On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.
I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.
Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.
What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’ read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.
The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.
What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)
The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.
The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.