Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bizarre Tales of Terror by B. Malzberg, A. Merrit, and H.G. Wells

One of the many things I miss about living in New York is Book Off, a Japanese used bookstore near the New York Public Library’s Research Division on 42nd Street. It was always fun to look through the thousands of manga, and they bought and sold lots of books in English as well. Recently I have been looking at my copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book on French painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, which I purchased at Book Off.

Another book I purchased at Book Off is Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye, with a wrap around jacket illustration by Edward Gorey. This 1993 anthology, which I got for a dollar (sorry Marvin), contains over 50 stories, many from big names, including Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Winston S. Churchill, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jack London. Today I read three stories, one each by Barry Malzberg, A. Merrit, and H. G. Wells.

"Beyond Sleep" by Barry Malzberg
This story is two pages long and first appeared in 1970, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Its six paragraphs describe in the first person three different dreams suffered by a man under some terrible stress. How much do these dreams reflect reality? Did he really murder his wife, or try to? Did he really try to commit suicide? How much are these dreams the product of taking sleeping pills? A literary exercise.

"The People of the Pit" by A. Merritt
Merritt is important to the history of SF and I want to like him, but I tried to read The Metal Monster once and gave up in the middle as I didn’t like it. I decided to give Merritt a second shot with this story, first published in 1918.

Two guys are up in Alaska, headed for a mountain with five peaks where there is supposed to be gold. No Indian will accompany them there – they think the place is cursed! After seeing some weird lights in the sky a crippled man crawls into their camp. After sleeping for over a day the dying man tells the gold prospectors his horrible tale.

This man also sought gold at the mountain of five peaks. When he got there he found a ruined city at the base of the mountain, and below it a vast pit, several miles deep. A stairway took him down to the bottom of the pit, a march of some days. Down there was another city, an alien city, inhabited by translucent slug people! The slug people chained him up at an altar. All night the slugs sang a weird song, a seductive song that the human felt compelled to sing along with. All day the man scraped away at a link of his chain. Luckily the chain was made of gold, so after five days of scraping the guy was able to break free. Pathetically weak, he wore out his body crawling up the stairway, an epic trek of many days. At night the slug people would sing a siren song to him that more than once almost got him to return to them. His mind as well as his body prevailed, and he escaped the pit, but, worn out, he dies after telling the two gold prospectors his tale of terror. The prospectors decide to look for gold somewhere else; the end.

This is an OK story. I like stories of this type, but this one lacked anything to set it above the pack. Looking around online I find it said that the story is well regarded and even inspired writers like Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton to take up writing careers. Maybe this one deserves credit for being an early, perhaps even seminal, example of this type of story.

"In the Avu Observatory" by H. G. Wells

Like everybody, I’ve read and enjoyed War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. I read Invisible Man as a kid and remember nothing about it, and First Men in the Moon as an adult and thought it was not bad.  I think this is the first Wells short story I have read.

A scientist dude is in an observatory in Borneo, alone at night, watching the stars through a big telescope.  Then some giant bat thing flies into the observatory and the astronomer has to fight it!

There isn't much to this story, but the technique is good and I quite enjoyed it.  The images are vivid, the story flows well, and I didn't feel like I knew who was going to win the fight, who was going to survive.  So, bravo to Mr. Wells.


So, three enjoyable stories, the first very ambiguous, the second mysterious, the third vividly clear but suspenseful.  It is easy to recommend Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown.

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