Sunday, January 25, 2015

The House that Stood Still by A. E. Van Vogt

"What's all this about?  Who are those people who were whipping you?"
"Oh--" she shrugged.  "Members of a club."
"What kind of a club?"
"The most exclusive club in the world," she said, and laughed softly.


The House That Stood Still first was unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1950, as a hardcover.  Since then it has appeared under numerous titles and in numerous forms. Its second publication was an abridged version in a 1951 issue of Detective Book magazine, and the novel includes much of the apparatus of a hard-boiled detective mystery.  There are murder investigations, drugged drinks, stakeouts, lists of suspects, and a protagonist who has a contentious relationship with the D.A. and who drives around town interrogating people and rifling through desk drawers looking for clues. In the final scene the hero gathers together all the characters to announce who the murderer is.  But this still is an A. E. Van Vogt story, so we also get immortals, mind readers, ray guns, space craft, and revelations of the secret cabal that hides in the shadows, pulling the strings.

This weekend I read the 1968 Paperback Library edition.  The description on the back is quite misleading--there are no "indestructible aliens" and there is no "catastrophe that threatened to obliterate the universe from the heavens."  I don't even know what "obliterate the universe from the heavens" means.

Allison Stephens is our hero.  A strapping veteran of the Pacific War (like Mike Hammer), Stephens studied law after the war and is now representing Tannahill, a guy who owns lots of real estate in a little sea side town in California.  One of the buildings owned by Tannahill is a mysterious house made of marble that is over a thousand years old, known as "the Grand House."

Despite what you see on the covers,
Mistra Lanett is blonde
Like those Mickey Spillane novels, The House that Stood Still has its salacious elements.  The indispensable website for Van Vogt fans, icshi.net, suggests that some or all of this erotic material was added to the novel for a 1960 version entitled The Mating Cry.  Within the first ten pages Stephens is busting into one of the rooms in an office building Tannahill owns to find that a bunch of weirdos with a taste for pre-Columbian art have tied up a beautiful blonde, stripped her to the waist, and are whipping her bare back.  A few pages later she is offering her body to Stephens as a reward for rescuing her (he accepts the offer).

This woman, Mistra Lanett, is no damsel in distress.  Instead, she is a femme fatale, one of the group of immortals who are all hanging around the Grand House.  These jokers all have access to high technology, including "night vision glasses," energy pistols that shoot "needle beams," masks which make you indistinguishable from the person you want to impersonate, and space ships.  Like Empress Innelda in The Weapon Makers, Lanett is a woman with lots of power and limited scruples, who has realized that what she really wants out of life is a husband and children.  When it comes to husband material, Stephens fits the bill.  But first, she has a test for him.

Lanett and the other immortals face a dilemma: they are aware that an enemy nation plans to launch a devastating nuclear attack on the United States later in the year, so they have to decide whether to stay on Earth or flee to their base on Mars.  Lanett wants to use her space ship to launch a preemptive strike on the enemy in the next few days, destroying their nuclear bombs while they are still in the factories and warehouses, before they are distributed to the submarines and bombers.  Operating a space ship on a strategic bombing mission is tough work (who knew?) so she wants her dreamboat Stephens to accompany her on her ship.  If he joins the mission, she promises to make him immortal and to love him forever.  But should he trust her? Does he want to risk getting shot out of the sky?  Could he live with the deaths of hundreds of civilians, in an undeclared private war, on his conscience?

(For some reason Van Vogt doesn't finger the Soviet Union as the country which is going to nuke America into oblivion, but the fictional country of "Lorillia."  The Lorillians, Lanett tells Stephens, have "the most powerful anti-aircraft defense in the world."  It's an odd choice, considering that I assumed the novel was set in the early 1950s, when it was written, a time when few countries were manufacturing nuclear weapons and had fleets of submarines and strategic bombers to deliver them.)

Everything in this 159-page book is confusing and crazy.  For example, Tannahill, one of the immortals, has amnesia because he was shot in the head two years ago; at the start of the novel he has just arrived in town from a hospital back east. While in the hospital he had dreams of being buried alive, which of course were not dreams at all--the other immortals were using him as a decoy, shuttling his unconscious body between a New York hospital and a California graveyard for use at a funeral.  I also didn't quite understand where the immortals got their high-tech equipment; none of those we meet seems to be a physicist or engineer.

Anyway, the basic plot behind all the confusion turns out to be this: in ancient times an alien robot star ship crashed in California.  The telepathic "robot brain" convinced the local people, Stone Age Indians, to help repair the ship.  So that the Indians would live forever (it takes a long time to fix a star ship, apparently), the robot brain applied a radioactive treatment to the marble structure he directed the Indians to build above the buried ship.  This special radioactivity keeps whoever resides in the Grand House forever young.  Over the centuries various people, like Lanett, the daughter of a Roman official in 3rd century Britain, ended up at the Grand House, which became the scene of various struggles between those who realized that it conferred immortality on its residents.  In one such struggle Tannahill, then a conquistador called Tanequila the Bold, seized the house and killed most of the Indians.  (After reading this book I can't get that Procul Harum song out of my head.)  During the period of the novel there are 53 immortals, and one of the few surviving Indians, Tezlacodanal, is trying to wrest control of the Grand House from the others, which leads to the wounding of Tannahill and the murders Stephens is trying to solve.  Tezlacodanal has an advantage over the whites, because none of the whites realize there is an alien star ship buried underneath the house; in fact, Tezlacodanal wants to use the alien craft to rule the world!

In the end, Stephens finds the ancient star ship, and working with the robot brain, eliminates Tezlacodanal and stabilizes the whole situation.  He and Lannett marry, and he hopes to give to the world the gift of immortality and to explore the universe with the robot.

Take that, Lorillia!
I didn't enjoy The House that Stood Still nearly as much I did the two Isher books.  For one thing, I'm not crazy about complicated mystery stories, trying to keep track of all the suspects and motives and clues and all that.  (I'm not even sure why the book is called The House that Stood Still; maybe you should take my interpretation of the plot above with a grain of salt!)  Secondly, the Isher books have a fascinating setting and address interesting ideological issues, which this novel does not.

The material in The House that Stood Still provides Van Vogt opportunities to engage the emotions of the reader, but he does not take them. Stephens does not participate in the attack on the enemy nuclear facilities, and the air raid takes place "off screen" and succeeds even without his help.  Why include the war stuff at all if the war is won without the main character's participation, and if he gets the girl without taking the risk and making the sacrifice she asked of him?  Van Vogt drains the excitement out of both the atomic war plot and the sexual relationship plot right there.

Tezlacodanal could have been an interesting villain, a man driven by a lust for power/and or passion for vengeance on the Europeans who destroyed his people and stole their life-giving building, but this guy almost never appears "on screen."  (I guess this is partly because a convention of murder mysteries is that the murderer's identity is kept secret til the end.)  Similarly, Van Vogt doesn't spend any time making the two people who got murdered, a black groundskeeper and an elevator operator, anything more than props, so we don't really care that they got killed or whether their killer is brought to justice.

I am going to have to give The House that Stood Still the all-to-common "barely acceptable" rating.  A disappointment after the Isher books, to be sure.

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The last page of my copy of The House that Stood Still is an ad for No Right To Bear Arms by Carl Bakal, which (apparently) argues that the government should strictly control who is permitted to own firearms.  I thought this an amusing choice for an ad in a book by Van Vogt, in whose famous The Weapon Shops of Isher is expressed the sentiment "The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free."

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The Van Vogt marathon at MPorcius Fiction Blog continues!  In our next installment, the 1974 novel The Secret Galactics, in its 1976 DAW edition, which appeared under the title Earth Factor X!      

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