Sunday, January 3, 2016

Three horror stories by Barry Malzberg from the 1970s

We had such a good experience with Donald A. Wollheim's three stories in Al Sarrantonio and Martin H. Greenberg's 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories that it makes sense to check out Barry N. Malzberg's three contributions, doesn't it?  Malzberg, I'm sure you already know, is one of SF's more idiosyncratic characters, and I for one find his fiction as well as his criticism always worth a look.

"The Idea" (1971)

isfdb is leading me to believe that this story was first printed in Malzberg's 1971 Ace Double, In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories / Gather in the Hall of the Planets, which appeared under the pseudonym K. M. O'Donnell.  Besides 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, it has also been anthologized in the Asimov/Greenberg volume TV: 2000.

"The Idea" stars Howard, some sort of TV executive.  Malzberg is one of those guys who is frustrated in his life and career, and he portrays a TV network as one of those offices where people are always stabbing each other in the back, where everybody is striving to take credit for work that succeeds and shift blame on others when an idea fails.  Working at the network is so stressful that people are having heart attacks!

Howard has some idea, left unspecified in the text, for an "educational" program. Everybody thinks the idea is great, it gets produced and put on the air, just as Howard envisioned it, but somewhere along the line everybody else disassociates himself from the program.  When it airs and pisses the public off (the show, we are told, "almost destroyed America"), Howard's family abandons him and he is put on trial.  It is implied that Howard may suffer the death penalty if things go poorly at trial, but Howard's lawyer assures him that the program for which he is being prosecuted will soon have imitators.

This story, I guess, is about cultural change, how cultural pioneers present new art forms or "push the envelope" and are denounced at first, but see their innovations quickly absorbed into the mainstream.  Perhaps Malzberg had nudity and violence in films in mind when he wrote this story. (Bonnie and Clyde was released four years before "The Idea" was published, in 1967; it was controversial for its sex, violence, and glorification of crime, but was embraced by filmmakers and the counterculture and ushered in an era of increased sex and violence in cinema.)  Another possible inspiration for Malzberg's story is Lenny Bruce, the comedian who integrated vulgarity and talk about religion, sex and politics into his performances and was convicted of obscenity in 1964, but is widely hailed as a hero by cultural figures.

Malzberg never lets on what Howard's idea was, what the show showed.  Two actors, "kids" who are "big show business names" with the "best bodies available" star in the 30 minute program, so it is hard not to suspect the program consisted of them having sex.

This story is OK, thought-provoking but not very entertaining or emotionally involving.  

"Nightshapes" (1979)

This one first haunted the world in the anthology Werewolf!, edited by Malzberg's friend and collaborator Bill Pronzini.

"Nightshapes" is the diary of an aged college professor who marries a sexy 20-something werewolf!  He is appalled by her crimes, but when she comes home late at night after stalking the moors, murdering people, it is her animal power, the blood on her mouth, that erotically thrills him.  Despite the physical lust and sexual joy her monstrous nature excites in him, he works tirelessly, in secret, to develop a potion that will cure her of her lycanthropic curse.

I liked the relationship between the prof and his wife; she married him on condition that they each be permitted their own private lives, and each pretends the fact that she is a murderous monster is a secret.  Perhaps Malzberg is thinking about how couples, no matter how intimate, always keep secrets, if only secret thoughts, from each other, how every person has a secret life in his or her own mind.  (One's secret mental life may even be a secret from one's self, as the diarist in this story finds.) Another interesting theme in the story is how we married people choose a life partner, and then seek to change them, sometimes even jeopardizing the very things that attracted us to them in the first place.

Somehow the potion, or the revelation that her husband is working against her behind her back, leads the wife to commit suicide.  Then the villagers she has been victimizing come to the house to burn it down and kill the professor.  He realizes that what he really wanted all along, instead of trying to cure his wife, was to become a werewolf himself.  The last lines of the story include a reference to King Lear that all you well-read people will enjoy.

(There are lots of short stories, by Lovecraft and his imitators for example, in which guys are writing in their last moments, recording their feelings as the monster or the enemy is on the other side of a door, about to break in and massacre them.  I hope I have the presence of mind to put out one final blog post if ever there are invincible foes banging at my door.)    

Pretty good.

"Transfer" (1975)

"Transfer" first appeared in an issue of Fantastic with a particularly impressive roster of writers, including Michael Moorcock, R. A Lafferty, and Joe Haldeman as well as Malzberg.  

As in a lot of Malzberg stories, in "Transfer" we have a first-person narrator who is likely insane.  "Transfer" is also one of those stories about how Manhattan is full of lonely people.

Our narrator works as a clerk at a "Bureau," presumably some government agency staffed by people who are ostensibly dedicated public servants helping disadvantaged citizens but in fact lackadaisical clockwatching timeservers collecting vast sums from the taxpayers.  (In my day I was just such a Manhattanite government-employed clockwatcher; Malzberg himself worked for New York City welfare agencies in the early '60s.)  The narrator is a social failure, unable to make friends or attract women.  He also suffers an incredible affliction: at night he transforms into a tentacled monster that haunts the streets, pouncing on innocent strangers and strangling them to death.

One of the story's themes is the ambiguity of responsibility.  At times the narrator strongly suggests that the monster is a different entity altogether, that he is simply a horrified or detached passenger (the word "tenant" is used) in the monster's body as it kills people (up to ten in a single night!)  At other times he admits that he enjoys "the thrill of the hunt" and even that he can control if and when he transforms into the monster.  This reminded me of my own feelings as an employee of a corrupt public entity with a ridiculously cushy and well paid job--I felt some guilt and shame but at the same time rationalized my enjoyment of all that free time and easy money and refused to do the right thing (quitting.)

The nature of the attacks is also ambiguous.  Is he just strangling and breaking people's necks?  Other times it is suggested that the monster feeds on the victims in some way.  And that the narrator, who is sexually frustrated, is raping or otherwise deriving erotic satisfaction from the assaults.  Malzberg also uses words and phrases associated with religion that imply that the monster is some sort of god or priest, and the victims willing sacrifices.  During the attacks, we are told, many victims seem to accept their own deaths; Malzberg hints (remember this story was written during the crime-ridden 1970s) we should see New York City as a city characterized by murder, and to be murdered in the city is to become one with it, perhaps a consummation to be devoutly wished.

The climax of the story is when the narrator attacks, for the first time, a person he knows, an attractive woman from "the Bureau."  She recognizes the narrator, suggesting he is not really a tentacled monster but just an insane killer trying to avoid psychological responsibility for his abominable crimes.  Phrases like "He takes her from behind" (Malzberg characteristically writes this story in the present tense) and "this has been the most satisfying victim of them all" strengthen our suspicion that there is a sexual element to these murders.

I think this is a better than average Malzberg story.  As you can tell, it struck a chord with me, in part because of my own life experiences.  "Transfer" has been widely anthologized, leading me to suspect that I am not the only one to see it as one of Malzberg's superior efforts.  Malzberg is vulnerable to the charge of using the same themes and techniques again and again in story after story, but this time around all those same elements he always uses somehow fit together perfectly--the story feels fresh and is powerful.

It appears that at one point "Transfer" was available for free at the website associated with the science fiction TV channel, one of a collection of "classics" curated by Ellen Datlow.  Via the internet archive you can still access a somewhat disheveled version of its webpage here.      


These stories are all worth reading.  "The Idea" is sort of interesting and "Nightshapes" has good psychological elements, but "Transfer" is particularly strong, both thought-provoking and with compelling psychological elements, a very characteristic Malzberg piece that showcases his strengths and avoids some of the pitfalls his work sometimes falls into.

I've got 94 more stories to read in Sarrantonio and Greenberg's 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories, and I've enjoyed the six I've read already, so don't be surprised when more of them pop up on this here blog!     

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