Saturday, January 2, 2016

Three horror stories by Donald A. Wollheim

Who can deny that this life is a hellish nightmare?  The world is full of communists, Nazis, jihadis, pirates, thieves, rapists and murderers.  And even if we weren't surrounded by people who wanted to tell us what to do, harm us, and steal our stuff, we'd still be crushed under the weight of questions about whether our parents were proud of us, if we deserved the love of those we love, and how much of our lives we had wasted on mistakes and nonsense.  And then there is the knowledge that, in the face of inevitable death, our lives are meaningless.

I think this dreadful reality is one of the reasons for the popularity of horror stories.  Obviously, vampires, werewolves, and demons are not real, but stories which feature them can be emotionally true because we really are menaced by danger and hounded by mysteries, doubts and regrets every moment of our lives.  A story with a happy ending, no matter how "realistic" it is, is a lie, because there are no happy endings in real life; for the individual there is only the grave, for the society only collapse, for the universe only oblivion.  A real horror story doesn't lie to you.

At Half-Price Books recently I purchased a hardcover anthology of horror stories edited by Al Sarrantonio (remember, he edited Redshift) and Martin H. Greenberg (he edited a lot of anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on them, as well as a million other things) called 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories.  It was on the clearance shelf and cost two dollars--that's 2 pennies a story!  I bought it because it includes many stories by people with whom I am familiar, people about whom I have written on this blog before.  I decided to start with Donald A. Wollheim, the man who edited so many books I have enjoyed, both at Ace and DAW.  Wollheim is a hero as an editor of SF--let's see what he can do as a writer of horror tales.

"Babylon: 70 M." (1963)

This story is based on a Mother Goose rhyme I don't recall ever hearing before, "To Babylon."  Looking around online, I realize there are dozens of Mother Goose verses I've never heard before.  My education is full of these gaps.  

In Wollheim's story a scholar in a college town in America is examining an unusual piece of Babylonian pottery.  Through flashes of insight that are perhaps a terrible psychic trap, he realizes how to use the pot to spirit walk (or something) to a desert ruin, presumably the site of Babylon.  But the clues on the pot that helped him unlock its magic also provided a warning he ignored, of a horrible monster awaiting those who would dare use the pot's extraordinary power.

Not bad.  This brief tale first appeared in The Magazine of Horror, a magazine I never heard of before that included new stories (like this one) and reprints of old tales by such writers as Frank Belknap Long and Mark Twain.

"Give Her Hell" (1969)

This is one of those first person stories with an unsympathetic narrator.  The narrator beats his daughter, strips his wife naked and whips her with a strap, and bribes doctors to give his daughter electric shock treatments.  He insists that a man must be master of his home and its female inhabitants.  Wollheim lays it on pretty thick, and one wonders if he means the story to be a feminist denunciation of women's oppression, a lurid sensationalist piece that appeals to prurient readers, or both.  The narrator, a crooked businessman, also expresses class snobbery, skepticism of lawyers, and a belief that society has fallen into decadence.  Presumably this is leftist Wollheim's idea, or caricature, of what a conservative is like.

I said Wollheim was laying it on thick, didn't I?  After his wife leaves him, the narrator sacrifices his wife's cat to the Devil, summoning Lucifer and selling his soul to Satan.  In return Satan promises to kill the narrator's business partner and ensure his control over his wife and daughter.  Our narrator believes in reincarnation (!), and so he also negotiates for a second life; Satan agrees to make sure he will be born anew in a different body.  Satan follows through on the deal, but crafty Old Scratch pulls the old switcheroo on the narrator--he will come back to life in the past, as his own daughter, doomed to suffer all the tortures he has meted out to her.

According to wikipedia, in his youth Wollheim was a commie who thought the point of science fiction was to help impose a technocratic world government on us poor slobs.  Later in his publishing career, in pursuit of the almighty buck, Wollheim unethically and perhaps illegally published the first U.S. edition of Lord of the Rings against the wishes of J. R. R. Tolkien, ruthlessly tinkered with authors' work, and published lots of exploitative politically incorrect books such as those written by John Norman and Sharon Green.  I think you can see the same paradoxical tensions that you see in Wollheim's career in "Give Her Hell," a story which both denounces a sexist middle-class businessman and revels in the details of his erotically-tinged crimes.

"Give Her Hell," which is fun and interesting, first appeared in a collection of Wollheim stories, Two Dozen Dragon Eggs, which has a terrific blurb on the cover declaring Wollheim a "famous sci-fi celebrity" who writes "literary classics" like John Collier.        

"The Rag Thing" (1951)

This is one of those stories that portrays New York City as a terrible place where friendless factory workers and fresh young people from the country with dreams that will never be fulfilled live in dirty crumbling boarding houses.  It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In this tale the lazy landlady of the dirty boarding house drops a rag with dried blood from the kitchen on it behind a leaky radiator.  (We had these kind of cast iron steam radiators in my parents' house, and I have a nostalgic fondness for all the hissing and banging they would do.  When they were cool we would use them as shelves, and once we lay crayons on one, crayons which melted and decorated the radiator when the heat eventually came on.)

The heat, blood, moisture, etc, result in a one-in-a-million chemical reaction that brings the rag to life!  Instead of happily adding a tile to the gorgeous mosaic of diversity that is New York City, the rag crawls around murdering people as they lie in bed!  First the aforementioned friendless factory worker, then one of those young dreamers who has come to New York to seek his fortune.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, I loved living in Manhattan and find life during my exile in the Middle West to be boring and depressing, and so I love that the "real" topic of this story is New York life.  Wollheim's portrait of New York is relentlessly negative, describing the city as oppressive and filthy, a real slough of despond--romantic views of New York, we learn, are a scam and the city is in fact a trap for the naive and a dungeon full of the unloved, the dirty, the incompetent.  The wacky science Wollheim uses to explain the monster and his descriptions of its attacks are also fun.

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I liked all three of these stories, even though each follows a sort of conventional form (ancient artifact awakens killer monster; guy makes a bad bargain with the Devil; esoteric scientific event gives birth to killer monster.)  Wollheim is a competent writer who paces the stories well and adds starkly drawn characters and interesting themes to each tale's traditional template; "Give Her Hell" and "The Rag Thing" generate a pervasive, palpable atmosphere, the kind of thing I admire and enjoy in fiction.

As I reported on twitter, while in New Jersey in the last days of December I purchased two novels by Wollheim, and now I am really looking forward to them (alas, they are already deep in a storage unit, so it will be weeks before I see them again.)  Luckily I have here in MPorcius HQ a novel written by Wollheim under a pseudonym; I didn't realize the book was actually penned by him until looking at the wikipedia page on Wollheim today.  This I will read soon!

In our next episode more "hair-raising little horror stories" selected by Sarrantonio and Greenberg.  Hopefully they will be as good as Wollheim's contributions.

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