Sunday, June 8, 2014

Here's an obscure one: Beyond the Pole and Other Weird Fantasies, by Philip Fisher

Black Dog Books, 2013
324 pp


"Damn peculiar -- cursed if it ain't!"

There are eleven very weird stories by Philip M. Fisher (1891-1973) in this book. I had never heard of Fisher before I stumbled across this title (and I still don't remember how I came to it), but now I think I'll have to find more of his work.

Included in this particular volume are (* denotes a favorite):

Introduction by Stefan Dziemianowicz
"The Recent Demise of Professor Manried" (1917)
  -- A well-loved friend of the late scientist Professor Manried feels he needs to speak out and tell the truth about the real cause of Manried's death, because the papers are labeling it a suicide and he knows that is not really how things went down.
"Queer" (1918) *
-- A former Indy 500 driver, now in the Army, is called upon to transport an Army captain to Croy in the middle of a German shelling attack.  He's crossed the road fifty times "and never a scratch." He's not about to break his record.  This one is positively eerie.
"The Strange Case of Lemuel Jenkins" (1919)
--Another science-based story. Here a group of friends decides to play a cruel joke on one of their number, with tragic consequences.
"The Ship of Silent Men" (1920) * 
-- One of my personal favorites in this volume. A cargo ship named the Lanoa finds itself in the middle of a strange atmospheric phenomenon. While they're busy trying to figure things out, another ship, the Karnak, sends out an SOS. Since the Lanoa is the closest ship in the region, they attempt to make rescue. When they arrive, they quickly discover the crew hard at work as if nothing had happened.  A closer look, however, reveals that all is not exactly well. 
"The Master of Black" (1920)
-- Of all of the stories in this book, this is probably the least satisfying for modern readers.  The basic concept is good, about a man who, through his work in science, is able to plunge the world into total darkness that absolutely no light can penetrate.  The telling is long and wordy, although the basic story is pretty good.
"The Man Who Put Himself Into His Work" (1920) [originally titled "Into His Work"]
-- A typing teacher really wants to give his all to his students -- and eventually succeeds.  This one is weird enough, but not really very satisfying.
"Worlds Within Worlds" (1922)
-- An overworked, overtired scientist has a sort of breakdown and his doctors want to try a very risky cure using potent drug cocktail combinations.  He wakes up refreshed, but things are very different when he does.   Actually, this is a very cool story with a great  premise, but  it's just so overwordy with a lot of exposition that made my interest wane.  The underlying concept is awesome -- it's the delivery that doesn't exactly translate to the 21st century.
"Lights" (1922)
-- Lt. junior grade Warren Carey is being court-martialed for his role in the wreck of his captain's ship on the Yangtze River. Is he guilty as charged, or is it, like he says, that maybe he was "befogged in vibrations of a different plane?" 
"The Devil of the Western Sea" (1922) *
-- Among my favorites in this book, "The Devil of the Western Sea" sort of  read like a cross between those   old 1980s movies "The Final Countdown" and "The Philadelphia Experiment." New technology is going live on a Navy ship and it looks like it's working just fine. Then, when the inventor steps in, something goes just a little awry.  I really liked this one, in spite all of the scientific jargon.


"Fungus Isle" (1923) *
-- As I was researching this author and his writing, I came across a website devoted to William Hope Hodgson  that pretty much says that Fisher's story "clearly owes so much to Hodgson as to come close to intellectual property theft." The blog author also writes that "Fungus Isle" is "a mash-up of “The Voice in the Night” and The Boats of the Glen Carrig” here to a degree that is virtually impossible to ignore."  I haven't read much Hodgson (but will now), so I can't say.  All I know is that this is one very weird tale that made me want to go take a shower.  After mining for fire opals that they hope will bring them riches, one group within the party sneaks away by boat. Going after them, the others encounter a fierce typhoon, landing them on a strange island the likes of which they've never seen before. Trying not to starve or die of thirst, they explore and run into a nightmare. Whether it's lifted from Hodgson or no, it's still a fine tale.

"Beyond the Pole"(1924), 
-- A secret government expedition aboard a repurposed enemy Zeppelin that actually never launched finds a crew heading for the North Pole. The brother of the skipper is left behind because of a broken leg and is extremely disappointed not to be going on this momentous expedition.  The ship sails away, and it doesn't take long before all contact is lost.  When the brother discovers why, his disappointment turns to utter horror.  Here's another one where the government is warned against sending help or repeating the experiment, yet fails to listen. How typical, I guess, even in 1924. 

These eleven tales are by no means the sum total of Fisher's works. On another website I found while researching Fisher, I discovered another twelve titles which, along with some of the work in this book, seem to have been anthologized in a volume called Strange Ocean Vistas of Philip M. Fisher -- Lost Treasures From the Pulps #12. I wrote the author about the book ( it doesn't seem to have been published) so I'll see what happens. Anyway, back to Beyond the Pole.

  There are some very distinct ideas running through these stories. First, with the exception of "Queer," "Lights," and "Fungus Isle,"  his tales run more on the science fiction side of weird, focusing mainly on different forms and uses of physics. The author seems to be fascinated by the effects of "vibrations"  and electricity.  Secondly,  a lot of his tales have to do with the sea (as Dziemianowicz states in his introduction), likely based on the author's time in the Navy. Dziemianowicz notes that "these stories present the sea as a vast and alien world, where marvels and horrors await the vulnerable humans who sail upon it."  He includes "Beyond the Pole" in this particular set of stories -- even though it takes place in a dirigible, it's still a voyage.  

Beyond the Pole is basically a better-than-good, not great collection of strange tales. Some you have to use a mental machete to hack through the scientific jargon, making them a bit difficult and tedious in the reading, but even those are underpinned by cool storylines.  It seems like the author wanted to make sure that his readers understood the science, so he added long sections of exposition to make everything clear. When authors do that sort of thing, though, it has the opposite effect on me -- I just get bored. And that's my biggest critique of this book -- the author's style. It's not like that in all of the stories, just most of the ones that deal with the science behind whatever's going on at the moment. Some people may like that -- I am not a science person so it became monotonous after a while. Other than that, I'm very happy to have found this guy -- I love weird, I love pulp, science fiction is okay and when you throw all of that in the mix, that's what you get in this volume.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy: Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on this author. I have never heard of him, but am now hot on his tail. It sounds like a mix of post-Doyle, just-post-Hodgson, pre-Klarkash-Ton, etc.; and, in his technical detail, way too much like Verne. As a child, I greatly enjoyed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As an adult, I could barely force my way through a handful of pages, as the novel is an endless description of different ocean fauna, and seemingly little else. Somewhere in there there's a ripping great story hiding that you have to see the Disney movie to actually access. (I encountered the same problem with Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man: an endless cataloging of flowers and other plants, not much story going on in that novel; but she made up for it with the excellent Frankenstein.)


Say what you will, but do it in a nice way.