Right now, as you are reading this there are thousands of works of fiction sitting on dusty shelves waiting for our adventurous minds to seek them out.  It is the goal of this little effort of mine to seek out these shuttered tales and see how well they hold up.  Are they hidden gems full of contemporary meaning?  Or are they clunky relics of the past whose time has long slipped through the hourglass?  Let us find out.

Today’s Forgotten Fiction:

The Stolen Mind by M. L. Staley

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This article also available on Medium


[S]o I was originally drawn to this issue of Astounding Stories because of the absolutely ridiculous cover illustration of some sort of white-fur collard and cuffed aeronauts from a crashed plain fighting off gigantic and garishly colored man-sized beetles with their fists.  It’s the kind of art that only could come from the pulps of yesteryear and it is the kind of thing that warms the cockles of my heart.  The story The Stolen Mind is definitely a piece of forgotten fiction, it isn’t the cover piece, nor is it even mentioned on the front of the magazine.  It’s the kind of thing that you would never have seen unless you were perusing the issue, and luckily for you, that is exactly what I was doing.

Initially before reading the piece I was thinking that with a title like The Stolen Mind I thought I was going to be in for some sort of Lovecraftian mind swapping tale.  Perhaps not space aliens or malevolent preternatural creatures, judging from the leading art, more likely from a mad scientist or rogue psychological experiment.

So diving in we learn that our protagonist, named Quest, is a young man who has responded to an advertisement in the paper about a potentially high paying job.  He is meeting with a scientist of sorts, named Keane Clason, that offers him a thousand dollars upfront for him to sign on.  It’s a great lead in to a story because you can put yourself in the position of the protagonist and say, “yeah, I’d take that kind of money” (because remember this is 1920s dollars) but at the same time you know that there must be something really bad here for him to be offering that kind of dough up front and for the protagonist to say yes before really knowing hat he is signing up for.  Here is the quote:

“You say you need money.  How much immediately?”

Quest was unprepared for the question.

“A thousand dollars,” he ventured.

Without hesitation Clason counted out ten one-hundred-dollar notes from his wallet and laid them on the table.

“There’s your advance fee.  You’re ready to go to work immediately, I hope?”

“Certainly,” stammered Quest.  Stunned by the swiftness of the transaction, he sat staring that money that lay untouched before him.  To accept it would be like signing an unread contact.  But he had asked for it; to refuse it was impossible.

Clason explains that he and his brother have invented two marvelous devices.  The first is a kind of radio tower that destroys all life in a 500-mile radius.  His brother wants to sell it to a Balkan country, but Clason thinks that it will lead to horrible destruction and can’t allow his brother to do it.  That’s where the second contraption comes in, some sort of mind-altering device that he plans to use to convince his brother not to sell the invention, and for some reason, Clason can’t use the device on his own and needs out protagonist to help him.

The plan is a kind of convoluted one.  Clason wants to use his device, which he calls the Osmotic Liberator, to knock Quest’s mind out of his body.  Once floating free he is going to absorb it into his own body and carry him to his brother.  Once physical contact is made with his brother then Quest will invade his body and battle for control over it.  Quest will then decline to sell the device, and with Clason’s help return to the machine and be returned to his own body.

There are just so many points where this plan could go wrong that I would have slapped that 1k back on the table and got out of there.  But Clason sees the apprehension in Quest’s eyes and tells him that once the plan is done that he is going to pay him an additional $10,000.  I did the calculation and that is the equivalent of 150 thousand dollars in today’s value.  So as you can imagine, Quest is still in.  However, he sends out a note in the outgoing mail as insurance, saying that if he is not heard of in 24 hours that the police should come swarming into the office looking for him.  It’s kind of hard to think of posting a letter in a covert way in a moment when someone leaves the room, but this is the protagonist being somewhat clever so I guess I’m cool with it.

But Ho- A twist! Clason hits a hidden button and while displaying the full-sized version of his Osmotic Liberator he dumps Quest into the center chamber and absorbs his mind into his body.  Quest surmises that Clason is the real dastardly one, and wants to sell the plans for the destructive invention for a boatload of cash.  Despite his best efforts, however, Quest can’t fight back inside the mind of Clason and is essentially along for the ride, observing and feeling the movements of a body not under his control.

We learn that Clason has arranged for his brother to be kidnapped and held in a particular location.  Clason then arranges for the police and him to rescue his brother, and at the time of rescue to transfer Quest’s mind into the body of his brother.  His entire plan hinges on the fact that he has Quest’s mind under hypnotic control to do whatever he says.  There is some great writing here where Quest tries desperately to give control of the body back to Clason’s brother Phillip or even to break the control himself through sheer force of will.  But in both instances, he finds that he is unable, and the hypnotic commands that Clason gives him must be obeyed without question.

There is a real conceit here in the story that I stumbled over.  I just find it hard to believe or perhaps a better way of saying it would be that I find it hard to suspend belief in the fact that Clason is able to hypnotically control another person.  There seems to be at least a modicum of science behind some of the other devices and theories that permeate this story, but in this case, there is only the cold claim that Clason can do this with his mind.

The mad scientist Clason and the possessed body of his brother meet up with their eastern European agent and take a small pane out to the facility where Clason has constructed a full-sized version of the machine.

Now I thought that at the beginning that this device looked like a little radio tower, and that it broadcast a frequency that killed all life in a huge radius around it.  But as we will see in this scene, what is constructed is a tower of sorts, but with a directional set of barrels that can point the radio waves in a particular direction.  It seemed kind of strange to me because earlier in the story Clason laughs at the thought of a “death ray” and says that his invention is so much more devastating than anything that would be considered a “death ray”, but then here you go with what is essentially a pointable weapon that kills everything living in its path.  I mean, it kind of sounds like a death ray to me…

Anyway, despite Quest’s attempts at resisting the will of his master, he is forced to play the part of the brother.  The three leave the plane, and take the machine for a test drive, killing everything in a 500-foot swath.  The agent is impressed and horrified, and the deal is struck.

The story gets a bit muddy at points, with both Clason and his brother being referred to by their shared last name, and with our protagonist being in the body of another man, yet controlled by the antagonist.  The author uses many of the names interchangeably, referring to the antagonist as Keane and Clason.  But by reading slowly you can parse out what the next few scenes are without too much trouble.

Clason’s death ray has overshot the mark in the little experiment and killed several people out on a boat beyond where the range of the device should have stopped.  Quest is not hell-bent on stopping the mad scientist at all costs but still has a very hard time doing anything against the master’s will.

Clason then gets an idea, he is going to pin the deaths of those on the boat on his brother and Quest, but before he can put that into motion, what the police are already there!  He is certain that the police won’t believe the body-switching story if the two try and tell the truth, and he will live out the rest of his days super-rich.

Then, a Deus ex Machina event! Clason begins to suffer from chest pains, which we find out later is heart disease.  Exersaiubated by the arrival of the police the mad scientist is weakened enough for Quest to exert some control over the master.  He hits the secret switch over the vat that was once used on him and sends Clason into the center ring of the device.

The switch is thrown and Quest is thrown back into his original body, yay.  The police come bursting in and find Quest naked, Phillip (Clason’s brother) disoriented and Keane Clason dead at the bottom of the device’s liquid.  Despite the strange circumstance, they are instantly clapping Quest on the shoulder congratulating him on a job well done.  Which, yeah, is more than a little abrupt and weird.  Then the story ends with a statement saying that for Quest’s involvement with the whole ordeal he was given a promotion, which doesn’t make any sense because he was not really a on the books kind of employee, and is sent a heartwarming letter of thanks from the president of the united states.

Oof, talk about a hasty and forced ending.

Final Thoughts

While the interplay of wills within Phillip’s mind was novel and well written, the story, on the whole, didn’t really grab me.  The quasi-science was honestly pretty good, and the death machine was understandably a terrifying thing, and definitely something that you wanted to see out of the hands of any kind of military.  But poor scene flow and poor setup of the rules for mind control left me with a lot more questions and frustrations than anything else.  That coupled with the abysmal saccharine ending made me wish I had picked some other story from the issue.

Weirdness| 03/10

Horror | 04/10

Novelty | 6/10

Entertainment | 3/10