Sunday, February 28, 2016

1968 science fiction stories by Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty & Samuel R. Delany

Last week I went to one of the many Half Price Books here in central Ohio (land of the mind-blowingly difficult driving test) to sell a stack of 2nd and 3rd edition AD&D rule books I had never used, and while there I took a look at the science fiction and "nostalgia" shelves.  When I saw Ace 91352, World's Best Science Fiction 1969 edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, I was in love.  The cover by John Schoenherr and the interior illustrations by Jack Gaughan were great, and the anthology included many stories by writers I care about.  Here was one I had to have!

The introduction by the editors is fun, with Wollheim and Carr subtly criticizing the other yearly "best of" SF anthologies and pointing out what makes their own series distinctive.  Wollheim and Carr tell us they don't include fantasy stories in World's Best Science Fiction, and they don't include old stories like some of the other anthologists do ("we don't ring in stories by, say, Alfred Jarry or James Thurber that were originally published in 1930 or 1940.")  My research at isfdb indicates that editors Harrison and Aldiss included James Thurber's 1941 story "Interview with a Lemming" in Best SF: 1967, while it was Judith Merrill who included an Alfred Jarry story in 1966's 11th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, almost 60 years after Jarry's death in 1907.  Wollheim and Carr also claim to try to read every SF story published in the world.  Ambitious!

While I lack the ambition and work ethic of Wollheim and Carr, this weekend I did read three stories from World's Best Science Fiction 1969, the contributions by Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty, and Samuel R. Delany.

"Masks" by Damon Knight

"Masks" first appeared in Playboy, and has been widely anthologized, and was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo.  Will I like this popular favorite?

"Masks" is about the psychological issues of the first man to have his brain transplanted from a ruined human body into a robot body.  As I have said before, I love stories about immortality and minds and brains being transplanted; this is perhaps a product of my fear of death.  So I was on this story's side from the get go.

The guy in the robot body, Air Force veteran Jim, isn't too happy.  The scientists and engineers who are running the experimental robot body program think he's unhappy because he doesn't properly dream, or because his robot body doesn't look human enough.  These eggheads strive to help him have dreams that will stabilize his psychology and to construct him a body, a face in particular, that looks as human as possible.

It seems to me that Jim's "problem" is, in fact, that he is now disgusted by, perhaps even feels contempt for, humanity and all other living things, thinking himself beyond them because he is essentially immortal.  Knight drives home Jim's hatred for life by pointing out how he has had his quarters in the lab protected from germs with special ultraviolet lights and air conditioning systems, and by including an episode in which he murders a canine.  There is a also a cool scene in which Jim broods over people's pimples and saliva and the oil of their skin.  And there is the fact that he habitually wears a blank metal mask over his artificial human-like face, and makes visitors wear surgical masks.

Jim doesn't want to fit into human society by wearing an artificial body that looks just like a normal human body--since he doesn't have adrenal glands and all those sorts of organs he no longer experiences human emotions like fear and love, and so he doesn't have any interest in friends or sex partners.  Instead, he wants to be alone, and sketches designs of four-legged exploration and mining vehicles that he hopes his brain will be installed in so he can live in sterile extraterrestrial environments, far from all life.

A good story with some clues to puzzle over.  What does Jim mean when he compares the eggheads maintaining him to cancer patients?  What emotion is Knight referring to when he writes "there was still one emotion he could feel."?  I like it!  If you were in some college literature class you could compare it to Poul Anderson's classic 1957 story "Call Me Joe," in which a crippled guy wants his consciousness installed in a monster body that is used to explore the surface of some inhospitable moon.              

"This Grand Carcass" by R. A. Lafferty

This one was first published in Amazing Stories; at the time our buddy Barry Malzberg was editing that venerable magazine.  "This Grand Carcass" feels more accessible than most of Lafferty's work that I am familiar with, and even has a sort of traditional horror story structure.

In some interstellar civilization of the future one of the galaxy's most successful businessmen, Juniper Tell, is approached by a similarly successful magnate, Mord. Saying he is all "sucked out" and will soon die, Mord sells Juniper Tell a super robot, the first of the level ten robots, a machine vastly superior to the many robots already in Tell's employ.  In a matter of days this superior machine crushes almost all of Tell's business rivals and vastly enriches Tell, utilizing strategies that are so sophisticated that no human could have thought of them, but which are also amazingly efficient, so efficient that after having been developed, these methods seem like the only way the deed could have been accomplished.

Despite the spectacular successes of his partnership with the super machine, Tell finds himself feeling weak.  Investigation of the new robot reveals that it is not powered by batteries or outlets, like conventional robots, but is living off of Tell's life force, sucking him dry.  Like Mord before him, on the brink of death, Tell sells the vampire machine to another robber baron type.

The style of the story is brisk and silly fun, the little jokes and suggestive names of the various human and robot characters amusing.  Should we furrow our brows and seek a deeper meaning to "This Grand Carcass?"  I think we can see a skepticism of mechanization; Tell derives little satisfaction from business successes derived wholly from letting the machine make all the decisions for him.  In fact, the machine "sucks the spirit and juice" out of the businessmen who employ it.  Perhaps this is Lafferty's commentary on our modern world in which few of us raise our own food, do math without a calculator, or walk when we can ride motor cars everywhere, a world in which we are so reliant on machines it seems ridiculous to try to get things done without using them (how would your friends react if you told them you walked to the grocery store three miles away or calculated your taxes longhand?)  Maybe the story is a warning that if we contract out our very thinking to machines, we will lose our souls.

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel R. Delany

This is a revised version of the story originally published in New Worlds, the famous British flagship of the New Wave. "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" won a Hugo and a Nebula, is specially highlighted on the back of this anthology, and has been reprinted a zillion times, so provides another chance for me to see if I am on the same wavelength as the SF community.  

"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" quickly strikes one as a New Wave-ish story, a first person narrative that is full of "word play" ("I hear the breast has been scene [as opposed to obscene] on and off since the seventeenth century"), expresses contempt for "the establishment" (police and businesspeople, for example) and has somewhat absurdist images, like a vast mechanized dairy farm and a gangster who owns and operates an ice cream shop.  In the first few pages the narrative even slips into the present tense, but mostly sticks to past tense.

Our narrator is a young thief and master of disguise who shifts easily from one identity to another, living in a future in which much of the solar system has been colonized and people have constant access to the media via little ear pieces.  In New York City (the Pan Am Building and Grand Central Terminal, buildings I saw every day for years, figure prominently) shortly after getting out of prison on Mars, our hero is approached by a representative of an elite branch of the police force and learns that, through the collection of what we might now call "metadata," the government's computers can predict people's future moves with considerable accuracy.

The narrator is friendly with some of the famous pseudo-bohemian artists known as Singers, and accompanies one to a party in a luxury apartment in upper Manhattan. The Singers and their popularity, we are told, are a response to the alienation from real experience caused by the pervasiveness of mass media; like Homeric bards the Singers are poet-actors whose powerful art can only be experienced at close hand, it being illegal to record their performances.

I guess, with the Singers, Delany is romanticizing the role of the creative performer in pre-mass media days, when art was an intimate personal expression and not (as Delany perhaps sees it) the commodity churned out by organizations as it is today. (Delany wants us to compare the mass-produced milk at the dairy farm where the narrator briefly worked with mass-produced media.)  I don't really take that line myself, and I'm not sure the Singers really work at promoting this sort of democratic, populist idea.  The Singers are like rock stars, adored by the public and catered to wherever they go, but how do they get so popular if it is impossible for ordinary people to access their work via broadcast or recordings?  Delany suggests they are bohemian individualists, but they are in reality creatures of the elite: they benefit from what amounts to a government monopoly or a powerful and exclusive guild system: not only will the government crack down on you if you try to record their performances, but each political division is allowed only a small number of Singers (four for all of New York City) and when a Singer dies a new Singer is selected by the surviving Singers.  (Maybe Delany means to paint the Singers as hypocrites or a sham?)

At the party our narrator sells some stolen goods to a famous gangster known as "The Hawk," the police raid the party, and our narrator escapes because one of his Singer buddies, a disheveled man known as "Hawk" (there's that clever wordplay again, two characters with almost the same name), creates a distraction by giving an impromptu performance that starts a dangerous conflagration and draws a crowd.  The narrator ends up on Triton, where he starts an ice cream shop and pursues illegal activities, becoming a rival to The Hawk.

This story is just OK.  I guess I'm too old or too conservative to find smart alecky thieves and neurotic self-important artists who are members of a tiny elite but pretend to be poor down-and-outers (Hawk wears ratty clothes and walks around barefoot and has some kind of masochistic streak and so is covered in scars and has memorized how he got each scar) inherently interesting or sympathetic, and Delany doesn't do much to make the characters special (are they meant to be archetypes of The Artist, The Cop, etc?)  I couldn't get myself to care whether the cops caught our narrator or that Hawk had sacrificed himself for the narrator.  The story's ideas (mass media is alienating; with statistics you can predict and control society; and politicians, police, gangsters and artists are all part of the establishment and fabric of society and all are equally corrupt and menacing) are OK, I suppose, but not surprising or moving.


None of these stories is bad, and all three say something about man's (potentially dangerous) relationship with high technology.  What do radically improved convenience and efficiency do to the human psyche and human spirit?  But while the Knight has emotional drama and the Lafferty is fun, the Delany reads like a cynical hipster's exercise in style; Delany denounces bourgeois society and romanticizes criminals and creative types, but not in a way that is very entertaining for somebody who doesn't already share the author's sentiments.

In this episode we looked at stories by authors I have had some experience with; next time we'll look at stories in World's Best Science Fiction 1969 by authors with whom I am totally unfamiliar.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Norman Conquest 2066 by J. T. McIntosh

'Tell me, Conan, what are we?  Who are we?'
'Something special,' said Conan soberly. 'Perhaps freaks.  They're special.'
'There must be a purpose.'
'Of course there's a purpose.'
WARNING: This novel contains no spacecraft
I'm not sure why I am reading another book by J. T. McIntosh, whose Million Cities I thought was incredibly bad. Probably I should take Voltaire's attitude of "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert," but I guess I am more curious than cautious, and so I resolved to tackle Norman Conquest 2066 when I spotted it on a bookstore shelf recently.  I purchased the 1977 Corgi paperback edition of the novel, with its fun Chris Foss painting and charming typeface. This is apparently the only physical edition ever printed, though two electronic versions came on the market in 2012, so everybody with internet access can sample the pleasures of this literary work.

The year is 2066 and England has fallen on hard times!  Population is in decline, houses and office buildings sit vacant, factories are idle, and the few remaining automobile enthusiasts have to scavenge at scrap heaps for tires and spare parts. Locomotives and aeroplanes (I usually call them "airplanes," but when in Rome...) are rarely seen, there are no TV broadcasts or national newspapers, and public services are limited--the police don't even investigate accusations of rape!  Luckily, rape is rare because the British populace is so psychologically depressed that most men have lost their "virility."  One character says "Many people these days have the death wish. Sometimes it's conscious, sometimes unconscious."  These dreadful conditions prevail all over the Earth.

Among our numerous characters is Sally Wells, a beautiful blonde shopkeeper and one of the few people in this broken society with any get-up-and-go.  Her two shops are located in the same town as the world's last semi-efficient factory ("There was purpose in the factory, purpose lacking almost everywhere else"), which is owned and managed by Arthur Gardner.  Gardner is a sado-masochist who enjoys being whipped and whipping and otherwise torturing others.  One of our many subplots involves Gardner's flunky Vince Hobley's efforts to rape Wells and kidnap her for Gardner's use in the torture chamber.  Sally knows judo and tosses the Hobley into a river, but Gardner doesn't get too hung up over this failure; his attention has shifted to the project of getting his hands on and torturing the seven children of one of his employees, Frank Seymour. ("...the terror of a girl of eight would be something for a connoisseur.")

Who are these individuals like Wells, Gardner, Hobley and Seymour, who still have a sex drive and the ability to accomplish things, like successfully running a business? Wells discovers that two new genetic strains of homo sapiens appeared at the start of the 21st century and live in secret among the apathetic general run of humanity.  The Sexons can be identified by the fact that they are very hairy, while the Newmen have no body hair whatsoever.  Both groups have modest psychic powers.  But what really distinguishes the Sexons and Newmen (who, inspired by the approach of the thousand year anniversary of William the Conqueror's invasion, take the names "Saxon" and "Norman") from the "peasants" is their tremendous sex drive and ability to effortlessly have five or six orgasms in the space of an hour!  Sally Wells (like we readers) learns most of this information from Conan Hersholt, a Norman, who, in his efforts to increase the Norman population (currently less than half a percent of the total human population) has had sex with over 500 women (nice work if you can get it!) and has his eye on our Sally.  Sally is a hot commodity, and several of our subplots include men trying to get into her pants.

There are plenty of unusual sex scenes, attempted rapes, and scenes of torture in the book.  When Gardner, who is a Saxon, goes a little overboard during a whipping session and kills somebody, he fears the police will finally come after him, and so decides to organize all the Saxons into a revolutionary army and take over the town, the country, maybe even the world.  "From now on no Saxon conceals himself....We march!"

In the streets the Gardner's mob battles a coalition of Normans and the more stable of the Saxons battle for world supremacy.  This fracas lacks urgency for the reader largely because each "army" has only dozens of members and the Normans, it turns out, are psychologically inhibited from committing violence and get martyred instead of fighting back.  I guess the "battle" is supposed to remind the reader of 20th century street protests and riots between rival political factions like in late Republican Rome or Weimar Germany.  (Or maybe the 1964 fights between Mods and Rockers; wikipedia is telling me that the biggest Mod vs Rocker fight was dubbed "The Second Battle of Hastings.")  In the end it is Wells, with the aid of that Norman with seven kids, Seymour, who kills Gardner in a struggle in Gardner's torture chamber.

Besides the pervasive themes of outre sex (did I mention that Saxons and Normans don't get all their powers until they lose their virginity?) and nudity (people are taking their clothes off all the time to prove they are or are not Saxons or Normans) one of the themes of the book is a sort of personification of "nature"; everybody talks about how the appearance of the Saxons and Normans must have some kind of "purpose," that these new races must be the result of decisions made by "nature" who is at times assigned a female pronoun of "she" or called "the old girl."  McIntosh doesn't expand on this idea or do anything interesting with it; it just sits there, irritating my sense of scientific propriety without adding any religious, moral or spiritual dimension to the book.  In the end of the novel we learn that Wells, who has a normal distribution of body hair but nevertheless is ambitious and resourceful, is one of the first specimens of nature's latest and most promising attempt to put the human race to rights, a fourth, as yet unnamed, race that will inherit the Earth from the pathetic peasants, unstable Saxons and ineffectual Normans.

I can't think of much nice to say about Norman Conquest 2066.  The ideas and style are pedestrian at best, and the writing sometimes shoddy--Normans, including Conan Hersholt the womanizer, die at the battle because they are unable to strike blows at their assailants, but then Seymour the Norman gets a knife and tries to stab Gardner in the back, with no explanation.  There are lots of characters, but few of them are interesting or sympathetic, and the high volume of characters (and McIntosh's poor ability to structure the plot) means that the story is diffuse, just a bunch of thinly connected episodes.  Characters will appear and then disappear for long periods of time, and a high proportion of characters are killed.  It feels like the characters and ideas are an excuse for the gratuitous and exploitative sex and violence, but the sex scenes and action scenes are not thrilling--most feel long and slow and clunky.

The best subplot of the novel follows a Norman who, thanks to the intervention of Hersholt and Wells, escapes the smothering domination of his mother (and her dozens of cats!) and his dull grey life and learns how to use his superb Norman body and his psychic powers.  This material could have made for a decent short story, but as part of Norman Conquest 2066 it is submerged and nearly lost in a 156-page mess.

Another J. T. McIntosh failure, characterized by a shaky plot and weird, often eroticized, violence.  Two bad novels and two bad stories are enough; this time we are through J. T.!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tales of Forbidden Acts from 1995 by Koja & Malzberg, Tem and Wagner

I'm still working the 1990s perversion desk!  In our last episode we confronted three tales of rape and death from Poppy Z. Brite's Love in Vein.  Today we subject ourselves to three visions from the 1995 anthology Forbidden Acts, edited by Nancy A. Collins and Edward E. Cramer.  I got my copy of Forbidden Acts on the clearance shelf at Half Price Books.  The cover is very lame, with lots of negative space, a boring picture, no blurbs and no famous names.  Was this a rush job or something?

Forbidden Acts has an introduction by Joe Bob Briggs, the B-movie review guy!  When I was still living with my parents in New Jersey my brother and I would watch all those B-movie TV shows with hosts like Gilbert Gottfried, Morgus the Magnificent, Commander U.S.A, Grandpa Al Lewis, and Briggs.  Those were the good old days!  Anyway, Briggs warns us that we will not "enjoy" the stories in Forbidden Acts, that they are "rude"and "brutal" and will "shock" and even "hurt" us.  Well, let's see if this anthology's offerings by four writers we've already talked about here at MPorcius Fiction Log will rudely brutalize us.

"Mysterious Elisions, Riotous Thrusts" by Kathe Koja and Barry Malzberg

A professional woman is in the middle of a bitter divorce from her second husband, Gerald.  She left her first husband for Gerald because Gerald was a good lay and was as sexually ravenous as she is, but Gerald started cheating on her before the first anniversary of their wedding.  Currently our main character lives alone, sexually frustrated and spending her free time getting drunk on scotch Gerald left behind.

While drunk she hears a sound at the door, and opens it to find an odd little monster has come to visit.  This thing, which I guess is like a volley-ball-sized blob or slug (it has "stalks" and "ganglia" and green blood) but with human-like hands and face, climbs up her legs and has sex with her, using its "claws" and "smile" to give her some of the best sex of her life!  Then it crawls away.

The second time the monster visits her, after it has exhausted her with its attentions, she realizes it has the face of Gerald!  The last sentences of the story invoke the names of Paolo and Francesca, the famous adulterous lovers from Dante, and hint that, like Paolo and Francesca, Gerald and our protagonist are in Hell, being punished because they let their passionate lust carry them away from their duty.  O lasso!

Rossetti's classic 1855 watercolor illustrating Canto V from Inferno
This one is pretty good, a crazy pornographic monster story grounded in believable human emotion; Koja and Malzberg handle both the insane monster stuff and the realistic relationship material well.  Koja and Malzberg completists may be forced to get a copy of Forbidden Acts; I don't think this story has been published in any other place.

"Blood Knot" by Steve Rasnic Tem

This is a story about how claustrophobic families can be, narrated by a guy with psychological problems who isn't good at detecting relationship boundaries; he was sexually attracted to his step-mother, for example, and to his own daughters.  Tem doesn't come out and say much about where these people live or their jobs or anything (besides that our narrator spent time in the Army), but I got a "redneck" or "hillbilly" vibe from the story, I guess because of the contractions and nonstandard grammar used in the dialogue.  "Rednecks" are a demographic that everybody feels comfortable looking down on, an "other" for people who champion diversity and are always criticizing other people for "othering" people.

The narrator's father had four wives, and may have killed one of them (she just disappeared after a loud night of drinking); he serves as a role model for the narrator. An example of his wisdom:  "It don't matter if you like your family or not.  You're tied to 'em; might as well accept that.  It's in the blood."  Tem takes advantage of the multiple meanings of "blood" in English, and there is a lot of talk about family ties ("blood knots") as well as about menstrual blood.

The narrator longed to have a family of his own, but had trouble attracting women. When he did marry it was to a woman much younger than he is (just as his father's fourth wife, the one our narrator lusted after, was much younger than his father.)  The narrator doesn't know how to be a good husband or father, and found living with his wife and three daughters difficult.  The smell of them during their periods was particularly upsetting.  When the daughters started dating he went off the deep end, and, as far as I can tell, murdered them with a sharp implement ("cutting" those blood knots the way Alexander cut the Gordian knot.)  It is possible he cannibalized them, or just drank their blood (he compares his daughters' breasts to apples, onions and tomatoes, and has drinking blood on his mind, comparing his wife and daughters at one point to vampires.)  This is one of those stories in which everything is hinted at rather than baldly stated, so maybe I am misinterpreting something.

I'm going to have to give "Blood Knot" a thumbs down; I didn't feel like the energy spent trying to figure it out was a worthwhile investment, because the plot and characters didn't interest me or inspire any feeling in me.  Some guy I can't identify with in some place I don't know about murdered his family because he was insane and/or came from a broken home--"Blood Knot" is like the news stories I ignore every day when they pop up on the computer screen or the radio.  Maybe people who are into serial killer stories and child abuse stories will like "Blood Knot."  I know Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling included it in the ninth Year's Best Fantasy and Horror so I have to assume I'm voicing the minority opinion here.   

Back cover of Forbidden Acts
"The Picture of Johnathan Collins" by Karl Edward Wagner

Wagner of course is famous for those grim sword and sorcery tales of Kane and for writing and editing horror stories.  I've mentioned before how much I like his story "Sticks."  I also like "The Picture of Jonathan Collins," though not as much. This story appears in two later anthologies of Wagner's horror stories, so you don't have to track down a copy of Forbidden Acts to read it.

Collins is a Londoner.  During the Second World War his house suffered a direct hit from a German bomb.  He was in a coma for a week and awoke with no memory of his past--he even had to learn to walk and talk again!  Any records that may have been in the house were destroyed by the bombing. Forty years later he still looks thirty years old, and still lacks any memory of his pre-war life.

Collins is a bit of a lady's man, and also a collector of turn of the century pornogrpahy.  At an auction he purchases some late Victorian photos, and finds among them pictures of two men dressed in women's clothes having anal sex.  Close examination suggests the active member of the pair is Oscar Wilde, while the passive participant is none other than himself!  Collins starts having flashbacks to homosexual experiences with Wilde, and begins to suspect he is the model for the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Collins seeks help from fringe elements of English society in figuring out the truth and finding the painting or photograph or whatever it is that has kept him young and alive all these decades, so that he can safeguard it and ensure his immortality.  There's a fraudulent psychic cat lady, a transvestite dominatrix, and a gay collector of old pornography.  Even though he has been straight since the war Collins has gay sex with the transvestite (at eighty pounds a session!) as a means of jogging his memory. After being "buggered," as our cousins across the pond say, Collins faints and has vivid memories of the photo sessions that produced the pictures he purchased at auction, at which Wilde "used him like a girl" and then abandoned him.

Collins' quest is ultimately disastrous; he unwittingly puts the image that renders him immortal at risk and suffers a horrible, and long overdue, death.

This story has a strong central idea and is well plotted and structured.  It is also explicit (in every sense of the word) and easy to understand, unlike some of the oblique and obscure stories I have been reading in these 1990s porno anthologies.  I do think "The Picture of Jonathan Collins" is a little too long.  In an apparent effort to shock or offend "square" readers and amuse or even arouse "hip" and gay readers, the story is full of explicit scenes of homosexual sex and detailed descriptions of S&M clothing. Maybe other people will enjoy these scenes, but I thought they were too long and repetitive and dragged the story down a bit.


I wouldn't say these stories "hurt" or "shocked" me, though the Koja & Malzberg story and the Wagner tale are both outside the norm with their explicit depictions of sex with a monster and exhibitionsitic gay sex.  Both of those stories are worthwhile reads with engaging plots and characters and references to canonical literary works.  The Tem story about broken families and murder feels like an episode of one of those TV shows "ripped from today's headlines" about cops chasing perverts, but without the cops.  Well, two out of three ain't bad.  

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Three erotic vampire stories from 1994: Koja & Malzberg, Holder, and Tem & Tem

I'm back on the pornographic nosferatu beat!  You like vampires, don't you?  Who doesn't?  And you like sex, yeah?  Of course!  So how can we miss with three stories from Poppy Z. Brite's 1994 anthology Love in Vein?  What's that?  The last time I read a story from Love in Vein I thought it was goofy and juvenile and wasn't even sure whether it was a genuine attempt to sexually arouse the reader or just some kind of joke?  Well, that happens to everybody sometimes!  Let's give Love in Vein another chance!  You don't really think that blue-eyed red-headed sex freak on the cover would steer us wrong, do you?

"In the Greenhouse" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg

I've enjoyed horror work by Koja and by Malzberg in the past, and a story they did together, so I was looking forward to this one.

"In the Greenhouse" is consciously "literary," with long sentences in the present tense, many of which are poetic and consist of lists and metaphors: "Flowers surround her: plant, foliage, bonsai and bouquets, staggered floor to ceiling, wall to wall, heaped like coverlets upon and beside the refuge bed; their exhalation is gigantic in the room, their scent the smell of anguish and desire."

Lucia is a woman whom many men pursue, but while she is loved and desired, she has no feelings for any of her suitors.  A flashback suggests she enjoys teasing men both emotionally and physically, leading them on and then rejecting them, only to start leading them on again.  She absent-mindedly marries one man who courted her by sending her lots of flowers, but she finds their relationship a bore and so demands a divorce.  He sends multitudes of flowers and plants to her apartment, making it seem like a greenhouse.  The "exhalations" of the many plants, it seems, somehow kill Lucia as she sleeps, or, maybe, just put her in a coma during which she decides to change her ways--there is talk of redemption and forgiveness as well as death in the brief (six page) story's final paragraph.  Koja and Malzberg seem to be setting up an allegory--in the same way beautiful flowers arise from manure and compost and other dreadful things, perhaps a more sympathetic and kind Lucia will arise from the stink of an apartment choked with dying, rotten plants.

This story is only marginally erotic or vampiric, and it is not particularly fun or interesting.  It is a challenging puzzle, but I didn't feel much urge to figure it out, and it is so cold and distant that I didn't care about Lucia or her frustrated suitors.  Guess I gotta give this one a thumbs down.  

"Cafe Endless: Spring Rain" by Nancy Holder

I don't think I've read any of Holder's fiction before, but I was impressed by the anthology she edited with Nancy Kilpatrick, Outsiders, so I thought her fiction worth a shot.

"Cafe Endless: Spring Rain" is one of those stories about an ugly American abroad.  Americans who think themselves sophisticated, writers and academics and so forth, are always eager to express their contempt for their countrymen and tell you how much they prefer some other country.  When I was in grad school in New York the only people who ever said anything positive about the United States were the foreign students.  The American students always made sure to tell you how they only watched British TV shows and only got their news from the BBC (though some of them eventually transitioned into telling you they got all their news from that Comedy Central comedian) and how they had been to Italy or France and how those people really knew how to live and so on.  

The people in the country where this edition
of Love in Vein was published
really know how to live! 
Anyway, "Cafe Endless: Spring Rain" is about a 40-something American businesswoman, Buchner, and the 30-something Japanese businessman, Satoshi, who is showing her around Tokyo.  He has a crush on her, liking her childish, arrogant, naive American ways.  ("Americans to him were like puppies, eager, alert, bounding and fun.")  Holder talks a lot about how beautiful Tokyo is and how great Japanese culture and attitudes are, and even integrates haiku-like structures (about herons) into her text.  Satoshi and Buchner are drawn to a cafe...the very cafe where resides the lady vampire who recently seduced Satoshi at the kabuki theater and with whom he regularly has gory sado-masochistic sex sessions!

"Cafe Endless:Spring Rain" fulfills our expectations of explicit vampirism and explicit weird sex (wooden stake as sex toy!)  Mostly it is a mood piece, a love letter to Japan.  "The joy of being Japanese was that each action existed for itself, and fulfillment was possible in infinite, discrete moments."  Does it make sense to include Western folklore (all that vampire and stake and sunlight jazz) in a story about how admirable Japanese culture is?  Whatevs!

Satoshi, after drinking absinthe and coffee with Buchner, sends her back to her hotel and has sex with the vampire.  As he has been hoping for some time, the vampire woman turns him into a vampire.  Together the Japanese lovers fly to Buchner's hotel room and have sex with her and drink her blood while she sleeps.  Nowadays we call that rape, but perhaps it is just a dream that the lady vampire is providing Satoshi.  The last page of the story is very poetical and a little opaque, but I think Satoshi and his lover allow the sunlight to burn them to death, and they become beautiful ghosts that fly like herons.  (I've seen plenty of herons here in the good ol' USA, and I agree, they are beautiful.)  The reader remembers that ten pages ago Satoshi told Buchner to go to such and such a place to see ghosts, and we know she will soon see his ghost there and perhaps both Sathoshi and Buchner, across the barriers of culture and of death, will enjoy an "infinite, discrete and fulfilling moment" together.

Holder worked hard to throw a lot of Japanese stuff in there (the rising sun that kills the vampires, for example, and starting the story with a reference to the season, which an American who married a Japanese once told me is how Japanese traditionally begin correspondence) and I guess I'll judge this one acceptable to mildly recommended.

"The Marriage" by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

Whoa, just the title of this one is scary, right, guys?  Oh, we're just joking, ladies, you know that!  Please don't rat me out to the twitter ruling council!

I thought Melanie Tem's story "The Country of the Blind" was powerful, and awarded it five out of five empty eye sockets, and so had high hopes for this one.

The immortal vampire in this story feeds on people's feelings--negative feelings, like fear, anger, grief, etc.  He also feeds on people's bodily fluids, including those fluids we generally deposit in the toilet.  (Yuck!)  As you might expect of an evil parasitic monster with the power to become invisible and otherwise change its appearance, the vampire spends most of his time raping and murdering strangers.  This vampire embraces diversity, and doesn't discriminate based on age or sex, unlike movie vampires who are always victimizing pretty young women.

After putting in a long day raping teenage girls, their fathers, and anybody else who happens along, the vampire always returns home to his loving wife to devour her emotions, secretions and excretions.  These two have been together since she was fifteen; she is now in her nineties and near death.  The vampire's wife is a very emotional woman, prone to rages and fits of tears, and they have had a symbiotic relationship for the last eight decades--he relieves her of all that excess emotion, which provides him with sustenance.  She truly loves him, but he, as an immortal cold-blooded monster for whom a decade is like a blink of an eye, feels no love in return.

I suppose the main goal of this story is to point out how miserable our lives are: the loneliness, the fear, the way we deteriorate and die, and the inequality and exploitation that characterize our relationships.  On the last  page, when the vampire's wife has died and he is leaving their home to continue preying on the populace, the vampire, for a brief moment, suspects himself of feeling some affection for his dead wife, even of having loved her.  Do the Tems mean to suggest that, however terrible our lives may be, that generous human relationships offer some glimmer of hope?              

This is more of a character study and mood piece than a plot-driven story, but I think it works.  Mild to moderate recommendation.


Their authors put a great deal of effort into these stories, trying to make them "literary," but while the Tems' tale is pretty disgusting and a little depressing, none of them is as scary, sexy, or entertaining as I had hoped they would be.  There is something academic, flat, cold or distant about them that kept me from having the emotional reaction one expects to get from effective horror or erotica.  Maybe this material just didn't push my buttons.

I don't know if I will be reading any more stories from Love in Vein, but in our next episode we'll be exploring more 1990s horror fiction that seeks to cross boundaries and push the envelope.        

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Croyd by Ian Wallace

"Listen, Greta.  This is going to sound crazy, but accept it until you understand.  You have a visitor.  I am a mind named Croyd who has lost his brain, and--well.  I'll just have to use yours until I can get mine back."

The cover painting of the Berkley 1968 edition of Ian Wallace's 1967 Croyd, by Paul Lehr, took my breath away.  The color, the hideous eye-like structures, the lightning bolts, and especially those disturbing faces depicting people in the extremes of emotion... I couldn't stop looking at it!  It is becoming one of my favorite SF covers.

But is the 184 page novel any good?  I don't think I've read anything by Ian Wallace before, and preeminent science-fiction blogger Joachim Boaz didn't exactly endorse my purchase of the novel after I announced the acquisition on twitter.  But the book is covered with praise from various newspapers ("fast-moving," "highly readable," "a must," etc.)  Well, when we think at all here at MPorcius Fiction Log, we think for ourselves!  Let's see what Croyd is all about!

Praise for Croyd from now-defunct newspapers
Croyd is the best secret agent of the future (one of those admiring blurbs compares him to James Bond) when humanity has colonized three dozen systems across the galaxy and is faced by extragalactic enemies. Croyd is so indispensable, so elite, that in the first scene of the novel he receives instructions from the President of the Galaxy himself at an undercover meeting in a New York bar!

In the same bar Croyd meets an attractive woman who is down on her luck and looks a little strung out.  She sets out to seduce Croyd, but she's no ordinary horny chick--her brain is occupied by one of those hostile extragalactic aliens, Princess Lurla of the "gnurl," a caste-bound race from Large Magellanic Cloud!  Lurla succeeds in invading Croyd's brain, taking over his body, and shifting Croyd's mind into the brain of the depressed human woman, whose name is Greta.  In Croyd's superior body Lurla is in a position to wreak all kinds of havoc, while poor Croyd is stuck in an ordinary woman's body!

1967 hardcover edition
This novel is full to the brim with both conventional and unusual SF ideas. Wallace describes, brusquely and as needed (and sometimes when not needed): psychic powers, Croyd's half-alien parentage, the solution to the mind-body problem that allows his crazy plot to function, anti-gravity and artificial gravity devices, teleporters, interstellar space flight, a system of government based on mercenary managers (the President of the Galaxy is elected by the people but most government work is handled by a private firm; I guess this is like how some U. S. cities are run by a professional city manager appointed by elected officials) and more.  As trumpeted on the front cover, an important element of Croyd is time travel, to the past ("uptiming") and the future ("downtiming.")  Croyd is the only character who can accomplish this feat, and besides doing the kind of thing that Alfred Bester did in The Stars My Destination (Croyd sees a fleeting and mysterious image of a future version of himself early in the novel and later learns its identity), Wallace uses time travel to explode materialism and determinism.  (Alas, I remain a materialist and determinist.)

The novel is also brimming over with sexual overtones; on the first page we learn that in the future waitresses in bars do their work in the nude, and it is hinted that they act as prostitutes.  Croyd's being "inside" Greta is obviously metaphorically like sex, and Wallace mines this for lots of his material.  At first, Greta is uncomfortable about having Croyd inside her, but then Croyd marries them ("A galactic agent can officiate at his own marriage.  No witness necessary....") and she not only accepts their weird relationship but thrives under Croyd's influence. Croyd, as a human-alien hybrid with precise control over his body and all kinds of psychic powers, is able to radically improve Greta's physical health, even to (making the sex angle glaringly explicit) restore her virginity!

In the first half of the novel, while Croyd and Greta develop a modus vivendi inside Greta's skull, Lurla, in Croyd's body, pursues a mission for the human government--she wants them to think she is the real Croyd.  Rebels have seized Ceres and, by installing forcefield generators and propulsion units on the dwarf planet, have turned it into a huge bomb and aimed it at Nereid, the moon of Neptune where the firm that manages the human space empire has its HQ!  While Wallace describes the gnurl and Lurla in some detail, these rebels he simply dismisses as "beatniks" and we learn nothing of their motivations or character; I think they represent a limp effort at satirizing the counterculture of the 1950s and '60s.

Right after Lurla disposes of the beatnik threat, Croyd and Greta catch up with her, and Croyd tries to transfer his mind back into his own body and eject Lurla.  But he fails, and instead his mind comes to occupy a computer many light years away--this is because Lurla was thinking about this computer!  The computer in question is being used to coordinate the gnurls' Plan B in case Lurla fails to infiltrate and enslave humanity with her psychic powers.  Plan B is to detonate a planet the gnurls have turned into a bomb (yes, Wallace, uses this gag twice in the same book) at the star-rich core of the Milky Way--the blast will exterminate all life in our galaxy!

Things work out fine in the end, however. Princess Lurla has never inhabited a male brain before, nor ever dominated a brain for such a great length of time, and she begins to lose control of Croyd's, which inhibits her effort to hypnotize the government of the human race. More importantly, close contact with Croyd, humanity's finest specimen, has not only improved Lurla's opinion of humans (whom most gnurls consider little better than animals)--she has fallen in love with him!  She joins forces with Croyd, Greta, and the human space navy and together they defuse the planet-sized bomb at the galaxy's core.  The second half of the novel also features a love triangle plot--Greta has also fallen in love with Croyd, while Croyd has fallen in love with both of them!  In the end our hero chooses Greta (but only after some flirtatious low-gee dirty dancing with Lurla in her genuine gnurl body, all eight furry feet of it!)

Croyd is not great, but it is entertaining.  Things happen very quickly, with new ideas and characters coming out of nowhere frequently, so the book never drags.  I love stories in which people switch brains, or minds, or share a body, or whatever, so I was in the book's corner from the get go.  On the negative side the style is a little weak, with feeble jokes and "snappy" dialogue which make your eyes roll.  Croyd himself is a boring goody goody superhero character; Princess Lurla and Greta, who are changed by their relationships with Croyd, however, are somewhat more interesting. The conservative/old-fashioned attitude of the book (pro-marriage and pro-virginity, anti-beatnik, anti-Stalin, anti-materialism, anti-determinism) may put some people off.

Croyd reminded me of van Vogt stories (the superman with mental powers, the breakneck pace with all the crazy twists and turns) and Heinlein's super secret agent stories like Friday and Methuselah's Children, and of course I Will Fear No Evil, in which two personalities, one male, one female, inhabit a single body.


Joachim Boaz, in the summer of 2013, reviewed Croyd and gave it a score of 2.5 out of 5--"Bad."  Check out his review at the link.  I'd give it a mild recommendation, myself.  While Joachim deplores its kitchen-sink approach (he says that Wallace "revels in arbitrary excess") I found the inclusion of dozens of crazy ideas, however undeveloped, to be fun.  Who knows, I might even purchase one of the sequels!  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Three 1970s stories by Gene Wolfe: "Civis Laputus Sum," "The Recording" & "Morning-Glory"

I've said before that Gene Wolfe is my favorite writer, but there is a large proportion of his vast body of work which I have yet to read.   This weekend I flipped through my 1995 Orb edition of the 1988 collection Storeys from the Old Hotel and read three stories that were new to me; I read them in random order, but all turned out to have been published in the 1970s.

"Civis Laputus Sum" (1975)

This is a terrific story full of striking images, literary allusions (to Swift, Pound, Bradbury and Melville), science fiction ideas, human feeling and surprises.  It may also be a criticism of 20th century colleges and universities where, far too often, the tail (athletics) wags the dog (academics.)  Awesome!

British edition of Dystopian Visions
As with many Wolfe stories, this is a first-person narrative that is difficult or impossible to understand until we've read most or all of it, as Wolfe doles out the clues slowly instead of just describing the setting and background at the beginning.  Here is what (I think) is going on (remember MPorcius Fiction Log's spoiler policy!):  A scientific project to solve the problem of air pollution backfired fifteen years ago, covering the Earth in impenetrable cloud that eventually wrecked human civilization.  Recently developed anti-gravity machines were used to send aloft a number of flying islands (the title of the story refers to the flying island in Gulliver's Travels) upon which people could live above the clouds.  The flying island on which this eight-page story takes place is, or was, a university, with both a library and a stadium and a population of both academics and athletes.

Some time ago the athletes, who effortlessly bully the professors and grad students, burned the books in the fiction section of the library so they could use that room as a basketball court.  The bookish types have preserved the great American novel, Moby Dick, by memorizing it.

Like their island, which is listing dangerously as the anti-grav devices begin to fail, the people of the island are slowly becoming decrepit with age.  The plot of the story concerns an athlete who is becoming too old to pull his weight on the sports field.  He wants to start participating in the academics' readings and dramatic productions.  Will the booklovers accept him, or see this as an opportunity to achieve their revenge on one of the book burners?

Very, very good.  "Civis Laputus Sum" first appeared in Roger Elwood's anthology Dystopian Visions as "Civis Lapvtvs Svm," which all you classicists out there know is better classical Latin (our heroes Cato and Cicero had to struggle through their tragic lives without a "u.")

"The Recording" (1972)

This is a quite short (four pages in this edition) story about, I think, human greed and indifference, in the form of an old man's reminiscence of an event in his childhood "in those dear, dead days of Model A Ford touring cars, horse-drawn milk trucks, and hand-cranked ice cream freezers."  The narrator was fascinated by his parents' phonograph, but his parents would not allow him to handle the fragile records, so he wanted his own.  A fat uncle walks him downtown to buy such a record on a hot day, but this uncle falls ill and sits down to rest, telling the narrator to go get his doctor. The nephew agrees to get the doctor only if his uncle will first give him the money promised for the phonograph record!  Our narrator buys the record, and when he gets back to his uncle (without bothering to bring the doctor!), his uncle has died.  The child hides the record, and it is not until fifty years later, after his parents have died and he has long forgotten the title of the record, that he recovers the disk from its hiding place and listens to it.

The song on the record, Rudy Vallee's "My Time is Your Time," which I listened to on youtube, is presumably some kind of punchline.  I'm guessing that the punchline is that the narrator, who admits to having medical problems, is going to die soon, perhaps from the effort of retrieving the record (his doctor told him not to climb stairs, but he had to do so to get the record, and the climb lead to chest pains), perhaps at the same age his uncle died.

I enjoyed the story for Wolfe's vivid economical descriptions, and the dreadful central surprise, but wonder if perhaps I am missing something.  I tracked down one clue: As a little boy the narrator wore a French sailor suit including a cap with the word Indomptable emblazoned on it; one ship of that name was repeatedly defeated by the British during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and then was wrecked in a storm, while a later Indomptable was scuttled during the Second World War.  Presumably this is linked to the fact that our narrator admits to being a failure in life, and perhaps indicates he is bound for an unhappy death.

The fact that the word "time" is prominent in the song title, and that we are told the narrator, his father, and his uncles, all strongly resemble the narrator's grandfather, put me on the lookout for clues that the story was somehow about time travel (maybe that they were all the same guy like in a Heinlein story), but I couldn't find any further time travel clues.

"The Recording" was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

"Morning-Glory" (1970)

This one first appeared in Alchemy & Academe, apparently an anthology of stories about the relationships between wizards and their apprentices edited by Anne McCaffrey of Pern fame.

Of the three Wolfe stories I read this weekend this was the least interesting and most conventional.  In the pessimistic world of the 1970s, a world of air pollution and nuclear proliferation, a college professor is conducting experiments on the "paraintelligence" of plants.  He has a bunch of vines, and encloses them inside plastic mazes; as the plants grow the vines come to intersections in the maze and have to "choose" which way to go; "smarter" vines will learn to devote growth to more brightly lit paths and let shoots in dim tunnels wither.  A student suggests that the plants are analogous to entire societies, and the scientist has a brainwave--maybe he can figure out a way to convince the human race to stop going down metaphorical dark tunnels, like polluting and risking nuclear war.  He decides to devote the rest of his life to this effort, enlisting in this quest the help of grad students looking for a thesis topic.

The story seems longer than necessary, with scenes about the scientist's psychology including descriptions of his dreams, a visit to the shrink, and anecdotes about his father.  This makes sense because the main character is a psychologist (a Watsonian behaviorist, we are told) but I didn't find it added much to the story.  Maybe all this additional information is supposed to make us skeptical of the protagonist's motives, because it reminds us of the callous "Little Albert" experiment and exposes the main character as deceitful (he habitually lies to his shrink.)  Maybe Wolfe is trying to tell us that some lone egghead manipulating our society is not necessarily the best way to solve our problems.  (I'd like to think "Morning-Glory" is a clever refutation of, or comment on, Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories and other SF in which some genius or cabal of geniuses molds society--Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another example.)

I called "Morning-Glory" "conventional" because, like so many SF stories, at its heart is a scientist and science, and a banal criticism of our society.  It lacks the kind of images, human feeling, surprises and mysteries that characterize Wolfe's body of work as a whole.  This story is acceptable, but below average for Wolfe, who so often pulls off something unique or beautiful or shocking,    


"Civis Laputus Sum" is obviously the standout here, but all three of these stories, even the somewhat disappointing "Morning-Glory," are worth reading.  Storeys From the Old Hotel won the 1989 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (it tied with Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy) so it's not just me recommending it--the full weight of the speculative fiction community is behind it!  Buy yours today!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Four stories by Thomas F. Monteleone

Thomas F. Monteleone's name is one I have seen in anthologies and magazines, and at blogs like tarbandu's and Will Errickson's, for years, but I have never seriously looked into his work.  (I did read a single short short by Monteleone a while ago.)  This week I decided to pull down from my shelves four publications containing stories by Monteleone and check them out in chronological order.

The terrific cover to the Italian
edition of Future City.
"Chicago" (1973)

This one appears in Roger Elwood's anthology Future City.  Both Joachim Boaz and tarbandu have read Future City in its entirety and written about it at their great blogs.  I've actually read most of Future City myself (in Joachim's comments section I gush about the Lafferty story and also praise the Malzberg and the Silverberg) but for whatever reason I didn't read Monteleone's "Chicago" until this week.

"Chicago" is a pretty traditional SF story, but it is well done, so I enjoyed it.  (Who am I kidding?  I love traditional SF stories!)  Millions of years in the future the domed city of Chicago, run by computers and robots, continues to function smoothly, lights coming on at night and going off at dawn, mass transit operating, and so forth.  But there are no human beings in the buildings or on the streets!  The only people in the city are those cryogenically preserved back in the 2nd millennium because of their incurable diseases.  When a malfunction results in one of these individuals being accidentally revived, the 70-foot tall maintenance robot who discovers her becomes curious about the history of mankind.  (He is also fascinated by her breasts and genitalia.)  Through research in the library, and then firsthand when he goes AWOL beyond the dome in search of our descendants, the robot learns that the human race is a bunch of violent, racist, environment-wrecking jerk-offs!

"Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" (1975)

This tale appeared in another Roger Elwood feel-good production, Dystopian Visions, and is in the same Chicago-centered fictional universe as "Chicago."  In 1977 a fix-up of Monteleone's four Chicago stories would be published under the title The Time-Swept City.  I read "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" in my copy of Nebula Winners Twelve, edited by Gordon Dickson.  The story takes its title from an A. E. Housman poem, "Reveille."  (Dickson had a poor editor; in my copy of Nebula Winners Twelve Housman's name is misspelled and we are told the poem is titled "Rebellion.")  Like everybody, I love "When I Was One-and-Twenty," and so did not hesitate to read "Reveille" in preparation for experiencing Monteleone's story. Housman's poem seems to be telling me that I should have devoted my life to going on adventures instead of reading books and taking naps.  Too late!

"Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" takes place millions of years before "Chicago."  In the interests of efficiency, the computer which runs the authoritarian Chicago society has totally alienated the human race from the physical realities of sex.  People don't have sexual intercourse, but satisfy their natural urges via drugs and what we would call virtual sex in the entertainment quarter or cybersex with their spouses.  We see the protagonist, Benjamin, have sex with his wife by laying next to her in bed, not touching her, each of them hooked up via electrodes to a machine which synchronizes their orgasms!

Physical sex has been outlawed to prevent the birth of "randoms."  As in an insect colony or some kind of factory, the central computer only authorizes the birth of genetically engineered people of specific types for which there is specific need.  (As in Brave New World, every person born is a member of a specific caste with specific functions in society.) People are born in the wombs of huge mutant women who live in vats, host mothers that look like amoebas and can carry thirty children at a time.  These host mothers have no eyes or ears, and communicate with the men who maintain the vats via telepathy.

Benjamin is one of the men who monitors the vats, using a helmet to hold telepathic conversations with one of the host mothers, Feraxya.  Something goes wrong--the thirty fetuses to whom Feraxya is playing host are not going to come out as engineered, but as "randoms."  (Just like you and me, reader!)  The government, of course, orders the fetuses aborted, but Feraxya rebels, insisting that her thirty children "have as much right to live as you or me."  Unbeknownst to anyone, Feraxya has developed telekinetic powers that allow her to attack the abortion team with deadly force!  Who will live and who will die?  Will totalitarian Chicago survive or fall to some kind of revolution?  

It is easy to see both conservative and feminist themes in this story; women relegated to being breeding machines for the totalitarian state, skepticism of abortion and genetic engineering, the dangers of divorcing sex from procreation via medical technology and pornographic entertainment.  The story also has good human relationship and horror elements.  I like it!

"Spare the Child" (1982)

This is a good horror story with disturbing erotic and cross-cultural overtones.  It is also one of those stories in which women cause men nothing but trouble.  I know it is hard to believe, but men used to think that way!  Thank heavens we have people nowadays dedicated to making sure such thinking remains a thing of the past!  I read "Spare the Child" in my copy of the January 1982 Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Russell lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife Mitzi and works in Manhattan. Mitzi always has some little project she is working on, and, in response to an ad in the New York Times, her current project is to "be a foster parent" to a child in the Third World.  "Be a foster parent" is a euphemism for sending 15 dollars a month overseas.  Russell is the one who writes out the checks, and so it is to Russell that their foster daughter, a prepubescent girl named Tnen-Ku who lives on a Pacific island, addresses brief letters thanking him and calling him "second papa."  The first letter is accompanied by a surprisingly provocative topless photo of the black-haired, black-eyed girl.  After a few months Mitzi grows tired of being a foster mother to a girl (whom she has come to think of as a "tart") who never uses Mitzi's name in her insultingly short letters, and so asks Russell to cease payment; besides, she wants to use the money on new curtains, her next project.

Russell stops sending the money, and Tnen-Ku, with her eyes that seem "like empty holes in her face" and her "deeply tanned flesh" begins haunting Russell, alternately seductively and terrifyingly.  Monteleone's depictions of the many creative ways the girl terrorizes Russell are effective; I particularly liked the appearance of a box of little animated bones which spell out threatening messages.

Good solid horror.  Social sciences and humanities students could write reams about the way women and foreigners are depicted in the story--they nag you, waste your money, use their bodies to manipulate you, and then when you resist them they threaten you with prison and/or death!

"Triptych di Amore" (1994)

This one I read in my copy of Poppy Z. Brite's anthology Love in Vein, which I acquired recently.  The cover of the book really pushes Brite as an exciting new personality, from text declaring her "America's new bestselling dark fantasy author" on the front to a gushing blurb about her from Dan Simmons, and a photo, on the back. (I have to admit she looks pretty adorable in that photo.)  A little disappointingly, none of Brite's own stories appear in the anthology.  However, I am looking forward to the included Koja/Malzberg story, and the story by the Tems, as I have liked horror stories in the past by Kathe Koja, Malzberg, and Melanie Tem. (There is a Wolfe story in Love in Vein, "Queen of the Night," which I read multiple times before the birth of this blog and definitely recommend.)

But first the Monteleone story, "Triptych di Amore."  I'm afraid this story was a little too goofy for me, goofy and obvious.  I thought Monteleone did things that were creative and thought-provoking in "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" and "Spare the Child," but "Triptych di Amore" feels like pornographic fanfic.  If you ever wanted an excuse to visualize Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Vincent Van Gogh performing cunnilingus on a blonde with pubic hair as "fine and wispy and soft as the down on a newborn chick," well, here it is!  

As the title suggests, "Triptych di Amore" consists of three related episodes.  Each episode relates an adventure of a beautiful green-eyed blonde named Lyrica who is virtually immortal and seeks out great artists to seduce.  The first episode is a third-person narrative about Lyrica's torrid affair with Mozart.  Sample goofy oral sex line: "He had never imagined a woman could be so clean."   The second episode consists of Van Gogh's secret journal--while sharing a country studio with Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh has an affair with Lyrica.  Sample goofy oral sex line: "A month has passed and I am truly mad for her touch and the lingering smell of her cunt in my beard."

Both Mozart and Van Gogh find that Lyrica is the most beautiful woman they have ever met, and the best lover they have ever had.  Sex with Lyrica energizes them initially and inspires them to produce their greatest work, but after a few months of feverish coupling with Lyrica she tires of them and the artists fall physically and/or mentally ill and die.

In the third section of the story Lyrica falls into the clutches of an Italian exorcist.  She transforms into a giant snake (the exorcist calls her a "lamia") but the priest stuns her with a glowing communion wafer.  Lyrica is entombed under an altar, the priest and his friends hope for eternity, but in a coda Monteleone suggests that an errant bomb dropped from a B-17 in 1944 may liberate the seductress.

The first two sections seem like a sincere but clumsy attempt at writing erotic material, while the last two sections come across as jokes.  However serious or silly Monteleone is being here, I felt like this story was a waste of my time, so I will have to give it the thumbs down.


Looking back on these four stories, I think I can detect some common themes, even though they span a period of over twenty years.  In all of them, woman, in particular woman's sexuality, is a destabilizing force, putting individuals, and sometimes entire societies, in danger.  More generally, these stories strike me as having themes of interest to Christians.  I'm no Biblical scholar, but doesn't a desire for knowledge lead to Adam being cast out of Eden?  And isn't that what happens to the robot in "Chicago?"  "Triptych di Amore" has a juvenile horror movie Christianity, what with the crusading priest who uses the Eucharist to defeat the satanic monster, and "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" addresses issues that have been important to post-war Christians in America, like abortion, pornography and recreational sex.  "Spare the Child" is about charity; Russell even gives Mitzi a little virtue-is-its-own-reward speech about how they shouldn't expect any kind of benefit for helping Tnen-Ku.  

While I was disappointed with "Triptych di Amore," I thought "Chicago" pretty good and "Breath's a Ware That Will Not Keep" and "Spare the Child" quite good.  I'll keep my eyes open for more Monteleone in the future.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

"Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills?  They couldn't be real Jews believe me." 
"They're real Jews," I said.
"I'll see it I'll believe it."
Readers of this blog and followers of my twitter feed may be aware that I recently moved to Columbus, Ohio.  MPorcius Fiction Log super-fans may recall that I read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in my college days, and a second time in 2014, and enjoyed it.  So, when I saw this handsome paperback copy of Goodbye, Columbus among the vintage paperbacks at one of the Half Price Books locations here in Columbus, I felt I had to have it.  Like Marcel in Swann's Way imagining what a town is like based on its name, I often try to predict what a book will be based on its title.  I theorized that Goodbye, Columbus was a novel about a Jewish guy who was raised in Columbus, OH and left to become a literary writer in New York or a screenwriter in Los Angeles and was amazed by how different attitudes about sex and family life are on the coasts.  Would he embrace these "modern" values for good, or just dabble in sexual promiscuity and careerism and then return home?

These idle predictions of mine generally are not very close to the mark (remember when I thought Neal Barrett's Kelwin was going to be full of thrilling sex and violence?) and this prediction was no better than usual.  Goodbye, Columbus isn't even a novel, but a novella (97 pages in my 1963 Bantam paperback); this volume is rounded out to 216 pages by five short stories.

Goodbye, Columbus is set in my home state of New Jersey--in fact our narrator Neil Krugman, who works at the Newark public library, is, as I am, an alumnus of Rutgers University, though he had classes in Newark and I attended classes in New Brunswick.  (I didn't live on campus, but some 35 miles away with my parents, who weren't yet interested in financing my escape from them; I had to wait until grad school to get that kind of financing.)  As I suppose we expect from post-war 20th century American fiction, 1959's Goodbye, Columbus, is about sex, class and race.  The plot follows Neil's summer romance, but perhaps more interesting than the protagonist's sexual relationship are the work's themes of the question of what constitutes an "authentic" Jew, hostility to the wealthy, and the disdain city dwellers have for suburbanites and vice versa.

At his cousin's country club Neil, 23, meets college girl Brenda Patimkin and they begin dating.  The Patimkins own a business with a vast warehouse "in the heart of the Negro section of Newark" that produces sinks, but they live in Short Hills, a tony suburb.  Roth contrasts the Patimkins, Jews who achieved financial success and left Newark for a big suburban house, black servants and country club memberships, with the Krugmans, a less affluent family who still reside in Newark.  Air-conditioning serves as one of the symbols of the Patimkin's affluence and their social distance from the Krugmans.  The story takes place in the summer, and Roth reminds us again and again how hot it is.  Neil's parents are spending the season in dry Arizona because of their asthma, while Neil's aunt and uncle, with whom he is living, have to sit outside their Newark apartment to escape the heat of indoors.  Brenda's wealthy suburban family, on the other hand, has air conditioning, a fact of which we are reminded repeatedly.

The Patimkins are friendly and accommodating, even inviting Neil to stay with them during his two weeks of vacation from the library.  To me, it seemed like a central thread of the story was the temptation of Neil; would he abandon his relatively lower status family, the city and his government job, for the wealth and prestige, the career in private business, and the suburban comfort of the Patimkins? The Patimkins strongly suggest that if Neil marries Brenda he will be offered a job at Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks ("Any Size--Any Shape.")  While the Krugmans are unhealthy and bookish, the hearty Patimkins are obsessed with sports, and there are numerous scenes in which Brenda and her siblings convince Neil to competitively run, swim, and play table tennis--is he becoming one of them?

While Neil is tempted by the Patimkin lifestyle, he himself is a tempter, wheedling and cajoling Brenda into satisfying his sexual desires.  Neil (like Portnoy in Portnoy's Complaint) can be quite aggressive sexually, and badgers Brenda into going to Manhattan to get a diaphragm; he says he will enjoy sex with her more if she uses one.  Brenda does his bidding, but the device triggers the crisis that ends their relationship when, after Brenda has returned to school in Boston, Mrs. Patimkin finds it while tidying up Brenda's room.  Neil, who has never really felt like he has belonged among the Patimkins, and has always feared Brenda's rejection, accuses Brenda of deliberately leaving the diaphragm in a place where her family would find it.  Neil tells Brenda she has to chose between her family and Neil, and she chooses her family in terms that make her seem materialistic: "They're still my parents.  They did send me to the best schools, didn't they?  They have given me everything I wanted, haven't they?"

This is a smooth economical story full of interesting stuff.  We have Roth's negative portrayal of the wealthy: bubbling under Neil's narrative is a hostility to the rich and Roth's suggestion that the Patimkin's wealth is ill-gotten, somehow dirty.  Most people I meet seem to think anybody who has more money than they do stole it, or somehow enjoy unfair advantages that enabled them to get it--even the millionaires I encounter are always decrying billionaires for their alleged cheating and unfair advantages, and of course every time you open the newspaper or turn on the TV you'll hear rich people enthusiastically denouncing other rich people's wealth.  Goodbye, Columbus fits comfortably in this shopworn genre.

One vector of attack Roth employs to make this point is Brenda's little sister, ten-year-old Julie, a spoiled brat who loves to play sports and games, but apparently only because everybody lets her win.  When Neil is left to babysit her he refuses to let her win at ping pong and prevents her from cheating, so she throws a fit, abandoning the game when Neil is on the brink of scoring the winning point. I have to assume that Julie here represents wealthy people in general, that Roth is arguing that society's winners only succeed because they cheat.

Goodbye, Columbus first appeared
in the Fall-Winter 1958-9 issue
of The Paris Review
More directly, Mr. Patimkin admits to Neil that to succeed in business "you need a little of the gonif in you."  Neil translates this as "thief," and Patimkin endorses our hero's definition.  "You know more than my own kids.  They're goyim, my kids...."

Roth also covers the sour grapes angle, hinting that the Patimkins cannot truly enjoy their wealth, even that it stifles them.  The oft-mentioned air conditioning prevents them from opening the windows, for example.  Neil discovers that Mr. Patimkin has spent a vast sum on a bar with every "kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl" and dozens of bottles of booze, but that none of the bottles have been opened, because nobody in the family drinks or has friends who drink.  And then there is Brenda's older brother Ron, who has to discard his hopes of being a gym teacher and work at the sink factory because of "responsibilities."

As the spoily back cover of the book tells prospective readers, Goodbye, Columbus is not a love story; Neil is primarily attracted to Brenda's body.  But I think another thing that attracts Neil to Brenda, and one of the vicarious pleasures the story offers to readers who envy the wealthy, is the chance to "stick it" to the rich.  Brenda complains that Neil is often "nasty" to her because he resents her family's wealth, though at times she seems to find this nastiness attractive (just as those internet pick up artist guys would predict!)  I've already pointed out how Neil refused to give in to little Julie's demands and defeated her at table tennis; Roth encourages the reader to see Julie and Brenda as different forms of the same person--the girls dress alike, and sometimes sing together, for example, and, like Julie, Brenda loves sports and games and is accustomed to winning ribbons in tennis and horseback riding.  The evening of the same day that Neil humiliates Julie at table tennis, he has sex with Brenda for the first time, and directly likens his sexual conquest to defeating Julie at ping pong:
How can I describe loving Brenda?  It was so sweet, as though I'd finally scored that twenty-first point.  
The fact that "When I began to unbutton her dress she resisted me," further makes Neil's sexual relationship with Brenda seem like a competition, like the table tennis match, one in which he has proven himself the winner over one of his social superiors.

The epigraph I chose for this blog post, a section of dialogue between Neil and his aunt, like Mr. Patimkin's strange claim that his own children are goyim, explicitly brings up the idea of Jewish authenticity--in 20th century America, who is a "real" Jew?  Are any of the characters in the story authentic Jews?  Neil and Brenda are totally secularized--when frustrated Brenda cries out "Jesus Christ!", and when asked by Brenda's mother, who is very active at her synagogue, if he is orthodox or conservative, Neil, who never goes to temple and doesn't mind working on Rosh Hashanah, can't come up with a straight answer.

Even though Brenda's father, with his Yiddish, and mother, with her piety, see themselves as authentic Jews, Roth takes pains to paint the Patimkin family as essentially inauthentic.  On their first date Brenda tells Neil she had a nose job, and I certainly got the impression that all the tennis and horseriding and scenes at the country club were supposed to make us think of the Patimkins as wannabe WASPs.  Then there is Ron, a skilled athlete who went to Ohio State (here's our Columbus, Ohio connection) who also got a nose job and who over the course of the novella abandons his dream of becoming a gym teacher to take up a management job at his father's plant, a job we see he is totally unsuited for.

It is possible that Roth is asking the question of who is an authentic Jew without providing an answer,  or that his answer is that nobody in 20th century America can truly be an authentic Jew, but I am going to go out on a limb here and propose the theory that Roth's story argues that being a true adherent of Jewish tradition is not about maintaining centuries-old language or millennia-old religious rituals, but identifying with and trying to help the downtrodden.  Which brings us to the topic of race in Goodbye, Columbus.

A film of Goodbye, Columbus was released in 1969;
I have not seen it
There are several black minor characters in the novella, and a minor white character (John McKee, a man who dresses well and thus represents the rich or those who aspire to be rich) who also works at the library and complains about how blacks ruin the public housing the white taxpayers provide them and vandalize library books and masturbate in the stacks while looking at art books.  Our narrator not only pokes fun at this colleague and his views, but identifies with and defends "Negroes."  When Brenda's family asks Neil to babysit Julie, Neil tells us that "I felt like Carlota [the Patimkin's black maid]."  A young "colored boy" (we never learn his name) comes regularly to the library to look at art books, in particular a volume of Gauguin reproductions, and Neil puts his job on the line when he lies to a white library patron to keep him from borrowing the Gauguin book.  Neil even has a dream in which he and the boy are companions on a sailing ship.

While Neil champions and identifies with blacks, the Patimkins, who employ black domestics at home and many black men at the factory, treat them as subordinates.  I suspect we are meant to contrast a scene at the factory in which Mr. Patimkin and hapless Ron order their black employees around with a scene in the library in which Neil talks with the young art lover about Gauguin, treating him, more or less, as if he is an equal.

In the same way that the inauthenticity of the Patimkins is signalled early on (page 9) by the revelation of those nose jobs, I think Roth signals how important characters' dealings with blacks should be to our assessment of them even earlier (page 5), when Neil calls Brenda to ask for that first date:
"What's your name?" she said.
"Neil Klugman.  I held your glasses at the board, remember?"
She answered me with a question of her own, one, I'm sure, that is an embarrassment to both the homely and the fair.  "What do you look like?"
"I'm . . . dark."
"Are you a Negro?"
An interesting nuance to the way Roth addresses this topic is that while Neil is the character with the most sympathy for blacks, it seems like he also has the least experience with them; the Patimkins deal with blacks almost everyday, and McKee suggests that Neil's cavalier attitude about the housing projects is the result of his not living near any of them.

Another wrinkle: the portrait Roth paints of blacks in the story is not exactly a flattering one.  The "colored" characters don't have much agency or personality, they seem to be there to provide an opportunity for us to distinguish between the good whites and the bad whites, you might even call them pawns in white vs white or Jew vs Jew status games.  In the same way Roth has Mr. Patimkin, the businessman, liken businesspeople to gonifs, and reproduces a letter written by Mr. Patimkin that is full of odd spellings and punctuation, Roth puts evidence of black dysfunction in the mouth of the Gauguin-loving little boy, the most well-developed black character.  The child not only pronounces "art book" as "heart book" and "Gauguin" as "Mr. Go-again," but engages in conversations with Neil like this:
"Who took these pictures?" he asked me.
"Gauguin.  He didn't take them, he painted them.  Paul Gauguin.  He was a Frenchman."
"Is he a white man or a colored man?"
"He's white."
"Man," the boy smiled, chuckled almost, "I knew that.  He don't take pictures like no colored man would.  He's a good picture taker...."
One reason the child likes Gauguin is that the Tahiti depicted by Gauguin appears to be a place of peace, evidently unlike the African-American Newark neighborhood where he lives: "These people, man, they sure does look cool.  They ain't no yelling or shouting here, you could just see it."  When Neil asks the boy why he doesn't get a library card and borrow the book, he admits that a nice book wouldn't be safe where he lives: "What you keep telling me take that book home for?  At home somebody dee-stroy it."

Goodbye, Columbus is a good story, thought-provoking and fun, full of sex and jokes and all the race and class stuff I've been talking about (and just as much stuff about the relationships between men and women and between parents and children that I haven't talked about.)  The writing is deft, with vivid little details, but never so much description that it drags.  Definitely worth a look.