Saturday, October 12, 2019

"Talking in the Dark," "I Can Hear the Dark" and "The Graveyard Blues" by Dennis Etchison

At the internet archive you can find a scan of the 1987 Berkley paperback edition of Denis Etchison's 1984 collection Red Dreams, with a cover by J. K. Potter that is reminding me of Vampire Hunter D and is a rehash of Potter's cover for a magazine that illustrates a story by J. N. Williamson.  (My brother loves Vampire Hunter D, but I could never get into it.)


In his introduction to Red Dreams, Karl Edward Wagner of Kane and "Sticks" fame says that most horror fans are too unsophisticated to get Etchison and that even serious horror readers often find him "too subtle" or "too downbeat."  Let's read three stories from the collection and see if we pass the KEW test or should be consigned to the ranks of what Wagner calls "the average shock fan" or "the reader of supermarket-pop horror;" I really liked an early version of Etchison's "Wet Season," a revision of which appears here in Red Dreams, and his "It Only Comes Out at Night," so I think there is a chance of passing this test!

(I find it annoying when authors attack other authors in an oblique "I'm preserving plausible deniability to protect my career" fashion.  Who is Wagner slurring when he talks about "supermarket-pop horror?"  What horror novels would be sold in a supermarket in 1985?  Christine and Pet Semetary and The Talisman?  Is Wagner hinting that he thinks Stephen King sucks?  This seems unlikely, as Wagner included King stories in the volumes of DAW's Year's Best Horror he edited in '81, '84 and '85.  It's a mystery!)

"Talking in the Dark" (1984)

"Talking in the Dark" was in Charles L. Grant's Shadows 7, was chosen by Wagner for DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series XIII, and would serve as the title story for a 2001 Etchison collection.  Maybe reading this story is a good way to figure out what Etchison is all about.

The ironically named Victor Ripon is a man in his early thirties who has lots of problems.  He dropped out of pre-med to become some kind of computer tech, and that didn't work out, either.  His wife left him and he never sees his kids--she travels around the country, apparently a deliberate strategy to make it difficult for him to find her.  He now lives in his dead parents' decrepit old house, eking out an existence repairing appliances in a little shop he rents behind the local diner.  Victor's poor decisions and his incapacities hurt him and they hurt those around him, like the waitress at the diner who would like to be his steady girlfriend or wife and make a life with him--Victor lacks the energy or interest to meet her halfway, to care for her like she wants to care for him.

His life just one miserable day after another, Victor is on the brink--only one thing really matters to him: the horror novels of Rex Christian!  In a long letter that is amusing because of its solecisms and pathetic because of its desperate need, Victor says he likes Christian's work because "in your books people always get what they deserve" and invites Christian to come visit him, suggesting that the two have much in common and can help each other.

I guess I've already addressed this issue at the blog here, but I will again present my theory that a true horror story doesn't suggest that "people always get what they deserve."  There are tons of stories that are nominally horror stories in which a guy kills a spider and then gets eaten by a giant spider or steals a pile of money and then gets drowned in a pile of money or runs a Nazi death camp or a German submarine and then in Hell is a prisoner in a death camp or a civilian passenger on a doomed Allied freighter as it gets torpedoed by a U-boat.  These are stories in which bad people suffer poetic justice, stories which present the universe as an orderly place in which bad people are punished for their misdeeds.  Such a universe is not horrible or horrifying--such a universe would be an improvement over our real universe, in which innocent people suffer through no fault of their own all the time and bad people prosper from their misdeeds, and people can't even agree on what constitutes a misdeed.  To my mind, a real horror story is a reminder that the universe is inexplicable chaos and morality is an opinion and life is meaningless.  This is why H. P. Lovecraft is the greatest of horror writers--his stories overturn the assumptions of religious people that human beings are important and God is there to guide and protect us, and the assumptions of scientific people that human beings can figure out the universe and use what we learn to make our lives better.

(A story in which justice is served or good triumphs over evil can be a good story, and I like plenty of stories which have such a bent, but I don't think they are really horror stories.  Also, you don't have to buy Lovecraft's ideas about religion and science to find his work effective.)

Anyway, we are told that in Rex Christian's fiction people get what they deserve.  This little factoid, and Rex Christian's name, and Victor's belief that Christian is the only person who can help him, suggest that Rex Christian represents God, or a conception of God, and there are a number of other clues in the story that suggest it is about religion.

(We also have to consider the possibility that Rex Christian is just named after Richard Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson.)

Sure enough, Rex Christian responds to Victor's invitation!  Victor even breaks the waitress's heart by breaking a date with her to meet secretly with Christian--Christian demands absolute privacy and secrecy!  Unexpectedly, Christian the famous author is a dwarf!  Christian explains that he likes to meet his readers because they provide inspiration for his writing--he meets unhappy losers like Victor as an aid to writing about people who are unhappy and have been defeated by life.  And it is worse than that!  After putting his tiny hand on Victor's head (Etchison describes it as "a grotesque benediction") Rex Christian whips out a short sword and stabs Victor to death.

If you've got yourself a horror bookclub, here's a question for you kids to discuss after reading "Talking in the Dark:" to what extent is Rex Christian's murder of Victor ironic (because Victor doesn't deserve to be stabbed to death) and to what extent is it his just desserts (because his treatment of the waitress, and maybe his wife, and his general foolishness mean he deserves the death penalty)?

On one level "Talking in the Dark" is an attack on religion, and maybe a more general suggestion that it is a mistake to look to others for salvation, that you have to run your own life--it seems like Victor could build a decent life with the waitress if he made an effort to do so and wasn't distracted by his worship of Christian.

On another level "Talking in the Dark" is a sort of joke story about being a writer.  Victor's clumsy fan letter, full of worship and then nitpicky criticisms of his hero's books, is funny.  And the punchline of the story is that Victor wants to ask Christian where he gets his ideas, because Victor himself wants to be a writer but has trouble coming up with ideas.  (Also, the idea of a horror novelist killing people as research is pretty jokey--an almost identical idea is the basis of Robert Bloch's 1957 joke story "Crime in Rhyme.")

This is a good story.  It may be a little overwritten (there is a  passage about how the vibrations from the waves hitting the shore a mile away are like the beating of a human heart under the town) but there isn't too much of that.  Anthologists besides Wagner, including prominent editors Stephen Jones and Martin H. Greenberg, have also included "Talking in the Dark" in their publications, so I guess it is a story we can say has been embraced by the horror community.

"I Can Hear the Dark" (1978)

The first publication isfdb lists for "I Can Hear the Dark" is in The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series VI, edited by Gerald W. Page.  Is this really where it first appeared?  There is a 2017 edition of Red Dreams that is said to include extensive notes on each story, so maybe the answer is in that volume, but we are working on a low budget here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

This story is just OK; it is "about" Hollywood--its characters are all actors who make references to Roger Corman and Telly Savalas--which doesn't really interest me.

A little kid is hanging around the house, where his mother, an actress who was in Rome for years starring as a villain in horror movies now shown on late night TV, is entertaining her friends, a bunch of soap opera actors.  Most of the story is the dialogue among these adults which the kid hears, some of it about how life is like a poorly written script, some of it about acting, methods and theories of how to put on a good performance when the script is poor or half-finished.  This discussion is significant because soon the actors are all going to have to put on a performance for the cops for which there is no prepared script!

Etchison doesn't give us the plot in a straightforward way, we have to piece it together from the adults' dialogue, but I don't think it is a particularly challenging task.  Basically, the mother is cheating on her husband, he found out, and she killed him just an hour or so ago here in the house, maybe when he came by to take away the little boy.  The actors will all back her up in the story she will tell that will make it appear to be self defense--Etchison leaves it unclear to what extent it really was self defense, though there is no doubt they are all going to lie to the police.  The supernatural element of the story is that the kid, who seems to have a better relationship with his father than with his mother and doesn't know about the killing (he was out with the nanny), has a nagging feeling that something important to him has been lost or stolen--he figures that it is a toy or something like that.  To relieve this uneasy feeling, he heads upstairs to inventory his toys.  The father's corpse is upstairs--Mom figured the kid wouldn't go up there alone, as he is afraid of the dark.  The story ends just before the kid finds his father's dead body.  Presumably this will drive the kid, who already has some psychological issues and whose mother is obviously neglectful, totally out of his gourd.

Etchison apparently wrote many Hollywood stories; we read one a few years ago, "Dog Park," and one of his collections, Fine Cuts, is entirely devoted to stories about Hollywood.

"The Graveyard Blues" (1974)

This one debuted in F&SF, in an issue which includes Barry Malzberg's "A Delightful Comedic Premise," which I read and recommended to the world at large three years ago.

I thought I might be failing the KEW test, because I was finding "The Graveyard Blues" to be a real poser the first time I read it, but I read it a second time and think I have figured it out.

Sixteen-year-old Marston is a member of a family of people who all write down their dreams in journals and notebooks.  His maternal grandfather, who served in World War One, was the first to do this.  Once a week the adult members of the family meet to discuss their dreams, and one of the current patriarchs judges what is to be done about the dreams; it is implied that the dreams are predictions and the family can prevent bad things from happening by taking advantage of this advance knowledge.  Of course, all the stuff I just told you isn't really clear until the story is practically over.  The earlier parts of the story are about how Marston spends time at the local cemetery and sees two black clad figures there, apparently blind people, gesticulating over a grave.  At the end of the story we learn how these people are connected to Marston's family--Marston's mother, in the course of explaining to him this business about the family's dreams and his responsibility to record his dreams, says that the black clad people are her sister and a cousin who abandoned the family or something, and come to the cemetery to visit her father's grave.

The psychological core of the story is that Marston is not sure he wants the responsibility of telling his dreams to his family--he thinks it will be embarrassing--and so he may make up dreams that he thinks will satisfy them, or just run away.  The two blind women he sees in the cemetery, it appears, ran away from their dream responsibilities--if he similarly shirks will he also go blind?

This is an admirable story, economical and full of vivid images and all that, but I'm not sure I enjoyed it.  Is it fun, or funny, or moving, or interesting?  Like "I Can Hear the Dark" it is a puzzle, and there is some satisfaction over having (I believe) figured it out, but was it a good time?  I'm not sure.  I guess we'll call it acceptable.

**********

These three stories are all well-written and well-structured and have layers and all that--they are sophisticated and run like clockwork and make the stories of, say, Robert Bloch's that I read recently, look childish and ham-fisted.  But I'm afraid that I only really connected emotionally with "Talking in the Dark;" "I Can Hear the Dark" and "The Graveyard Blues" were a little cold and academic--I felt for Victor the loser and the sad waitress, and laughed at poor Victor's embarrassing letter, but the predicaments of the boys in "I Can Hear the Dark" and "The Graveyard Blues" left me cold.  This may be a reflection of my own sympathies and prejudices more than any real difference in quality among the stories.

I'll read more from Red Dreams in the future, but our next episode will feature science fiction short stories from the second half of the 1950s.       

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Though a Sparrow Fall," "Morality," and "Judas Fish" by Thomas N. Scortia

There are twenty stories in Thomas N. Scortia's 1975 collection Caution! Inflammable!  Back in September we read the five stories from the book that debuted in the 1950s; today let's tackle the next three stories to appear (chronologically.)

"Though a Sparrow Fall" (1965)

This story appeared in the same issue of Analog that had the first half of the serialized version of Poul Anderson's David Falkayn story, "The Trouble Twisters," which we read back in 2013.

"Though a Sparrow Fall" is a trifling filler story, four pages here, an idea rather than an actual story.  A biochemist who is also a cryptography buff decides to run the DNA of a person through a "truly synthetic" computer, and the computer figures out that the pattern of our DNA relates a simple mundane message.  Presumably this means the human race was created by aliens to leave a trivial message for other aliens; the computer even suggests that the message has already been received, which would mean that the human race's purpose has already been accomplished.

The plot of the story is the biochemist telling this to other academics at a party--the truth about humanity saddens some of those who learn of it.

Acceptable--it is just an idea, but the idea is pretty cool.

"Morality" (1969)

Occasionally we run into SF stories that purport to explain the origins of old myths and legends and religions.  MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton, for example, explained the scientific reality behind Norse myths of Loki, Thor and Freya in 1941's  A Yank at Valhalla.  MPorcius fave A. E. van Vogt explained the origin of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in his story "Ship of Darkness."  Well, here in "Morality," Scortia explains that the Minotaur who lived in a maze and was killed by Theseus was a psychic alien on a mission to save his people!  Scortia cleverly keeps the fact that he is talking about Crete and King Minos and all that a secret until the end of the story, but you were warned that this blog was spoilertastic, so no complaints!

Glat's people were dying of a plague, so Glat went searching the galaxy for a cure.  He found it on Earth, in lichen, some centuries before the birth of Christ (or as I am supposed to say now, "before the common era.")  But his spaceship crashed, and, injured, he was taken captive by a Bronze age king.  Glat realized that he can only subsist on one Earth food--human blood!  The cruel king provided him people to exsanguinate in return for Glat's use of his psychic powers to make the island king's armies victorious over his enemies.  Every day Glat sends out psychic messages, hoping that others of his race will enter the solar system and he can tell them of his life-saving discovery.  The plot of this story concerns not only the arrival of Glat's people, but the machinations of the King's daughter that lead to Theseus destroying Glat.

This is a good story, and I was enjoying it long before I realized it was about the Minotaur.  (In what might be a mistake, early in the story the planet Glat landed on is called the "fourth planet of this system," which made me dismiss any possibility it was Earth, which I always think of as the third planet.  Maybe Glat was confused by Luna?)  Not only is it fun to see a sword and sorcery plot from the monster's point of view, but Glat is burdened by an interesting moral dilemma--he feels guilty for murdering all those people in order to stay alive long enough to save his own race, and basically wants to commit suicide as soon as he has transmitted to his comrades the cure for the plague back home.

Thumbs up!  "Morality" appeared first in Fantastic, in the same issue as a discussion of Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron by Fritz Leiber, an essay on The Arabian Nights by Piers Anthony, reviews of books on J. R. R. Tolkien, a story by Thomas Disch, and a drawing by Jeff Jones.  An issue well worth checking out--Ted White ran a good magazine!

"Judas Fish" (1970)

It is the future!  ("The future, Conan?")  The year 2000!  Due to overpopulation, the world faces terrible food shortages.  America is wracked by revolutionary violence.  The Japanese government is euthanizing people by the hundreds of thousands in "the public chambers."  Government and big business are scrambling to develop new food sources, and one strategy is to bend all kinds of sophisticated technology to catch the schools of fish who live deep in the Pacific ocean.  A single operator, living alone in a pressurized dome called a "deep station," can control a squadron of robotic submarine probes to find schools of edible fish, and a "pressure net" to catch them.  Once a school of edible fish is captured, the operator can alter the genetic material of some of them, conditioning them to have leadership abilities and to have an affinity for the pressure net--such "judas fish," once released, will find schools of fish of the same species and lead them right into the pressure net, which is just a few steps away from hungry Americans' dinner tables.

(Jack Vance used this concept of a Judas fish in one of the Magnus Ridolph stories, 1949's "The Sub-Standard Sardines.")

The lion's share of "Judas Fish" is the journal of Jefferson Boyer, one of these guys who operates a deep station and catches fish by the ton with these high-tech techniques.  These jokers live all alone under the waves for two or three months at a time!  Prime conditions for somebody to suffer hallucinations or just go generally bonkers!

Boyer finds that some of the schools of fish he has coaxed into his pressure nets are being hijacked by what look like large squids who act in concert, herding the fish away like sheepdogs or wolves.  These apparently intelligent squid investigate Boyer's dome, then work their way in through an emergency hatch to sabotage Boyer's food supply as well as his communications with the surface!  Boyer is at war with intelligent squid!  Desperately low on food, Boyer manages to capture a squid and he eats from it.
        
The "squid" are in fact space aliens who carry racial memory in their DNA, and can read the racial memory of other creatures by eating them.  By eating part of an alien himself, Boyer gains access to those racial memories, and learns the history of these E.T.s, how they fled their home world because of climate change and colonized the deep ocean of Earth, where food was plentiful.  But now humans are eating all the fish, putting the alien colonists at risk.

Boyer, his body now full of alien genetic material, comes to understand and identify with the aliens, and he joins them.  Is Boyer going to be like a Judas fish himself, leading the human race to destruction at the tentacles of these aquatic aliens?  Or can we put a positive spin on this unexpected revolution in human biology and society and welcome the development of a new hybrid race, half human and half alien, which can solve the food shortage problem by mass cannibalism?  Because those eaten live on in the racial memory passed down from the eaters to their progeny, perhaps there is no reason to fear death!  (This is another idea used by Vance, this one in 1951's "Crusade to Maxus.")

This is a good story, well-written and full of classic SF elements: overpopulation, high-technology, aliens, a species of immortality, and a paradigm shift that will revolutionize society.

"Judas Fish" first was published in Harry Harrison's anthology The Year 2000.

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I'm quite happy with this batch of Scortia tales.  More Scortia in the future, but first another detour into horror fiction!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

1976 Frights by Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison and Robert Aickman

The frights continue, with three more tales from Kirby McCauley's 1976 anthology of all new stories of "what goes bump in the contemporary night," Frights.  Today's terror scribes are Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, and Robert Aickman; Campbell and Etchison we have read before, but I think Aickman is new to MPorcius Fiction Log.  Let's hope he will wow us and become a new favorite!

"The Companion" by Ramsey Campbell

"The Companion" has appeared in many anthologies since its first appearance here in Frights, including an anthology of scary stories about trains and an anthology of horror stories selected by "celebrities," The Arbor House Celebrity Book of Horror Stories.  The celebrity who chose "The Companion" was none other than Stephen King.  King says "The Companion" was the first Campbell story he ever read, and that he doesn't quite understand what is going on in the story.  The other two stories which King nominates as the scariest he has ever read are "Sweets for the Sweet" by Robert Bloch and "The Colour Out of Space" by H. P. Lovecraft.  Many critics agree with King that "The Colour Out of Space" is one of Lovecraft's best stories, but I find it to be one of his least interesting, slow and boring and mundane.  (Celebrity Robert Silverberg chose Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" for this book, in my opinion a much better choice.)

Well, hopefully my taste will be closer to King's when it comes to "The Companion."

Stone is a middle-aged man, some kind of accountant or something, who loves amusement parks and always goes to a bunch of them--by himself--on his yearly vacation.  (Of course, he's British, so he says "fairgrounds" and "holiday.")  He goes to a particularly old and decrepit sort of fairground, where he has hallucinations of his dead parents, and unhappy memories of his childhood and early adulthood come unbidden to his mind.  He rides a carousel ("roundabout") and sees rambunctious kids trying to steal plays at a pinball machine by using a coin with a string attached to it.

The guy running the roundabout tells him that "the old fairground" is a few blocks away, so Stone walks to it, on the way getting scared by a bunch of kids.  He enters the "old fairground" via a hole in a fence; the place seems to be deserted, but when he sits down in the sole car of the Ghost Train ride it moves, carrying him through the darkened building full of scary props, among them a stuffed animal faintly lit and a mirror that dimly shows his own face.  The story abruptly ends when a sort of stuffed doll of a child appears in the car next to Stone and takes his hand.

With lots of descriptions of garbage on the streets and Stone's out-of-control thoughts, this story feels long and slow, and because Stone's character and what is happening to him are so vague and inexplicable, they don't arouse any feeling in the reader.  Maybe I am supposed to piece together something about how Stone, who has a heart like a stone, is lonely and has no friends or women because his parents blah blah blah and he obsessively goes to fairgrounds to recreate for himself the childhood he never had and in the abandoned ride he finds the companion he has always needed but it is stuffed and fake just like he is stuffed and fake zzzzzzzzzzzzz... but what is my prize for doing all this work?  Campbell's story is not fun or scary or interesting and there is little incentive to turn over all those stones in hopes something noteworthy will wriggle out.

Again I have to disagree with Stephen King and give "The Companion" a thumbs down.  Mr. King and I are obviously not on the same wavelength.

Hans-Ake Lilja is like the world's biggest Stephen King fan, or something
"It Only Comes Out At Night" by Dennis Etchison

On the jacket of Frights we find the passage "No more vampires, werewolves, and cobwebbed castles.  Instead, here is an abundance of tingling, terrifying tales that transpire in our times...."  And yet I see on isfdb that "It Only Comes Out At Night" was included in Stephen Jones' The Mammoth Book of Vampires.  Well, let's see what Etchison's story is all about.

McClay is driving across the desert of the SouthWest, his exhausted wife asleep in the back seat, driving at night because it is cooler.  While Campbell in "The Companion" shovels a lot of details at you that you chop through in search of some kind of feeling or meaning like an explorer, machete in hand, scouring a jungle for signs of a lost civilization, Etchison's details of what it is like for a tired man to drive for hour after hour across the desert at night all paint sharp images or convey some emotional import.

Plotwise, the story is simple: McClay, after all that driving, comes to a rest stop that he slowly realizes is a place where some kind of murderer ambushes weary travelers as they sit in their cars.  He realizes this too late to save his wife.  If I hadn't known the story appeared in The Mammoth Book of Vampires I would not have interpreted the clues as pointing to a vampire, but just to some bloodthirsty insaniac, or maybe a Native American shaman.

Quite good.  I think I have read six stories by Etchison now, and three of them ("Wet Season," "The Dead Line," and here "It Only Come Out at Night") have really impressed me, so one of these days I should probably get my hands on an Etchison collection.

"It Only Comes Out at Night" has actually appeared in several anthologies beyond The Mammoth Book of Vampires, including some purporting to present the "best" or "top" fiction in the horror field, and I suspect it belongs in them.


"Compulsory Games" by Robert Aickman

"Compulsory Games" is the title story of a recent collection of Aickman's work--hopefully that is a sign that it is a good one!

This is a literary story, written in a style that feels a little old-fashioned, like something Victorian or Edwardian, perhaps.  The style is smooth and pleasant; the plot is alright; the ending is a little bewildering, I guess symbolic or surreal or whatever.

Colin Trenwith lives with his wife Grace in Kensington, which wikipedia is telling me is an affluent part of London.  Colin likes books and is sort of a homebody, withdrawn from others.  (This doesn't sound like anybody I know, really.)

The story is about the Trenwiths' relationship with a neighbor, middle-aged widow Eileen McGrath, a woman who works long hours in the civil service and lives in a huge house the rooms of which she tries, with limited success, to rent out.  Eileen tries to be friends with Grace and Colin, but they find her boring.

Grace's mother is in India, studying or joining cults or something (I guess the way the Beatles got involved with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Pete Townshend became fascinated with Meher Baba) and she gets sick, so Grace travels to India to be with her mother in her last days.  Eileen invites Colin to her house, perhaps to seduce him.  Instead of trying to have sex with her, Colin, seeing how unhappy she is, suggests she take up a hobby.

After her return from India, Grace goes to see Eileen without Colin, and returns to tell Colin that Eileen has taken up a hobby--not books, as he suggested, but flying!  And Grace is going to learn to fly with her!  Even though, earlier, Grace didn't even like Eileen, the two women quickly become the best of friends, and Colin almost never sees his wife--she no longer makes his meals or goes on his annual holiday with him.  When he does see her she talks about Eileen.  Eventually Eileen and Grace buy a Moth together, and move out of Kensington without leaving Colin their address!

On his own, Colin goes (it appears) somewhat insane, and/or maybe dies and goes to hell.  He often sees, and almost always hears, a Moth flying overhead--it seems to buzz him, and he has a terrible fear of its shadow falling upon him, leading him to run and dodge down the street, to the laughter of the local children.  The story ends with Colin on holiday by himself, touring the unkempt garden of a decrepit country house--he sees three figures in the distance, and as he approaches them he realizes one is he himself, and then the Moth comes down and, I guess, kills some or all of them.

"Compulsory Games" is well-written enough and interesting enough that I am giving it a positive vote, but the ending feels limp--there is no climax or satisfying resolution, the story just seems to wither and expire.  We readers are also moved to ask: What is the point of this story, what are its themes?  Is it a feminist thing, about how women are better off without men stifling them, about how, liberated from men, women can soar if they work together?  Are we to sympathize with the women or with Colin?  Or none of them (the story is quite cool, emotionally detached)?  There are some hints that the story is somehow about how machines are taking over human life ("Only machines are entirely real for children today....The machines cost enormous sums to maintain; and every day there are more of them, and huger, more intricate, more bossy") and how life is changing for the worse in general, what with the many references to old houses in poor repair and untended gardens and all that.  Children seem to be mixed up in all this dissatisfaction with modern life business; on the first page of the story we read that "Children have come to symbolize such an unprecedented demand upon their parents (conflictual also), while being increasingly unpredictable almost from their first toddlings, as to be best eschewed...."

Its mysteries leave it a little unsatisfying, perhaps, but a worthwhile read, over all.

**********

I'll definitely be exploring more of Dennis Etchison's and Robert Aickman's work in the future; Ramsey Campbell's?  Maybe not.

I think we'll put Frights aside now, but we'll have more speculative fiction short stories in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

1976 Frights by Brian Lumley, Joe Haldeman, and William F. Nolan

Let's read more from Kirby McAuley's Frights, a 1976 anthology of horror stories devoted to contemporary terrors.  In the last two blog posts we read the contributions of Psycho scribe Robert Bloch, SF Grandmaster Poul Anderson and his wife Karen, unique wordsmith and critical favorite R. A. Lafferty, and military SF icon David Drake.  Today, it's stories by the author of Necroscope, Brian Lumley, the author of The Forever War, Joe Haldeman, and the co-author of Logan's Run, William F. Nolan.  I am reading a scan of the US hardcover first edition that is available at the internet archive, that indispensable website for the impecunious student of 20th-century culture.

"The Whisperer" by Brian Lumley

"The Whisperer" would go on to be the title story of a 2001 Lumley collection and was also anthologized by Dennis Etchison and Eric Protter, so I think we have a right to expect this will be a story representative of Lumley at his best.

Lumley's work, I have found, is uneven, but I am happy to report that "The Whisperer" is pretty good.

Benton, a British office clerk, is terrorized by a hunchbacked dwarf, a hideous creature who wears a floppy black hat and smells powerfully of the sewer.  First, the bowler-clad office worker encounters this apparition on the commuter train--the monster uses its hypnotic power to make the train conductor direct Benton to a less comfortable train car.  Then, a few months later, the dwarf is in a pub Benton visits for lunch, and the creep uses his powers to steal Benton's beer!  When Benton later asks the train conductor and the barman about the little weirdo, they profess to have never seen the apparition!

Benton becomes obsessed with this haunt, his habits and character taking a turn for the worse as he spends his time searching for the malodorous dwarf.  A few months after the episode in the pub comes a horrendous turn of events--Benton returns home to find the dwarf having sex with his wife!  Benton drives the monster off, and then confronts, and strikes, his wife, who claims she has no idea what Benton is talking about!  Benton's wife leaves him and Benton begins searching for the dwarf even more fervently, armed with a knife, intent on slaying his tormentor.  Who will live and who will die when the final showdown comes?

This story is well-written and well-paced, and actually disturbing.  Maybe, for reasons of class resentment, we are supposed to find the crimes inflicted on Benton amusing, but I did not find them amusing--I identified with the victim and his hopeless quest for vengeance and for answers.  Because Benton's quest is hopeless--he ends the story dead in a gutter, and we are never afforded any clues as to what the monster is and why he chose to harass and destroy Benton.

Unless we are expected to observe the torture, cuckolding and murder of a member of the bourgeoisie with the glee of a malicious working-class brute or a supercilious Marxist university professor, I interpret this story as a reminder that ordinary people are essentially helpless when confronted by crime, that justice and safety are impossible to secure, that everything we have--our property, our families and our lives--can easily be taken from us by anybody who is strong enough and brazen enough to do so.

Thumbs up for this black nightmare of a story.


"Armaja Das" by Joe Haldeman

"Armaja Das" has been anthologized by Gardner Dozois, Thomas F. Monteleone, and Margaret Weis, so here we have a piece that has been embraced by the speculative fiction community!

"Armanja das," the story tells us, is Romani for "we curse you"--this is a story about Gypsies!

John Zold is a rich man, a talented mathematician who left academia to make a pile of money in private industry as a computer programmer--he has designed a piece of software that gives computers the ability to mimic human feeling and talk to a computer user as if it is his or her sympathetic friend.

Zold works in Manhattan, lives in Dobbs Ferry.  His Romani parents fled Europe during the Nazi era, but were murdered in America, leaving him an orphan.  John became totally assimilated to English-speaking American culture and, as a wealthy man in his late thirties, has been financing a charity that encourages other young Gypsies to assimilate.  Many Gypsies in America resent this charitable effort, considering that Zold is "stealing their children," and Zold receives threatening letters in the mail featuring that phrase, "armanja das."  Early in the story an ancient little Romani woman sneaks into his building in Dobbs Ferry and casts a spell on him.  Of course, Zold doesn't believe in magic, but immediately after the curse is put on him he is unable to perform in the bedroom and he develops carbuncles on the back of his neck.

Conventional medical professionals prove unable to cure Zold's impotence or his skin problems, which get worse, much worse, and, suffering a severe fever and covered head to tow in hideous boils, he seeks out help from a Gypsy herbal  healer or "white witch."   However, the evil witch who cursed Zold in the first place has deep ties within the Gypsy community and no healers will tend to him!  Desperate, Zold turns to the computer personality that he designed himself!  The computer, with access to libraries all over the world, comes up with a Gypsy spell that will transfer the deadly curse to somebody else and guides Zold in performing the ritual!

Unfortunately, the curse does not transfer to the witch, as Zold hoped, but to his computer.  The curse then spreads to almost every computer in the world, making them "impotent"--this causes havoc because, for example, all electricity in New York City is handled by a computer, so the curse brings the greatest city in the world to a standstill.  The only computers that are immune are the computers managing the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals--when they sense that the world's computers are out of commission they interpret that as a vulnerability amongst the enemy's ranks and both computers launch nuclear strikes.  Civilization is almost wiped out, and the Gypsies, who hadn't come to rely on machines as did all other cultures, are now on top of the heap!

The first half or two-thirds of this "Armaja Das" I took to be a serious piece on assimilation and alienation and psychosomatic illness, and I suppose it is, but the end feels like a nonsensical joke story, undermining much of what I liked about it.  Perhaps we should admire the story for the way it mixes high technology and traditional superstitious beliefs, a reflection of our real 21st-century lives, in which book store browsers will find that there are more shelves for books on ghosts, witchcraft and the tarot than there are for computer programs. 

Acceptable.


"Dead Call" by William F. Nolan

Like the Lumley and the Haldeman story we are looking at today, William F. Nolan's "Dead Call" has been widely anthologized.

This story is very short, and a little gimmicky.  The narrator answers the phone, and it is his friend Len, dead for four weeks, on the line!  Len says that death is nice--peaceful, with no pressure!  Len reveals that his car accident was no accident, that he committed suicide, and is glad he did!  I guess dead people have ways of knowing things, because he tells the narrator that his wife is cheating, his daughter is a junkie who hates him, and his boss is about to fire him.  Len suggests that, seeing how things are going, that the narrator also commit suicide, and the narrator takes his advice.   

In the last few lines of this story the narrator addresses the reader directly, suggesting that, seeing how things are going, we join him in death.

Acceptable.


**********

Maybe we should see these three stories as reflecting particular 1970s concerns about increases in crime rates and divorce rates.  Maybe this is something I should keep in mind when I read three more stories from Frights in the next exciting installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.   

Monday, October 7, 2019

1976 Frights by Poul and Karen Anderson, R. A. Lafferty, and David Drake

British 1977 hardcover
In our last episode, as part of our exploration of Robert Bloch's 1979 collection Out of the Mouths of Graves, we read Bloch's story about racism and revenge in the American South, "A Warm Farewell."  "A Warm Farewell" was first printed in Frights, a 1976 anthology of brand new "stories of suspense and supernatural terror" edited by Kirby McCauley that won the 1977 World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology/Collection.  Nice!  The jacket of Frights tells us that, for this anthology, McCauley was looking not for vampires and werewolves, but contemporary horrors.  We saw how Bloch approached that task, now let's see what sort of mid- to late-20th-century horrors science fiction figures Poul and Karen Anderson, R. A. Lafferty, and David Drake offered McCauley.  I am reading the copy of Frights scanned into the internet archive, a US hardcover edition owned by the Boston Public Library.

"The Kitten" by Poul and Karen Anderson

I have read lots of stuff, over the course of my life and over the course of this blog's existence, by Poul Anderson, but I don't think anything by his wife, Karen.

"The Kitten" starts with a sort of one-page prologue, the description of a burning house and the efforts of fire fighters to extinguish it.  This description is metaphorical and poetic, but it is not good, almost every line being overwritten, cliched or obscure and confusing.  I want to like what the Andersons are doing, because I am very sympathetic to what I take to be Poul Anderson's views on politics and life and culture and all that, but I just can't pretend that this passage is good:
The heat rolled forth like a tide.  Men felt it parch their eyeballs and stood back from trying to breast it.  Meanwhile it strewed reek around them.
Leo Tronen was born a country boy, but has worked hard to become a successful business executive!  He married pretty blonde Una Nyborg because he thought she'd be a good wife for an executive, an asset when dealing with clients and colleagues.  However, she refused to abandon her graduate studies after their marriage, and has been spending lots of valuable time writing a thesis on ancient Egypt and driving back and forth to the university.  As our story begins the couple have a showdown, Leo throwing Una's half-finished thesis into the fire (holy shit!) and Una leaving the house the next day while he is at the office.

It is a cold winter, and a stray cat comes to Leo's door the first evening he spends without Una.  Leo feeds it, calls around the neighborhood hoping to find its owner and get some social capital by doing a good deed, but nobody claims the feline.  In the morning Leo finds the cat has made a mess of the house, so he takes it in the car with him, tossing it out into the cold halfway to work.  After a hard day at the office he is amazed to find the cat, half dead, at his door.  Determined to get rid of the creature, he drowns it and tosses the sodden corpse in the trash...only to find it at his door the next morning!  Even if he pulled it out of the water prematurely, how did it get out of the trash can?

Interspersed with all this cat stuff is a lot of inner monologue and conversations with colleagues that suggest that Leo is a jerk who is losing his mind and that the world at large is careening out of control, with economic hardship, social unrest, war in the Middle East, and tension between the Warsaw Pact and the West.  The Andersons present a few opportunities for friendless Leo to make a connection with the world beyond himself (the cat is only one such opportunity) but he rejects each opportunity.  Getting crazier and crazier, drinking more and more, having to try to kill the cat again and again as it returns each time, Leo finally goes off the deep end and sets out to murder a man whom he thinks is Una's lover by setting him and his house on fire.

Anyway, the end of the story makes explicit its supernatural elements.  According to Una's research, the Egyptians thought a man had numerous souls.  One of them is his "spirit of reason and rightness;" it can leave the body and move about independently.  The cat was representative of Leo's "spirit of reason and rightness," and when he killed it he went bonkers and became a--would-be--murderer. 

The plot is OK, a sort of look at the tragedy of middle-class life, how too much focus on career success can ruin your life because you neglect your relationships and your spiritual/emotional needs (I actually know people, smart industrious people, to whom this has happened) but the writing is way too flowery or purple or however you want to describe it--there is a surfeit of metaphors and odd words that are presumably meant to make the text more beautiful and more powerful but instead slow down the story and obscure the meaning of sentences.  It hurts to see somebody you like fall on his (or her) face, but that is what I must report happens here to the Andersons.  I am marking "The Kitten" barely acceptable.

"The Kitten" would reappear in The Unicorn Trade in 1984, a book full of poems and fiction by Karen Anderson, some of it in collaboration with her husband.

"Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight" by R. A. Lafferty

If isfdb is to be believed, "Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight" was never included in a Lafferty collection or anthologized outside of Frights, which I think makes this a "rare" Lafferty story and makes Frights a must-have for all you Lafferty collectors out there!

"Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight" is a sort of apocalyptic American folk tale, told largely in the dialogue of six odd characters, dialogue that sometimes questions the nature of reality.  If the Anderson's "The Kitten" is about the plight of the suburban American bourgeoisie--business executives and academics--Lafferty's story has its roots in America's rural communities of Indians, hunters, and park rangers.  At times "Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight" can feel rambling and you wonder where the hell it is going, with the characters seeming to be talking in circles, but the jokes and the final destination make the trip worthwhile, and on a second read all the various parts can be seen to be working together smoothly.  (As with the work of Gene Wolfe, I find that to really appreciate a Lafferty story I have to read it twice.)

Three men from town are walking in the wilderness of Oklahoma's Winding Stair Mountains, hunting.  They are soon joined by three additional men, a game warden and two Choctaw Indians.  Hector Voiles, a meteorologist, remarks on how this area is a site of strange weather phenomena-- at this time of year storms which enter the area sometimes abruptly disappear, leaving a brief but severe cold snap in their wake.  Voiles witnessed this last year, but his colleagues refused to enter it into the records.  "It was so improbable that the temperature in this small area should be forty degrees lower than that of nearby areas that it just wasn't a thing that should be recorded."  Lloyd Rightfoot, a naturalist, points out that this area is also said to be home to a one-of-a-kind tree, a tree of no known species which grows a single fruit that somehow never fully develops.  Andrew Widepicture, a cosmologist, talks about Storm-Cock, a crow reputed to live in this region and said to eat fully grown cattle--the game warden, Will Hightrack, says that Storm-Cock is a bird that "never saw the inside of an egg."

All of the bizarre phenomena the men describe are significant in that, in some sense, their reality has not been, could not be, accepted--each represents a potential that has not come to pass or at least was not recognized: gathering storms which subsided, cold spells which were not recorded, a tree of an unknown species whose fruit always die before ripening, a bird which did not come from an egg--if these things didn't achieve maturity or don't officially exist, how do the characters know so much about them?  The reader is left feeling uneasy by the way these men talk with confidence of things they cannot really know, of events that have not (yet!) happened.

The two Coctaws, James South-Forty and Thomas Wrong-Rain, explain to the city folks that if the fruit from the unique tree ripens, it will cause widespread death with its "shadow," and hint that the fruit is the source of the huge and murderous Storm-Cock.  Tonight there must be a frost that will kill the fruit, which is on the verge of maturity, or disaster will occur.  For over a hundred years the unusual frost has come that has killed the fruit and saved the region, but Thomas Wrong-Rain fears that this year the tree has outsmarted the weather--if there is to be a life-saving frost, men must will the frost into existence.   

That night Thomas Wrong-Rain calls Hector Voiles, urging him to predict an unlikely freeze as a way of making it more likely to eventuate and save the region from the depredations of Storm-Cock, even though all the scientific evidence indicates that the freeze will not occur.  Voiles makes his counterintuitive forecast on TV, inspiring rage from TV management and viewers, and his forecast proves wrong--the freeze does not occur, instead the storms, which so often in past years were abortive, rage across the region, causing mass destruction.  Thomas Wrong-Rain blames Voiles for this cataclysm, which killed his wife, because Voiles laughed on TV and annoyed "something down there that can't stand derision."  The storms are followed by the surreal attack of Storm-Cock, who kills one out of three people he encounters--Voiles, Widepicture and Hightrack are together when confronted by the 747-sized bird, and they draw cards to see which of the three of them will be torn to pieces by the monster and devoured.  (Many Lafferty stories use death and gore to comedic effect, and this is one of them.)

A totally crazy story that challenges the reader with its bizarre sense of unreality, but feels like the work of a sure hand--the story has strange, unconventional, goals, and it achieves them.  When a line of "The Kitten" feels odd, you suspect the Andersons have made a mistake, but when a line of "Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight" feels odd (and many of them do) you feel like Lafferty's intention is to make you uneasy, that he is trying to surprise you or throw you off kilter.

Lafferty fans should definitely seek this one out.

For paperback publication in the UK, Frights was split into two volumes
"Firefight" by David Drake

You know I am interested in warfare and violence--for example, in the past week I read U-Boat Killer, Donald Macintyre's memoir of commanding Royal Navy destroyers and frigates during the Second World War, and enjoyed it--it was entertaining and I learned quite a bit about the various tactics and equipment used by the Allied navies in their struggle against Axis submarines.  As you also know, David Drake is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and the jacket of Frights suggests that this story draws on Drake's Vietnam experiences. 

This is a straightforward story of combat between humans and ancient monsters.  An American armored unit laagers by a stone wall and a stand of very tall trees in a thinly populated area of Vietnam.  There is foreshadowing--talk of how this area is home to the Mengs, said to be a race of people who lived in Vietnam before the arrival of the Montagnards and the Viets; talk of French and Communist military units being mysteriously wiped out in the area in the past, their bodies not riddled with bullets but mangled as if by knives or teeth; the way the tallest of the trees seems to heal up instantly after automatic weapons are test fired into it. 

Our main characters are the crew of a vehicle armed with a flame thrower and a machine gun, I guess the M132 Armored Flamethrower.  At night a sort of glowing door opens in the tallest tree, and out come men with batwings who fly around the laager, attacking the US servicemen with talons and fangs.  A South Vietnamese soldier working with the US unit as an interpreter turns out to be a Meng and helps the monsters.  Rifle and machine gun fire seems to have no effect on the evil tree, but the flamethrower sets it ablaze and destroys it.

This is an acceptable entertainment; competent, but no big deal.  All the information about Vietnam-era armor and weapons adds a layer of interest for military history buffs.  I can't find any reference to "Mengs" on the wikipedia page on ethnic groups in Vietnam, so I have no idea if Drake just made the Mengs up or if he is referring to a real population using a Western term that has fallen out of fashion or something like that. "Firefight" is the least ambitious and most conventional of the three stories we're talking about today, but it achieves its goals and is readable, so it gets a passing grade.

"Firefight" has appeared in some Drake collections since its debut here in Frights.

**********

Of these three stories the Lafferty is obviously the best.  The Andersons' "The Kitten" would be better than the Drake if it had been written as straightforwardly as the Drake, because it addresses interesting human issues of life in modern America and integrates with those topics ancient Egyptian mysticism, but its poor overindulgent style cripples it, so "Firefight" slips into second place.

More Frights in our next episode!

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Finishing up Robert Bloch's Out of the Mouths of Graves: Five more tales of murder!

That murder-bound train steams on!  Today we finish up the collection of Robert Bloch stories published by The Mysterious Press in 1979 and purchased by me in a hideous shopping mall four decades later in 2019, Out of the Mouths of Graves.  In our last two blog posts we talked about stories from Out of the Mouths of Graves first printed in the 1950s and the 1960s, and today's murderous stories were all published in 1970s magazines and original anthologies...with the exception of one story from 1961 which somebody on the MPorcius staff failed to include in the last installment.  Oops!

"The Man Who Looked Like Napoleon" (1961)

"The Man Who Looked Like Napoleon" was first printed in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which has been in business for like 78 years, and three years later was reprinted in Chase, which was in business for less than one year.  The magazine racket is a tough one!

This is a silly gimmicky joke story.  A guy, Mr. Throng, starts thinking he is the reincarnated or risen  Napoleon Bonaparte after he hits his head in a car wreck.  (He also seems to be conflating Jesus Christ with Bonaparte in his mind.)  His wife, Josephine, sends him to a shrink, but his condition does not improve--in fact, it gets worse.  Throng murders his wife, and then tries to murder his therapist, who is named Rand and whom he thinks is a reincarnated Tallyrand.  The big payoff joke is that the cop who ends Throng's murder spree is named Wellington.

Lame filler.

What?  Where are the sexy girls?  Where is the gushing blood?  Where are the glittering knives and
thundering revolvers?  These look like covers to The International Journal of Labor Statistics or
The Bluestocking Institute Review of Gender and Consumer Ethics.  Boring!
"His and Hearse" (1972)

"His and Hearse" got major promotion when it made its debut in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (which, incidentally, was published from 1956 to 1985 and in the early to mid '60s was edited by Weird Tales figure and Lovecraft intimate Frank Belknap Long) under the title "I Never Had a Christmas Tree."  (The magazine title is much better, a direct reference to an interesting plot element, than the anemic joke title the story bears in this collection, but maybe the original title was abandoned because it is spoily.)

"His and Hearse" is another satire or "meta" piece about show biz and mystery fiction.  Muscular blond hunk Randy Douglas is an aspiring actor who lives in Hollywood--but he sucks at acting!  He can't get a real acting job, and balks at taking such jobs as being an Indian who gets shot whose only line is "Ugh!"  Randy uses his good looks to marry a Broadway has-been twenty years older than he is, Elaine Ames, hoping to use her money and connections to jump start his own career, but it turns out she has no liquid assets and her friends, like producer Cedric Schlokmeister, are also has-beens who have no jobs to offer Elaine's boy toy--Schlokmeister himself cannot find work and visits Elaine on the way to the unemployment office!

With no work, and Elaine spending most of her day primping, Randy kills time by reading mystery novels lent to him by the maid.  These books gives him the idea of murdering Elaine.  This accomplished, he marries a society woman his own age who has old money, Constance Maitland, but he isn't any happier with her--he hates the fake gentility of society life which allows little time to relax and be yourself, and Constance is not only a penny pincher, but an exercise nut who runs Randy ragged with all the jogging and tennis and yoga.  So he murders Constance, and marries the singer of the rock band Iron Marshmallow, Penny Nichols.  He thinks he'll like being married to somebody with the outgoing, open-minded, free love attitude of today's youth, but he quickly finds rock music annoying and realizes that Penny isn't going to stop having group sex sessions with the members of Iron Marshmallow (Tom, Dick, Harry, and Irving) just because she is married.  So he murders her as well.

Finally, Randy marries his one steady friend through all these career and marriage ups and downs, Susan a plain and old-fashioned girl named Susan (symbolizing how plain she is, Randy doesn't remember her last name), a receptionist.  But reading all those murder mysteries, and committing three perfect crimes, has got Randy hooked, so he goes to see a shrink in hopes of being cured of his addiction to murder!  Will the therapy work, or is Randy too far gone?  Is Susan doomed...or will we get a twist ending in which it is revealed that Susan has been manipulating Randy the whole time and is planning to murder him?

I liked the first half or two-thirds of "His and Hearse," the stuff about Randy's acting career and his relationship with Elaine Ames, which was almost realistic, but the story gets more and more silly and repetitive and gimmicky as it goes on, and the ending was disappointing.  There is a problem with Susan's character--on the one hand she is described as being old-fashioned and innocent and all that, but there are also instances of her being a cynical operator; I know the innocent act is a fake, but the way Bloch presents her it doesn't feel like she's a slippery character putting on an imperfect act, but rather like the author is presenting us a jumbled and discordant portrait that the reader experiences as confusing.  Oh, well.

Large portions of "His and Hearse" are better than average for this collection, but the story also has some problems, so I guess I'm calling it acceptable, but it isn't bland and flat and mediocre like so many stories I judge "acceptable," rather, it is a story with real potential that failed to achieve what it might have.   

"A Most Unusual Murder" (1976)

"A Most Unusual Murder" has been anthologized multiple times since its initial airing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, including in DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series V, where tarbandu read it in 2008; hopefully I will like it more than did tarbandu, who found it "dull."

Well, tarbandu is wrong, this story is worse than dull, it is bad, a conglomeration of ill-suited components.  The story tries to string together these different elements with lame coincidences and manipulations that are not very convincing.

Kane is a guy who walks all around London all the time and so is intimately familiar with all the streets and shops and so forth.  He is walking with his friend Woods when he spots a shop that wasn't there before, an antiques shop.  Inside they meet the weirdo who runs the shop.  Said weirdo has on display a 19th-century medical bag.  It is on display, not for sale, but Kane insists on buying it because of the name on the bag.  You see, Kane is one of those guys who is obsessed with Jack the Ripper and has spent years and years going through Victorian documents figuring out the real identity of the Whitechapel Murderer and this medical bag has on it the name of the guy Kane is sure is the real Jack!

Back at Kane's place, Kane, over the course of four pages, lists off all the suspects in the Ripper case and the reasons why he thinks each is innocent of the Whitechapel crimes, and why he thinks the doctor he has fingered is guilty.  I am not interested in the Jack the Ripper story (there are thousands of murders every year in the English-speaking world, and I have never been convinced that these five murders are more fascinating than any of the hundreds of thousands of others I don't care about) so to me this part of the story is like white noise.  Kane is about to break open the lock on the bag when Woods suggests they go back to the shop to ask the owner if he has the key.  They find an empty lot where the shop was.

For some reason, Kane, who was going to force open the lock on the bag in the comfort of his own home, decides he now wants to open it in the apartment where the doctor he thinks was Jack the Ripper lived 80 or 90 or whatever years ago.  At this place (the sink and carpet and bed from 1888 have not been replaced and Kane says stuff to Woods like "...you may be looking at the very sink where the Ripper washed away the traces of his butchery..."), Kane and Woods open the bag and find a scalpel, among other medical implements.  They are suddenly accosted by the weirdo from the antique store.  He explains that he is a time traveler who collects murder weapons and he wants the bag and scalpel back.  Not because they belonged to Jack the Ripper--according to the time traveler, Kane is all wrong, that doctor was innocent; the scalpel was used in a different murder...or will be used!  The time traveler grabs the bag, Kane grabs the scalpel and slashes at the time traveler, and Woods, trying to break up the fracas, gets in the way of the blade and is killed.  The weirdo grabs the bag and the scalpel and teleports away, leaving Woods to die and Kane to be put on trial for murdering his friend.

This entire story feels ridiculous.  The characters' motives and actions are hard to swallow, and many of the story's elements just don't ring true or feel like cumbersome red herrings.  The while thing is a waste of time.  Thumbs down!       


"The Warm Farewell" (1976)

"The Warm Farewell" first appeared in Frights, an anthology of "new stories of suspense and supernatural terror" edited by Kirby McCauley.

"The Warm Farewell" is a story about the civil rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan, though the stupid violent white men in white robes and white hoods in this story are called "The White Hopes."  The Endicott family came down to Georgia from the North so bespectacled Mr. Endicott could edit and publish an anti-racism newspaper--one of his writers is another Northerner who comes down, a black man named Scotty.  As the story begins the paper has folded and the Endicotts have sold their house and are minutes away from driving back north, the terrorism of the White Hopes and their influence over local institutions (like banks and schools) having made doing business and living a peaceful life in Georgia impossible.  Over a dozen of the White Hopes, clad in their hoods and robes (Mr. Endicott is able to identify many of them because, while they may wear white gloves when in disguise, they can't afford a second pair of shoes and I guess Mr. Endicott has a good memory for shoes), drive up to terrorize the Endicotts one more time and to get information out of them--Scotty has disappeared, and they want to know where he is so they can--presumably--murder him.

One of the White Hopes, the regional head from Atlanta, takes the Endicott's teen-aged daughter Rena into another room to rape her and force Scotty's whereabouts out of her.  The noise her parents hear from the room chills them, but, in fact, she is not being raped.  Scotty has been watching from outside, and he sneaks in the window to knock the would-be rapist unconscious and then dress up in his white robe, hood and gloves.  (Do real KKK members wear white gloves as part of their uniform?  I suspect Bloch just added the gloves to make Scotty's deception more believable.)  Scotty, in disguise as their leader, then leads the White Hopes on a wild goose chase to an abandoned building where he tells them Scotty is in hiding--we are assured that in the confusion of burning down the building Scotty will make his getaway.

The racists having driven off, the Endicotts pile into their car.  Rena goes back to the house, saying she forgot her purse--in reality she is setting their former home on fire to murder the bound and gagged racist leader.  As the Endicotts drive away Rena laughs hysterically--her ordeal has mentally unbalanced her.  Her father tells her that the important thing is not to let what has happened to her make her so bitter that she herself becomes violent and hateful like the White Hopes--but it is too late, she is already a murderer.

There is plenty of fiction (I'm mostly thinking about movies and TV here) out there about anti-racist crusaders who go to the South and are terrorized by local racists, and one of the elements we see in many of them is how one character, our hero, is gung-ho about fighting the good fight while his or her spouse moans that doing the right thing is putting their lives and the lives of their kids in danger.  Does the protagonist care more about black people and abstract principles than his or her own children?  Bloch does the same thing here in "The Warm Farewell;" at the start of the story Mrs. Endicott laments that her husband wrote those anti-segregation editorials that have led to them losing their home, and at the end of the story, when Rena's parents learn that the White Hopes' leader is about to be burned alive, Mr. Endicott wants to turn around to rescue him, because it is the right thing to do, but Mrs. Endicott insists that it is safer to just keep on driving and let the White Hopes take the blame.

With fewer jokes and a little more intellectual heft--not so much the conventional anti-racism but the idea that fighting evil people with their evil means, or seeking revenge on them, risks making you evil or damaging your psyche or just prolonging the conflict--"The Warm Farewell" is better than the average story in Out of the Mouths of Graves, and probably the most legitimately scary or disturbing of these mostly silly stories.


"The Closer of the Way" (1977)

"The Closer of the Way," which has a sort of Lovecraftian title, first appeared in Stuart David Schiff's Whispers.  (Just this year we read Schiff's Whispers II.

As in many Lovecraftian stories, this is a memoir of a guy who was in an asylum, but there the Lovecraftian elements end; this story is 100% Robert Bloch--in fact, the narrator is none other than Robert Bloch, author of Psycho!  "The Closer of the Way" consists mostly of conversations between the narrator and a psychiatrist, in which the shrink uses examples from Bloch's stories and novels to try to delve into the writer's psyche, and Bloch is at pains to explain that he himself is not fixated on his mother, is not a homosexual, does not hate children or psychiatrists or people in general; to this end Bloch enumerates where he got the ideas for much of his fiction.  Many individual stories are named, their plots and gimmicks and tricks revealed.  (Bloch himself uses the words "gimmick" and "trick.")  As for the brief plot of the story, the shrink uncovers a terrible secret from Bloch's childhood and Bloch murders him and escapes the sanitarium.

This story is, I guess, interesting for anybody who wants to know about Bloch's life and work, as the bulk of it is a pithy summation of his career, listing recurring themes and pointing out what works they appear in (if you want to read every Bloch story in which somebody gets decapitated, "The Closer of the Way" includes a handy list to get you started!), but it is not actually good fiction.  At best it is an in-joke for Bloch's fans.  I have to say that, as fiction, this one gets a negative vote.

**********

And so we bid farewell to Out of the Mouth of Graves.  Obviously, it was worth my time to become better acquainted with the work of a man who was close to H. P. Lovecraft and who has stories in so many SF magazines.  But it must be said that, in my opinion at least, this collection as a whole is quite middling.  Of sixteen stories, I have marked six positively, judged five to fall within the acceptable range, and condemned five.  I am probably not being fair to Bloch by reading somewhat peripheral collections like Out of the Mouth of Graves instead of something like 1977's The Best of Robert Bloch.  Well, maybe next time I explore Bloch's body of work I will pick stories out of that volume.

That's enough Robert Bloch for a while, however.  But you can look forward to more horror stories from the 1970s written by members of the SF community in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Five tales of murder by Robert Bloch from the 1960s

In our last episode we read six stories from Out of the Mouths of Graves, a late 1970s collection of stories by Robert Bloch.  Out of the Mouths of Graves presents sixteen pieces of fiction; today let's examine the five included stories from the 1960s, the decade of social upheaval which we are constantly hearing old people blab on and on about.


"A Matter of Life" (1960)

It was in Keyhole Mystery Magazine that "A Matter of Life" had its debut--in the same issue were stories by Avram Davidson and Theodore Sturgeon.  Only three years later "A Matter of Life" was included in the Bloch collection Bogey Men, which had a Schoenherr cover and included an essay on Bloch by SF historian Sam Moskowitz.  (You can read Moskowitz's spoiler-heavy profile of Bloch, which includes quite a bit about Bloch's relationship with H. P. Lovecraft, in a scan of its first appearance in Amazing.)  This story has never been anthologized, however.

A weird skinny guy visits three Chicago wives in succession: a vain and ugly woman of wealth who wants to divorce her husband but has no grounds to do so (remember, there was no no-fault divorce in 1960); a middle-class mother whose hospital-bound husband has a crippling injury and will never be able to support his family again; and a lower-class woman whose thuggish husband, a petty criminal, beats her.  The weirdo gives each woman a vial that he implies contains an untraceable poison, subtly suggesting that the women solve their problems by killing their husbands.  The twist at the end is that we learn that the guy, who gave the wives the poison for free, is going to make his money by selling the antidote to the women's husbands at an exorbitant price.

Does this story make sense?  If a stranger told you your wife was going to assassinate you by poisoning you, would you give him a pile of money, or just avoid your wife and/or call the police?  Maybe I am misunderstanding the story and the poison takes 24 hours or whatever to take effect and the thin creep is going to talk to the men after they have been poisoned?

This story is gimmicky and repetitive and mechanical, with its three similar interviews, and fanciful, with its protagonist who knows all about these people's lives, god knows how.  (When a woman asks how he knows her name, the poison pusher just says, "There are sources for such information."  I guess the guy's ability to know things is supposed to make him scary or give him "an air of mystery," but from my point of view it just weakens the story's credibility.)  Gotta give this one a thumbs down. 


"The Beautiful People" (1960)

This one was first printed in Bestseller Mystery Magazine, where it was called "Skin-Deep."  In 2005 Ellen Datlow saw fit to present "The Beautiful People" at Sci Fiction, the webzine published by the SyFy TV channel, so I guess this will have some speculative content and not just be about some jerk knocking off a guy who is threatening his marriage or career or whatever.

When she was a teen, Millicent, daughter of the wealthy Tavishes, was so ugly that the handsomest boy in town, Jimmie Hartnett, dubbed her "Millie the Mule."  While Jimmie was away at college and then serving in the Navy, banging a long series of chicks whose names and faces he doesn't remember, Millicent's parents were killed in an auto accident and Millicent used some of the riches she inherited to get plastic surgery.  So, when horndog glamour puss Jimmie returns to Highland Springs looking so smart in his uniform, Millicent is a knockout and the two beauties get married tout suite!

The marriage doesn't work out--Millicent likes to read and Jimmie likes to drive fast cars, and Jimmie is so good-looking, women are always flirting with him.  And Jimmie, if the light is right, if he's close enough, if Millicent is a little tired, in the beautiful face of Millicent he can still detect the homely face of Millie the Mule.

When Jimmie cheats on Millicent, his wife achieves a horrible and appropriate revenge.  It was Jimmie's beautiful face that ruined her life, Millicent believes, so she knocks her husband out, makes it look like thieves broke into the house and tortured him for the combination to the safe, and proceeds to burn off Jimmie's face with a gasoline powered blowtorch set to its lowest flame!

There is no SF in this story, but I guess Datlow didn't care and I don't care either, because it is a good story.  There are no dumb jokes and no stupid gimmicks, no insane maniacs or elaborate conspiracies, just two characters who are easy to identify with (we all want to have sex and to be loved, we all feel envy and temptation) but who go way too far and commit (and suffer) dreadful crimes.  Datlow was right to reprint the story, and I'm a little surprised it hasn't appeared in more places, in anthologies or other Bloch collections--maybe it is too "mainstream" to appeal to readers and editors who look to Bloch for over-the-top extreme psychological or supernatural jazz, or, heaven forfend, childish jokes.

"The Beautiful People" is my favorite story in Out of the Mouths of Graves so far, but of course I am always a sucker for stories about difficult or disastrous sexual relationships.

"Hobo" (1960)

In my early and middle teens in the 1980s I played a lot of Basic (1981 revision) and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with my brother.  Our idea of D&D consisted of my brother's party going into some abandoned castle or underground labyrinth where they would find themselves constantly fighting for their lives against monsters--these were usually giant centipedes, kobolds, goblins and orcs, because casualties were so severe, and I was so stingy with the treasure, that very few of my brother's characters would ever live long enough to advance to second level.  Recently somebody, who may have been kidding, told me that nowadays people who play D&D spend most of their time acting out the life-affirming and environmentally-sensitive relationships of their nonbinarily-gender-defined characters, and they dismiss with disdain people who play D&D as my brother and I did as "murder hobos."  Like I said, this guy was probably joking, but I have to admit "murder hobo" is a funny neologism.

Robert Bloch's "Hobo" first appeared in Ed McBain's Mystery Book #2.  Ramsey Campbell included it in his anthology, The Gruesome Book, in 1983, the back cover of which warns that it should not be read by "the very young."

This is just a three-page filler story.  In an unnamed city a serial killer known as "The Knife" is murdering bums.  The protagonist of "Hobo," a drunken hobo, jumps on a moving train into a boxcar, eager to get out of town.  In the car is another hobo, whom the protagonist initially thinks is dead drunk--in fact he is literally dead, a victim of The Knife, and The Knife is lurking in the boxcar and eager to claim another victim!

Acceptable.  I wouldn't put it in an anthology myself, but maybe Campbell needed to fill a certain number of pages or thought Bloch's name would help sell the book or something.


"The Model Wife" (1961)

Here's another piece that was reprinted in Bogey Men; it first was published in Swank.  This one is just two pages!  It returned in 1992 in Sebastian Wolfe's The Little Book of Horrors: Tiny Tales of Terror.

This is the kind of story that would not fly today--the three characters are Haitians, one a "mulatto," one a "quadroon," one an "octaroon," and Bloch blithely correlates their levels of European blood with their level of civilization--the quadroon and octaroon are "civilized," and the mulatto a "savage."

The plot: The beautiful quadroon, a Christian, marries the mulatto, a guy who is into voodoo and works setting up the display windows in the top department store in Port-au-Prince.  The quadroon meets the octaroon, a rich man who lives in Paris and passes for white; he wants the gorgeous quadroon to divorce the mulatto and marry him and come with him to France--she agrees to do so.  While the newlyweds are on the cruise ship headed to Europe the mulatto sculpts his former wife out of soft wax and puts the figure in the department store window, where it melts.  On the cruise ship the quadroon dies screaming, her flesh and skin melting off her bones.

Like "Hobo," this is barely a story--it is just an anecdote.  Acceptable filler (if you can look beyond its racial politics.) 


"All in the Family" (1966)

Another three-page tale to finish up the 1960s portion of Out of the Mouths of Graves.  This one first appeared in The Saint Magazine.  Recently I saw an episode of The Saint with Roger Moore, while visiting somebody in the hospital.  I tried to explain to my wife who The Saint was, and realized I had no idea myself--was he a cop, a spy, a superhero?  It turns out he is a criminal who preys on criminals who are worse, which I found pretty lame, a gimmick that allows readers to simultaneously indulge their desires to be rebels and rule breakers who make money the easy way (by stealing) and their self righteous resentment of people who actually are rule breaking thieves. 

A mortician is sick of his unhealthy wife, whom he married to get his hands on the mortuary business her family owned, and plots to kill her.  The mortician fears that his religious brother, a real goody-two-shoes, will suspect him if somehow his wife suddenly disappears.  But then a stroke of good fortune--the pious brother's wife dies!  He'll be too distraught to suspect anything is up when the mortician tells him his wife has gone down to Arizona for her health!

The mortician embalms his sister-in-law, murders his wife, and, after the funeral and right before the burial, puts his own dead wife in the coffin with his brother's dead wife.  He thinks he is home free, that he can quickly sell the mortuary and disappear from town, telling everybody he is joining his wife in sunny Arizona.  But then the cops show up!  They have learned that his brother was fooling around with some woman in the church choir, and that he bought arsenic from a pharmacist right before his wife keeled over!  The cops are here to dig up the coffin to conduct tests on his sister-in-law's corpse!

Acceptable filler.

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The murder spree continues when we read the 1970s stories from Out of the Mouths of Graves in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.