Thursday, January 31, 2019

Overlay by Barry N. Malzberg

The race tracks must be away from the center of the metropolitan areas because they represent--at least, to those who patronize them--the excision of all those values on which the metropolitan areas themselves are based: rationality, causality, consequence, effort, consumption, production, accretion, etc.  The racetracks are founded upon something different; they are selling (and selling well) the conception that there is no simple way out, that causality is meaningless, that accretion has to do only with psychic conditions and not with possessions (which must be metaphors for true gain) and if they are too close to the metropolitan areas, the message might move uncomfortably near to a larger heterogeneity of the population.  They represent an alternative.  And the alternative is one of annihilation, devastation and waste.
Barry Malzberg takes up a lot of real estate in my brain--in fact I mentioned him in my last three blog posts, contrasting his attitude to that of Spider and Jeanne Robinson and comparing his style to Steve Rasnic Tem's, as well as pointing out his admiration for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Well, let's quit pulling at the scab of our Malzberg obsession and mainline some vintage Barry--1972's Overlay. I own a copy of the Lancer paperback edition of the novel which, barely legible stamps indicate, was once in the collection of the Library at Ohio State University's Mansfield Campus.  On Overlay's acknowledgements page we are informed that Chapter I of the novel appeared in a different form in F&SF in 1970.  That "different form" is the story entitled "Notes Just Prior To The Fall," which I read in 2017 in an Ace Double collection.

In two prologues we learn that in Earth Year 1978 the government of the galaxy decided that Earth, with its population of "dangerous and insane" people, was a menace that had to be dealt with.  (Malzberg, writing in the first years of the Seventies, portrays 1970-1978 as "The Welfare Decade," full of high taxes, government debt, riots, arson and religious mania.)  Our narrator, an agent of "the Bureau" tasked with dealing with the problem presented by Earth, introduces himself in the second prologue--the lion's share of the text of Overlay is this alien's diary, the keeping of which he admits is forbidden: "Agents are supposed to leave no written testaments to their mission...."  The narrator describes his meeting with his superior, who tells him that the way to destroy Earth civilization is to "energize" and "manipulate" a "subpopulation."  The boss has already selected the appropriate subpopulation: "horseplayers."

Four people who are addicted to betting on the races and live in the NYC area are selected at random and the narrator begins communicating with them.  The narrator is invisible to them, and can read their minds, send them telepathic messages, and even tinker with their brains, working them like puppets if he so chooses.  (Malzberg sort of compares the alien's manipulation of the Earthlings to the way humans ride horses.)  Three of the four gamblers suspect that the voice they hears who gives them bad advice on how to bet at the track is evidence they are insane, as you might expect.  The fourth is a woman.

Malzberg presents us sad episodes in the lives of these four individuals.  Simmons loses all his money on the horses and then goes to a bar to get drunk, but, not being a habitual drinker, doesn't even know how to properly get hammered.  Tony the horse trainer loses all his money betting on a horse he trains and then goes to an Army surplus store to buy explosives.  Gardner, a social worker for the local welfare agency (Malzberg's body of work is full of people with such jobs as Malzberg himself once held such a job; writing about welfare investigators offers Malzberg rich opportunities to portray the callousness and incompetence of government, the pathologies of the poor, and the misery of middle-class educated liberals working tedious and unfulfilling jobs that put the lie to their rosy notions about the state and the underclass) is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend of three years: either he quits the horses and marries her or they break up.  Seventy-eight-year-old Mary is not only a compulsive gambler but is also addicted to collecting tip sheets, and has giant stacks of them in her little apartment, organized in chronological order, and she likes to peruse old ones, reminiscing on how their advice has steered her wrong over the decades.  (Compare to the Malzberg protagonists who collect stacks of old SF magazines.)  Like Gardner, Mary is presented with an ultimatum--her son, though willing to foot the bill for her rent and food, refuses to finance her gambling any longer.

These are people who have screwed up their lives, and the alien narrator pushes them irreparably over the edge with his terrible advice and interventions into their brains.  In the final chapters of the novel (of which there are 24, in a book of 185 pages) at the narrator's direction and sometimes compulsion Mary and Tony prepare explosives and then Mary, Tony and Gardner bomb the biggest race of the year, the Belmont (which in 1978 is being held at the Aqueduct for reasons Malzberg describes at some length), killing many people, including the President of the United States.  Simmons acts as the alien's "explicator," yelling at the survivors words fed him by the narrator, a mock religious harangue ("We have forgotten the lessons of the Fathers: no fillies against colts; no maidens in straight claimers....We have been greedy.  We have chased longshots. We have failed to learn the awful lessons of the tote....We have sinned!") 

In a one-page epilogue we learn that the narrator has gone too far, that his superiors are angry that he has made "reclamation" of Earth "utterly impossible."  Just like the human horse players, he "took it too seriously" and has screwed up his life.

British edition
If there is a "point" to Overlay I guess it is that the workings of the world appear to people as an inexplicable chaos, regardless of what techniques they employ and how much effort they expend in trying to understand and predict them.  As a result people act irrationally, screwing up their personal lives, just as the government acts incompetently, screwing up the economy, failing to maintain order, and bungling matters of peace and war.  (Obviously, this is the opposite of the ethic of so much SF, which glorifies and romanticizes our ability to comprehend and master the universe via science and technology.)  The aliens in Malzberg's novel, instead of being superior to humankind, as in so many SF stories, are approximately as incompetent and corrupt as us humans--they don't represent a role model for humans or act as a foil for humans, but collectively represent Earth government and bureaucracy and all its crimes and failures, while the narrator makes decisions that are almost as nonsensical and self-destructive as those of the four loser humans.  We can see Overlay as a product of its time in its depiction of the 1970s as a period during which the wheels are really coming off, with the United States in social, political, and economic crisis; Malzberg perhaps wants us to see the aliens' intervention on Earth as analogous to American foreign interventions during the Cold War, most famously in Vietnam.

I'm afraid Overlay is not among my favorite Malzberg works.  While some of the kind of stuff I like--disastrous sexual and familial relationships and obsessive collectors, for example--there is a lot of horseracing material, and I don't find this as interesting as Malzberg's other typical topics, such as the space program, genre writers, and public employees.  (By the way, if you don't know what an "overlay" is or don't know what "parimutuel" means, like I didn't yesterday--and will probably no longer tomorrow--you can check out this website.)  And of course, like most of Malzberg's work, Overlay lacks the elements that draw most readers to genre literature in the first place: the tone and pacing are flat and monotonous, there are no thrills or chills, images and emotions are nebulous and vague rather than sharp and bold; there is little point in judging Malzberg's work on the same criteria you would use when judging a detective story or an adventure tale or one of those SF "world-building" exercises.

Malzberg's other horseracing novel, Underlay, is much better put together and much more amusing.

There are good things in Overlay, though, and I am still giving this one a thumbs up.  I particularly like the idea (expressed in the epigraph I have selected for this blog post) that the Aqueduct is off in Queens instead of in Manhattan because the skyscrapers and business headquarters of the central city represent reason and order and the race track represents irrationality and chaos.  Also good is a sort of metanarrative about writing--the alien agent laments his shortcomings as a writer and discusses narrative techniques, and admits that, as memoirists and "nonfiction" writers always do, he is streamlining and prettying up what he is presenting as a "true" story.  (Compare to Malzberg's narrator in The Day of the Burning.)

After this hearty dose of 1970s pessimism we'll be returning to the World War II era in our next episode.

Monday, January 28, 2019

21st century horror stories by Tanith Lee, Steve Rasnic Tem and Ramsey Campbell

Judging by the contents of my blog you might suspect I am boycotting the 21st century, or perhaps am actually at war with the 21st century.  Well, today we call a truce and read three stories first published in the last ten years!  Today we expose ourselves to three tales of terror from the 2018 anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, a copy of which I borrowed from the Baltimore County Library.  The two dozen or so stories in The Best of the Best Horror of the Year appeared in volumes of Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year, which was published between 2009 and 2018, and I have selected the included stories by MPorcius fave Tanith Lee, Steve Rasnic Tem, a few of whose stories I have read in the past, and Ramsey Campbell, in whose work I am sporadically interested.

"Black and White Sky" by Tanith Lee (2010)

"Black and White Sky" first appeared in the souvenir book of the 2010 World Horror Convention, Brighton Shock!; besides in this anthology and the third volume of The Best Horror of the Year, Datlow has included it in an issue of Nightmare Magazine she guest edited.

"Black and White Sky" incorporates a lot of magpie folklore with which I was totally unfamiliar (I don't think we get magpies in the Eastern USA.)  I didn't even know what a magpie looked like until I looked the creature up on wikipedia.  Anyway, in the story, all over Great Britain, an unusual volume of magpies start appearing, individual birds seemingly popping into existence near the ground or in trees and immediately shooting straight up into the sky, disappearing from view.  These sudden appearances interrupt the flights of aircraft and the operation of railways, and then electric power as the birds start knocking lines off of poles.

We observe this weird crisis alongside a writer, an ex-Londoner who lives in a cottage in the countryside.  There are lots of scenes of him talking to people in the village, watching TV, reading newspapers, etc., discussing and learning about the magpie phenomenon.  We sort of get to know this guy, his writing career, his history with women, that kind of stuff.  Interspersed with the sections about the writer are sections in present tense describing the sky and wildlife and the avian crisis from an omniscient point of view.  Eventually the larger of the British Isles (Eire is spared) lies under a shadow cast by a bazillion magpies just hanging around in the stratosphere--the English, Welsh and Scottish people must endure an endless rain of bird feathers and bird poo, and, lacking any electricity, have no means to communicate with the larger world.

The sexy woman who cleans the writer's cottage twice a month comes over after her husband hits her and she has sex with the writer.  Then the magpies all fall, burying Great Britain in a carpet of dead birds several feet deep, knocking down trees and buildings and presumably killing many people.

I don't know what to make of this thing, frankly.  Is it about the environment, comparing the way humanity treats the natural world to the callous way men treat women and the way women betray men?  Is it somehow a reflection of the stereotype that English people love animals?  Could it be some kind of religious allegory (a longish paragraph describes folklore about how the magpie's distinctive coloration either does or does not symbolize reverence for Jesus Christ), with the magpies a sort of British version of the plagues of Egypt?  Or is it just Lee toying with a wacky and disgusting idea (a postscript suggests the basic idea of the story came from Lee's husband John Kaiine.)  "Black and White Sky" is well written enough, so it gets a passing grade, but it is kind of leaving me shrugging my shoulders.   

"The Monster Makers" by Steve Rasnic Tem (2013)

The narrator of In Search Of Lost Time, as a child, would look at train schedules and imagine what towns he had never seen were like based on their names.  I have the bad habit of guessing what a story is like based solely on its title, and I guessed that "The Monster Makers" would be about how bullies turn kids into school shooters or microagressions turn those microaggressed into terrorists.  The story is not like that at all, of course.

Tem's story, at least in part, is about the horror of getting old: losing your memory and ability to focus, getting clumsy and weak, losing your eyesight and hearing, knowing that after you die you will be forgotten.  The actual plot, which is largely submerged beneath bizarre images and sad musings, is about an old man, our narrator, who, somehow, apparently, by telling his grandchildren fairy stories of monsters, gives these little tykes the ability to distort innocent people's bodies, turning them into deformed freaks (these transformations are fatal.)  Grandpa and his senile and/or demented wife live with their adult son and his wife and kids.  It is hinted that the family in this story is a family of witches or demons, like a less cute and more scary version of the Addams family or Bradbury's Elliott family, but that the son, by luck or design, has grown up to be an essentially normal guy.  The long-suffering son tries to manage the horrible hand fate has dealt him, siting the family domicile on a secluded farm, away from people.  Despite his efforts, the family does sometimes come into contact with people, and these people suffer horrendous and life-ending physical transformations.  His entreaties that his father stop telling those stories proving futile ("Telling stories, that's what grandfathers do," insists Grandpa), the son takes up an axe and pursues desperate measures, with disastrous results.

The style of the story, with its matter-of-fact first-person narration of surreally horrible events and its philosophy of resigned recognition of the futility and misery of our lives, reminded me a bit of Barry Malzberg.

Maybe "The Monster Makers" is arguing that parents' and grandparents' efforts to educate their descendants, to mold them and try to ensure they remember and honor their ancestors, just screw them up and cause trouble for them and society at large.  ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad....")  As I recall, Tem's story "Blood Knots" was also about a disastrous family in which a man's influence on his descendants caused mayhem among the populace.
     
Datlow included this one in her anthology Monstrous as well as the sixth Best Horror of the Year; it first appeared in the magazine Black Static.

"The Callers" by Ramsey Campbell (2012)

This is a story about how disturbing, disgusting, and dangerous women are!

Thirteen-year-old Mark and his parents are staying with Mark's grandparents in a dirty and depressing northern English town, a place where half the stores are boarded up and the old theater has had its seats removed and been turned into a bingo parlor.  Mom and Grandma have a stupid fight and Mark's parents leave early, leaving Mark behind with a train ticket so he can follow them on schedule.  In the evening Grandma goes to the bingo parlor and Grandpa goes to the pub, so Mark goes to the cinema to see what sounds like a pornographic horror movie: "Mark's schoolmates had shown him the scene from Facecream on their phones, where the girl gets cream squirted all over her face."

Though he claims to be fifteen, Mark is refused admittance to the show, as are four other kids--two couples--who blame Mark for keeping them from seeing Facecream and threaten to beat him up.  The girls are more cruel and aggressive than the boys--it is the female members of the couples who do most of the verbal threatening.  These four disgruntled movie fans chase Mark through the town, past sinister nightclubs and streetlamps covered in spiderwebs full of dead bugs.  Mark takes refuge in the bingo hall, where he sits at the same table with his withered old granny and a bunch of ugly ancient women--Campbell really pours on the descriptions of these women's jiggling fat and facial hair, and while they play bingo the old women make various disturbing gestures and jokes of a salacious nature.

That night, back at his grandparents' house, Mark is laying in bed when he hears the bingo women outside, calling out numbers as during the bingo game.  They call the number of the house Mark is in, and it is strongly implied that these women are witches or a serial killer cult or something like that who periodically choose a house in the town from which to seize a male upon whom they will inflict some unspeakably horrible fate!  The women demand either Mark or his grandfather, and I wouldn't trust Grandpa to sacrifice himself for Mark!

As with Tem's "The Monster Makers," in which people get transformed into monsters and killed in front of witnesses but the police never seem to catch on, you really have to suspend disbelief for this story.  Is the government of a First World city, even a city in severe decline, going to look the other way when a mob periodically drags a guy out of his house and he is never seen again?  (Weren't British people under 24-hour video surveillance by the time this story was printed?)  Are the local men going to let frail and obese old women overpower them and kill them?  Even a thirteen-year-old boy should be able to outfight these septuagenarians!  (Paradoxically, while Lee's story has an even more outlandish premise, it is more "believable" than Tem's and Campbell's because society at large in Lee's story responds to the impossible premise more realistically than it does in "The Monster Makers" and "The Callers.")

Of the three stories we're talking about today, "The Callers" is the most direct and conventional, and the least literary (I didn't mention it above, but Lee flings uncited T. S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold quotes at us in "Black and White Sky"), though Campbell writes it in the present tense, for some reason.  Fear of women on the part of young men, and the disgust felt by the young for the old, are good themes for a visceral horror story, though, and I think this story is a success--it may not be as ambitious as the Lee and Tem stories, but I think Campbell certainly achieves his goals here.

"The Callers" was first printed in Four for Fear, an anthology of stories commissioned for a literature festival in Hull, England; besides in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five it has been included in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24.

**********

These three stories are fine, but not great.  Certainly not good enough for me to renounce my allegiance to the century of my birth!  It's back to the 1970s (the decade of my birth!) in our next episode. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

"Clash By Night" and Fury by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore


Back in May of last year, in our nation's capital, I purchased the 1975 Magnum/Prestige paperback edition of Fury by beloved SF writing team and married couple Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  I decided to read it this recent weekend but a quick look at the indispensable isfdb indicated it was a sequel to the story "Clash By Night," so first I went to the indispensable internet archive to read that story in a scan of its first appearance in John Campbell's Jr.'s Astounding.
"The Keeps know nothing of the Free Companions.  They don't want to."
"Clash By Night" (1943)

"Clash By Night" is widely admired, appearing in lots of "Best of" collections and in anthologies of military SF, so as a fan of Kuttner and Moore and a guy who likes stories about war and violence as much as anybody, I was looking forward to it.

Our tale is set on Venus, some centuries after the planet was colonized by Earthmen whose descendants today live in undersea dome cities, the surface being covered in deathworld jungles where every plant and animal strives to destroy the human and all his works.  These cities, known as Keeps, do not get along, and hire mercenaries in their wars on each other.  The mercenaries, known as Free Companions, unlike the soft city dwellers, have skins burned black (like Leigh Brackett's Mercurian hero Eric John Stark) by the rays of the sun because of all the time they spend on the surface, manning their warships and their coastal fortresses.

The protagonist of "Clash By Night" is Captain Brian Scott of Doone's Free Companions, and in this story we follow his evolving relationships with two women (the girlfriend he is leaving and the new one he is leaving her for) and a newly enlisted soldier (the new gf's brother), as well as Scott's rivalry with a fellow officer who envies Scott's higher rank.  We also observe one of Doone's Free Companions' military campaigns, consisting of some diplomacy as Scott is charged by the Doone's c-in-c with hiring another free company on as subcontractors, and then a big air-sea battle.

It is immediately apparent, from an introduction penned by historians residing in the peaceful Venus of the far future who doubt the veracity of what follows, and from an epigraph from Kipling's "Tommy," why "Clash By Night" appeals to military SF people like David Drake--the story sympathizes with soldiers, and one of its main themes is the gulf between civilians and fighting men: the civilian can never understand what the soldier has gone through, and civilians too often fail to appreciate how much they rely on soldiers for the peace, prosperity, and comfort they enjoy and how the progress a society makes is only possible behind the protection of its defenders.  The story's first scene takes place during a carnival season, in a bar, where civilians are insulting the Free Companions and Scott narrowly prevents a brawl from erupting.

"Clash By Night" has much to recommend it beyond this somewhat tendentious theme (we've all heard the case that service people make our cushy lives possible and don't get enough respect, but we've all also heard the case that we spend way too much on defense and a big military establishment and the glorification of the military leads to conflict.)  Another major theme of the story is change: the sadness of change, obstacles to the changes you want to see and the inevitability of the changes you'd rather not see.  Before the big battle Scott decides that it will be his last, that he will retire from the mercenary biz after the campaign and settle down within a Keep with that new girlfriend--but will events force him to remain with the company?  Throughout the story Scott harps on the idea that the days of warring Keeps and mercenary companies will soon (in a few hundred years) end and their exploits will be forgotten.  Earth was destroyed in a nuclear war after Venus colonization began (each Keep has a huge globe depicting the Earth in a central public place as a reminder of the world of their ancestors) and the use of nuclear power is forbidden on Venus--renegades who develop or employ atomic weapons are subject to summary execution, but these renegades keep popping up regardless.   

"Clash By Night" is also a very good adventure story.  Kuttner and Moore's Venus is a great setting, full of danger and intrigue, and the action scenes--surviving a ship wreck, traversing a monster-haunted jungle, fighting in a naval battle--are all well done.  The human drama scenes--yearning for a better life, clashes of will and differences of opinion--are also good.  I really enjoyed this one.

...man had stopped growing.  His destiny was no longer to be found in the Keeps.  The great civilization of Earth must not reach a dead end under the seas of this fertile planet.
Fury (1947)

Fury first appeared as a serial over three issues of Astounding and, a big hit, has been reprinted numerous times, including under a different title (Destination: Infinity) and in various languages.  My 1977 edition includes an introduction by C. L. Moore in which Moore talks about her writing partnership with Kuttner and tells us what she believes are the main themes of Kuttner's work and of her own.  (Former: "Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it."  Latter: "The most treacherous thing in life is love."  These are good themes!)  Moore says she wrote an eighth or less of Fury, that she didn't really identify with the protagonist, and we will soon see why!

Moore's intro alone is worth the three bucks I paid for this book, and I recommend it to all those interested in Golden Age SF and the pulps.  Remember that Barry Malzberg, a man with a deep knowledge and commitment to SF, idolizes Kuttner and Moore.  (One of Malzberg's many pseudonyms, K. M. O'Donnell, is based on their initials and their pen name, Lawrence O'Donnell, the name under which these Keep stories originally appeared.) 

Fury takes place a few centuries after "Clash By Night."  Venus is united under a single government, so the wars between the Keeps are over and the Free Companies have been disbanded.  In this novel Kuttner and Moore expand on one of the themes of "Clash By Night" I didn't talk much about above, that Keep society is decadent and many citizens are self-described hedonists who do no work and spend their time using drugs and sitting in virtual reality machines and that kind of thing.  K & M also add a new wrinkle to Keep society: a sizable minority of Keep inhabitants are mutants who are tall and thin and have life spans of up to seven or even ten centuries; the child of two mutant parents inherits this same longevity mutation.  Because of their ability to amass greater experience and wisdom than the physically shorter and shorter-lived majority, in the more or less democratic society of the Keeps these "Immortals" have become a sort of ruling class.

The protagonist of the novel is Sam Reed, born Sam Harker.  The Harkers are a family of Immortals, in fact the leading family on Venus, so Sam has a long life ahead of him, but he does not know it!  You see, Sam's father was one of those decadent hedonists and also mentally ill, and behaves irrationally: Sam's mother died giving birth to Sam, so his vengeful father had his infant body distorted (by a drug addict endocrinologist willing to do anything for money for her next hit) to appear like that of a mortal and cuts all ties to the kid, giving him up to adoption by a mortal family.

Little Sam, who has the brain of one of the superior mutants but the body and social standing of a normy, feels bored with ordinary life and acts out, running away from home as a child, trying various jobs, and quickly becoming a misanthropic and anti-social criminal--a thief, a conman and a murderer.

In his early forties, Sam gets mixed up in the politics of the Immortals who run the Keeps by manipulating the technically independent legislatures.  The Immortal intellectuals can see that the human race is in terminal decline because it is losing all its get-up-and-go, the result of life being too easy.  The solution to this problem is for the Keeps to take up the challenge of colonizing the radically inhospitable surface of Venus, those hellish jungles full of colossal monsters and venomous plants.  A minority faction led by Robin Hale, the last surviving Free Companion, wants to start the colonization effort at once.  The vast majority of Immortals think Hale is jumping the gun, that humanity isn't ready to wholeheartedly engage in the colonization effort and that Hale will fail and this will terminally demoralize the human race, putting the last nail in humanity's coffin, so to speak.  So, this majority faction, led by the Harkers, hires Sam to assassinate Hale, but Sam instead decides to become Hale's right hand man in the colonization effort!

Sam spends a couple of months as Hale's PR man, manipulating the media and the masses to win their support for the colonization plan (which is repeatedly likened to the Crusades--Fury was written before college professors had convinced everybody that the Crusaders were the bad guys.)  But then one of Sam's women, secretly in the employ of the Harkers, betrays Sam, drugging him!  When Sam wakes up, forty years have passed!  Seeing that four decades have wrought no substantial changes to his physique, Sam finally realizes he is an Immortal in a body that only looks like that of a mundane!

Via various complicated crimes and acts of espionage, Sam gets some money together, hooks up with Hale again, and gets the stalled colonization effort back on track.  The climax of this part of the book sees Sam carve out a modus vivendi with the majority faction of Immortals by trouncing the patriarch of the Harker clan in a televised political debate through the liberal use of lies, skulduggery and acts of terrorism!

The bravest, toughest and smartest men in the Keeps volunteer for service on the surface, where they expand the colony inch by inch in the face of the resistance of the ravenous pulsating jungle.  Over the course of five hard years of labor and fighting, these volunteers grow into a new breed of man, a breed like the pioneers and adventurers of Old Earth--they are disciplined and independent, courageous and industrious, and they have contempt for the softies back in the Keeps who live off the work of others and let the Immortals do their thinking for them.  Also after five years, they come to realize that Sam's promises of the glorious treasures awaiting them on the surface were a load of crap, and they launch a mutiny!  The hi-tech war that erupts forces the limp and decadent populations of the Keeps to flee their easy lives and move to the nightmare surface--but to what extent is this war real and to what extent is it just another scam from Sam the sham, manipulator of the Venus man?

The last few pages of the book show us what happens twenty years after the migration from the Keeps to the surface: the human race has been saved from irreversible decline by Sam's ruthlessness and duplicity, but Sam has outlived his usefulness and he is brought down by the machinations of the Immortals.  The human race was in such trouble that it needed a merciless brute like Sam to get itself out of its rut, but once that problem is solved, Sam--a selfish jerk with no conscience and overweening ambition--is himself a society-threatening problem, and so he is neutralized.  Kuttner compares Sam to Moses, who led his people to the promised land but could not live there himself, while I was reminded of the character of Pirrie in Death of Grass (AKA No Blade of Grass) by John Christopher and of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who, in One Lonely Night, begins to think of himself as the sort of evil man whom society needs to defend itself from still more evil men.

The captive Sam is informed that he is in fact a member of the Harker family against whom he has struggled, and what happened to him during those 40 years of slumber.  Then he is put to sleep again--he will probably live for another 900 or 1000 years, and is told that if the human race again needs him, he will be awakened.  (This reminded me of King Arthur.)  This opens up the possibility of a sequel, but I don't believe Kuttner and Moore ever did write a third Keeps story.

Fury is a good novel full of drama and SF ideas.  Parts of it read like scenes from organized crime fiction, with heists and intrigues in which Sam plays members of the powerful Harker family against each other, taking advantage of love triangles and drug addictions (people in this novel use lots of weird drugs derived from Venusian flora and fauna.)  Like the protagonist of a hard-boiled mystery, Sam has to deal with lots of criminal scumbags, whom he manages to outwit, and plenty of femmes fatale, to whom he falls victim.  The novel includes lots of SF gadgets and gimmicks, like those weird drugs and various cool monsters and weapons, and also addresses SF ideas like "how would knowing you are going to live 700 or 1000 years change your psychology" and "how would knowing you are going to live 70 or 100 years but some other guy is going to live ten times as long affect your psychology?"  There are discussions of cultural change and cultural conservatism, and on whether or not you can usefully predict the future (there is a character who can more or less predict the future but can't tell people his predictions because doing so will render them inaccurate, I guess a riff on Cassandra, Hari Seldon and the observer effect/Heisenberg uncertainty principle.)

Prominent in the novel is the anti-Utopian theme we have seen numerous times in fiction discussed at this blog, the assertion that man needs challenge to thrive, that the easy life of living off hand outs and passing the time with drugs and immersive entertainment is not the good life--the good life is overcoming obstacles and building stuff.  Another main theme of Fury we see all the time in classic SF is the idea that the common people need to be manipulated by the cognitive elite for their own good--Kuttner and Moore essentially endorse the rule of the Immortals.

The novel's style is good, vivid but economical--there isn't any fat or filler, and things move along at a good pace.  The authors assume you are literate, or encourage you to be so, filling the book with quotes from and references to the Bible, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, Dickens, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, etc.

The Keeps stories represent another big success for those stalwarts of Golden Age SF, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  Recommended. 

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.

*********

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.

**********

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!


**********

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.