Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Far Cry by Fredric Brown

Where did you come from, Jenny?  Why did no one trace you here?  Did no one love you, care about you, in the place from which you came?  What had life and people done to you, Jenny, that made you so desperate as to write to a Lonely Hearts Club, to meet and love a murderer?
1953 Bantam paperback
On Twitter, B. C. Bell told us that Fredric Brown's The Far Cry was one of the best noir novels he'd ever read.  In ordinary times I might have just filed this datum away in the old noggin and casually looked among the "B"s on the vintage paperback and mystery shelves during my periodic visits to used books stores over the next few years.  But during this coronavirus crisis, I am not going to used bookstores--I'm not going to any stores!  And who knows when I will be doing so again?  So I went online and ordered the recent Bruin Crimeworks edition of The Far Cry, printed in the same volume with The Screaming Mimi.  I was disappointed in Brown's 1962 The Five-Day Nightmare, but, inspired by B. C. Bell and some old covers of The Far Cry which suggest the novel is about the crazy things men will do when manipulated by a hot babe*, let's give this 1951 novel a shot.

George Weaver is an unhappy businessman, a realtor whose office is in Kansas City.  When he has a nervous breakdown his doctor tells him to take the summer off, and so he goes to Taos, New Mexico, where he expects to enjoy the view of the mountains.  In Taos he isn't particularly happy, and turns to drink.

One reason Weaver isn't so happy is that he is sick of his wife, Vi.  Vi is a poor housekeeper, a bad cook, uneducated, stupid, and fat.  He had his nervous breakdown largely because he was working long hours to have an excuse to get out of the house, which he found intolerable because of Vi's incessant playing of the radio--those radio dramas and the lame music Vi adores drove him up the wall.  Everything about Vi drives him up the wall, all her little errors and solecisms, the grammatical and typographical mistakes in her letters, for example.  This is oddly appropriate, because the Bruin Crimeworks edition of The Far Cry that I am reading is chock full of missing and inappropriate punctuation that I am finding very annoying.  I want to support the work of people who are making these old books available, but I have to recommend that, if you want to read The Far Cry, you look for some earlier edition which, presumably, will have fewer printing errors.

Anyway, one reason that Weaver can't really relax in Taos is because he knows his wife will soon join him.

Soon after his arrival in Taos, Weaver runs into an old friend, Luke Ashley.  Ashley is a sort of journalist--he sells copy to true detective magazines, and spends his time driving around the country investigating murders to write up.  He tells Weaver about the murder of Jenny Ames, which took place eight years ago like twenty minutes drive outside of Taos, at an isolated house with no running water in a one-horse town called Arroyo Seco, a tiny burg where there is a lot of tension between the Hispanic population and the Anglos.  (Brown doesn't say "Hispanic" or "Latino;" I guess the politically correct term in 1951 was "Spanish-Americans"--at least that is thge term used again and again here in the novel.)  When Weaver sees the house he decides to rent it, and Ashley suggests that, if Weaver gets bored, he can investigate the Ames murder and send him any info he uncovers--if Ashley sells the story he will give Weaver half his fee.  Ashley doesn't stick around, but heads to Hollywood, having secured a gig as technical adviser on a crime documentary.

Weaver tries his hand at painting watercolors but finds he's no good and tries to read mystery novels but finds he just can't focus, so he takes up Ashley's suggestion--George Weaver, real estate man and unhappy husband, becomes George Weaver, novice sleuth!  He does the stuff people always do in these detective stories, like talking to people who had met the victim and the murderer and going to the local newspaper to read eight-year-old stories covering the coroner's report and inquest and so forth.  Jenny Ames came to Arroyo Seco to marry an artist she apparently did not realize was a homosexual, Charles Nelson, who was renting the house now rented by Weaver.  Jenny had met Nelson through the mails via a Lonely Hearts service, and the charming Nelson had, it seems, gone to see the young woman in her home town and gotten her to fall in love with him; she agreed to join him in Arroyo Seco and marry him.  But, when the excited and naive young girl arrived, there was no wedding service scheduled--instead Nelson killed her with a knife and buried her in the desert, skipping town the next day.  The cops, ignoring the claims of a ten-year-old Latino kid who witnessed Nelson raising a knife to Jenny, didn't start seriously investigating until two months later, when a hunter stumbled on a woman's body in a shallow grave.  The local cops and the local reporters had no luck figuring out where either Ames or Nelson had originally come from, nor where Nelson went after the crime.  (I know, big surprise, the government and the media let us down yet again.)

Two French editions--does that look like early 1950s attire to you?
Weaver is deep in the middle of his investigations when Vi joins him in the adobe house with no running water.  Weaver doesn't tell her about the murder and conducts his detective work behind her back; for example, while Vi is sleeping he sneaks around at night, digging up the ground nearby, looking for Jenny's missing luggage.  (It is like he is cheating on his wife with the dead girl, whom all the clues suggest was more charming and attractive than Vi.)

(NOTA BENE: The MPoricus Fiction Log spoiler policy.)

Weaver gathers the clues, figures out Jenny's real last name and home town, drives out to that southern California town where Jenny and Nelson first met in the flesh, and he and we learn the whole story of Jenny "Ames" and Charles Nelson.  Nelson the gay painter had tuberculosis, and tricked Jenny into falling in love with him because Jenny's father worked at a bank, and she resented her parents, committed Baptists who kept Jenny away from boys, even after she was 21!  The charming Nelson convinced the sad romantic kid to steal ten thousand bucks from the bank; when she brought the money to him in Arroyo Seco he killed her and then took the money to a T.B. specialist in Arizona.  All for naught--Nelson's T.B. was incurable, and he died after spending two years in the clinic.  As for Jenny's parents, they sold their house to pay the bank the money stolen by their daughter and to keep Jenny's theft as much of a secret as possible.

My copy; the cover image is a close replica of
that from the jacket of a British
hardcover edition
 from 1952
In the last few pages of the novel we get an astonishing twist that ties together our various plot threads and may or may not make much sense.  It turns out the body that was dug up eight years ago was some other young woman--Nelson had entrapped and killed at least one other girl besides Jenny.  And maybe Jenny escaped Nelson--the ten-year old witness saw Jenny pursued by the knife-wielding Nelson, but did not see an actual killing, and Nelson, with his T.B., was in no shape for long runs.  Weaver, who has been drinking increasingly heavily and has been mentally unbalanced for months, notices similarities between Jenny and Vi's ages and backgrounds and comes to believe Vi is Jenny.

Throughout the novel Brown has been giving us little hints here and there that suggest similarities between Nelson and Weaver.  Nelson is a homosexual painter, and Weaver, while not himself gay, has little interest in sex (in particular he has no interest in having sex with Vi anymore) and, while not an actual artist, Weaver has an interest in art and high culture and over the course of the novel has painted (poorly) and taken meticulous and successful photographs.  (Remember, kids, this is the early 1950s, so Weaver has to do all kinds of calculations related to light levels and shutter speeds to take decent photographs.)  Weaver has even said that he admires Nelson's paintings and wishes he could paint as well.  On the final page of the book Weaver and Vi enact the horrible scene Weaver has been playing out in his mind since he first heard about Jenny Ames as he grabs a long kitchen knife (that he used to dig up Jenny's suitcase) and murders Vi with it.  In his warped mind, at least, Vi has become Jenny and he has become Nelson.         

The Far Cry is much better than The Five-Day Nightmare.  A good story needs conflict, needs tension, and this novel is full of it.  The tension between the white and Latino communities.  The tension between Weaver and his wife Vi.  Weaver's worries about money, about his sanity, his (not exactly successful) efforts to control his drinking, to find distraction from his business problems and his marital problems by painting or reading or investigating the death of Jenny Ames, and then his worries that he is becoming obsessed in an unhealthy way with the dead girl.

All the little elements of The Far Cry are also interesting.  In The Five-Day Nightmare the protagonist had to talk to a used car dealer and then a banker in an effort to raise money--boring!  In The Far Cry the protagonist talks to a detective magazine writer and to an art gallery owner about some canvases he found in the shed behind the rented house as he endeavors to figure out if they are the work of Nelson.  I find writers and painters more engaging than used car salesmen and bankers.

As I have said on this blog a hundred times, I love stories about risky or failed or disastrous sexual and family relationships, and in The Far Cry we have three:  Jenny's betrayal of her stifling parents, Nelson's seduction and (attempted) assassinations of "Ames"and other women, and George Weaver and Vi's unhappy marriage.  In this novel love is a lie used by the evil to manipulate the innocent or an impossible dream that traps foolish people in misery.

Brown is a good writer when it comes to prose and when it comes to constructing a plot--the sentences in The Far Cry are all good and even when stuff that is crazy happens nothing feels cheap--and The Far Cry is also full of emotion and tension.  I like it.  Expect to find me reading The Screaming Mimi and some Brown SF stories published during WWII in the near future. 

*This novel is not about a woman who manipulates men, but men who manipulate women.  Don't judge a book by its cover! 

MPorcius Flashback: Early 2014

In 2014 I was living in central Iowa; I recall that there were lots of cicadas there.  Growing up in New Jersey we would hear cicadas, but I don't think I ever saw one--in Iowa, on the other hand, I saw thousands of them.  I also saw quite a few bald eagles on the Des Moines river, another sight I never beheld in New Jersey.

Well, enough about the Hawkeye State's wildlife.  Judging by my fascinating twitter feed, an important primary source for future historians, I purchased a lot of SF books in March, April and May of 2014.  But did I actually read these books, or was I merely engaging in what the kids call "retail therapy," blindly driven to blunt the misery of my exile from Gotham?  Let's run the numbers and find out!

March 14, Des Moines, Iowa:  The Central Branch of the Des Moines Public Library, a modern copper clad thing whose footprint resembles an airplane and which is sited next to a modern sculpture garden, was unloading books that, I guess, nobody was borrowing, for a dime each and I got seven SF bargains on this day.

I think I got my money's worth out of this stack.  I have read six of the 30 stories in 2001's Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, those by Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch,  and Barry Malzberg and Kathe Koja (discussed in one blog post), and--assessed in a second post--those by Al Sarrantonio, Larry Niven and Joe Haldeman. All six of those were worth reading.  I've read a dozen of the 17 stories in the 2001 edition of Roger Zelazny's The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth, which I wrote about over four blog posts, here, here, here, and here.  I read stories by Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon and R. A. Lafferty from 1977's The Hugo Winners:Volume 3 and declared that two of them deserved their Hugos but one was a Hugo mistake, as well as two stories by Larry Niven.  From Richard Matheson's Collected Stories: Volume 2 I read "Slaughter House" ("solid") and "The Wedding" ("a weak joke story.")

I've read Jack Vance's Maske: Thaery, but that was before I bought this copy, and I've read stories that appear in The First Heroes (the Gene Wolfe story) and in The World Fantasy Awards: Volume Two (like Ray Bradbury's "The October Game," Ramsey Campbell's "The Companion," Dennis Etchison's "It Only Comes Out at Night," David Drake's "The Barrow Troll" and Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs") but that was before I started this blog or in other publications.

March 26, Des Moines, Iowa:  The library sale was still on twelve days later and I got six more books, but I haven't read much from these.  Joachim Boaz considers Michael Bishop's Catacomb Years to be a masterpiece, as does 2theD of the Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature blog.  I've read four stories from Brian Lumley's Screaming Science Fiction, but only one of them, "No Way Home," was good, and two of them were irritating; the fourth, "Snarker's Son" was merely pedestrian.  I've read some stories from the Niven collection N-Space, but in other books (like The 1972 World's Best SF,) and I read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. in the 1990s. 

April 6, Des Moines, Iowa:  I believe it was at the I-80 Flea Market (now closed) that I purchased the Ace Double with Barry Malzberg's Final War and Other Fantasies on one side and Treasure of Tau Ceti by John T. Phillifent on the other.  I have read lots of Malzberg's introductory material in this volume, but I don't think I have read any of the fiction in the book, though I have read much of it elsewhere.

There are eleven stories in the book.  "Final War," the story that, as Malzberg says in a letter you can buy on ebay for $75.00 at time of writing, "made his career," has been printed many places and I read it in one of them, The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg, back in 2011, where I also read "Death to the Keeper."  I reviewed The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg at Amazon.com, that place you are ordering all your dry goods and groceries from now that you are in coronavirus lockdown, and will paste my review at the bottom of this already too long blog post along with that Malzberg letter from ebay.  "A Triptych" and "How I Take Their Measure" I read the magazine versions of and wrote about them in my post on Universe Day, the fix-up novel into which they were integrated.  "Cop-Out" I read in The Far Out People.  But that leaves six stories in the book I have not yet read (these six stories add up to like 30 pages total.)


April 15, Creston, Iowa: Down in Creston (wikipedia says Creston has a population of 7834 people) I bought seven books, and damned if I haven't read five of them, The Nets of Space (unforgettable cover), The Pastel City (everybody loves this thing but me), Bow Down to Nul, Alpha Centauri or Die!, and The Cross of Fire. Not bad!


May 15, Mankato, Minnesota:  A northward drive of some three and a half hours from Des Moines brings you to Mankato, where they have a pretty good used bookstore, and where I purchased fifteen books on this May 2014 visit.  I've read ten of the twelve novels: A Trace of Dreams, Space Prison, The Green Odyssey, On A Planet Alien, All the Colors of Darkness, Three Worlds to Conquer, Outlaw World, The Comet Kings, The Rolling Stones, Quest Beyond the Stars, all of avant garde anthology Quark/3 (blogged here, here, and here) and most of the material in The New Mind (blogged here, here and here.)  Not so bad.


May 22, West Des Moines, Iowa:  At the Half Price Books in West Des Moines I purchased old hardcover editions of Harlan Ellison's famed Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, from which I have read quite a few stories.

Poul Anderson's "Eutopia," R. A. Lafferty's "Land of the Great Horses," and Roger Zelazny's "Auto-da-fé"

Evelyn Lief's "Bed Sheets Are White,"Andrew J. Offutt's "For Value Received" and Richard A. Lupoff's "With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" 

"Ching-Witch" by Ross Rocklynne

"Milk of Paradise" by James Tiptree, Jr.

"Tissue" by James Sallis, "Elouise and the Doctors of the Planet Pergamon" by Josephine Saxton, and "Moth Race" by Richard Hill

I have also read some stories that first appeared in the Dangerous Visions volumes in other places, like Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" and Larry Niven's "The Jigsaw Man."

May 24, Boone, Iowa:  At an antiques store in this little burg I found Novelets of Science Fiction, an anthology edited by Ivan Howard, which has one of my favorite SF paperback covers.  Over three blog posts (here, here and here), I read this baby cover to cover.

May 25, Boone, Iowa:  I don't think we spent two days in Boone, so I think I purchased these seven books on the 24th and just tweeted about them on the 25th.  I have read Tanith Lee's collection of stories about her character Cyrion, Poul Anderson's David Falkayn novel Satan's World, Kenneth Bulmer's Cycle of Nemesis, which I thought quite bad, and E. C. Tubb's second Dumarest novel, Derai.

**********

Typed letter dated "Wednesday Night" from Barry Malzberg to "Dusty"

 
2011 review by yours truly of The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg
On the cover of Popular Library's 1975 paperback edition of The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg we see a man in a bizarre get up (short sleeve shirt and gloves?), carrying an energy pistol in one hand, fleeing a futuristic skyscraper. From the skyscraper issues a squad of guards, or maybe an angry mob, in hot pursuit. The cover blurbs promise us eleven exciting adventures, full of robots, assassins, a maze, horror, and nightmare.
Of course, what you get inside the covers is eleven literary experiments, bound to disappoint anyone expecting A. E. Van Vogt- or Leigh Brackett-style action and suspense, full of chases, explosions and ray pistol firefights. None of these stories are adventure stories; some of them aren't even SF stories. But some of them are good stories, and most of them are worth the time it took me to read them.
The eleven stories:
Initiation - A noirish story of kidnappers that starts well and then peters out into nothing.
Management - A man's relationship with his robot psychologist in some kind of totalitarian state. OK.
The Union Forever - Attempts to assassinate presidents and presidential candidates are one of Malzberg's recurring themes. In this story a computer runs simulations of such attempts. A little weak.
Reconstitution - One of the better stories in the collection, about a man's relationship with his father.
Final War - An absurdist farce about the madness of war and of military bureaucracies. The longest story in the collection; too long, I say. There is little character, little plot and no drama, the jokes are not very funny, and the point Malzberg is trying to get across is banal conventional wisdom. This story apparently impressed many when it was first published in 1968; Roger Elwood calls it a classic and it has been reprinted in almost a dozen places since its initial appearance. People are into this story, but I am not one of those people, I guess.
Closed Sicilian - One of the better pieces in the book, a chess player indulges in the fantasy, or suffers the delusion, that his matches with his regular opponent are crucial battles in an interstellar war.
After the Unfortunate Accident - Not bad, A Twilight Zone-style look at the afterlife.
The Second Short Shortest Fantasy Story Ever Published - A one page gimmick story.
In the Cup - The fate of a religious person in an atheistic totalitarian state. Not bad.
Death To The Keeper - A famous Jewish actor, afflicted with irrational guilt and sexual dysfunction, is obsessed with presidential assassination attempts, and seeks to use his craft to become a sort of scapegoat for the entire United States. Pretty good.
Chronicles of a Comer - A statistician working for a New York City firm becomes convinced that the Second Coming is nigh; this has radical effects on his marriage, career, and health. Maybe my favorite in the book.
I liked the stories which focused on characters and/or had some sort of plot, and can recommend them to people interested in modern literary fiction. And people who care about SF history should probably read "Final War," which we are told is famous and important. But people hoping for adventure capers should steer clear of The Many Worlds of Barry Malzberg.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

1967 stories by Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch and R. A. Lafferty

From the anthology shelf of the MPorcius Library comes a paperback in a pleasant green, World's Best Science Fiction Fourth Series, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, printed by Ace.  This is a retitled 1970 edition of World's Best Science Fiction: 1968, a collection of SF stories Wollheim and Carr thought the best of 1967.  The wraparound cover is by Jack Gaughan, who also provides fun interior illos.

My copy, which is in really good shape--I think I am first to read from it
World's Best Science Fiction: 1968 includes sixteen stories, among them Harlan Ellison's famous "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (promoted specifically on the back cover of my copy) and Robert Silverberg's well known "Hawksbill Station."  I read both over ten years ago, in my New York days, and think both are good and you should read them, but I don't feel like reading them again right now.  Joachim Boaz in 2011 read the expanded novel version of "Hawksbill Station," which he gave five out of five stars on his blog, and in the comments there several SF fans discuss the novella.  (Joachim makes the novel version sound pretty interesting, I have to say.)

In their introduction to World's Best Science Fiction: 1968, Wollheim and Carr talk a little about the New Wave and the controversy surrounding it, suggesting that the changes in SF everybody was talking about represent more of an evolution than a revolution.  I'll be reading one story each from my copy of World's Best Science Fiction Fourth Series by two authors often associated with the New Wave, Samuel R. Delany and Thomas Disch, and two by R. A. Lafferty, who, while not really a member of the New Wave, wrote in his own idiosyncratic style that defied or ignored convention and whose work certainly qualified as something new on the SF scene which was embraced by critics.

"Driftglass" by Samuel R. Delany

It is the (nearish) future!  Mankind is colonizing the Moon and Mars!  And the ocean depths, where men work submarine mines and tend herds of whales and sea weed farms.  Who performs this dangerous subaquatic labor?  Men and women who, as children, received operations that gave them gills and webs between their fingers and toes, turning them into mermen and mermaids, or as they call them in the story, "amphimen."  (One female amphiman is named Ariel, presumably Delany deliberately reminding us of mermaids.)

"Driftglass" is a first-person narrative; our narrator is Cal Svenson, a retired amphiman who was born in Denmark but now lives in a Brazilian fishing village where he did his undersea work before that work crippled him.  Twenty years ago he was working a job in a nearby deep sea canyon, laying a power cable, when that project suffered a disaster, an avalanche that ended the operation and left Svenson with a long list of disabilities and scars that is the first thing we learn about him.  Retired and living on his pension, he has become fully integrated into the local community, and much of the story is about his relationship with a local fisherman, Juao; Svenson is godfather and a sort of mentor to Juao's kids, who will soon become amphimen themselves.

The plot of "Driftglass" concerns the fact that the Aquatic Corp is going to try to lay a cable in that canyon again; the young man who is going to lay the cable seeks advice from Svenson, and Svenson attends a big beach party the night before the risky operation.

The driftglass of the title is a reference to pieces of broken bottles that the sea erodes down into smooth glass pebbles; Svenson explicitly explains the metaphor--those who make their living on and in the ocean are eroded and smoothed by the sea much like the glass is.

The tone of this story is sad, even tragic, but at the same time sort of mellow and at peace with the vagaries of fate--the characters accept that dangerous jobs must be done, and that no life is without risk.  The disasters that befall some amphimen do not discourage Svenson or Juao from sending Juao's kids off to be turned into amphimen.  The plot of the story reminds us of the kind of stuff Barry Malzberg says (technology and "progress" are chewing people up, forcing them to radically alter their very bodies and go on dangerous missions) but I think Delany is portraying future social and technological developments more ambiguously, suggesting they present opportunities as well as risks, just like social and technological changes always have, and that being an amphiman is a tough job but also a rewarding one, like tough jobs throughout human history.  "Fishermen from this village have drowned," says Juao.  "Still it is a village of fishermen."

A good story.  "Driftglass" first appeared in If, and would go on to be widely anthologized and to serve as the title story of an oft-reprinted Delany collection.

   
"The Number You Have Reached" by Thomas M. Disch

We just read Ray Bradbury's story about a guy who is the last man on Mars following a war on Earth and who torments himself over the phone, and here we have Thomas Disch's story about the last man on Earth who torments himself over the phone--he alone has survived because he was on a trip to Mars when a war broke out on Earth and neutron bombs destroyed (almost) all life on our big blue marble.  The astronaut starts getting phone calls from a woman, but of course these must be hallucinations, the product of his guilty conscience and horrible horrible loneliness.

Why a guilty conscience?  One of Disch's themes in the story is automation.  The future depicted in the story is largely automated; for example, machines automatically clean the streets, so, when the astronaut returns to an Earth where everybody was suddenly killed, he sees very few dead bodies or car wrecks, as machines have cleaned most everything up.  As a military man, and as a man who loves math and obsessively counts things, Disch likens the astronaut to an automatic machine; it is also suggested that he is cold (the story takes place in winter and the astronaut doesn't mind the cold and finds the snow-blanketed city beautiful) and emotionless, that he had a single-minded obsession--to see Mars--and married his wife not out of love but because her father was a big wig in the space program or the military or something and could help him get assigned to the Mars project.  Anyway, as an automatic man, the astronaut is perhaps somehow part of the system that led to the catastrophe.

Another significant element of the story is that the astronaut contemplates and eventually commits suicide--a recurring theme in Disch's work and his life.

Not bad.  Disch's style is smooth and straightforward, but full of clever little notes (like examples of what the astronaut finds so fascinating about numbers) and succinctly-described but still powerful images.  Disch's work has economy, which I find admirable (and doubly so after all the Weird Tales stuff I have been reading, stuff which can be very wordy and repetitive.)  Disch's stories are often biting and potentially offensive, and this is of course true of "The Number You Have Reached," with its suggestion that military men, math nerds, and ambitious people in general are amoral robots.  "The Number You Have Reached," like so many of Disch's stories, makes you sit up and take notice, can stir you up. 

"The Number You Have Reached" first appeared in British magazine SF Impulse, and went on to be included in the collections Under Compulsion and Fun with Your New Head.   

    
"The Man Who Never Was" by R. A. Lafferty

I'm counting "The Man Who Never Was" as a rare Lafferty story, because, according to isfdb, after it was first published in Robert A. W. Lowndes' Magazine of Horror, it has only ever reappeared in English here in Wollheim and Carr's anthology of 1967 stories.  (The story did appear in a few European anthologies in translation, however.)

There is a long tradition of SF stories about homo superior, and homo superior's fraught relationship with us poor homo sapiens, and in "The Man Who Never Was" Lafferty takes a whack at this traditional subject.  The story's first paragraph reads:
"I'm a future kind of man," Lado said one day.  "And I believe there are other men appearing with new powers.  The world will have to accept us for what we are." 
The story's second para reads:
"Bet it don't" said Runkis.
Mihai Lado is famed as the best liar in his small rural town, the luckiest gambler and the savviest businessman (his business is selling cattle.)  One day a neighbor, Raymond Runkis, is denouncing his lies, among them such claims as owning a horse that can recite Homer and a cow that gives four different types of booze from its teats instead of milk.  Lado declares that, as "a future kind of man" with "new powers," he can prove that his outrageous lies are not lies at all.  Runkis takes him up on this challenge, daring him to prove his claim that he can make a man disappear.  Thinking such a feat impossible, so many townspeople place bets with Lado that if Lado should succeed in making a man disappear he will own half the town!

And Lado does succeed--a quiet, simple-minded man, Jessie Pidd, over the course of a few days, gradually vanishes, first becoming transparent and then gradually fading until he is literally gone. 

Many Lafferty stories contain chilling violence which is played, in part at least, for comic effect, and we also get some of that in this tale.

Lado is too clever for his own good; the townspeople consider his making Jessie Pidd disappear to be murder.  Lado insists that he hasn't murdered anybody--Pidd never existed, Lado created him, even implanting into the townspeople's minds a belief in Pidd; Pidd was an illusion all the time, and making an illusion disappear is no murder!  Lado is dragged into court, but he cannot be convicted of murder as there is no physical evidence of the alleged homicide.  Perhaps because they fear the great power of homo superior, perhaps because they don't want to pay up, the townspeople get together and lynch Lado, and then hide the body and go through their records, erasing all evidence that Lado ever existed.  Mihai Lado has been disappeared as thoroughly as was Jessie Pidd.

I like it.


"Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" by R. A. Lafferty

Here we have a famous Lafferty story which has appeared in several Lafferty collections and a bunch of anthologies since its debut in Galaxy.

"Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" takes on the traditional SF concepts of time travel, alternate history and "time streams."  A bunch of scientists and their super computer (the computer actually seems like the leader of the group) decide to send back in time an Avatar, which we are told is "partly of mechanical and partly of ghostly construction," to kill a person and thus change history.  The cabal sits high in a building, and will judge whether history has been changed by looking out the window to see if their city has changed, and by looking at a history book that lies open before them--surely if history changes, the text of the book will change.

The somewhat obvious central joke of the story is that the experiment is a success, but the eggheads and their machine don't realize it: history changes and the city and books in turn change, but the computer and scientists are themselves, of course, different, and thus don't notice the changes that to we readers are very pronounced.

Many SF alternate history stories are meant to be taken as serious speculation on what life might be like if the Confederacy achieved independence from Washington or if Nazi Germany had conquered the United Kingdom or whatever, but Lafferty here seems to just be kidding around, or even making fun of the whole project of alternate history, maybe arguing that we can't even really understand what happened in the past and its effect on us, so still grander speculations are futile or even ludicrous.  A clue to Lafferty's attitude is in the name of the historian whose book the scientists watch for changes: Hilarius.   

In case the medievalists in the audience (I know you are out there) are curious, Lafferty's story suggests that Charlemagne might have a maintained a good relationship with the Islamic world were it not for a traitor who caused the Battle of Roncevaux Pass; the Avatar kills this traitor, and the resulting encouragement of intellectual intercourse between the Christian and Muslim civilizations leads to an earlier Renaissance and superior technology and more vibrant art in the present.  The scientists, thinking their experiment has failed, send back in time a second Avatar; this one is to act in such a manner that the philosopher William of Ockham--he of the famous razor in our universe (a fact which gives Lafferty an opportunity to make some jokes about cutting throats)--will have greater influence.  In the universe in which Charlemagne has good relations with the Islamic world, Ockham seems to have unsuccessfully played the sort of role played with success by Martin Luther in our own universe; Ockham seems to have argued for pure materialist intellectualism and against spirituality, but to have lost the argument with other philosophers and failed to spark the sort of major reform movement Luther sparked in real life.

I think we can see "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" as a criticism of science, or at least a suggestion that many people hold science and/or scientists in too high a regard, see science and scientists the way people once saw magic and wizards, pagan religion and pagan priests.  The triumph of Ockhamite thought severely retards or even reverses technological and cultural development--after the second Avatar succeeds in its mission in the past, the world changes in such a way that the scientists are reduced to stone-age primitivism.  From the beginning of the story, when we are told the supercomputer chooses to represent itself as a dragon and that the Avatar is half-robot, half-ghost, Lafferty equates science and magic, and the scientists in the world that resulted from Ockhamism look for wisdom not to a supercomputer, but a fetish mask they all pretend can talk.  Is the computer the 20th-century equivalent of a pagan oracle, manipulated by the 20th-century version of a witch doctor?

Another brisk, fun, and provocative piece from Lafferty that serves up lots of silly names and odd jokes alongside its thought-provoking ideas.

I wrote about the Kuttner story in Transformations: Understanding 
World History Through Science Fiction, "Absalom," a homo superior story, back in 2014
*********

All four of these stories are good--each addresses some typical SF trope and is well-written and entertaining, and in each one the author makes an artistic decision or makes some sort of claim about the world that gives the reader pause and makes him think.  Commendable selections by Wollheim and Carr.

For some reason one British edition of World's Best Science Fiction 1968 was
entitled World's Best S.F.1 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Northwest Smith stories by C. L. Moore from 1933 and '34

As I have been telling you, I have been reading H. P. Lovecraft's letters in a sort of casual and haphazard way.  One thing that stands out in the letters is the high regard Lovecraft had for the work of Catherine Lucille Moore; for example, in a June 17, 1934 letter to Duane W. Rimel, Lovecraft writes, "C. L. Moore is certainly the most powerful & genuinely weird new writer secured by W. T. in many years."  I've read quite a few Moore stories myself, and blogged about them, but I think they have all been stories printed after Lovecraft's death, most of them written in collaboration with Moore's husband, Henry Kuttner, whom she married in 1940.  So let's read some of the stories by Moore that we can be confident Lovecraft read.  Today we'll tackle the first four Northwest Smith tales, all of which made their debuts in Weird Tales in 1933 or 1934.  I'm reading them in my trade paperback copy of Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, a Moore collection published in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series in 2002, but they are widely available, including in scans of 80-odd-year-old issues of Weird Tales you can see at the internet archive.

"Shambleau" (1933)

This is one of Margaret Brundage's
better efforts, in my opinion; beyond the striking
central idea, of a woman enamored with a dead
bone or Death itself, the symmetrical
 composition and use of color are effective
I actually read "Shambleau" shortly before I started this blog, and so am reading it again after a relatively short interval.

A little italicized prologue to the story assures us that before the rise of ancient Greece there was a human civilization on Earth, now almost entirely forgotten, capable of travelling to other planets, and that the myth of Medusa the Gorgon no doubt is based on dim memories of an alien creature encountered by that prehistoric spacefaring civilization.

It is the future, and Earth has founded colonies on Mars, multicultural little towns with narrow streets inhabited by Earthers, Martians, Venusians, and all kinds of other aliens.  Northwest Smith is a criminal packing a heat pistol, and a brown young girl ("sweetly made") runs from an angry mob, looking to him for protection--the mob wants to kill the girl, whom they call "Shambleau."  After he drives off the mob by brandishing his energy pistol, he notices the girl is an alien, with four clawed digits on each hand and foot, no hair anywhere on her body, pointy teeth, and a strange turban on her head.  Smith is used to dealing with aliens (his partner in crime is a Venusian space pilot named Yuval) and so he ignores the horror and disgust everybody else in town has for the girl and lets her shelter in his crummy hotel room while he goes about his criminal business.

During the day he spies on the space port and collects rumors at the bars, and at night Shambleau tempts him with her curvaceous human-like body--he lusts after her, but something deep within him, what Moore calls his soul, finds her revolting, and he resists his body's carnal urges...but not for long!  On their second night together Shambleau takes off her turban, revealing a nest of five-foot long slimy worm-like tendrils, and with her hypnotic gaze she wins Smith's passive consent to the most thrilling and most disgusting sex of his life, which Moore describes at length, not graphically but euphemistically:
So he stood, rigid as marble, as helplessly stony as any of Medusa's victims in ancient legends were, while the terrible pleasure of Shambleau thrilled and shuddered through every fiber of him....
Despite her sharp teeth, Shambleau doesn't eat regular food; part of their sex act is those worm-like tendrils sucking out Smith's life force!

Smith spends three days in that room, like a junkie, three days of pleasure in those slimy tendrils, progressively losing his physical strength and mental awareness as Shambleau feeds on his life.  Then, luckily, Yuval the Venusian arrives, resists Shambleau's effort to seduce him in turn, and burns the monster down with his ray gun.

"Shambleau" is perhaps Moore's most famous story and her most celebrated, and it is good and I like it, but still think it is somewhat overrated.  For one thing, it is too long, too wordy, for the little bit of plot it describes; Moore's descriptions of the mixture of pleasure and horror Shambleau inspires in men get repetitive and thus lose some of their power.  Another issue is that the plot is obvious--we know immediately, because of that little prologue about Medusa, that Shambleau is a dangerous monster.

There are at least two aspects of the story that are worthy of note because they go against the grain and thus help make it more interesting.  Firstly, fiction is full of depictions of heroes standing up to lynch mobs as Smith does in "Shambleau," but normally those lynch mobs are depicted in a very negative manner, their behavior denounced as bigoted and as contrary to simple justice and our traditions of everybody accused of some crime deserving a fair trial.  (Somewhat paradoxically, our popular culture is full of lone vigilantes who mete out summary justice when the state has failed to neutralize malefactors.)  But here in "Shambleau" the mob turns out to be right, to be guided by the wisdom of folk traditions that warn against monsters like Shambleau, and Smith's decision to stop them from eliminating the threat to their community is a risky mistake.

Secondly is the fact that, while this is a story written by a woman, it depicts women as dangerous in a very traditional way: a tricky deceptive woman uses her sex appeal to exploit a man, seducing him and then parasitically sucking his blood!

As I have suggested, "Shambleau" has been very successful.  We can see in Sam Moskowitz's fascinating article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940" that "Shambleau" was not only the most popular story in its issue, but the second most popular story in the magazine in the period covered by the article, with a staggering 85 readers writing in to praise the piece. Only a fraction of stories in Weird Tales ever garnered even half that many positive letters (over the 15 year-period, only 29 stories ever got 40 or more positive votes.)  "Shambleau" has been reprinted in many Moore collections as well as in anthologies of stories about vampires and of SF stories by women.

"...the distinctive quality of 'Shambleau' & 'Black Thirst.'  In these tales there is an indefinable atmosphere of vague outsiderness & cosmic dread which marks weird work of the best sort."
--H. P. Lovecraft, Jan. 28, 1935 letter to William F. Anger
"Black Thirst" (1934)

"Black Thirst" made its debut in an issue of Weird Tales that also included Robert E. Howard's Conan tale "Shadows in the Moonlight," which I enjoyed when I read it in 2018 under its alternative title "Iron Shadows in the Moon," and stories by Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith that I certainly hope to read some day.  In an April 13, 1934 letter to Duane W. Rimel, Lovecraft declared this issue of Weird Tales better than average, saying that "Black Thirst" was "magnificent" and the Howard and Smith stories "excellent."  Weird Tales readers felt that "Black Thirst" was the best thing in the issue.

We find Northwest Smith hanging around the bad part of Ednes, a port city on Venus, in the shadow of a warehouse by a wharf.  He is accosted by a Minga maid, one of the geishas of Venus, bred for beauty ("long-limbed, milk-white...bronze hair ") and trained from birth to charm men.  She invites Smith into Minga, the forbidden city of Venus! 

At the appointed time the forbidden door into Minga is opened to Smith by a eunuch who leads the Earthman through labyrinthine corridors to the chamber of the maid, Vaudir.  Smith learns all about Minga and its ruler, the Alendar.  In short, the Alendar is a thousands-year old monster who feeds on beauty, which it is revealed is a tangible force, and Minga, which rose long before mankind had come down from the trees of Earth, and about which the native Venusians built Ednes when they discovered it, is the place where the Alendar breeds women for ever greater beauty; the least beautiful of his specimens he sells to princes and potentates.  Vaudir, though more beautiful than any normal woman, is one of these lesser beauties--and there is something else wrong with her; while the products of the Alendar's breeding program are generally submissive, vacuous, almost soulless, Vaudir is independent and intelligent, and has come to realize what Minga is all about and dread her fate at the hands of the Alendar.  Thus, she summoned Smith, famed as the bravest and most resourceful of men, to aid her.

The Alendar has great psychic powers, and quickly gets control of Vaudir and soon Smith finds himself deep underground, by the black pool of slime from which the Alendar rose over a million years ago!  The Alendar gives Smith a tour of his lair, showing off some of his productions, mindless women so beautiful that it is painful for Smith to behold them.  He then says that, in order add some variety to his diet, that he is going to devour Vaudir and Smith's beauty (a process which will kill them)--it has been a awhile since he has fed on people with any intelligence or courage, and since he has savored male beauty.  The Alendar tries to conquer Smith's mind and a psychic battle ensues, but when Vaudir adds her psyche to the struggle the Alendar stumbles and Smith whips out his ray pistol and hoses him down, reducing the Alendar from a fiend in human shape to his native form, that of a blob of black goop that slides down the cliff back into the pool of slime from which it came before the first cave man to wield a tool was born on Terra.

Vaudir's soul has been corrupted by its exposure to Alendar's, her psyche pushed beyond despair by the direct knowledge that she is a product of the Alendar's evil, and she wants to die, but first she guides Smith out of the monster-haunted labyrinth of Minga.  She tells Smith she wants a "clean" death, fearing that otherwise her soul will join Alendar in the primordial slime, and asks the Earthman to shoot her down with his ray gun, and he obliges.

Like "Shambleau," "Black Thirst" is a little too long and wordy--its many lengthy descriptions of mind-blowing beauty and psychic combat and slime and despair become redundant.  The Alendar shows Smith one woman after another, when one would have been enough.  But it is a good story and actually more to my taste than "Shambleau," as I like ancient lost cities and sinister mazes and cruel immortals and evil breeding programs and people who long for death and that sort of thing.

Perhaps interesting from the psychological or sociological point of view is Moore's writing about beauty.  The Alendar explains to Smith:
"Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way.  It is a separate, distinct force that inhabits the bodies of men and women.  You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women...the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else." [Ellipsis in original.]   
It is hard not to see this is as Moore, a smart and bookish young woman, expressing her resentment and envy towards women considered more physically attractive than herself.  But maybe we can put a feminist gloss on it and say Moore is rebelling against the way our male-dominated society judges women by their looks.  We can also see Vaduir, the smart woman whose intelligence and courage leads to her own destruction as well as the destruction of the evil entity of Alendar and his dehumanizing beauty-project, as a sort of feminist martyr.  Vaduir is also an example of the Lovecraftian theme that too much knowledge of your true origins and your true role in the universe will drive you insane or kill you. 

"Black Thirst" has been reprinted in many Moore collections and at least one vampire anthology.
 

"Scarlet Dream" (1934)

Lovecraft in a June 1, 1934 letter to Duane W. Rimel wrote that "The May W T was much above the average, with 'Scarlet Dream', 'Queen of the Black Coast' & 'The Tomb Spawn;'" here we see HPL putting Moore in the same rank with Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, something he does several times in his correspondence.  More readers wrote in to Weird Tales to praise "Scarlet Dream" than did for either Howard's Conan story or Smith's "The Tomb Spawn," making Moore's the top story in the issue.

In a Martian street market Northwest Smith buys a red shawl with an intricate pattern, the likes of which he has never seen.  The merchant says it was found in a derelict spaceship found floating in the void.  Back in his quarters, Smith examines the scarlet thread that runs over the fabric's blue background, trying to trace its hypnotic labyrinthine path.

When he sleeps at night under the shawl Smith dreams he is in another world, where he meets an hysterical woman covered in blood.  She says a monster has killed and eaten her sister.  When Smith says it doesn't matter as this is only a dream the woman says that when we dream our souls travel to other universes, but that this universe is special--once your soul arrives it cannot escape!  Here in this world one must endure until devoured by the nameless monster!

In "Shambleau" Moore made much of how sexual congress with the title monster was a paradoxical mix of ecstasy and disgust, pleasure and horror, and in "Black Thirst" Smith looked upon women so beautiful that their beauty caused him pain, threatened to drive him insane.  In this story Moore again presents this sort of paradox with her utopian but hellish dreamland.  Here Smith and the lovely girl live as lovers, under a beautiful sky, on a lovely beach, in sight of a magnificent temple of wide halls and noble arches and broad staircases; there is no work to do, no TV and no books, so they spend their time laying on the beach and having sex.  But the very grass and trees writhe with hunger for their blood, at any moment the nameless and purportedly invulnerable monster may attack, and the only thing to eat is blood that comes out of spigots in the Temple--the inhabitants of this nightmare dreamland put their mouths to these spigots like babes to the teat!  Gross!     

Day follows languorous day.  Smith, a man of action, eventually decides he must leave, must explore the parts of the Temple the girl tells him are dangerous, or journey away from the Temple environs, even though the girl says that he will surely starve without access to those blood spigots, this dreamscape's only source of food.  Perhaps in response to Smith's resolve, the monster suddenly attacks, but Smith's heat gun, apparently, destroys it.  The woman then decides that she would rather die than live without Smith, and agrees to sacrifice herself to send him back to his universe.  Upon a wall in a chamber of the Temple is written the same pattern as woven into that shawl; the girl can read the pattern aloud, voicing a verbal representation of the pattern, which will open a gate.  The opening of the gate kills the person who says the magic word, but another person can quickly pass through the gate.

Smith awakens in his room on Mars--Yuval the Venusian is there beside his bed with a doctor, relieved that his partner has awakened from his coma.  The shawl has been given to some other spaceman--the sight of it gave Yuval a headache.  Smith realizes that the woman in the dream never told him her name.

A decent story, one of the many SF stories which pour cold water on utopianism--life must present challenges to be worthwhile.  The utopian dreamworld where people must drink blood to survive also reminded me of the dream in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain--a beautiful world with a monstrous underside.

Even though they both end with a guy burning down a monster with an energy pistol, both "Shambleau" and "Black Thirst" are about Smith in a battle of wills with the monster, a battle he needs help to survive.  I think we can see "Scarlet Dream," which also ends with a monster destroyed by a heat pistol, the same way.  It doesn't make much sense that Smith has his heat gun with him in the dreamworld--the pattern on the shawl didn't move him physically to another universe (his body is in a coma back on Mars), it moved his soul there.  The heat pistol is, in my theory, a representation of Smith's willpower, his refusal to fatalistically accept the fact that he is stuck in the dreamworld and has to drink blood and wait for a monster to kill him.  He stands up to the dream world, and, with the help of another, is able to escape it.

No doubt Lovecraft appreciated this tale's dreamy nature--Lovecraft's fiction and correspondence are full of descriptions of people's dreams.  I appreciated that Moore's writing in this one is less repetitive than in the earlier Smith stories.  I also like the device of a complex pattern, which turns out to be esoteric writing, being the key to somehow opening a portal to another universe; perhaps an allegory of the power of books to carry one to another world?

Besides the many Moore collections, "Scarlet Dream" has appeared in a book of horror tales about dreams and at least one vampire anthology.


"Dust of Gods" (1934)

Millions of years ago, before the rise of humankind, a planet orbited the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, a planet upon which resided the first of the gods of the solar system, Pharol!  Pharol was from another dimension, and, to interact with man, needed to manifest itself a physical form.  Eventually this form broke down; today it is only dust.  At least, this is what an odd character tells Northwest Smith of Earth and his partner Yuval of Venus in a saloon on Mars one day.

This guy knows where the dust of Pharol rests, and wants the dust for himself--he has books of magical formulae which, he contends, will allow him to reach into Pharol's universe and contact that horrifying black god, even control it, if he has the residue of Pharol's material form.  Smith and Yuval think this guy is off his rocker, but agree to go get the dust for him when he offers them fifty thousand Earth dollars for the job.

Smith and Yuval fly in a plane to the icy and mountainous North Pole of Mars, then hoof it through a series of caves, emerging on the far side of a mountain in a city that has been abandoned for hundreds of centuries and today is little more than a field of rubble.

Using their heat guns, the adventurers cut their way through the rubble to a tunnel that leads to a buried asteroid.  This asteroid is a fragment of that lost planet; after it crashed on Mars, burying itself; the faithful built above it the now-ruined holy city as a place of worship to their god Pharol.  The asteroid is hollow, and inside it Smith and Yuval find Pharol's throne room and, upon a pedestal, the dust of that alien god's manifestation in our universe!  When they realize that nut from the saloon knew what he was talking about they decide to destroy the dust with their ray guns to make sure it doesn't fall into his hands.

There is not a hell of a lot to this story.  Moore describes some alien guardians, but they are of the hypnotic type (like Shambleu and Adenar) and Yuval and Smith have strong enough psyches to escape psychic domination.  The protagonists encounter several strange phenomena related to light that are apparently the result of light from another dimension coming out of the asteroid into our dimension, but these phenomena are not dangerous, so they are simply curious rather than thrilling.  "Dust of Gods" is really lacking in the conflict and tension and danger we sort of expect to find in stories; I can only give it the grade of "barely acceptable."

"Dust of Gods" is not as popular as the earlier Smith stories we have read, as evidenced by its failure to win the highest volume of Weird Tales reader praise for the issue in which it appears (that honor went to "The Three Marked Pennies" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, who beat out not only Moore but Robert E. Howard, who had a Conan story in this issue, and Frank Belknap Long); it also seems to have been anthologized fewer times, at least in English.


*********

Three of these stories are easy to recommend to aficionados of the weird and those interested in sexuality in speculative fiction and SF by women.  The fourth is a little flat, but not actually bad.  Of course there will be more C. L. Moore and more Weird Tales in our future here at MPorcius Fiction Log, but first we'll check out some critically acclaimed SF from 1967.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Five-Day Nightmare by Fredric Brown

IF YOU WANT TO SEE YOUR WIFE ALIVE AGAIN YOU HAVE FIVE DAYS TO RAISE TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS IN UNMARKED BILLS NOT OVER HUNDREDS.  STAY HOME WEDNESDAY NIGHT ALONE AND YOU WILL RECEIVE INSTRUCTIONS ON DELIVERY.  IF YOU GO TO THE POLICE YOUR WIFE WILL BE KILLED....  
Joachim Boaz just reviewed a 1953 SF novel by Fredric Brown, and I just read four 1940s detective stories by Brown featuring bats, clarinets, fake news, and a guy who murders his brother.  I hope the internet is ready for more Fredric Brown content, because today I am opining about Brown's 1962 novel The Five Day Nightmare, AKA The Five-Day Nightmare.  I am reading the novel from a scan found at the internet archive of a three-book omnibus collection printed by Walter J. Black for the Detective Book Club.  My mother is a big reader of Agatha Christie-type mysteries, as was her mother (whom we always called "Nana") before her, and Nana was a member of the Detective Book Club for a period and had quite a few of these triple-book volumes on the bookshelf in her living room.  By reading this novel in this form, I feel like I am paying homage to Nana, whom we saw often and who always spoiled us with candy and cookies and ice cream, and making a gesture towards continuing a sort of family tradition!

Lloyd Johnson, our narrator, is an investment broker and partner with his wife's cousin Joe Sitwell in a small investment firm in Phoenix, Arizona.  Lloyd comes home one day to find his wife, Ellen, is gone and there is an all-caps note in his typewriter--Ellen has been kidnapped and he has to hand over $25,000 in five days or else!  Should he contact the police, Ellen will be killed!  Just two months ago, Lloyd remembers, the wife of a prominent Phoenix businessman and local politician was kidnapped; her husband contacted the cops and she was killed, so Lloyd has every reason to believe this creep ain't bluffing!

For like 95 pages (The Five-Day Nightmare takes up like 112 pages of this omnibus volume) we follow Lloyd as he travels around Arizona raising the money demanded by the murderous kidnapper.  We are privy to his negotiations with a used car dealer, for example, as he sells his Buick for $1,000.  In his quest to secure 25 grand he talks to lots of people--e.g., his partner Joe, a friend in real estate, the husband of an earlier kidnap victim who paid off the kidnapper and got his wife back in one piece--I guess to pile up lots of suspects?  We also get a lot of quotidian details about what Lloyd eats and drinks and what he feeds his cat.  (In my New York days I read the first four or five Mike Hammer novels by Mickey Spillane, and I recall scenes in which Mike cooked himself up some eggs.  I guess that is a traditional element of these hard-boiled noir stories.)

Along with Lloyd we learn all about the methods used by the kidnapper in his first two kidnapping operations as the stock broker talks to those with second-hand knowledge of those crimes.  There are various clues I suppose we readers are expected to weigh when assessing who the kidnapper might be--e. g., the kidnapper seems to know about real estate...hmm, who does Lloyd know who knows about real estate?

Lloyd has the cash in a shoe box when the kidnapper calls and tells him where to leave it, and Lloyd follows his instrutions.  Then comes the astonishing twist.  Ellen was not kidnapped!  The killer who kidnapped those two other women, who we have been hearing about for page after page, does not even appear in the story!  Ellen at no time was at risk of being beaten, tied up, drugged, raped, or murdered.  Ay, caramba!

You see, Ellen left to spend a week with her sister because she and Lloyd had a fight and she thought they needed a week apart.  One of Lloyd's friends (who was strapped for cash) by chance found this out before Lloyd, and stole the note Ellen left her hubby and substituted the ransom note, based on the notes left by the real kidnapper.  In minutes Lloyd figures out which of his friends is the culprit and convinces this joker to give the money back and leave town--Lloyd doesn't even beat him up or sic the police on him or anything.  And he certainly doesn't have a tense and bloody shoot out with anybody, as I thought all the scenes of Lloyd acquiring a revolver and practicing with it at the range and giving us the pro and cons of a revolver vs an automatic were leading up to.

This novel doesn't end in tragedy or in cathartic violence or the triumph of justice or any sort of explosion like that; instead of a bang we get a sputtering deflation.  Ellen and Lloyd even agree their fight was silly and they still love each other! 

Brown is a capable writer, and The Five-Day Nightmare is internally consistent and Brown presents all the clues you would, theoretically, need to predict the truth about Ellen's disappearance, but there is a strong shaggy dog element to the tale and it is hard not to think reading it was sort of a waste of time.

Barely acceptable.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Four 1940s crime tales by Fredric Brown

Recently on twitter Joachim Boaz reminded us of Fredric Brown, the respected SF and mystery writer.  I found Rogue in Space, Brown's 1957 fix-up novel, and his bizarre mystery story "The Spherical Ghoul" memorable, and decided it was time to read some more Brown.  There are plenty of stories by Brown at the internet archive from Galaxy and Astounding, but I decided to step out of the respectable SF mainstream and beat the bushes in search of something a little outre and read Brown stories from four 1940s issues of Dime Mystery Magazine.  The contents pages of the magazines announce that it is "The Magazine of Weird Mystery!" and according to wikipedia, Dime Mystery Magazine was the first of the "weird menace" or "shudder" pulps, which featured "sadistic villains" and "graphic scenes of torture and brutality."  Let's walk on the wild side! 

"Whispering Death" (1943)

"Whispering Death" is stuffed full of plot, a convoluted mystery story full of clues that has running concurrently along side it a love story.  Our narrator, Slim, is a sports reporter who next week will be leaving town for basic training.  He wants to marry his girlfriend before he leaves, but she wants to wait until the war is over.  Slim sees a dog get run over by a car--it was the dog of an old friend of his, Packy, a retired fighter with cauliflower ears and a crooked nose--scars of his career in the squared circle--whom he hasn't seen in ages.  He decides to look up Packy and let him have the bad news.

Slim meets and talks with numerous characters trying to find where Packy is currently living, including a pretty girl at a diner with whom he has a lot more in common than he does with his wedding-shy girlfriend--this waitress is friends with Packy and she loves the fights!  The waitress is worried about Packy--a contrast to Slim's girl, who is annoyed that her boyfriend associates with such low class characters as has-been boxers. 

Packy, Slim learns, is living in a crummy boarding house, in a top floor flat, spending all his time and money getting drunk and considering suicide!  He drinks, he says, because it drowns out the voice that keeps telling him to jump off a bridge!  While Slim and the waitress are visiting him, Packy complains that he can hear the bats up in the attic--Slim and the waitress cannot hear the bats.

Compiling all the clues, Slim figures out the astonishing truth: Packy can hear higher frequency sounds than us healthy people because of the peculiar way in which his inner ear was damaged in the boxing ring.  That is how he can hear the bats.  (It is nice to see bats, which have been getting so much bad press lately, getting some good PR here by pitching in and providing a valuable clue.)  Packy's dog must have left because there was a disturbing high-pitched sound in Packy's apartment.  That high pitched sound is a record played in the next apartment by a lackey of Packy's old manager--a special high-frequency recording of a guy saying "Jump off a bridge...jump off a bridge...jump off a bridge" that can only be heard by Packy and dogs and bats.  Packy's old manager is pursuing this elaborate murder scheme because he has a life insurance policy out on Packy and will collect if the fighter kills himself. 

Slim beats up the lackey, blackmails the manager, gets the insurance signed over to Packy; Packy cashes in on the policy so he has enough money to live a better life.  Slim dumps his girl and marries the waitress. 

"Whispering Death" was the title story of a 1989 collection of Fredric Brown stories, the fifteenth (!) title in the Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps series.


"The Devil's Woodwinds" (1944)

The narrator of "The Devil's Woodwinds" is Toby Something, the head of a dance band in New York City.  As the story begins he is just wrapping up a late night gig when his friend police lieutenant Shane Pierson walks in.  Shane tells Toby that a guy was just found dead, victim of a hit and run driver, and he had Toby's address was written on a note in his pocket.  Shane takes Toby to the morgue to see the body--it's Peter Wazemes, who just sold Toby a clarinet for $500.  Wazemes recently escaped German-occupied Europe, bringing with him three top-of-the-line musical instruments, and just sold them each to individual musicians.  Toby knows the other two buyers, and he and Shane go around to their places, to find that they have been killed and their new instruments stolen.  Back at Toby's place Shane saves the band leader's life when he notices Toby's decanter of whiskey has been poisoned!

Shane (and I) assumed there was some crazy spy angle to these killings, with the plans to a new radar set inscribed in the flutes and clarinets or something, but Toby stumbles on some clues and realizes that the spy stuff is just a red herring, a camouflage.  Wazemes's death was just a normal New York traffic accident.  A musician in Toby's band who covets Toby's job and also covets Toby's girlfriend (the band's torch singer) figured if he killed Toby he would be likely to inherit both; by killing the other two musicians as well as Toby, it would look like German spies were responsible.  (It is actually more complicated than that, but that's the gist.)  Toby hints to the killer that the jig is up, and the text hints to us that the killer is going to commit suicide.

In 1988 "The Devil's Woodwinds" would be reprinted in the twelfth volume of the Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps series, Who Was That Blonde I Saw You Kill Last Night?


"The Night the World Ended" (1945)

The man they call Johnny Gin is a war veteran and a drunk who hangs around Nick's bar, because Nick gives him booze in return for sweeping up.  A lot of journalists frequent Nick's joint; one of them, the night-side city editor of a local paper, Halloran, is a cruel practical joker.  He gets the idea of mocking up an issue of the paper with the front page headline "WORLD WILL END AT 1:45 TONIGHT" to see how Johnny Gin reacts to this alarming bit of fake news.  When shown the paper, Johnny, drunk as usual, gets the bright idea of "borrowing" Nick's .45 automatic (Johnny is intimately familiar with the weapon from his military service) to shoot off as the world ends, to sort of add to the fireworks.  Well, as you can imagine, when Nick catches the inebriated Johnny doing his little borrowing, and then the police get involved, a series of tragedies ensues.  When Johnny sobers up he proceeds to seek revenge on Halloran.

It seems like "The Night the World Ended" is one of the most successful (in terms of exposure and remuneration) of Brown's mystery stories.  Not only was it reprinted in the 1953 collection Mostly Murder and the 1985 collection Carnival of Crime: The Best Mystery Stories of Fredric Brown, but it was made into an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957.


"Each Night He Died..." (1949)

The first three tales we have read, "Whispering Death," "The Devil's Woodwinds," and "The Night the World Ended," are competent, and I can't give them a thumbs down, but I am not crazy about them.  The stories are mechanical; the many elements of their complicated plots work smoothly, they make internal sense and Brown leaves no glaring plot holes, but the tales lack emotional impact and Brown offers no ethic or ideology or point.  (I didn't think that of Rogue in Space, which seemed to be saying something controversial about American culture and which had a striking and morally ambiguous character at its core.)  So these three pieces disappointed me, maybe because I am not really the audience for mystery stories that are about clues and schemes--if I am reading a mystery story at all I want it to be about lust and hate and fear and blood.

Fortunately, today's final story, "Each Night He Died..." has the emotional oomph I like to see.  Dana Kiessling is in bed in his cell, sweating and screaming as he thinks about the electric chair--Dana, a loser who spent all his money at the track and on girls, has been convicted of murdering his successful and sophisticated brother George in hopes of inheriting forty or fifty thousand bucks.  Dana also thinks back on his life, and Brown does as good a job of constructing a believable and compelling relationship between the brothers and describing the failure of Dana's murder plot as he does of conveying Dana's frantic, pathological, fear of death.  Instead of focusing his energies on the apparatus of a Rube Goldberg plot, here Brown concentrates on human feeling and human interactions, and the allocation of effort pays off.

The twist ending of the story, foreshadowed by the title, is that while Dana thinks he is going to be executed tomorrow, and is shrieking and sobbing in anticipation of being "fried" in the electric chair, he is, not, in fact, in a prison but an insane asylum!  Every night, for six years, he has gone through these paroxysms of horror thanks to his delusion, and will presumably suffer this torture for the rest of his life!

Thumbs up!

"Each Night He Died..." was reprinted in Mostly Murder and Carnival of Crime, under the less spoily title of "Cain."   

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I guess Dime Mystery Magazine had cleaned up its act by 1942, because these stories have very little sadism and torture and just a taste of brutality.  I guess if we are looking for the hard stuff we should hit up some of the 1930s issues of Dime Mystery Magazine available at the internet archive.  (We got a taste of the hard stuff when, inspired by Fred Pohl, we read five 1940 horror stories by Ray Cummings a couple of years ago.)

I am not quite ready to go back to my readings in the weird or science fiction realms, and so will try one of Fredric Brown's full-length noir novels; hopefully in that longer form I can expect him to deliver both a solid plot and the emotional and intellectual stimulation I crave.