Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, sci-fi’s preeminent husband-and-wife writing team, eased back a bit from earlier years’ prolific outputs in 1948, coming out with only four short stories and a short novel. The previous year had seen their sci-fi masterpiece Fury serialized in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, and to follow up on that brilliant piece of work, the team switched gears, as it were, and wrote what was in essence an example of hard fantasy, The Mask of Circe. This tale, which was first published in the May 1948 issue of Startling Stories, finally got the book treatment it deserved in 1971.
In The Mask of Circe, Jay Seward, a modern-day psychiatrist, tells a very strange story over a Canadian campfire. As a result of some narcosynthesis research that he had been engaged in, repressed memories of his had been unearthed, and Seward realized that he was a distant lineal descendant of no less a figure than Jason, of the Golden Fleece and Argonaut fame. And before long, Seward had been mystically transported aboard the Argo herself to the isle of Aeaea, home of the sorceress Circe, and embroiled in a cosmic battle between the warring gods Apollo and Hecate.
The Mask of Circe is perhaps one of the most way-out in the entire Kuttner-Moore canon, and for that reason, maybe, the pair thought to give it some grounding in logic and science. Thus, we are given semiplausible theories to explain not only the origin of the Grecian pantheon of gods, but also for the existence of fauns, satyrs, dryads, the Fleece itself, et al. But even with all these attempts at rationalization, the The Mask of Circe remains quite an exercise in hard fantasy.
Kuttner and Moore’s admiration for the master of these types of tales, Abraham Merritt, is evident not only in the book’s Canadian wilderness opening, so reminiscent of the Alaskan wilderness opening in Merritt’s 1932 classic Dwellers in the Mirage, but in the central story itself. In Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar (1924), archeologist John Kenton is magically transported aboard the galley of the title and becomes involved in a duel between the Babylonian gods Nergal and Ishtar.
Kuttner and Moore do a very passable job, thus, of pastiching an author they admired greatly, and to its credit, The Mask of Circe is able to stand on its own, uh, merits. With its limbo-world setting, fantastical characters straight out of Homeric mythology (and no, a detailed knowledge of mythology is not a prerequisite before getting into this book), seemingly magical weapons and battling gods, The Mask of Circe almost makes for an hallucinatory, lysergic experience.
I would like to advise readers to seek out the 1977 Ace paperback edition pictured above, as it contains no less than 15 beautifully rendered, full-page illustrations by an artist named Alicia Austin that greatly enhance the reading experience. Whichever edition the reader picks up, however, The Mask of Circe is guaranteed to provide a few evenings of wonder. Like all the works from Kuttner and/or Moore, I more than highly recommend it!