Sunday, June 2, 2019

A C.S. Lewis Mystery

In September 1966, a previously unpublished short story "Forms of Things Unknown" by C.S. Lewis appeared posthumously in his collection Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, edited by Walter Hooper.  It was later collected in The Dark Tower and Other Stories (1977), also edited by Hooper

The story is not among Lewis's best, but it poses some conundrums with regard to its composition. It is not known when Lewis wrote the story, but the plots bears a striking resemblance to a short story from one magazine and to some artwork on the cover of another magazine, both from 1958*. Basically (spoiler alert) "Forms of Things Unknown" tells of an astronaut on the moon who encounters a unnamed gorgon, presumably Medusa, and who, meeting her gaze in the final line of the story, is turned to stone.

The short story is "Island of Fear" by William Sambrot, and it first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post for 18 January 1958.  This story is not set on the moon but in a contemporary Greek island, where one man encounters a gorgon and meets her gaze in the final line of the story.

Next, the artwork.  It is a cover by Virgil Finlay to the October 1958 issue of Fantastic Universe, a science fiction magazine then under the editorship of Hans Stefan Santesson.  (Fantastic Universe was published from June 1953 through March 1960.)  The cover art, which is not associated with any story in the magazine, shows two astronauts in front of their spaceship having been turned to stone after encounter with a gorgon, again presumably Medusa.

How does one explain these similarities?  Really, one can't.  But it is interesting to note that Lewis did read American science fiction magazines in the 1950s, and even contributed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  And he also contributed to The Saturday Evening Post ("Screwtape Proposes a Toast" appeared in the issue for 19 December 1959).  So it's not outside the realms of possibility that Lewis saw the story or the magazine cover or both.

I had intended to include some account of this curious situation, and to reprint Sambrot's tale in my anthology Tales Before Narnia (2008), but my query letter to Sambrot went unanswered, and later I learned he had passed away just before my letter would have arrived.

*Credit for discovering (back in the 1970s) the story goes to Dale Nelson and the cover art to Richard Hodgens.  


  1. If I remember correctly, I read the Sambrot story in a paperback edition of Alfred Hitchcock's "My Favorites in Suspense." Perhaps Lewis might have encountered it there? I've just looked up the contents--really quite exceptionally good--in the hope that I could see a Lewis connection but alas, no. It is sriking to see Gorgons so prominent in 1958. Could they be an allegory for the fear of nuclear radiation? --md

  2. Per the anthology, that's possible: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: My Favorites in Suspense came out in 1959. I see that Sambrot is represented in several other of the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies.

  3. I have the issue of The Saturday Evening Post in which "Island of Fear" appears (18 Jan. 1958). I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Lewis saw the story there. Lewis contributed to the SEP ("Screwtape Proposes a Toast, 19 Dec. 1959), as did Owen Barfield ("The Rediscovery of Meaning," 7 January 1961).

    I read an abridged version of the story in the 1 Jan. 1967 issue of Read magazine, which was a little free biweekly for middle schoolers at the time. If you were lucky, you had an English teacher who distributed copies. It tried to stir kids' imaginations, and sf and fantasy were not rare in its pages. It also carried ads for books kids could order through their class, and sf and fantasy were represented, not only good classics like The War of the Worlds and The Lost World, but relatively recent and decidedly non-classic things like Keith Laumer's novelization of The Invaders (TV program), at least Star Trek II (James Blish's retellings of episodes), and L. P. Davies' The Artificial Man -- I'm sure of at least some of these.

    I wonder if any library anywhere has saved a file of Read. It would be interesting to see a complete listing of the genre stories they reprinted (I am sure of Asimov's "Eyes Do More than See" and Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"), and probably some originals, too. Without checking the copies I have saved, I remember a story about a boy having a pair of glasses that, when he put them on, showed everything sloooooowed doooown. And I don't think the story was told for a laugh.

    Dale Nelson

  4. Your mention of Read magazine rings faint bells for me. I think my second grade teacher (c. 1967) distributed copies to my class, but (if correct) I think that was the only year I ever saw it. I recall some class orders of the books, and I've never thought the orders were through Scholastic (who had a similar service), as some schools then offered. WorldCat lists it as "Read Magazine" published semi-monthly (except for July-August) from 1951-1974 by American Education Publications of Dayton, Ohio. A handful of libraries have microfilm of it. See:

    I also note that Portland State University has bound issues from 1967 through 1988, so it seems that it was microfilmed only through 1974.

  5. AEP is the correct publisher, all right.

    1988! I'm surprised.