Monday, December 1, 2008

"Terrors Unseen" by Harl Vincent, part 1

Harl Vincent was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin (born Buffalo, New York, 19 October 1893; died Los Angeles, California, 5 May 1968), a mechanical engineer employed by Westinghouse who specialized in the installation of large electrical apparatus. He was an early reader of Hugo Gernsback's original science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and it wasn't long before he decided to try his hand at writing science fiction. He proved to have a talent for writing readable prose, and his first published story, "The Golden Girl of Munan", appeared in the June 1928 issue of Amazing.

Some beginning writers find that when they've succeeded in making a professional sale, the writing bug goes away. For Vincent, it had the opposite effect. He found himself writing story after story, and succeeded in placing them in the science fiction magazines. Altogether, he published 54 stories between 1928 and 1935, and another 20 between 1938 and 1942, making him one of the most prolific writers of the era. However, by the time science fiction began to move beyond the pulp magazines after World War II, Vincent had dropped out of the field. Apart from the occasional early story published in an anthology, the only fiction to see book publication under Vincent's name was the 1966 novel The Doomsday Planet.

But with the rise of the internet, and the accident of old stories falling into the public domain, Vincent's fiction is starting to see the light of day again. His story "Creatures of Vibration" from the January 1932 issue of Astounding Stories was uploaded into Project Gutenberg on July 26, 2007, and can be found here. And since the March 1931 issue of Astounding, containing Vincent's story "Terrors Unseen", has fallen into my hands, I've taken it upon myself to resurrect this story as well (in a multipart format suitable for the blog medium). I now present, for the first time since its original publication 77 years ago, part 1 of "Terrors Unseen".

Terrors Unseen
by Harl Vincent

Something about the lonely figure of the girl caused Edward Vail to bring his car to a sudden stop at the side of the road. When first he had glimpsed her off there on that narrow strip of rockbound coast he was mildly surprised, for it was a desolate spot and seldom frequented by bathers so late in the season. Now he was aroused to startled attention by the unnatural posture of the slender body that had just been erect and outlined sharply against the graying September sky. He switched off the ignition and sprang to the ground.

Bent backward and twisted into the attitude of a contortionist, the little figure in the crimson bathing suit was a thing at which to marvel. No human being could maintain that position without falling, yet the girl did not fall to the jagged stones that lay beneath her. She was rigid, straining. Then suddenly her arm waved wildly and she screamed, a wild gasping cry that died in her throat on a note of despairing terror. It seemed that she struggled furiously with an unseen power for one horrible instant. Then the tortured body lurched violently and collapsed in a pitiful quivering heap among the stones.

Eddie Vail was running now, miraculously picking his way over the treacherous footing. The girl had fainted, no doubt of that, and something was seriously wrong with her.

A mysterious mechanical something whizzed past; something that buzzed like a thousand hornets and slithered over the rocks in a series of metallic clanks. Then it was gone -- or so it seemed in the confusion of Eddie's mind; but he had seen nothing. Probably a fantasy of his overworked brain, or only the surf breaking against the sea wall. He turned his attention to the girl.

* * *

She was moaning and tossing her head, returning painfully to consciousness. He straightened her limbs and placed his folding coat under the restless head, noting with alarm that vicious red welts marred the whiteness of her arms and shoulders. It was as if she had been beaten cruelly; those marks could never have resulted from her fall. Poor kid. Subject to fits of some sort, he presumed. She was a good looker too, and no mistake. He smoothed back the rumpled mass of golden hair and studied her features. They were vaguely familiar.

Then she opened her eyes. Stark terror looked out from their ultramarine depths, and her lips quivered as if she were about to cry. He raised her to a more comfortable position and supported her with an encircling arm. She did cry a little, like a frightened child. Then, with startling abruptness, she sprang to her feet.

"Where is it?" she demanded.

"Where's what?" Eddie was on his feet, peering in all directions. He remembered the queer sounds he had heard or imagined.

"I -- I don't know." The girl passed a trembling hand before her eyes as if to wipe away some terrifying vision. "Perhaps it's my imagination, but I felt -- it was just as real -- one of father's iron monsters. Beating me; bending me. I'd have snapped in a moment. But nothing was there. I -- I'm afraid . . . ."

Eddie caught her as she swayed on her feet. "There now," he said soothingly, "you're all right, Miss Shelton. It's gone now, whatever it was." Iron monsters! In a flash it had come to him tht this girl he held in his arms was Lina Shelton, daughter of the robot wizard. No wonder she was afflicted with hallucinations! But those bruises were real, as was the forcible twisting of her lithe young body. And he had heard something.

* * *

"You know me?" The girl was calmer now and faced him with a surprised look.

"Yes, Miss Shelton. At least I recognize you from the pictures. Society page, you know. And I'm Edward Vail -- Eddie for short -- on vacation and at your service."

The girl smiled wanly. "You know of father's break with Universal Electric? Of his private experiments?"

"I heard of the scrap and how he walked out on the outfit, but nothing further." Eddie thought grimly of how nearly he had come to losing his own job when David Shelton broke relations with his employers. He had been too enthusiastic in support of some of the older man's claims.

"It's been terrible," the girl whispered. She clung nervously to his arm as he picked his way back to the road. "The loneliness, and all. No servants will stay out here now, and father spends all his time in the laboratory. Then -- this fear of the mechanical men -- they haunt me. I -- I guess they've got me a little goofy."

Eddie laughed reassuringly. "Perhaps," he suggested, "you will let me help you. Your father, I believe, will remember me, and I'll be very glad to --"

"No, no!" The girl seemed frightened at the thought. "I'm sure he wouldn't welcome you. He's changed greatly of late and is suspicious of everyone, even keeping things from me. But it's awfully nice of you to offer your assistance, and you've been a perfect peach to take care of me this way. I -- I'd better go now."

They had reached the road and Eddie looked uncertainly at his roadster. He hated to think of leaving the girl in this lonely spot. She was obviously in a state of extreme nervous tension and, to him, seemed pathetically helpless and afraid.

"That the house?" he asked, pointing in the direction of the gloomy old mansion whose dilapidated gables were barely visible over the tree tops.

"Yes." The girl shivered and drew closer to him.

The ensuing silence was broken by the slam of a door. His car! Eddie looked toward it in amazement; he was hearing things again. The springs sagged on the driver's side as under the weight of a very heavy occupant, but the seat was empty. Then came the whine of the starter and the motor purred into life. The gears clashed sickeningly and the car was jerked into the road with a violence that should have stripped the differential. He pulled the girl aside just as it roared past and disappeared around the bend in a cloud of dust. The sound of the exhaust died away rapidly and left them staring into each other's eyes in awed silence.

(continue on to Part 2)

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