Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Odd Science Fiction by Frank Belknap Long


Frank Belknap Long is a name that comes up a lot in discussions of people associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and he won both the Stoker and World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement awards, but when I actually read a novel by Long, 1971's Survival World, I was shocked and amazed at how horrible it was.  (Check out my one star Amazon review from November 2011.)  Still, I liked Long's short story "Night Fear," and hope springs eternal, so early this week I read Odd Science Fiction, which is a paperback collection of three Long tales which the publishers assert is a novel, a legendary trilogy, and Long's finest work.

Odd Science Fiction was published in 1964 by Belmont, the heroes who adorned the world with my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction.  The people at Belmont don't play around: they trumpeted Novelets of Science Fiction as "THE BOOK OF THE YEAR" and of Odd Science Fiction, they say....



...what?

"The Horror From the Hills" (1931)
Arkham 1963 edition

This 94 page work was serialized in Weird Tales in early 1931 and in 1963 appeared alone in a hardcover edition from Arkham House.  It makes up like 70% of Odd Science Fiction.  ISFDB helpfully informs us it lies "right on the border between a novella and a novel."

It also lies right on the border between passable and bad.

Algernon Harris is a young man with degrees from Yale and Oxford who has recently landed the job of Curator of Archaeology at a Manhattan art museum.  Is this a horror story or a fantasy of the perfect life?

Harris sends archaeologists around the world looking for artifacts for his department. As we've learned from those Indiana Jones movies, being an archaeologist is hella dangerous.  One guy comes back from the Far East missing an eye, another guy returns from the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan missing an arm!  And those guys aren't the least fortunate!

Harris's old chum Ulman returns from Tibet with a statue of a horrific monster, a thing like an obese Buddha but with an elephant head and bat wings (with tentacles!) for ears.  This thing is Chaugnar Faugn, the god of a barbaric tribe, and Ulman tells Harris that it periodically comes to life and sucks Ulman's blood like it's some kind of pachyderm vampire!  For proof Ulman shows Harris his hellish wounds, but Harris just figures his buddy got mutilated by the barbarians and that all this jazz about living statues is his PTSD talking.

People in the museum, including Ulman, start turning up dead, and then the "statue" disappears.  Harris enlists the help of a mystic recluse, who relates a dream he recently had of being a Roman aristocrat who battled evil cultists over 2000 years ago.  According to Wikipedia, this dream was lifted by Long from a letter written to him by Lovecraft.  The recluse also gives a lecture on entropy, and then reveals the machine that can send Chaugnar Faugn back in time, a sort of entropy-neutralizing ray gun he has built.

Harris and company hop into a motor car and chase Chaugnar Faugn around New Jersey for hours, finally cornering the monster in a swamp and sending it back in time with the ray.  The chase doesn't make much sense; why does the monster stay near the road?  

There are good things in "Horror From the Hills."  Chaugnar Faugn is a good monster (the internet is full of fun depictions of it), and the Lovecraft dream is good.  Unfortunately the story is too long, and is burdened with too much extraneous matter that confuses and weakens its tone.  There is a lecture on developments in plastic surgery, for example.  For some reason Long also felt the need to include stupid jokes in his story.  In one scene the president of the museum, Harris's superior, is riding a city bus with Harris, talking to Harris about the nightmarish mutilation suffered by Ulman. He and Harris stand up a few blocks before their stop, and then the bus driver slams on the brakes and the president falls backwards and sits in the lap of a fat middle-aged woman.  What the hell is this slapstick doing in my horror story?

It is a close one, but I have to give this one a marginal thumbs down.

"Flame of Life" (1939)

On the contents page this is called "The Flame of Life," but on page 101, the page on which the story starts, the title appears as "Flame of Life."  On the publication page it also appears without the article, and with a copyright date of 1939.  I wouldn't even have noticed this trivial discrepency if isfdb hadn't listed both titles in Long's bibliography as if they were different stories published 20 years apart, one in 1939, and one in 1959.  Maybe the later one is a revision?  Anyway, it looks like the story appeared first in October 1939's Science Fiction, and was reprinted in June 1959's Future Science Fiction.  Maybe Long is like a clever grad student who writes a paper on prostitution in 19th century France for a women's studies class and then the following semester submits it to the prof of a class on French history.

Marshall is a shy lonely man, also an elite pilot.  Back in New York after the highest altitude flight of all time, Marshall glows in the dark, the result of exposure to cosmic rays! These cosmic rays also have given him the intermittent ability to see into the past or the future: when he looks at an old building he has a vision of how it looked in the 18th century, and sees a guy walking out of it wearing a powdered wig.  When he looks at one woman he sees her as a dead skeleton, when he looks at another he sees her as a little girl.  He even sees a huge saber-toothed tiger.

Marshall, taking a walk, comes to the river, where he witnesses a pretty young woman in worn clothes, a transplant from the Middle West who couldn't make it in the Big Apple, try to drown herself.  He rescues her, and they fall deeply in love. Marshall visits a scientist friend, who explains how the cosmic rays must have energized the "radiogens" in Marshall's body, giving him "godlike" perceptions.  He gives Marshall, and we poor readers, a lecture on entropy.  I guess entropy is one of Long's hobby horses.

When the extra energy in Marshall's radiogens runs out, the scientist laments that Marshall is no longer godlike.  But Marshall, who has his priorities straight, declares that he still feels godlike, because he is in love!  I have to admit this happy ending took me by surprise.  I thought maybe Marshall was going to see into the future and find that his girlfriend had dumped him, or turned into a nag of a wife.  Ignorance is bliss, Marshall!

Maybe a good writer could make this material work, but Long's style doesn't do anything for me, so the story is limp.

"Giant in the Forest" (1955)

This one was first published in Science Fiction Quarterly.

Peter is a physician in the 23rd century, stationed at a teleporter facility.  Spaceships have long been obsolete, and mankind now explores the galaxy by teleporting to virgin planets.  The teleportation process can harm the traveler, physically or psychologically, so Peter has his hands full.

When Peter's brother, one of the explorers, returns to report that he has discovered on Callix Six a village of artistic pre-industrial people who need medical help, Peter, and his telepathic Martian friend, teleport to the planet.  The people of Callix Six are run down, anemic, exhausted.  Peter and his companion discover that the villagers don't eat; instead, they are looked after by a fourteen foot tall giant who regularly injects them with nutrients.  Freed from the need to work as farmers or hunters, the villagers have time to become great craftsmen and artists, producing beautiful homes and furniture.

The villagers are ailing because the giant got knocked unconscious by a falling tree in a nearby forest.  Peter arouses the giant by shooting him full of caffeine.  The giant jumps up and runs to the village to inject all the villagers with his life-sustaining solution.  Peter and the Martian figure that the giant is a child, and the villagers elaborate toys or pets, put under his care to teach him responsibility.

While the ideas in the story are OK, Long fails to deliver them with any emotional impact, and his writing style is poor, so the story is bland and boring.  "Giant in the Forest" also includes material that feels extraneous, like talk about how the Martian paints in the style of Gauguin, but uses his telepathy to produce work superior to Gauguin's, and stuff about Peter's relationships with his brother and his girlfriend.  I expected there to be a pay off on Callix Six that somehow related to the Martian's artistic ability or Peter's relationships back home: maybe the giant would want to take the Martian captive and add him to his stable of artists?  Maybe Peter would teach the giant about mature adult relationships between equals?  But after finishing the story I have to suspect that those passages were just filler.

I'm afraid I am panning all three of the stories in Odd Science Fiction.

************

Disappointing.  Long seems to have interesting ideas, but the stories in Odd Science Fiction he builds around those ideas feel like unpolished drafts burdened with passages that should have been excised, and are perhaps present merely to inflate the page count.

I'm not giving up on Long yet; in the next few days I plan on reading some stories of Long's which can be found for free online, at SFFAudio.com and Gutenberg.org. Maybe I still haven't read any of the stories which earned Long those awards.

*************

The last two pages of Odd Science Fiction are covered in tiny print describing "Other Belmont Books" that "You Will Want To Read."  They aren't lying--I do want to read four or five of them!


Most of the titles Belmont is advertising are genre fiction: spies, cowboys, detectives, horror, and SF.  An exception sits at the top of the list: Union Square, the "giant All-American novel" which we are told has been "acclaimed by all critics."  According to Wikipedia, communist intellectual Mike Gold called Union Square "a gold brick, an utter bourgeois sham," but I guess the people at Belmont missed that issue of The New Masses.  (Favorite title of an article from New Masses: "Five Songs About Lenin.") The people at Belmont also assure you that this is a complete edition of Union Square, which I guess they felt was necessary because two of their Western novels, Feud at Blue Canyon (original title: Bandits of the Barrens) and Black Creek Buckaroo, and a mystery, Murder in the Family, which the New York Times hailed as "A baffler of the first order," are abridged.  I wonder if the abridgment made Murder in the Family more or less baffling.

I could probably be described as a bourgeois sham myself, but Union Square is not one of the Belmont books I'd like to read.  Neither is Tales of the Frightened, a transcript of radio broadcasts by Boris Karloff.  Like everybody, I like ol' Boris, but I've listened to some of the broadcasts at the Internet Archive, and they are pretty terrible, five minute long stories written by Michael Avallone that failed to scare me or even keep my attention.

Robert Silverberg is represented with a collection called Godling Go Home!, which internet SF maven Joachim Boaz reviewed recently, which I might read.  There are four selections by Frank Belknap Long on the list, including Odd Science Fiction.  I would buy Long's It Was The Day of the Robot based on title and cover illustration alone, and I am curious about the stories in Belmont's edition of The Hounds of Tindalos, which is split into two volumes.  Four anthologies edited by Ivan Howard, including my beloved Novelets of Science Fiction, are advertised, and I would probably buy them if I spotted them in the flesh.

Well, let's cross our fingers and hope I have a better experience with Frank Belknap Long and Belmont in the future.

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