Friday, May 29, 2015

Mr Stone and the Knights Companion by V. S. Naipaul

'It is a way, you see, of helping the poor old people.'

Back in 2001 a film based on V. S. Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur, was released.  I've never seen the film, but its appearance spurred me to read the novel. The book made little impression on me, and fourteen years later I remember just about nothing about it.

During those fourteen years, however, I have heard and read things here and there about Naipaul; for example, a Caribbean woman in my New York office was reading A House for Mr. Biswas, and we spoke about it briefly.  Everything I heard about Naipaul always sounded sort of intriguing (the admiration of Somerset Maugham, whose work I really enjoy, for example), so he has never fallen totally off my radar. When the Des Moines Public Library's Central Branch had a tremendous book sale, thousands of books going for mere pennies (my wife bought like 50 volumes of poetry), one of the items I picked up was a hardcover copy of Naipaul's 1963 novel, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.  This week I read it.  

Mr Stone, a bachelor, is in his 60s; in just a few years he will retire from his position at the London headquarters of the large firm Excal.  "Excal" is meant to remind us of "Excalibur."  Naipaul doesn't get into what goods or services Excal sells; I guess it is supposed to be a sort of "AnyCorp UK."   According to wikipedia, Excal is based on the Cement and Concrete Association, where Naipaul worked for a brief period in an editorial capacity. At the start of the novel Stone is "head librarian" at Excal.  His life has always been orderly and predictable, but major changes are on the way, and the novel covers this surprising period of two or three years at the tail end of his life.

Stone marries a widow, in a way that feels almost accidental, which upends much of his routine.  Naipaul's portrait of their meeting at a drab party and their loveless, passionless marriage is amusing and sad.  Stone begins spending more time at the office, so as to avoid his wife and home.  He has no friends or nearby relatives to whom to unburden himself; his most meaningful relationships are with the cat who lives next door (for years he has seen it as an enemy, for the way it digs up his garden) and a tree behind his house, which Stone studies through the bathroom window everyday while shaving.

Stone, now familiar with the sadness of elderly mens' lives ("inactivity...cruelty...the confinement of family relationships..."), concocts a scheme to help retired Excal employees; a program, run out of Excal's Welfare Department, to encourage healthy Excal retirees (to be called Knights Companion) to visit sedentary former Excal employees.  This will give the spry oldsters something to do, getting them out of the house and providing them the "comradeship of the office" which they miss, as well as brighten the lives of the shut-ins, and alert the authorities if these decrepit pensioners are in need of medical attention or are suffering from neglect or abuse.  Excal's leadership embraces the idea, seeing it as a public relations coup, and Stone gets a new position and a 50% raise.

The Knights Companion program is a success, but Stone derives no satisfaction from it.  In fact, he resents his co-workers, whom he believes are "riding his back" to success (I guess we Americans would say, "riding his coattails.")  Because the final product does not 100% match his vision of the scheme, hatched in his study at home, by the end of the novel Stone is telling himself that "Nothing that was pure ought to be exposed....All action, all creation was a betrayal of feeling and truth."  Time spent in his office becomes as burdensome as time spent at home.

The final scene takes place during a transit strike.  Stone has to walk (part of the way) home, which I have to admit reminded me of September 11, 2001, when my wife and I had to walk home from our midtown Manhattan offices.    

I quite liked Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.  The prose is clear and straightforward; like the people at the Times Literary Supplement and the Manchester Guardian say on the back of the book, Naipaul's writing is exact and controlled.  The theme of the book is the sadness of old age and the general horribleness of life, but it is not melodramatic or romantic--the book is low key, understated, lightened by amusing character studies.  These character studies, however amusing, make clear that just about everybody is a fraud and/or a crank, and that human relationships, which in theory are what make life worth living, are all destructive, exploitative, and/or demeaning.  There are no decent, life-affirming, relationships in the book, either between sexual partners, family members, or friends. The neighbors even destroy their cat because their kids are bored with it!

Here's a specimen.  Stone's right hand man in setting up and running the Knights Companion program is a young self-important dandy who wears fashionable but ill-fitting clothes named Bill Whymper:  
He [Stone] found himself studying Whymper's face and mannerisms, and he wondered how he had come to supress his initial distaste, how he had managed to feel affection for Whymper, to enjoy his obscene laugh and obscene jokes (Whymper on the types of fart, Whymper on the types of female walk), his puns ('equal pay for equal shirk'), the aphorisms ('soup is the best substitute for food I know') which were probably not his own, the violence of his socialist-fascist political views.  He felt he had been made a fool of by Whymper and had succumbed to the man's professional charm. 
Whymper and Stone are briefly friendly, eating lunch together and so forth.  Whymper comes to visit Stone and his wife at home; Whymper and Mrs. Stone get on better with each other than Stone does with either.  Whymper sickens Stone with his racist jokes, descriptions of his sexual escapades, and, finally, by seducing Stone's niece.  Whymper has made Stone complicit in his ugliness, and then betrayed him.

This is a pretty depressing book, though it is well-crafted and doesn't feel heavy or long. Apparently Mr Stone and the Knights Companion is considered a minor, perhaps uncharacteristic, component of Naipaul's body of work, his only book set in England and primarily about white characters.  It doesn't even have its own wikipedia page, and I had trouble finding decent images of its various covers.  I'll make an effort to read one of Naipaul's more famous novels in the future.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jondelle by E. C. Tubb

"He is not your son.  You owe his family no allegiance.  No one, as yet, has paid you to find him.  Why are you willing to risk your life?"
"I gave my word." 
First edition, cover by Kelly Freas depicting
title character Jondelle and the Melevganians
burning down his foster parents' farm and
murdering their employees 
If you've read my blog post on the ninth Dumarest bookMayenne, you'll already know that I own an omnibus put out by DAW in 1981 that includes both Mayenne and the next Dumarest caper, Jondelle.  You'll also know that I thought the blue-eyed blonde with the elaborate necklace on the cover of Jondelle was a pretty girl--in fact it is a six-year-old boy.  Embarassing!

The tenth Dumarest book, first published by DAW in 1973, finds our hero Earl Dumarest on the planet Ourelle in the labyrinthine city of Sargone.  He gets lost while looking for the museum (Dumarest and I are like two peas in a pod, always eager to go to the museum to see the antiquities) and rescues a guy, Elray, and his adopted six-year-old son, Jondelle, from three armor-clad creeps.  A veteran of the gladiatorial arena who always has his long knife with him, Dumarest makes short work of these jokers, but he does get shot by a laser pistol in the process.

Dumarest is nursed back to health by the boy's mother, Makgar, a doctor, at her farm house in the country.  Dumarest is irresistible to women, and his manliness is doubly attractive to Makgar because her husband, Elray, is one of those pacifists who eschews violence.  When the next batch of armored freakos attacks the farm Elray refuses to shoot at them, so Dumarest and Makgar (in her nightgown!) have to battle them without his help.  Elray, Makgar, and many of the farmhands get killed, Jondelle gets kidnapped, and we readers get an object lesson in the right and responsibility of a man to defend himself and those who depend on him, courtesy of Edwin Charles Tubb: "Elray could have climbed to an upper room, picked off the invaders as they stood before the fires, shot them down as they tried to climb the stairs. Had he acted, the boy would be safe and the woman unharmed."  (For an opposing point of view, see Davis Grubb's "The Baby-Sitter.")

Advertising copy on the first page of my copy of
the Mayenne/Jondelle omnibus 
There being no government or police in the countryside, Dumarest turns to the interstellar Church and to a merchant for aid in finding Jondelle and uncovering the mystery of why someone is so interested in kidnapping the boy, and who that someone might be.  Dumarest hires a bunch of down-and-outers and leads them to Melevgan, the region of Ourelle from whence hail the armor-wearing sadists who were hired to seize Jondelle.  The Melevganians are insane, their genetic material damaged by the radiation characteristic of their region.  Genetic degeneration is one of the themes of the novel; Jondelle features several races which suffer genetic defects due to inbreeding.  One of these races serves as a sort of peasantry and proletariat on Ourelle; inbreeding has made them very passive and subservient.

The dangers of passivity is another of Jondelle's themes--Elray's inaction dooms himself and his wife and endangers his adopted son, while another minor character, when faced by a giant scorpion, similarly fails to use a rifle in his possession and dies as a result: "...Altrane would have survived, if he'd had the courage to act."  While looking for clues in Melevgan, Dumarest talks to a slave in a mine, and tells the slave that if he doesn't want to die in the mine, he will have to take action, rising up against the psycho Melevganian mine owners. ("'You're a man!' he snapped.  'Get yourself out.'") It is also noteworthy that the clerics of the Church hypnotize those who come to them for charity, implanting in their brains, Clockwork Orange-style, an aversion to violence which will prevent them from fighting, even in defense.  When Dumarest gathers the men he needs for his expedition to Melevgan, he makes sure to hire only those who have not accepted charity from the Church--men who cannot defend themselves are dead weight, a burden to their fellows.

The survivors of the dangerous expedition to Melevgan, following the info learned in the mine, journey to another part of Ourelle to rescue Jondelle from his kidnapper. Chillingly (or nauseatingly), Jondelle is captive in a sort of brothel!  To our relief, it turns out the brothel owner is just holding Jondelle for ransom.  In the last few pages of the book (you've read our spoiler policy, right?) Dumarest hands Jondelle over to his blonde and blue-eyed grandparents.  Jondelle is the product of "a hundred generations" of inbreeding for specific traits; Makgar was not his genetic mother, but a surrogate mother who fled across the galaxy with the baby because, as grandma puts it, "'she couldn't bear to part with him...the normal reaction of any woman toward the child of her body.'"  The grandparents have been searching for little Jondelle for six years.  In gratitude to Dumarest, they give him a clue to Earth's whereabouts.  Finally, some progress!

With its insane and sadistic criminals, crime-ridden cities, innocent in jeopardy, and self-defense and vigilante themes, I'm getting a sort of Dirty Harry/Death Wish/Taxi Driver vibe from Jondelle.  Maybe I just have the 1970s on the brain.  The weird races and cultures, bodypaint, air cars and detective stuff reminded me of Jack Vance, the Demon Princes series in particular.  (These are not complaints; I like those movies and I really like Jack Vance.)

Most importantly, this is a great fast-paced adventure novel, full of action, human drama, and weird SF settings, devices and people. E. C. Tubb is a master of this kind of writing, and this volume of the series is a great example of his ability.  Thumbs up for Jondelle and on to Zenya, Dumarest #11!! 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Re-Birth by John Wyndham

"We are the New People--your kind of people.  The people who can think-together."
1955 US paperback
John Wyndham is one of those writers whose name I've been hearing all my life, but whose books I had, for whatever reason, never read.  How many times in libraries and bookstores across the country have my eyes passed over a copy of Day of the Triffids while I'm at the tail end of the SF section, looking to see what titles are available by Jack Vance, A. E. Van Vogt, and Gene Wolfe?  Anyway, last week I decided to read Re-Birth, which takes up like 125 pages of my copy of Anthony Boucher's 1959 anthology A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.  Re-Birth, it turns out, is an alternate title of Wyndham's 1955 novel The Chrysalids.

This is one of those post-apocalyptic stories, in which our technological society collapsed ages ago and people are living at a more primitive level, and have developed a goofy religion.  (Remember Meg of 3485 A.D.?) It is also one of those stories about oppressed minorities with special powers, like Van Vogt's Slan, Clifford Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing, and Marvel's X-Men, among numerous examples.  There is an endless supply of these stories--they must appeal to many readers and writers, which perhaps indicates something about members of the SF community, and our culture and society at large.

Re-Birth takes place a thousand or more years in the future, in Eastern Canada. Because of a nuclear war, much of the world is dangerously radioactive, with vast blackened deserts and creepy mutant jungles covering most of North America.  The environment is relatively stable in the Labrador and Newfoundland area, where people live what I will call an 18th-century lifestyle in villages and towns; they have organized agriculture, a central government, black powder muskets, and a few steam engines, but no electricity or internal combustion engines.

It seems that the only book to survive the catastrophe of centuries ago was the Bible. The post-apocalyptic version of Christianity has had appended to it a deep concern over mutants; mutations are quite common, and everybody is vigilant in spotting mutant plants and animals, and the law demands that such aberrations be destroyed.  Human beings are not exempt from these strictures, and human mutants are exiled or disposed of tout suite.

Our narrator, David Strorm, is a young boy as the novel begins, and his father is one of the most devout members of the community, and most dedicated of the mutant hunters.  Some other people in their village consider him a "religious fanatic" or a "bigot."  This is one of those ironies we always find in fiction--our narrator is himself a mutant!  Luckily, his mutations show no outward sign: he can communicate telepathically with other people who share his particular mutation, and he has dreams of a world of cities, electric lights, automobiles and aircraft.  We are initially lead to believe David is dreaming of our own 20th-century world.

The first three-fifths or so of the novel describes David's world and relates numerous incidents of his life as he approaches adulthood, incidents which demonstrate how intolerant everybody is of mutants. David is in telepathic contact with a handful of fellow mutants about his age, and over the years they develop strong bonds of friendship.  When they are discovered in the second half of the novel they flee into "the Fringes," where mutant monsters and people who sporadically raid civilization lead a parlous existence.  While being pursued by the "Norms," they begin to receive telepathic messages from New Zealand, where lies an advanced technological civilization of telepaths who have contempt for people who lack telepathy.  The nuclear war, they say, was the result of 20th-century people's inability to think collectively: "They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages; all living shut off from one another, with only clumsy words to link them."  (It was New Zealand that David was "dreaming" of.)

The New Zealanders arrive in their giant helicopter, use a super weapon to massacre the Norms and Fringe people who were chasing David and his mutant buddies, and carry our heroes off to their utopia.  The leader of the New Zealanders is explicitly compared to an angel: "Against the thrown-back white hood, her beautiful head looked as though it were framed by a halo."  Deus ex machina, indeed.

Behold the Kiwi angel and her super weapon
There are a number of unusual elements to the story perhaps worth remarking upon.  All the heroic and competent characters, and all the victims, are women, while all the villains are men.  Our narrator is male, but he is not a hero or leader--mostly he is just along for the ride.  It is women who kill the monsters, it is David's sister (the best telepath in the world) who contacts the New Zealanders, and it is a woman who commands the New Zealand aircraft. Our narrator is a bungler, and when a fight breaks out women do the killing while he flails about.

It is typical for books to romanticize words, literacy, the power of language, and all that.  Re-Birth evinces an hostility to words and text. There's the New Zealand quote above, pointing out how words stink when compared to telepathy.  Also, we are repeatedly told how religious people have anti-mutant phrases (e.g., "WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT") printed on the interior walls of their houses.  Reminded of the kitchen of a mutant sympathizer's home, David recalls it as, "The clean, bright room that had seemed so friendly because it had no texts on the walls."    

So, what is this novel "about?"  A main theme is that we shouldn't fear and oppress those who are different than us, and the novel is full hints to that effect as well as a few in-your-face speeches.  We should also embrace change, not try to maintain the status quo.  Wyndham suggests that the mutations are nothing to worry about; the mutant crops, animals, and people are all better than what has come before.  Efforts to limit mutations and preserve species are just irrational superstition and selfish evil. (Passages that sound like pleas for tolerance lose some of their ability to persuade when followed by passages in which we are told it is inevitable that the new exterminate the old; what incentive do you have to tolerate the species that is going to eradicate your own?)  

The giant mutant horse appears
in the novel; Archaeopteryx
and Diatryma do not
Christianity in the novel is an oppressive scam; women have large fabric crosses sewn onto their dresses, and in a scene late in the novel the fleeing mutant women cut these devices off their clothing, symbolizing their liberation.  Maybe these crosses are supposed to remind us of the Crusaders?  I often think these oppressed-minority-with-special-powers stories are allegories about anti-Semitism, and Wyndham's naming the main character David, and inclusion of a debate among the mutants about whether it is wise to marry "Norms," encourages such suspicions.  Maybe we should see New Zealand as akin to Israel?

Other likely inspirations for the novel include witch trials and Red Scares; Arthur Miller's play The Crucible appeared to great acclaim only two years before The Chrysalids was published.  Should we see David and his comrades as the vanguard of the revolution, and utopian New Zealand, with its thriving economy and culture of collectivism, as a stand-in for (an idealized) Soviet Union? The novel does seem to argue that the Christian and individualistic society which built the atomic bomb should be swept away and replaced with some kind of collectivist society, and the cold and detached way the New Zealander talks about how the telepaths will inevitably replace the non-telepaths, and then be replaced in their turn by the next superior evolution of humankind, does recall Marxist beliefs about the inevitability of bourgeois and then proletarian revolution.  The ruthlessness with which the mutants contemplate killing those who stand in their way, including fellow mutants, also recalls revolutionary thinking.

So, is Re-Birth entertaining?  Wyndham's style is alright--Re-Birth has nothing of the sensationalistic or exploitative pulp adventure about it, but reads like a sober and mature mainstream novel--but to me the book feels quite flat.  It moves slowly and quietly, and does not generate any tension or urgency.  Wyndham does little to bring the characters to life--they are just names, so when they get tortured or commit suicide or whatever, it doesn't pull the old heart strings.  Oddly, in the last 30 pages of the novel he suddenly gives us a description of David's love interest, and constructs interesting relationships between various characters, including a love triangle and a brother versus brother blood feud.  Why didn't this interesting stuff appear earlier in the book?  It's like Wyndham realized he had left out the human drama and tried to cram it all in at the last minute.

I don't recall any green crab men
There is little excitement or passion, no thrills or chills, and except for the New Zealand reveal, nothing particularly surprising happens.  Because we've encountered so many post-apocalyptic stories, denunciations of bigotry, and tales of oppressed super beings before, the material is not intrinsically interesting (to be fair, perhaps back in the '50s this material didn't feel quite so played out), leaving the novel bland, even dull.  Looking at the wikipedia page on Wyndham, I see that SF writer and critic Brian Aldiss criticized Wyndham's work for being "cosy," so I guess I'm not the only one to detect a shortage of tension in Wyndham's writing.

I'm going to have to give this one the dreaded "acceptable" rating.  I can't point to anything actually obnoxiously bad in it, but Re-Birth is a thin gruel that offers little to excite or intrigue the reader.  (This thing has been reprinted approximately a billion times in a dozen languages, so I should probably say there was little to excite or intrigue this reader; I'm afraid I'm really swimming against the tide on this one.)

Disappointing.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Escape Across the Cosmos by Gardner Fox

"Hannes Stryker gave you a body for one reason.  To destroy Ylth'yl.  Do that and I'll make you the richest man--outside myself, naturally--in the Empire."

I'm the kind of guy who relishes a challenge.  I mean, you won't find me climbing mountains or wrestling alligators, but when Joachim Boaz suggested that Gardner Fox's Escape Across the Cosmos might not be very good (on Fox's birthday no less!), I was all "unto the breach!"  I'm content to let other men fly experimental planes and battle Al Qaeda--reading a 160-page novel from 1964 by the guy who created DC Comics' The Flash and Hawkman is an MPorcius-sized challenge!

Soon after opening my copy of Escape Across the Cosmos I realized that another explorer had blazed this trail before me: Lori Flanagan, who acquired this novel in 1982 and has the world's most adorable bookplate!

Fellow SF fan Lori Flanagan, we salute you!
Planet Dakkan is a vast desert with a eleven moons and a sun "twenty-four hundred times more luminous than Sol of old mother Earth so far away."  The Empire drops off their worst criminals there--nobody is expected to live on the waterless world more than a day or two.  The latest resident of Dakkan is Kael Carrick, formerly the Empire's number one war hero!  On a successful commando mission Carrick's body was totally mutilated, but the Empire's greatest scientist, Hannes Stryker, built Carrick a bionic body for his still-intact brain to inhabit.  Sounds good, but then Stryker turned up dead, and Carrick was framed for the crime!

After wandering the barren lifeless planet for 18 hours or so Carrick finds it is not quite so barren and lifeless after all!  Than Lear, the space pirate, was sentenced to Dakkan a few years ago, and thanks to his connections a ship smuggles in the food and water he needs to survive.  Lear has been rescuing all the criminals landed on Dakkan, and is now king of the planet, with a court of fifteen people.

Carrick (and his new girlfriend) hijack one of the smuggler ships and escape Dakkan.  Like in a detective story, Carrick travels from planet to planet, talking to lowlifes and corrupt bazillionaires and studying documents relating to his trial, looking for evidence of who framed him for the murder.  Reading Hannes Stryker's diary he learns some facts that, despite their being foreshadowed earlier, shake his view of the universe and of himself!  1) Stryker built a portal to another dimension, Slarrn,   where reigns a horrible monster, Ylth'yl the Eternal, that lives by devouring the life forces of human beings. 2) Stryker designed the body Carrick is in to battle Ylth'yl to the death!  Carrick's super-body is silicon-based because Ylth'yl can only absorb the life force from a carbon-based body. Ylth'yl has almost exterminated the human race in Slarrn, and thanks to Stryker's portal, Ylth'yl will soon be paying our dimension a visit and we are all on the menu!

In the last 35 or so pages of the novel Carrick and his love interest go through the portal to Slarrn.  In Slarrn Carrick gets posthypnotic messages, left in his brain by Stryker, that allow him to use psychic powers that Stryker installed in his silicon body. Carrick's final battle with Ylth'yl (who appears as a white cloud) is like a fight between Jedi, with lots of telekinesis, hypnotism, lightning, etc.  Ylth'yl even says "Why should we destroy one another?  You could rule two universes with me."  This battle is way too long, like ten pages, and probably the most boring parts of the book. After Ylth'yl is disposed of, Carrick returns to our dimension to exact justice on Than Lear and his other enemies and unravels the mystery of who killed Hannes Stryker.

This plot is crazy, of course, but I kind of like it.  The issue is in the execution.  It would be easy to imagine somebody like Jack Vance, who does detective stuff in his novels, or Kuttner and Moore, who are often sending people between dimensions, making this plot work well.  But as Escape Across the Cosmos sits, it feels rushed, like it wasn't edited, and has too many distracting problems.  For example, why does Fox have the girlfriend accompany Carrick off Dakkan?  Fox doesn't develop an interesting relationship between her and Carrick, and she doesn't seem to have any role in the plot beyond Dakkan; Fox tells us repeatedly what clothes she is wearing and how pretty her hips are, and that's about it.  If Carrick were totally alone on his journeys through space and between the dimensions it might have added some oppressive loneliness, added to the "one man vs the universe" atmosphere.  

According to isfdb, some vile creeps
published this pirated copy of  Fox's
text under this title and author in 1978
The writing style Fox employs in this novel is not very good.  Some sentences are hard to understand ("The only city on Dakkan planet, it held no undiscovered secrets except for the fact of its own existence,") some sentences are laughably dumb ("Carrick thought his [Than Lear's] mouth betrayed a man fond both of philosophy and plunder.")  I encountered more than one sentence in which commas seemed to be in the wrong spot.  There are weird verbal tics, like how everybody says "Dakkan planet" instead of "planet Dakkan" or just "Dakkan." Nobody says "gun" or "car," it's always "implositron" or "blipper" and "sandsled" or "monowheeler," which is fine, but after Fox makes up all these futuristic words for everything he distractingly tosses in a mention of "Bristol board," I guess a winking acknowledgement ("Hey, Mom!") of his comic book background.    

The names used by Fox in Escape Across the Cosmos gave me pause.  One villain is named Felton Pratt, and another is Alton Raymond.  Are these jocular references to SF writer Fletcher Pratt and comics creator Alex Raymond, both of whom died in 1956?  Did Fox have some kind of feud with Pratt and Raymond?  Felton Pratt is described as "a rat of a human being" and we are reminded again and again that Alton Raymond is fat.  And of course "Hannes" makes me think of Hannes Bok.

I've got to give Escape Across the Cosmos a thumbs down, but it is not so terrible that I wouldn't recommend it to fans of Fox's comic book work, who might be curious about this other facet of his creative output.  I've never actually read any Flash or Hawkman comics; maybe they include concepts or devices Fox used here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mayenne by E. C. Tubb

"And the ship?  When can we leave?"...."When I have discovered what love is," she said.  "Not before."
My copy of DAW UE 1614
It's been a while since we checked in with our buddy Earl Dumarest, who lives in a future interstellar civilization so vast that most people have never heard of Earth, and most of the rest think it a myth.  Dumarest, a professional fighting man, travels from planet to planet on passenger ships, getting into scrapes and getting involved with various beautiful women, while he hunts for clues of Earth's whereabouts.  Let's see how much progress he makes in Mayenne, the ninth Dumarest book by prolific writer E. C. Tubb.

I read Mayenne, which was first published by DAW in 1973, in a 1981 omnibus which includes books 9 and 10.  The cover by Kelly Freas suggests that Dumarest will be taking up archery and having an affair with a woman with tattoos on her face; those sound like pleasant hobbies.  The covers of the British and German editions spoil the fact that Dumarest is going to have to battle a knight mounted on a dragon; probably not so pleasant.

My double edition includes Jack Gaughan's interior illustration for Mayenne, but not his illo for Jondelle, which is a little disappointing.  And of course the severely cropped Freas covers, while they preserve the pretty girls' faces, leave out the perhaps more interesting and evocative figures of Dumarest, monsters and people in agony.

Original Kelly Freas covers of DAW's Mayenne and Jondelle
Mayenne begins with Dumarest a passenger on a space ship, and in the first chapters we meet the cast of characters, his fellow travellers.  In the very first paragraph we meet the woman with the painted and bejeweled face, an exotic singer named Mayenne.  There's also a fat and gauche merchant, a vapid aristocratic slut and her amazonian bodyguard, a seller of rare books who may be a spy for the Cyclan, an educated wanderer, a gambler, an aged procuress, and the captain and crew of the ship.  The women all want to have sex with Dumarest, and the men all want to be his friend or business partner; our hero is the discriminating type, and goes to bed only with Mayenne and becomes chummy with the captain and crew, keeping his distance from the bourgeois and aristocratic types.

A monster headed to the zoo on the next planet breaks free and wrecks the ship's field generator, so Dumarest, an expert at fighting beasts and a natural leader, has to take charge.  The damage to the generator leaves the ship drifting in the void between the stars, but then they are detected and taken into custody by a "planet-sized intelligence" from another galaxy that has lived for billions of years and grown bored.  The thing, which calls itself Tormyle, has god-like powers, and has never encountered people before; these tiny creatures, it finds, can provide it some entertainment.  Reading the minds of the ten survivors from the ship it creates a paradise for them to live in, and conducts experiments on them.  (The humans liken their fate to that of insects in a child's jar.)  Tormyle has no conception of emotions like fear or love, and seeks to learn about such things by, for example, making Dumarest fight an ogre, and imprisoning the female survivors in a fairy tale castle and forcing the male survivors to cross a jungle full of monsters and death traps and climb a cliff to get to them. Eventually the bored super being decides it has fallen in love with Dumarest and tries to get our hero to love it in return.

(Despite the Freas cover, Dumarest himself doesn't shoot arrows at anybody.  Is this Freas's clever comparison of Dumarest to Cupid?)

This installment of the Dumarest saga reminded me of dimly remembered episodes of Star Trek; aren't Kirk and Picard constantly meeting super beings who make them fight illusions and that sort of thing?  And aliens whom they have to teach about love?  Tubb uses the phrase "prime directive" several times throughout the novel, a phrase I always associate with Star Trek, though Tubb uses it to mean "foremost motivation" or "primary goal," not "don't interact with the natives."  Maybe this is Tubb playfully acknowledging that he was inspired by the TV show, or just evidence that he had seen the show and been subconsciously influenced by it.

I like E. C. Tubb's writing style; the fight scenes are good, the pacing is perfect, the characters are quickly but clearly sketched out for the reader, and their interactions are interesting.  I was always unsure, and curious, about which of the characters were going to survive and which would die in space or on Tormyle.  Mayenne is a fun adventure story I can happily recommend to adventure fans.

Poor Dumarest doesn't get any closer to Earth in this caper, but Tormyle does teleport him to a random planet, which throws the agents of the Cyclan off his trail.  I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to Dumarest in the next book!

Request for help IDing Young Adult (?) Motorcycle SF

Growing up in suburban Northern New Jersey I would checkout SF books from the little local library.  Here's one I periodically think about, the name or author of which I cannot recall.  Maybe one of you out in internet land will recognize it?  I can be a little oblivious, so maybe this thing is very famous and dozens of you will know it.  The book was a hardcover, and I must have read it in the early 1980s.  I think the cover illustration was moody, a yellowish tan, with people standing still, looking sadly or grimly out at the viewer.

THE PLOT: It's the future in Great Britain.  A totalitarian government is in charge; they have flying robots which can read your emotions and detect if you are angry or upset.  The main character is a teenage boy, and he escapes and joins some kind of motorcycle gang of rebellious kids in the countryside.  The main character has an advantage over the other kids because he has a modern Japanese motor bike; I think most of them have cobbled together British bikes.  (I seem to recall one character saying something derisive like "Don't ride that Jap crap!  Ride British!")  Even though I got this book out of the YA section, there was sex in it, and in the end of the novel is a scene in which the main character and his girlfriend have sex when a flying robot comes by, because the robots have trouble distinguishing between sexual passion and rebellious anti-government emotions.

Any clues would be appreciated!

       

Monday, May 18, 2015

No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

"I didn't like the way those bastards down there treated us, but I have to admit they had the right idea.  It's force that counts now."

Around ten years ago, I guess, I read library copies of John Christopher's first three Tripods books, and enjoyed them.  More recently, I read Christopher's The Long Winter and thought it was pretty good.  Back in November of last year I got, for almost nothing at the Salvation Army, a hardcover Book Club Edition of No Blade of Grass, the US retitling of Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass.  Joachim Boaz on twitter and his blog has suggested that No Blade of Grass is somewhat hard to find and expensive, and the jacket, with its unusual come-on ("this jacket description has made no attempt to give you any idea of the plot"), is certainly intriguing.  I guess my acquisition of the novel was something of a coup; let's see if the text lives up to the hype.

At the start of the novel it is the late 1950s; we meet several nice English people: John the engineer; his brother David who owns a farm in a somewhat secluded valley; John's old Army buddy Roger, the cynical government PR flack; the wives and kids.  David and Roger are perfectly positioned to provide John (and us readers) insight on the current world crisis: the virus which is killing crops in Asia and causing mass starvation, and which threatens to get to England any moment!

The virus kills grasses (rice and wheat, as you foodies and botanists already know, are grasses) so when it hits the U.K. the British people will have to live on potatoes and beets!  Her Majesty's Government calculates that such a diet can only support 33% of the British population, so it is decided to euthanize two-thirds of the people...with nuclear bombs!  These bombs will be targeted at the cities, leaving all potential potato fields intact.  Roger gets wind of this secret plan and he and John flee London with their families for David's isolated valley--to make it out of London they have to assassinate soldiers at a roadblock.

The country devolves into anarchy in a matter of hours, and Roger and John have to battle it out with rapists and bandits.  Their cars are seized by what amounts to a robber baron (the medieval kind, not what your high school teacher called Andrew Carnegie) and the band has to march dozens of miles on foot.  Along the way they become murderous bandits themselves, and, in need of firepower to deal with all the other groups of brigands, John recruits followers from among other people on the road, becoming a sort of feudal chief!      

The main theme of the novel is decent 20th century people quickly abandoning all modern morality in a crisis, and taking up medieval or ancient pagan morality, a morality which justifies any act which protects one's family and maintains honor in the eyes of one's fellows and followers.  John is repeatedly directly compared to a medieval baron, who is owed allegiance from, and in turn owes protection to, his followers.  At the end of the story poor John has to decide between loyalty to his followers and to his family; David's valley is already full of refugees by the time John gets there, and can support no more, so John has to storm his own brother's property!

Christopher keeps ambiguous to what extent he feels the utter ruthlessness of the British government, and of John himself, is justified.  This ambiguity is symbolized in Pirrie, a cold and efficient killer who joins John's band early on and whose cleverness and marksmanship make the journey possible.  All through the book Pirrie does dreadful things, but also keeps the party alive, leading John and his family (and the reader) constantly wondering how to feel about, and how to deal with, him.

John's journey, and the moral ambiguity of the things he does to get his people to a new home, is reminiscent of the Aeneid.  There are also plenty of explicit Biblical allusions.  

No Blade of Grass contains several elements that might be of special interest to a 21st century audience.  First, gender issues.  The male characters, for the most part, treat the female characters as second class citizens, either protecting them or taking advantage of the lack of law and order to rape them.  Christopher develops the numerous women characters about as conscientiously as he does the men, and we see how they react to the new and horrible circumstances of post-apocalyptic life, how their values and behavior change.  Nowadays, his portrayal of them might be considered sexist-- there aren't any kung fu girls or female snipers or anything like that; women don't do any of the fighting or leading, though they participate in the debates around the many ethical dilemmas John and his people face.

There is also a lot of talk of the characteristics of different ethnicities and nationalities--the extent to which this is Christopher criticizing British attitudes about other cultures, I'm not sure, though a theme of the novel seems to be that English people see themselves as particularly civilized and disciplined, but in fact will devolve into savagery as fast as anybody.  A fat Jewish businessman appears briefly; he makes a ruckus when separated from his office by the military road block.  Cold and merciless Pirrie is half-French, says that Arabs love to steal and that the English "are sluggish in logic as well as imagination."  Our main characters are all middle-class Londoners, but there are portrayals of country people and working class people as well.  Perhaps The Death of Grass is a useful text for figuring out mid-century British beliefs about the character of both British and non-British peoples.

You could say that No Blade of Grass is an ecological or environmentalist story, but, to be honest, I think the grass-killing-virus premise is there simply to provide the opportunity for society to collapse and for Christopher to get to his violent adventure and little debates about morality and leadership.  For this I was grateful; I don't fancy reading science lectures or green propaganda, I like adventure and human drama.

From a purely literary/entertainment point of view, the novel is a success, and I recommend it; fans of post-apocalyptic and end-of-the-world type of books in particular should give it a read.  The pace is fast, and Christopher's style is lean, smooth and highly readable; there are lots of actions scenes, and the debates I have referred to are tense and quick, not long philosophical discussions or speeches like you might find in a Heinlein novel.  Students of SF history will perhaps want to compare No Blade of Grass to L. Ron Hubbard's 1940 Final Blackout, another novel in which a ruthless guy revives feudal rule in a post-apocalyptic England, but which lacks the ambiguity and literary craft Christopher puts into this book.   

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Omega Point by George Zebrowski

"You were the strongest, the best, the most worthy to inherit the universe, at the cost of every other intelligent race in the galaxy.  By your own criterion you lost.  You were not the strongest."
George Zebrowski's was a name I was familiar with (maybe primarily from tarbandu's and Joachim Boaz's blogs), but I don't think I had ever read anything by him when I saw the Ace 1972 paperback of The Omega Point at a used book store recently, so I picked it up.

(I may have read "Assassins of Air" in Future City, but I don't remember it.)

I really like the cover by Bob Pepper: the colors, the repeated motif of circles and horizontal lines, the draperies (I love paintings and sculptures and drawings of draperies, from Ancient Greece to Albert Moore to Leonardo to Burne-Jones), the woman holding up a ring Mucha-style, the guy going into convulsions, the pile of skeletons.  Can I like the novel as much I like as the cover?  Gadzooks, I hope so!

The Omega Point (which turns out to be the second volume of a trilogy, though it was the volume first published) was at least partly inspired by the Punic Wars, seen from the point of view of the Carthaginians. On the very first page of the book, the page which in other books often has some blurbs or other ad copy, is a retelling of the story of the young Hannibal swearing eternal hatred of Rome, and our main character, Gorgias the Fourth, is a stand-in for Hannibal.  As I guess we should expect from a Vietnam War-era SF novel, the Earth is the Roman-like evil empire, and Gorgias (are we pronouncing this "gorgeous?") is one of the last survivors of an alien culture defeated and reduced to almost nothing by the vindictive Earth.

It is the brink of the Seventh Millennium!  Humans have been colonizing the galaxy for thousands of years.  Back in 5000 or so the Herculean Empire was built, its people the hybrid descendents of Earthmen who raped aliens--this is one of the those SF novels in which the aliens are similar enough to humans that interbreeding can take place.  This is also one of those SF novels in which the aliens are better than the humans--the Herculeans have psychic powers, superior technology, and great longevity.  Despite these advantages, when the Herculeans and the Earth Federation go to war in 5148, it is the Herculeans that are defeated (after a war that lasts over a thousand years.)  The Earthmen destroy entire Herculean planets, put Herculeans to death in the vaporizer chamber, hunt the survivors for sport, and so on.  (Zebrowski attributes to the Earth all the crummy things white people have done to non-whites throughout history.)

Our story takes place hundreds of years after the end of the war.  Three-hundred year old Gorgias the Fourth, Emperor of the extinct Herculean Empire, is on the run in his one-man super space ship.  Since the end of the war he has been committing acts of murder and sabotage here and there, and we follow him on a few such missions. Between missions he searches the ruined planets of the Herculean Empire for a super weapon that can perhaps turn the tide of this one man vs the galaxy war, and visits another of the handful of Herculean survivors, Myraa, a beautiful woman who has the ability to absorb the consciousnesses of other people; within her live the souls of several other Herculeans.

We also follow Rafael Kurbi, the human currently tasked with pursuing Gorgias. Kurbi admires Gorgias, and has contempt for his own people; he hopes to make peace with Gorgias.  Kurbi thinks that human culture has become decadent, and that an infusion of Herculean culture would energize the human race.

This anti-Western space opera reminded me of Michael Moorcock's fantasies of Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, and Oswald Bastable, in which the West, or thinly veiled symbols of England, are the evil empires and the admirable characters from these evil empires "go native" and turn on their fellows.

Two thirds of the way through the book Kurbi catches up with Gorgias, who has found the super weapon he has been looking for.  Kurbi tries to negotiate with Gorgias, but Gorgias refuses, and there is a battle on Myraa's planet that sees the employment of ray guns, forcefields, and a planetary laser bombardment by the Earth space navy, among even more amazing technological military marvels.  In the end Gorgias is killed, but his soul is captured by Myrra.  In the last few pages of the book we get a sense-of-wonder collective unconsciousness climax--Gorgias and Myraa will live forever, at one with the universe, loving every living thing:
He knew she felt his strength inside her, a new addition to the power which would enable the entire community to burst the confines of entropy and space-time.
On the lookout for classical allusions, I was reminded by the death of Gorgias of the death of Pompey in Lucan's Pharsalia.  At the start of Book Nine of Pharsalia, Pompey's soul tours the universe and then settles in the hearts and minds of republican heroes Brutus and Cato.  (Repeated references to the fact that Gorgias has much human blood perhaps should also point us towards Pharsalia, an epic recounting the civil war that broke out when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy; in fact, the translation I own, that of Susan H. Braund, is titled Civil War.) 

Though full of interesting stuff, The Omega Point is not very good.  While not particularly long (169 pages, with blank pages between the 17 chapters) it feels long; individual scenes can be long and full of unnecessary detail, like a four-page description of an orchestral performance (Gorgias assassinates the composer, but don't feel bad for him, Kurbi says he was a second-rate artist) and the sleep-inducing set-in-italics six-page New Wave dream sequence:
Fear became a glow reknitting the strands of his consciousness, reinforcing the matrix of his individuality, the craggy-lightning pattern of his nervous system buried deeply in his flesh, spine and brain....
The book can be pretentious, with lots of epigraphs consisting of quotes from Freud, Shakespeare, Unamuno, Teilhard de Chardin, and others.  The style is not very good, and the characters are not very interesting.  The plot feels kind of thrown together, like Zebrowski made it up as he went along, or was trying to reach a certain page count; some scenes feel unnecessary, and the novel lacks a clear focus or theme.  What is the book trying to be?  An action adventure?  A denunciation of Western imperialism? The story of a lonely man who is full of hate, and grows to the point he knows and loves all of creation?  A meditation on how you should not be blinded by anger, but should learn to love all things because we are all components of the same universe, all sparks of the divine fire?  I think maybe it is trying to be all those things, but not doing any of them very well.  

In 1983 a revised version of The Omega Point was published as a component of a single-volume edition of The Omega Point Trilogy.  Maybe the revision is a big improvement; Poul Anderson and The New York Times were crazy about the trilogy! (Squint or right click the image below to read the glowing blurbs!)


I have to give The Omega Point (1972) a marginal thumbs down.  It is not terrible and I can envisage a revision that tightened up the plot and pacing and improved the style enough that I would have enjoyed it.  (As the hours go by the things I didn't like about the novel fade from memory, while its virtues grow in prominence.)  If I spot the 1983 trilogy on the shelves of a used bookstore I will have to strongly consider buying it and giving The Omega Point a second chance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII: The Final Battle: Steve Sneyd, Charles L. Grant, Harlan Ellison & Richard A. Moore

I see a light at the end of the tunnel!  Today we are reading the final four tales from Karl Edward Wagner's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII, DAW No. 393, published in 1980.  This batch includes two famous writers, Harlan Ellison and Charles Grant, and two I am not familiar with, Steve Sneyd and Richard A. Moore.

"A Fly One" by Steve Sneyd (1979)

This is a brief (six and a half pages) first person narrative from a British detective, Vrczynski, whom Sneyd makes a point of telling us is foreign-born. A fourteen-year-old girl has been murdered; there are signs of sexual assault.  Vrczynski has no clues, but when a freakish hunchback comes into the station he realizes, in a flash of intuition, that this weirdo is the killer. The freako explains to the gumshoe that he needed the blood of a virgin to complete the magic spell that would give him wings--as Vrczynski watches the wings start bursting out of the sorcerer's hump! Vrczynski rips the wings off, and keeps them at his home, in alcohol, as a trophy!  The wizard, who was proclaiming that he was the next stage of human evolution seconds before Vrczynski tore his wings off, goes to whatever British people call the funny farm...maybe "nuttery?"

This is a cynical story, depicting a fallen, corrupt world.  The cops beat and trick the prisoners to get information, the family members of the slain girl either don't care she is dead or use the opportunity to get attention, the way the evil wizard guy has to murder a vulnerable, innocent, person to work his spell implies that the only way to "get ahead" and "make progress" is by exploiting others, and Vrczynski acts as judge, jury and punisher, ignoring the long English tradition of a jury trial.  Maybe, like Russell Kirk's story about criminals in this same volume, it makes sense to consider this story in the context of rising crime rates in the 1970s.

One thing to ruminate over is why Sneyd has the detective be foreign-born.  To provide an outsider's view of British society?  To emphasize the decay of British culture by having the smartest and hardest-working character in the story be one of non-British background?  To provide a chance to accuse the police force of discrimination (Vrczynski claims few foreign-born officers achieve seniority)?  Maybe Vrczynski is a refugee from communism (his name sounds Polish, right?) and so he serves as a reminder of international conflict and/or government tyranny?


A good story: economical, atmospheric, and full of interest.  Like Dennis Etchison's "The Dead Line," "A Fly One" was first published in Whispers 13-14.  It would be included in Whispers III in 1981.

"Needle Song" by Charles L. Grant (1979)

Like Harlan Ellison's "In the Fourth Year of the War," "Needle Song" was first unleashed on the world in Midnight Sun #5.  It has been reprinted a few times, including in the 2012 collection Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant.  As you probably know, Grant is famous for practicing and advocating for "quiet horror." How sotto voce is "Needle Song"?

Pretty sotto voce, but with a bloody gong at the end.  The ten pages of the story switch back and forth between brief paragraphs in italics about an old blind woman and long passages in normal type about two kids, Caren and Eric.  It seems that Hawthorne Street was a happy neighborhood where everybody got along and people had decent jobs and stable families.  Then a blind old woman moved into the house number 136. This weird character refused to interact with the rest of the neighborhood.  Then she began regularly playing the piano at 9:00 PM; the music could be heard throughout the neighborhood.

The town suddenly has good luck; people were winning lotteries, getting raises, Caren's brother gots into a high class university, and little Eric was discovered to be a musical prodigy!  But then the little concerts ended.  Everybody's luck turned sour; people lost their jobs, Caren's brother became a drug addict, the lawns and trees started dying, a house burnt down.  Then the music starts up again, irregularly.  Eric and Caren believe that the old woman is sucking the happiness and good luck out of the town.

The italicized paragraphs suggest they are on to something--the blind woman, after one of her little concerts, takes a magic needle and sews colors onto a black square of cloth.  "One day, she thought, she would sew herself a new dress of a thousand colors and be young again."

Caren and Eric, after abandoning schemes to shoot or decapitate her, try to foil the witch by relating happy memories to each other and laughing enthusiastically during one of her sorcerous serenades; they think this will show the witch that she can't hurt them and convince her to give up and leave.  They believe they have succeeded, but then Eric slips and smashes his mouth into the corner of a table, ruining his hopes of a career as a trumpet player.

This story is just alright.  The mechanism of what the witch is actually doing is a little mysterious, what with all the starting and stopping, the good and bad luck, etc. Maybe her music at first brought good luck to the town, and then took the luck away, like how a farmer fertilizes and seeds a field before reaping it.  There are also hints that the entire region or nation is suffering some kind of economic downturn, that the witch travels from town to town devastating one after the other.  The central idea is OK, but the way the story is constructed is kind of confusing, the style is pedestrian and nothing about the story evoked any emotion.

"All the Birds Come Home to Roost" by Harlan Ellison (1979)

I always associate the phrase "the chickens come home to roost" with Malcolm X and Ward Churchill and the idea that murders like those of JFK and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were retribution or poetic justice inflicted on whites because of Western misdeeds of the past like slavery and colonialism.  The phrase is used more widely however, and apparently originated in the early nineteenth century.  Ellison modifies it to "birds," I suspect, as a reference to the use of the word "bird" to refer to a pretty girl, and maybe because "chicken" evokes comedic images, like rubber chickens or the funky chicken dance, while "bird" is somewhat poetic.

"All the Birds Come Home to Roost" first appeared in Playboy, and has been included in a number of anthologies, like 2013's Psycho-Mania and The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, as well as the 1987 Essential Ellison collection.

Michael Kirxby is a lawyer, in bed with a girlfriend.  He tells her about the unhealthy relationship he had with his wife of some 20 years ago, Cindy, how her infidelities and psychological problems made her difficult to deal with, how while under the stress of studying for the bar one day he snapped and gave her a terrific beating.  And how he divorced Cindy and she ended up in a mental institution.  "She very nearly took me with her to the madhouse.  I got away just in time."

After this confession, over the succeeding days, Kirxby has apparently random encounters with former girlfriends.  He comes to realize that he is meeting all of his lovers in reverse order; each woman from his past he meets and sleeps with brings him one step closer to Cindy, his first lover.  When he meets Cindy again will she exact some terrible revenge?  As he continues to meet women from his past he becomes more and more desperate and more and more mentally unhinged.

Ellison writes the story in a smooth style, and it is well-structured.  It didn't inspire any feeling in me, though, with its clever but incredible central idea and unsympathetic protagonist.  It reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone or one of those old EC Comics, though with its numerous references to the unsavory side of sex (e.g., "the wet spot," erectile dysfunction, and female frigidity) it is one that cries out for an "adults only!" label.  Moderately good.

"The Devil Behind You" by Richard A. Moore (1979)

This is a good finale to the collection; "The Devil Behind You" is genuinely suspenseful, surprising, and depicts something horrible.  At seven pages it is nice and tight.

An eight-year-old boy from a broken family loiters in the woods by the church on Sunday rather than attend services; the rabble-rousing preacher scares him, and the congregation doesn't like him because of his disreputable mother and absent father.  In the woods he is accosted by an escaped convict, who forces him to sneak into the church to steal a set of keys for one of the cars in the parking lot.  The impressionable child thinks the criminal may be the Devil himself, to the felon's amusement. In the final paragraph of the story the child makes a bold move that I thought would save his life, but I, like he, had been tricked--the boy's brief and unhappy life is over.

A crime story (it first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) in which a small boy is murdered perhaps deserves to be called exploitative, but, for me, it achieved the goal that Wagner set for the stories he selected for this anthology: it created "a convincing mood of fear and unease."  (Despite Karl and I liking it, "The Devil Behind You" is Richard A. Moore's only fiction credit at isfdb; there is also a "Richard Moore" listed who has two stories.)

***********

The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII as a whole has to be counted a success; of the 16 stories all but two or three show merit, and even the clunkers (the anti-gun story and the ghost motorcycle story) are odd and memorable in an amusing way.  The collection shows great variety; there are stories by famous authors and stories by new and minor writers, left-wing and right-wing stories, stories sympathetic to religion and hostile to religion, supernatural stories, science-fiction stories, psychological stories, and realistic crime stories.  Wagner, in his first time up at bat as editor of The Year's Best Horror Stories, did a solid job for DAW and the speculative fiction community, and I feel comfortable recommending The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII to horror fans.      

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Year's Best Horror VIII: Part 3: Alan Ryan, Kevin Lyons, Russell Kirk & Robert Keefe

Here comes the third installment of our journey into 1979's nightmares with Karl Edward Wagner, who, as he explains on the first page of The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII, cast a wide net in his quest for stories that "create a convincing mood of fear and unease."

"Sheets" by Alan Ryan (1979)

Here we witness some of the snobbery people who think they are smart and/or educated feel for those who work in retail or at other low status jobs.  I am sensitive to this kind of thing, having witnessed such contempt at close range among New York academics and having been (all too credibly, I fear) accused of it myself.

George April, an unemployed teacher, resorts to taking a job at Macy's.  The boredom is "crushing, a think enveloping fog...but the frustration came from the knowledge that he alone of all of them was the only one who felt it....How can they not be bored...how can they stand it....what do they think about while they stare into space...?"  He works in the sheets department during a white sale, and is expected to be familiar with all the different patterns; there are about fifty patterns on display. The boredom of the job begins driving poor George insane, and, when at the insistence of his wife, he takes advantage of his discount and buys new sheets for their own bed, he dreams or hallucinates that the butterflies printed on the sheets come to life and murder him.

The realistic stuff about working a job you don't like was alright, reminding me a little of Charles Bukowski's Post Office or Factotum, or Henry Miller bitching about working for the telegram office.  But the hallucinations felt too long and too silly, and did not jive* with the realistic sections.  I guess I have to give "Sheets" an "OK" rating.

"Sheets" first saw light of day in Chrysalis 5.  Will Errickson has a number of interesting posts at his fun blog Too Much Horror Fiction about Ryan's work as a horror writer and anthologist; check them out here.

*For decades I've been one of the people who uses "jive" to mean "goes along with" and "jibe" to mean "a taunt," and despite recently discovering that this may be incorrect, I'm sticking to it. 

"Billy Wolfe's Riding Spirit" by Kevin A. Lyons (1979)

This story first appeared in Easyriders, which Wagner describes as a "free-wheeling biker magazine that also carries some fine fiction."  Lyons, like your humble blogger, is a graduate of Rutgers University.  There are only two publications listed for "Kevin A. Lyons" in the isfdb.

This five-page story is about a ghost motorcycle!  In my home state of New Jersey!  Every full moon, at midnight, a "real long chopper" drives recklessly from east to west on Route 80, past towns I am familiar with, like Dover (where I would catch the train to Manhattan) and Rockaway (location of "the mall," where I purchased AD&D modules and Fritz Leiber and Piers Anthony paperbacks at the Paperback Booksmith in the '80s and tried without success to date up a pale black-haired art student who worked at the Museum Company Store in the '90s).  The state police pursue the biker, whom they believe must be scofflaw Billy Wolfe, but he always escapes near the Delaware Water Gap.

Our narrator works for the state, picking up dead deer from the highway and carting them to the rendering plant.  One day he is following a wounded deer into the woods, and he finds Billy Wolfe's corpse!  And the corpse of his bike!  The corpses are quite old, proving what we already suspected and what I already told you, that Billy Wolfe (and his chopper) are ghosts!

It is fun to see the unimportant towns you spent time in as a kid in print, but this story is a silly trifle.  Put another "OK" on the scoreboard.

"Lex Talionis" by Russell Kirk (1979)

Like Hugh B. Cave's "From the Lower Deep," "Lex Talionis" first appeared in David Schiff's Whispers II.   As all you Latinists know, "Lex Talionis" means "the law of retaliation," the principle that the punishment should fit the crime.  Considering the date it was published, maybe we should think of the story as a criticism of lenient criminal justice policies.

Russell Kirk is famous as an erudite conservative intellectual, more the traditionalist religion and order type of conservative than the free market and small government type, and it shows in this story.  Again and again we are reminded of how civilization and public morals are in decay, and Kirk doesn't shy away from paraphrasing Pelagius and Saint Augustine and using this story as a forum to discuss Catholic doctrine.  If George Hay's story in our last episode suggested that Satan was real, Kirk in "Lex Talionis" asserts that Hell must be real, that Hell is necessary if there is to be any justice in the universe.

Back cover of
The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII
The plot: Eddie Mahaffy, after spending time at sea, foolishly joins a ne'er-do-well relative in an armed robbery.  When someone gets killed in the commission of the robbery, Eddie ends up in prison for life.  In prison Eddie devotes himself to learning and religion, and tries to stay out of the way of Butte, the rapist who, though an inmate, due to his tremendous strength and important outside connections is de facto king of the penitentiary.  But when Butte starts torturing someone, Eddie challenges him, and Butte and his lackeys beat Eddie to the brink of death.

We learn all that background via periodic flashbacks, presented out of chronological order.  At the start of the story Eddie is out of prison, and visits a church and then a bar.  At the bar he encounters Butte.  Butte wants Eddie, the only man to ever stand up to him, to help him break into an old mansion in a once fine, now crime-ridden and semi-abandoned, neighborhood to retrieve a pile of money.  Butte hid the money in there after raping and murdering the middle-class inhabitants, who had stuck around after all the other decent people had fled the area.

Eddie accompanies Butte to the house, where Butte learns to his horror what has been foreshadowed to us readers several times: Eddie died of complications from the beating Butte meted out to him, and is a ghost, an instrument of justice sent by God to deal with Butte.

I sometimes feels like almost all speculative fiction is written by socialist atheists and libertarian atheists, while the talented Catholic SF authors like R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe express their religious beliefs in oblique ways.  So the way Kirk baldly asserts that we are going to live forever, that Hell was built by divine love, that this world is corrupt and evil but it matters little because we must focus on our eternal souls' destination, is kind of refreshing.  This story doesn't just have a religious subtext, it is an in-your-face religious text.  An atheist myself, I wouldn't seek out a steady diet of such material, but it is an interesting change of pace.  

"Lex Talionis" is perhaps a little too long, but the style is good and I should probably know more than I do about Pelagius and Saint Augustine, so I don't begrudge Kirk for giving me a precis of their thought.  Moderate recommendation.

"Entombed" by Robert Keefe (1979)

This story is Robert Keefe's sole credit at isfdb.  Keefe is an academic, an expert on Gothic literature, and "Entombed" first appeared in a small press literary journal, Gothic.

"Entombed" is a mainstream literary story with no supernatural content, as far as I can tell.  A teenaged boy has a difficult life: his father left before he was born, and he lives with his mother and aunt, two annoying women who never stop complaining and yelling.  He has a job at a diner, and had a good relationship with the cook (a drunk), but the cook has moved away, vanishing unexpectedly without saying goodbye or telling anybody where he was going.

The boy was fascinated by mummy horror movies as a younger kid, and recently become fascinated by the Egyptian Wing of the art museum.  For several days in a row he has come to the museum when it opens in the morning, and sat in the Egyptian Wing, with the mummies and sarcophagi, for hours.  Today he has lost track of the time, and finds himself locked in the museum overnight.  The story ends as the sun is going down and the room is getting dark.

This story, about the horrors of our real lives and how we try to escape them in art and entertainment, is not bad.  I thought it a mistake that Alan Ryan in "Sheets" had scenes in which the sheets came to life and massacred the protagonist, so it is probably wise that Keefe did not have a scene in which the mummy of the princess came to life to reveal the boy was the spiritual descendent of a pharaoh and take him away to a better life or whatever.

Mild recommendation.

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

Not a bad crop of stories; each has a particular point of view, be it that of  a Catholic intellectual, bitter veteran of Macy's, Gothic lit aficionado or New Jersey habitué.

Only four stories yet remain in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII. Stay tuned for our next episode!

Monday, May 11, 2015

More late '70s horror: Davis Grubb, John Tibbetts, Eddy C. Bertin & George Hay

Let's read four horror stories by people I have never heard of!  I liked the first four stories in Karl Edward Wagner's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII; let's hope ol' Karl has picked four more winners for us!

"The Baby-Sitter" by Davis Grubb (1978)

Wagner in his introduction tells us Grubb is "in the front ranks of writers of Southern regionalism." This story, however, is set in my home state of New Jersey (or as Meg of the year 3485 would put it, "Joysy.")  Is there any chance this story is going to celebrate the high culture, productive industry, and world-class agriculture that make the Garden State a wonderful place to grow up, attend university, and build a family?  (No, there is not.)

"The Baby-Sitter" reads like a PSA from a gun-control advocacy group, and is an attack on American (perhaps all modern) society.  There is no particular reason to set the story in New Jersey--Paramus is just a stand in for "AnyTown, USA."  The story is not set in New York or the South so that readers do not mistake it for a denunciation of rednecks or a meditation on urban crime or whatever; Grubb wants to make sure we get that his gripe is with all 50 of the states and every human being, from city slicker to country boy.

A Vietnam vet, Jim, owns an M-16.  (I don't know anything about gun laws; could private residents of New Jersey legally own an M-16 in 1978?  It is not 100% clear if the weapon in the story is capable of full automatic fire.)  He and his wife Jan are going out for the evening, and hire teenage Marion, who is reading Future Shock, to baby-sit their twin five-year-old boys, Joe and Jim Junior, and six-month-old girl, Sally.  While Mom and Dad are away the boys get a hold of the rifle, wrestle over it, and accidentally shoot up the house, shattering Mom's Ming vase and other valuables.  When Marion runs upstairs to see if the baby was hit, the boys take turns shooting at her until she is dead.

A main theme of "The Baby-Sitter" is collective guilt.  Grubb asserts that all of society is to blame for the evil or foolish acts of individuals:
Marion watched their faces watching hers then and she felt her own face flood and she knew suddenly how every guilt in the world is shared.  Because it did not matter who had pulled the trigger....  When Joe pulled it so had Jim Junior.  So had Jan and Jim.  And so, inexorably and most terribly of all, had Marion.    
I'm not impressed with the story's anti-individualistic "society made me do it" politics. Does the story have artistic merit I can admire anyway?  Not really.  There is no suspense, as it is clear from the beginning that the gun is going to be the "villain" of the piece.  On the first page we get this passage:
"Jim has a gun," she [Jan] said cryptically.  "Or did I mention that?"
And for a reason she could not understand then, Marion shivered.  Was it the chill of the November night?  Or some sense of some thing, some unfathomable, unknown thing to come in the night which lay before her.
The story dispenses with moral agency, so there is no drama: how can there be any drama when everyone is to blame for whatever goes wrong and the focus of the story is a quotidian inanimate object?  The story is also too long--there is page after page of the five-year-old boys arguing over and wrestling for the rifle while the baby-sitter watches them impotently.  The characters are symbols rather than real people, so who cares who gets blasted?

People who hate guns and/or modern society may like this one for its politics, but I'm giving it a thumbs down.  It first appeared in Grubb's collection The Siege of 318: Thirteen Mystical Stories.    

"The Well at the Half Cat" by John Tibbetts (1979)

Frank Vincy is a sensitive 29-year-old Englishman who has recently been released from the mental hospital following a painful divorce.  Vincy has decided to get out of the rat race and fix up and run an inn, the Half Cat, out in the countryside at a village which has maintained its Olde World character.

Vincy's first guests are a gruff intimidating working-class man and his beautiful wife; oddly enough, they have no luggage.  The wife flirts with Vincy, and he is immediately obsessed (remember, he's sensitive!)  We readers, but not Vincy, learn that decades ago the Half Cat closed after its owner had an affair with a beautiful woman, which resulted in her being murdered by her husband, who was in turn killed in a fight with the innkeeper.  The innkeeper threw the corpses down the well, and then died himself, either falling or jumping into the well.  Vincy's first guests are the ghosts of the unfaithful wife and her violent husband, and they reenact the deadly drama that ended their lives, this time with Vincy playing the innkeeper role.

This story is long, with lots of descriptions of sights and smells and sounds and of such humdrum activity as the repair work on the inn.  It didn't engage my emotions; I'll rate this one "OK."

"The Well at the Half Cat" first appeared in Eldritch Tales No. 5.  John Tibbetts only has two fiction credits at isfdb, and four art credits.  But don't worry about his career; Renaissance man Tibbetts is a critic who has published extensively on film, music and literature (sample titles from Wikipedia: “Young Berlioz Revealed,” “The Case of the Forgotten Detectives: The Unknown Crime Fiction of G.K. Chesterton,” and “Beyond the Camera: The Untold Story Behind the Making of Hoop Dreams”and is also a professional pianist.

"My Beautiful Darkling" by Eddy C. Bertin (1979)

Belgian Beritn publishes in six languages, and originally wrote "My Beautiful Darkling" (the title of which comes from Baudelaire) in Dutch; it is the title story of the collection Mijn Mooie Duisterlinge.  Wagner informs us that Bertin himself translated the story into English for inclusion in The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VIII.

The bulk of the story is the transcript of an arrestee's interview with the police. The suspect relates how some time in the past his head was injured in a motor accident, and this gave him the power to sense other people's emotions.  He can't quite read minds, but he can, as he puts it, "taste thought," and, in context, make an educated guess at what people are thinking.

The arrestee likes to attend fairs and amusement parks, to taste the emotions of the crowds of people.  One evening at such a fair his mind touches that of a physically attractive and mentally strange, even inhuman, woman, Cathy, whom, he detects, has the same power he has! They have sex in the shadows, and it is perfect, exhausting, sex because they can feel each other's emotions and need not speak a word to each other.  He and Cathy meet regularly every few nights at different fairs, never speaking but enjoying a wonderful, if exhausting, mental and physical union each time.  But then one evening he can't find her, and is arrested while desperately accosting people at a fair, seeking Cathy (and, it is hinted, masturbating.)

After the transcript comes five pages of conventional third-person omniscient narration starring the arrestee's shrink.  The doctor gets the guy out of jail, explaining that he is a harmless victim of schizophrenia, that his mental abilities are a product of his imagination and Cathy but "an alternative shard of his own personality," a simulacrum of a woman named Catherine who rejected him shortly before his drunken auto accident.  His patient is going through a crisis, beginning to fear Cathy is going to abandon him--a sign sanity is returning with the realization that Cathy is not real.

But then, when the doctor is walking through the fairgrounds to his car, an attractive woman beckons to him from the shadows, physically and telepathically!. He follows the creature his patient calls "Cathy" into the darkness; she is, apparently, some kind of psychic vampire who steals a person's life force, and is dumping the patient to take up with the younger and more vigorous doctor.

This story is not bad.  Moderate recommendation.

"A Serious Call" by George Hay (1979)    

This six-page story is just a trifle, though well-written.  All you intellectual types may enjoy the copious name dropping that goes on: Lytton Strachey, Karl Popper, Carl Jung, and H. M. Tomlinson are among those who are casually mentioned.

The narrator relates why he, while attending a college in an industrial section of northern London, abandoned his thesis on the ghost stories of M. R. James, which sought to debunk James's belief in evil.  A Rev. Paul Tremblett came to give a guest lecture on good and evil--the lecture coincided with the most ferocious thunderstorm the narrator has ever experienced.  The Reverend explained that Satan is real, and very clever, adept at doing his evil work while at the same time convincing people he is merely a myth.  At the end of the lecture the Reverend stepped outside and was immediately killed by a bolt of lightning.

"A Serious Call" first appeared in the first edition of Ghosts & Scholars, a periodical devoted to M. R. James, a famous and important British medievalist and writer of ghost stories whose work I have never read. (Every day I lament my poor education, but I only have myself to blame...and maybe the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64, Gary Gygax, id software, etc....)  So I have no idea if Hay has managed to capture the spirit or style of James's work, which I believe was his intention.

The style is good and I appreciate all the name-dropping and the London details, so marginal to moderate recommendation for this one.  I should try to find out which of M. R. James's stories are considered his "best" or "most representative;" it appears they are easily accessible at gutenberg.org.

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

Not up to the standard set in the first batch, alas, but, taken as a group, not too bad. Four more stories, hand picked by Wagner from divers sources, await us in our next episode.