Having recently worked through Manly Wade Wellman’s wonderful Silver John novels, I thought I would take a look at some of his other speculative fiction. Thanks to all my Silver John purchases on Amazon, other Wellman novels have percolated up into my recommendations; the novella Giants From Eternity (1939) immediately caught my eye:
See if you can see what got my attention from the book blurb:
Scientist Oliver Norfleet and his college buddy Spencer DuPogue are called by the Board of Science, to investigate a mysteriously expanding red blight that is growing around the site of a meteor crash. With the help of the daughter of a famous scientist, they soon discover that the blight is not only alive, but that it consumes nearly everything in its path. When their own abilities prove inadequate, they are forced to turn to the greatest scientific minds that history has to offer. Can Norfleet and DuPogue and the Giants from Eternity stop the blight before the entire Earth is consumed?
Yeah, baby — the “Giants” are some of history’s greatest scientists, resurrected to kick ass and save the world! Giants From Eternity is an exceedingly silly story, but is quite entertaining and not without its moments of genuine horror.
The story begins when a meteor touches down at sunset on the Shanklin family farm in western Kansas. The event hardly registers with people, but this meteor has brought with it a passenger– a deadly and world-threatening form of extraterrestrial life known as the blight:
It was not until morning that the neighbors discovered this terrible newcomer to Earth — the spawn of that meteor which had fallen into Shanklin’s pond and then spread itself to swallow his animals, him, and all that was his.
At dawn a great blotch of mussy, angry redness blanketed acres of his farm, like blood on a blotter. A rounded, gnawed-down hillock still showed where the house had been, a smaller and lower one marked the swallowed barn. The sole survivor of the evening’s terror was Gruff, the collie, whining and cowering afar.
Meanwhile, the redness was extending itself, swiftly enough to be seen by a watchful eye — inches an hour, even feet. Police were called, and James Hilbein, Gray County’s farm agent. They sent rather incoherent telegrams to the state offices at Topeka.
As the day progressed, so did the blight. It overwhelmed a pasture and, before rescue could arrive, half a dozen horses screamed their terrified last as the earth-rash, suddenly swift, leaped and felled and possessed them. Those who watched drew away, shuddering; they knew why none of the Shanklins could be found.
Nothing seems capable of stopping the spread of the deadly extraterrestrial entity: not fire, nor chemicals, nor barriers; the blight consumes all. Its growth threatens to destroy not only the state of Kansas, but all life on Earth. Humanity sees its own end within a short number of years, creeping at a rate of inches an hour.
The blight draws the attention of a brilliant young researcher named Oliver Norfleet, who travels to the infected zone with his colleague Spencer DuPogue to investigate firsthand. Norfleet is a natural genius, and runs his own research lab with modest funds from his father’s legacy. At this research lab he studies, among other things, the nature and origin of life itself.
Norfleet in turn catches the attention of Caris Bridge, who represents a rather interesting organization:
“Want a job?” asked the girl.
Both faces lighted up at the question. There was nothing that Oliver Norfleet and Spencer DuPogue wanted or needed more.
“Good. You’ve got one. I’m from the Board of Science.”
Norfleet and DuPogue stared. The girl apparently thought they did not comprehend.
“Maybe you haven’t heard of the Board,” she went on. “It’s only a year old, but it has the finest scientific minds of all America, with associates in every civilized country. It works with, and is able to help, the Rockefellers, Nobels, Guggenheims–”
“We know about the Board of Science,” said DuPogue a little sharply, nettled that his awareness of great things was being challenged.
With the support of Caris and the “Board of Science”, Norfleet designs a pair of boots which are resistant to the blight and allow him to travel into its very heart to investigate. He narrowly escapes with his life, as the blight is much more alive, even aware, at its heart. He manages to bring back with him a piece of that heart, however, and days later they make a remarkable discovery: the concentrated life force the heart contains can be used to resurrect the dead, even the long dead, in full health with their memories intact up to the point of their original dissolution!
From this, Norfleet hatches a rather desperate plan: to bring back to life the greatest scientific minds in history to help find a cure for the problem of the blight! Louis Pasteur, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton (recommended by Darwin), Thomas Edison, and Marie Curie are enlisted to lead the fight against this alien invader.
You can determine whether you will like Giants From Eternity or not by your reaction to the previous two paragraphs! If your reaction was, “COOL!!!”, then you’ll probably enjoy the novel immensely. If your reaction was, “WTF???”, maybe not so much.
I really enjoyed Giants! The story is a charmingly naïve celebration of scientific progress and the personalities who moved science the furthest, and it is rare to find a story that treats history’s giants as genuine action heroes. In one scene, the group undertakes a raid on a hostile trailer park, armed with pistols, sabres — and Louis Pasteur with a shotgun!
I would say that Wellman’s tale borders on childishness in its enthusiasm and undisguised atmosphere of wish fulfillment: “Wouldn’t it be totally cool if we could raise famous scientists from the dead to make a super-team to fight an alien enemy?” One’s enjoyment of the book depends on one’s personal ability to ignore its silliness and just go along for the ride. It is rather absurd, for instance, to assume that Isaac Newton could not only catch up on 200 years of scientific and technological advances in a handful of weeks, but also make groundbreaking discoveries and implement them in practice in the same time period! Wellman does address this in the book, arguing that resurrection by the blight force also accelerates ones intellectual capabilities, but it seems very deus ex machina. My impression is not that Wellman was ignorant of science and the scientific process when writing his novel, but that he chose to ignore the finer points (and many coarser points) to tell his story.
The alien blight is a wonderfully creepy villain in the story. Just as the scientists have accelerated learning capabilities from the blight force, the blight itself is a rapidly evolving life form. It starts more or less as an insensate amoeba-like blob, but quickly develops a primitive intellect and eventually starts to actively fight back and strategise against the Earth defenders. Wellman does an excellent job of filling the tale with a sense of impending doom.
The plot has a healthy number of twists and turns, some foreseeable, others which are quite surprising. Getting past the inherent silliness of the story, I found myself really caring about the characters and worrying about their fates. The ending of the tale is also quite implausible, but if you’ve read that far without giving up in exasperation, you probably won’t be bothered!
The edition of Giants From Eternity that I read is published by Nightshade Books, one of my other favorite publishers of weird fiction along with Wordsworth, Valancourt and Paizo. The Giants edition is a nice little hardcover which also contains the Wellman story The Timeless Tomorrow, which I have not yet read.
Now I’m in the mood to read more stories with classic scientists as heroic figures! Anyone have any recommendations?