Tuesday, January 15, 2019

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

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

"It Walks By Night" (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hydra" (1939)

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

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

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

 
"Masquerade" (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

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

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

"Cursed Be The City"

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

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

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

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

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


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

"The Citadel of Darkness"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Grip of Death" (with Robert Bloch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 4, 2019

Three more 1960 stories by Robert Bloch

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Talent"

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

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

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

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



"The World Timer"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Three stories by Robert Bloch from 1960

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

This cover is not allegorical
"The Funnel of God"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Beep No More, My Lady"

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

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

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

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

"The Man Who Murdered Tomorrow"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Four stories by Evelyn Goldstein from 1959 and 1960

In our last episode we read three stories in 1950s SF magazines by Evelyn Goldstein that were about traditional SF stuff (post-apocalyptic life, robots, genetic science) but also about parenthood in bizarre or difficult circumstances.  I thought all those stories had merit, so let's read four stories from the tail end of Goldstein's brief career as a SF writer.  Just like the three from last time, today's four stories are available for free at the internet archive.

"Man's Castle" (1959)

This is a gimmicky sort of twist ending story, brief and sort of shallow.  A married couple, Arnby and Marilee, live in a village, and through their conversation we learn that the wife spends her time carving the work of important poets into stone; she has just finished up Whitman's Leaves of Grass (carving it in in espanol and francais as well as English) and is going to start on A. E. Housman.  We also learn that her husband has just been elected king.  I thought this was going to be one of those SF stories about how in the future there is no work so people have elaborate hobbies.  But then came a strange passage which suggested that, during a period of government mandated "trial matings," Arnby and Marilee each had sexual relationships with other people.  Finally, at the end of the story, we learn that Arnby and Marilee are among the last hundred or so people left alive on Earth, that a nuclear war sixty years ago when A and M were kids killed almost everybody and left any survivors sterile.  The trial matings, twenty or so years ago, were a vain attempt to find a fertile couple, and all that carving Marilee does a quixotic effort to preserve the height of Earth culture for eternity.

Acceptable but weak.  "Man's Castle" was published in Fantastic Universe, alongside stories by Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison.

"Man Under Glass" (1959)

Thirty-seven-year-old Craig lives in a domed city, a futuristic metropolis with moving sidewalks where what jobs people work and what clothes they wear and who they marry and how many kids they have is carefully controlled by government.  Tonight is Carnival, an annual celebration, and everybody wears strange costumes and dances in public and throws confetti about--the government head shrinkers think the citizens of this conformist society need one night a year to act wild, getting  drunk and having promiscuous sex, to "let off steam."  But Craig is not losing himself in the party atmosphere; he wears an old military uniform, one to which the revelers respond with unease.  In a series of flashbacks and exposition as we follow Craig's Carnival experience--he encounters a pretty girl who on this festival night is performing as a fortune teller and then a mutant apeman--we learn the history of Craig's future world and his own place in it.

Craig is out of step with his time, an expert on the past and an aficionado of the old ways who works as an archivist.  Over two centuries ago the world was wrecked by an atomic war.  Old nations collapsed and new ones were built under domes, and the public and government revolted against science and the military; mobs lynched service men and many types of scientific research were legally forbidden.  Craig's grandfather was a high ranking military aviator and one of the victims of the mob--the uniform Craig wears is his grandfather's, an heirloom hidden from the authorities.  (People in this story live to be 150 years old, so don't worry your head that there is some oddity about Craig's grandpa being a young man 200 years ago.)

When Craig was a kid it was determined that the air outside the dome was finally safe to breathe, and the dome doors were unlocked, but (as we see in a flashback to Craig's experience on that day) nobody was brave enough to go outside!  The whole human race has agoraphobia!  To this day, though it is not illegal to go outside, there is a powerful social taboo on leaving the dome, and nobody has done it--except our man Craig!

Infertility brought on by nuclear war is a theme in three of the Goldstein stories we have read already, and so it is here in "Man Under Glass"--the number of new births is dwindling, threatening the human race with extinction.  In Craig's youth, scientists developed an artificial means to create people, but almost all the people they were able to brew up in their labs (the "Laborn") were hideous mutants, freaks with wings or lacking limbs or with nebulous blob bodies or whatever.  The common people formed mobs to lynch all these monsters (lynch mobs are a recurring motif of this 30-page tale and we see them in action in another flashback to Craig's incident-rich childhood) but some have survived--on this Carnival night Craig meets two, the aforementioned fortune teller (her mutations are not visible to the naked eye) and apeman.  Craig tries to help the apeman when a mob and the cops come after him, but the simian sport can just teleport to safety and it is poor Craig who is captured by the police.

Goldstein's plot moves at a rapid pace after Craig finds himself in custody, and we readers and our hero are confronted with a whirlwind of developments and twists.  Craig is interrogated by Bordon, the "Chief of Mental Security," who then enlists him to marry his daughter Ann--that beautiful fortuneteller!  One of the lab grown mutants, Ann a psychic who is expected to enjoy a 1000-year lifespan and has been living incognito as Bordon's daughter.  Ann is also a virgin who has been exempted from the government-mandated premarital sex exercises, and when Craig climbs into bed with her to consummate their marriage the psyker teleports away!

Craig is the only normal human able to leave the dome so he is sent out to find Ann and the other lab grown mutants; fortunately they are not shy about revealing themselves to him.  Ann and a similarly gorgeous Laborn man, Everett, tell Craig that they are homo superior, and will be the Adam and Eve of the new human race--it looks like Craig's marriage with Ann is off!  And there is more bad news coming!  Ann and Everett (and even sterile mutants like that apeman) can teleport to other planets and communicate with various alien races.  It turns out that all the aliens are gentle and pacific, just like homo superior, and they don't want violent and aggressive homo sapiens screwing up their peaceful galaxy; Ann and Everett have decided to accommodate them and keep the peace by euthanizing the lot of us!  Fortunately Craig, by pointing out some of mankind's achievements that show an inclination towards peace (like the writings of Confucius and the Magna Carta), convinces the mutants to issue a stay of execution.  Then Craig hurries back to the dome, full of plans to work with more flexible and innovative dome citizens like Bordon to reform the human race so we are worthy to shine the shoes of all those peaceful people out there in space and explore the universe.

"Man Under Glass" is not bad, but it is no big deal.  Goldstein crams in a multitude of common SF elements, from the domed city, a post apocalyptic world, and artificial people to homo superior, the human race on trial and government control of sex, but doesn't do anything terribly new with them.  Maybe the most novel thing is Goldstein's emphasis on puberty and sexual maturity.  Bordon theorizes that, because she is going to live 1000 years, that Ann (though she has the body of a thirty-year old) won't achieve sexual maturity psychologically until she is seventy or eighty years old; in the event it is Craig's sexual advances on their wedding night that shock her into full possession of her galaxy-trotting psychic powers.

"Man Under Glass" was published in Fantastic in the same issue as stories by (among others) Fritz Leiber and A. Bertram Chandler.

"Days of Darkness" (1960)

"Days of Darkness" is probably Goldstein's most critically successful story--according to isfdb, it is the only one to ever be republished.  It first was printed in Fantastic (in the same issue as the first of Keith Laumer's Retief stories) and then was selected by Jean Marie Stine for inclusion in the 2004 e-book Future Eves: Great Science Fiction About Women by Women, which in 2010 was printed as a trade paperback with a slightly different title and additional content.

"Days of Darkness" may have the approval of the feminist cognoscenti and start off with a Bible verse, but it has a B-movie premise!  A flying leech from outer space lands in rural Washington state and begins murdering people living on isolated farms and then entire small towns!  The government has its hands full trying to kill this extraterrestrial menace because most of the time it is invisible--human eyes can only detect it when it is in the act of feeding--draining the blood of its victims!

Martha and Zipporah Otumn (dig the Dickensian name!) are elderly women living in a cottage on the last remnants of the Otumn estate--once, before the automobile, the Otumn family were the leaders of the community, their lumber mill its vital economic engine and their mansion its social center.  But since then the Otumn family has fallen on hard times--they had to sell the mill and move out of the mansion, it being too expensive for them to heat.  Zipporah has been an invalid, bedridden and kept alive by a regimen of pills, for decades.  When the state militia comes to evacuate Otumnville to create a free fire zone for the air force to bomb should their new detection scheme pinpoint the space leech there, M and Z refuse to leave!  In flashbacks and dialogue we learn all the details of the decay of the Otumn family, which can be traced to M and Z's mother's extreme jealousy, and about how Martha put her own desires aside to serve the interests of the family and look after the ungrateful Zipporah.  Back in the present it is not the American war machine that kills the space invader, but Martha--the leech detects its victims by homing in on their selfishness, but selfless Martha is invisible to it!  Martha, wielding a cleaver, is able to strike by surprise as it is sucking Zipporah dry and hack the menace from another world to into bite-sized pieces.

"Days of Darkness" is about the response of Earthpeople to invasion by a giant invisible flying leech from outer space, but it is also about women's difficult sexual relationships with men and, more so, women's difficult relationships with each other.  Goldstein presents us with two extreme versions of archetypes of female behavior--Zipporah and mother Otumn are jealous, envious, selfish and cruel, while Martha is selfless and giving; the jealousy of the selfish Otumn women leads to their own deaths and the collapse of a successful family, but Martha's self-sacrifice saves the world!  I'm tempted to say that Goldstein is putting forward embodiments of how individual women see other women, and how individual women see themselves, but that could just be my own lifelong experience of talking to women coloring my judgement.  There is also the possibility that the story is a lament over the shabby way women treat each other, Goldstein taking the line recently espoused in the 2006 book Tripping the Prom Queen.  More generally and more directly, Goldstein's story exhorts us to put love of others before love of self--Martha's former boyfriend actually spells this out for us on the tale's last page: "the hopes of mankind lie in its selfless people.  Survival will come through the love of one's neighbor over one's self!"  Maybe Goldstein wrote "Days of Darkness" with Cold War implications in mind--maybe she thought we should overlook all that business with the Katyn Forest and Berlin Blockade and Hungarian Uprising and just be nice to the commies!  (Personally I find the idea that the story is about the dangers of irrational female rivalry over men to be more compelling.) 

With its focus on women's relationships and its world-saving heroine, it is easy to see why Stine chose it for Future Eves.  And if you can accept the contortions Goldstein goes through to marry the two forms together (uh, we are invisible to the monstah unless we are selfish and it is invisible to us unless it is eating our blood?), it is also a decent alien invasion story and a decent capsule version of a tragic saga of the collapse of an upper-middle class family.  I like it.

"The Vandal" (1960)

This is, apparently, Goldstein's last published story.  "The Vandal" was boldly announced on the cover of Fear!, a magazine which only ever had two issues, but without the author's name.  This is what the kids call a bummer!

In five of the seven stories by Goldstein we have read the author has cast her gaze forward to observe a world ravaged by nuclear war, and in "The Vandal" she does the same; as she does in "Man's Castle" and "The Land Beyond the Flame" she reveals the nuclear was as part of a twist ending.

Abel is an astronaut, the product of a eugenics program and the first man to land on Venus.  Abel has a lifespan three or four times that of a normal human being, higher intelligence, and various psychological attributes that are designed to allow him to withstand the pressures of being the only man on Venus.  Goldstein narrates how he has explored a desolate cloud-covered wasteland inhabited by only the most primitive organisms as well as a pair of beautiful little Venusioan fairies.  If only the human race could learn to live like these little winged people, who love each other and live in harmony with nature and would never ever engage in an atomic war!

One day Abel discovers that the cave where he has been collecting samples and conducting experiments for almost a year has been ransacked.  Who on Venus could have done such a thing?  Abel searches the grim and inhospitable landscape for the culprit until finally the truth is inescapable--Abel himself vandalized his own research work!  Then comes a realization even more horrible--this desolate planet bereft of higher lifeforms is not Venus but Earth!  Abel went to Venus, met the fairies, and brought the fairies back to Earth, but found the Earth had been devastated by nuclear war in his absence.  His psychological defense mechanisms kicked in, and to keep himself sane he convinced himself that this was Venus, and started collecting specimens of things like amoebas and lichens--the only survivors of the war--and studying them.  Periodically Abel realizes the unsupportable reality and smashes everything in a rage, but then his delusion that he is on Venus starts all over again.  This cycle of thinking he is on Venus conducting explorations, then realizing with horror he is on Earth, the last of the human race, only to start the cycle anew, has been repeating itself for many years.

Not bad.

**********

These stories, with the possible exception of "Man's Castle," are worth reading for conventional entertainment purposes, but I especially recommend them to those interested in SF by women; "Days of Darkness" in particular is about the lives of women, especially how women deal with each other.  On the negative side, in her other stories Goldstein bangs away at the same themes again and again.

I am still enjoying reading all these old SF magazines at the internet archive, and in part because it is convenient (I am away from home and the MPorcius Library) we will continue to explore them in our next installment.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Three stories by Evelyn Goldstein

In our last episode we read a story by Evelyn Goldstein in which the main character tortured and murdered innocent people and then was shot down by the cops...on Venus.  "God of the Mist" was such a strange (and compared to so many of the other stories in Fantastic Universe's June 1957 issue, compelling) creation that it inspired in me an itch to read further in Goldstein's relatively small body of work.  A search through the internet archive's vast collection of old SF magazines turned up most of the nine stories isfdb says Goldstein published, so let's delve deeper into the oeuvre of an SF-writing Brooklyn housewife!  Today we'll look at three of Goldstein's tales, all from the mid-1950s.

"The Land Beyond the Flame" (1954)

"The Land Beyond the Flame" appeared in an issue of Planet Stories with an absorbing Kelly Freas cover featuring scaly fish men and a curvaceous human woman.  The exciting illustrations continue inside: the first thing we see when we turn to Goldstein's story is a two-page illustration depicting a barren alien landscape where one guy is discharging a ray pistol at hideous monster rats while another actually wrestles the noisome vermin for his life!  This is just the kind of thing we are looking for!

There are two kinds of people in the world Goldstein depicts in this story, the Numen, seven-foot-tall men with night vision who live in a high tech city under a dome, and the Olmen, barbarians who live in the wilderness and, as barbarians in stories do, wear loincloths.  The Numen dress fashionably but live in a totalitarian society controlled by scientists called Logicians; the Numen have no emotions, their actions are solely based on cold intellectual criteria.  The Olmen and Numen do not get along because the Numen, insatiably hungry for biological data, regularly sally forth from their domed city to kidnap Olmen (not to mention Olwomen and Olchildren!) for their vivisection tables!

Allyn is a Numan who's got something wrong with him--he is a throwback who has emotions!  So, when the Logicians ordered him to impregnate his twin sister Aleena (cripes!) he refused because the Numen have a genetic defect that results in Numen women dying in childbirth.  (The scientific overlords of the Numen wanted Allyn and Aleena to mate in hopes of producing more citizens with a propensity to giving birth to twins.)  Allyn fled into the wilderness, pursued by Numen aircraft, and as the story begins he makes friends with an Olman, Keeven, whom he rescues from a pack of giant rats with his flame pistol.

Keeven takes Allyn to his village, only to find that it has been raided by Numen--only Keeven himself and his sister Marva have escaped capture.  These three lost souls travel to the Forbidden Area beyond a radiation zone in search of the super weapons rumored to be there (they hope to use said weapons to crack the Numen's dome and rescue Aleena and the captive Olmen.)  On the way Allyn and Marva fall in love and our heroes tangle with Numen patrols; like we so often see in adventure fiction, people get captured, people get shackled, people escape, people steal vehicles etc.

In the forbidden land our heroes meet a people who are a hybrid of Numen and Olmen.  They have an archive of information about the past, and we learn (despite the illustration which shows three moons in the sky) that this story is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth.  The Numen are descendants of people who were mutated by the radiation of the nuclear war, while the Olmen are descendants of people who hid deep underground during the period of the war and escaped exposure to radiation.  The Olmen do not suffer the genetic defect that causes death in childbirth, and neither do children of mixed Olman and  Numan parentage.  Allyn, Keeven and Marva travel to the domed city of the Numen and with the help of the hybrids' psychic powers (the reality behind the rumor of super weapons) persuade the Numen to make peace with the Olmen.

The plot of this story is not bad, but it suffers in the style department and includes mistakes editors should have fixed.  "Flaunted" is used in place of "flouted," which is embarrassing.  When Allyn kisses Marva for the first time we are told she is "delicious as wild strawberries."  How would Allyn know what wild strawberries taste like?  On the same page Goldstein tells us the Numen eat only dehydrated foods and she presents a scene in which Allyn is "amazed" by how tasty fresh meat is.  Maybe a scene in which he ate fresh fruit for the first time was excised?

Despite its problems, an acceptable entertainment. 

"The Recalcitrant" (1954)

The intro to "The Recalcitrant" in Fantastic Universe tells us that "only a woman could have written this story..." that it has "compassion...high poetry...tenderness...[and] the breath of a fierce vitality...."  Sure enough, the first paragraph is a bunch of gush about flowers, sunlight, and some chick's dream home!

But not to worry, the rest of the story is not like that.  Jim and Alicia are a happily married couple, and over the twenty years of their marriage they have built their farm, house, and beautiful garden with their own hands.  But today comes bad news!  Jim tells Alicia that "some men" are coming to take him away, and he hides from them in the woods.  He is eventually caught, but Jim's performance in the woods (he is very strong and indefatigable, for example) provides us clues that suggest Jim is a robot married to a woman from whom he has kept his true mechanical nature a secret!  But when he is brought before the doctors who claim they want to help him, we learn that the truth is even more strange.

Jim is a cyborg, a human brain in a robot body.  His body was wracked in a catastrophic war decades ago, a war that reduced the human population of the Earth to a mere half-million!  So he could live as normal a life as possible, he was given this robot body, and something else--Alicia, a robot who thinks she is a real woman!  But all those robotics were a temporary expedient--the doctors now have developed a real biological body for Jim, with which he can, in a relationship with a real human woman, father human children and help repopulate the ravaged Earth!  But Jim is in love with Alicia, even if she is a machine, and resists being separated from his super strong robot body and the wife with whom he has built a happy life!  (Alicia is slated to be reprogrammed to work like a drone in a factory!)

This story is pretty good--I was genuinely surprised when it was revealed that Jim was not really a robot and Alicia was.  And, while the editor oversells the story, it is certainly noteworthy that both "The Recalcitrant" and "The Land Beyond the Flame" have at their centers obstacles to childbirth and parenthood--maybe Goldstein really does bring a female perspective to the traditional SF template of a melodrama* in which science causes and/or solves problems.

*"Melodrama" is the word Alexei Panshin uses to describe SF stories before the New Wave in his article of criticism in the December 1970 issue of Fantastic; I liked the article and like the word, which is more broad than a word like "adventure" and thus can comfortably encompass a story like "The Recalcitrant."

"Hour of Surprise" (1955)

The blurb on the first page of "Hour of Surprise" mentions motherhood, and I was excited to see the theme of parenthood carrying over from the last two stories.  This story appeared in Fantastic Universe, whose editor Leo Margulies (echoing the sentiments he expressed about "The Recalcitrant") tells us it is "tender" and "lyrical."

Aram is a twelve-year-old boy living "Inside" with his two sisters and single brother and their metallic "Mother."  His whole world is five rooms, but he knows an "Outside" exists, because Mother sometimes goes out there; when she returns her metal skin is cold, even though she has described "Outside" as a forbiddingly dangerous place of fire.

Mother has also set off limits a room into which she goes while the kids sleep; clever and curious Aram figures out how to gain access to the room and he discovers in there clues that suggest Mother is not their real mother and that they won't grow up to have metal skins themselves!  Mother may in fact be a machine who is holding them captive because of some kind of human vs robot war!  With the help of his eleven-year-old sister Aram manages to sneak Outside, where he learns the shocking truth (well, shocking to him; I guess it is more or less what we readers expected: the Earth was wrecked in an atomic war and Aram and his siblings, likely the only humans left alive, were left with Mother for safekeeping by their robot-building father.)

I liked it.

*********

I like old-fashioned SF stories, and these are competently executed, and Goldstein's theme of unusual or dangerous parenthood gives them a freshness and an emotional angle that touches our real life experience of having (and maybe even being!) a parent.  I enjoyed all three of them and we'll read more Goldstein in our next blog post.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Eight stories from the June 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe

If my calculations are correct, I paid $2.50 for my rapidly deteriorating copy of Fantastic Universe's June 1957 issue.  In our last episode we read the stories in this magazine by people I knew something about already.  Well, let's really get our money's worth and read the stories (eight of them!) by people about whom I know just about zilch.

"Holiday" by Marcia Kamien

In the little intro to this story the editor of Fantastic Universe tells us Kamien is a copywriter at a New York ad agency, is interested in Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities, and hates cats!  Whoa, is this chick single?  That is one sweet dating profile!

Four kids who have personal aircraft (just like 20th-century American kids had bicycles) tinker with the wires of their flying machines so they can go into "overdrive."  When they are up in the stratosphere and activate the overdrive they warp into another dimension, one that horrifies them.  This is when we realize these are alien kids--the crazy world they have arrived in has green grass and only one sun; it is our own world.  The kids manage to warp back to their own dimension, and we readers are told that it is these sorts of childish hi-jinks that are the cause of UFO sightings on our Earth. 

An acceptable four-page filler story.  Kamien has three stories listed at isfdb, and "Holiday" is the last one.  Maybe the cats got her?

"Day of Reckoning" by Morton Klass

isfdb tells us that Morton Klass is the younger brother of William Tenn (whose birth name is Philip Klass) and here in Fantastic Universe we learn he served in the Merchant Marine and is an anthropologist.  Morton has a dozen credits at isfdb.

In 1966 the alien Rogg conquered the Earth!  There were not very many of them, but the Rogg cunningly exploited the divisions among Earthmen and made us their slaves!

Forty-seven years have passed, and over the course of those long years of oppression the human race has cast aside its political and ethnic differences--finally, all men see each other as brothers!  The Rogg are ejected from Earth, and a bright future of peace and unity awaits us!

I guess this is the kind of story you'd expect an anthropologist to write, utopianism with no foundation in reality or even logic.  Acceptable filler, told in a series of flashbacks by the leader of the Earth rebellion as he presides over the Rogg surrender ceremony.

"First Landing" by Roger Dee

Roger Dee has a long list of story credits, and even a novel, at isfdb.  I actually read a 1951 story by Dee, "The Watchers," back in 2015 and forgot all about it until this moment!  I gave a thumbs down to that one, but maybe I'll like this one?

"First Landing" is a pretty traditional SF story about an astronaut who is sent to Venus to explore.  The Earth is united under a singe government because a war broke out between the West and the commies and the commies got wiped out, and the remaining states united to pick up the pieces of a ravaged world.  Our hero is on Venus looking for evidence of mineral resources the Earth sorely needs.

The astronaut encounters people on Venus he takes to be natives, naked bearded men who stand two-and-a-half feet tall and carry spears.  He crashes his hover car in the Venusian fog and loses his weapons and it looks like he is at the mercy of these perhaps belligerent aliens, but the story has a happy ending--the "natives" are in fact Soviet cosmonauts who were secretly sent to Venus just before the war erupted that destroyed the USSR--the Reds manned their ship with people whom Dee calls "midgets" in order to save on food and fuel.

Even if the ending is a little disappointing I like all the stuff about Venusian ecology and orbits and calculating how much fuel is needed to get back to Earth and all that.  Not bad.   

"God of the Mist" by Evelyn Goldstein

This one has the kind of title you might see on a Conan or Grey Mouser story, and it reads a little like a violent and noirish Brackett planetary romance.  (The MPorcius staff considers those good things.)

Venus has been colonized by the Earth; the primitive natives are like small beautiful children, and more or less at the mercy of the ruthless colonizers.  Seven-foot tall Kohler is a human criminal, a murderer, on the run from the human police.  When a tiny Venusian sees this huge slab of man meat he thinks it must be a god--Kohler looks just like the natural rock formation at his village which represents their god, Zanthu!  Kohler makes his way to the village, looking forward to living the easy life of a local deity among his worshippers.  He makes himself dictator of the village, callously killing those who question him.  But his reign is not a long one--his own hubris and cruelty serve to guide the police to him and he suffers a rough justice.  I was a little surprised that it was other Earthers who overthrew Kohler and not the natives--the Venusians in this story are pathetic victims, impotent to control their own destiny in the face of Earthmen's modern technology and organization and sheer size.

An OK story featuring surprisingly brutal violence against defenseless people.  The editor's intro to "God of the Mist" informs us that Goldstein is a Brooklyn housewife, and isfdb lists nine stories by her--they all have adventurous sort of titles.

"Versus" by Edward D. Hoch

I recognize Hoch's name, but I don't think I have ever read anything by him.  Wikipedia tells me that Hoch is a big wheel in the detective fiction game, but he produced enough SF stories to fill a 2015 collection entitled The Future is Ours. "Versus" appears in that collection, making "Versus" the only story we are reading today that was ever reprinted.

Unfortunately "Versus" is a sterile and gimmicky story with a gimmick so lame it barely qualifies as a gimmick.  Al Zadig is an interstellar organized crime boss who manages illegal gambling operations as well as space piracy all over the galaxy.  He bribes all the politicians and police authorities so his operations are not interfered with.  Suddenly, one day, the government changes its policy and starts seizing Zadig's interstellar casino liners and shutting down his planet-based operations.  A Mr. Snow comes calling; Snow explains that he is an even richer businessman than Zadig, and that after one of Zadig's pirate ships attacked the "space taxi" he was in, killing his wife, Snow devoted his fortune to destroying Zadig's crime empire.  Snow's simple strategy has been to give bigger bribes to all the politicos and cops than Zadig has.  If you were wondering what sort business Snow was in that he got so rich, he tells Zadig that "mine is an empire of good, of schools and hospitals and churches."

The anemic joke ending of this story is that when Zadig, driven to a desperate act of revenge, pulls a gun on Snow, the gun doesn't fire because Snow bribed Zadig's secretary to remove the rounds from the pistol's magazine.

Bewilderingly lame, like something a kid would write but without the gusto a kid might bring to a story about crime and revenge.  Can it be that the most commercially successful writer I am reading today has written the worst story?

"Snakes Alive" by Henry D. Billings

This is Billings's sole credit at isfdb.  This story consists mainly of radio transmissions between Dan Ellerman, best astrogater on the Galaxy Spaceways payroll, and ground control.  Dan is the sole crewman aboard a ship ferrying a cargo of cobras from "space station one" to Luna.  When Dan has to dodge an asteroid, the crate carrying the cobras falls over and breaks open and the motherfucking snakes are loose on the motherfucking rocket ship.  The snakes were stowed in the compartment closest the cockpit, and lies between the cockpit and the compartment with rocket ship's firearms and medical kit.  Not to fear--ground control transmits ultrasonic sound patterns which duplicate the effect of "the weird music" of "ancient Indian fakirs" and this pacifies the cobras so Dan can land safely on the Moon.

A waste of time. 

"Rock and Roll on Pluto" by Hans Stefan Santesson (as by Stephen Bond)

This is one page of text and is not even a story, just a plotless anecdote.  The colony on Pluto bans dancing and pop music, but some people go to the top of a mountain and play music and dance anyway.

This "story" was written by the editor of Fantastic Universe under a pseudonym.  I guess he had a blank page and needed to fill it with something and found himself unable to sell or donate the it as ad space, and so produced this non sequitur.

(Hoch is off the hook--this is the worst story in the magazine.)

"My Martian Cousin" by Mark Reinsberg

Reinsberg has ten stories listed at isfdb and was the book reviewer at Imagination for a little less than a year.  He seems to have been an earnest reviewer--in the December 1953 issue of Imagination he gushes with unabashed love about The Space Merchants and also points out some shady practices of super-editor Donald Wollheim's.  (I think Wollheim is great, but he certainly provides one opportunities to say "tsk, tsk.")

As its title might have led readers to expect, "My Martian Cousin" starts off as a sort of a comedy--I found it reminiscent of a TV sitcom.  Our narrator is Kathy, an attractive Earth-born woman living in one of the domed colonies on Venus with her husband of nine years, Mike, one of the first humans to actually be born on Venus.  Reinsberg, exploring the mysterious depths of female sexuality, has Kathy tell us she likes the way Mike's muscles ripple with energy when he is angry, and the story provides plenty of opportunities for Mike to get angry.  As our narrative begins, the happy couple is at the spaceport waiting for Kathy's cousin, college girl Gerda, to get out of customs.  It is taking forever because Martian-born Gerda, who invited herself like Edwige Fenech did in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, brought along her pet Martian monster and the beast needs to be thoroughly decontaminated!  Mike snarls that she should have just left the monster in quarantine--she is only going to be on Venus for three days!  But when Mike sees Gerda for the first time (Kathy herself hasn't seen her for twelve years) she is, like Fenech's character in Sergio Martino's fourth giallo, unexpectedly gorgeous, and Kathy's irritable hubby changes his tune!

But not for long!  Gerda is a hardcore Mars patriot who lives in a city of millions back on the Red Planet, and to her this tiny Venusian domed city is provincial, boring, primitive, and unsanitary.  Everything on Mars, she assures everybody she meets, is better!  (Gerda sounds like me when I moved from New York to Iowa!)  Mike, a local big wig (he has one of city's eight aircar licenses and is an atmosphere scientist responsible for the air in the dome, the air that Greda insists is unhygenic), has to stand up for his home town and home planet, of course.  Kathy is not much use at keeping the peace--Mars is currently at war with Earth, and Gerda's complaints of Earth tyranny (and the Martian dump that Gerda's pet monster takes on the carpet!) create just as much tension between the unwanted houseguest and the lady of the house.     

All that stuff is amusing, but things get real (as the kids say) when the monster scratches one of Kathy and Mike's kids, it is discovered that somebody has sabotaged the dome (now who could that be?), and a drunken Gerda lets slip rumors about a Martian secret weapon that could exterminate life on Earth!  How will Kathy and Mike respond to these crises?

This is a good story; the speculations about human life adapting to other planets and how human societies on different planets might interact are interesting, the humor stuff was actually humorous, and the way Kathy resolves the politics and war plot was clever--and it is all believable, the people feel like real people, not caricatures in an over-the-top satire or cartoonish superheroes in an action extravaganza.  The story also includes tons of stuff for you feminists to pick over, with a female hero at odds with a female villain ("Short Essay: To what extent do Kathy and Gerda fulfill or defy stereotypes of women?") and lots about the narrator's relationship with her husband, her kids, and her larger society.  "My Martian Cousin" reminded me of Heinlein's "The Menace From Earth," another 1957 story which combined descriptions of an extraterrestrial colony with a human interest drama (as with the Brackett comparison, we here consider that a compliment.)

**********

We've suffered through some lame pieces today in Fantastic Universe, but found a solidly good one in the Reinsberg story, while Dee and Goldstein also offer entertaining tales.  I'm judging this exploration of one of SF's lesser periodicals to have been worthwhile.