Friday, January 8, 2016

The Beast - Part 4 - The Most Dangerous Game

You know, I can't help but feel like this setup is at least a little like Predator.  And this led me to imagine some hypothetical adaptation of "The Beast" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would mean that an iconic, heavily-accented action movie star would have the role of "Ginger Cranston" on his filmography.  That would be an interesting world to live in.

Armed and mentally prepared for the ultimate battle, Cranston steps out of his tent to find that the village chief has stopped rolling around in the mud, and left the unopened bottle of whatever sitting in the muck.  This may have been meant to chastise the Earthling for offering the bottle in the first place, but Cranston doesn't feel chastised, or indeed much of anything.

For perhaps an hour, even a day, nothing could touch him, neither sadness nor triumph.  He was still within himself, waiting for a thing he knew would come, a thing much greater than shame or sorrow.  He had chosen his death, for he had found it to be within his realm of choice and having chosen it he was dead.  It mattered little what happened now.  It mattered much that da juju would end.  But it did not matter emotionally.  It was a clear concern, undiluted by self.

This is one of those paragraphs that looks impressive when you skim it and falls apart when you examine it closely.  "He had chosen his death," so "having chosen it he was dead."  Masterful.

Cranston leaves the village, marching "quietly" through the muck and up a hill, where he knows he'll be highly visible against Venus' murky skies.  There he waits for a time, looking down on the thick jungle surrounding him.  While studying the forest canopy, he suddenly realizes "for the first time that gray was not the color there as he had always supposed but drab green, rust red, dark blue and smoky yellow.  It was a little thing to notice but it seemed important."  And that's understandable, it's not uncommon for all those strikingly different colors to form a sort of gray blur that can only be properly discerned when one has accepted the inevitability of death.

Eventually the sun goes down and darkness descends upon the alien jungle, and Cranston marches into the forest proper, occasionally stopping to adjust his clothing or smoke his pipe.  He's not bothering to hide his tracks, and he doesn't care that he's passing under low-hanging branches.  If you haven't figured it out yet, Cranston wants to be found - "he was within the role of the hunted, not that of the hunter."  Though I suppose you could argue that using yourself as bait to try to lure your quarry out of hiding is just another form of hunting, but semantics.

So one minute Cranston's sitting there smoking, his gun leaning against a nearby tree, and the next

It happened suddenly, silently, efficiently.  The vine-woven net dropped soundlessly over his head, slithered to his feet, and then with swift ferocity, yanked tight and brought him with a crash into the mud!

There was a scurrying about him as though something leaped up and down, darted back and forth to swiftly study the situation so as to require a minimum of effort in the final kill.

Which is kind of undermined by the amount of spastic hopping about going on before that final kill.

Cranston tries to draw his pistol but can't move the right arm, so he clamps down a panicked scream, pulls out his belt knife, and starts sawing at the vines entrapping him.  He's only half freed before the Beast attacks, assaulting him first with its "foul animal smell" and then with those bayonet-like claws that rip through his jacket and into Cranston's flank.  Oddly enough, this doesn't break through our hero's ribcage and collapse his lung, so maybe they're really short, blunt bayonet-like claws.

Despite his scratches, Cranston's able to jab back with his knife and "felt it saw vainly into the thing."  I would not use the verb 'saw,' which implies a back-and-forth motion, to describe a blade going into something meaty once before said meaty something jerks back with a "scream," taking the knife with it.  Nor would I describe the attack with the adverb "vainly" when it clearly did something to the target.

Cranston's able to use this opportunity to scramble to his feet, only for the Beast to strike him "like a battering ram with force enough to smash in his ribs."  Again, he's able to breathe and such after this terrible attack, so his ribs clearly remain unsmashed.  But I guess comparing an attack to a blow from a siege engine is more exciting than talking about a shove that caused light bruising.

On his knees, Cranston finally draws his pistol, but the Beast kicks it out of his grasp.  But in doing so...

A cold piece of metal banged Cranston in the mouth and he snatched hungrily for the haft of his flesh-imbedded knife. Slippery as his fingers were, he retained it, drew it forth. He kicked out with his feet and then drove the keen steel deep into the body of the thing!

First, "flesh-imbedded?"  Word better, Hubbard.  Second, the first time I read this sequence, I interpreted it as Cranston kicking the knife even deeper into the Beast.  Might prefer that to what actually happened.

However the attack went, it's enough to do in Cranston's enemy - the Beast shudders, weakly claws the air, and then falls to make a "threshing, rattling sound" as it expires.  Cranston recovers his gun and moves over to the motionless shape in the mud, then pulls out a "torch" to shine a beam of light - wait, you had a flashlight this whole time?  Then why'd you need Ambu's lantern?  Why were you reliant on native torchbearers for light during that ambush at the beginning of the story?

Bleh.  Anyway, Cranston finally gets a good look at this thing, this Beast, this devil, da juju.  And now we learn why Cranston wasn't allowed to properly see his nemesis at any point before this, because Hubbard isn't just doing a safari story on an alien planet.

Maybe you suspected it earlier.  Sure, Hubbard never quite described what was attacking Cranston before, almost like he was setting up a dramatic reveal for later, but then again he made no effort to describe what the native Venusians looked like beyond them being blue and shorter than Cranston.  But the presence of a crashed spaceship probably deserved more than a paragraph mentioning that it existed, which the characters in the story almost deliberately do not dwell upon.  And then there was the nature of the "Beast" itself, a surprisingly intelligent ambush predator able to build deadfalls and snares, a creature that even knew when another hunter would stop when it detected a trap.  An animal with courage, cunning, and above all, the ability to reason.  A "devil" unlike any of Venus' native wildlife, but which had been on the planet since at least Cranston's arrival.

Ginger knelt and unfastened the straps of the frayed, worn, leatherlike suit that clothed the corpse and laboriously turned it over.  Metal-tipped space gloves clicked as the arms flopped against each other.  There was an almost illegible trace of lettering on the back, fouled with mud and blood, torn in spots.  "SP---E SHII----" it said, before a gouge tore out the ship's name.  Below, "Spacepo-----Lowry, U----A."

It stank with dried and rotted blood and meat of long-gone kills, and the unwashed body of its occupant.

We can only pray the Beast removed its spacesuit when it had to take a dump.

But yeah, bam!  The monster was Man all along!  Hope you were wearing a helmet before your mind got blown so hard it shot up out the top of your skull, or else there's gray matter all over your ceiling.  And that's hard to get out with standard household cleaners.

Ginger turned it back and looked again at the face.  Identification was hopeless.  The disastrous landing had gouged and torn the face half away; there was a deep dent in the forehead where the skull had been broken inward, and an angry, seamed and cross-seamed welt told of slow healing without the slightest rudiments of attention.

Well that's oddly uplifting.  We might have had a psychotic Scooby-Doo scenario with some lunatic dressing up like a monster so he could hunt some blues, but it was severe head trauma that made a monster out of this poor fellow.  Or rather very specific head trauma that wiped out his morals but kept whatever parts of the brain help you set traps, turning some civilian freighter crewman into "A ruthless, pure animal - with all the cunning of human intelligence still left in the damaged brain."

I'd like to point out that H. P. Lovecraft did something like this in 1918, though he first wrote "The Beast in the Cave" as early as 1904, and in his case it wasn't brain damage but isolation that turned a man into a monster.  From this we might describe Lovecraft as the more pessimistic author, someone who felt that people could descend into savagery and barbarism simply by being exposed to horrors or deprived of wholesome influence, while Hubbard would be an optimist who thought it took something drastic to turn someone into a psycho.  But having read Mission Earth, I don't think this would be accurate at all.

Let's wrap this up.  Cranston, having identified his attacker at last, simply stands up and walks back to the village, leaving the body for some natives to bring back later.  He's not sick with horror after coming face-to-face with this beast that was once a man, or disgusted that he had to kill a human being in self-defense.  Nah, he's good.

Ginger swung along the trail in the long, easy strides of a huntsman of standing.  There were bruises, and certain scratches that twinged a bit, but that sort of damage was of no importance.  The great thing was - a thing Ginger now scarcely realized - that he had recaptured that quite intangible reality that had been stolen from him.

"Certain scratches," huh?  Those would be from the wounds caused by those "sabers this thing had for claws," those talons "like a set of bayonets" which turned out to be nothing more than metal-tipped (space-)gloves.  Way to undermine your hero's accomplishment by making him a baby who exaggerates scratches into stabbing wounds, Hubbard.

But that's "The Beast," a tale about 'man versus nature' that turns out to be 'man versus man,' with a 'man versus himself' angle that gets resolved when that man kills something.  Parts of it are almost competently written, most of it is not.  The story doesn't do anything we haven't seen done before by better authors, and the most interesting thing about it is the background for the setting, which of course the story does not address.

Hubbard at his best, sadly.

Back to Part 3

1 comment:

  1. This feels like an awful let-down now, but maybe back in the 1930s or 40s or 50s or whenever this was written it was a good twist? Umm... the earlier the better... in the 50s I almost guarantee there was probably a twilight zone episode like this (there was that adam and eve genesis story episode, at least).

    This feels kind of like an inversion of Lovecraft's classic The Outsider, where in that story the man turns out to be the monster... a very sympathetic monster. I don't think that's what you were referring to. I should go look up what Lovecraft published in 1918.