Extract from The Pulp Of The Black Lotus
By Simon Bucher-Jones
THE HEART OF THE DARKNESS
A Doc Who Adventure
By J. X. “Doc” Smith
A Cockatrice Book / published by arrangement with
The Concordat Nation Press
Originally published in DOC WHO MAGAZINE May 1938
Cockatrice edition published July 1974
MYSTERY UNDER THE EARTH
It was a broiling hot day in the biggest of America’s big cities; and steam was pouring out of the gratings and the manhole covers like all the rats had kettles.
‘Jeez,’ Hoskin the gunsel said wiping a bead of sweat from his thick jowled face, ‘you didn’t tell me. You didn’t tell me’.
‘I didn’t tell you what?’ The voice was harsh, thrilling with power and yet inhuman, a tortured forcing of sounds into syllables. It was like a machine speaking: every note ripped from the throat. The shadowed figure hunched against the ironwork of the underground room, twitched as it spoke. It was a nervous, convulsing twitch.
‘That we’d be up against Doc Who and his Trusty Companions; I’ve known hard men who’ve had their heads handed them messing with that yegg. And worse, folks who go against him just vanish plump out of this world like they get et up’.
Pimples MacHoolley the spotty stoolpidgeon broke in, ‘He’s right boss, they say Doc Who’s father was a great scientist and that he gave his son a second heart: an atomic heart that won’t stop beating till the sun goes out, and it boosts his strength till he’s as strong as any man living, and twice as bright. They say you can see the light of that great heart shining out of his eyes!’
The shadow figure emitted a gurgling sneer, ‘I fear not this luminous nemesis, for I am The Darkness, and where I walk all light is extinguished, remember that. Or would you have me re-introduce you to the Beast That Eats Light.’ A scratching noise seemed to fill the underground chamber as if some great insect or segmented worm was moving just below the ground. A greater terror than the underworld’s fear of Doc Who seemed to fill Gunsel Hoskin, and Pimples MacHooley. They had seen the awesome horror that the man who called himself The Darkness could unleash, and they would do anything to prevent its being used on them.
Doc Who made his headquarters (as the popular press had made known far too widely for his modest nature), on the observation floor of the second largest skyscraper in New York . He considered it architecturally superior to the largest, and besides, he said it inspired him to work harder. A friendly rivalry between him and Clark Savage Jr had persisted never-the-less, just as it had with the unknown operator who had taken the identity of Lamont Cranston. Doc Who had traced the man’s retina pattern - for the veins in the back of the eyes are as unique as finger prints - to a missing flyer called Kent Allard, but he suspected that too might be an identity The Shadow had only assumed, just as he himself had taken on this flamboyant role more out of necessity than choice.
He had no past other than the stories of his childhood, written in his own hand on a scrap of paper under hypnosis: A procedure that he candidly regarded with dubiety but which had at least garnered some results that he felt intuitively had to bear, at least obliquely, on the facts. He had come to the Americas after the Great War with no belongings but a crumpled suit, his childhood fable of an atomic heart, and a mysterious blue box. He had found the land of opportunity in the grip of apocalyptic events. Masked criminals were holding whole cities to ransom; the tools of the new science of the atom were being turned to weapons of extortion and greed. And he knew somehow that it was wrong. Not just immoral, not just nasty and evil and inhumane but wrong in a deeper impossible sense as if the fabric of the world was violated, as if it hadn’t ought to be like this. He had been on the Grav 109 when the giant Zeppelin Liner was attacked by the Red Hawk’s sky bandits. He had held one of the trained vampire bats of the Vampire Prince at arms length in one hand until its strength ebbed. And yet, he couldn’t believe in them any longer.
He had gathered a crew of Trusty Companions around him. Men and women he could trust to fight the rising tide of evil; and yet even as he operated on Frank "Peepers" Hyde to restore his sight after the fearful business of the Eyeball Destroyer, he found he couldn’t believe in them either. Any more than he could believe that Sherlock Holmes had pressed the elixir Vitae wrestled from Fu Manchu into his hands charging him to guard it against the Power of the East; or that he had stood with Allen Quatermain and seen Hue-Hue the Monster, the last living Neanderthal, (aside of course from his own Butler ‘Ape’). He had found no peace in England or Europe, but in America he had found only madness.
Little did he know that brewing in the stygian deeps below the New York subway was a dark power that would bring a new terror to the….to the….to the…
J. X. "Doc" Smith ripped the paper out of the typewriter. How on earth was he going to make any progress with The Pulp of The Black Lotus if he couldn’t get a grip on his characters. Heaven knows they only had a few characteristics each. Ape was, well, Apelike. Peepers Hyde had those scary eyes and his grandfather’s curse that would turn him into Hyde by nature. Marolyn Minx insisted on barrelling into her cousin’s adventures with her explosives and her jive chat. And Doc Who himself had no character at all, or only as much character as J X Smith could find in himself.
The Century Of Fear
Doc had exhausted the facilities of England and his discoveries were horrifying. Conan Doyle confirmed his blood wasn’t human; his fingerprints were not in Scotland Yard’s new files and, to his alarm didn’t resemble normal whorls either. In his chest, the thud thud thud of his telltale double heart beat out its reminder -different, different, different. He could still remember the fear he had felt when reading Poe' s story for the first time. For the first time he could remember, anyway. Was he some surgeon's freak? A veritable Frankenstein creation? No one knew.
He had tried a dozen quacks and ninety nine nostrums. He had tried a drug which its backwoods dealer claimed came from Pluto (when the planet went by an inhuman name). He had tried mesmerism and hypnotism and teslaism – the latter a brief electrical fad that went as quickly as it arrived. He had even tried tantric sex, exhausting the facilities of a certain notorious house in Boston. Twice. He had learned a good many surprising things; but about himself he had learned nothing.
He had drifted into writing as, between the horrors that at times seemed almost to lay in wait for him, he had always drifted from one profession to another. He mastered each with casual ease but rose always only so far as a man with no past and no papers could rise. He made only the friends that a reticent man might have. He never felt love (even his fictional alter-ego had known better than to imagine that love might have been on offer in Boston), or received a touch of a hand on his face. How could he offer himself if he didn’t even know what he was? What if he wasn’t like Doc Who at all; what if he was like The Darkness, or the Red Hawk, or the Vampire Prince, or The Midget That Laughed, or Herr Doktor Harbinger? What made those gross and festering horrors pour out of him in ink like pus from a sore?
What if he was a horror of the old century living into the new atomic age?
The Sewer God
‘So the man with no name and the two hearts has come to pay me a visit,’ the patch of darkness said. ‘Don’t you know who I am? Can’t you guess? What does the hero always confront but himself, himself or his fears, himself or his father, the fear of death, the fear of becoming the thing feared; the fear of being akin to the darkness? I am the Master of Darkness, boy’.
Doc smiled his tight, sad smile and the light that seemed to come from his deep-set eyes flashed a cool green in the blackness. In moonlight there is too little light for colours to be seen but somehow the light that his eyes intensified or generated, still gave the impression of possessing colour even in that pit.
‘There is nothing you can confront me with I have not seen, for light must ultimately penetrate darkness.’
The shadow-thing tittered unwholesomely. Images of black light - negative on the mind’s eye, chalk on the night sky of the soul - hit the Doc like a splatter of hot lead. He saw a world of Vampires sucking the energy from the cosmos to power their own experiments; condemning the others of their own kind who hunted merely to survive.
‘Rivals,’ the voice hissed, ‘not to be tolerated. The vampires that sort to rule forever could have no peers.’ He saw the wars where black-cloaked troops rose from the grave on the third day. In the end the mad scientists were triumphant; their kin staked in specimen jars in their vast laboratories in the core of seven dead moons. ‘But, it didn’t end there.’
A star: a black jewel in the white firmament, the sun of a peaceful race. They worshipped the vampires as gods learned their vile arts. Their reward was their sun torn into a white hole, sacrificed for more power. The rulers of this evil realm: Nolissar, Agemo, and the Void. Agemo they fed to the things in the hole, a piece at a time, part ritual, part boys pulling wings off flies for sport. Nolissar, the Void tricked: entombing him alive, with only the malice of the traps and games around his fetid tomb to while away the stinking eons. The Void wanted to live forever, beyond the vampire span of eternity, beyond the last drop of mammalian blood on any world. It foresaw the blood-drought, its kin drying and dying in the dust; everything else eaten from alpha to omega. It foresaw the scavenging vermin from other universes rummaging among their bones. It conceived a plan. Where is the seat of immortality?
The question scrawled itself in white letters of fire in the black interior of Doc’s skull. He guessed the fiend was using subliminal strobes; sub-sonic inductance, hemp fumes in the air, but still he felt compelled to answer. ‘Fu-Manchu once told me it was the head, not the heart that was the seat of life. Of course I had just shot him through the heart. Twice. With two guns. Four bullets in all. He walked away, laughing.’
‘He knows much for a human,’ the shrouded figure leered, ‘but in this he was mistaken. The Heart is the life. The Void understood this truth and arranged that its heart should never die but should live on, pumping its putrid black bile through the veins of a million species. Living – possessing – continuing, until…’
‘I see where this is going,’ Doc said. ‘I suppose you will now tell me it was this same strange heart that my father found encased in that green meteorite; the heart that crackled with atomic fire yet weighed no more than a mass of bakerlite.’ He did not say that he had only dreamed the whole business about his father and the strange plastic rock from space. His biographer from that wretched magazine had put the whole thing in the public domain now as gospel truth. He kept that back, as his hidden card, secure somehow in the belief, irrational at best, that knowing it to be a myth empowered him somehow. Its truth could not be lost. As long as it was a story, its horror did not have to be faced.
‘Yesssss, and while you have resisted for a time its evil history, its perverse arabesque design written across space and time, soon it will claim you once more. You will be The Void, the thing that travels the stars and brings chaos, destruction, and the curse in the blood. You will be not my foe but my bro…’
Swiftly, Doc drew his autofire and clicked by feel the magazine canister to the magnesium flares. The gun of his own design had a number of mercy-functions which could tackle an enemy without recourse to killing violence. ‘But what if I choose to bring not chaos, but light?’ he asked, and fired –
Then what? “Doc” wondered. Thematically the light should force back The Darkness. This ought to be some sort of exorcism to get these stupid silly devilish, bed-wetting dreams down on paper. Maybe, someday, if he lived long enough (and it seemed he would), he would pay a surgeon to cut out his extra-heart. Someday when surgery killed less surely. Exorcise - excise - its maddening beat, and find, what? Something built of living plastic? A pyramid of glowing spheres? A tiny neotenous twin gibbering in his chest wall, kicking its tiny tiny feet against his rib cage. The heart of a Jackal? He had searched his body carefully for a minute 666, just to be sure. Then not finding one he had considered having it tattooed on, but had found the idea of needles made the centre of his chest ache. Besides he really didn’t think he was the anti-christ. He didn’t think he was anyone important. Not important to anyone – and that was the only importance that mattered. He was a freak with a typewriter nothing more. Maybe he’d have to do the surgery on himself and they’ll find him strangled by his own strange heart, a bloody scalpel in one convulsing hand. It had been a long decade. Soon he felt, fiction too would fail him. It had kept the night at bay for eight years, his best friend, his bread and butter, but it was a pale substitute for a life.
Afterword: The Dark Prince of the Pulps.
Students of the pulps talk in a hushed voice of Walter Gibson and Lester Dent the writers who (mostly) - for their seats were sometimes occupied by lesser men - toiled behind the corporate pen-names of Maxwell Grant and Kenneth Robeson; the supposed chroniclers of Doc Savage and The Shadow. But what of the third member of this metaphysical triumvirate, this trinity of the hot-metal typewriter; this hidden and masked fraternity of authors? Who was J. X. “Doc” Smith, the writer who penned in the space of five red hot years no less than one hundred and fifty magazine novels: was he even one man? Computer aided literary analysis is a slippery tool at best. It makes one man of Shakespeare and Marlowe; dissects others, makes the bible and Moby Dick into equally valuable tomes of prophecy. Turned on the pulps it is perhaps flustered by a form in which the conventional phrase is used as a touchstone to character. How heart warming, how familiar are the recurring lines by which the hero is introduced in each of the sagas! Even so the technique still detects as many as eight distinct styles in the novels from The Man With Two Hearts (1933) to the curiously prophetic final novel The Eagle On The Moon (published in 1938).
The play: The Pulp Of The Black Lotus by Simon Bucher-Jones, examines the life of the writer by juxtaposing elements taken out of context from one of his most vivid novels, with the morbid and depressing state of his own life at the time it was being written, preserved in his correspondence and diaries. It is a compelling glimpse into a dark night of the soul no less black for being penned by a pulpsmith.
P. Jesu Harvester
Simon BJ [26th May 2009 post, formerly published in "Walking In Eternity"]