Rays of Death, Scientific Detective Monthly, May 1930

HELPING OUT A FRIEND: The Science Fiction of Tom Curry

Tom Curry was a writer of Western pulps who only wrote science fiction tales on the side

Tom Curry (1900-1976) has won his place in the Pulps as a Western writer, the main author of the Rio Kid Magazine stories as well as one of the detective story writers in the early days of Black Mask, alongside Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. What may not be so well known is Tom Curry tried his hand at Science Fiction for a year or so back in 1930.

Unlike many horse opera writers, Curry was qualified to write early Science Fiction because he, like E. E. “Doc” Smith, studied Chemical Engineering, at Columbia. Success at Adventure and Western stories found him working in journalism instead of the food industry. The crime beat supplied him with plenty of material for detective stories, which he sold to Black Mask in the 1920s. By 1930, he was selling them to the Clayton chain’s All-Star Detective and Clues.

It was here he would write for Harry Bates, the editor who created Astounding Stories of Super-Science (better known as the Clayton Astounding today). Bates struggled at first to fill his new SF pulp as he didn’t have a stable of pros he could turn to. Where he did go was to the writers who filled his other magazines with tales of crooks, ghosts and adventurers such as Hugh Cave, Arthur J. Burks and Victor Rousseau. Tom Curry was another.

Rays of Death

Curry’s first attempt at Science Fiction was “Rays of Death” for Hugo Gernsback’s Scientific Detective Monthly, April-May 1930, a magazine specializing in Mystery stories with scientific detectives, but he really got his start with “The Soul Snatcher” (Astounding, April 1930). A young doctor named Allen Baker is facing the death sentence so his mother seeks out Dr. Ramsey Burr, Allen’s old mentor, to try and save her son. Allen is charged with murdering Burr’s assistant, Smith, but in truth Burr has disintegrated him in a failed experiment. The unsympathetic doctor declares Smith (and Allen too) a martyr to Science. Mrs. Baker begs Burr to tell the police. Instead he suggests another plan since he has now perfected the machine that killed Smith. He will trade places with Allen via radio, as Burr has been working on a form of matter transmission. Mrs. Baker supports the plan by smuggling the necessary equipment into her son. Step one of the process works, transferring Allen’s mind into Dr. Burr’s body but an unscheduled execution by electric chair stops the experiment before completion. Allen Baker, now looking like Burr, declares the poor doctor a martyr to Science. Everyone is surprised at how much kinder and gentler Burr has becoming, taking care of Mrs. Baker.

Curry’s concept of “soul” or mind transfer is not new in 1930. Edgar Rice Burroughs had used it in The Mastermind of Mars (Amazing Stories Annual, 1927) and H. G. Wells before him in “The Story of Mr. Elvesham” in 1896. The idea has became one of the clichés of Science Fiction devolving down to TV shows like Gilligan’s Island‘s “The Friendly Physician” (April 7, 1966) where Gilligan and Mr. Howell and the Professor and Mrs. Howell trade bodies.

Giants of the Ray

“Giants of the Ray” (Astounding, June 1930) puts Curry in more familiar territory, with two bad hats, Durkin and Maget, who plan to follow an expedition into the Mato Grosso to rob a mine filled with valuable material. Juan, one of the peons, works as their “inside man”, leaving them food along the trail. They instruct Juan to steal a sample of the valuable material, thinking it gold or diamonds. When they next encounter the peon he has opened the sample and been stricken with a horrible form of death.

When the thieves get to the mine, they see Professor Gurlone and his son, and a blind man named Espinoza, the mine’s owner, have a large group of peons caged up nearby. They see a strange outbuilding as well, heavily padlocked. Gurlone and his men go into the mine armed with heavy arms, fighting what turns out to be a gigantic frog and tadpole. Maget comes to the professor’s rescue with some good shooting, while Durkin kills himself by sneaking into the lead-lined hut.

Maget joins the expedition, agreeing to face the horrors of another foray of the mine. With dynamite and guns, the men plan to blow up an opening inside the mountain that is allowing gigantic creatures: bats, insects, centipedes, frogs access to the outside world. The professor explains that the radioactivity of the radium in the mountain has caused the animals to grow to such large size.

The raid goes badly, not blocking the opening but enlarging it. A multitude of giant vermin pours out of the mine, killing all the trapped peons. The expedition flees into the jungle. Professor Gurlone tells Maget it is alright. The cannibalistic giants will eat each other and the few remaining survivors can be killed with guns. Curry ends the tale with Maget proudly joining the scientists and sharing their new wealth. He has reformed himself from being a thief and a drunkard. Sadly, Curry makes no comment on Professor Gurlone, who callously allowed a number of locals to died so he could have his radium mine.

There is so much more to this topic and G. W Thomas’ article in the second issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly goes much further in depth. You can read the entire article and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the download button below!