Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) may be referred to as “one of the most important science fiction authors you’ve never heard of.” He was incredibly prolific and versatile, writing countless short stories of science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, and adventure, as well as over a dozen novels. Many of his works have been adapted into movies and episodes of television shows, including The Twilight Zone. One of my favorite science fiction stories of all time, “Private Eye,” was written by “Lewis Padgett,” the pen-name of Henry Kuttner and his equally talented writing wife, C.L. Moore. I’ve blogged about a number of his novels before — The Time Axis, Destination Infinity, The Well of the Worlds — and I’m always eager to read more of his bibliography, though it isn’t always easy to find it.
I recently came across a reprint of Kuttner’s novel Valley of the Flame (1946), and jumped at the chance to read it. The cover below is that of the first book edition, from 1964.
The story is a somewhat standard “lost world” adventure story, with a few twists. One of those can be seen on the cover of the book: the lost world, the titular Valley of the Flame, is inhabited by intelligent, hyper-evolved cat people!
The story begins in a remote region of the Amazon, where medical researchers Brian Raft and Dan Craddock run a small health center, researching tropical diseases. In recent days, drums have been sounding in the surrounding jungle almost continuously, putting Craddock — an older man with a mysterious past — on edge. He becomes even more nervous when a pair of strangers arrive, one deathly ill, the other somehow… different. Soon, the sick man is dead, and the unusual man has left with Craddock, apparently against Craddock’s will.
Raft goes in pursuit, and the trail leads to a massive hidden valley of wonders. It contains the technology of a long-vanished civilization, the current race of cat people who have built their own civilization based on strength and violence, monsters created by evolution and science, and the Cavern of the Flame, containing a source of energy that powers all of it. Raft finds himself wrapped up in the intrigues of the cat people, which includes an effort to revive the slowly-dwindling flame: an effort that could destroy the entire valley, and possibly the world.
Valley of the Flame is, at heart, a very standard pulp adventure story. This is not surprising, as it was written for the March 1946 issue of Startling Stories, whose cover is reproduced below.
Kuttner is somewhat legendary for being able to write pretty much any genre of story for any market on demand. In this story, I get the feeling that his heart wasn’t particularly in it.
There are, nevertheless, wonderful flashes of brilliance in the story. The Valley is special due to the mystical properties of the flame which, in essence, speed up the metabolism of living things to an unbelievable rate. When the flame was at its full strength, countless generations of felines evolved into the intelligent race of cat people in the span of a few ordinary years outside the valley. Now, even with its power waning, the living things in the valley can effectively perceive months in the span of a single Earth day. This results in wonders to the perception of humans like Raft: boulders floating down at a leisurely pace in freefall, raging rivers move as slow as molasses. Plants which would ordinarily appear stationary instead have diabolical animation:
Those incredible columns seemed to be moving toward him, a giant Birnam Wood malignantly alive. Trees!
For they were trees, not Jurassic cycads, not tree-ferns. He could tell that. They were true trees, but they should have grown on a planet as large as Jupiter, not on Earth.
They were sanctuaries as well, retreats for living organisms, he saw as the trail passed near the towering wall of one. From a distance he had thought the bark smooth. Instead it was literally covered with irregular bumps and swellings.
Vines slid across the trunk like snakes, creeping with a slowness that belied the sudden flash of tendrils as — tongues? — snapped out to capture the insects and birds that fluttered past.
Rainbow flowers glowed on the leafless vines, and a heavy, sweet scent drifted into Raft’s nostrils. From something like a shallow shell that jutted from the trunk a lizard darted out, seized a vine, and carried it back, writhing, to its water-brimming den. There it proceeded to drown the snaky thing and devour it at leisure.
Kuttner has a lot of fun with the idea of super-metabolic processes, though even this never quite reaches the imaginative height of his other works. I found the story enjoyable, but it is not his best work.
One thing about Valley of the Flame bugs me now, though it probably wouldn’t have when I was younger. Raft ends up falling in love with one of the beautiful humanoid cat people, a women named Janissa. Knowing what I know these days about biology, the notion of interspecies romance seems rather creepy, especially species that are not even in the same biological order, four levels more general! Of course, the idea of sexy cat people is not unique to Kuttner, and is found in a lot of fiction. But it’s still weird.
In short: Kuttner’s Valley of the Flame is an entertaining, though rather conventional, pulp adventure story. It will be of most interest to fans of Kuttner’s work.