In some previous articles, I reviewed the Lovecraftian Solar System, which included the planet Venus. At the time this was more of a general survey of the Lovecraftian Solar System and in the discussion of Venus I mentioned that we would discuss “In the Walls of Eryx” in more detail in a future article. I thought now would be a good time to discuss this tale. It should be noted that “In the Walls of Eryx” was written by both H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling. Unlike some of the other “revision” tales, such as “Out of the Aeons” by Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, this story as not simply Lovecraft writing a complete tale out of a few ideas provided by the other contributing author. “In the Walls of Eryx” feels and reads like a highly integrative collaboration between Lovecraft and Sterling.
According to “In the Walls of Eryx” Lovecraft’s Venus has a slightly quicker rotation relative to Earth when in fact it takes OUR Venus 243 days to turn once on its axis. In contrast, Earth takes 24 hours to rotate on its axis. In fact, since it takes Venus only 225 days to orbit the Sun, a day on Venus is longer than a year (www.universetoday.com)! It is interesting to note that Lovecraft was familiar with this long rotation of Venus…
”In 1890 Prof. Schiaparelli asserted that the conduct of certain white spots on Venus indicate a long period of rotation, probably identical with the planet’s revolution about the sun, that is, 225 days.” This is from an article Lovecraft wrote on astronomy for the Providence Evening News, dated 29 May 1914 (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science, H.P. Lovecraft; edited by S.T. Joshi; 2005). In spite of having this knowledge, in “In the Walls of Eryx” Venus has a slightly faster rotation than Earth.
The planet Venus (www.astronomy.com)
However, less than a year later, Lovecraft apparently changed his mind. In an article written for the Ashville [N.C.] Gazette-News (27 February 1915) Lovecraft mentions that some astronomers were questioning the 243 day rotation of Venus and claimed that Venus turns on its axis in about 23 hours and 21 minutes. According to Lovecraft “The shorter period, however, is still the more favoured by those best informed on this subject.” Thus, it appears that Lovecraft agreed with the idea that Venus has a slightly quicker rotation relative to Earth, so it is not surprising that this was incorporated into “In the Walls of Eryx.”
Based on Lovecraft Venus was a wet world covered in jungles, harboring leathery and tough vines as well as soft and rubbery vegetation. In spite of Venus being filled with large amounts of apparently photosynthetic organisms, there is an insufficient amount of oxygen to sustain human life, which is why oxygen masks are required. While the Venusian plants may be producing oxygen, the concentrations may be lower than those produced on Earth. However, this inability to breathe on Lovecraft’s Venus may be primarily due to extremely high concentrations of carbon dioxide, which appear to be a result of the extremely high amounts of organic decomposition of resident biomass as well extensive volcanic activity. Similar to these conditions, the atmosphere of OUR Venus is almost entirely composed of carbon dioxide (approximately 97%; The Planets by Dava Sobel; 2006).
Later in the tale it is specifically cited that concentrations of cyanogen were high enough to kill a person on Lovecraft’s Venus. Cyanogen is a colorless, toxic gas composed of two carbon atoms and two nitrogen atoms. As early as 1868 the astronomer William Huggins identified through spectroscopic analyses that the tail of Halley’s Comet contains a variety of organic compounds included cyanogen. Since this compound is highly toxic many people panicked as the comet approached the Earth in 1910 and that our world was going to pass through the comet’s tail. However, what many people did not understand at the time was that the tail of the comet contained such a diffuse amount of cyanogen that there was absolutely no health risk to the people of Earth (Cosmos by Carl Sagan; 1980). Lovecraft noted in an article for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner (dated 16 November 1906) on the upcoming return of Halley’s Comet in 1910 (Joshi, 2005) and while there was no mention of cyanogen, Lovecraft may have transplanted the dangers of this toxic compound from the tail of Halley’s Comet to the atmosphere of Venus.
A photograph of Halley’s Comet with Venus shown in the lower left hand (www.pds.jpl.nasa.gov.com)
Later in the tale as the protagonist, Kenton J. Stanfield, is assessing how much breathable air he has left he cites, “I am using the chlorate cubes very sparingly.” More specifically, potassium chlorate. Again, Lovecraft is basing this on his knowledge of science, in particular chemistry. Superoxides, chlorates and perchlorates can produce oxygen when heated. While this exothermic chemical reaction generates heat, which could be a fire hazard, these compounds were used in to create Chemical Oxygen Generators. Within these Generators is a firing pin that is used to heat the chlorate compound and produce oxygen. In many of the early mission Soviet space flights potassium superoxide was used as the source of oxygen. Such systems were also used by firefighters and miners. The earliest patent in the United States I could find for a Chemical Oxygen Generator was filed in 4 May 1936. “In the Walls of Eryx” was written in January of 1936 so Lovecraft and Sterling may have gotten the idea for such a breathing apparatus from an article in the newspaper about this new technology. Or, maybe it was already being used but was not officially patented. In any event, Lovecraft and Sterling were certainly integrating cutting edge 1930’s technology into the tale.
A diagram for a chemical oxygen generator used in aircraft (www.wikipedia.com)
In contrast to the Chemical Oxygen Generators, the origins of some of the other technology discussed in “In the Walls of Eryx” are more difficult to pin-point, such as N-force barriers, lacol tablets which function as a water substitute and weapons called D-radiation cylinders. Still as with many of his other stories, Lovecraft made a serious effort to include the most up to date science and technology in his tales.
Next time we will provide more details on what the Lovecraftian Venus would look like under its heavy cloud cover. Thank you – Fred.
In the Walls of Eryx by Orm Z. Gor (www.deivantart.com)