Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Return of Gallery of Horror: Bloch, Campbell, and Dozois & Dann

The original hardcover edition
In honor of William L. Trotter and in hopes of finding some good early 1980s horror fiction, let’s give Gallery of Horror another stab.

“Rubber Room” by Robert Bloch

I’m often disappointed by Robert Bloch. But I keep giving him a chance.

“Rubber Room” is about Emery, a bookish paranoid anti-Semitic murderer. Like Norman Bates, his insanity is linked to an overbearing mother. Because his mother hated Jews and he reads lots of books about World War II, Emery becomes a neo-Nazi hermit, collecting Nazi paraphernalia from antique stores. He goes totally insane, thinking that everything that happens to him is because of Jewish terrorists, and then when a little lost girl he meets on the street turns out to be Jewish, he kills her. The police put him in a padded cell, where, it appears, he is killed by the ghost of a terrorist who died in the same padded room earlier in the month.

This story, first published in 1980, is just OK.  Based on the title, I was hoping for it to be more about claustrophobia and the anxiety resulting from being all alone in a tiny room.  For some reason I always find the scenes in novels in which a guy is in a prison cell and counts all the bricks and becomes familiar with every crack in the wall and taps out messages to the other prisoners and loses track of the days and all that very engaging.

"Rubber Room" doesn't have anything new or compelling to say about anti-Semites or child killers, so one wonders if those elements were just introduced in hopes of easily manipulating the reader.  Maybe when "Rubber Room" came out neo-Nazis and child molesters didn't feel tired yet, the way Norman Bates must have felt fresh before we'd all seen three thousand episodes of "Law & Order: Perverts Division."

When the ghost appears to kill Emery I thought it might be the ghost of the little girl or of her grandfather, who was murdered by Nazis in World War II, making the book a Jewish revenge story.  But the ghost turns out to be that of an insane terrorist, presumably not Jewish, making the story a piece of irony with a twist ending: the crazy dude who stupidly fears the ski-mask wearing terrorists he thinks are financed by Jews is actually killed by a crazy ski-mask wearing terrorist who is not financed by Jews.  

"Rubber Room" may be interesting as a period piece, with its numerous references to ski-mask-wearing terrorists ("In today's world, terror wears a ski-mask"); do we still think of terrorists as wearing ski masks? Comparing popular depictions of terrorists during the Cold War to those of the post-Soviet or post-September 11 period would be an interesting dissertation.  Likely been done already.

“The Sunshine Club” by Ramsey Campbell

This is a silly story about a vampire psychiatrist who tricks vampires into thinking they are not vampires at all, that their fear of sun, garlic and crosses is just the result of a difficult relationship with their parents. Oh brother.

This is one of those stories in which two guys are in a room, sitting with a desk between them, and the guy behind the desk gets up, and so I’m visualizing that he is away from the desk. Then suddenly he is writing on his blotter, like he’s back at the desk again, so I go back through the text to see if the writer told us he had returned to the desk, and I find we were not notified of the guy’s return to his desk. I find this sort of thing distracting. When I say a writer has a smooth style, which I feel like I often do, part of it is that he or she makes sure stuff like this doesn’t happen.

I’ve read several Ramsey Campbell stories, and I think the only ones I really liked were a brief mad scientist one, “Heading Home,” and “Out of Copyright,” a clever piece of work about a corrupt anthologist accidentally casting a spell that causes disaster.  Mad scientists and scholarly wizard guys appeal to me; vampire psychiatrists and werewolf psychiatrists don't appeal to me.

“Down Among the Dead Men” by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann

More Nazis and more vampires! But this story is definitely better than the Bloch and Campbell stories.

Bruckman and Wernecke are Jews in a Nazi death camp, where the prisoners are being worked to death excavating a quarry. One day Bruckman realizes that Wernecke is a vampire! Wernecke surreptitiously drinks the blood of the other prisoners, just a little from the healthier Jews, but actually murdering and draining those known as Muselmänner, prisoners so weak that they have given up any hope of surviving. Bruckman is shocked; Wernecke has been the kindest of the prisoners, a sort of leader, always helping by sharing food or encouraging the dejected. Wernecke, when confronted, admits that he did this the way a farmer maintains his livestock – he thinks of the other Jews as his cattle to be nurtured and fed upon! How is Bruckman to react to this nightmarish situation?  Will the Red Army liberate the camp before Wernecke makes a meal of him?  Or does he have to fight Wernecke?  Does he have a moral obligation to protect his fellow prisoners from Wernecke?

This story is well plotted and well paced, and the audacity and originality of setting a Jewish vampire story in the middle of the Holocaust makes it memorable, striking. I wonder if anybody found it offensive when it was first published in 1982 in Oui, a pornographic magazine, or when it first appeared in this anthology in 1983.  Offensive or not, Dozois and Dann are giving Tanith Lee a run for her money when it comes to the competition for best story in this book.


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So, out of five stories, we have two I like, two I don't like, and one mediocrity.  Not so bad I guess.

3 comments:

  1. Rambling reactions:

    Bloch: I'm sure I must have read some Bloch over the years. I remember seeing the cover of Bloch And Bradbury on my bookshelf in my teenagehood, but after a quick peruse of the titles, I remember every Bradbury story in the book and none of the Bloch stories. Your description of the set up and the ending you imagined could have happened reminds me a bit of the Twilight Zone episode, "Deaths Head Revisited".

    Vampire psychiatrist: Before dismissing all vampire psychiatrists and werewolf psychiatrists, read Howard Waldrop's story The Wolf-man of Alcatraz.

    Dozois and Dann: I haven't read this story, but man, can Gardner Dozois write! I often thrust his story "A Special Kind of Morning" into the hands of people who dismiss SF as having no literary value. The man could riff on Hemingway better than Hemingway himself.

    Back to the Bloch story, you know I've heard that there is a persistent legal problem in that people who are arrested and obviously insane can wind up isolated in psychiatric treatment without ever having access to their right to make a phone call. The mobile phone industry is trying to address this issue by developing a padded cell phone...
    (sorry, it was the worst I could do).

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    1. I think this was the first story by Dozois I have ever read. I should seek out more of his short stories, because I really did enjoy this one.

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    2. If you can get your hands on it, find The Best of New Dimensions, a sampler of mostly New Wave SF from Silverberg's New Dimensions anthology series. It has several of my favorite short stories it it:
      "A Special Kind of Morning" by Gardner Dozois
      "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
      "Eurema's Dam" by R. A. Lafferty
      "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats" by James Tiptree, Jr.

      Even though "A Special Kind of Morning" was only Dozois' second story, I still think it's his strongest for amazing circularity in storytelling and sheer imagination.

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