Dreadful Sleep: Some kind of ultimate pulp mash-up

Dreadful Sleep by Jack Williamson fantasy book reviewsDreadful Sleep by Jack Williamson fantasy book reviewsDreadful Sleep by Jack Williamson

At the end of my recent review of Jack Williamson’s 1933 novel Golden Blood, which initially appeared as a six-part serial in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, I mentioned that the author had later placed another serial in that same pulp publication, and that I meant to seek it out. Well, I am here to tell you MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! That later serial, Dreadful Sleep, was a three-part affair in the March – May 1938 issues (although it didn’t cop any front-cover illustrations, as had Golden Blood, the great Virgil Finlay did contribute drawings for the interior spreads), and I was happy to lay my hands on what I had thought was the novel’s only subsequent publication, in time for its 80th anniversary.

That reprint is a rather odd affair; #7 of pulp expert Robert Weinberg’s Lost Fantasies series, from 1977. The book (or rather, chapbook, as the Internet Speculative Fiction Database refers to it) consists of 80 large pages of small, single-spaced typewriter print, riddled with typos on every single page. It’s as if somebody sat down and typed out the story from old Weird Tales issues, neglected to proofread and correct the pages, and merely Xeroxed them … which I’m quite certain is not too far off the mark. The back cover of the book is just plain white (!), and the author’s name does not even appear on the front cover, which is highlighted by a sensationalistic painting by Marcus Boas that is only tangentially faithful to the story. Fortunately, Dreadful Sleep itself turns out to be such a marvelous tale — a combination of sci-fi and fantasy genres, as had been Golden Blood — that the reader soon forgets about the volume’s oddball presentation and is quite simply swept away. To be succinct, this book is a blast!

In it, 34-year-old airplane pilot Ronald Dunbar narrates what he knows about an event that had stunned the entire world shortly before: the loss of over six entire months of time, as the planet jumped from June 11 to Christmas Eve in the wink of an eye, in the futuristic year of, er, 1960! The previous February, it seems, Dunbar and four others had ventured to Antarctica to engage in a highly ambitious scientific project: the use of an atomic heat ray to melt large areas of the continent and transform it into a region suitable for colonization. But just before he’d left on the expedition, Dunbar had received a most unusual warning from a 4-foot high, levitating, mollusk-bodied “elfin woman,” with a white face, huge purple eyes, a head of golden plates, and a scarlet plume.

This being, whose name, as it turned out, was Maru Mora (not to be confused with the title of a 1952 Errol Flynn movie, Mara Maru!), had dwelt in the South Polar region over 100 million years before, when the area was temperate, and was now the only survivor of her race. Taking Dunbar’s hand, she had released his spirit, and brought it on a journey to the frozen land, later showing him the horrors that lay buried beneath the ice; horrors that would awaken if Dunbar and his team were successful with their project. The pilot also got to see Maru Mora’s purple crystalline tower, where she resided, and had met a young and beautiful girl, Karalee, who was apparently the elfin woman’s assistant. But upon awakening the following morning, the pilot had refused to accept the validity of the warning, putting it down to a mere dream. And so, the team of five had proceeded down to the South Pole as planned, with disastrous results for everyone … and the planet in general…

Dunbar, the only survivor of the journey, apologizes in his narrative’s introduction for not being “a man of letters,” and for thus necessarily giving us a “simple account … without much literary embellishment,” but as it turns out, no such apology was necessary, as his tale is so very thrilling, so brimming with the “sense of wonder” that was so prized by readers of Golden Age sci-fi, that any such perceived deficiencies (of which there are actually very few) pale into insignificance. In his introduction to Dreadful Sleep, Weinberg calls it “glorious, exciting fun … sheer escapism,” and he is so right. This is a short novel that conflates polar adventure, weapons of super-science (that heat ray, a bacteriophage capable of killing millions, as well as a stasis beam that can effectively cause time to cease flowing and turn living things to petrified yet sensate matter), an evil and psychotic hunchback, brain transplantation, lost races, creatures straight out of Abraham Merritt, of whom Williamson was a fan (Maru Mora is a bit reminiscent of Adana the Snake Mother in Merritt’s 1931 wonder The Face in the Abyss), and an alien menace that smacks of H.P. Lovecraft (the tentacled Tharshoon from the planet Saturn, capable of emitting lethal beams from their green, triangular eyes). This is surely some kind of ultimate pulp mash-up, done to a hair-raising turn.

The book contains any number of highly atmospheric and exciting sequences, such as Dunbar’s reading from the diary of a plane that had crash-landed near the South Pole 20 years earlier; our hero’s painfully slow odyssey from Antarctica to South America, in a stasis-paralyzed world in which everything is rock hard and frozen, including the Atlantic Ocean; and finally, Dunbar and Karalee’s desperate fight against the Saturnians and their wicked Earth allies, on a hilltop in the Palisades of New Jersey. The book dishes out surprises in plenty, and I am trying to be a little coy here so as not to spoil any of the fun. Dreadful Sleep is the type of book about which a reader just wants to gush, but about which is sadly compelled to display some self-restraint. You’ll just have to trust me on this one: Williamson’s book here is a doozy.

And apparently, Weinberg and myself aren’t the only ones who think so. When I chanced to mention this novel recently, on the Vintage Paperback and Pulp Forum page on Facebook, who happened to chime in but Stephen Haffner himself, the founder of Haffner Press, which puts out big, gorgeous, modern-day hardcover volumes written by Golden Age authors. Haffner replied to me that Dreadful Sleep “is my all-time favorite early Williamson tale. It cries out for a cinematic adaptation … the image of our hero using the stop-watch [sic … it’s more of a bracelet, but whatever] to traverse the chrono-frozen ocean will never leave me, not to mention the Cthulhuoid monster nesting over NYC and harvesting immobilized citizens from city streets. Ewww!” Haffner also alerted me to something that I had not been aware of: the fact that Dreadful Sleep can now be found as just one of the offerings in Haffner Press’ 616-page whopper collection Spider Island: The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, #4. The Legion of Time, another terrific Williamson short novel from 1938, is also to be had here, in addition to two other novels and eight short stories, plus a Williamson interview and pertinent articles! Haffner Press only puts out stunning volumes, if my four previous experiences with the company are any indicators, and I’m sure that this volume would surely be the way to go, as opposed to the 1977 edition of Dreadful Sleep that I just proofread; I mean, read.

Williamson’s book may not be perfect — as usual, he has a regrettable tendency to overuse some of his pet words, such as “supernal” and “ophidian,” and the ending might strike some as a tad rushed — but you will yet be hard put to find a sci-fi/fantasy pulp adventure much more colorful or exciting as this one. Truly, a bravura piece of work from the future Grand Master.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    BTW, here is one of those Virgil Finlay illustrations that I mentioned above…Maru Mora, in all her glory: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-88DSNIAtfTQ/UwVjQA2VtlI/AAAAAAACSwI/ohGP2Mp99qk/s1600/finlay_06_wt_1938_dreadfulsleep_williamson.jpg

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Here’s one of those great Virgil Finlay illustrations that I referred to above; Maru Mora, in all her awesomeness! http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-88DSNIAtfTQ/UwVjQA2VtlI/AAAAAAACSwI/ohGP2Mp99qk/s1600/finlay_06_wt_1938_dreadfulsleep_williamson.jpg

  3. Sandy, I love the black and white illustration. That lurid book cover, though, is so stunningly bad it’s good. Thanks for the history of the book, the review… and that image!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Yes, Virgil Finlay was a master at these B&W illustrations; one of the greatest of all pulp artists. As for that modern-day cover, perhaps it can be a candidate for one of our future “Rename This Awful Cover” contests? And as for the history of the book and the review…MY PLEASURE!

  4. “Ophidian” is one of my favorite words too.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Yes, a cool word, most definitely, but it starts to lose its allure after the fifth or sixth time or so in 80 pages….

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