Monday, July 12, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hydra

Like his friend, Robert Bloch, about one of whose stories I wrote last week, Henry Kuttner was one of the younger members of the so-called "Lovecraft Circle." Kuttner began a lengthy correspondence with HPL in 1936, an exchange that would inadvertently introduce him to C.L. Moore, whom he would marry in 1940. He and his wife formed a durable and prolific writing partnership that lasted almost two decades, until his untimely death at the age of 42 in 1958. Most of Kuttner's output during that time was science fiction, but he got his start as a writer of cosmic horror after the fashion of Lovecraft.

"Hydra," first published in the April 1939 issue of Weird Tales, is an example of Kuttner's early horror work. It's a solid effort, filled some genuinely clever ideas, hampered primarily by its somewhat pedestrian presentation, which relies heavily on a kind of faux journalistic style that, while not wholly ineffective, distances the reader from the events Kuttner describes, thereby lessening their impact. 

"Hyrdra" begins strongly.

Two men died; possibly three. So much is known. The tabloids ran flaming headlines of the mysterious mutilation of Kenneth Scott, noted Baltimore author and occultist, and later, they capitalized similarly on the disappearance of Robert Ludwig, whose correspondence with Scott was well known in literary circles. The equally strange and even more ghastly death of Paul Edmond, while separated from the scene of the Scott horror by the width of a continent, was clearly connected with it.

Among Edmond's effects was a diary that referenced a "privately printed pamphlet, On the Sending Out of the Soul," a pamphlet that "none of the local booksellers had heard of." Despite this, the diary states that it was this pamphlet that had caused Ludwig and Edmond "to undertake the disastrous experiment." The two men, we are told,

were deeply interested in the occult. They had dabbled in witchcraft and demonology as a result of their acquaintance with Scott, who possessed one of the best occult libraries in America.

We further learn that Scott "was a strange man" whose "knowledge of esoteric matters was little short of phenomenal." Together, Ludwig and Edmond hoped to use the knowledge contained in the aforementioned pamphlet to sneak into Scott's library through mystical means. 

The general process was familiar to both students. Their researches had informed them that the soul – or in modern occult language, "astral body" – is supposed to be an ethereal double or ghost, capable of projection to a distance. 

Making use of an odd "mixture of drugs and chemicals," including cannabis indica, the pair experiments with astral projection – to some success, it seems, for Edmond "seemed to be outside Scott's window," where he sees "the crumpled body of the man himself lying on the carpet … with his head doubled at an impossible angle out of sight beneath the torso, or else he was headless." Ludwig reveals that "his vision had been identical with Edmond's," which occasions him to admit that he had actually written to Kenneth Scott beforehand, asking his advice on how to perform the ritual properly. 

Not long thereafter, the pair receive a telegram from Scott, which reads:


A few days later, they read a story in the Los Angeles Times that reveals that Scott has been mysteriously murdered. According to the story, "there were no clues to indicate the identity of the assailant" and that "the victim's head had been severed from his body and was inexplicably missing. The remainder of "Hydra" sketchily details – remember that all this information is reported through the medium of pieced-together bits from diary entries and similar notes – what happens to Edmonds and Ludwig over the next few days, as the true consequences of their astral projection become clear. As the opening paragraph of the story makes clear, it does not end well. 

"Hydra" is not a wholly successful story. On a purely surface level, it's unremarkable and some might deem it little more than pulp hack work of a rather pedestrian sort. I don't share that assessment of the tale, but I don't think it's wholly unfair. However, Kuttner's descriptions of nightmarish alien dimensions and their frightening inhabitants are genuinely imaginative and well worth reading. You can tell he's trying hard to convey in words "the Ultimate Chaos" that rests at the center of the universe and I enjoyed his efforts.


  1. The Salem Horror is the story that put Henry Kuttner on my list of authors to pay attention to. So anytime I see his name, I am interested! This is not a story I have read, but even with your less than enthusiastic recommendation, you have me curious to read it.

    1. I may have done the story a slight disservice. It's perfectly fine – fun even – but it doesn't rank up there with the best of Kuttner, never mind Lovecraft. That's far from damning, especially when you're talking about pulp short stories.