Thursday, April 14, 2011

Retro Review - The Monster-God of Mamurth (Edmond Hamilton, 1926)

"Retro Review - The Monster-God of Mamurth
(Edmond Hamilton, 1926)"

(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Synopsis: The first-person narrator of the framing story, who is not named, and his partner Mitchell, are traders in the Sahara Desert of French North Africa. An unnamed archaeologist stumbles into their camp. He is suffering from the effects of extreme exposure (1).

The archaeologist tells them the central tale.

He set out a year ago (2) from Magador (3) and went deep into the Igidi Desert in search of lost Carthaginian ruins. He found a stela erected by Drabat of Carthage, which told of a city called Mamurth which had a temple which "the like of it is not on Earth elsewhere," where is an "evil god" who has "dwelt there since the beginning of time."

Understandably unaware that he is in a horror story, the archaeologist seeks out the lost city. After a difficult journey he finds the place, with ruins spread all about. But he cannot see the temple. He does, very sinisterly, see what looks like strange giant footprints being made in the sand right before him, though he cannot see the maker!

Eventually, he literally bumps into the temple, which is still standing. And invisible: apparently whoever built it had discovered how to make solid matter invisible. There is a (sadly mistaken) reference to X-rays making things invisible (4).

The archaeologist discovers the gate leading into the temple and spends some time wandering around inside. After a while, he discovers just why the city has remained "lost." It seems that the evil god mentioned on the stela is very real: and as invisible as its temple.

Our hero tries to flee the monster, but becomes understandably disoriented in the invisible building and winds up bumping into a lot of walls. Finally he manages to fling a great block of stone down on it as he retreats up a stairway, and he crushes it. In its "thin, purple" blood (5), which bathes its body, he can plainly perceive its nature:

"It was like a giant spider, with angled limbs that were yards long, and a hairy, repellant body."

The archaeologist then escapes the temple and flees the ruined city. By bad luck (in part due to his haste) he loses his water supplies when one camel stumbles and the containers burst. This causes him to suffer from dehydration, and he was almost dead when he saw their firelight (6).

Having completed his tale, he falls asleep, and dies the next morning (7).

Mitchell and the Narrator of the Framing Story send the dead archaeologist's effects back to the little New England village from which he came (8), and vow never to venture to the ruined city themselves.


This tale has some logical holes which I have pointed out, and a flaw which was to plague much of Hamilton's early work -- an overall lack of any strong characterization (9). The archaeologist is the only character of whose personality we get much sense, and he is a stereotypical driven scientist-adventurer. The background is also only sketched: it's obvious that Hamilton, at this point, didn't know much about Morocco or the Sahara Desert, save that it was hot and dry and a good place to use camels.

Having said that, the story is told with energy and the descriptions are good. For instance, when the archaeologist kills the spider-god, we get not only sight and sound but also smell -- "the intolerable odor of a crushed insect..." Hamilton also wisely does not tell too much -- the archaeologist never deciphers the mysterious inscriptions he finds, nor does he learn much more about the ruined city than what he found on the Carthaginian stela (10). Thus, Mamurth remains a terrifying enigma.

And here's why I'm willing to cut Hamilton more than a little slack ...

This was the FIRST story he ever sold. In fact, it may have been the first story he ever completed.

Think about the first story you ever completed, Gentle Readers, and you'll probably admit that "The Monster-God of Mamurth" is a lot more readable.

Sure, one reason why it's still read today is the curiosity that it was Hamilton's first effort, and Hamilton would go on to far better things. But compare it with Lovecraft's early work, and it holds up rather well. Even the characterization is better than in early Lovecraft.

Hamilton, interestingly, said that he was primarily influenced by A. Merrit, rather than by Lovecraft. In 1926, of course, Lovecraft's better stories were yet to be written, while Merrit had already produced several works of enduring value. "Monster-God" is, however, more horrific than wondrous, and hence reminds me more of a Lovecraft tale (11).

Interestingly, this story was clearly an inspiration for one that Lovecraft was to write later in his career. He moved the location to Venus. I'm talking, of course, about "In the Walls of Eryx" (1936) which is about a man who finds himself in a similarly invisible building, though this one is more of a labyrinth.

Conclusion: This is a strong, well-written story which, despite its defects, is an indication of the great science-fiction writer that Edmond Hamilton was to become.

(1) -
 Yet, oddly, he is able to tell a long, coherent, and brilliantly descriptive tale. Hamilton really shouldn't be blamed for this: it was as much a convention of the pulps of the day as were the long written manuscripts that characters were able to write while shivering in terror in a huanted house with the Unnamable Thing right outside the door.  Really, neither is at all likely.

(2) - 1924 or 1925, assuming that the setting is contemporary to Hamilton's writing of the tale.

(3) - In Morocco. This name is now spelled "Mogador" and the city now officially called "Essaouira"

(4) - Of course, X-rays do not make solid matter invisible. It's simply that most substances are translucent to an X-ray beam, and thus X-rays can be used to image through less dense solids to see denser ones. Keep in mind that X-ray technology was as new in 1926 as the personal computer is today, and hence was a fertile field for speculation.

(5) - If its blood is visible when outside its body, why is it invisible within its body? This sounds less like the monster is transparent than that it has some sort of light-deflector field around its body -- which, now, we know to be actually possible! Of course, no one in 1926 would have known this.

(6) - This is a seriously verisimilitude-shattering moment if you think on it ... consider that one highly noticable effect of extreme dehydration is that its victims are almost speechless owing to the dessication of the tongue and larynx!

(7) - It's not really obvious why. Though it is possible -- who knows what his condition was, or what he might have been exposed to in the ruined city. He was very close to the spider-god too, more than once.  The thing might have been chemically or radioactively toxic, for all we know.

(8) -  I strongly suspect it was in Lovecraft Country ;-)

(9) - This was however common to most fantasy and science fiction written from 1920-40: the few authors who were able to do characters well (such as C. L. Moore or L. Sprague de Camp) shone in contrast.

(10) - Contrast with H. P. Lovecraft, who would have gone into detail about the city's history and just how it happened to have an invisible temple and a giant invisible spider-god.

(11) - There is also a notable absence of any Love Interest. There was almost always a beautiful, often unearthly, woman in Merrit's work, but never in Lovecraft's -- all his strong female characters are monsters in disguise. I mean that -- look at Asenath Waite, or the bride that Obed Marsh brought back from Ponape.

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