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Three stories by Nictzin Dyalhis

Recently kim_huett pointed me to the stories of Nictzin Dyalhis -- a mysterious figure who published just a few short stories and novelettes, mostly in Weird Tales, in the '20s and '30s. I had never heard of him before, but the name was certainly an eye-catcher. His story "When the Green Star Waned" (1925) is considered by some a notable early example of genre science fiction.

I did a little googling and discovered that three of his stories had been reprinted by Karl Edward Wagner in the heroic fantasy anthology Echoes of Valor III. Wagner touts these stories, along with the more well-known Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, as seminal in the development of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. He also prints an article about Dyalhis by Sam Moskowitz called "Nictzin Dyalhis: Mysterious Master of Fantasy" that, before devolving into detailed story descriptions, gives us what little is "known" about Dyalhis' biography, much of which is based on the testimony of a man named Willis Conover and seems extremely odd and at times contradictory. The name Nictzin is said to be Mexican Indian in origin (as is his mother), while the name Dyalhis is said to be a Scotch-Irish name for the Roman god Flamen Dialis and the basis for the modern names Douglas and Dallas. His father is said to have been a British sea captain.

Well, that's all very well, but what of the stories? The first, "The Red Witch" (1932), made me doubt the early fans who apparently thought so highly of Dyalhis. It's about a contemporary man who falls in love with a woman who is visited nightly by the angry phantasm of a horrible giant warrior. Eventually these two are transported back into earlier selves in the distant past (a distant past that never was), and our hero has to defend his bride-to-be from the vile intentions of a the horrible giant warrior. The story reads as though Dyalhis were thinking through his narrative strategies as he was typing, and at one point the narrator hero tells us he's going to switch from first person to third person narration, because ... because ... aw, fuck it! Just really sloppy, awful, embarrassing writing.

The second story, "The Sapphire Goddess" (1934), is touted by Moskowitz as a hugely impressive, ground-breaking work. Here too we start in the contemporary world before being thrown into a fantasy world. While I don't remember there being a good reason for starting in the contemporary world, at least the transition is handled more smoothly than in the earlier story. Our hero is a deposed king who, with the aid of two henchmen, must recover the titular object for a dark wizard in order to have his memories and fortunes and long lost love restored. The adventures in the fantasy world don't seem all that exceptional, but I can believe this was an influential story in its day. It has a sense of humor, and while many story elements seem completely conventional now, there's a somewhat satirical air of weirdness about it. A lot happens in something like 15,000 words, even if none of it matters very much.

The third story, "The Sea Witch" (1937), is by far the best of the lot and begins to actually rise to the reputation that Wagner and Moskowitz argue for Dyalhis. Here an old man retired to the storm-wracked coast of Maine rescues a naked woman from the freezing winter sea. She turns out to be a supernatural figure out of Norse legend. Part of what makes this story better than the other two is that the details of Norse legend and culture are much more coherent than the fantastical worlds Dyalhis pulled, as it were, out of his esoteric ass. But deeper than this, as Moskowitz pointed out, is that the portrait of the old man at the end of his life seems to some extent autobiographical (Dyalhis died five years later at age 69) and has a real pathos, and the relationship that develops between him and the sea witch, while having some elements of wish-fulfillment fantasy, also has genuine warmth and a strange humanity to it. It feels real, conflicted, yearning, eccentric.

So now I'm mildly curious about "When the Green Star Waned", which has been reprinted in a couple of things that should be readily available. Pulp fiction is full of these strange figures whose flames still dimly flicker in shadowy paraliterary limbos. Meanwhile Echoes of Valor III contains more stories of interest by Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson, and Manly Wade Wellman. Hadn't really been looking to read those stories, but what the hell.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2012 03:15 am (UTC)
You have a Darrell Schweitzer-like ability to write entertaining descriptions of stories too lousy to read. (That is a huge compliment.)
Dec. 22nd, 2012 03:26 am (UTC)
Ha! I can't stand Schweitzer, but by golly I *will* take that as a compliment! I guess I've reached a stage where I'm interested in stories (at least of a certain type) for reasons other than quality.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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