Did You Catch The Mystery In This Pulp Cover?

It’s there. And I didn’t catch it till I read the amazing story inside. We’re highlighting some old pulp stories that particularly stand out, and this one called The Ultimate Salient by Nelson S. Bond was a worldshaker to me. It has really been striking, the sheer quality of some of the diamonds among the rough you’ll find in the old science fiction and fantasy pulps of the 30’s and 40’s. I’d like to share this one with you, and talk about that mystery in the cover.

Welcome to the Pulp Gems series.

Follow this link here to the entire issue of Planet Stories, Fall 1940. Or download just the Bond story we’re highlighting here in pdf format:

“Brian O’Shea, man of the future, here is your story. Read it carefully, soldier yet unborn, for upon it – and upon you – will one day rest the fate of all Mankind.”

That’s the opening blurb, then a strange visitor stops by the house of our first-person narrator framing the story. He needs a writer. That’s the purpose of the visit. He needs a writer to save the world. You’ve heard of telepathy, where two minds communicate with one another. In this case, it’s quite different, and is a case of “telaesthesia”, whereby this visitor, a psychologist, has caught the thoughts and impressions of a future soldier not yet even born who will fight in the battle-wrecked wastelands of 1963 America. Brian O’Shea will be his name. He’s nobody, or at least he will be nobody. But he may turn out to be the most important man alive.

1963. Louisville has fallen. The Germans have Fort Knox; the government has fled. The Army Of The Democracies is in utter rout. They’ve seized the Mississippi and cut off all contact between the eastern and western armies. The Japanese control California and Nevada. The Russian Navy holds the Great Lakes. All is lost. America has fallen.

But O’Shea hasn’t given up hope despite the tide of war, and hears of a mighty weapon and a scientist who shelters it. He takes the mission: find this weapon. Determine if it can be used to end all of this. And at last report, the scientist was in Louisville…the last place in America anyone needed to be going right now.

I don’t want to spoil too much of this page-turner for you. You really should take an hour or so and read this. I wrote in Love Letter To The Repairer Of Reputations of a bit of unintentional magic that happened when Robert Chambers wrote his King In Yellow stories in 1895. Chambers was just speculating about the future from his vantage, but as we read the tales now and see a weird Studio Ghibli vibe and World War One era costumes and mannerisms in what’s presented as a modern day America, it gives off a mystical and fascinating feeling. It’s alternate history, though that wasn’t his intention. The reason I bring that up is here in today’s story, The Ultimate Salient, Nelson S. Bond has created the same sort of magic. He was just speculating about the World War (the second, in his case) dragging on even after Hitler was killed (assassinated in this timeline). And we have a dark, apocalyptic vision of that America. And we have the hope of this terrible weapon a scientist has created. This was written in 1940, by the way, so forget 1945’s atomic bombs. Here, we have a bio-weapon, and one that will threaten all life on earth.

The mystery on the cover relates to the very ending of the story. I can’t really give that away, you know? O’Shea is going to need information, or it’s all over for humanity. He needs it, and given the telaesthesia only works one way, a story needed to be written to capture that information in a way it might make it to O’Shea. Something striking and likely to be appreciated for years to come. Something like a science fiction story that bears his very name on the cover.

And not just his name. A scrap more of precious information that can save everything…

Let me know what you think, guys. I was so impressed I picked up a collection of tales by Bond. I’d never heard of him before, and I’m glad I came across this one. Till next time.

Gems From Planet Stories: Black Priestess Of Varda

If you’re at all a bit tired of politics and agendas driving science fiction today, you might take a dip into the old 30’s and 40’s pulps sometime and take a breath of fresh air. Just set aside any ideas of scientific accuracy – this is all just high octane, adrenalin-infused imagination to keep your engines running clean! I honestly love it. Case in point: Erik Fennel’s Black Priestess Of Varda, from the Winter 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Planet Stories was an American pulp science fiction magazine published by Fiction House, based in New York. It ran between November 1939 to May 1955 for a total of 71 issues. This one’s among my go-to pulp fixes just because its covers almost always deliver – and by that, I mean they’re intriguing and striking and would practically all look great on a T-shirt. If you’re offended by mild sexism even despite a consideration of the times in which the works were published, then this article probably isn’t for you. I’m just in this for the fun of it, and how innovative and free of constraints these writers and artists were. I love the feeling of unbounded optimism and adventure these people brought to the table!

I would also add that, though the covers often show the ladies in these stories as helpless but pretty mops waiting on men to save them, it’s almost never that case in the stories themselves. Herein, you’ll find powerful, intelligent and courageous women. Thought I’d mention that, if it’s a reason you might stay away from these old gems.

For example, my wife and I are finally making our way through all 5 seasons of the HBO show, The Wire. It’s as good as I’ve always been told, and some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen. No doubt in my mind – this should be the standard for how to juggle multiple character arcs and portray in fiction how different agendas among even minor characters can drive the narrative. That isn’t my point today, but there you go.

Anyway, we started season 4 last night. I idly picked up my phone to just troll through some pulp covers for inspiration, thinking I might work up some art for the Salt Mystic marketing over the weekend. And I came across that bad boy at the header of this post. “The Black Priestess Of Varda”. What a nutty title. “Outlawed, sentenced to the vat”…”foul Sasso’s loveliest witch”. Crazy. It sends your mind reeling. At least mine. Totally lost track of the Wire episode and tracked down an electronic copy of the 1947 issue in which Erik Fennel’s story was originally published. The entire issue is linked above, or here it is in a combined pdf:

It’s the rollicking tale of a disfigured scientist, finding himself in a strange world and discovering the black heart of his once love. He finds redemption and a new love, and develops incredible new powers. Yet most of all, he finds the inner strength and courage to fight back against wickedness in all its forms, no matter how beautiful.

I worry that in our collective zeal among modern fiction to present social injustices, to drive activism and try to awaken social action among readers by unrefined and almost silly victimhood portrayed in caricature fashion – bad cops, racists, cruel landlords, selfish politicians, blah blah blah…that we’re losing the ability to make people dream and aspire. People like Erik Fennel, whoever he was, preciously crafted colorful worlds spun with action and heart to get his young readers to dream. That’s why the little guys slapped down their quarters at the newsstand as soon as they could to rush home or to the playground and blast through the latest Planet Stories, or magazines like it. They wanted to dream and feel powerful, to learn what it means to stand up to bullies and terrifying challenges like they were seeing in the real world and that many lost their fathers to. This was a place to see courage and to emulate it. And it was a place to be inspired.

Hey, go read this one or another in Planet Stories. Will take you maybe an hour after you download it. An easy read.

But maybe an important one.

I don’t know, guys. What do you think? Is there enough out there on the racks or Amazon to feed your own imagination? Send me your own thoughts on the most inspiring stuff you’re seeing. I’d appreciate it.

Anyway, till next time.