Fresher Than You Think

by Arthur B

For a story dating from the 1940s, Darker Than You Think has held up surprisingly well.
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First published in 1940 before emerging in an expanded form in 1948, Darker Than You Think revolves around intrepid reporter Will Barbee. Once upon a time, Will was a protégé of the brilliant Dr Lamarck Mondrick, along with his best friends Sam Quain, Nick Spivak and Rex Chittum, but at some point along the way Mondrick banished Barbee from his inner circle for reasons he never saw fit to explain to Will. Ever since then, Barbee has worked the journalistic beat whilst his buddies and Mondrick formed the Humane Research Foundation to further their mysterious research at the intersection of history, psychology, archaeology, anatomy, ethnography, anthropology, and all other disciplines shedding light on the human experience.

Now, Mondrick and his three assistants are returning to the States from a perilous excavation in the Gobi desert, and Will is at the airport ready to cover their arrival. As well as various family members of the explorers, Will runs into April Bell, a reporter for a rival newspaper and a woman that Will immediately falls for - and who seems especially interested in the Foundation's work. When the plane lands, the Foundation members take the unusual step of demanding that a press conference with live radio be set up before they disembark - alas, Mondrick is overcome by a sudden attack and dies before he can reveal the Foundation's amazing discovery to the world, and his assistants decide on an approach of total secrecy from that point, so the promised revelation never takes place.

Mondrick's death, though its timing is dramatic, looks for all the world like an accident. His widow Rowena - a capable anthropologist in her own right whose academic career was cut short when a brutal animal attack in Africa left her blinded - is convinced that it was murder, perhaps one exploiting Mondrick's acute cat allergy. and Barbee begins to think there's something to that theory when he discovers near the scene the dead body of a kitten April had brought with her to the airport - the cat slain in an obviously ritualistic fashion.

Things take a turn for the surreal once April confesses to Will over a charming candlelight dinner that she is a bona fide witch, obliged to strike at Mondrick in order to prevent exposure of the international society of witches and the campaign of genocide against her kind which would surely follow such a revelation. Disarmed by such a matter-of-fact confession, Will would prefer to think that April is merely deluded - but a series of dreams in which his spirit goes forth in bestial form to strike against the Foundation at the behest of April, dreams whose events apparently do have some effect on the waking world, shake Will's sense of reality to the core. Will the Foundation be able to make full use of the incredible weapon against the hidden witch lineage it has discovered? Or will Barbee find himself powerless to stop the rise of the witches' promised messiah - the sinister Child of Night?

It's been argued elsewhere that Darker Than You Think is the first urban fantasy/dark romance novel, though I think that is a bit of a stretch. Yes, it does revolve around folkloric monsters lurking about in modern society, but so did Dracula; yes, there is a very prominent romance subplot between Will and April, but it's both rooted in Will's viewpoint (with all the male gaze the red-blooded 1940s can muster) and based more around the typical niche for romance in fantasy and SF of a particular vintage. The extent to which it is a forefather of urban fantasy, or dark romance, or whatever it is that we are calling that thing these days depends a lot on whether you consider the truly definitive part of that subgenre to be the mere presence of particular setting features, or a particular emphasis on romance, or an assumption that most of the readers of a particular work will be women (as opposed to the male audience that Astounding Science Fiction, where the story first appeared, primarily catered to).

Whichever subgenre pigeonhole you ascribe it to, the novel is a strange hybrid, straddling SF, fantasy and horror in a way which was still viable in the 1940s before the tendency towards more rigid genre boundaries set in. At points this falls slightly flat - the bit where April wheels out a pseudoscientific explanation of magic to Will which involves the conscious manipulation of probability serves mostly to demystify the supernatural goings-on in the novel and wrap them up in technobabble, which might have made it more palatable to SF fans at the time but rather sabotages the scares. On the flipside, the bit where Sam desperately explains Mondrick's astonishing theory of human history manages to simultaneously provide an explanation for everything which, if not absolutely scientifically sound, is at least something you can willingly suspend disbelief, and more importantly makes all these events seem more incredible, not less.

At the time of its writing, the concept of a race of psionic mutants emerging from amongst humanity and ruling over us as benign supermen was heavily pushed within science fiction circles. In particular, John Campbell, who as editor of Astounding Science Fiction was a major force in shaping the market, had bought into the idea of ESP from the 1930s onwards, and was always keen to publish stories about psionic supermen provided that they were clearly benign and in charge. Originally published in Campbell's Unknown magazine, and using the terminology of witchcraft to perhaps sneak its super-mutants under Campbell's radar, Darker Than You Think presents a more nuanced situation than either Campbell's favoured fantasies of the psionic meek inheriting the earth or the likes of Philip K. Dick's later broadsides against the concept (in which psionically capable individuals either turn out to be decidedly impaired compared to mainline human beings, or are decidedly not the benign overlords that Campbell hoped for).

As April stresses to Will over and over, the killings she performs through her magical powers and her shapeshifting (or rather, astral projection in various shapes) are, from her point of view, a matter of self-defence: were human beings to know of the conspiracy of witches living amongst them, they would seek to destroy them, and the superweapon that the Foundation has brought back from the Gobi might even allow them to win. On the other hand, the witches' very origin lies in predation upon other human beings, and peaceful coexistence is dismissed as a possibility out of hand in favour of eternal race war. The paranoid tone of the novel is heightened by the fact that the witches have infiltrated all echelons of society - to the point where it's worth giving the story a re-read, once you've learned about the distinctive physiological signifiers of the witches (which cut across all racial and ethnic boundaries), to see if you can spot the witches that WIlliamson doesn't overtly expose in the course of the story. The conclusion of the novel finds Will fully embracing his occult heritage, and humanity's best hope of defence against the Child of Night being destroyed, which should be an unambiguous downer ending, but at the same time there's a certain extent to which the reader is invited to exalt in Will's newfound power along with him. The darkest note the conclusion hits is that a reconciliation between the bloodlines seems impossible, and a magically-powered race war seems inevitable.

Williamson was outspokenly sceptical of attempts to write SF with a serious, literary tone, regarding a lot of the literary techniques adopted by authors making such experiments as introducing needless obscurity and difficulty to their writing. Williamson's personal preference for the pulp style of writing might be a consequence of Williamson being really very good at it - his prose is extremely readable and engaging, it flows smoothly and rapidly engrosses the reader, and whilst the story told here may seem rather simplistic and cliched in the wake of hordes and hordes of imitators, Williamson's writing style makes everything happening here seem fresh and novel. As you might expect from a story written some 70 years ago, the social attitudes expressed are sometimes a little off-putting, most particularly when it comes to the handling of women, but actually Williamson does much better on this score than many of his peers. A lot of the women encountered during the story actually have their own careers - the only confirmed housewife who plays any substantial role in the book is Nora, Sam Quain's wife - and these aren't just restricted to classic "women's jobs" like nursing either - note Rowena having a successful academic career in her own right until the international witch conspiracy put paid to that. Moreover, much of the sexism encountered in the book arises in Will Barbee's own reactions to people - and whilst his instinct to compare April to Lilith or Circe might have some place in fact, his most sexist assumption (that a woman who lives on her own in a comfortable apartment and is regularly visited by an older man must necessarily be prostituting herself to him) is blown out of the water. (The general correlation between women having their own careers and their own particular agendas and ideas that they pursue without seeking the permission and approval of men and women possessing the witch gene remains somewhat problematic, mind.)

One thing that's notable about the novel is its even-handed and realistic treatment of psychiatry and psychiatric institutions. Having derived some benefit from psychiatric treatment in the past, Williamson was perhaps well-placed to include an apparently-benign psychiatrist and an orderly, not overtly abusive mental hospital in his work. Naturally, in keeping with the paranoid style of the novel, the psychiatrist turns out to be in on the conspiracy, but even though it's a slightly predictable turn of events it also manages to feel like a major betrayal in the way that it wouldn't if the asylum were the sort of cartoonish hell-dungeon mental hospitals are more commonly depicted as in horror fiction.

Although it doesn't really arise from the same writing tradition and cultural trends that fed the urban fantasy/dark romance boom, at the same time anyone who digs those subgenres would probably find something to like here. Aside from some occasionally creaky and old-fashioned views on gender, it's a fun read which has remained so fresh stylistically that it have been written yesterday, and it's got some really vivid and haunting imagery which stays with you well after the book's wrapped up.
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