Monday, January 18, 2016

Three public domain stories by Donald Wollheim

Recently I have been reading fiction by important science-fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Suggesting I am part of some classic genre fiction zeitgeist, SFFaudio took to twitter recently to promote tales by Wollheim available on its terrific PDF page of public domain fiction.  This weekend I checked three of them out, which you too can do, for the low, low, price of zero!

"Blind Flight" (1942)

Wollheim edited all four issues of the short-lived pulp magazine Stirring Science Stories.  According to wikipedia he had no budget for fiction (!) and so he asked his friends to write stories for the magazine for free, and contributed stories himself under pen names.  "Blind Flight" was credited to Millard Verne Gordon.

This is a pretty sciency story. Wollheim posits that interplanetary space is full of cosmic rays that can kill you in seconds (the Earth's atmosphere protects those of us stuck on this dirt ball from these deadly rays) and so man's first space ship, a sphere 100 feet in diameter, has no windows! Earth's first astronaut, a dude name of Sedgwick, sits on a revolving chair in a tiny cockpit in the center of the sphere, surrounded by dials and meters.

Sedgwick, over the course of a few days, flies to within six million miles of Mars, where his ship's automatic sensors record lots of data about the red planet. On the way back to Earth his instruments indicate that something is pursuing him--it can only be an alien space craft!  The bogey is faster than the Earth ship, so Sedgwick cannot escape.  Luckily the Commission on Space Flight had the foresight to install a battery of rapid fire naval artillery on mankind's first spacecraft!

This is a pretty fun story; Wollheim supplies an intriguing premise and does a good job of conveying the experience of being a traveler on a ship with no direct view of the universe beyond the vessel's hull.   Be sure to click on over to SFFaudio and check out Hannes Bok's charming illustrations for "Blind Flight."

"The Unfinished City" (1942)

As you can see indicated on the cover and contents page, Stirring Science Stories has two sections, a SF section and a fantasy section; the fantasy section is apparently meant to be in the Weird Tales vein.  "The Unfinished City" appeared in the same issue of the magazine as "Blind Flight," in the fantasy section, under the Martin Pearson pseudonym, and is adorned with a Bok illustration, a study in lithe male musculature.

This is an atmospheric story that reminds me of something Clark Ashton Smith might do, or an episode from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Woth is a thief who worships Swish, God of Darkness and comes from a society in which stealing is more or less encouraged (as we are told it was in Sparta).  Woth comes to the city of Oo,which lies in a jungle.  The people of Oo worship the god Noom, who is considered perfect. To acknowledge Noom's unique perfection the people of Oo leave a portion of everything they produce, from their buildings to their attire, conspicuously unfinished.

Woth finds that the giant statue of Zoon in the god's temple is covered in invaluable jewels, and as we've seen adventurers do in numerous sword and sorcery tales (Fritz Leiber's "Seven Black Priests" comes to mind) Woth steals one of the jewels from the idol and must face the deity's supernatural vengeance.

This story is OK; the setting is better than the plot.  I didn't feel like the resolution of the plot really jived with the theme of unfinished imperfection as I had expected it to.

"Last Stand of a Space Grenadier" (1954)

Like Wollheim's 1957 novel Across Time, this story was published under the David Grinnell pseudonym.  It appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly, edited by Robert Lowndes.

"Last Stand of a Space Grenadier," set in 20th century America, could easily be an episode of The Twilight Zone or some similar tv program. It is structured as a mystery, with the first person narrator, a newspaper reporter, investigating odd doings among teenage boys who are SF fans--these unusual activities include being hospitalized for mental illness and sudden death!

The journalist discovers that a SF TV show is somehow subconsciously hypnotizing the kids so that their psyches are enlisted by aliens to fight in a space war in some other star system. The boys' souls or whatever you want to call them are used to pilot kamikaze nuclear warhead torpedoes against enemy shipping and planets. This stressful experience is what is causing the kids' mental breakdowns.

This story is just OK. Perhaps it is most valuable for its historical interest, the insight it provides us 21st-century readers into 1950s life and attitudes.  There are its references to SF fan clubs and the Japanese suicide pilots of the Pacific War, and how it expresses fears of the relatively new entertainment technology of television. Skepticism of TV is a theme we see in a number of SF works; we just read an anti-television novel in Frederic Brown's Rogue in Space, and of course two of the SF novels most embraced by the mainstream literary world, George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, portray television in a quite negative light.

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

These stories are not spectacular, but they are entertaining.  There is definitely more Wollheim fiction in my future.  

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Rogue in Space by Frederic Brown

Maybe gambling would be the answer, if he could find an honest game so he could enjoy it.  But finding an honest gambling game in Mars City--or in most other places in the system--was almost as hard as finding anhonest woman.  Maybe there wasn't any such thing.  There was no honesty anywhere, not only not in gambling or women, but not in politics, business or anything else. 

Stalking the aisles of a Des Moines antique mall I spotted this 1971 printing of Frederic Brown's Rogue in Space, a fix-up novel first published in book form in 1957. Even though the last thing I read by Brown, a short story about a man-eating armadillo, was just OK, Brown was championed by big league scribblers Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane and Robert Heinlein, so I felt like he deserved my attention, and that three and a half dollars wasn't too much to pay (though it was close!)

Rogue in Space is set in a dystopian future in which mankind has colonized the solar system.  How dystopian is it?  For starters, Albuquerque is the capital of the solar system!  Besides that, while democratic forms are preserved as a charade, the solar system is corruptly administered by the leading political party, a bunch of commies called "the Guilds," and the second place party, a bunch of fascists known as "the Gilded."  Not only is this society's politics tyrannical, arbitrary and corrupt, its culture is perverse and decadent.  The music is loud, simple and stupid; TV screens are several feet across and broadcast a wide variety of pornography; and homosexuality, voyeurism, prostitution, and necrophilia are rampant and accepted, even embraced, by the elite.  (Obviously Brown in the 1950s and a reader in the 21st century may have different ideas of what constitutes a perversity.)

What characters do we follow in this twisted world Brown has created for us?  Well, our main characters are a rock and a career criminal.  Yes, I said "a rock!"

Brown starts the novel off well with descriptions of his two main characters, who are compelling because they are so unusual.  On the first page of text we are told that life has appeared in the universe in only two places, on Earth and in a far corner of the galaxy, where a planetoid a mile wide achieved consciousness.  This rock is driven by its curiosity to explore the galaxy, and after billions of years of travel it approaches our solar system.

Brown based Rogue in Space on two of his short stories. The rock, which I was so excited to meet in the two-page introductory chapter, did not appear in the first story, "Gateway to Darkness" (printed in Super Science Stories in 1949), and so doesn't appear in this 163-page novel again until page 83.  Luckily we have our second main character to keep us company, a man called Crag.  Crag is a master thief and murderer who kills people with his robotic left hand.  Crag hates women, Crag hates homosexuals, Crag hates everybody, and over the course of the book we see him insult women, vandalize a gay couple's pornography collection, physically assault a male prostitute, and kill police in cold blood.  Crag is what the kids call "a hater."  Does he love anything?  Well, he loves to get drunk on the most exotic and expensive kinds of booze, and we see him do that as well.

Brown wrote crime stories as well as SF, and the first half of Rogue in Space is a crime caper in which Crag does stuff like pick locks, sneak into buildings, escape a prison, and get double-crossed.  The pace is fast, there are lots of cool SF trappings like space suits, space ships, and ray guns, and Crag, being an absolute jerk, is an interesting character, so I enjoyed this first portion of the novel, even if I was eager to get back to the sentient rock.

In that first half Crag falls into the orbit of the foremost politician of the Gilded, a man known as Olliver.  Olliver serves as a judge in Albuquerque, and has contrived to be the judge in a criminal case in which Crag is the defendant.  Olliver and his gorgeous wife Judeth help Crag escape prison and the "psycher," one of those devices we find in SF crime stories which erases your criminal personality and turns you into a law-abiding citizen.  Olliver and Judeth hire Crag to disguise himself and sneak into a genius's fortified laboratory on Mars to steal a disintegrator.  This device is so powerful it can disintegrate entire planets!  Olliver and Judeth have been telling Crag they want the disintegrator to finance the founding of a new political party, one which is sincerely devoted to democracy.  But when the three of them are on an asteroid, there to test the disintegrator, Olliver reveals that he doesn't really want to restore good government--he plans to use the disintegrator to become dictator of the solar system! Judeth and Crag won't stand for this, and kill Olliver.  Crag and Judeth admit they have a thing for each other, but have no opportunity to consummate their relationship because they are stranded on the asteroid, their ship having drifted away during the excitement.  First Judeth, and then Crag, run out of oxygen and die!

Us law-abiding types are always relieved when murderers and thieves like Crag die at the end of stories.  Justice has been served by the cosmos!  But wait!  My hero the sentient rock appears and brings Crag back to life as the second half of the novel (that corresponding to the second Crag story, "Gateway to Glory" from Amazing in 1950) begins!  Rock, what are you doing?  Maybe, as a rock who has never before encountered life, my hero doesn't know the difference between good and evil yet, and doesn't realize he should be using his godlike powers (he can manipulate any amount of matter at the atomic level) to provide restitution to Crag's victims, not bring Crag back to life?  Or maybe the rock knows that one should, as the kids say, "not hate the player, but hate the game."        

Apparently believing Crag is good on the inside, and has devoted his life to stealing, killing and drinking because of his environment (society made him do it!), the rock wants to be Crag's friend!  But instead of being thrilled by this First Contact, Crag tells the rock to leave him alone and flies back to Mars (the rock has summoned the ship back) to spend the money Olliver paid him on booze!  But Crag doesn't enjoy being rich; Brown does a good job of portraying a man who finds a life without risks or goals to be lacking.  While Crag is moping around bars and hotels, the rock alters the orbits of every asteroid in the asteroid belt so that they coalesce into a new planet! The government tries to investigate the new world, but is prevented by force fields and other phenomena.  The rock has made the planet for Crag, even manipulating the brain of the scientist who names the new heavenly body so that he will christen it "Cragon!"

Crag has made friends with a fellow criminal.  When this joker gets cornered by the fuzz during a jewel heist, Crag rescues him and, along with the jewel thief's cronies, they fly to Cragon, which they find to be a paradise!  No cops, no TV, no booze, no people, just the chance to start a new world, a place to build adobe huts, hunt and fish, sit and watch the fire and the stars.  To misanthrope Crag, disillusioned with the life of luxury that money can buy and disgusted by the pervasive sexual perversity of Earth and Mars, this may sound like a paradise (he realizes he doesn't need booze out here, that he used to get drunk to escape the pressures of human society) but the jewel thief and his hangers on don't want to live a primitive existence.  They take the ship and leave Crag alone, but Crag is not alone for long--the rock is able to recreate Judeth! Crag and Judeth live happily ever after on Cragon, watched over by the rock.  

1957 hardcover
Rogue In Space is pretty good.  Isn't part of the attraction of science fiction crazy characters, crazy settings and crazy capers?  Well, Brown delivers with main characters who are an intelligent rock and a murderous bigot who, we are supposed to believe, is a good person warped by an evil society, their bizarre relationship, and a depiction of (what Brown thinks is) a sick civilization.

Should we think of Rogue in Space as a satire of post-war life and society, or a warning that American society was headed in the wrong direction ?  Did Brown think 1950s pop culture was insipid and potentially a powerful negative influence?  That criminals, as rebels against society, are no worse, and perhaps better, than the rich and powerful, who are selfish and corrupt?  That the post-war boom was making life, which had been so challenging during the Depression and war years, dull, and making people soft, susceptible to decadence?  These kinds of questions add an additional level of interest to the novel, which already is a satisfying crime/adventure story about a man redeemed by friendship.  (Speaking of redemption, should we think of Rogue in Space as a Christian story, with the rock as God or his Son?)

I'd definitely recommend Rogue in Space--Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane and Robert Heinlein did not steer me wrong!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Across Time by Donald A. Wollheim (as David Grinnell)

Carl turned hastily to his brother.  "You don't know what you're doing! Stop him!"
But Zack was standing at the visual ball, watching the development of events.  Sylvia stood a little behind him, fascinated by the scene.

I recently enjoyed some horror stories written by Donald A. Wollheim, the famed editor of science fiction and fantasy.  When I realized I had a novel by Wollheim sitting right there on the shelf, hiding under the pseudonym "David Grinnell," I quickly moved it to the top of the "to-be-read" pile.  My copy of Across Time is the 1968 Ace paperback edition; the novel first appeared in 1957 in hardcover.  My copy includes a fun "checklist" of "recommended Ace science-fiction" in the back, which consists of ten pages of ads.

Across Time starts with some relationship drama.  Military pilot Zack Halleck was fighting for freedom in the skies over Korea (or, as your college professor might put it, serving as a dupe of Wall Street bankers in their ruthless efforts to preserve the U$A's access to the lucrative Asian market) when he was shot down behind enemy lines. When Zack finally got back to America he found that his girlfriend, Sylvia, thinking him dead, had married his older brother, Carl, the physicist and engineer!

Zack threw himself into work as a test pilot in order to put this Claudius-style treachery out of his mind.  When his experimental plane was brought down by a UFO, Zack was assigned to work with a research team investigating just such UFOs, one lead by Carl and Sylvia Halleck!  As the novel begins Zack is riding a train bound for the Oregon town where he and Carl grew up in a big farmhouse which Carl has converted to a radar research center.

I was worried that all this soap opera jazz might overpower the science fiction and adventure aspects of the novel, as interpersonal histrionics took over two SF novels by big names written in roughly the same period as Across Time, Algis Budrys' Rogue Moon and Judith Merrill's Tomorrow People.  So I was relieved when Sylvia and Carl vanished during a UFO encounter twenty pages in.  Five pages later Zack, in a flash, is transported one million years into the future where he meets our descendents! (Well, maybe your descendents; I don't have any children.)

One million years in the future, humankind has evolved into a race of creatures of pure energy, globes which float serenely from star to star, getting all the sustenance they need directly from "the cosmos."  Most globe-people are aloof from material concerns and refuse to interfere with the galaxy's material-based civilizations, but a minority of them, the Quoxians, have set themselves up as gods and rulers of a small portion of the galaxy, where they are worshipped by various nonhuman races of differing technological and social development.  The Quoxians and the majority of humanity are involved in a sort of cold war (cold war is a major theme of the novel) which the Quoxian dissidents are destined to lose unless they come up with some advantage over the majority in short order.

It seems that the Quoxians have recently come up with just such an advantage.  Zack is told that the Quoxians have figured out how to send robots back in time and are trying to meddle with the history of the 20th century!  To this end they kidnapped Carl and Sylvia, and tried, but failed, to kidnap Zack. The representatives of the majority of the globe-people take the last space warship (it was commissioned in the year 237,000 A. D.) out of mothballs and provide it to Zack so he can sally forth and rescue his brother and his former girlfriend.

Perhaps in order to extend his story to novel length (my edition has 145 pages of text), Wollheim includes an interlude in which, before blasting off to rescue Carl and Sylvia, Zack spends some months among the nonhuman intelligent species which evolved from primates to take over the Earth after humanity abandoned it.  These people, the seroomi, have a technological and social level similar to that of 20th century humans, and are even engaged in a cold war of their own.  The seroomi know nothing about the human race, and the appearance of Zack causes a ruckus.  Some think he is a dangerous space alien or a spy from the other side in the cold war, and demagogic politicians rouse angry mobs against Zack.  The globe-humans spirit Zack away before he can be lynched, and Wollheim uses one of my least favorite SF literary devices to clear up the whole seroomi plot: the globe-people erase from the minds of every seroomi in the world all memory of Zack!

The appearance of Zack could have revolutionized seroomi civilization--causing a paradigm shift in seroomi thinking, touching off an atomic war, something interesting like that.  Instead Wollheim makes us think the 30 or 40 pages we spent among the seroomi were a waste of time because the seroomi don't even remember Zack was there!  Annoying!

1957 hardcover that surprisingly focuses on the
20th century scenes instead of the space ships
and weird life forms of the far future
The robot starship takes Zack to the corner of the Milky Way where the Quoxians are worshipped as gods, and the ship easily finds Carl and Sylvia, who in fact are neither hidden nor under guard.  Carl has been pampered by the Quoxians, and resents Zack's "rescue."  Carl explains that the majority of globe-people are "individualists," while the Quoxians realize that the way to achieve ultimate power, to reshape the galaxy and achieve the final goal of science, is for humans to link their minds together. Carl is eager to add his genius to the effort to achieve this mass galaxy-wide mind, but Zack is having none of it, and Sylvia sides with Zack in short order. The three head back towards Earth, the Quoxians and their worshippers' war vessels in hot pursuit.

Space battles between Zack's invincible ship and swarms of alien craft ensue.  Carl sabotages the ship, but this only causes a temporary disruption.  When the Quoxians attack with their most powerful unit, a mass of linked minds, it is revealed that the individualistic globe-people updated the year 237,000 ship with year 1,000,000 technology to counter just such a threat.  The final explosion even has been calibrated by the globemen to throw the protagonists and the ship back to the 20th century, where they can destroy all the Quoxian robots and foil the Quoxian effort to change history.  Carl, loyal to the Quoxians, steals a lifeboat and tries to join the Quoxian robots, but the robots mistakenly blow him away. The human race is saved, and now Zack and Sylvia can get married.    

I have mixed feelings about Across Time.  I liked the robot starship and the space battles; Wollheim vividly describes the ship and all its futuristic functions and abilities, and actually gives it a fun personality.  The ship is actually the most interesting and likable character in the book!  But the novel also has real problems.

Readers of this blog have perhaps heard me complain about fiction in which the main characters are spectators instead of drivers of the plot.  Across Time suffers severely from this problem.  Zack listens to page after page of science and history lectures from Carl and the globemen, he's carried hither and thither against his will by tractor beams and energy fields, he's a passenger in a space ship run by a robot who does all the navigating and fighting for Zack.  There is scene after scene of Zack looking out a window or at a viewscreen, observing instead of acting--the very first page has him looking out the window of a train.

I can't recall any scene in which Zack grabs a weapon and fights somebody, seizes a tool and fixes something, figures his way out of a puzzle or convinces somebody to do something to help him. Just about every time there is trouble it is a deus ex machina that gets him out of it--the globe-people or the invincible spaceship defeat his enemies or whisk him away from danger again and again.  The rivalry between Zack and his brother Carl isn't concluded by a physical or intellectual struggle between them, or by any decision or action of Zack's, it is solved by the villains killing Carl by mistake. Zack's abilities or decisions don't matter to the story, it is always some godlike force which directs him where to go or pulls his fat out of the fire.

(The few times Zack does hold the controls, things tend to go wrong, like when the experimental aircraft he is flying crashes, or when he is at the radar controls in Oregon when Carl and Sylvia get captured--Zack thinks maybe he could have prevented his brother and sister-in-law from being captured if he had chosen to turn off the radar as the UFOs were closing in.)

1958 paperback printing as one component of an Ace Double
Wollheim tries to do some psychological stuff about how Carl was insecure even though he was a genius and was driven by jealousy of Zack, but this part of the story falls flat.  The novel doesn't convey Zack's or Carl's emotions, even though it sets up obsession-with-science and tragic-love-affair elements.  What Sylvia sees in either brother was also beyond me.

An interesting way to look at Across Time is as an artifact of or commentary on the Cold War.  As a Korean War veteran Zack personally played a direct role in the struggle between the liberal West and the communist regimes based in Moscow and Beijing.  The unsatisfying interlude among the seroomi is an obvious allegory of Red Scares and McCarthyism in America (the seroomi society Zack spends time in has private property, a free press, elected government and an independent judiciary, so makes sense as a stand in for the US or the West generally.)  The struggle among the energy-based humans of the Year One Million is between an individualistic "hands-off" faction and a collectivist tyrannical faction, and Zack compares the Quoxians to Stalin (as well as to Hitler and Napoleon.)  And the conflict between Carl and Zack, an emotionally consuming rivalry which doesn't quite escalate to violent physical confrontation, is also much like a cold war.  

While all these references to the Cold War are there, Wollheim doesn't do much with them.  Wollheim purposefully avoids ideological issues, both in the 20th century and in his imagined future.  Words like  "Russia," "Soviet Union," "communism" and "socialism" don't appear in the book, and the other side in the seroomi cold war receives almost no description.  Zack and Carl both are lectured (off screen) by globe-people about the conflict between the mainstream energy humans and the minority Quoxians, but both Oregonians admit to being unable to comprehend the dispute:
Exactly what the nature of this debate was, Zachary was unable to ascertain.  The philosophy of beings half a million years ahead of his own time, whose knowledge was infinitely greater than his, was something that Halleck could not grasp. [63]
Carl paused, concentrating on his words.  "Now it wasn't easy for the Quoxians to make clear to me just what the root of the difference is."  [102]
Maybe Wollheim is simply avoiding the issue, but could it be that he is suggesting that conflict between people is inevitable due to human nature and that the ideological differences that appear to trigger such conflicts are actually not that important, may even be mere rationalizations of elites which ordinary people aren't even equipped to understand?

I'm beginning to suspect that the true theme of the novel is that most or all of us are at the mercy of forces beyond our control or comprehension, that the course of our lives is not determined by our own decisions or abilities at all.  Carl is driven by mental illness and Zack just does what he is told and succeeds due to the (repeated) interference of incomprehensibly powerful allies.

I'm afraid I have to give Across Time a (marginal) down vote.  Long stretches of it are boring (lectures) or inconsequential (the seroomi.)  The robotic space warship is fun, but the novel fails as an adventure story because there is no tension and the main character has no agency.  The psychological drama and political/social elements are underdone.  Across Time is a disappointment.    

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.      

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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!     

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.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Three late 1970s stories by Philip Jose Farmer about sex and excrement

In our last episode we looked at three stories by Philip Jose Farmer which appeared in the 1960s in If, and then were collected in Down in the Black Gang. Today let's advance to the 1970s and check out some stories by Farmer which appear in the 1979 collection Riverworld and Other Stories.  (An earlier version of "Riverworld" also appears in Down in the Black Gang; the version in this later volume is much longer.)   I bought my copy of Riverworld and Other Stories at a Des Moines Salvation Army, along with three other paperbacks, including Andrew Offut's The Iron Lords.

I chose these three stories to read because of their jokey titles.  "J. C. on the Dude Ranch" made its first (and, according to isfdb, its only English) appearance in this volume.  "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol" and "The Leaser of Two Evils" first appeared in Playboy.

"J. C. on the Dude Ranch" (1979)

Farmer wrote this story after Robert Bloch, author of Psycho and Lori, made up the title as a joke in a letter to Farmer; so Farmer tells us in the intro to the story.

This story is as ludicrous as you would expect from the premise, full of lame puns and crude sex jokes, told in the voice of a ranch hand whose hobbies consist of getting drunk and having sex with whores.  After he introduces himself the narrator begins his tale by informing us that one day a guy drove up to the ranch in a humble white pickup and gave his name as J. C. Marison, thus exploding any suspicions the reader had that this story was about Julius Caesar or John Carter.  Marison is soon followed by a guy in a black Cadillac who calls himself Bales Bub.  Both Marison and Bub, we are told, have exceedingly large crotches!  (In 1964 Damon Knight dared to consider the size and perfection of God's nose and snot, but Farmer in 1979 brings such thinking to its logical conclusion and envisages the prodigious size and character of Christ's genitalia.)

J. C. is there to work on the ranch (among other tasks he turns tap water into vodka, whiskey and gin) while Bub is there to seize the ranch because its owner is overdue on loans to New York bankers.  Or so they say.  After a graphic and bizarre sex scene involving Bub and a Mrs. Lott from New York, J. C. captures Bub and reveals that he and Bub are aliens on opposite sides of an interstellar war.  The war over, no aliens will ever visit Earth again.

Irreverent, pornographic, and stupid, I'm not surprised Farmer didn't get this into a magazine or anthology.  Based on any logical or objective criteria I would have to give "J. C. on the Dude Ranch" a down vote, but since it is so breathtakingly, so audaciously, odd, I have to admit I found it entertaining as a bewildering curiosity. Reading it reminded me of flipping through old underground comix full of caricatured male nudity and dumb jokes told at the expense of establishment beliefs and mainstream culture, jokes the writers thought were "brave" if not actually funny.   Those interested in Farmer's career should probably seek it out as a window into Farmer's unbridled id.  

"The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol" (1977)

In an intro Farmer tells us he came up with the title "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol" and then built a story around it.  I'm a fan of Miller's, and so was curious about this story.  I was also curious about the DIY "paper starship" advertised on the cover of the issue of Playboy in which this story first appeared.  When I found reproductions of the project online, I was surprised by how discotastically lame it looked.  On the plus side, it apparently is an actual paper airplane that is meant to glide from one end of your bachelor pad to the other while you are lounging about in your smoking jacket listening to jazz records and swishing brandy in a snifter.

Like "J. C. on the Dude Ranch" this story includes graphic descriptions of the male sex organ and jokes about people shitting their pants.  Our hero is in a nursing home, a veteran of air combat in World War One.  While most of the inmates lay in bed in their own excrement, our hero is still virile, and he stalks the corridors at night, meeting and having sex with female patients and staff members.  These encounters are described allegorically as dogfights between early 20th century aircraft:  "...the Hispano-Suiza in his chest thumped... her motor cowlings were still shapely...her widespread legs guided him like landing-strip lights...."--you get the picture.  Much of this sexual intercourse, especially by 2016 standards, has be considered "rapey," the women mentally incompetent, asleep or even unconscious from a blow to the head.

If you want to read jocular accounts of 60-plus-year-old amputees and incontinents having sex without the benefit of affirmative consent, here is your chance. At least three things happen in this story that I feel are too yucky for me to describe, but are surprising and memorable.

Far more clever than "J. C. on the Dude Ranch," and essentially realistic, if off-the-wall, I can recommend this one to people who are immune from being shocked, or enjoy being shocked.  The story also suggests that Farmer was well read on the topic of First World War aviation.  


"The Leaser of Two Evils" (1979)

As with the last story, Farmer thought of this title and then came up with a story to match it.

"The Leaser of Two Evils" is a satire of conventional morality, making the common charge that people who loudly espouse particular values are likely to be hypocrites and perhaps more evil than the people they denounce.  Its star is a police detective, John Healey, who suffers multiple personality disorder.  By day he raids brothels and pornographic bookstores, and eschews tobacco, drugs, and alcohol.  By night his other personality, his "sister," takes over.  "Jane" Healy puts on dresses and wigs, smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish, writes and publishes pornographic science fiction stories, and has anal sex (in the receptive role) with strange men.  On a typical morning John wakes up to find his mouth tasting "as if it had been used for an ashtray" and that "his anus was sore and dribbling stickiness."

A sizable proportion of this story is made up of excerpts from one of Jane's novels, a book about a mad scientist who makes artificial penises, and the analysis of this novel by John's psychotherapist.  There are bad puns and jokes about human fecal matter. The plot is resolved when we learn that John, as a child, raped and murdered his real sister and her pet dog, and John begins playing the role of the dead dog, walking about on all fours and licking people's faces.

It was a stretch endorsing the last two tales, and this one has their vulgarity and grotesquery without their interesting or amusing idiosyncrasies.  Thumbs down.

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All three of these stories are essentially extended dirty jokes meant to ├ępater les bourgeois.  There is no way I could claim these stories are good, but as artifacts on the periphery of the world of genre literature they are perhaps worthy of some interest.  I can at least report that they are mercifully short.