THE THING FROM — ‘OUTSIDE’ (2)
October 29, 2021
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize George Allan England’s 1923 proto-sf story “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” for HILOBROW’s readers. The story first appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Science and Invention.
That night, after a long afternoon of paddling and portaging — laboring against inhibitions like those in a nightmare — they camped on shelving rocks that slanted to the river.
“After all,” said the Professor, when supper was done, “we mustn’t get into a panic. I know extraordinary things are reported from the wilderness, and more than one man has come out, raving. But we, by Jove! with our superior brains — we aren’t going to let Nature play us any tricks!”
“And of course,” added his wife, her arm about Vivian, “everything in the universe is a natural force. There’s really no super-natural, at all.”
“Admitted,” Jandron replied. “But how about things outside the universe?”
“And they call you a scientist?” gibed Marr; but the Professor leaned forward, his brows knit.
“Hm!” he grunted. A little silence fell.
“You don’t mean, really,” asked Vivian, “that you think there’s life and intelligence — Outside?”
Jandron looked at the girl. Her beauty, haloed with ruddy gold from the firelight, was a pain to him as he answered:
“Yes, I do. And dangerous life, too. I know what I’ve seen, in the North Country. I know what I’ve seen!”
Silence again, save for the crepitation of the flames, the fall of an ember, the murmur of the current. Darkness narrowed the wilderness to just that circle of flickering light ringed by the forest and the river, brooded over by the pale stars.
“Of course you can’t expect a scientific man to take you seriously,” commented the Professor. “I know what I’ve seen! I tell you there’s Something entirely outside man’s knowledge.”
“Poor fellow!” scoffed the journalist; but even as he spoke his hand pressed his forehead.
“There are Things at work,” Jandron affirmed, with dogged persistence. He lighted his pipe with a blazing twig. Its flame revealed his face drawn, lined. “Things. Things that reckon with us no more than we do with ants. Less, perhaps.”
The flame of the twig died. Night stood closer, watching.
“Suppose there are?” the girl asked. “What’s that got to do with these prints in the rock?”
“They,” answered Jandran, “are marks left by one of those Things. Footprints, maybe. That Thing is near us, here and now!”
Marr’s laugh broke a long stillness.
“And you,” he exclaimed, “with an A. M. and a B. S. to write after your name.”
“If you knew more,” retorted Jandron, “you’d know a devilish sight less. It’s only ignorance that’s cock-sure.”
“But,” dogmatized the Professor, “no scientist of any standing has ever admitted any outside interference with this planet.”
“No, and for thousands of years nobody ever admitted that the world was round, either. What I’ve seen, I know.”
“Well, what have you seen?” asked Mrs. Thorburn, shivering.
“You’ll excuse me, please, for not going into that just now.”
“You mean,” the Professor demanded, dryly, “if the — hm! — this suppositious Thing wants to —?”
“It’ll do any infernal thing it takes a fancy to, yes! If it happens to want us —”
“But what could Things like that want of us? Why should They come here, at all?”
“Oh, for various reasons. For inanimate objects, at times, and then again for living beings. They’ve come here lots of times, I tell you,” Jandron asserted with strange irritation, “and got what They wanted, and then gone away to — Somewhere. If one of Them happens to want us, for any reason, It will take us, that’s all. If It doesn’t want us, It will ignore us, as we’d ignore gorillas in Africa if we were looking for gold. But if it was gorilla-fur we wanted, that would be different for the gorillas, wouldn’t it?”
“What in the world,” asked Vivian, “could a — well, a Thing from Outside want of us?”
“What do men want, say, of guinea-pigs? Men experiment with ’em, of course. Superior beings use inferior, for their own ends. To assume that man is the supreme product of evolution is gross self-conceit. Might not some superior Thing want to experiment with human beings?”
“But how?” demanded Marr.
“The human brain is the most highly-organized form of matter known to this planet. Suppose, now —”
“Nonsense!” interrupted the Professor. “All hands to the sleeping-bags, and no more of this. I’ve got a wretched headache. Let’s anchor in Blanket Bay!”
He, and both the women, turned in. Jandron and Marr sat a while longer by the fire. They kept plenty of wood piled on it, too, for an unnatural chill transfixed the night-air. The fire burned strangely blue, with greenish flicks of flame.
At length, after vast acerbities of disagreement, the geologist and the newspaperman sought their sleeping-bags. The fire was a comfort. Not that a fire could avail a pin’s weight against a Thing from interstellar space, but subjectively it was a comfort. The instincts of a million years, centering around protection by fire, cannot be obliterated.
After a time — worn out by a day of nerve-strain and of battling with swift currents, of flight from Something invisible, intangible — they all slept.
The depths of space, star-sprinkled, hung above them with vastness immeasurable, cold beyond all understanding of the human mind.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads”.