Science, Magic, and Silliness

3 Oct

Thorne Smith was a popular writer in the 1920s and 1930s, now remembered best for his “Topper” books which were made into successful movies starring Cary Grant. He also wrote fantasy and other genres.

The Night Life of the Gods” (1931) was a wonderful farce, with some sparkling dialog, now rather undeservedly forgotten.  A scientist (Hunter Hawk) creates a ray to turn flesh into stone. While (drunkenly) celebrating his discovery,  he meets one of the ‘little people’ and begins a romance with his daughter Megaera (an 800 year old) who has magic which can bring statues to life. There’s some entertaining slapstick as they pit science against magic. Then they get bored one night, in the metropolitan museum,  while surrounded by statues of Greek gods …

At this stage in the deliberations Alfred, Junior, age seventeen, lolled into the room. He tossed his hat at a chair with which it failed to connect. He thrust his hands deep into his pockets and looked ugly. He confronted his mother and began to speak in one of those voices which had it been a face one would have instinctively slapped.

He turned to his work-bench and picked up the two rings on which he had been working. In each ring was deeply imbedded one of the small silver balls most potently charged with its remarkable properties.

‘I have merely to direct the rays emanating from this ring,’ he continued, ‘at any living object and that object, whether man or beast, will immediately be turned to stone. A slight pressure of the finger on the back of the ring is all that is required to release the ray. With this ring I can achieve either partial or complete petrification.

‘You,’ he said, ‘would make a lovely statue. I could keep you in the garden. Might even make a fountain out of you.’

We’re even older than your family. I knew your father well by sight. He was much like you, only by this time of night he usually staggered more.’

‘Thanks,’ said Mr Hawk rather drily. ‘I can tell you must have known him. Exactly what did you say you were—one of the Little People? I’ve heard of them or read of them or something.’

‘Yes,’ replied the little man. ‘We emigrated from Ireland long before the great-great-grandfather of Christopher Columbus ever climbed through a bedroom window.’

‘I never knew he did,’ said Hunter Hawk.

‘Neither do I,’ replied the little man, ‘but I imagine he must have done. ‘Most every man does at one time or another, if it isn’t too far to the ground. Haven’t you?’

‘My God! Look!’ a woman cried hysterically. ‘Brightly has turned to a statue now.’

It was true. Mr Hawk in desperation had been forced to petrify his host. Brightly stood motionless before him, the gun levelled at his head.

At this moment Megaera appeared at the head of the stairs. Her large dark eyes were fixed on Mr Hawk. She was concentrating desperately, putting all her will power into her eyes, calling upon her reserve supply of magic to overcome the potency of Hunter Hawk’s ray. She was determined to play an exceptionally dirty trick on this man who had betrayed her trust. Her heart glowed with triumph as she felt herself succeeding.

Hunter Hawk reluctantly came back to himself, sweating. A moment later Meg effected the restoration of Mr Brightly. And a moment later than that there was the report of another shot. Bang! Zing! Going at great speed something small but hard buried itself in the wall less than an inch from Mr Hawk’s ear. Accustomed as he was to explosions, he was nevertheless unable to regard his present predicament with equanimity. He found himself in the position of a man who is forced to do several difficult things at once. One of these things was to maintain his towel in the important capacity it now filled. The knot, he feared, was working loose. Another thing was to continue rapidly down those stairs regardless of the throng awaiting him at their base. Finally, it would be helpful if he could repetrify Mr Brightly. That should be done without further delay.

Then Hawk performed the incredibly simple yet effective rites into which Meg had introduced him back in the grotto on the night when he had first met her — the night following his own great discovery.

For a brief moment the statue remained motionless, then, with disconcerting agility, it came to life. Jumping down from its pedestal it stood before its grateful liberators.

‘My thanks,’ said Mercury, looking at Meg with suave admiration. ‘Standing poised on the ball of one’s foot for Zeus knows how long is no Roman holiday. One is supposed to do that merely in passing, you know. If sculptors must continue to sculp they should favour the recumbent school.

‘Sin,’ came surprisingly from Mr Betts, ‘is forgetting to pull down the shades.’

‘Oh,’ said Mercury, ‘I understand. It’s not unlike leaving the door unlocked.’

‘Or grabbing the wrong sandals when you jump through the back window,’ Apollo added reminiscently.

‘So it’s that’, said Venus, her face clearing. ‘Well, if you ask me, I think sin is nice. I’d like to live in it.’

‘You’ve never lived out of it.’ Diana tossed at her.

At the moment Mercury was holding forth. ‘What we need,’ he said, addressing his remarks to the Olympians, ‘is a high stone wall. I know all about such matters, and if you’ll all bear a hand we can throw one up in no time.’

The deliberations following this proposal exhausted the contents of three shakers, after which the gods and goddesses alike hurried enthusiastically to the uncompleted section of the wall. Sand and cement were brought from the work sheds, and rocks were collected with feverish energy. The gods were good workers once their minds had been set on a task to accomplish. Mr Betts, realizing the futility of mixing drinks in a shaker, began to use a bucket which Hebe carried along the line of activity whenever she saw an Olympian’s ambition flagging through lack of fuel. Mr Hawk regarded the whole affair as being quite in keeping with the unstable enterprise of the gods, but as it kept them happy and out of other and perhaps more disturbing pursuits, he gave them a free hand.

The text is available on Project Gutenberg. source


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