Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Whispers II: Brennan, Grant, Russell, Jacobi and Weinstein

Let's tackle five more stories from Stuart Schiff's 1979 anthology Whispers II.  Can anyone challenge the hold of R. A. Lafferty's "Berryhill" on the title of "Best Story in Whispers II?"

Patty cake, patty cake...
"Marianne" by Joseph Payne Brennan (1975)

Tuna, rubber, little blubber in my igloo...

I've never read anything by Brennan, but the Wikipedia article on him makes him sound like a fascinating guy with an interesting career: working at the Yale Library, publishing scores of stories and hundreds of poems, managing his own horror magazine and his own poetry magazine.  Let's get a taste of what this guy is all about!

"Marianne," which is like a page and a half long, describes a lonely tourist beach in chill October, the wind making padlocks clank and the grey waves and the cries of gulls and all that.  A guy goes to the water's edge and cries out the name of his girlfriend (or wife?) who drowned there.  Her corpse rises up and claims him for the sea!

This is fine for what it is, I suppose...it kind of feels like part of a larger work, like the end of a story of a disastrous relationship or the prologue of a story about aquatic zombies.  Acceptable.

"Marianne" first appeared in Whispers #6-7 and would be reprinted in the Brennan collection The Borders Just Beyond.

"The Fourth Musketeer" by Charles L. Grant (1979)

I've read a few Grant stories over the years.  There was that piano-playing witch, the sarcophagus found in a secret room in a Connecticut house, and those stories about robots and tyrannical governments and creepy New Jersey women.  "The Fourth Musketeer" was original to Whispers II and I don't think it ever appeared anywhere else.

"The Fourth Musketeer" is about mid-life crisis, and I guess about masculinity and gender roles.  Everett Templar is forty, and has quit his job and left his wife, and ridden a bus to the neighborhood of his childhood.  There is a lot of description of his aches and pains and his failing memory (the title of the story refers to the fact that he can't remember the names of all of Dumas's Musketeers) as well as of the landscape of his youthful haunts.  In flashbacks we see he quit his job because his superiors at the office thought he should act his age, that with his long hair and loud music he was starting to appear like a hippie and that might drive away clients; it is also hinted that his wife was a nag who complained about his toy trains.

Having been away from home for some months (he can't remember if it was two months or six months or something in between) he decides to telephone his wife and gloat (and maybe negotiate a reconciliation?)  But when Templar speaks into the phone his wife can't hear him, and we readers are given reason to believe that Templar is not really alive, that he is a ghost, or something--it's not really clear, at least not to me.  Maybe his inability to be heard, his lack of a voice, is symbolism for alienation and marginalization?

This is an OK mainstream story about a guy unhappy with his family and job with a little supernatural stuff tossed in.

"Ghost of a Chance" by Ray Russell (1978)

Oh no, it is Ray Russell, the guy who worked at Playboy and wrote lots of short-short stories that I think are a waste of time.  Let's see how Russell uses the two pages he usually limits himself to this time.

"Ghost of a Chance" is like a story written by a child.  (If you were paying me to sell the story I would say, "It's a whimsical flight of fancy into the macabre!")  One dude says there are no ghosts, that no proof of the existence of ghosts has ever been produced.  A second dude says he will prove to dude #1 that ghosts exist by committing suicide in front of dude #1 and then haunting him.  Bang goes the revolver!  After the police have left, sure enough, dude #1 sees a glowing form with the face of dude #2.  But dude #1 just figures it is a guilt-induced hallucination, and dude #2 laments that he killed himself for nothing.  It's like a skit from The Carol Burnett Show or something (you know you can see Tim Conway shooting himself in the head and then going "Wooooooooo...Harvey Korman...I am haunting you....")

A waste of everybody's time. "Ghost of a Chance" first appeared in Whispers #11-12 and would later appear in the Russell collection The Devil's Mirror.   

"The Elcar Special" by Carl Jacobi (1979)

Oh no, it is Carl Jacobi, the guy who wrote a story that was so bad it made me angry.  I feel like that fit of dismay and rage occurred just a week ago, but here I am giving Carl Jacobi another chance!  Don't believe what the beggars that hang around Dupont Circle say--I am a generous man!

The narrator of "The Elcar Special" is a loser, a 32-year-old who lives with his mother and keeps getting sacked from poorly paid jobs due to incompetence and negligence.  He gets a job helping to maintain the fleet of pre-World War II cars owned by a collector.  The prize possession of this collector is an Elcar used by Lillian Boyer the woman daredevil in her act, which consisted in part of climbing out of a moving car and onto an airborne airplane.  (I have to admit that I was a little surprised to find that Elcar and Boyer were real.)  Associated with the car is an unsubstantiated tale about the psychiatrist who bought it from wing walker Boyer, my new feminist hero.  This headshrinker married a Caribbean woman, a woman who practiced obeah.  When their marriage started falling apart the shrink killed the woman by running her over with the Elcar.

After setting the scene and presenting the characters, Jacobi bangs out a mediocre but not quite irritating supernatural story about the narrator driving the car, feeling a presence, thinking he has been transported from the roads of America to the roads of Martinique, picking up a sinister man and then running over a dark-skinned woman, only to wake up in the hospital, having crashed the Elcar.  The cops wonder why a shred of a woman's dress is stuck to the bumper of the wrecked Elcar.  Dun dun dun!

This is an unremarkable, standard issue horror story, which is an improvement over the half-baked abortion of a Jacobi story I had to endure a week ago.

"The Elcar Special" first appeared in Whispers II, and was included in the 1994 Jacobi collection, Smoke of the Snake.     

"The Box" by Lee Weinstein (1976)

Weinstein has four fiction credits at isfdb, and this is the first.  Its initial appearance was in Whispers #9, and Schiff also included it in his Mad Scientist anthology.

"The Box" is actually a good story, which is refreshing after reading so many poor and mediocre stories in a row.

The story takes place in a medical museum, which Weinstein describes in detail, all the skeletons, model eyes, jars containing diseased organs and deformed fetuses.  Every week for years a guy has come to the museum; today he comes in carrying a package--he's never brought a package before.  He picks the lock on a glass cabinet containing malformed fetuses, begins shifting a jar containing a baby with one eye.  He makes enough noise to alert the guards, who come to stop him, and we learn that the cyclops is his own son, and today would have been his 21st birthday--in the package is a wreath.

This is a sad and surprising story, and quite well-written, the second or third best tale in the anthology so far, a story which relies for its effects on universal human feelings for one's own flesh and blood and not supernatural nonsense or extravagant gore.  Thumbs up! 


Five stories and only one you can consider a noteworthy success in the lot?  Sad!  Well, we'll be reading four more stories from Whispers II in our next blog post, and maybe we can dig up another story or two that is in the same league as those of Lafferty, Davidson and Weinstein. 

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