C. S. Lewis Was a Reader of American Pulp Magazines

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C. S. Lewis and American Pulp Science Fiction


By Dale Nelson


C. S. Lewis, Oxford don and then Cambridge scholar specializing in medieval and Renaissance literature – an impressionable reader of American science fiction pulps?

The inventor of Narnia – indebted to the co-founder of Arkham House?

It seems so. Lewis made no secret of these debts. In The Great Divorce, he refers to two stories that he thinks came from the cheaply-printed pages of the pulps. He was wrong about one of the stories. The story he refers to in the preface has to have been “The Man Who Lived Backwards,” by the forgotten British author Charles Hall and appeared in a British magazine. But apparently Lewis was so deeply read in the American pulps that he just assumed that he’d read the story, which features raindrop like bullets, in one of them. The other story is alluded to in a footnote: “This method of travel also I learned from the ‘scientifictionists’.”

“Colossus,” which first appeared in the January 1934 issue of Astounding, appears to be the story that suggested to Lewis the idea, central to The Great Divorce, of travel from one universe to a much vaster one -- travel during which the vehicle and passenger(s) expand concomitantly so as to “fit“ the new cosmos. The universe -- ours -- that is left behind in Donald Wandrei’s story is but an atom relative to the size of the universe that is entered. Similarly, in The Great Divorce the immense, sprawling city of Hell is an invisible point relative to the vastness of Heaven’s borderland. The spaceship White Bird, piloted by the intrepid Duane Sharon, expands in Wandrei’s story: “According to the law propounded decades ago by Einstein, the White Bird, all its contents, and he, himself, would undergo a change, lengthening in the direction of flight” as they travel thousands of times the speed of light (54, 56/130). The busful of passengers from Hell expands so that, when it emerges from a tiny crack in the celestial soil, the holiday-makers are “to scale.”

Wandrei’s story may also have suggested to Lewis something of the splendor of outer space that Ransom discovers in Out of the Silent Planet. Sharon beholds “[w]hite suns and blue, pale-orange and apple-green stars, colossal tapestry of night blazing with eternal jewels” and an “emerald sun, flaming in the radiant beauty of birth” (Wandrei 58,59/133, 134). Ransom contemplates “planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold” (Lewis 31); space is not dead but rather is “the womb of worlds” (32).

I wonder if Wandrei ever read The Great Divorce or Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis may have been aware of the small press that Wandrei and August Derleth founded, since a catalog of books from Lewis’s library, prepared a few years after his death, included at least one AH book, Robert Bloch’s The Opener of the Way. But don’t get too excited about the prospect. Likely enough, the book had belonged to Lewis’s wife, Joy, an American.


Now that you’ve had the chance to wrap your head around the idea of Lewis as pulp-mag reader, let’s consider a little historical background. C. S. Lewis’s “On Science Fiction” was read, or was the basis of a talk, at a 1955 session of the Cambridge University English Club (Hooper xix). In this paper, Lewis said that, “some fifteen or twenty years ago,” he “became aware of a bulge in the production” of stories of the type pioneered by H. G. Wells. Lewis said: “In America whole magazines began to be exclusively devoted to them” (“On Science Fiction” 55). This statement nails down the fact that Lewis read American pulp “scientifiction.” Such magazines were readily available to British readers. Richard Kyle recalls “bins of ‘Yank Magazines – Interesting Reading’ in the English Woolworth stores of the middle ‘30s” (Lupoff 92).

Historian of science fiction Mike Ashley regards the “mid-thirties” as the time in which these magazines exhibited a phase of “cosmic sf,” emphasizing stories that dealt with “not just the exploration of space but the nature of time, space and the universe” (231). Along with “Colossus,” a couple of other such stories may have left traces in Lewis’s own science fiction.

Jack Williamson’s “Born of the Sun” (Astounding, March 1934) may have had something do with Weston’s “rind” remarks at the end of Chapter 13 of Perelandra (1943). In the Williamson story, some at least of the solar system’s moons, as well as its planets, are actually spawn or “‘seed of the Sun’” (Asimov 532): huge egg-like objects from which eventually hatch immense monsters (which possess the ability to fly in a vacuum!). When the planet Earth begins to hatch, there ensue apocalyptic consequences for human beings living on the outer surface of the shell. In Lewis’s novel, Weston describes the universe as a globe with a crust of “‘life’” (the crust, however, being time; it’s about seventy years thick for human beings). As one ages, Weston says, one sinks through the crust until he emerges into the dark, deathly “‘reality’” that God Himself does not know (168). In each story, there is the idea of humanity living on a thin surface beneath which is something truly appalling.

OK, maybe that’s a stretch. How about this one? Edmond Hamilton’s “The Accursed Galaxy” (Astounding, July 1935) may have contributed two essential components to Lewis’s Ransom trilogy.

Hamilton’s story proposes that organic life, viewed very Un-Lewisly as a loathsome contagion, originated two billion years ago when one member of a race of immortal “volitient beings of force” was experimenting with matter. He accidentally released “the diseased matter” from his laboratory, and it rapidly spread from world to world. This “experimenter” (Asimov 717) was punished by the other force creatures by being confined in a “shell of frozen force” (719) that eventually descends to the earth. Human beings involuntarily set him free at the climax of the story. In addition to imprisoning the offender, the other force-creatures also caused the primal super-galaxy to break up into millions of galaxies, all the others rushing away from the infected core -- our own Milky Way galaxy. The vast (and increasing) distances of space effect a cosmic quarantine. Central to Out of the Silent Planet (1938), of course, is the idea of the confinement to our earth of its “bent Oyarsa” (the devil), lest he do further damage, having already stricken the moon and Mars ages ago (121). In the first of the Ransom books, and in Perelandra, human beings are the means by which the devil is enabled to threaten Mars and Venus.

Lewis’s eldila are described, in the Ransom trilogy, as appearing as light. For example, in the first chapter of Perelandra, the narrator sees “a rod or pillar of light” of an unnamable color (18). The force-being who appears in “Accursed Galaxy” is a “forty-foot pillar of blazing, blue light, crowned by a disk of light” (Asimov 719). The edila “do not eat [or] suffer natural death” (Perelandra 9), and Williamson’s force-beings are “immortal” and “[need] no nourishment” (Asimov 717).

It’s reasonable to surmise that Lewis was influenced by impressions of Hamilton’s story as he wrote his own “planet books,” but also that he had forgotten “The Accursed Galaxy,” or judged that his “revisions” of elements from Hamilton’s story were so thorough as to make allusion to it not obligatory.

So, was Prof. C. S. Lewis not only a reader of American pulp mag science fiction, but a writer influenced by it? I think so!




Ashley, Mike. The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines

From the Beginning to 1950.
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.



Asimov, Isaac (ed.). Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s.

Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1974.



Hooper, Walter. “Preface.” On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis.

San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1982.



Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. Glasgow: Fontana, 1972.



----------.“On Science Fiction.” On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. San

Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1982.



- - - - - - - - - -. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Macmillan, 1973.



- - - - - - - - - -. Perelandra. New York: Macmillan, 1969.



Lupoff, Richard A. and Patricia E. Lupoff. The Best of Xero. San Francisco: Tachyon,

2004. This book is a selection of contributions to a classic fanzine of 1960-1962.



Wandrei, Donald. “Colossus.” Astounding Stories Jan. 1934: 40-72. This story is reprinted, with some changes by the author, in: Colossus: The Collected Science Fiction of Donald Wandrei. Ed. Philip J. Rahman and Dennis E. Weiler. Minneapolis: Fedogan and Bremer, 1989, pages 110-153. “Colossus” does not appear to have been reprinted until 1950 (several years after the composition and publication of The Great Divorce), when it appeared in an anthology, Beyond Time and Space, edited by August Derleth. “Colossus” may also be found in Asimov’s Before the Golden Age anthology.

(c) Dale Nelson 2024; printed originally in Pierre Comtois's magazine Fungi, (c) ca. 2010.
 
Good article! I enjoyed reading that.

I don't know the details that well, but the pulp angle would seem to fit the more lurid aspects of the space trilogy. My mental image of the first two books is a mixture of William Blake paintings (naked beardy men wrestling) and the technicolor covers of old pulp magazines, with strange flowers and otter-people. And the "brain in a jar" imagery of the Head in That Hideous Strength feels extremely pulp (I think Lovecraft and Siodmak both used it).

I suppose the space books were written at a time when science fiction, fantasy and horror (and perhaps allegory) hadn't been clearly defined (that feels like a post-LOTR thing), and all kinds of bizarre stuff could be mashed together. At that time, too, the pulps probably contained some of the wildest and most exciting images in literature, the way psychedelic album covers and comics like Metal Hurlant would do later on.
 
I never imaged that the pulps would have such a profound influence on C S Lewis .:unsure::(
 
Good article! I enjoyed reading that.

I don't know the details that well, but the pulp angle would seem to fit the more lurid aspects of the space trilogy. My mental image of the first two books is a mixture of William Blake paintings (naked beardy men wrestling) and the technicolor covers of old pulp magazines, with strange flowers and otter-people. And the "brain in a jar" imagery of the Head in That Hideous Strength feels extremely pulp (I think Lovecraft and Siodmak both used it).

I suppose the space books were written at a time when science fiction, fantasy and horror (and perhaps allegory) hadn't been clearly defined (that feels like a post-LOTR thing), and all kinds of bizarre stuff could be mashed together. At that time, too, the pulps probably contained some of the wildest and most exciting images in literature, the way psychedelic album covers and comics like Metal Hurlant would do later on.
Yet in the Lewis books it all works, or at least it sure works for me. In a way it makes That Hideous Strength more lifelike, because real life (say in our own day) is like that -- it's such a hodgepodge as compared to what a tidy author might represent if he or she were writing a novel about our time, in which we have, all at once, an orbiting space station and "Stone Age" people in Amazonia and Papua New Guinea; languages dying out but a constant supply of new terms from technology and slang; Islam in British neighborhoods while churches are turned into venues for raves; vigilant inspection of children's books while movies from mainstream motion picture companies serve up carefully-crafted realistic carnage -- and so on. I've seen as recently as today some criticism for the Lewis novel on account of disparate elements, but how is that not like life? I understand the point about literary genres, of course.
 
Also, from 2008:


Writer Rod Bennett believes “[C.S.] Lewis was heavily influenced by his many early experiences with ‘trashy’ literature.” He calls him a pulp fiction writer and lays out his case in four posts, quoting from Lewis’ letters where he confesses his enjoyment or exposure to Amazing Stories and Astounding, both pulp sci-fi rags, and many other works considered “trashy” by critics.

Also,


The sort of culture one can get from the 100 or 1000 Best Books read in isolation from the societies and literatures that begot them seems to me like the sort of knowledge of Europe I shd. get from staying at big hotels in Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc. It wd. be far better to know intimately one little district, going from village to village, getting to know the local politics, jokes, wines, and cheeses. Or so it seems to me.

Meanwhile,


Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

Finally, one related but funny point about the Disney movie Snow White:


“Dwarfs ought to be ugly of course, but not in that way. And the dwarfs’ jazz party was pretty bad. I suppose it never occurred to the poor boob that you could give them any other kind of music.”
 
One of the strange things about modern life is that everyone thinks that the world is going to Hell, but there's so much disagreement about why, exactly. I wonder if archeologists will someday uncover a citizen of Pompeii, incinerated by the volcano but still holding a placard that reads "Sappho's Filthy Poems Are Destroying Pompeii". Clearly different things have value to different people, and perhaps it's impossible to capture the full range of human weirdness in a novel. William Gibson is quite good at that in his Sprawl books, perhaps because he doesn't judge, unlike Huxley or Orwell, but just records the grotesqueness of his imaginary world.

It's been a while since I read them, but I think the first two space books feel much more logical and contained than That Hideous Strength, which is quite a chaotic book in terms of influences. Maybe it's because they're set off-world, and Lewis can say "Right, this is what space is like", and the reader can't really disagree. Even the human characters in those two books feel mythic and more than a couple of guys. Once you're off Earth, the rules are different. Personally, I really like that feeling of wandering through a strange landscape, which I've felt most strongly in LOTR, the first two Gormenghast books and Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (which I suspect wouldn't hold up now). Perhaps That Hideous Strength feels weirder because the weirdness is closer to home.

It's an interesting thought that to imitate life convincingly, you've got to cut out quite a lot of it.
 
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Also, from 2008:




Also,




Meanwhile,




Finally, one related but funny point about the Disney movie Snow White:

Late in his life Lewis wrote An Experiment in Criticism, published by Cambridge. It reflects a lifetime's love of books and reading. And Lewis is forthright there about his love not only of books everyone then admitted were classics, but of what might have been regarded as "subliterature," e.g. the romances of H. Rider Haggard and the thrillers of John Buchan.
 
Did you ever read about Lewis's short story, "Forms of Things Unknown," which was not published in his lifetime? It concerns a series of missions to the moon that end mysteriously. The protagonist learns the truth -- too late.

It seems to be a rewriting of William Sambrot's story "Island of Fear" published in the Saturday Evening Post. I absolutely do not believe Lewis was a conscious plagiarist, but it seems unlikely to me that he hadn't read Sambrot's story of a forbidden Greek island, and that, sunk in his memory, it didn't emerge recast as science fiction. I grant readily that Lewis was an unlikely reader of that American magazine, but, offhand, I can think of two possible ways he might have encountered the story. First, his American wife may have been a subscriber and pointed it out to him. Or he might have encountered it as reprinted in a book. Or indeed she might have summarized the plot & he decided to try it as sf. And we don't know that he ever tried to get it published -- an important point. He could have written the story, consciously, as a borrowing of the plot, for recreation, or he could have realized after writing it that he shouldn't try to get it published because of the similarity with Sambrot... and so on. The story was published posthumously by an editor who probably had no notion of the SEP story.
 
Did you ever read about Lewis's short story, "Forms of Things Unknown," which was not published in his lifetime? It concerns a series of missions to the moon that end mysteriously. The protagonist learns the truth -- too late.

I hadn't even heard of it. That's some nice archeology you've done there. If Sambrot published it in Saturday Evening Post, where did Lewis' story first come out?
 
Lewis's story was first published in the mid-1970s in a book called Of Other Worlds, a collection of his short science fiction from Fantasy and Science Fiction (two stories), relevant articles, and his conversation with Brian Aldiss and Kingsley Amis about sf. I have been eating my heart out for years over the tape of their conversation. What happened to it? Is it extant? If so, who has it? is there any chance of ever hearing it, complete with the sounds of drinking and Lewis telling his smoking friend(s) to use the carpet (no ashtray). "Forms of Things Unknown" has since been subsumed into The Dark Tower, with the fragment of a 4th Ransom novel involving (apparently) a parallel time-track and (maybe) genetic engineering.

When my university library purged nearly all its magazine and journal archive around a dozen years ago, I saved the SEP issue with Sambrot's story. It's the issue for 18 Jan. 1958.

Yes, it is possible that the two stories' similarities are coincidental. It wouldn't be the strangest thing that's ever happened. But I can hardly believe that it was just coincidence. They're both pretty good stories.

You can read "Island of Fear" in one of those anthologies attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, here:


And Lewis's story may be read here:


If you're interested, I'll tell the brief little story of my encounter with an abridged version of the story....
 
That's very interesting. I wonder if it's perhaps one of those plot ideas that are just appealing to the human mind? Philip K Dick and William Gibson wrote similar stories about expeditions to a mysterious and terrible planet, although in those something comes back. I once read that the plot of "The Most Dangerous Game" - a powerful madman hunts humans for entertainment - is one of the most-used action plots (although I doubt it), and I wonder if it just hits a certain nerve in the human brain that can't quite be rationally explained.
 
I once read that the plot of "The Most Dangerous Game" - a powerful madman hunts humans for entertainment - is one of the most-used action plots (although I doubt it), and I wonder if it just hits a certain nerve in the human brain that can't quite be rationally explained.
Did that article imply that this plot was something that many writers came up with independently, or did it suggest that it was one of the most copied plots? Because I am betting that it's the latter.

The story was required reading when I was in High School, and in the decades since I have seen the same plot used in various media. I always assumed they were ripping off . . . um, I mean inspired by the original story, in much the same way every sit-com on the planet if it runs for many seasons eventually has a Christmas episode inspired by "A Christmas Carol."
 
Ah, very good point. It's probably ripped off a lot because it works. Apart from the action scenes, it's got a vaguely anti-authority feel that isn't political enough to preclude it from "normal" TV etc. In recent years, it works as a satire of mass media, as per The Running Man.

The idea of "the mysterious place that does terrible things to people" feels to me like a variant on the haunted house. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King identified "the bad place" as one of the four or five basic elements of horror.
 
The idea of "the mysterious place that does terrible things to people" feels to me like a variant on the haunted house. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King identified "the bad place" as one of the four or five basic elements of horror.
This reminds me of the medieval notion in which "originality" of plot didn't count for much; rather, it was what you did with the familiar plots.

Budrys's "Rogue Moon" is a good example of an effective story about the "mysterious place that does terrible things to people."
 
Somewhere upstairs I have 'From Narnia to Space Odyssey: The War of Letters between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis'. I could not find it, but Amazon says I bought it in 2004. I recall as rather interesting.
 
Somewhere upstairs I have 'From Narnia to Space Odyssey: The War of Letters between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis'. I could not find it, but Amazon says I bought it in 2004. I recall as rather interesting.
That is, though, the worst-edited book I have ever seen. There are numerous passages in the Lewis letters where words appear that make no sense. I don't know how that happened. You can find all the Lewis letters in the volume(s) edited by Walter Hooper, happily.
 

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