Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


 :Henry Horn's Super-Solvent" by Dwight V. Swain (from Fantastic Adventures, November 1941)

Henry Horn is a nebbish of a scientist who likes to experiment, often without thinking of the consequences.  In the past he's blown the roof off the laboratory of the guinea pig breeding farm where he works, blighted every peony within a ten-mile radiu, and tried to create a death ray that only made every guinea pig in the facility sterile.  Now he's decided that he would try to create a universal solvent.  Surely there had to be a market for that.

His friend and supervisor Professor Paulson asked him where he was going to store the super-solvent if he did manage to create it -- because any container would surely dissolve if the solvent were truly universal.  Horn admitted that he had not thought of that and decided to end his experiments.  Before Paulson could stop him, Horn poured the various liquids he had been experimenting with into a bin, accidently creating the super-solvent he had been seeking.  The solvent -- a pinkish cloud -- settled on the labortaory table and dissolved it, along with a lot of lab equipment and what few notes Horn had made on his experiments.  And it kept dissolving things...

Paulson suggested they suck it up with a fan and release it into the outside air where it would certainly dissipate.  The pink cloud dissolved the fan, made a huge hole in the outside wall, and floated away without dissipating.  It blew past a passing Douglas DC-3 and dissolved its rudder fin.  Luckily the crew were able to land the plane safely.  Over the next few days there were reports of a chimney on a local landmark wrecked, a tail disappearing from a statue of Grant's horse, a reservoir wall collapsing, and a standpipe broken in the middle.  

Horn and Paulson tried to report the experiment ot the local police, but they disbelieved them until the pink cloud descended and ate a cornice from the station-house.  From there it went on to dissolve a junkman's horse.

Experts were called in:  an airline meteorologist, a chemist from the area's largest industrial firm, an Air Forces Combat Command colonel, two physicists from the local university.  Something had to be done before the sovent destroyed a human life, rather than just property and the occasional animal.  The "experts" were in a quandary how to dissipate the pink cloud.  TheAir Force colonel, being a military man, decided to bomb the hell out of it, but the cloud just ate the bombs.  Incendiary devices did not work, either.  A famous physicist declared that it would eventually dissipate, but that it must be contained until it did so.  He proposed using wind currents to drive it to a remote mountain, where it could attatch itself there.  That worked -- until the cloud ate the mountain and broke loose.

Henry Horn decided that, since he had created the super-solvent, he must come up with a way to destroy it.  Professor Paulson knew that Henry's ideas always turned out disasterous, so he locked Horn in a bedroom to prevent him from reaching his laboratory.  The twenty-foot drop from the bedroom window did not deter Henry Horn -- there were plenty of spare sheets he could use to make a rope to escape...

This was the first of four stories about Henry Horn to appear; two in Fantastic Adventures, and two in its sister magazine Amazing Stories.  Horn went on to invent a racing ray, a blitz bomb, and x-ray eye-glasses.  The editor of Fantastic Adventures, Raymond A. Palmer, was a popular author of science fiction stories in the 1930s.  When Ziff-Davis bought Amazing Stories, editor T. O'Connor Sloane resigned, and the magazine was moved from New York to its Chicago headquarters.  On the advice of author Ralph Milne Farley, Ziff-Davis hired 27-year-old Palmer to be its editor.  Palmer was a four-foot tall, enthusiastic hunchback, the result of a broken back he suffered when he was 7 years old after being hit by a truck.  Palmer immediately turned the stodgy science fiction magazine into one aimed at a juvenile audience, with fast-moving adventure tales with little or no concern about rationalization or credibility. Logic be damned, keep the story moving.  Palmer's appraoch was an immediate success.  Sales climbed through the roof and Amazing Stories served its juvenile audience as well as the more mature Astounding Stories would serve a more scientifically literate audience in the days of John W. Campbell, Jr.  In 1939, Palmer added a companion magazine, Fantastic Adventures, to serve as a fantasy counterpart to Amazing Stories.

One hallmark of Fantastic Adventures was the a number of original, off-trail, often humorous series, the most notable of which was Robert Bloch's Damon Runyon-ish Lefty Feep saga.  Other characters (both humorous and otherwise) included Leroy Yerxa's Freddie Funk, William P. McGivern's Tink, Thornton Ayer's The Golden Amazon, Manly Wade Wellma's Hok, Nelson S. Bond's Lancelot Biggs, James Norman's Oscar, Detective of Mars, Miles Sheldon's Ebbtide Jones, Elroy Arno's Willowby Jones, and Palmer's own (under his "Robert Pelkie" pseudonym) Toka, King of the Dinosaurs.  The list can go on and on.  Most of these characters were forgettable but Palmer's audience ate them up.

Dwight V. Swain (1915-1992) was a pulp writer who eventually joined the staff of the University of Oklahoma's Professional Writing Program.  "He pioneered scripting documentaries and and educational/instruction movies using dramatic techniques, rather than the previously common talking heads."  Swain wrote a number of nonfiction books about the craft of writing and was a popular speaker at writing conventions throughout America and Mexico.  He was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame.

"Henry Horn's Super-Solvent" was Swain's first published story.  The November 1941 issue of Fantastic Adventures can be read online.


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