Every October (well, since last October) Science Fiction editor Keith Allison turns his telescope toward the cosmic horror of weird fiction’s most illustrious Woodrow Wilson look-alike, HP Lovecraft, and the many ways in which people re-interpreted and mis-interpreted his work, in a series called “Punching Cthulhu in the Face.”
Even though it has never produced anything but the worst, even by the standards commonly set by nine-year-olds, elementary and middle school teachers still persist in making their classes participate, at least once a year, in a round-robin writing exercise. You know the one. The first kid is charged with writing a paragraph or two in a story, then hands it off to the next student to continue, so on and so forth until it reaches an inevitably awful conclusion and probably involves Batman or the teacher or at least one student in the class as characters. And inevitably, at least half the finished product will be one young writer un-writing what the previous did, either because the previous writer backed everyone into a corner or the next writer just didn’t like it or didn’t read it. What this is supposed to teach us is unclear; the message I took away from it was “teamwork and collaboration produces awful results.” Well, the nine-year-olds of the worlds can rejoice in the knowledge that this very same exercise, when undertaken by grown-up, professional writers of substantial renown, produces basically the same quality of work.
In 1935, Fantasy magazine commissioned five of the biggest names in pulp fiction – C.L. Moore (Jirel of Joiry), A. Merritt (The Metal Monster), H.P. Lovecraft (come on), Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and of course, Sailor Steve Costigan), and Frank Belknap Long (The Hounds of Tindalos) – to round-robin write a thrilling new weird tale. On the surface, it seems like it might have a better chance of success than when fourth graders do the same thing. These were professionals, used to working under the rigorous conditions demanded by the pulp magazine industry. They were adaptable. They were all quite good. They all worked extensively in, and indeed basically defined, the genre that became known as weird fiction. Hell, most of them had, at one point or another, written a story involving characters from the “Cthulhu Mythos” H.P. created (though he never intended it to be a cohesive mythology). And more than that, they all knew and seemed to like one another, if not in person than certainly through correspondence. Surely this would work out better than asking it of 30 elementary school kids.
You don’t have to get very far into The Challenge from Beyond to realize with horror that this is not going to be the case. Oh sure, the vocabulary is more elaborate; but beyond that, this crew of weird fiction luminaries turned out a final piece that showcases many of the very same pitfalls that emerge when children round-robin a story. Moore sends the main character to bed, for example, only to have Merritt take over and write, “No, on second thought, I think I’ll stay up.” But nowhere is the disconnect that arises from this style of writing more blatant than in the hilarious transition between H.P. Lovecraft’s middle portion of the story and the continuation by his long-time pen pal Robert E. Howard.
The Challenge from Beyond begins with geologist George Campbell taking a little camping holiday . Whilst poking about his camp, he discovers a curious blue cube. Confronted by this wholly inexplicable artifact, Campbell decides to worry about it in the morning and goes to bed. The remote setting sets us up for something along the lines of Algernon Blackwood’s classics of weird wilderness fiction, “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.” And given everyone involved, that seems a reasonable expectation. But things start to fall apart almost immediately. After Moore’s brief set-up, Merritt takes over and, as mentioned, decides not to wait until morning. Campbell gets back up, stares at the cube, and realizes with a growing mixture of fascination and horror that it is emitting a faint, pulsating light. Eventually, the cube gets tired of Merritt just having the character stare, so it sucks him in, at which time Lovecraft takes over.
Lovecraft’s section is the longest, and any chance we were going to get some sort of backwoods folk horror goes out the window. Campbell, his consciousness plucked from his body, vaguely remembers something he once heard about a cube not unlike this one, a half-remembered fragment of a story he heard long ago, if only he could remember… and then he proceeds to recall with perfect clarity an incredibly elaborate origin of the cube, complete with revelations that he could in no way actually possess. The cubes are probes sent out by a malevolent race of worm-like aliens who thirst for exploration and conquest but, because of the immensity of space, cannot fulfill their manifest destiny. So they devised the cubes, which they then just sort of lob out into space at random in hopes that they will end up somewhere with intelligent life. Amazingly, this works from time to time. Said intelligent life, should it find one of these cubes and gaze into it, will find its consciousness sucked out of its brain and replaced with one belonging to the aliens. The aliens can then strut around the new planet in the body of a native and decide whether or not they want to exterminate all life on the planet (how they accomplish this is…vague).
Such is the horrifying fate that has befallen poor Campbell. And things get worse from there. For his own consciousness, evicted from its mind and body, awakens to discover that he has had his mind transferred into the body of the grotesque alien that has stolen his body. As Lovecraft wraps up his portion of the story, Campbell is a helpless, quivering human mind trapped in the nightmarish worm body of a malevolent alien, stranded billions of miles from Earth. Faced with such incomprehensible and hopeless cosmic terror, Campbell sinks into a deep, despairing madness.
“No he doesn’t!” bellows Robert E. Howard as he picks up the story.
What happens between the last paragraph written by Lovecraft and the first written by Howard is legendary at this point, at least among the few people who tell such legends. Howard, the rough and tumble Texan known to his friends as Two Gun Bob, and Lovecraft, the haunted and aristocratic New Englander, are pulp fiction’s odd couple. Though they never met in person, the two carried on a lively friendship through correspondence. In Howard, perhaps Lovecraft found some primal force, a raw realism that energized him. And in Lovecraft, Howard perhaps found an air of refinement, of intellectualism that similarly inspired him. They didn’t agree on a lot of things, Lovecraft with his preference for old East Coast society and Howard with his love of the free barbarian life, but they were opposites in a complementary fashion that cemented their friendship. Robert E. Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
But that friendship didn’t extend to playing along with the direction Lovecraft chose to take The Challenge from Beyond. Within the span of a couple of paragraphs, Howard has hapless Campbell reconsider his predicament and decide, rather than collapsing into the black abyss of despair and madness, he’s going to holler, grab the nearest sharp object, gut the nearest space worm scientist, and kick some ass. In short order he proves that the human brain is too goddamned awesome to be cowed by imprisonment in an unfamiliar body. Forcing his new alien mind to recall everything it knew, Campbell lumbers out of the lab in which he woke up, worm-scurries to the nearest temple, guts a few high priests, and steals their magic orb. The rest of the aliens – who, remember, conquered untold planets and had the brains to invent that cube technology – recognize that Worm-Campbell is a totally sweet bad-ass and immediately proclaim him their new god.
Good luck wrapping all that up, Frank Belknap Long.
The Challenge from Beyond is terrible for any number of reasons. Primarily, it’s the fact that the round-robin nature of the writing and the relatively short length (it’s only a few pages) means the world it creates is threadbare and contradictory. But what isn’t terrible is the colossal struggle between two titans of pulp fiction, Lovecraft and Howard, to impress upon the story their own cosmic philosophy. It absolutely does not work, and yet it totally works – because disparate though their philosophy of life may have been, Lovecraft and Howard were both gifted writers. Their sections of the story may be at loggerheads with one another, but they are both so much ridiculous fun. Lovecraft manages to create the back story for a galactic evil that ends with what is indeed a truly mind-bendingly horrific situation. It’s not H.P. at his best, but it is solid H.P. And then Howard steps in and in a brief span expresses the boundless adventure that could be had, the indomitable determination of the human spirit. And of course, lots of worm-gutting and throat slashing. What horrifies Lovecraft thrills Howard. What comforts H.P. bores Bob.
It’s not a story I’d recommend to people who aren’t already fans of Lovecraft and Howard (the contributions of Moore, Merritt, and poor “come up with an ending” Long are inconsequential in the shadow of these two panther-like mammoths). It only takes a few minutes to read. But it is a great amount of fun if you go in knowing that it all goes shockingly, amusingly wrong. And yes, it goes wrong in exactly the same way as the story we wrote round-robin style when I was in fourth or fifth grade, in which I had the princess hero bound to an altar, facing certain doom before a hungry dragon (pretty sure I’d just seen Dragonslayer earlier that week). And then the next kid took over the story and the Incredible Hulk saved her. That kid…was Robert E. Howard.
More or less.