Thursday, July 14, 2011

Journey into Darkness - Frank Belknap Long

It was jury duty for me yesterday. I know all too well what that means. A day of nothing but reading. And I get paid for it! As my nephews would say, "Sweet!" Granted from the city of Chicago I only get $17.20 for sitting in a quiet room filled with strangers and reading crime fiction all day, but luckily I have a real job with genuine benefits and jury duty pay is one of them. I could write a whole other post on jury duty and my insane run of bad luck and fill that post with ridiculous anecdotes and tales of Cook County bureaucracy gone haywire, but I'll spare you. This is a blog about books.

While I was sitting and waiting for my jury panel number to be called I managed to read an entire paperback novel and three short stories from The Department of Queer Complaints by Carter Dickson. The Dickson book will be reviewed later when I finish it. For now you get a review of the novel. I picked it because it seemed like it would be a detective novel with fantastic elements. But it turned out to be a Lovecraftian style horror/sf story with a lot of gruesome murders and a heck of a lot of new age crapola. The blurb was definitely misleading. But surprisingly I found the book was something I could not put down.

Frank Belknap Long was one of those frenetically prolific writers in the heyday of the pulp magazine era. He wrote everything. Horror, fantasy, science fiction, Gothic romances, and a couple of scripts for comic books including Green Lantern, Superman and Captain Marvel. I have a paperback reissue of The Hound of Tindalos and in that book there is a mini biography of his writing career passed off as an introduction. He tells some amazing anecdotes and he writes lucidly, clearly and entertainingly of his life as as "fictioneer" and of his fellow writers. Long's fiction writing is another thing altogether.

Journey into Darkness was the first novel by Long I've read having only been familiar with a handful of his stories penned for Weird Tales. It's dense and rambling, hypnotic and maddening, revelatory and derivative. A cornucopia of contradictions. While much of it irritated me I never found it boring. I couldn't stop reading. It seems like you know what's going to happen then he'll thrown in some off the wall sequence and the story takes off in a completely different direction.  Forget about the utterly bland title that tells you nothing about the story. What begins as a story eerily similar to Samuel Hopkins Adams' The Flying Death slowly reveals itself to be a re-telling of Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space."  Long even directly references that story (without coming right out and naming it) in a four paragraph sequence that also discusses Wilhelm Reich, his fascination with the color blue and the male orgasm, and his bizarre theory of orgonomy.

Psychologist John Holloway has invited a group of creative souls (three artists, a singer, and a professor of philosophy) to his East coast retreat-cum-lab for a weekend of personality experiments and treatment methods. The discovery of the gruesomely mutilated body of one of those guests initiates a police investigation (see the blurb on the rear cover at left).  Over the course of the weekend several of the other guests witness strange flying creatures, worm-like manifestations on the beach, and glowing lights in the dunes surrounding the Holloway estate.  More bodies turn up each with similar burn wounds and mutilations.  Two of the guests - Ralph Kilmer, the professor, and Joan Wilderman, the singer/dancer -- turn amateur sleuths in order to learn if these manifestations are real or merely hallucinations caused by Holloway's experiments.  The secret lies in a bomb shelter they discover as they flee yet another creepy amorphous being that pursues them on the beach.

The author in his youth
If all this sounds like a bad marriage between new age intellectualism and a pulp magazine plot that's because it is. But for some reason I had to keep reading. There is even a didactic dialog section that could have come from an episode of The X Files in Chapter 12 where Kilmer lectures on endlessly about the Jungian collective unconscious. He also gives a crash course in the iconography of fear and the power of the mind to transcend imagined horrors. It all got to be a bit grating. I was thankful for the outbursts from Joan who at least displayed a sarcastic sense of humor and shut up Kilmer's new age mumbo jumbo with snappy retorts like: "If that sand starts moving again I'm pretty sure I'm not going to just stand here and fight them with my mind."

But if I hadn't trudged through the book I would never have learned about Wilhelm Reich and his crackpot ideas. Nor would I have been acquainted with the American College of Orgonomy.  Truth can be stranger than fiction. And often even more gasp inducing. For these bits of trivia I will be forever indebted to Frank Belknap Long.

As for jury duty --  it was another day of sitting and reading. I was never called. For the twelfth time in 25 years.

1 comment:

  1. Here we go again. Another book filled with information about esoteric subjects, which means that I must read it. I wish I weren't such a sucker for these kinds of novels.