Saturday, October 31, 2009


My aunt gave me another surprise the other day: the Summer 1944 issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES. In there is a story by my grandfather called "Terror in the Dust."

WILD WEST WEEKLY was gone by this point, the November 1943 issue being the magazine's last. My grandfather was trying to make a living at this point by selling to mainly Western pulps like WESTERN STORY and THRILLING RANCH STORIES. So it was a surprise seeing him in a non-Western pulp. But then again, he had started out in Weird Tales in 1925 and had some pretty good stories in that pulp, even making it on the cover (see my post from yesterday).

So here is my recap of the story, along with some excerpts from the story. I hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Kronk's experiment had been brilliantly successful and developments even more interesting, the doctor hoped, were yet to come.

The young professor, John Clarkson, had been dead and buried for more than a month, but small portions of his brain were still alive and healthy in the carefully controlled nutritive solution. Kronk had good reason to believe that other portions, infinitesimal in size, were living and functioning in the heads of some thousands of red ants.

Dr. Kronk is a neurologist on a tropical island with a fascinating experiment at hand. He has murdered his young colleague, professor John Clarkson, and taken his brain cells and transferred them to the cranial cavities of ants. He will soon be the talk of the scientific world, and even better, he will be able to sweep the beautiful zoologist, Jane Hawley, off of her feet when she arrives in a sea plane in a few days. Hawley is on an expedition, collecting rare animals from around the world.

John Clarkson was a distinguished myrmecologist - an expert in the branch of entomology treating with ant life - but he had valued his own life above research, and at the last he had pleaded and begged Kronk not to kill him.

But Kronk had shot him near the heart, then trephined through the skull with the rotary saw while Clarkson was still living.

Everything had been prepared and waiting. The neurologist had employed the instrument known as Fenger's needle, which had a slot on one side with razor-sharp edges. This, when rotated, cut slender cylinders from the brain cortex at the spots that Kronk had selected.

Clarkson hadn't suffered much - the brain itself is insensible to pain - and of course Kronk could not have risked an anesthetic in any case. He wanted the cells normal and not drugged with chloroform or ether.

Kronk is quite pleased with himself. The experiment seems to have been a success so far. Not many of the ant had died during the transplants. And he can already see a subtle different in the behavior of the ants.

There was much less aimless scurrying, not so much blundering, and communication between ants had speeded up.

Kronk later "liberated about fifty of the brain-treated queens," hoping that they would reproduce. Not only do they reproduce, but Kronk finds on a walk around the island later that, to his delight, the new brain power has been passed through the egg to the next ant generation.

Kronk, relaxed and happy, goes to bed, only to look up and find ants on the ceiling.

The ants on the ceiling had come in from the outside. He could see the chinks and holes where they were making their entrance. And they were young insects, the second generation. This had to be true, for there wee hundreds, possibly thousands of them.

A trail snakes onto the ceiling and starts to form triangles, squares. And then they start to spell out words. MORT, MORTE, MUERTE, TOD. Kronk remembers that Clarkson was a linguist and knew several languages. He figures out that the ants are spelling out "death" in several languages.

It doesn't take a lot to figure out what's going to happen. But my grandfather does do a good job of dragging out the torture as long as possible. Kronk uses what insecticide he has, and that works...but only for the night.

The next night Kront maroons himself in his bedroom, painting the ceiling with a sticky substance and putting the legs of the bed in tins of gasoline. But there are so many of them...

A great, dark red carpet was being unrolled in the laboratory, a living rug with a hideously seething warp of fantastically racing ants! It swept simultaneously toward the gasoline tins at the head and foot of the cot.

With a choked yell, Kronk reached for his shoes, which were just under the bed, but he was too late. They were already alive and flickering with the movement of countless red bodies. Pulses pounding, Kronk stood up on the cot, his head hunched forward to avoid the ceiling.

Then he gave a cracked laugh.

'All right, die! You're not as clever as I thought!'

For the ants were killing themselves by the thousands, swarming up the sides of the tins in solid masses and dropping in like rain. Already the surface of the liquid was hidden by floating corpses, and the layer was thickening. But as fast as the ants died they were replaced by others.

The cans were filling up!

The pail quickly fill up and the ants simply crawl on top of the corpses to get to him in the bed. Kronk manages to flee the bed - and the shack - and sprints into the forest of palm trees.

There was a bright moon, obscured at times by a scud of thin clouds, and Kronk sought a place wherre he could sleep, or at least relax. He walked for more than half a mile under the tall palms that fringed the dunes, then smoothed a spot in the sand and slumped down.

Before he had been there five minutes he was savagely attached, not by the main body of his enemies, which could not have reached him in that length of time, but by a small yet efficient new group.

Evidently outposts and a system of spies had been established everywhere. Cursing and slapping at his tormentors, he ran along the dunes for a hundred yards, and when he halted again he was discovered by another party and driven on.

Kronk is driven to the water's edge and even though partly submerged, finds sleep impossible. The attack continues until well into the next day. Kronk, buoyed by the fact that Jane Hawley's plane is due to land that day or the next, just needs to hang on a few more hours. Kronk even tries to shield himself by placing a ring of fire around him in the sand as a barrier. But they simply burrow under and begin to sear the flesh off of his forearms.

Kronk jumps through the smoke and staggers back to the beach. There he finds some old timber and quickly makes a raft. Laughing deliriously, he floats himself out in the lagoon. He's safe, he thinks, and starts to fall asleep.

His eyes jerk open, and the raft nearly capsizes as he crawled to his knees and started paddling with a piece of board.

A long tentril of swimming ants was reaching out form the bank like the arm of an octopus. Fortunately for Kronk, however, they were not aquatic insects and they had already come about as far as was possible for them. Only when he saw them drowning did he breathe more easily.

But it doesn't last. The ants find another way out to torment him by forming into gigantic floating balls. Kronk screams, dives under water, and heads back for shore.

"All I have to do is keep moving. I can cover more ground in a minute than they can in an hour," he told himself more confidently. "I'll get what I need at the shack tomorrow, in spite of them. Their stinging is painful, but that's all - I won't die from ant bites. You can't beat me, John Clarkson! The plane will be here maybe tomorrow - in two or three days, at the utmost."

Kronk falls onto a patch of sand near the middle of the island that, as far as he could tell, is free from ants. He falls asleep and when he awakes is quite relaxed. There are no ants in sight. He lies motionless in the sand for a few minutes. Next to his body, to his amusement, he finds an empty test tube. Labeled Cocaine Hydrochloride, the tube is almost empty. Kronk is amused, thinking that maybe the ants had brought it out for him so he could kill himself. When a lone "ambassador" ant shows up, Kronk laughs. But in a few minutes he finds out the terrible truth.

In trying to sit up he found that his legs were powerless. He couldn't move them; they were like lumps of lifeless wood.

With trembling fingers, he investigated a tiny, deep and painless wound in his back.

And then the hideous revelation flashed upon him!

The ants had been busy. They had covered their jaws with the deadening local anesthetic, had bored into his flesh, infiltering the drug as they went - and they had cut his spinal cord!

The feelers of the ambassador ant were quivering now as if with demoniac mirth. Screaming, Kronk tried to drag himself away on his elbows and hands, but there was more than one ant now!

They came in from all directions, and they came by thousands....

When the plane finally arrives, Jane Hawley finds it strange that there is no sign of life on the island. The pilot does notice one thing:

"Say! We did find an old skeleton on the middle of the island. Must have been there a long time. It's as white as ivory."

That was interesting, Jane Hawley thought. But there were more important things to attend to. In spite of her sorrow she had not forgotten the needs of the animals in her charge.

"Mr. Smith," she called to the pilot again, "did you see any -"

"No, I didn't, Miss Hawley," he answered, shaking his head in the negative. "I'm afraid those rare, two-toed ant-eaters of yours will have to go hungry for a while longer. I don't think there's an ant on the island."


I found it amusing and a little uncomfortable when I was reading this story. It reminded me of an incident I had off of the Belize barrier reef several years ago. I was on a field trip with other college students on this small island (Wee Wee Caye was the name of this island, I kid you not). At night we were crammed into these small bunk houses, 3 to a house. I swear our biology professor had a vendetta against us. This time it wasn't ants, it was mosquitoes. Even though there were mosquito repellents of all shapes and sizes everywhere, it did not deter those little buggers from tormenting me. In that little cabin, all the mosquito netting and repellent did no good whatsoever. I kept hearing that buzzzzzz next to my ear. I ended up at one boat dock and actually laid down on the dock with the netting over me. That didn't work. I fled to the dock on the other side of the island, trying to find relief from that maddening buzzing. I was actually trying to sleep on the dock to get away from them. It didn't work.

I did manage to make it back to the cabin and fell asleep, if only from sheer exhaustion and it was two in the morning. The next morning I woke up to find my legs covered in bites.

That was a really long week.

Anyway, I thought I'd just throw that in to add a personal touch. My grandfather, wherever he was, must have been mildly amused to see me go through this. Or maybe it was some kind of twisted karma I had to go through for his sake.

Happy Halloween!


Walker Martin said...

An interesting interview might be with your aunt and her memories of Paul Powers.

Charles Gramlich said...

You know, I think I read this story somewhere. Was it ever reprinted in any anthology? It certainly seems vaguely familiar.

Laurie Powers said...

I have in the past Walker - some of her recollections are part of the prologue and epilogue I did in Pulp Writer. She's not fond of tape recorders, tho, so I have to always just try to jot down notes when I can. I'm happy she's in my life - we've become close.

Laurie Powers said...

don't know, charles. He never mentioned it in any of his papers and my aunt hasn't mentioned it. I can look into it.

Evan Lewis said...

A wild story. What a great aunt you have!

Barry said...

I neat and chilling story Laurie, who would have thought 30 or so years ago when I first read that yarn there would someday be this whole World Wide Web thing and there I would find this blog written by the writer's granddaughter.

JerThom said...

Unfortunately I did have one of those ant encounters. It was during a LRRP patrol in the jungle, when after a 36-hour hump we took a break, and when I sat down to eat a "John Wayne" bar I dozed off. Within minutes I was rudely awakened by the sting of fire ants who had been drawn by the smell of the half-eaten bar. I had to shed my gear and dive in the river to get them off me. --- But I still thought the posted story was interesting and imaginative.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I was out hunting and settled into a spot in the woods to watch an area I'd hoped would be used by meandering deer. Ten minutes later I realized the whole section of woods was a gigantic ant city and they'd crawled all over my back. AHHHHHH! Damn near had to strip down to get them all off of me.

Laurie Powers said...

Ouch - I think you two have outdone me in this category. Ugh. JerThom: I've been bitten once by a fire ant in my life - once. And that was enough. Cap'n - I don't even want to think about your ordeal.