Rocket to the Morgue was written by a man named William White, and originally appeared in 1942 under the pen-name of H. H. Holmes. White is better known by another pseudonym, Anthony Boucher, which he used on a number of classic short stories including “The Compleat Werewolf” and “The Quest for Saint Aquin”, and as founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The paperback reprint of Rocket to the Morgue has the name Anthony Boucher on the cover.
The novel is essentially a murder mystery, although that’s secondary to the real interest of the book. The action takes place against the backdrop of science fiction fandom – and prodom – as it existed at the time the book was written. No real-world authors make an appearance, but even Wikipedia acknowledges that many of the characters are based on real people. Most of these will be pretty obscure to modern-day readers – the main exceptions are Robert A. Heinlein (who features as “Austin Carter”) and L. Ron Hubbard (“Vance Wimpole” – described by one of the other characters as “an eccentric, a madman if you will”). Somewhat confusingly, there is also a passing reference to another writer named “René Lafayette”, which as mentioned last week was a pseudonym used by Hubbard.
As an aside, it’s worth emphasizing just how different the world of 1942 was. L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp writer, pure and simple. Scientology and Dianetics still lay in the future, and Hubbard’s name would have meant nothing to the general public. Science fiction fandom would have been equally obscure. There were no blockbuster sci-fi movies in 1942, and the cutting edge of the genre still lay in the pulp magazines. Although the novel is full of characters who conform to the modern stereotype of the science fiction geek, that stereotype would have been unknown to most readers when the book first came out.
The most Fortean character in the book isn’t a science fiction author – he’s a rocket scientist. His name is Hugo Chantrelle, and it’s a mishap with one of his rocket tests that gives the book its title (and is illustrated, in stylised form, on the cover). But Chantrelle is more than just a scientist: “The time-dreams of Dunne, the extra-sensory perception of Rhine, the sea serpents of Gould, all these held his interests far more than any research conducted by the Institute. He was inevitably a member of the Fortean Society of America, and had his own file of unbelievable incidents eventually to be published as a supplement to the works of Charles Fort.”
Surprising as it may seem, Chantrelle too is based on a real person – Jack Parsons, who was one of the founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Like his fictional counterpart, Parsons was no ordinary scientist. He was on friendly terms with the real-life L. Ron Hubbard, and with the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. One of my all-time favourite Fortean Times covers (FT132, pictured below) described him as “Playboy, antichrist and missile messiah”. Here are a few selected passages from the article about Parsons in that issue:
- Before each test launch, he was in the habit of invoking Aleister Crowley’s Hymn to Pan, the wild horned god of fertility. Parsons was an active member of the California Agape Lodge of the sex magical group Ordo Templi Orientis, and in letters addressed the Great Beast as “Most Beloved Father”.
- He practised “sex magic” but was so lacking in occult disciplines that his early workings more resembled early free-love orgies than anything else. Outside of these “religious” activities, Parsons was an incorrigible womaniser, who also blithely styled himself the Antichrist.
- In August 1945, on leave from his less than spectacular naval career, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was introduced to Parsons. Jack was impressed by Ron’s exuberance and energy and wrote in a letter to Crowley: “I deduced that he is in direct touch with some higher intelligence... He is the most Thelemic person I have ever met and is in complete accord with our own principles”.
- In January 1946, the two commenced a long and complex magical ritual called the “Babalon Working”. This was intended to create nothing less than an elemental being. As far as Parsons was concerned, the invocation worked. The elemental turned up two weeks later in the form of the beautiful blue-eyed, red-haired Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron.
- In April 1946, Parsons, Cameron and Hubbard, acting as scribe, attempted the second part of the Babalon Working, which was intended to raise a “moonchild” in the manner described in Crowley’s novel of the same name, with Cameron the vessel for Parsons’ magical seed. The mundane world intruded, however, and the tricky Hubbard, despite his intense and apparently sincere involvement with the Babalon working, vanished with $10,000 of Parsons’ money.