Friday, June 5, 2020

Nictzin Dyalhis’s The Sapphire Goddess

The Sapphire Goddess collects all of Nictzin Dyalhis’s stories that appeared in Weird Tales from 1925 to 1940.

Nictzin Dyalhis 1873-1942 was an American pulp writer who was extremely successful in obscuring the details of his own life. His birth date and place of birth are both uncertain and while Nictzin Dyalhis seems to have been his legal name it may or may not have been his birth name.

Dyalhis was a remarkably unproductive writer, producing just thirteen short stories in a period of eighteen years. Eight of the stories were published in Weird Tales. He should therefore be little more than a footnote in the history of pulp fiction except for one thing - he was exceptionally popular with the readers of Weird Tales.

When the Green Star Waned marked the author’s first appearance in Weird Tales (in April 1925). At first you could be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a space opera. In fact it does have some science fictional elements but it’s more a fantasy with a dash of horror. It’s probably best to think of it simply as weird fiction. There’s also a preoccupation with good and evil and even perhaps a hint of some religious themes.

The planet Venhez constantly monitors everything that happens on its neighbouring worlds and recently there appears to be nothing at all happening on the planet Aerth. It’s as if the entire population of that world has vanished. An expedition is despatched to Aerth, each of the seven members being the acknowledged leader in his field (fields such as war, diplomacy, science and medicine). What they find is unimaginably horrifying.

Of course once you find out that one of Venhez’s other neighbouring planets is named Marhz you’re going to really that the story takes place in our own solar system, but in the very distant future.

Aerth has been taken over but the nature of the invaders is bizarre indeed. It seems impossible to defeat them , or even to fight them at all, but such evil cannot be allowed to continue to exist.

I’m not sure that this could be described as a good story but it’s interesting in its own way and you do have to remember that it was written in 1925 at which time some of ideas in it were quite original.

The Eternal Conflict, also published in Weird Tales in 1925, is much stranger. It’s a cosmic battle between good and evil. On one side there’s with a kind of goddess of love but she’s really an archangel and on the other side there’s the power of hate represented by Lucifer. They hurl lightning bolts and similar things at each other. And the battles take place in outer space, or at least in the Aether. It’s a mishmash of Christianity and mystic occultism. The hero is a middle-aged businessman who is a student of the occult and serves the power of love.

It has affinities to When the Green Star Waned but without the science fictional elements. It’s fantasy, but with spiritual overtones. I’m afraid it’s not my cup of tea at all.

He Refused to Stay Dead was published in Ghost Stories in 1927. I suppose it could be called a ghost story, but an unconventional one. A soldier, prematurely aged by a great shock, recounts the events that left him a wreck of man. After serving in the First World War he had married a strange girl named Edwina, a girl with a fascination for folklore and the occult.

The soldier happens to own a castle. A very old castle, dating from the ninth century. His new wife discovers that there’s more to the ghost that supposedly haunts the castle than had been supposed. It’s all connected to terrible events that happened more than a thousand years in the past, events set in motion by a Viking raid.

This is a much much better story, involving a past that won’t stay dead and an old old quarrel that must be resolved. If the soldier cannot resolve it he will lose the love of his life. A very good story.

The Dark Lore appeared in Weird Tales in 1927. It’s the story of Lyra Veyle, recounted by herself. She had been a beautiful dark-haired young woman but filled with pride. She had a sister, blonde and virtuous. The sister loved a fine man and that drove Lura to commit a terrible sin. She made use of evil incantations and summoned a demon, a handsome demon who became her lover. But loving a demon is not a very good idea and Lura is cast into a nightmare of sin and debauchery, and then cast aside. She is already in Hell but she discovers that there are even worse Hells. And even greater debaucheries.

Dyalhis’s vision of Hell is outlandishly over-the-top. Lura encounters unimaginable horrors and the worst thing is that even death will provide no escape. In these Hells you can just keep on dying.

Again Dyalhis offers us a struggle between good and evil but the main focus is on Lura’s own inner torment - she knows that she deserves her suffering. Apart from the mystical quasi-science fictional cosmic visions that we’re starting to expect from this author there’s an obsession with sin and also sexual depravity. It’s actually quite a strong story.

The Oath of Hul Jok (published in Weird Tales in 1928) is a sequel to When the Green Star Waned. The seven leading Vehnezians are all having troubles with their women. The evil creature they captured in the earlier story seems to be behind this. If there’s one thing that Venhezians will not tolerate it is anyone messing with their Love-Girls. The war leader Hul Jok’s Love-Girl has been so troublesome than even a spanking failed to bring her into line.

The Love-Girls are kidnapped by the Lunarian who intends taking them back to Aerth and having all seven of them as his wives. Aerth meanwhile is now controlled by creatures that  are half-human and half-monster. One of whom, a female, wants to be the wife of all seven Venezhians.

This is more space opera than fantasy. It’s also rather disturbing. The Venezhians are supposedly the good guys, the most civilised culture in the solar system, but their vengeance is quite blood-curdling in its calculated cruelty and ferocity. One can only speculate as to the source of the author’s taste for refinements of bloodthirstiness. There’s also, as in some of his other tales, something of an obsession with sexual depravity. The Venezhians are rather terrifyingly possessive of their Love-Girls. One can also speculate on the source of this obsession and I can think of some plausible explanations which I have no intention of going into. There’s a lot of weirdness here but it’s morbidly fascinating.

The Red Witch (published in Weird Tales in 1932) bears some thematic similarities to He Refused to Stay Dead. Once again we have a hero and a heroine trapped in the grip of the distant past. Randall Crone and his beloved, Rhoda Day, were once a young warrior and his wife in the primitive world of the last Ice Age. She was Red Dawn, the Red Witch of one of the tribes. There was a mighty war-axe and an equally mighty warrior who sought to steal Red Dawn. There was love and betrayal and a thirst for vengeance and those things never die. And old quarrels are not forgotten even after thousands of years.

These were themes that clearly obsessed Dyalhis and he handles with skill and energy. A very good story.

The Sapphire Goddess (AKA The Sapphire Siren) appeared in Weird Tales in 1934. There are the usual Dyalhis obsessions with the past and with shifting identities. Reincarnation was a popular notion at that time but while Dyalhis flirts with the idea he avoids being too obvious or simplistic about it. Once again there’s a hero who finds himself in a sort of alternative reality and this time it’s a classic sword & sorcery world, and indeed this is to a large extent a sword & sorcery tale although it owes more to Catherine L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith than to Robert E. Howard.

There’s plenty of action, there’s magic, there are two evil sorcerers and there’s a giant sapphire shaped in the form of a beautiful nude woman but is it really just a jewel? There’s also a hero in search of both his past and his destiny. And it’s all great fun. A very good story indeed.

The Sea-Witch was published in Weird Tales in 1937. The narrator, obviously no longer a young man, lives in a cottage on a cliff-top on the New England coast. For some unaccountable reason he decides to take a walk along the shore-line in the middle of a raging tempest and he sees something extraordinary washed up on the beach. It is a young woman. She is extremely beautiful and extremely naked. More unsettling is the fact that she seems oblivious to both the cold and to her own nakedness. Naturally he takes her back to his cottage. He finds some clothes for her but she declares that, despite the bitter cold, it is much too warm to wear clothing. Even more disconcertingly she offers to be his slave.

It’s the sort of offer that a retired anthropologist, ethnologist and archaeologist (for that is what the narrator John Craig is) can hardly refuse. He is familiar with the Norse sagas and he knows he’s dealing with a witch, but not a witch in the Christian sense. She is a Norse witch, possessed of great powers, and she can be frightening but she is by no means evil. She is charming (if disturbing) and will be a fascinating object of study for a man well-versed in Norse lore.

She moves into his cottage, presenting herself to the world as his niece. Their relationship is platonic. Well, sort of platonic. She takes her clothes off a great deal and she’s rather an affectionate girl. John Craig is not entirely indifferent to her naked charms even if he is (mostly) able to convince himself that he loves her as a niece. But why did she come to him that day on the beach and was does she want? The answer is a terrible one and it lies in the distant past (which will come as no surprise to anyone who has read of a few of Dyalhis’s stories). There’s a lot of suppressed eroticism in this extremely fine tale.

Dyalhis’s final story, Heart of Atlantan, appeared in Weird Tales in 1940. Two men are obsessed with the idea of discovering the secrets of the lost civilisation of Atlantis. They are able to make contact with Tekala, priestess of Atlantan. A struggle for power between good and evil had taken place in that long-ago civilisation and Tekala believes she was responsible for its final fall. Can Tekala and the two men of the 20th century defy Destiny? Can anyone do such a thing? And what price would have to be paid? Another very fine story to round off this fascinating collection.

I think I can now see why Dyalhis wrote so few stories. He had certain obsessions to which he returned again and again. Had he been a prolific author such obsessions might have become repetitive. By limiting itself to a handful of tales he was able to take the same themes and play fascinating variations on them.

He Refused to Stay Dead, The Red Witch, The Sapphire Goddess and The Sea-Witch are all variations on one theme and they’re all interesting variations. They’re by far the strongest stories he wrote.

I can also see now why Dyalhis was so highly thought of by contemporary readers of Weird Tales. His best stories are stories of love and revenge, erotically charged and with just a dash of the decadence of Clark Ashton Smith. Dyalhis was also a writer who seemed to improve with each story that he wrote. The Sapphire Goddess is an uneven but intriguing collection. The better stories are very very good indeed. Highly recommended.

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