Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth by Richard Lupoff, Basil Copper and Ramsey Campbell

Today we're reading three Lovecraftian tales from Stephen Jones's 2005 anthology Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth.  In our last episode we read stories by British writers Basil Copper and Ramsey Campbell that appeared in Jones's 1994 anthology Shadows Over Innsmouth, and today we take another crack at Copper and Campbell, and throw American Richard A. Lupoff into the mix.

I am reading the electronic version of the 2013 Titan books edition of Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth, made available to those of us serving time in Maryland by the Baltigore County Public Library.

"Brackish Water" by Richard A. Lupoff (2005)

Lupoff is a scholar who has written extensively about genre fiction icon Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as the history of comics; he has also penned lots of fiction.  The critics love his Space War Blues sequence; back in 2017 I read an early component of this project, "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama," a satire of Southerners (Lupoff is from New York City) that features an interstellar race war in which black scientists make zombies out of captured rednecks.  In the years prior to experiencing that "dangerous vision" I read Lupoff's novels Crack in the Sky (a dystopia about pollution and overpopulation with a multi-racial cast that Lupoff padded out with long discussions of his scholarly interests) and Sandworld (the story of college-educated white political activists protecting blacks and Hispanics from the abuses of a white ethnic cop...on another planet.)  I wasn't exactly crazy about this material, but I'm willing to read "Brackish Water" to see if Lupoff uses Lovecraftian settings and themes to further lecture us about racism and pollution.

DATELINE: The San Francisco Bay Area, during World War II.  College professor Delbert Marston is one of the world's best marine geologists, and the most eligible bachelor on the Berkeley campus!  For some reason his closest friend is an elderly spinster, the academic who mentored him.  She convinces him to forgo a concert (Marston loves classical music) to attend a meeting of a club of goofy college students.  These weirdies, The New Deep Ones Society of the Pacific, believe that the fish people described in Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth" are real!  Even crazier, they are split into two factions: the faction that thinks the Deep Ones are mankind's implacable enemies and the faction that wants to make friends with the amphibian aliens!

Marston tells them that Lovecraft stories aren't real and leaves the meeting early, but the next part of the story reveals to us that his mother was an avid swimmer who disappeared beneath the waves when he was young, and, sure enough, Marston's body begins to change so that he only feels comfortable when underwater and develops a taste for raw sea food!  He becomes a virtual recluse, sneaking off to swim in the bay at night and working hard all day advising the Navy on anti-submarine defenses.  (I guess this guy doesn't have to teach classes--sweet gig!)

Marston is given the job of advising the Navy on the safest route out of Port Chicago for the ship carrying the atomic bomb.  Lupoff mentions repeatedly that there are many black enlisted personnel working at Port Chicago, all of whose officers are white.  In the story's final scene Marston is swimming underwater near the ship upon which the A-bomb is being loaded, and spots other fish people, like the one he is becoming.  It looks like they are planting a mine on the bottom of the A-bomb ship!  As foreshadowed at the meeting of The New Deep Ones Society of the Pacific and in an offhand remark by a naval officer, somebody, presumably one or all of the German, Japanese and American governments, has allied with or suborned some Deep Ones!  There is a terrible explosion in which Marston and presumably the Deep Ones frogmen are killed.

Lupoff appends a "Historical Note" about the real life disaster at Port Chicago, mentioning the theory (dismissed by the authorities) that the U. S. government intentionally detonated an atomic bomb there as a test, using the black servicemen there as guinea pigs.  I guess Lupoff wants us to sympathize with the Deep Ones and see them as exploited by land-dwellers, treated as expendable second-class citizens, the way blacks are mistreated by whites in America.  By making the fish people sympathetic (and downplaying the practices, like worship of an alien god and human sacrifice, that characterize them in the source material) we may judge Lupoff to be turning his back on major Lovecraft themes, even betraying Lovecraft's vision, but I suspect what he is really doing is following the Lovecraftian template but sliding the United States government into the "inscrutable and/or evil alien entity with irresistible power" slot usually occupied by the likes of Dagon or Cthulhu!  (Maybe the painful memory of doing my 2017 taxes is inclining me to this interpretation!)   

"Brackish Water" has some problems; in particular, some elements that end up not really going anywhere receive more ink than perhaps they deserve, making the story too long.  Marston's relationship with his mentor, for example, gets a lot of attention early on but then is just dropped, leaving a sort of loose end.  (I wonder if Lupoff included in the story a likable woman scientist in a position of authority to demonstrate his commitment to diversity; if so his options for resolving her relationship with Marston would be limited--he couldn't have them have sex or have Marston cause her death without undercutting his feminist message and/or his larger sympathy-for-the-alien message.)  Lupoff also engages in lots of discussion of San Francisco geography and architecture, 1930s automobiles (Marston has a 1937 Cord Phaeton) and classical music; maybe this is just padding, but it does sort of give a strong sense of time and place, and of course in Lovecraft's original story there is lots of talk about architecture and objets d'art.  I was kind of expecting a scene in which Marston was torn over joining the Deep Ones because it would mean abandoning forever the music he loved, or a scene in which he learned that the Deep Ones have their own complex and sophisticated music--as with the mentor, I feel like this music business constitutes a lost opportunity or loose end.

Despite these problems, I'm giving "Brackish Water" a mild recommendation because Lupoff does a good job of describing Marston's physical and psychological transformation into a fish person, and because making the Deep Ones good and the US government evil, flipping the script of Lovecraft's "Shadows Over Innsmouth," is outside-the-box thinking that deserves some recognition and adds some welcome variety when you are reading ten or a dozen Lovecraftian pieces in a row, as I am.

"Brackish Water" would go on to be included in two Lupoff collections, Visions and The Doom That Came To Dunwich.

"Voices in the Water" by Basil Copper (2005) 

Roberts is a London-based painter; largely thanks to the work of his wife, a talented salesperson and indefatigable woman of business who travels all over Europe and America selling his work to galleries and wealthy clients, he has made quite a bit of money.  The couple decides to buy a huge 16th-century mill out in the country and convert it into a studio, gallery and living space.

2005 edition cover
With his wife so often out of the country selling his work, Roberts spends lots of time alone in his  huge new house, and the sound of the river flowing beneath his studio begins to get on his nerves.  He begins to hear voices in the "constant rush of the water," voices saying things like "Come to us!" and "Eternal life awaits!" and "Iä-Ryleh! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä!"  His buddy Kent, writer of detective stories, comes over sometimes, but not very often.  In the closing pages of the story Kent visits the mill late at night at the behest of the police, to identify Roberts's body--it lies in the studio, by the open hatch above the rushing river, torn apart and drained of blood.

"Voices in the Water" is reasonably well-written and well-structured, Roberts, his wife (cleverly named "Gilda") and Kent are interesting enough characters, and the idea of hearing voices in presumptively white noise is a good one.  Most of the story is in the third-person, but there are entries from Roberts's diary.  (I thought it amusing that in his personal diary Roberts was punctilious enough to include the diaeresis in "Iä!")  What exactly is going on is perhaps a little muddled, though.  The voices imply that Roberts is one of the Deep Ones, like the narrator of Lovecraft's original story or Marston in Lupoff's contribution to Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (they say, among other things, "You are one of us and we are reclaiming you!") but then why murder him?  I'm guessing that the body was not Roberts's at all, but a decoy; earlier in the story it is mentioned that a canoe was found overturned in the river and that no sign of its occupants was ever recovered.  The problem with my theory is that Kent identifies the body, but I guess references to the fact that some of Roberts's face is missing and that Gilda won't be asked to look at the body are clues that we can't trust Kent's identification.

I'm willing to give this one a mild recommendation.

On the last page of "Voices in the Water" Roberts's last painting is mentioned; we are told it is "vile" and depicts "some loathsome thing."  I decided to reread Lovecraft's famous story "Pickman's Model," to look for possible connections between it and Copper's story, written almost 80 years later.

"Pickman's Model" by H. P. Lovecraft (1927)

"Pickman's Model" has appeared in many
publications, including this British
 collection with a Richard Powers cover 
"Pickman's Model" is presented to us as the transcription of one side of a conversation, a Bostonian art lover telling one of his cronies about his relationship with Pickman, a painter of the macabre who has since disappeared.  Pickman's work was so horrifying that before he died many of his fellow artists and patrons of the arts had stopped seeing him socially (this was before James Carville published his magnum opus, kids.)  Our narrator was one of the last to drop him, and it wasn't because of how twisted and disgusting Pickman's art was--"Morbid art doesn't shock me, and when a man has the genius Pickman had I feel it an honour to know him....Boston never had a greater painter...." The narrator goes on to explain just why he dropped Pickman.

Pickman had a second, secret, studio in an old and slummy part of Boston, one where "foreigners" and "Dagoes" live.  "I've got a place that I don't believe three living Nordic men besides myself have ever seen."  He took our narrator to this dilapidated shack to show him his most extreme work ("I've let myself go a bit"), explaining that he believes you have to paint terror from life, just as you paint beauty from life, and this place is where "terror lives."

Lovecraft spends a lot of time describing these horrifying paintings, which depict monsters in historical and contemporary Boston slum and cemetery settings.  These monsters are shown murdering or eating people, among other things (one is an elaborate bit of gallows humor) in exacting detail.  The narrator stresses that these canvases are not in the least bit romantic, impressionistic or dream-like, but remarkably realistic--they bring to life an unacknowledged world that thrives under Boston in centuries-old tunnels, a world of ghouls who feed on the freshly-buried dead and occasionally ambush the living.  Then comes the punchline we have all been expecting for many pages--on his visit to the slum studio our narrator came face to face with evidence that Pickman, via the big hatch in his cellar studio, had access to this all too real world of man-eating monsters and was painting his most shocking work from photographs he himself took in those tunnels and graveyards.

Like Pickman in "Pickman's Model," Roberts in "Voices in the Water" had a cellar studio with a hatch to a dark subterranean world, and both artists disappeared into that world.  Copper's story certainly seems like it was influenced by Lovecraft's; perhaps it constitutes an homage.

"Raised by the Moon" by Ramsey Campbell (2001)

Isfdb lists this as a 2001 story, but doesn't list any places of publication before Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth in 2005.  (A mystery!)  Since 2005 it has been included in some collections and anthologies with sad sad amateurish covers.

Bill Grant is a grad student or something, driving near the seashore when his poorly-maintained automobile conks out near an almost abandoned fishing village.  He lodges with a working-class couple, Tom and Fiona, while he waits for a mechanic, based twenty miles away, to arrive the next morning.  The man of the house, a failed fisherman, blames the use of automobiles and electricity by the middle-classes for the dearth of fish and the village's bleak fate.

It transpires that the couple have an alliance or modus vivendi with the local Deep Ones--the fish people permit the last two humans in the village to eat dead Deep Ones.  Fiona feeds some Deep One flesh to Grant, and this, I think, begins the process of turning the young academic into a fishman himself!  As a fishman Grant will serve as, it seems, Fiona's surrogate child and perhaps a future source of food?

"Raised by the Moon" is a verbose story, full of long wordy descriptions of scenery and buildings and such, but I found Campbell's long sentences to be opaque jumbles of words rather than brushstrokes that conjured up vivid images.  With deliberate irony Campbell's characters all speak with cryptic brevity, something the author takes pains to point out to us readers.

The plot of "Raised by the Moon" is fine, if slight, but the style made it something of a slog--I feel like it requires more work than is justified by the pay off.  I'm torn between judging it barely acceptable and giving it a marginal negative vote...I guess I'll give Campbell the benefit of the doubt because I think he is making conscious artistic choices here, that my problems with the story are a response to those decisions and not to any incompetence on his part.

**********

In our next episode, if my psyche can take it, we'll be going back to the dawn of Yog-Sothery and reading weird tales from the roaring '20s!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Shadows Over Innsmouth by Basil Copper, Adrian Cole and Ramsey Campbell

I recently became acquainted with prolific British genre writer Basil Copper via his story in DAW 109, the second of DAW's Year's Best Horror Stories volumes.  The current HQ of MPorcius Fiction Log is in the suburban miasma between America's two crime capitals, and the first place I turned to for additional Basil Copper stories was the Baltimore County Public Library website.  There did not seem to be any physical books available that feature Copper's fiction, but a pair of Copper stories were available electronically, one each in the e-books of Stephen Jones's 1994 Shadows Over Innsmouth and 2005 Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth.  I decided to read three stories from each of these anthologies by people whose work I have already discussed on this here blog; in this episode we'll look at the contributions to Shadows Over Innsmouth by the aforementioned Basil Copper, Adrian Cole, whose Dream Lords trilogy we read in June of 2016, and the famous Ramsey Campbell.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by H. P. Lovecraft (written 1931, published in 1936)

First edition, famously
full of typos
First I reread Lovecraft's classic "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" from my "Corrected Eleventh Printing" of Arkham House's The Dunwich Horror and Others, so it would be fresh in my mind.  The text appears in Jones's anthology, but I found it more comfortable to read it in book form than from the computer screen.

If you haven't read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" I highly recommend it (5 out of 5 unblinking fish eyes); it is a great horror story, and resonates with political and cultural issues we can read about every day in the newspaper: skepticism about immigration and foreign trade; communities resistant to new residents and the demographic and cultural changes they bring; fear of aliens and their strange religions and values; desperate measures which betray our traditions and threaten to corrupt our institutions.  The story also exploits more personal fears about individual and ethnic identity.

When the isolated New England fishing town of Innsmouth ran into economic trouble in the early 19th century, one of the town's leaders, Obed Marsh, resolved the economic crisis by convincing the townspeople to abandon Christianity and take up the worship of the ancient alien god Dagon and to conduct trade with the civilization of alien amphibian people who lived underwater nearby (what goods can Innsmouth offer the aliens known as the Deep Ones?  Human sacrifices, of course!)  Marsh learned all about this stuff from Polynesian savages when he was a ship captain trading in the Pacific.  Innsmouth residents who opposed this revolution were murdered.  Before long, the Deep Ones were basically running the town and having sex with the town's human women,  so that by the late 1920s, the time the story takes place, the population of Innsmouth, is almost entirely composed of hybrid human-fish people.  The story itself is the testimonial of the young antiquarian who in 1927 visited Innsmouth to examine its architecture and discovered the town's horrifying secret.  He managed to escape and alert the authorities of the alien menace, and the federal government then attacked and wiped out the town, even using a submarine to torpedo the underwater colony of aliens.  Sometime later his researches turn up evidence that he himself has Deep One blood in his veins and could be soon turning into an amphibian himself!

"Beyond the Reef" by Basil Copper (1994)

"Beyond the Reef" would later appear in
this 2002 Copper collection...
Copper was one of my big finds from DAW No. 109, so I had high hopes for this one, but I was disappointed--this is a very pedestrian story rendered boring and confusing by its poor construction and weak style.

The year is 1932, and for the past few years Miskatonic University in Arkham, the town next over from Innsmouth, has been plagued with odd poltergeisty events like lights going on and off and doors opening and closing on their own.  There was also the robbery of some sinister ancient books from the locked special collections room at the library, and just recently a bizarre homicide.  Oh yeah, also some strange weather.  (I know there are lots of Weather Channel obsessives out there, but I find weather boring.)  Early in the story a monument to Miskatonic alumni killed in the Civil War and the Great War, a huge stone cross, falls over and almost kills the Dean.  The surveyor leading the crew trying to repair the cross discovers a vast network of artificial tunnels under the monument, passages full of carvings reminiscent of the images in those stolen books.

This story has a superfluity of bland uninteresting characters.  There's the Dean, the surveyor, a cryptologist who is translating copies of the arcane texts, the police detective investigating the murder, and his buddy the "local police surgeon," and each of these guys has his own individual little adventures.  Copper wrote many detective stories, and I believe he is following a convention of detective novels here in which a book begins with numerous disparate incidents and plot threads that have little apparent connection to each other until late in the story, when the detective ties them all together.  I am no fan of this way of constructing a story, nor of the similar practice in adventure stories of shifting the narrative back and forth between multiple protagonists who are in different parts of the battlefield or otherwise geographically separated.  I believe a horror story or adventure story benefits from a relentless forward drive, and that switching between subplots and characters dissipates tension without catharsis, frustrates and distracts the reader.  (A famous example would be to compare the climactic sequences of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, in which the action switches among three different fights, and that of the very first Star Wars movie--the climax of the 1977 film, which follows a single battle and features a single main character, is far more compelling.)

Copper's story moves along in fits and starts, popping from one character to another, and even going back and forth in time for no apparent reason.  Like many horror stories, "Beyond the Reef" begins with a brief chapter in which a character in the custody of the authorities is about to give a statement or testimonial, but instead of "Beyond the Reef" consisting primarily of this guy's first person narration, the story is a third-person omniscient narrative mixed with police reports written by the detective.  In my opinion Copper never even really ties all these threads together very well; the detective just seems to realize that the torpedoes didn't destroy the Deep One city near Innsmouth after all, which we readers knew already, and surmises that the Deep Ones are about to launch an assault via the tunnels on Arkham.  The story also lacks a proper climax and resolution, abruptly ending after a tedious description of the complicated means by which the heroes hope to blow up the Deep One's city, leaving us to guess whether or not the scheme succeeds (assuming we care about any of these boring characters and monsters.)

"Beyond the Reef" feels long (its like 50 pages) and tedious, with lots of extraneous details that fail to set a mood or even give you a clear picture of what is going on.  The action scenes are not very good, being overwritten and conveying no excitement.  There are plenty of boring detective story conventions: the detective writes down a list of clues on a piece of paper, for example, and two different characters have their automobiles sabotaged.  Besides these lame detective cliches, Copper tosses in some elements lifted from "Shadow Over Innsmouth" as, I guess, an homage to Lovecraft.  In a memorable scene in Lovecraft's original 1930s story, the narrator hears footsteps on the other side of a door and nervously awaits a knock or the sound of a key in the lock, and Copper includes just such a scene in his 1990s sequel.

...and this 2010 volume
For the most part, "Beyond the Reef" is just an abstract collage of old bits and pieces we've seen before in mystery and horror stories, tossed on the canvas at random, but Copper throws in a few new things as well.  One newish element is a serpentine monster that has the ability to erase things.  For example, the notes kept by the cryptologist over the many months he has worked to translate the evil books are magically turned into blank pages, while the detective, reading old newspapers looking for clues, finds that stories advertised on the front page of periodicals are missing from the back pages.  All distinguishing features of the homicide victim's face were removed, and eventually we learn that the monster can even erase memories from people's minds.  Additionally, this monster can generate a kind of heat ray.  I suppose the erasing ability sort of connects to Lovecraftian themes of the unreliability of knowledge and the instability of identity, but a heat ray?  Copper includes lots of stuff in this story that don't contribute much to the mood or plot, and this heat power is one of them.

Another element meant to be novel: the cryptologist built a mechanical device to help him translate the ancient texts, which I guess is supposed to remind readers of a Babbage engine or an Enigma machine (this device adds nothing to the story, the monster just destroying it.)  Is this a nod to steampunk?

A mere jumble of almost random stuff just thrown together that absolutely fails to generate interest or fear--thumbs down for the very disappointing "Beyond the Reef."

"The Crossing" by Adrian Cole (1994)

Our narrator for "The Crossing" is a middle-aged Englishman who lives far from the coast.  He hasn't seen his father, a sailor, since he was a few months old.  His marriage has failed, and he hasn't seen his son, a college student with a new girlfriend, in a year.  Then a cryptic postcard and a strange premonition--the smell of the seashore--draws him to a small fishing village.  Here he encounters his father; for decades the sailor has been capturing human sacrifices for the Deep Ones, and now that he is very old, he wants to join the amphibian monsters in their submarine city.  To win this boon, he has to find somebody to fill his position, and he figures his own son would be an ideal candidate!  The murderous mariner tells our narrator that when he gets old, he can hand over his own son to the service of Dagon and in turn join the fish people in their undersea utopia.  Will the narrator go along with this insane plan?  Looking for sympathy, Dad says if he can't convince his son to follow in his piratical footsteps, the Deep Ones will inflict upon him "eternal revenge!"

In Lovecraft's original "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" there is some business in which the narrator evades the locals by running along roofs, and Cole's narrator in "The Crossing" does some of the same kind of stuff.

The broad strokes and the basic ideas of "The Crossing" are not bad, but one element makes it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief.  Instead of the confrontations between father and son and between normies and Dagon-worshipers being set in the little English fishing village, the narrator fools his son into following him through some kind of magical gate to Innsmouth, all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.  This isn't some kind of Deep Ones high technology left over from ancient times--the fish people can't use the gate, only the narrator and his father.  Somehow, in a way that is deliberately not explained, the narrator's deadbeat Dad is some kind of wizard.

Why would Cole choose to include this additional, seemingly superfluous, magical device?  Why not just set the story entirely in the USA or the UK?  While in Innsmouth, the narrator sees some human sacrifice victims being marched off to their doom, and they remind him of films of Nazi Holocaust victims.  If Cole is mining that historical atrocity to add some oomph to his story, maybe he is likewise including a crossing-the-Atlantic element in order to remind us of other past crimes and tragedies, like the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and/or the migration to the New World of impoverished Scotsmen and Irishmen in the 18th and 19th centuries due to economic and political developments and crises in the British Isles.

Merely acceptable.

"The Church in High Street" by Ramsey Campbell (1962)

Except for Lovecraft's original, this is the oldest story in Jones's anthology.  According to isfdb, "The Church in High Street" is the first component of the "Severn Valley Series."  It appeared first in August Derleth's anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart and would go on to appear in several books, including the oft-reprinted Campbell collection Cold Print.

Temphill is a small town in the Cotswalds, avoided by outsiders because of its bad reputation.  The narrator's friend, Albert Young, is there conducting research on witchcraft, and when the narrator, in need of money, learns that Young may be looking to hire a secretary, he drives out there from London in a borrowed car to see if the position is still open.  Once in the queer decaying town he is told by one of Young's neighbors that the scholar has been taken "Outside" by a mysterious "They," and warned to leave Temphill at once.  Our narrator sticks around to investigate, going through Young's papers and diary, which include translations from the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred's tome The Necronomicon, and which point to the local church.  At the (decrepit and apparently abandoned) church, the narrator finds a staircase to an underground chamber of statues and corpse-bearing slabs.  He witnesses a magical gate opening on to another planet or dimension, and out of it emerge protoplasmic monsters!  The hero falls unconscious, and when he awakes he has fungi on his person.  He flees, only barely escaping the town when a car hits him and again he falls unconscious--the car's driver takes him out of town to a hospital.  Despite his successful escape, something about Temphill has got into his psyche or blood, and as the story ends we readers know he will be inexorably drawn back to the weird place.

The most interesting part of the story is perhaps the aliens' power--they can "disarrange space in small regions," to quote Abdul Alhazred, so that when Young and our narrator try to leave Temphill they find, surreally, that any road out of town they take has somehow looped around, bringing them back to Temphill.

It is a little odd seeing this story here in Shadows Over Innsmouth, because it has nothing to do with Innsmouth or the sea or the Deep Ones, though there is the theme of a Christian church repurposed to the worship of an alien entity (this time Yog-Sothoth, who is associated with "gates" and "keys" and "ways.")  Lovecraftian references include fungi, Leng, and Nyarlathotep--I don't think Dagon is mentioned.  Still, it is better written and more convincing than the Copper and Cole stories, and deserves a mild recommendation.

**********

In our next episode, Lovecraftian capers first published in the current century!           

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Early '70s horror stories by Robert Bloch, T. K. Brown III, and Eddy C. Bertin

Only three stories remain in 1974's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II; let's check them out!

Frontispiece by Jack Gaughan and title page 
"The Animal Fair" by Robert Bloch (1971)

This story, by the much beloved author of Psycho and a book I almost bought a few days ago at an antiques store in Catonsville, MD, first appeared in Playboy.  I wish I could like Bloch's work as much as so many people do, but generally I find him underwhelming.  "The Animal Fair" is apparently Joe R. Lansdale's favorite horror story, or at least Lansdale's favorite Bloch story (Lansdale wrote an essay introducing it that appeared in the collection Robert Bloch: Appreciations of the Master and the anthology My Favorite Horror Story) so perhaps we have here the prime slice of Bloch that is going to help me see in Bloch what everybody else sees.

Bloch loves puns and jokes and wordplay, and on the first page of "The Animal Fair" we get lines like "...Dave hit the main drag.  And it was a drag." and "Phil's Phill-Up Gas stood deserted."  This kind of stuff detracts from creating a mood of suspense or fear, in my opinion, foregrounding the third-person omniscient narrator and reminding you this is not real.  Fortunately, Bloch cuts it out after that first page, or at least I didn't notice it again.  (The actual title of the story may well be a subtle pun on the disparate meanings of "fair," referring to a place where animals are displayed before spectators, a beautiful creature, and a creature who is just.)

Dave is hitchhiking across Oklahoma, on his way to Hollywood.  Dave thinks Oklahoma and its people are disgusting! 
Dave could smell oil in the air; on hot summer nights in Oklahoma, you can always smell it.  And the crowd in here smelled worse.  Bad enough that he was thumbing his way through and couldn't take a bath, but what was their excuse?  
Dave goes to a travelling carnival to get a hamburger (all the local stores are closed) and finds himself in a tent full of "red-necks."  In a cage in the tent is a sick gorilla, forced to dance for Oklahomans!  Dave is so sickened by this crime he throws up!  He takes a nap on the side of the road, and when he wakes up he hitches a ride...on the trailer with the gorilla and its cruel master, "Captain" Ryder!

Ryder tells the sad story of his life as he drives with one hand and drinks a bottle of "fresh corn likker" with the other.  He was a trapper in Africa, then a Hollywood stuntman who handled big dangerous animals for jungle movies, and wore animal suits for closeups of fights between actors and beasts.  He got rich doing all this work!  But then tragedy struck!  Four drug-addled criminals he calls "hippies" broke into his house and drugged and raped his niece, the joy of his life, whom he had raised like his own daughter.  Ryder caught them in the act, and in the ensuing fight killed one of the rapists and seriously wounded two others, but his niece also died from an overdose of whatever the creeps had used on her.  The hippies' ring leader escaped.  Ryder went to prison for two years, and when he got out his career was ruined and he resorted to this carny business.

(The sensational crimes of Charles Manson, as well as the greatest movie of all time, King Kong, seem to have served as inspiration for much of this story.)

"The Animal Fair" appears in this Finnish
collection  
This blog is all about spoilers, so of course I am going to tell you what all the clues in Ryder's narrative add up to.  While in Africa, Ryder learned all kinds of crazy witch doctor stuff, like how a shaman can use drugs and psychological torture to make a person who has been sewn up inside a lion skin (!) think he is a lion.  Without coming out and saying it, Bloch is implying that Ryder used his jungle skills to track down the leader of the rapists, and then sewed this jerk up in his Hollywood gorilla suit and is achieving his revenge by (mis)treating the rapist like an animal!

(Remember how in the second Aubrey-Maturin novel the naval officer escapes from France by disguising himself as a bear?  I read a dozen or more of those books, but that was the most unbelievable passage, and ironically the most memorable, in all of them.)

This is a good story--Lansdale, Davis and Playboy didn't let readers down in promoting it.  Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how it took me by surprise--Dave's demeaning of the small-town Oklahomans, and the initial appearance of Captain Ryder, whom Dave hates, and his first few lines of dialogue, which consist of bitching about drugs, hippies and Hollywood, led me to expect that the story's point would be to mock retrograde country people from the point of view of a sophisticated liberal urbanite.  Instead, Hollywood, one of America's cutting-edge cultural capitals, is said to be in terminal decline, and we are given reason to hate and fear forward-thinking young people (as well as African medicine men) and lament their destructive and corrupting influence on healthy people like Ryder and his niece.  What I thought was going to be a smug animal rights piece morphed before my eyes into something like 1974's Death Wish!

("The Animal Fair" actually includes many of the themes I saw in Bloch's 1989 novel Lori, among them alcohol, an America in cultural and societal decline, and a young woman at the mercy of predatory men.) 

In addition to the way the story subverted my expectations, it is economically and smoothly written, and the central gimmick feels new and is surprising.  Thumbs up for "The Animal Fair."  Maybe I need to seek out more of Bloch's "greatest hits," guided by the horror cognoscenti like Lansdale.

"Haunts of the Very Rich" by T. K. Brown III (1971)

"Haunts of the Very Rich" first came under the eyes of the public in the very same issue of Playboy that printed Bloch's "The Animal Fair."  Was this a special horror issue of our most pretentious girlie rag?  (Actually, this issue is full of big names, like John Wayne, V. S. Pritchett, Jean Shepherd and Garry Wills, and there's an article about James Dickey, whose Deliverance I read just before moving out of New York State during my brief Westchester County period, and even an illustration by Gene Szafran, who did so many SF book covers.)

T. K. Brown III only has five credits at isfdb, but when you google his name you find that "Haunts of the Very Rich" was made into a TV movie in 1972 starring actors I don't like!  You can watch it on youtube!  (Having no desire to lay eyes on the  visages nor lend ear to the voices of Ed Asner, Donna Mills, Lloyd Bridges and Cloris Leachman, I'll stick to the printed word, myself.)

Six incredibly wealthy people pay an exorbitant fee to go on a mystery vacation--they are flown on a small jet whose windows are shuttered to a jungle resort by a lake surrounded by volcanoes.  Once there everything goes wrong--the power goes out so there is no air conditioning or refrigeration, natives raid their booze supply, the "exotic" prostitute turns out to be from Brooklyn.  Yes, this is a comedy, one which is not in the least bit funny.  When the characters, like the reader, realize nothing that is happening makes any sense, they theorize that they are dead and this is hell.

Lame.

"Like Two White Spiders" by Eddy C. Bertin (1971)

Bertin is a German-born Belgian, a prolific writer of genre stories and children's books.  As I said in the comments to the first installment of our look at DAW No. 109, when Mats Paulsson pointed out that the cover of this anthology is by Swiss-born resident of Sweden Hans Arnold, The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II is a real international production.  I mercilessly criticized a story by Bertin from this same time period, "Timestorm," back in 2016, but gave a moderate recommendation to a late '70s story by Bertin, "My Beautiful Darkling," a year before that.

"Like Two White Spiders" comes to us in the form of a transcript of a tape recorded statement from a guy in an insane asylum.  This guy describes how, several times over the course of his life, his hands acted with a mind of their own to kill small creatures and even people!  He has been imprisoned because of his crimes, but he claims he is in fact innocent, that his hands have been taken over by some alien from another dimension, or are separate alien entities with their own internal organs, or some such thing.  Of course, the story is full of clues that hint that this guy is just a murderer with mental problems who has consciously or subconsciously come up with this bizarre possession narrative as an excuse. 

Bertin's is one of the more viscerally gruesome stories in this anthology, with descriptions of how it feels to strangle an eight-year old girl and crush the skull of a canary--and then there are the narrator's efforts to deter or liberate his hands by holding them in a fire or chopping them off with a scythe!  Jeez!

I should note, for all you Yog-Sothery fans out there, that besides comparing his hands to spiders and scorpions, the narrator likens them to The Hounds of Tindalos; even though he usually disappoints me, I really have to read the story of that name by Frank Belknap Long someday.

This is a good horror story that exploits our fears of our bodies betraying or failing us as well as our willingness to blame others for or otherwise rationalize our misdeeds.  And our fears of chopping off our own hands--yikes!  It is well-written and well-structured, the length and pace just right.  Thumbs up!  "Like Two White Spiders" was first printed as "Als Twee Grote Witte Spinnen" in the 1971 Belgian collection De Achtjaarlijkse God; the author himself translated it into English and it first appeared in the tongue of William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and Dan Brown in the 1973 collection that is the source of much of the material in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 3.

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DAW No, 109, The Year's Best Horror Stories Series II, is a good anthology; there is only one serious clunker, and several quite good stories.  Looking at Amazon, ebay and abebooks, I am getting the idea that it is sort of rare; maybe I shouldn't have bent the cover of mine scanning the title page and the page of ads in the back?

Ah, the ads.  Six DAW titles are pushed, including Brian Lumley's first Titus Crow novel, the eighth of John Norman's (in)famous Gor books, and the 1974 edition of Donald Wollheim's Annual World's Best anthologies that includes R. A. Lafferty and E. C. Tubb stories I don't own; I would probably grab this one if I saw it going for a buck or two.  Also promoted is D. G. Compton's The Unsleeping Eye; Joachim Boaz has gushed about this baby (5 of 5 stars!), which I own in a later Pocket Books edition, but I have yet to read it myself.  The Weathermonger, which I'd never heard of, is, apparently, some kind of "young adult" book about a future anti-technological England and was the basis for a TV series.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Early '70s horror tales from Brandner, Copper, Pedler and Klein


It's the pick of the nightmare crop!  More early 1970s horror stories, selected by British anthologist Richard Davis for Sphere's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2 and No. 3, and included in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II.


(I chose today's stories because I thought all the last names together sounded like a law firm.)

"The Price of a Demon" by Gary Brandner (1972)

Some of the writers whose work appears in DAW No. 109 I am familiar with, and others are people I have never heard of.  Gary Brandner is one of the latter, even though he wrote the novel The Howling, the inspiration for the 1981 film, and the novelization of the 1982 film Cat People.  (I haven't seen these films, but wikipedia is making them sound like they are nonstop fetishistic sex.)  "The Price of a Demon" is, I believe, Brandner's first published story, and appeared originally in Witchcraft and Sorcery #7, a magazine that also featured art from MPorcius faves Jeff Jones and Stephen Fabian.

For a while, before we got married, my wife worked at a small, old and somewhat snooty firm based in New York City.  The firm was purchased by a huge national corporation based in California, and there was a lot of talk about how different were the corporate cultures of the New Yorkers and the Californians, the East Coast peeps thinking the West Coasters a bunch of flaky and goofy hippies and surfers.  Anyway, I thought perhaps "The Price of a Demon" a subtle reflection of this view of Californians.

Paul Fielding, some kind of scientist or engineer, lives in Encino with his beautiful blonde blue-eyed wife, Claire.  Claire is a housewife and regularly gets involved in silly hobbies and fads, and currently is taking classes in witchcraft.  Following the instructions in an old book she found in a bookstore on Ventura Boulevard, she summons a demon, an invisible creature which begins taking bites out of her.  Paul rushes his wife to her teacher, who is able to summon a second invisible demon that neutralizes the one afflicting Claire.  But, the witch warns, a summoned demon exacts a price, and as the story ends we readers are lead to assume that Paul is about to suffer even more grievously than was his wife.

This story has problems with tone; Claire is a kind of vapid ditz character who belongs in a comedy, and doesn't mesh well with the blood and gore, especially since she is just as ditzy after her ordeal as before.  Maybe this was originally meant to be a story about mismatched spouses, a serious intelligent man who married a good-looking dolt and is disappointed, but Brandner gave up on that idea or just failed to flesh it out?   The plot also feels kind of contrived, and there are nagging unanswered questions, like what comes next--is Paul going to be killed by this second demon?  Barely acceptable.

"The Knocker at the Portico" by Basil Copper (1971)

Like Ramsay Campbell's "Napier Court," which we dissected with gusto in our last episode, "The Knocker at the Portico" initially appeared in the Arkham House anthology Dark Things.  The story would later be included in a few different Copper collections, including the first volume of Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper, which has a nice wintry cover by our guy Stephen Fabian.

Copper is new to me, but he had a long and industrious career, producing scores of detective novels of both the hard-boiled and Holmesian varieties, as well as horror stories of various types.  "The Knocker at the Portico" is a Lovecraftian title; let's see if it lives up to or subverts (or disappoints) our expectations.

The story comes to us as a manuscript, written by an independently wealthy scholar living in London who conducts his research outside the academic system (and good for him, I say!)  The forty-something scholar works himself to the bone trying to finish a long project involving Hebraic texts written in tiny characters that he must strain to read by his "flickering pressure-lamps," and distance grows between him and Jane, his hot twenty-something wife.  When Jane hurts her leg in a fall off a horse, a thirty-something physician insinuates himself into that distance!  When the scholar begins to hear loud knocks at his large house's front door, knocks none of the servants can hear and which resound even when there is nobody to be seen on the porch, he assumes that the interloping doctor is to blame in some indefinable way.

Long hours toiling on his research, jealousy, and the sound of the knocking over a period of months, drive the writer insane, culminating in a murderous rage.  He chases his wife and the doctor through the streets of London, an Oriental knife (a Malay kris) in hand.  His quarry enters an elaborate building, closing the door behind them.  When he beats on the door he recognizes the sound--that knocking he heard was his own, somehow communicated to his backwards across time!  The building he stands before is the mad house where he will spend the next three decades, the final years, of his life!  Jane and the doctor, a shrink, have been trying to help the unbalanced scholar all along!

(There is also a very brief frame which suggests the scholar's family suffers a curse and the horror has not claimed its last victim!)

So far, this is my favorite story from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II.  I like the style--it actually conveys some emotion and charts a guy's mental breakdown--and the plot feels somewhat original and is a little surprising.  Maybe I need to keep an eye out for more stories by Copper.

"The Long-Term Residents" by Kit Pedler (1971) 

Pedler is another writer with whom I am not familiar.  My look at the wikipedia page on this individual indicates that he contributed to some Doctor Who episodes I never saw (I've only ever seen Tom  Baker episodes) and was a big proponent of the use of psychic powers and protecting the environment (zzzzz....)  Let's see if this story is about the horror of some psionic government bureaucrat using remote viewing to monitor the alacrity with which you rinsed that peanut butter jar before tossing it in the recycling bin.

Riker, a stressed-out London scientist (a bio-chemist or something like that) without much by way of friends or family, takes the advice of a colleague, Kempton, and drives to a distant seashore hotel to rest a few days.  The hotel is run by a woman he dimly recognizes, and inhabited by quite elderly permanent residents.  It turns out the hotel is a terrible trap!  The woman is a scientist, Pribram, who, plagued by scandal, was said to have committed suicide years ago; in reality she faked her death and she and Kempton are secretly working on longevity elixers, unhindered by any ethical rules!  The permanent residents are guinea pigs and fellow scientists selected by the rebel researchers because of a certain rare attribute of their body chemistry.  They are imprisoned in the "hotel," which is no hotel at all, and can be kept alive indefinitely; Pribram and Kempton exploit their expertise in service of their revolutionary project.  (The feeble captives crave the elixir like drug addicts.)  Kempton recently discovered that Riker himself has that important "anti-R factor" in his blood, and now Riker will join the old timers as a virtually immortal conscripted research assistant and test subject.

I guess this story is sort of original, but Pedler's style is not very good and the characters didn't excite my interest or elicit any emotion from me.  Merely acceptable.

"The Long-Term Residents" was first printed in The Seventh Ghost Book

"The Events at Poroth Farm" by T. E. D. Klein (1972)

Klein's is a name I have seen numerous times, but for whatever reason I have not read anything by him.  "The Events at Poroth Farm" first appeared in the second issue of a fanzine, From Beyond the Dark Gateway, but has since been reprinted numerous times and has enjoyed much acclaim.  Hopefully I will be able to join in the adulation!

(The story has also, it appears, been expanded and revised numerous times--I guess I am reading the original published version, not the author's preferred version.)

"The Events at Poroth Farm" takes place in the great state of New Jersey, land of my birth!  It is funny to hear boring suburbs with which I am familiar talked about as if they are places of looming menace or the haunt of fringe religious minorities.

This story comes to us in the form of a manuscript, an "affidavit," written by another one of those scholars who wants to be left alone; this guy plans to read a mountain of books in preparation for teaching a college course on Gothic literature.  (College professors in books and on TV work a lot harder than those I have met in real life.)  In search of peace and quiet he rents an outbuilding for the summer from a couple who own a farm in rural New Jersey, the Poroths of the title.  The Poroths are members of small idiosyncratic sect distantly related to the Mennonites and/or the Amish, with their own customs and rules (they watch TV and think good cats go to heaven and bad cats to hell, for example.)

"The Events at Poroth Farm" is longish (like 45 pages here) but it doesn't drag; everything that Klein includes in the story is interesting or adds to the mood or advances the plot.  The lion's share of the affidavit consists of excerpts from the narrator's journal, which include descriptions of how his relationship with the Poroths evolves over the course of weeks and complaints about all the insects and spiders and mildew that infest the farm and his rented dwelling--Klein does a good job depicting an urbanite's response to life in the country, reminding me of the cabin in Maine woods that my wife and I rented for a few days years ago.  (Is Klein trying to say something about human nature or to mirror the attitude of his story's weird antagonist with his many descriptions of the academic's sometimes grim and at other times gleeful efforts to wipe out the creepy crawlies that intrude upon him?)  The journal entries also provide comments on the famous Gothic novels and stories the narrator is reading--Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Austen's Northanger Abbey, Lewis's The Monk, Machen's "The White People," and many others get capsule reviews.

The main plot thread of the story involves the farmers' numerous cats.  (The narrator not only relates his own efforts to kill bugs, but the cats' massacring of rodents, birds and reptiles--this story is full of killing.)  One cat, the oldest and meanest, is (as gradually becomes apparent) killed and its dead body taken over by some kind of mouse-sized intelligent alien monster.  The creature, in the animated feline corpse, stalks the humans, who have little idea what is going on, and before the story ends the alien has shifted from controlling a quadruped to a biped, and our narrator considers the possibility that our entire civilization may be at risk from this alien invasion.

A solid and entertaining Lovecraftian story; there is a lot going on in here (there's plenty of religious stuff I haven't talked about here, for example), all of it engaging, and Klein obviously took a lot of time and care putting all these elements together.  "The Events at Poroth Farm" is giving Copper's "Knocker at the Portico" serious competition for best piece in this anthology.

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Two good pieces from writers new to me whom I look forward to reading again (and two mediocrities from guys I will probably never think about again.)  Three more stories from The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II await us in our next episode, which will conclude our look at DAW No. 109.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Early '70s horror stories from Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell

Turn out the lights!  Pull up the covers!  It's time to get scary!  Our next MPorcius Fiction Log project is to read DAW No. 109, The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series II, edited by Richard Davis and printed in 1974.  Beloved actor and World War II intelligence officer Christopher Lee provides a foreword to this anthology in which he tells us he is widely read in the horror genre, and of the stories he has read recently, only about 15 percent are successful.  Fortunately, according to Lee, all the stories appearing in this volume are members of that small elite!

Even though this book is called The Year's Best Horror Stories, the publication dates of the stories in it range from 1971 to 1973.  This American book is, it appears, a selection of stories from two British anthologies edited by Davis, 1972's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2 and 1973's The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 3.  This makes me wonder if Lee's foreword is literally about the eleven stories here in this book, or if it is just a reprint of his foreword to The Year's Best Horror Stories No. 2.

(A detailed bibliographic article by Todd Mason about the DAW Year's Best Horror anthologies at his blog was helpful to me in solving the mysteries of this volume.)

We'll start with four stories, two by Brian Lumley and two by Ramsey Campbell.  I have had mixed feelings about these gentlemen's work, so there is a significant chance I will have to disagree with Lee about these tales.

"David's Worm" by Brian Lumley (1971)

"David's Worm" first appeared in a magazine called Pulp in 1971, a magazine I am not having any luck finding info about online.  It has been reprinted in several places, including in the British collection The Second Wish and Other Exhalations.

I actually recognized this story almost at once; I must have read it in the US collection Beneath the Moors and Darker Places when I borrowed if from the New York Public Library over ten years ago.  It is an acceptable horror story based on the now exploded belief that planarians who eat other planarians gain the knowledge of the worms they have devoured.  The style is sort of oddly folksy, perhaps an effort to simulate the way a vocal storyteller might relate the story face to face in a bar or around a campfire or something.

A "radio-biologist" is showing his seven-year-old kid slides of small living things, amoebas and diatoms and so on, that have been irradiated to death.  The kid thinks he sees a planarian on a slide move, so he steals the slide and puts it in a pond.  The worm is revived, and begins eating everything in the pond and growing to tremendous size (for a planarian.)  It takes on the personality and attributes of those it digests, including a dog and an aggressive pike, and eventually eats the seven-year-old.  The monster invades the scientist's house and tries to eat the kid's parents--the quick thinking boffin destroys the creature, but not before it chillingly speaks in his child's voice.

This story always reminds me of the alzabo from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.   

"Haggopian" by Brian Lumley (1973)

"Haggopian" first appeared in F&SF (read it for free at the internet archive, cheapos!), and would later be the title story of a Lumley collection.  This is a Lovecraftian piece, with an elaborate frame in which the narrator is a journalist who secures an interview with the titular Richard Haggopian, famous but reclusive ichthyologist of mixed race (Armenian and Polynesian, among other ethnicities), on his tiny private island near Greece.  Haggopian has a weird sheen to his skin, wears dark glasses indoors and out, and walks oddly.

The scientist tells the journo the story of his career, how he travelled around the world, finding evidence of Cthulhu and Dagon and other ancient aliens and gods on sea coasts from New England to Polynesia to Africa.  To be honest, all these direct references to Lovecraft stories do not add to Lumley's story; they just make it longer.  Haggopian's story could be told without any reference to Innsmouth or any of that stuff.

The significant portion of Haggopian's tale is that one day he caught an intelligent hagfish, a slimy eel-like four-foot long parasite, of a previously undiscovered species.  This creature, like a vampire, has hypnotic abilities it uses to seduce its victims; said victims not only submit to its biting and drinking of their blood, but actually derive (sexual?) pleasure from giving their life force to the hideous fish!  In the same way that a vampire can turn its victims into vampires, the hagfish has altered Haggopian's physical makeup, so that he can now breathe underwater and has an additional organ (not unlike a second penis, frankly) that can latch on to other living things and suck their juices.  This interview with the narrator will be Haggopian's last--he is almost fully transformed into a fishman, and will soon abandon the human race and the surface world and join the hagfish monsters' subterranean community.  It is strongly suggested that Haggopian has been sucking the blood of his current wife (a Greek fashion model--vampires always get the best chicks!) and that she will soon become a fishperson herself and join him in the briny deep, and that his first wife is already down there awaiting him.

This story isn't bad, if we ignore the superfluous direct references to Lovecraft stories and characters.  Writers who would emulate Lovecraft should expend their energy achieving the Providence weirdo's tone and mood and so forth, not just throw catchphrases and words famously used by Lovecraft into any old story in a cheap attempt to get us Mythos fans on their side.


"Napier Court" by Ramsey Campbell (1971)

Alma is a young Englishwoman who works at a museum and plays the flute; she lives with her parents in a big Victorian house called Napier Court.  She has a cold, and is looking forward to spending two weeks in bed resting while her nagging, smothering parents are away on holiday--she has plans to read Eugene Ionesco's Victims of Duty in the original French, which wikipedia is leading me to believe is an absurdist play drawing on Ionescu's difficult relationships with and mixed feelings about his parents and the theater.

Alma's ex-fiancee Peter, recently dropped at the insistence of her parents, and her friend Maureen, are god-damned commies, who tell her that her love of music and the finer things is just a way for her to hide from the suffering of the local poor and the people of Hiroshima and all the other victims of the bourgeoise.
"Why must you and Peter always look for the horrid things?  What about this house?  There are beautiful things here.  That gramophone--you can look at it and imagine all the craftsmanship it took.  Doesn't that seem to you fulfilling?"
"You know we leftists have a functional aesthetic."
This chick Alma is surrounded by downers!

Anyway, from the local gossip mongers and from Maureen, Alma has gotten the idea that her house full of beautiful things is haunted; the previous owner is said to have committed suicide after losing his money in the stock market.  Shortly before his death he complained of a mysterious inhabitant of Napier Court, and in his suicide note he wrote of "fading into the house."

Alone in the house, weighted down with regrets that Peter is gone but also obsessively recalling all the times he contemptuously derided her music and badgered her with his political convictions, Alma either goes insane (maybe in part because of some medicine she takes) or the house comes to life and absorbs her.  It also seems possible that she masturbates with the flute.  It's all a little vague and confusing.

The repeated references to Ionesco, Vietnam, and sexual relationships suggest that this story demands some kind of ideological analysis.  What could the story's ideology be, and what critical theoretical lens should we employ to analyze it, fellow students?

Marxist/class analysis:  Alma, like the rich dude who owned Napier Court before her parents, cares more about property than the suffering poor and the non-white victims of what I call the Pacific War and the struggle against communism and my college professors called America's imperialistic pursuit of markets.  (Alma not only expresses affection for the house and her flute and her records, but doesn't give back Peter's ring when she reluctantly breaks off their engagement.)  Social justice is served when she becomes one with the house, essentially choosing to marry and have sex with property instead of Peter.  This analysis is buttressed by the way Alma's mother decries Alma's relationship with Peter, whom Mom says "is beneath her." 

Freudian/pro-sex analysis:  Alma has normal healthy sexual desires, but her stuffy bourgeois upbringing and her parents, who police her every move, keep her from fulfilling them with Peter.  Alma's mother isn't sexually attracted to or fulfilled by her husband (they sleep in separate rooms), and Mom takes out her frustrations by obstructing Alma's relationship with Peter, of which she is envious (Mom at one point remarked that Peter was "a handsome bugger.")  Alma resolves her desires by having sex with the flute and the ghost, whom she "marries" when she becomes one with the house.   

Feminist/individualist analysis:  Alma is a creative and sensitive soul with her own ideas of how to live her life, but our patriarchal society crushes her!  Peter and the ghost of the previous house owner treat her as a sex object, always trying to get into her pants whether or not she affirmatively consents.  Peter, ostensibly an ally because he is always blithering about the poor and non-whites, in fact is an oppressor, psychologically dominating Alma--he tells her what to think, mansplains why her hopes and dreams are stupid, and renders her psychologically dependent on him.  (He does to her all the things those "game" theorists say you should do to get girls.)  Mom, herself the victim of the patriarchal institution of marriage, sees that her daughter is in trouble, but, her psyche colonized by Victorian bourgeois nonsense about heterosexual love (Mom has a collection of 19th-century Valentines Day cards), is incapable of modeling a strong independent woman for Alma, and just nags her daughter, stifling poor Alma and sabotaging Alma's efforts to achieve independence.  In the end Alma is wholly absorbed by the male/collective entity of the house, like a subservient, oppressed wife.

Good work, class!  Next stop, grad school!  (Destination: Starbucks!)

"Napier Court" isn't bad, but it feels kind of long and tedious; individual scenes are crowded with too much detail, and all the descriptions of figures and shapes behind Alma or in the corner or wherever get repetitive.  "Napier Court" first appeared in August Derleth's Dark Things and would be included in the Campbell collection Dark Companions and an oft-reprinted anthology of stories about haunted houses.

"The Old Horns" by Ramsey Campbell (1973)

This is a muddled mess of a story, difficult to get a handle on, and unable to excite enough interest to make the challenge of figuring it out worthwhile.

A bunch of people go on a picnic to the beach.  Near the beach is dangerous soft ground amid some fungus covered pine trees; the characters liken it to quicksand.  This danger zone is called "The Old Horns."  Our narrator is an introverted poet who tries to compose a poem but is distracted by his companions.  One member of the group is a boorish guy, George, who is always trying to flirt or get his hands on the women.  George talks about pagans, celebrating their open attitude towards sex, and the narrator tries to correct him, saying that paganism was degrading, dehumanizing.  The poet uses the word "rot" to describe the effect on the human soul of paganism, and describes the Old Horns as being full of rotten wood on the next page, connecting the place and paganism.

The picnickers play hide and seek.  Our narrator, while hiding, witnesses some kind of strange dancing parade of people in strange outfits and over-sized masks, a sort of pagan ritual--this vision turns out to be just a dream.  He returns to the group, but George is missing.  Everybody figures George made his way home to watch Julie Christie on TV (Campbell loves to mention literary and pop culture figures in these stories--in "Napier Court" he mentioned Michael Caine.)  But the narrator suspects George is trapped in the quicksand or something, and when everybody goes to a restaurant, our hero heads back to the beach to look for George.  He sees George in the darkness, in a reflection in a pool.  George is moving jerkily (perhaps foreshadowed by the robotic gait of a child's clockwork doll in an earlier scene as well as the narrator's dream) and appears to be headless, the moon visible between his shoulders.

What am I supposed to get from this story?  If you abandon yourself to sexual license you will lose your soul?  Does the title refer to the Devil?  Our culture has been so sympathetic to paganism and promiscuous sex for so long that a story taking a contrary view is a good idea, but this story just isn't all that good.  "The Old Horns" is just too vague and too confusing, feeling flat and inspiring no emotion.  Thumbs down!

"The Old Horns" first appeared in the collection Demons by Daylight.

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Today's Lumley stories, which are just trying to be icky and fun, are too simple and obvious, and the Campbell stories, which aspire to literary and philosophical significance, are too confusing and vague.  Maybe the writers in the next installment of our look at DAW No. 109 will be better able to achieve a happy medium?

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The back cover of DAW No. 109 tries to piggyback on the success of the 1973 film The Exorcist, which I saw in a special rerelease ("Version You've Never Seen/Extended Director's Cut") in a crowded Manhattan cinema with my wife in 2000.   I'm a queasy sort, and the elaborate medical scenes near the beginning of this version of the picture brought me close to fainting.  The famous possession scenes didn't have any effect on me, partly because the audience laughed all through them.  (Audiences similarly impeded my enjoyment of 2000's Uzumaki, which I saw in a little theatre in the Village during my brief Japanophile phase when I would hang around Jim Hanley's Universe in the shadow of the Empire State Building reading entire volumes of Maison Ikkoku and at a midtown Japanese bookstore marveling at the insane work of photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and draughtsman Toshio Saeki.)

Remember when we caught DAW trying to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars?

The back cover also advertises A. E. van Vogt's The Man With A Thousand Names, which we read during our 2016 van Vogt Marathon

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Sentinel Stars by Louis Charbonneau

He had sought to find some value in life other than the mechanics of push-button work, other than, as it had turned out, the purposeless pursuit of pleasure in freedom....In the end the only thing of value he had found was the personal concern one human being might have for another--a concern beyond physical need, beyond pleasure, beyond self.
Way back in 2014 I read Louis Charbonneau's 1967 novel Down to Earth and then blogged about the hundreds of things wrong with it.  Somehow, that experience didn't stop me from purchasing Louis C's 1963 The Sentiniel Stars when I came across it in Lexington, Kentucky last year.  Who could resist those wide-shouldered outfits, and the promise of a depiction of a rebel in a "hugely probable future" of "sodden slaves?"

Thomas Robert Hendley (the ID tag on his coveralls says "TRH-247") lives in City No. 9, an underground complex of tiny apartments, offices, stores and sliding walkways, one of a network of subterranean cities in our post-atomic war future, cities where bureaucrats and computers plan and schedule every moment of your life!  The video screens are full of talk of the "Merger" that has just taken place--henceforth, the long-hostile blocs of West and East will be united as one.

The Merger strikes an odd chord with Hendley--it is as if the last vestige of individual identity in a world without religion or the family unit or political parties or private property has been erased, all diversity and variety extinguished.  He feels compelled to rebel in a small way, to express his individuality, and his means of doing so is to skip work today!  Out on the slidewalk, just wandering around among the crowds, Hendley spots a pretty blonde.  He approaches her, wins her over, and he and ABC-331--she tells him her name is Ann--sneak out into the sunlight--Hendley's government assigned job is as an architect, and he knows the location of an exit into the outside world in the service area of a building he helped design.  Out under the rarely-seen sky they have illegal sex; every adult in City No. 9 is assigned a sex partner and you are only permitted to have sex once a week in an authorized Public Intercourse Booth!

The economic system undergirding this rigid society is based on "tax debt."  Everybody starts with a debt to the government, and works to pay off the debt.  Some services are free (the slidewalks, for example) but food and other things you pay for with your ID disc.  When you have paid off your debt you leave City No. 9 and move into a "Freeman Camp" on the surface.  Not having reported for work or provided a medical excuse, Hendley's disc stops working at the stores, so he must choose between turning himself in or starving.  When he turns himself in, the headshrinker ("Morale Investigator"), reminding me of Beatrice and Virgil in the Divine Comedy of Dante, authorizes Hendley to visit a Freeman Camp for 24 hours, thinking this will ease his worries and resolve his doubts about the system!

As it turns out, the Freeman Camp (which is more like an amusement park with attached hotels or a tourism-oriented city of casinos and restaurants and resorts than an actual "camp") is not all it's cracked up to be!  Sure, there are blue skies, live trees, live birds--beautiful things Hendley doesn't see underground.  And sure there are no government rules and regulations.  But living in a state of anarchy in which they have no responsibilities (the government robots provide free food and health care and so forth), the free people have turned to decadence and perversion in an effort to give their lives excitement and meaning--blood sports, drugs, alcoholism, gambling, violent crime and exploitative sex are the order of the day!  One of the freemen hates the meaningless and gruesome life of the camp so much he hatches a scheme to get out of there and into City No. 9--by stealing Hendley's identity!  This joker drugs Hendley and switches IDs with him, so that Hendley becomes a permanent resident of the Freemen Camp! 

In the Freemen Camp, Hendley finds not only rapists, murderers, dope fiends and muggers, but beautiful Ann; her government-assigned job is as a stripper and prostitute, and she must pliy her trade in the camp every two weeks or so.  Hendley and Ann declare their love for each other, but they have almost no opportunities to see each other, and, as the weeks go by, the culture of the Freeman Camp begins to corrupt Hendley, and he tries his hand at gambling and even mugging!  (Louis C seems to have a pretty dim view of human nature!  The  Freedom Camp section of the novel may be a pushback against the libertarian SF which is so skeptical or hostile to government--Louis C may be telling us that some government is necessary because we are all a bunch of selfish jerks who will run wild given the chance.)  Stepping back from the brink of total degradation, Hendley focuses on trying to escape, and eventually succeeds, though he is quickly captured by the authorities at City No. 9.

Using truth drugs, the law enforcement apparatus picks his brain, and he finds himself on trial alongside Ann.  Convicted of rebellion and sedition, the two are exiled to the desert beyond the city!  Fortunately, they meet a tribe of descendants of earlier exiles, and as the story ends we have every reason to believe that they will live happily with this tribe, and their children or grandchildren will overthrow the city government and liberate humankind.
    
After suffering through Down to Earth, I was expecting to have to denounce The Sentinel Stars as a piece of garbage, but in fact it is not bad.  It's obviously not original--there are plenty of SF stories about oppressive socialistic futures and plenty of SF stories about decadent utopias which don't meet man's need for challenge and meaning--but it is an entertaining little thriller.  The style is smooth, the pace fast, and the action scenes (e.g., the "hunt" sequence in which Hendley is the prey) and suspense scenes (like when Hendley gambles for his life against a robot) are good.  The SF (genetics and computers and robots and all that) and philosophical (what is true freedom?) elements give the reader a little additional meat to chew on and all the sex adds a little extra spice.

(My crazy literary theory for today, which I have already hinted at, is that Louis C loosely based this novel on Dante.  As all the medieval literature scholars who follow my blog already know, Dante begins "a new life" when he sees the beautiful Beatrice dressed in red.  Well, when Hendley first sees Ann, she is dressed in red!  Obviously, like Dante in the Comedy, Hendley has a chance to explore the next stage of existence after suffering doubts about the prevailing ideology, and like Dante his final exploration is of a place of love and happiness.  In the Freedom Camp a guy acts as Hendley's guide, sort of like how Virgil acts as Dante's guide in Hell.  Also, the title of The Sentinel Stars makes no sense, unless it is a reference to how Dante ended each of the three parts of the Comedy with the word "stars."  I know this theory is a stretch, but I like it!)

Much to my surprise I am giving The Sentinel Stars a mild recommendation to people who like quick-paced SF stories about guys rebelling against the system.  (And people who are experts on Dante who want to play literary detective!)  Our Italian friends produced a translation in 1965, and in the 21st century the novel has appeared as an e-book twice, and been most recently printed as a double from Armchair Fiction, bound with Alfred Coppel's Warrior-Maid of Mars, so it is still widely available!