Saturday, January 19, 2019

Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Dancers began to understand that free fall meant free dance, free from a lifetime in thrall to gravity.
At some point I picked up, I guess at Half-Price Books, a Book Club edition of the 1979 novel by Spider and Jeanne Robinson Stardance.  According to isfdb, Stardance is based on a novella that appeared in Analog in 1977 and a serial that appeared in the same magazine in 1978; that original novella (also called "Stardance") won the Hugo and the Nebula, so presumably it is worth my time, at the very least as a piece of SF history.  I know very little about the Robinsons, but on the acknowledgements page of this book they say they like Yes, which seems like a good sign.

It is the near future of 1989.  Our narrator is Charlie Armstead, a talented Canadian dancer whose career in Modern dance was cut short when a burglar shot him in the hip.  Now he is the world's best dance cinematographer.  In the first chapter of the novel he meets Shara Drummond, another gifted dancer whose Modern dance career is in trouble--she has a curvaceous sexy body, not the skinny androgynous body a successful Modern dancer needs.  These two geniuses are living out a tragedy, unable to achieve their dreams and their full potentials--but wait, Charlie has an idea!  The VCR is coming on the market, and maybe the public will pay to see sexalicious Shara dance, even if the Modern dance companies won't.

After three years of dancing and filming, Shara and Charlie have failed to find a home retail market for Modern dance videotapes, so they go their separate ways.  Charlie becomes a drunk, but Shara finds a more productive way to spend her time.  She hooks up with a third broken person, a wheelchair-bound bazillionaire, Bryce Carrington, who has built himself a space station (up in zero gee he is much more comfortable, like that guy in Robert Heinlein's "Waldo.")  Over the course of a year or so Shara works her way up from a job on the space station into the position of Carrington's girlfriend, eventually persuading him to finance a new dance venture--she thinks that the gimmick of dancing in free fall will make her dancing more marketable (as well as being an artistic breakthrough.)  She reconnects with Charlie, and hires him to be her videographer up on the station.

The Robinsons give us several scenes describing, in both concrete objective terms and abstract metaphorical terms, Shara's dancing and Charlie's recording of it. There is drama around Carrington, who is kind of a jerk who uses Shara for sex and for publicity (at the same time she is using him to further her dancing career) and drama around the negative effects of zero gee on Shara's body.  She spends so much time in free fall that Shara is ruining her body--it can no longer function under gravity and so she will be unable to return to Earth!

During all this dance business, in the background is mention of a mysterious object approaching from the further reaches of the solar system.  The climactic ending of the first part of the novel (like 60 pages that, I guess, correspond to that original 1977 novella) details the arrival this object, a big sphere full of plasmoid aliens who buzz around like bees in their translucent craft.  Shara realizes they are dancing, that they communicate through dance.  She parleys with them, dancing in a space suit in vacuum before them; when she learns they want to take over Earth, Shara, via the greatest dance of her career, convinces them to leave us be.  After saving the world Shara, having no life on Earth ahead of her and being unable to ever top this world-saving performance, commits suicide by flying into the Earth's atmosphere and burning up as a meteor.  Just before she dies she hands the torch over to Charlie, telling him he will have to be the leader of the new form of dancing she has pioneered, pointing out that in zero gee he can dance even with his bad leg.

It is easy to see why the novella was such a hit with committed SF fans and SF professionals--it tells you that the creative arts are vitally important, that heroic individuals can achieve their dreams and make a difference, and that you can solve your problems by going up into space!  (How do you like them apples, Barry Malzberg?)   

This novel is over 200 pages long.  The next part, "The Stardancers," is like 80 pages.  Most of it is taken up with description of how Charlie and some other genius dancers and a genius special effects man and a genius engineer and a genius businessman build a new space station and start a dance company and school out in orbit.  This is pleasant if not exactly thrilling, a celebration of friendship, love (all the geniuses pair off into couples, including a gay couple) and art.  At the tail end of this second part of the novel we get lots of talk of accelerations and orbits as there is first a space accident and then the government enlists the dance troupe on a history-making mission: those aliens are back, hanging around Saturn, and the dancers and some diplomats have to fly out there to talk to them.  Because of the trip's length (like three years) nobody who goes on the mission will ever be able to survive in gravity again--the Earth will be forever closed to them.  This is OK with the dancers, as, just before the UN arrived, Charlie and his wife had decided that they never wanted to set foot on the crime-ridden and polluted Earth again.

Stardance was published under the
Quantum label, and on the back cover of my copy
is a sort of sales pitch for the Quantum line 
Part three, "Starseed" is like 50-odd pages, and covers the trip to Saturn and the meeting with the plasmoids.  There is some speculation that the dancers, because they take so readily to free fall and don't care about Earth, are a new human species.  This adds some intrigue--if they are not really Earthlings, should they be trusted to negotiate the future of Earth with aliens?  This intrigue comes on top of more conventional intrigue.  In the future described by the book the USSR and China are still communist autocracies at odds with the United States, but somehow all three major powers have agreed to give control of space to a United Nations Space Command.  So, on the UN ship to Saturn are four diplomats, one from each of the three big powers and a fourth from Spain, and there is all kinds of bugging and computer hacking and people smuggling weapons and so forth.  It will give some readers pause to learn that, of the diplomats, the least trustworthy, least sophisticated and most arrogant is the American, and he is Jewish, an unmensch named Silverman who talks like Jackie Mason.  ("It would kill you, first to sit me down and say, 'I have bad news for you'?  Like that you tell me?")

The dancers talk to the aliens, and learn that the plasmoid blobs are not, in fact, hostile--Shara misunderstood them.  The plasmoids are our ancestors,  who seeded Earth with us a bazillion years ago, and have come to offer humanity a means--a symbiote they seeded on Titan--of achieving immortality, collective consciousnesses, and the ability to live and move unaided in outer space.  Silverman whips out a gun and tries to seize a monopoly on this symbiote for the American bourgeoisie, even giving a homophobic and anti-communist speech.  Silverman's evil scheme is foiled by the self sacrifice of a Vietnamese woman employed by the UN.  Then the Chinese diplomat whips out a better gun and tries to ensure the Earth will never learn of the symbiote--he fears it will cause inequality, splitting the human race into two classes, one of god-like immortals who literally look down on an underclass of envious mortals.  Charlie convinces this guy that the dancers will figure out how to share immortality with all of mankind, and everybody (except for Silverman, of course) makes up and agrees to work together to build the road to utopia.

A very brief fourth and final part of the novel describes the process of becoming one with the symbiote and reveals that Shara did not die--the aliens saved her from burning up (the meteor was her space suit) and she rejoins Charlie and his telepathically linked family of dancers, the vanguard of a new post-scarcity, post-government, and post-Earth human race.

Stardance fits comfortably in the mainstream SF tradition.  Most of the book has a sort of hard SF Heinlein vibe, what with the protagonists all being wisecracking sex-loving geniuses, the emphasis on love, and the authors' effort to depict a believable future, in particular the effect of technology on people's lives and what it will be like to live beyond Earth.  The end is like something by Theodore Sturgeon (The Cosmic Rape) or Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood's End), with humanity becoming united as one, thanks to benign alien intervention.  The Robinsons' proudly announce their commitment to that tradition: that acknowledgements page acknowledges not only one of the greatest art rock bands, but also a whole lot of people connected to Astounding and Analog, like Heinlein, Sturgeon and Ben Bova, while John Campbell Jr, Isaac Asimov, and E. E. Smith are all referenced by the characters in the actual text (as is Frederick Pohl.)  Serious sciency books, like one on Skylab and G. Harry Stine's The Third Industrial Revolution also appear in the acknowledgements.

The Robinson's writing is smooth and comfortable and I enjoyed the novel; it is a good example of 1970s SF that has period concerns like pollution and the Vietnam War and rampant crime but still follows pre-New Wave structures, techniques and themes.  The Silverman character has the potential of pissing people off, and I personally always side with the USA and the middle class against the goddamned commies, but the Silverman component of the novel is just a few pages at the end and doesn't make the whole book repellent.  And isn't exposure to wacky ideas and alien points of view one of the reasons we read SF anyway?

Speaking of wacky ideas, the most challenging and memorable part of the novel, on an intellectual level, is the Robinsons' effort to convince you that living in a lifeless void is better than living on a planet full people and animals and plants--it is one thing for a SF writer to suggest that life on another planet would be better than life on Earth, but the Robinsons really push the idea that life in an airless vacuum is a zen state of great beauty, far better than life on vibrant and diverse planet Earth.  I never fell for the Burroughs/Howard idea that life as a barbarian in a wilderness is better than life as a sophisticate in a city, and the Robinsons have taken on an even more difficult task here, and it is compelling to see them give it the old college try.   

The problem with Stardance is that the Robinsons accomplish all their goals in that very first part, and in only 60 pages (at MPorcius Fiction Log we recognize that life is short and admire efficiency.)  Those 60 pages end with a satisfying climax, a mix of tragedy and triumph that is largely undone by the remainder of the book, and its anti-Americanism is more subtle and palatable than that of the later sections.  While the succeeding parts of Stardance are competent, they are just the Robinsons rehashing the same themes and ideas of those first 60 pages at greater length, like a movie sequel that does exactly what the first movie in the series did, but with a much bigger budget, bigger cast and bigger explosions.  I liked Stardance as a whole, but the success of the first part, a finely crafted novella, renders the rest a little superfluous.  (I have to wonder what goes on in the two novel-length sequels to Stardance which appeared in the '90s, Starseed and Starmind.) 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Four Weird Tales by Henry Kuttner (including a collaboration w/ Robert Bloch)

Here come four more tales by Henry Kuttner mentioned in Robert Bloch's essay on Kuttner, "The Closest Approach," including a Bloch-Kuttner collaboration.  All four of these stories appeared in Weird Tales, and like me, an inveterate cheapo, you can read them for free at the internet archive.

"It Walks By Night" (1936)

Johann, who I guess is some kind of 18th-century villager in Central or Eastern Europe, has a terrible fever.  If I had a life-threatening fever I'd be home in bed reacquainting myself with Lucy Ricardo and Gilligan, like any sane person, but Johann is wandering around the village cemetery, the cemetery everybody knows is inhabited by a voracious ghoul!  Our little buddy Johann has some 'splainin' to do!

It turns out Johann and his wife Elsa got some plague or something, from which Elsa died.  While Johann was in a coma the villagers buried Elsa in the ghoul-haunted graveyard, and when he woke up, still half-delirious, he grabbed a pistol and ran off to the cemetery to protect his wife's grave!  When he discovers Elsa's grave has already been raided, he vows vengeance and hunts the cemetery for the ghoul!  Will Johann mete out justice against the grave robber, or encounter a horror unimaginable?

This is actually a great story; Kuttner's descriptions of the setting and of Johann's emotions are effective and economical, and maybe I'm a dummy, because the ending surprised me, but I like a good surprise at the end of my horror stories and found this one quite satisfying.

Bloch says of "It Walks By Night" that "The Lovecraft influence is evident...."  I suppose this is true, but, to me, the differences from Lovecraft are more important.  "It Walks By Night" is written in a direct straightforward style--there are none of the long sentences and esoteric words we associate with Lovecraft, nor any scholarly digressions or framing devices.  And Kuttner's tale isn't a cold-blooded narrative about some overeducated nerd with a head stuffed full of architecture and history who pursues knowledge and ends up learning more than it is healthy to know; this is a story of passion, of a man driven by grief and rage over a tragedy and an atrocity suffered by his wife. 

I love this story, but it would not be reprinted in book form until the 21st century by such specialists as Centipede Press and Haffner Press; the fanzine Etchings and Odysseys, however, was ahead of the curve, including "It Walks By Night" in an issue dedicated to Kuttner in 1984.

"The Black Kiss" (with Robert Bloch) (1937)

Bloch tells us this is a collaboration with Kuttner, but Bloch's name appears alone above "The Black Kiss" in a 1951 issue of The Avon Fantasy Reader, where I read it.  (I can't seem to find a scan at the internet archive of the issue of Weird Tales in which it first appeared.)  According to isfdb, Kuttner requested his name be left off the story.

No doubt you remember how, after two or three pages of framing devices, H. P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" starts off with a lot of business about an artist and his dreams, dreams apparently inspired by the alien mind of a monster living beneath the ocean waves!  Well, our story here begins with an artist's dreams, dreams of the world under the sea!  Graham Dean has recently inherited an old house on the Pacific coast, once owned by his Spanish ancestors centuries ago, but after moving in his sleep has been disturbed by those dreams while his sketches have taken on a "malign" cast! 

Through his dreams and the exposition of a Japanese (I guess Japanese-American) occultist, Dean and we readers learn all about how the evil inhabitants of the briny deep envy those of us who live on land; these hideous fish-people seek to invade our minds, switch bodies with us and enjoy life on the sunny surface!  Normally, our minds are safe from invasion by these piscine brain pan pirates, and the only humans these scaly bastards can overcome are the victims of ship wrecks, people already scared out of their wits.  But Dean is especially susceptible to being taken over by a particular fish woman, and she keeps showing up in his dreams, in which she tries to kiss him!  Not only is Dean vulnerable because of his love of the sea and his artistic temperament, but because of his ancestry and his bone-headed decision to move into this creepy seaside house!  Dr. Yamada tells our hero that the ancestor of his who lived in this house married a wealthy woman from Spain, and an unfortunate side effect of the senora's corrupt family's dealings with "Moorish sorcerers and necromancers" back in the old country was that she had been taken over by one of the fish people before getting on the boat to America!  It is that very same aquatic undocumented immigrant who piggy backed its way here so long ago that is today trying to take over Dean's body!

Will Dean escape with body and mind intact thanks to the help of Dr. Yamada?  Or is he doomed to lose his body to the evil sea woman and find his own soul trapped in the body of a disgusting human-eating fish?

"The Black Kiss" is a decent story that exploits men's fears of sex and of women--the creeping feeling that sex is somehow disgusting and the dread that women will use sex--and the numberless other cunning strategies that bubble feverishly in their inscrutable estrogen-charged brains--to control you.  "The Black Kiss" also taps into (as these Lovecraftian stories often do) white fears of and fascinations with the nonwhite "other."  Besides the aforementioned Muslim wizards, there are Yamada and some unnamed Mexicans, who play the role in this story that "natives" often play in these kinds of stories--these exotics know the dark secrets of the old house and of the evil fish people, but the white man, with his faith in reason and science, does not heed their warnings--to his peril! 

This picture does not really reflect what goes on
in the story
There are some niggling problems with "The Black Kiss."  One reason Dean is vulnerable to the sea creature, says Yamada, is because of his "bonds of blood [to that rich Spanish woman], even though you are not directly descended from her."  Besides making no sense (he has blood ties to her even though he has no blood ties to her?) this feels like a cop out--it would be more disturbing if Dean was descended from that woman who had been controlled by the sea monster, the very same sea monster currently attacking him.

Another problem is the character of Micheal Leigh, who plays a tiny role in this story.  Leigh was also in an earlier Kuttner Weird Tales story, "The Salem Horror," which I read long ago and don't remember.  It really feels like Leigh was just shoehorned in here; the guy is off stage for like 99% of the story, sending telegrams and chartering a plane to get to California, and then he finally appears on the last page, where he does nothing.  Yamada accomplishes all the narrative purposes Leigh might have, rendering Leigh a superfluous distraction; including Leigh in the story was a mistake, maybe the product of an ill-fated effort to start a Micheal Leigh series.  (Weird Tales had a number of recurring characters, like Conan and Dr. Satan and Jules de Grandin.)

"Hydra" (1939)

As isfdb tells us, this is a story involving Azathoth, one of the alien gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, and has been translated into French and Italian; you know those people have good taste, so it must be a good one.

After an epigraph from Arthur Machen, Kuttner tells us that two men are dead and one has disappeared, and the story gives us all the clues from newspapers and a diary that let us perceptive readers ferret out how this tragedy has occurred.  Robert Ludwig of NYC was visiting his friend Paul Edmond in California, and brought with him an old 18th-century pamphlet which included instructions on how to project the soul out of the body.  These two goofballs decided to follow the instructions, and try to send their souls to Baltimore to say hello to their fellow occultist, Kenneth Scott, owner of one of the world's finest occult libraries.  This experiment in off-the-grid cross-country communication sets off a nightmarish odyssey through other dimensions, a journey on which the characters witness scenes of mind-shaking horror and stomach-churning gore and from which none escape unscathed, the living member of the trio likely envying the dead!

Kuttner's descriptions of hellish alien worlds which follow different physical laws than our own, and their bizarre inhabitants, are the main attraction here.  I also like the idea that the pamphlet is a trap for the unwary, and the description of the ritual that facilitates astral projection isn't bad.  Thumbs up for "Hydra!" 

 
"Masquerade" (1942)

Bloch suggests that "Masquerade" may be the first of what he calls Kuttner's "adult" stories.  In Weird Tales it is accompanied by a great illustration that is reminding me of some of the illos from early TSR publications, I guess specifically Erol Otus's work.

Quite to my dismay "Masquerade" turns out to be a sort of recursive joke story in which the narrator, whom it is suggested is a short story writer ("If I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back"), and his wife, comment sarcastically about how what is happening to them is like something out of a short story.  Apparently on their second honeymoon, during a powerful storm they knock on the door of a closed lunatic asylum and are welcomed in by ugly inbred creeps who, as the narrator predicted, talk about the legend of the local vampires.  The twist ending is that the narrator and his wife are the rumored vampires, and what we readers may have taken for fear of the sinister rural idiots ("why did this have to happen to us?...I wish we were dead!") is in fact regret that they have to drink human blood to survive.

You can see that Kuttner carefully crafted his dialogue so that, without actually lying to you, it leads you to believe things that turn out to not be true, and out of one of the hicks he constructs a disturbing three-dimensional character--a more interesting (and perhaps more sympathetic) character than the initially too-cool-for-school and later whiny narrator and his wife.  But all the jokes and sarcasm, even if they are a Trojan horse concealing a more tragic reality, turned me off.  Let's split the difference and call this one acceptable.

"Masquerade" has appeared in many vampire anthologies published all over the world, as well as the anthology Feast of Fear which has a perhaps misleading Conan-style cover painting.

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No doubt we'll be spending more time with Henry Kuttner and Robert Bloch in the future, but in our next episode it's back to post war science fiction.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Strange 1939 stories by Henry Kuttner (including a collaboration w/ Robert Bloch)

In his 1986 collection of essays, Out of My Head, Robert Bloch sings the praises of, and provides personal reminisces of, many greats of the speculative fiction field, from John W. Campbell, Jr. and August Derleth to Fritz Lang and H. P. Lovecraft.  Among this catalog of giants is Henry Kuttner.  In his article on Kuttner, "The Closest Approach," Bloch briefly discusses Kuttner's relationship with the magazine Strange Stories, which endured for 13 issues from 1939 to 1941.  I decided to check out three Kuttner stories from 1939 issues of this gruesome magazine, the two Prince Raynor stories, and a collaboration with Bloch, "The Grip of Death."

"Cursed Be The City"

It is the forgotten past, a time of kings and prophets, swords and sorcery, heroism and demonic evil!  King Cyaxares, a massive fighting man brimming over with testosterone, has as his closest adviser an effeminate little clotheshorse, Necho, whom we quickly learn is some kind of demon who manipulates Cyaxares at the same time he paves the way for Cyaxares's many conquests.  (Like a blues musician, Cy has sold his soul to the devil for success!)  Cyaxares's latest conquest is the city of Sardopolis. After the metropolis is taken and sacked, Necho's manipulation leads to the murder of Sardopolis's noble king, Chalem at Cyaxares's own hand, when Cyaxares was inclined to spare his fellow monarch.  Chalem's son, Prince Raynor, is sent to the dungeons to be tortured after cursing out his father's killer.

Raynor's black servant, Eblik, a hugely-muscled warrior himself, rescues Raynor and the two sneak out of the city through a secret passage pointed out to them by a dying priest of the Sun God.  The priest directs them to the forest, where is imprisoned the monstrous god who ruled Sardopolis before he was ousted by the faithful of the Sun God long ago.  There is a prophecy that, when Sardopolis falls, this aboriginal god will return and destroy the city's conqueror.  Raynor and Eblik hurry to the forest, pursued by Cyaxares's soldiers--Necho also knows of the prophecy.

In a castle in the forest our heroes meet the guardian of the bound god, a king with a beautiful warrior princess for a daughter, Delphia.  The princess guides Raynor and Eblik through a secret passage to the site of a lichen-covered temple ruin, where they free the imprisoned deity, Pan, "the first god."  Pan and his army of satyrs and other faerie types destroy the castle, wipe out Cyaxares's soldiers (but not before Delphia's father and all his men have been killed in a fight with them--bummer), and reduce Sardopolis to rubble.  Yes, three (3) kings are killed in this story.  The last scene of this epic of regicide depicts Necho torturing Cyaxares as he slowly expires.  Raynor, Delphia and Eblik, apparently the only human survivors for miles around, head off to some other part of the world. 

"Cursed Be The City" is an acceptable sword and sorcery and exploitation story.  There is quite a bit of bondage and torture, gory murder and bloody combat, as well as a hearty helping of histrionic speeches ("Fallen is Jewel of Gobi, fallen and lost forever, and all its glory gone!") and wordy melodramatic passages ("He sensed a mighty and very terrible power stirring latent in the soil beneath him, a thing bound inextricably to the brain of man by the cords of the flesh which came up, by slow degrees, from the seething oceans which once rolled unchecked over a young planet.")  "Cursed Be the City" actually reminded me a little of one of those Michael Moorcock Eternal Champion stories in which some hero travels around, making friends and collecting pieces of equipment needed to trigger or survive some final cataclysm.  Moorcock fans may thus find this old story interesting.

"Cursed Be The City" has been reprinted quite a few times in Kuttner collections and in anthologies of the weird and of heroic fantasy.


There are actually two Kuttner stories in this issue of Strange Stories--besides "Cursed Be The City" it includes (under a pseudonym) "Bells of Horror," a memorable Lovecraftian piece I read in an anthology of Yog-Sothery years before starting this blog.  I recommend "Bells of Horror" to all you Lovecraft kids out there--at the very least check out the illustration to the 1939 printing in which some poor bastard with a goatee gets decapitated! 

"The Citadel of Darkness"

Prince Raynor, heir to the throne of the destroyed city of Sardopolis, is back!  And his muscular black servant Eblik is right there at his side!  But where is warrior princess Delphia, heir to the destroyed castle of the guardians of the bound god Pan?  Kidnapped by Baron Malric's men!  Luckily, Raynor and Eblik meet an astrologer--Ghiar, self-styled Lord of the Zodiac--and this joker gives Raynor a talisman that, he says, will give the prince power over Malric.

Sure enough, once in Malric's castle, the talisman's rays neutralize the Baron and his warriors, but it also somehow summons Ghiar, who uses sorcery to temporarily blind everybody and steal away with Delphia to his own enigmatic black citadel, which lies on an island in the middle of a lake.  Raynor and Eblik swim across the lake and then overcome the sleep-inducing properties of the island's black flowers.  Inside the featureless tower an eldritch ophidian tries to hypnotize Raynor ("nothing existed but the dark, alien gaze of the serpent, brooding and old--old beyond earthlife!") but it too is overcome.

This alien serpent, a servant of that conniving troublemaker Ghiar, has for hundreds of years sat upon the brow of a human wizard, a savant who can cast his soul forth to explore the universe.  Now that he is free, the savant tells Raynor that Ghiar is going to kill Delphia and use her blood to rejuvenate himself--thuswise has Ghiar lived many centuries.  Prolonged proximity to that malignant serpent has deformed the wizard's body into that of a misshapen monstrosity, and he begs Raynor for the release of death.  (This reminded me of Howard's famous 1933 "Tower of the Elephant.")

Deep under the citadel, at the bottom of a tall shaft open to the night sky, comes the final showdown.  Raynor is confronted not only by Ghiar and a hypnotized Delphia, but Malric and his posse, who have followed Raynor and Eblik here--the Baron is animated by a powerful desire for Delphia!  Ghiar proves invulnerable to Malric and Raynor's blades, and his magic wipes out the Baron and his soldiers.  But the spirit of that sorcerer whom Raynor liberated from the alien snake reappears to strip Ghiar of his powers; Raynor then kills Ghiar in a bloody wrestling match.

"The Citadel of Darkness" is a smaller, lesser story than "Cursed Be the City."  There is less torture, less bondage, less murder, less gore, and the stakes and scale are smaller.  On the other hand, Kuttner makes an effort to develop Raynor and Eblik into living personalities.  The story is in large part about their friendship, and Kuttner makes clear that it is only their dedication to each other that allows either to survive this perilous wizard-haunted adventure.  Kuttner also tries to mine their relationship for comedy, with Eblik advising caution and Raynor always impulsively plunging onward into danger.

Merely acceptable.  "The Citadel of Darkness" has appeared in a few places alongside its predecessor "Cursed Be the City," including a 1987 pamphlet that looks to be a sort of amateur labor of love and features an introduction by L. Sprague de Camp and numerous illustrations by Steve Siryk.  Frankly, the cover looks more like medieval Europe than the exotic locale Kuttner describes: "Imperial Gobi, Cradle of Mankind...mistress of the Asian seas" in the era "ere Nineveh and Tyre were born."  Oh, well.

"The Grip of Death" (with Robert Bloch)

"The Grip of Death" has only ever appeared in two publications, first in 1939 in Strange Stories and then in the 1986 anthology Tales of Dungeons and Dragons, which sports an intro by Ray Bradbury.  In both places Bloch is the only credited author; it is in the essay "The Closest Approach," which first appeared in Henry Kuttner--A Memorial Symposium and was later reprinted in Out of My Head, where I read it, that we learn the story was a collaboration between Bloch and Kuttner.  I read the 1986 version of the story, "borrowing" a scan of Tales of Dungeons and Dragons at the internet archive.

Luke Holland has a "warped brain," he being the product of "generations of Puritan stock."  This reminds us of Lovecraft's New England settings and recurring theme of degenerate families and races, but when in the next paragraph we learn Luke is plotting to murder his uncle, "an occultist," because the Bible tells him sorcerers must be killed, we wonder if this is also Bloch expressing hostility to Christianity or some of its adherents.  SF is a hotbed of religious skepticism!  Of course, the main reason Luke wants to off the old weirdo he has been living with in a scary house for a year is to get his mitts on Unk's money; that religious stuff is just a rationalization, a pious fig leaf.

"The Grip of Death" is a pretty good story, more economical, psychological and economical than the Raynor stories, with good descriptions of places and people and a well-constructed atmosphere and an ending that feels original.  We accompany Luke as he puts into action his plan to murder his uncle.  Uncle Lionel Holland has been shut up for a year in his upstairs rooms with all his weird books--collected while pursuing his career as a merchant in the China trade--while Luke has been limited to the downstairs, his job being to send food and other supplies (like live chickens for you-know-what!) up in the dumbwaiter and to keep the curious away from the creepy old house.  Luke is sick of waiting for Unk to keel over, and has been smelling and hearing progressively stranger and more eerie things from upstairs lately, and so has decided the time has come to speed along the natural process by which death follows life and inheritance follows death.  So he sabotages the dumbwaiter and brings Uncle Lionel a meal himself, a meal he has poisoned.

The wizard turns the tables on Luke, and gets Luke to drink drugged wine.  Luke is told the drug will paralyze his body but keep his mind alive, so that he will be thought dead and suffer the hellish fate of being buried alive!  (A Martian metes out just such a fate to a guy in Poul Anderson's 1951 "Duel on Syrtis.")  Luke attacks the old man, wrapping his fingers around the sorcerer's throat with intent to strangle him, and we get a bizarre and horrible climax and denouement.     

A good story in the Weird Tales tradition, with wizards summoning alien beings and greedy fools (like the guy in Kuttner's "The Graveyard Rats" or the guy in Lovecraft's "In the Vault") suffering a mind-shattering punishment for their avarice.

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Fun stories that remind us of the work of Howard and Lovecraft, the icons who invented those immortal characters Conan and Cthulhu.  More weird productions from Kuttner and Bloch from the same time period in our next episode.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Three more 1960 stories by Robert Bloch

Three more stories by Robert Bloch published in 1960 SF magazines easily accessible at the internet archive.

For once the magazine cover is more
 spoily than my plot summary
"The Bald-Headed Mirage"

George and Chuck are an outer space odd couple, the two-man crew of a space ship searching the galaxy for mineral deposits who don't really get along.  George is an intellectual, a sort of cultural reactionary who wants money to start his own Walden beyond Pluto where he can write 19th-century style poetry (his literary heroes, it is hinted, are Tennyson, Coleridge and Scott, and he references T. S. Eliot by name and dismisses the most important versifier of the 20th century as "a minor poet") and conduct research on recordings of folk songs.  Chuck is a grizzled spacehound, a crude "frontiersman" who never stops swearing and wants money for booze and girls.  Though George is a sort of 19th-century Romantic, Bloch's story is cynical and anti-romantic: Bloch stresses that men don't go on adventures for noble reasons but to make money with which to get chicks--"All spaceships were really powered with sex-drive...to satisfy the libido required money...Libidough."  (These are better Bloch puns than usual.)

On an asteroid, George and Chuck discover colossal sculpted heads with huge jewels for eyes.  (This is a cherished genre fiction cliche--consider one of the best Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, "The Seven Black Priests," and the cover of the first edition of the AD&D Player's Handbook.)  The plot of the story consists of the men discovering the true nature of these heads and suffering a horrible fate!

This is an entertaining astronauts-in-trouble SF horror story, to which an additional layer is added by Bloch's thinly veiled references to Romantic poets and to H. P. Lovecraft and his direct references to modernist poets and Arthur Machen.  The pacing and style are well-suited to the type of story it is, and the jokes and literary references feel integral instead of intrusive.  Thumbs up!

After first appearing in Amazing, "The Bald-Headed Mirage" has been reprinted a number of times, including in other magazines, in anthologies, and in Bloch collections. 


"Talent"

In Bloch's "The Funnel of God" the young protagonist was profoundly influenced by a Walt Disney cartoon, his first exposure to the cinema, and in "Talent" a kid is influenced by a Marx Brothers movie, his first experience of film.  (I am one of the few people who doesn't like the Marx brothers and finds the much-lauded Groucho to be tiresome, as I explained at mind-numbing length back in September.) 

"Talent" is a sort of report on the mysterious Andrew Benson, a foundling left at an orphanage.  After seeing a Marx Brothers film at the orphanage, little Andrew is found to be an excellent mimic--he not only moves and sounds like Groucho and Chico, he somehow contrives to look like them!  At the orphanage the nuns only show more or less wholesome movies, but when a twelve-year-old Andrew is adopted he begins seeing gangster movies and monster movies, and people in his orbit start turning up dead!  At eighteen it is his adoptive parents who meet an untimely, unexpected and spectacular demise in what appears to be an accident!  Things get more spectacular still in the somewhat absurd punchline climax.

"Talent" is a fun SF horror piece, like "Bald-Headed Mirage" economical, well-structured and entertaining, with jokes and cultural references that enhance the experience rather than distracting the reader.  Thumbs up!

"Talent" has been reprinted in several magazines and anthologies, including one edited by beloved actor and genre fiction fan Christopher Lee, as well as in Bloch collections.



"The World Timer"

In the editorial to the issue of Fantastic in which "The World Timer" appears, Editorial Director Norman Lobsenz warns us that in Bloch's story "there is a good deal of talk of what's wrong with this world."  Then Lobsenz claims that people don't dream of a better world anymore, don't construct utopias anymore.  He tells us his dream world, and it is a remarkably childish and selfish fantasy of a huge yacht with a huge library and submissive friends who will come when he asks and leave when he asks.

The first full page of "The World Timer" gives us the impression that this is one of Bloch's absurd joke-filled stories.  There is a pun or gag in every column, practically every paragraph, for the story's first fourteen pages.  Our protagonist is Morton Placebo, M. D., Republican and psychiatrist, a man who is both terribly cheap and addicted to conducting experiments.  As Bloch tells it, psychiatrists get lots of free samples from drug salesmen, and Dr. Placebo snaps these up and experiments on his patients with them.

One odd salesman leaves Dr. Placebo a free sample of three pills labelled "Time Capsules."  Placebo gives one to a patient named Cookie Jarr, a nymphomaniac stripper.  After taking the pill she vanishes, and then her agent recklessly takes one himself, and also disappears.  Placebo, thinking he has no choice because he cannot explain to the cops where these two sketchy characters have gone, takes the final pill and joins the stripper and agent in a "parallel time vector" where there is no money, no crime, no competition, no rivalry, no police, no automobiles, no telephone, no advertising, no pollution, etc.  If you ever had a moment's stress in your life, whatever caused it does not exist in this world.

Bloch turns off the joke machine and we get a deadly serious airing of a theory that the institution of the family is the cause of all our problems.  In this utopia there is no marriage and children are raised by the government; people have a carefully scheduled array of sexual relationships, some for the purposes of pleasure, some for the purposes of reproduction.  The government also controls the economy, assigning you a job and determining what property you have.

In addition to a long and absolutely unconvincing utopian tract, Bloch favors us with a tedious interlude in which Placebo learns about a bunch of other alternate time streams by gazing into a woman's eyes: we get a list of worlds, one where the Persians beat Alexander, one where the Aztecs conquered Europe, one where Bonaparte beat Wellington, etc.

A bunch of bad jokes and then a bunch of superficial alternate history goop topped off by lame propaganda for authoritarian social engineering for a total of twenty-four (24) pointless pages.  Bad!

"The World Timer" may have been condemned by the mighty blog of one MPorcius, but somehow it was still included in a magazine titled The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told and both the American and German editions of The Best of Robert Bloch.  Make way for cognitive dissonance!


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I have to admit that "The Bald-Headed Mirage" and "Talent" are exactly what I was hoping to find when I started reading Bloch stories from old SF magazines, fun horror stories resting on SF foundations that are just the right length and tone.  Bloch puts across his complaints about how the human race sucks and our entertainment nowadays is depraved, and he tells his little jokes, but he doesn't belabor his points (like in "The Funnel of God") or drown us in silliness (as in "Beep No More, My Lady") so the stories are still tight. 

As for "The World-Timer," it combines the worst aspects of the didactic social criticism story and of the goofy joke story, and doesn't even mesh them together--the story's tone changes radically with the move from juvenile joke section to simple-minded utopia section--or try to camouflage them in a Trojan Horse of adventure plot or engaging characters.  It's like some kind of speculative fiction Marianas Trench, a nadir in my SF reading career.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Three stories by Robert Bloch from 1960

As you know I've been looking through lots of old SF magazines at the internet archive, both at MPorcius HQ in the Old Line State and while staying here with in-laws in the Carolinas.  One name I keep seeing on covers is Robert Bloch's.  So let's read six stories penned by the creator of Norman Bates that were printed in SF magazines in 1960, the year of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, the first practical laser, and the first airing of The Flintstones.  We'll do three stories today and three more in our next blog post.

This cover is not allegorical
"The Funnel of God"

The editorial in the issue of Fantastic in which "The Funnel of God" appears, signed by editorial director Norman Lobsenz, is all about "Bob" Bloch, as he is styled on the cover.  Lobsenz jocularly calls attention to Bloch's practice of denouncing cultural trends in his stories, but by the end of the editorial he is sincerely praising Bloch for having the intellectual ability to use SF as a "tool of social criticism" and the "guts" and "energy" to do so.  The editorial suggests that there is a debate raging in the SF community on whether SF should be used to address social issues, and that Fantastic's line is that it should, in part because the newspapers "report the most atrocious and outrageous events every day--and hardly anyone gets mad anymore."  Bloch, according to the editorial, is a much needed outlier!

So, what aspect of the 1960 world is the target of Bloch's ire this time around?  What aspect isn't?  In this story Bloch excoriates and satirizes every facet of modern Western life!  Militarism, classism, racism, consumerism, capitalism--even gender roles as taught to us via pop culture!  (This story is surprisingly "woke!")  The skepticism of scientists, the gullibility of New Age occultists, the violence in cartoons, the hypocrisy of the clergy and the chicanery of the psychoanalyst all suffer Bloch's fury and disdain.  (A writer himself, Bloch largely spares literature the lash, referring kindly to Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust and other revered scribblers.)

The plot:  Harvey Wolfe spends his youth on his father's estate in South Africa.  His mother dead, his father absent for years at a time, Harvey is raised by the Boer couple who manage the estate.  On a nearby mountain lives an old Zulu witch doctor, a master of bats and vultures.  He may be an emaciated relic who lives on scraps brought to him by vultures but, thanks to his ability to cast forth his soul to any part of the world, he knows all!  This weird wizard, known as the Black Skelm, recognizes in the child Harvey a fellow "seeker."

Harvey visits the Black Skelm only once, and then he is sent to America, to New York, to stay with relatives and live among English-speaking people and get a decent education.  Civilization turns out to be just as corrupt and disgusting as the Black Skelm warned him!  When his father dies and a 21-year-old Harvey inherits three million bucks, he drops out of university and wanders the world for years, searching for "truth" via psychology, philosophy, the hard sciences, drug use, sexual license, etc.  Harvey's Candide-like quest affords Bloch the opportunity to spend page after page attacking our society.  Finally, after all routes to enlightenment have disappointed, Harvey gets a dream message from the Black Skelm and he returns to Africa to meet the cave-dwelling savant.

The Black Skelm shares with Harvey a magical seed, and the two leave their bodies behind, become huge spirits, so huge that to them the Earth is a speck!  The wizard contemplates destroying the Earth, declaring that civilization is nothing more than a cesspool and war-like humanity will soon no doubt destroy itself.  Harvey objects, suggesting that maybe they can save mankind, reform the human race, but the Black Skelm tells him he only feels that way because he is a white Westerner and has not suffered as has a black Third Worlder!  (I told you this story was "woke"--the wise and oppressed black dude practically says to the rich white man "Check your privilege!")  The Black Skelm blows a funnel of black smoke from his mouth that destroys the Earth and he becomes as a God--Harvey screams and is engulfed in the funnel, perhaps to be destroyed, perhaps to be tortured eternally.

This is one nihilistic story!  Bloch suggests that the human race is so crummy that its destruction is not a tragedy but a consummation devoutly to be wished!  Did Bloch's dog die the week before he sat down to write this thing? 

Harvey's first meeting with the Black Skelm is an effective bit of fantasy writing that exploits white fear of and fascination the non-white "other" and the supposed special powers of non-whites, and in the early part of the story Bloch works hard to build up a South African atmosphere, throwing lots of Afrikaans lingo at you and describing the region's animals and landscapes and peoples.  (I have never been to Africa and have no idea if Wisconsin-born Californian Bloch's portrait of South Africa is authentic, but he does manage to construct an image in the reader's mind.)  This part of the story is good.  But the long middle section attacking white civilization's many failings gets a little tedious--it lacks the vivid reality of the African scenes and especially that first scene with the wizard, who is a striking and well-drawn character.  The middle and ending of "The Funnel of God" feel like a shaggy dog story--Harvey, with us readers in tow, follows a bunch of dead ends that do not advance the plot and in the end we learn he has failed to accomplish anything.

I will say that, taken as a whole, this story is acceptable, perhaps marginally good; the good parts and the parts that may not be good but are strange and surprising outweigh the bad.  I've told you what the good parts are, and the bad parts; the interesting if not good parts include the surreal over-the-top sense-of-wonder ending, and some specific elements of Bloch's cultural criticism in the middle section.  Bloch writes a lot about a specific Disney cartoon, criticizing its content and its influence on the animation field and on viewers.  Bloch also talks a bit about monster movies.  I didn't expect to get a revisionist history of the cinema of the fantastic in this story!  Bloch's attack on the film industry feels serious and informed, and is the best part of the anti-Western middle part of the story; in contrast, his swipes at the business world and academia and the military and the religious establishment feel like tired boilerplate.

A strange artifact with many noteworthy components.  "The Funnel of God" has reappeared numerous times, including in The Best of Robert Bloch and the anthology Strange Glory.


"Beep No More, My Lady"

This one appeared first in Fantastic Universe and, according to isfdb, was not reprinted until 2005 in The Fear Planet and Other Unusual Destinations.  I actually remember seeing a copy of The Fear Planet in the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL when it was a new release--the Gahan Wilson cover looked different from anything else on the shelf..

"Beep No More, My Lady" is a joke story full of puns and "word play," a spoof of television, its popularity, and its alleged negative effects on society.  An unmanned satellite, The Lady Rose, is launched into a solar orbit.  Somehow its beeps are heard on everybody's TVs, which of course ruins the shows and commercials.  TV exec S. O. Bushwacker whose subordinates call him "S. O. B." browbeats those subordinates in hopes of driving them to solve the problem ASAP because a new violent cowboy show is debuting tonight:
They called the FCC and the FCC called the Department of Defense and the Department of Defense called the Top Brass and the Top Brass called the Top Scientists.... 
(There's an example of the "word play" I mentioned.)

In the end the TV people use this crisis to augment their reach to the point that it is ubiquitous.

This story is short, so not overly painful, and I suppose a useful historical document with all its references to mid-century TV shows and stars and its expression of snooty disdain for TV, so I will grudgingly give it MPorcius Fiction Log's coveted "barely acceptable" rating.  Fans of silly jokes may actually enjoy it.  (Ironically, and perhaps intentionally, the story is full of gags that would work better on TV than in print, like Bushwacker yelling out "Holey moley!" on one page, "Mamma mia!" on another, and on the next "Satellite, schmatellite!")

"The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow"

"The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow" appears in an issue of Amazing with a great cover--I'm a sucker for astronauts discovering ancient ruins.

This is a very talky story in which Bloch presents theories about famous murderers like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden (e. g.; J the R is a symbol and a cause of the end of the Victorian era of "hypocrisy," "sham gentility" and "maudlin morality.")  A five-star general sits in a room alone, day after day, with the button that will launch America's atomic weapons; he is to push it if he gets a signal from his superiors.  A writer who has written about J the R is our narrator; he comes to visit the general (a childhood acquaintance) and finds that the general, forbidden booze and tobacco, has only a stack of books to while away the hours--this stack of books is made up entirely of nonfiction books on murderers.  He puts forward to the narrator his theory that a time period is best represented or symbolized by its most famous murderers.

After talking to the general the narrator talks to a medical man responsible for the whole "put a guy in a room with the nuclear launch button" project.  We learn that, as in Kris Neville's 1949 story "Cold War," the responsibility of controlling the nuclear weapons that keep the peace is too much for people and drives them insane--the general is not the first to have this job, his predecessors having gone bonkers.

Then the twist ending.  The narrator contrives to get access to the button and gives a little speech about how ours is an age of mass media and mass communication that causes mass frustration and is symbolized by mass murder.  Mass frustration is reflected in violent entertainment, such as that produced by the narrator, but writing out his fantasies of murder is no longer enough--the narrator covets the ability to create literal mass murder, and control of the button scratches that itch!  The authorities try to get him away from the button, and in the struggle he pushes it.

Again with the prediction that mankind is going to destroy the world, again the complaints about violence in the media, again the generalization and universalization of human shortcomings.  So many SF Cold War paranoia stories and misanthropic stories lump all of humanity together, as if the Western democracies are as equally tyrannical and as culpable for the Cold War as the Soviet Union and as if all of us are somehow like Jack the Ripper or Lizzie Borden.  I reject this attitude.

The theory about sensational murderers symbolizing their eras is thought-provoking even if, on reflection, it is ultimately sterile--couldn't you argue that every famous person or incident symbolizes its era?  And isn't every era's "essential nature" up for grabs?  Sure, there are people who think of the Victorian Era as hypocritical and phony, but couldn't you marshal just as much evidence that the Victorian Era is a period of improvements in standards of living and increasing democracy and individual freedom, or a period of stability and peace after the long period of revolution and war from 1789 to 1815 and before the long period of revolution and war from 1914 to 1945?  Anyway, because of this theory, which has some novelty, I'll say "The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow" is acceptable.

"The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow" would reappear a few times, including in the collection Bogey Men.

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Three misanthropic stories with downer endings that I can only endorse in a lukewarm way.  "The Funnel of God" has a quite good supernatural horror beginning, and an audacious bizarro cataclysmic ending, and both "The Funnel of God" and "The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow" put forward unusual idiosyncratic theories, and so are worth a look, but today saw no love connections.  Well, maybe I can be more enthusiastic next time we meet and we talk about three more Bloch stories from 1960 SF magazines.