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.

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