (The reference to "Pickman's Model" here is obvious.) There are elements of the vampire tale and the zombie tale in "The Will of Claude Ashur," but it is most obviously a tale of the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. One difference is that there is a woman--and sex--in Thompson's tale. In this way, it's more Poesque than Lovecraftian, for we know that Lovecraft was squeamish about sex and incapable of writing about women, eros, and any expression of romantic love between the sexes. Poe never shrank from any of those subjects.
  • "The Pale Criminal" (Sept. 1947) is a short story, told in the first person by a police constable, but, like Thompson's other stories, it includes the text of a manuscript written by someone else. In this case, the author of the manuscript is the subject of the story and the constable's investigations. This is Thompson's most Poesque story; Derleth could hardly have objected to it, although there is a scene with a mirror that is reminiscent of a similar scene in Lovecraft's very early (and also Poesque story) "The Outsider." Like a story by Poe, "The Pale Criminal" begins with an epigram, but this one is from Nietzsche and it explains the meaning of the title. Set in Germany in the period 189_  (pertinent information is dropped, as in Poe) to perhaps the first decade of the 1900s, the story closes with a Freudian explanation of its events. Although Lovecraft was erudite, he seems not to have been greatly influenced by two of the revolutionary thinkers of his own time, namely Nietzsche and Freud. Thompson, on the other hand, here mentioned both in one story, though admittedly not in any profound way.
  • "Clay" (May 1948) is a short story narrated by a psychiatrist who once worked at an insane asylum that has now been abandoned. As in Thompson's other stories, there is reliance upon a found manuscript to explain the events of the story, and the text of that manuscript is embedded once again within the main narrative. "Clay" is set in northern New England, at a place called Dunnesmouth. The subject of the story, Jeremy Bone, was born on December 13, 1930, and is now described as a "kid." We can safely assume, then, that the events in "Clay" are more or less contemporaneous with its publication. There are similarities between "Clay" and any number of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror" being the most obvious.
Now, what about the stories by Arthur Pendragon from the 1960s?

To be continued . . .

Copyright 2019, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Thompson-Pendragon Controversy-Part Three

Of C. Hall Thompson's four stories for Weird Talesthree are set in the Northeast and two of those in New Jersey. The main action in all four stories takes place in a remote and lonely house, a conventional setting for the gothic romance. I am reminded more than anything here of Collinwood, from Dark Shadows. There are other gothic elements in Thompson's stories--locked rooms, secret books and manuscripts, twin or switched identities, possession, ancient curses, etc.--but there are also Lovecraftian elements. In "The Will of Claude Ashur," these include an outright naming of Lovecraftian books, beings, and places, including the town of Arkham and its Miskatonic University. Even when they are not obviously set in a Cthulhian universe, Thompson's stories are otherwise Lovecraftian in their conventions, structure, mood, language (ichor, blasphemies, gelatinous, and so on), and treatment of a doomed or fated narrator or protagonist.

It's clear that Thompson read, admired, and wished to emulate Lovecraft. In writing his Lovecraftian stories, however, Thompson made a mistake that too many young and enthralled writers make, for he failed to strain out the worst of Lovecraft's impulses as a writer. There is some bad writing in the younger author's stories, and he succumbed to some of the pulpwriter's many possible diseases, including adverbitis. Witness:
  • "The ocean pounded choppily . . ." (from "Spawn of the Green Abyss," in Weird Tales, Nov. 1946, p. 14)
  • "blood that oozed obscenely" (from "The Will of Claude Ashur," in Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, p. 494)
  • "smiling evilly" (from "The Will of Claude Ashur," p. 497)
Worst of all, Thompson committed that extreme offense against the human ear, i.e., the adverbized color: blackly, whitely, redly, etc. (If something can be done redly, can it also be done pucely? Teal greenly? Magentaly?) At least he never used the "word" oilily, a crime committed, by the way, by C.L. Moore and Fritz Leiber, among others.

C. Hall Thompson liked exotic, literary, biblical, classical, and Dickensian names. These include Cassandra and Lazarus Heath and James Arkwright in "Spawn of the Green Abyss"; Claude Ashur and Gratia Thane in "The Will of Claude Ashur"; and Jeremy Bone and Peter Gaunt in "Clay." He also seems to have had a special interest in psychiatry, for all four of his stories have some psychiatric angle or element, and two even mention Sigmund Freud. I wonder if Thompson worked in medicine or psychiatry or if he simply recognized the possibilities for storytelling in a world in which Freudianism held sway. (1)

Lovecraft mentioned Freud, too, but Thompson, writing in the immediate postwar period when Freudianism was so much in vogue, seems to have given it more credence than did his predecessor. (2) "Spawn of the Green Abyss" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1946) opens with the narrator's telling us why he wishes his narrative remain sealed until after he has been executed: he wishes to die for his crimes rather than to "spend endless remembering years in the State Asylum for the Criminally Insane." In "The Will of Claude Ashur" (July 1947), the narrator is unable to avoid that fate, for he is indeed a patient in an insane asylum and trapped in a body he believes not to be his own.

The Freudian and psychiatric elements became more prominent in Thompson's stories as he advanced in his brief career. "The Pale Criminal" (Sept. 1947), set in the 1890s or early 1900s, is less Lovecraftian than Poesque (3), but Poe could not have written a story like this one, for it offers an overtly Freudian explanation for its events. When the coroner, Herr Roderick, explains what has happened, the narrator, a police constable, interjects, "My dear Roderick, you've read too much of this new fellow Freud. Why . . . it's absurd." It occurs to me now that Thompson set "The Pale Criminal" where and when he did just so he could bring in the Freudian explanation. In the 1890s, such an explanation would have seemed fresh and insightful, not only in real-life investigations of crime but also in fiction. In any case, "The Pale Criminal" is an early and intuitive illustration of the the power of the placebo effect. It also reminds me of Psycho (1960) and of "Eyes," the Joan Crawford sequence of the original Night Gallery movie (1969).

Thompson's last story for Weird Tales, called "Clay" (May 1948), may be, in stylistic terms, his best story. It may also be his most sophisticated, and it indicates an author breaking from his earlier influences and reaching towards a greater maturity. (Thompson was twenty-five when it was published.) As in "The Pale Criminal," the narrator is one looking at a problem from the outside rather than from the inside, unlike in Thompson's first two stories. (4) In this case, the man is a psychiatrist who works at Wickford House, an insane asylum located somewhere in New England. His subject is a young man named Jeremy Bone, who believes he is being influenced by his missing twin. Among the group of psychiatrists at Wickford House, there are those who believe only in material explanations for human affairs and others who are open to supernatural explanations. But this is weird fiction, and so we know who will turn out to be right in the end.

To be continued . . . 

(1) We shouldn't forget the very obvious influence of Freudianism in L. Ron Hubbard's formulation of Dianetics (1950) and Scientology (ca. 1954). Volney Mathison, Hubbard's associate and the inventor of the E-meter, practiced for a time as a "psychoanalyst," by this measure a more or less useless term but one derived from Freudianism. Although Robert Bloch began his career as a part of Lovecraft's circle and wrote stories in the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, he also wrote Psycho (1959), a story heavy with the influence of Freudianism but not quite free of gothic convention. Think of the Bates house, with its literal gothic design, in Alfred Hitchcock's movie version of 1960.
(2) The Hitchcock film Spellbound, with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, is an early example. It was released on October 31, 1945.
(3) The name of the castle in "The Pale Criminal," Zengerstein, is an obvious truncation of the title of Poe's first published short story, "Metzengerstein: A Tale in Imitation of the German," from 1832. It's probably fair to say that "The Pale Criminal" is a tale in imitation of a tale in imitation of the German, only with a twist of both Nietzsche (who was German, not Polish, as he liked to claim) and Freud (who, though Austrian, spoke not the Austrian language but the German language--I'm not sure why; maybe we should ask our previous president who was so smart about these things).
(4) "The Pale Criminal" and "Clay" are actually hybrids in that they are narrated by a man on the outside of the problem but include a found manuscript written by someone on the inside.

Original text copyright 2019, 2023 Terence E. Hanley