Monday, December 14, 2015

Three 1950s stories by Damon Knight

It goes without saying that many science fiction writers are controversial, because of their political views, social views, writing styles, eccentric behavior, whatever.  My personal view of Damon Knight, probably unfairly, is largely defined by the controversies he was directly or indirectly involved in.  There is his famous denunciation of A. E. Van Vogt and the role Knight's name (affixed to the Grand Master title in 2002) played in the dispute over whether Van Vogt would be awarded the title of Grand Master by the SFWA.  There is the fact that he seems to have lost the job of book reviewer at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction because he wrote a review of Judith Merrill's Tomorrow People that pointed out how crummy it was.  And there was the friendly controversy between Joachim Boaz and yours truly over how crummy Knight's novel Beyond the Barrier was.  (Check out Joachim's assessments of Beyond the Barrier here and here, and mine here.)

I recently purchased a 1973 paperback edition published by Award Books of the 1965 collection of Knight stories entitled Off Center.  Let's check out three stories Knight wrote in the 1950s and see if they have the power to generate any additional Knight-related controversies.

"What Rough Beast" (1959)

The title of "What Rough Beast" comes from the 1919 poem "The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats.  The only thing I know about Yeats is that he was the subject of that Cranberries song, so it took a Google search to alert me to where Knight got the title. I then dutifully read the poem.  It turns out that this poem is also the source of the phrases "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," and "Slouches toward Bethlehem," phrases which I feel like I hear all the time in one form or another.  Like Yeats' poem, Knight's story deals with apocalyptic visions and Jesus Christ.

"What Rough Beast" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is the story of Mike Kronski, our first-person narrator.  Mike is an immigrant to New York City, has some kind of accent and a speech pattern which under uses articles, and is working as a bus boy in a crummy diner.  Before long we learn that Mike has amazing supernatural powers--in fact, it seems like he can do almost anything with his mind from curing cancer to making money appear out of thin air to vaporizing people or buildings.  Mike has come to our dimension from some dimension in which Russians colonized North America (hey, wasn't Nobokov's Ada set in just such a dimension?)

Mike is some kind of Christ-figure; he always tries to help people, curing their ailments and giving them money and so forth, but there are always people trying to betray him or take advantage of him.  One scene in which Knight/Mike brings attention to the face of the president on a dollar bill seemed, to me, to be meant to remind you of how Jesus brought attention to the face of the Roman Emperor on a coin in the gospels, a clue we are meant to compare Mike to Christ.

In contrast to Christ, Mike tries to keep his powers a secret and to keep a low profile, but when he has to interact with the authorities they see through his deceptions and begin to investigate him.  After he helps some pretty girls (and who can resist the temptation to save damsels in distress?) he exposes his astonishing abilities to some working-class brutes who try to kidnap him and exploit him to get rich.

Mike isn't fully in control of his powers; while he sleeps at night any injury or illness, even a pimple, is cured autonomically, and when he gets scared his powers can lash out to protect him, even against his will.  At the end of the story he gets so scared he disintegrates New York City (nooooooo!) and everything for miles around.  Yeats' poem seems to suggest that 2000 years after Christ (who saved or redeemed the world) was born some kind of monster (who would wreck the world?) would be born in Bethlehem.  Is Mike, however well-intentioned he may be, that monster?  A monster because we, who have filled the 20th century with materialism, revolutionary violence and war, made him one?  

At the end of the story, after he has annihilated New York City, Mike shifts himself to a world in which Jesus Christ was never born.  Maybe here is a universe where Mike won't be harried by others.  (Is Knight hinting that perhaps a world without Christ would be a better one?)

On a human level this story works.  Knight draws the characters well and succeeds in eliciting emotions from the reader with the scenes he puts his characters through.  The story is well-structured and paced.  And all that speculation about how Knight's story relates to Yeats' poem and how Mike relates to Christ is interesting.  The very cool Galactic Journey blog likes "What Rough Beast" a lot and I can't gin up any real controversy over his opinion.  (At the same link check out GJ's examination of the lava cover of the issue of F&SF in which "What Rough Beast" appears.)

Where the story has problems is with Mike's powers, which can be a little difficult to understand, and may simply be arbitrary.  It seems like Mike's powers, for the most part, consist of the ability to flip through the multiverse, look through the infinite numbers of worlds in order to switch something over to, or take something from, a similar universe.  For example, if he is standing on the corner of 5th and 42nd and wants to give money to somebody, he looks through the infinite number of universes to find those universes that are more or less like ours but in which somebody dropped money on the sidewalk at 5th and 42nd, reaches into those universes, and picks up the money.  When a cop roughs him up he reflexively reaches into a universe in which that cop doesn't exist, was never born, but which is otherwise like ours.  (Maybe the cop appears in that other dimension where he doesn't belong; Mike says that my beloved New York City has appeared on a barren planet Earth which previously had no life on it--oh the humanity!)

Confusingly, while Mike can vaporize a cop or a town in a split second, when he is curing a young woman's scar tissue and giving her beautiful skin so she can find a husband, he has to concentrate and touch her naked body and alter each cell one at a time in a complex and tiring process (apparently trading this Anne's scarred cells for the healthy cells of dozens or hundreds of Annes from other versions of our world). When someone asks if he can cure diseases he says he can cure cancer but not a "germ disease, because is too many little germs."  Maybe this is because Mike is reluctant to simply give disease to people in other dimensions, and has to spread the bad cells around so the tiny doses are harmless?  There are other limits to his abilities--Mike can't undo changes he has made, and things in our universe that he has brought from other universes appear solid black to him, so, for example, he can't use money from other universes because he can't read the denominations.  Early in the story he sees his own reflection, and it shows solid black, so he can't even see his own face.

Maybe I am thick, but at times it seemed like Mike's powers were whatever served the plot, or seemed dramatic, at that moment.

I think this story deserves a moderate recommendation.  Rather than nitpick Knight's description and rationalization of Mike's magic powers the reader is probably expected to lament that we are all such a bunch of jerks that if Jesus Christ appeared today we would probably abuse him, to consider the heavy weight of responsibility a miracle-worker like Jesus Christ would feel, and to recognize that each of us has a responsibility for himself, and should not delegate that responsibility to others.

Off Center was first available as half of an Ace Double, both halves of which were by Knight
"Be My Guest" (1958)

This a long and tedious story with a goofy and uninteresting premise and unfunny comedy dialogue and unfunny slapsticky jokes.  It first menaced the world from its lair in Fantastic Universe, a magazine for which it is not easy to find a clear cover photo. 

Knight posits that it is common for people to be possessed by ghosts.  These "tenants" can strongly influence the thoughts, desires and actions of their hosts, and they generally inspire people to engage in interests similar to their own, so they can vicariously enjoy the pastimes they indulged in while alive.  Knight presents this as an explanation for why the human race is a bunch of stupid tasteless jerks:
It was no longer any cause for wonder that the books most normal people bought and the movies they paid to see were strictly and by definition psychoneurotic, nor that the laws made by the people for the people were an Iron Maiden, nor that a streetful of honest citizens could erupt into a roaring mob.
(The idea that, if people act like assholes perhaps it is because they are controlled by invisible outside agents, reminded me a little of John D. MacDonald's 1950 Wine of the Dreamers.)

The fact that most people are inhabited and manipulated by ghosts has remained virtually unknown for centuries; possessed people have no idea they are possessed.  That is until now, with the appearance of a miracle of modern science!

Our heroes are Kipling Morgan, a brilliant man who studied physics but then devoted his life to outdoor professions, like being a merchant sailor, a lumberjack, and currently a golf pro; Angelica MacTavish, a beautiful genius who is a player in city politics (the story is set in L. A.); and Nancy Liebert, an ugly girl with a difficult home life and many psychological issues.  Kip is in love with Angelica, whom he is dating, and Nancy is in love with Kip, whom she is (as we would say today) stalking.

Kip's old professor, a chemist and Nancy's father, just died.  The prof was working on some super vitamins, but when tested on monkeys it killed them, so he labelled the vial "POISON" and set it aside.  While vandalizing Kip's home Nancy put this liquid vitamin solution in Kip's food, and ingesting it gave him the ability to see and hear the four ghosts currently residing inside of him.  He realizes these ghosts love the outdoors (one was an Army officer, one a sea captain, etc,) and it was they who made him abandon a science career to become an outdoors type.  Much of the story's 70 pages consist of Kip's efforts to exorcise the ghosts.  For example, the four initial ghosts are anti-intellectual, so he exorcises them by reading difficult science texts.  But when those four leave, seven more move in.  He gets rid of those by sitting inside a cramped uncomfortable box, but then ghosts who love to drink and fight move in. (The exorcisms are actually much more complicated and boring than I have let on here.)

For obscure reasons, Kip, Angelica and Nancy have become invisible.  Not truly invisible, but people never see them, because, as if by coincidence, nobody ever looks their way.  This means that Angelica can spy on politicians and steal fur coats, and Kip, now a drunk, can steal booze and smash up bars, without legal repercussions. This invisibility is more of a curse than a blessing, however, and Kip, calling it a "quarantine," endeavors to end it.

After wasting a lot of time Knight wraps up the story in short order by having Kip learn in a mysterious way (the ghost of Nancy's father sends him a coded message) that a second dose of the vitamin juice will enable him to see and talk to other people's ghosts.  This allows him to find the ruling ghosts, who inhabit a rich guy's body.  He threatens these patrician ghosts with making the rich guy drink the vitamins, so they end the quarantine and shift Kip, Angelica and Nancy's ghosts around so they will all be psychologically healthy.  Then Kip drinks a third dose of the vitamins, which somehow deactivates the first two doses.  Now he realizes Angelica is not the girl for him and can marry Nancy and they can live happily ever after.

"Be My Guest"'s premise and plot feel contrived and convoluted, and everything moves slowly.  The characters are boring and you don't care what happens to them.  


"Catch That Martian" (1952)

More jokes!  More ghosts!  Another bizarre premise!  And more misanthropy!  The SF community first puzzled over this oddity in Galaxy.

People in New York City are being turned into ghosts!  Suddenly, in a theatre or cinema, in a restaurant or on the street, a person will be silenced!  He is still visible, but unable to interact with this universe!  The ghost can't hear us, we can't hear him, and the people and things he touches pass right through him!

A cop, through guesses and serious detective work, comes to believe that a Martian who is very easily annoyed must be to blame!  The alien is here to study our culture, but if somebody coughs during a film or jostles him on the subway, he sends the offending individual to another dimension where he can no longer be heard or felt.  In the course of trying to figure out which New Yorker is really a Martian in disguise, our hero makes an annoying noise of his own, and finds himself in the other dimension. Another victim suggests that, since every person is annoying in some way, eventually the entire human race will be sentenced to this netherworld.



The last three pages of my copy of Off Center advertize paperbacks from Award that "Probe the Unknown."  These include not only what "may well be the most thorough study on the incredible Abominable Snowmen" but two different books that can guide you in the use of magic to attain love and riches!  And if "Telecult Power" or "Kahuna Magic" don't do the trick, you can always fall back on ESP to achieve "immense personal success;" after all, "Everyone has ESP!"



  1. I've read 'What Rough Beast' and liked it. I was less troubled with the Christ comparisons and more taken with the awkward style of the narration and the glimpses of compressed world building (like peeking through H G Wells' Crystal Egg). The other two sound intriguing - at least your description of them. Maybe they suffer under the hand of Knight! I have read my share of crap or average Damon Knight. But when he gets his shit together he is capable of some lovely stories.

    1. Comments about Knight like yours, and Joachim's below about "The Dying Man"/"Dio," are encouraging; I'll definitely be reading more Knight in the future, and I'm glad I bought Off Center. I'll think I'm going to read the rest of the stories in Sturgeon in Orbit, then finish Off Center. I'll be keeping my eyes open for more Knight collections at libraries and stores.

    2. To be honest What Rough Beast is the only story I remember from that collection - which probably isn't a good sign. His first two collections 'Far Out' and 'In Deep' are good, and the 1975 Best Of... Generally I've avoided his novels, but all this talk of Knight is making me want to revisit the old man. Maybe it's time to track down the rest of his Thorinn stories too.

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  2. "when he gets his shit together" -- Doesn't happen that often... That said “The Dying Man” (variant title: Dio) (1957) in the collection Three Novels was pretty solid!

    1. The Dying Man is good, and shines in comparison to the two clunkers Knight set it beside in that Three Novels collection. I think the problem with Knight is that he wrote some good stories but you have to trawl through the collections to find them. The 1975 Best of... has the highest percentage of good ones (as you would hope).

  3. Thank you for posting this review. I was thinking about "What Rough Beast" the other day and could not remember either the title or the author. I first read that during my early discovery of Damon Knight because the UNM library had a complete set of Orbit anthologies. I believe I actually read the story in Asimov's anthology Supermen. As I recall, I loved the idea of a superpower through choosing different historical streams and applying them to specific items in the here and now. Of course, as a college student I was all over stories that took a dim view of American culture and/or organized religion. At the time, my favorite book was Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. So I remember liking it overall.

    1. Cool! I know that feeling of relief when some mystery that has been nagging the back of your mind, a dimly recalled scene from a movie or a plot point of a book, is solved, and I'm glad I could jog your memory that way!

  4. It sounds like "What Rough Beast?" was revised when collected, as the original magazine version lacks many of the details you mention.

    Personally I found it an engrossing story once I got used to the weird accent, and would rate it as one of Knight's two best stories I've read so far, along with "Stranger Station".
    "To Serve Man" was cute and I found "The Country of the Kind" somewhat overrated.