Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Three early 1930s stories by Edmond Hamilton from The Horror on the Asteroid

One of the first hardcover SF books, a volume printed before the Campbellian revolution and the publication of the first SF stories by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and A. E. van Vogt in 1939, was the 1936 Edmond Hamilton collection The Horror on the AsteroidThe Horror on the Asteroid contains six stories first published in Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, and Astounding.  I have already read three of them, "The Monster God of Mamurth" (which I blogged about in 2017), "The Man Who Evolved," and "The Accursed Galaxy" (which I wrote about in 2013), and today we'll read the remaining three: the title story, one called "The Earth-Brain" and one entitled "The Man Who Saw Everything" that originally appeared as "The Man With X-Ray Eyes."  I don't have a copy of The Horror on the Asteroid, but all three stories are readily available at the internet archive in scans of the magazines in which they first appeared. 

"The Earth-Brain" (1932)

Our initial narrator for this tale is Morris, who by chance meets his friend Clark Landon on the streets of beautiful Manhattan during an earthquake.  Landon, a brave explorer, was in an earthquake up near the North Pole two years ago--that quake killed Landon's two best friends, fellow explorers David Travis and Herbert Skeel.  There have been earthquakes all over Europe and North Africa ever since that big one up north, and Landon reveals that he has been at the epicenter of each quake--he claims that the quakes have been following him, trying without success to kill him and inadvertently slaying thousands of innocent people!  Of course Morris thinks this is balderdash.

Landon sits down with Morris in a hotel room and takes over the narrative, relating his story of weird polar horror to his friend and to us.   

Two years ago the three white men, Landon, Travis and Skeel, along with two Eskimos, traveled north via ship and then dog sled towards the Pole.  When they came upon a mountain Landon and his two buds were eager to climb and explore it, even though the Eskimos warned them that, according to their lore, this mountain must hold the Earth's brain, and as such was forbidden.  The white men scoffed at the natives' idea that the planet Earth was a living being with its brain in a polar mountain, and started climbing the mountain, doing their best to ignore the increasingly violent tremors that the Eskimos told them were a warning that must be heeded.  Halfway up the peak they found a smooth-walled tunnel that led them into the hollow core of the mountain, a huge cavern in which rested a hundred-foot high glowing thing shaped like an egg--this spheroid of coruscating light is the brain of our planet!

Landon and his pals were snatched up by tentacles of light, and their minds invaded by the consciousness of the Earth-Brain!  The Earth-Brain had never paid much attention to humans before--we are like microbes to it--and now it studied the three men.  When the tentacles tore Skeel apart to examine his insides an enraged Landon drew his automatic and shot the brain.  The brain's resulting paroxysms of fury killed Travis, and the Eskimos outside, but Landon, by luck, managed to escape and make his way to civilization.  Everywhere he went the vengeful Earth rocked in an effort to kill him, but Landon knew to stay in open spaces, away from buildings and mountains that might fall on him.

After telling his story to Morris, Landon leaves New York and heads south.  Morris tells us about newspaper reports of further quakes, each farther south than the last.  The last quake took place in Guatemala; according to the papers during the quake an American jumped into a crevice--the crack closed up on him and the quake immediately ended.

2014 edition
"The Earth-Brain" is too long and repetitious; we know the essentials of the plot from the third page--including who dies at the Pole--and then Hamilton spends page after page elaborating and embroidering them.  The plot and idea are good, but the structure and style of the story do not make the best possible use of them.  If I was Hamilton's co-writer or editor I would get rid of the Morris character and the NYC frame story and present the story as Landon's journal.  The first part of the journal would set up the friendship between Landon and Skeel--Skeel was there for Landon when Landon's fiance cheated on him or Skeel saved Landon's life in the war or something--so when the Earth-Brain rips Skeel in half it is really heartrending.  Skeel's death would not be foreshadowed, at least not blatantly, so it would come as a surprise.  The later parts of the journal would be full of Landon's feelings of guilt over Skeel and Travis's deaths and the deaths of innocent people in other earthquakes aimed at him, as well as his ruminations on suicide.  Appended to the journal would be a newspaper clipping about Landon's suicide during the Guatemala quake.

Barely acceptable.

"The Earth-Brain" would be reprinted in Robert Price's 2001 anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu.

"The Horror on the Asteroid" (1933)

"The Horror on the Asteroid" was first published in an issue of Weird Tales with a pupil-dilating S&M cover by pioneering woman artist Margaret Brundage that illustrates the Conan story now known as "Xuthal of the Dusk" but then called "The Slithering Shadow."  (We read "Xuthal of the Dusk," a lost city story featuring a sexy queen and a man-eating god monster, last year.)

Space liner Vulcan is travelling to Jupiter from Earth when it is struck by meteors and its hull breached--over half the people on board are killed!  Hamilton really dwells on the grief and terror of the survivors, and how tough a time the surviving officers have keeping the spacemen and passengers under control and shepherding them into the life boats and to a nearby asteroid.  This asteroid, 100 miles in diameter, has a breathable atmosphere and is covered in jungle.

The space castaways, about a hundred people, become very insubordinate and fractious, and many fights ensue among them.  They spot some hairy ape-like creatures, and some large crocodillians, and find some wrecked space ships which crashed on the asteroid in the past.

I figured out the central gag of the asteroid early because I recalled Hamilton stories about evolution gone haywire like "Devolution" and his wife Leigh Brackett's 1948 story "The Beast-Jewel of Mars," in which bitter Martians use rays to devolve Earth colonists into cave men and even further back down the evolutionary ladder.  In "The Horror on the Asteroid" it is elements in the asteroid's atmosphere which cause humans to devolve.  The lead character, the Vulcan's radio operator, figures this out by reading the log from one of the earlier crashed ships.  He tries to convince everybody to get back in the life boats and flee the asteroid, but it is too late--they are too ape-like to even understand what he is talking about!  Luckily just then a rescue ship arrives.

The start of "The Horror on the Asteroid," all the stuff in the stricken space ship and the life boats, is good.  But the stuff on the asteroid is a bit weak.  First of all, there is the deus ex machina ending--the characters don't do anything to solve the problem presented by the asteroid's atmosphere, they are just fortunate that a rescue ship appeared before they were hairy ape men.  Secondly, in the first half or so of the story Hamilton sets up relationships--there is a mutinous spaceman as well as a self-important businessman who aren't interested in taking orders from the officers--that are just abandoned, which is frustrating.  When a story has troublemakers in its first half we expect them in its second half to get punished, or to reform, or, in a twist, to turn out to be smarter than the main character and inspire a change in the protagonist.  When they simply disappear from view it is disappointing and we feel like our time has been wasted.


It doesn't look like "The Horror on the Asteroid" has appeared outside of Weird Tales and the collection which bears its name.

"The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (1933)

Back in 2017 we read Edmond Hamilton's 1934 story "The Man Who Returned," the tragic tale of a guy who was buried alive, escaped his tomb, and then realized life was not worth living when he eavesdropped on people and realized how they really felt about him.  "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" is a similar piece of work.

David Winn is a young reporter in New York City who wants to marry his girlfriend Marta Ray, but feels he does not have enough cash to do so.  When he hears that some scientist has developed a way to alter animals' eyes so they can see through inorganic matter, Winn realizes that if he could see through the stone and metal walls of homes and offices he could become the world's best reporter, with one scoop after another, and very quickly the world's best paid reporter!

Winn visits the inventor of the eye altering process and volunteers to be his first human test subject.  The experiment is a success, and after a stop at his paper for his assignment (talk to a bunch of politicians and prominent businessmen about a recent corruption case) Winn sets to work getting scoops.  Winn can read lips, so he hangs out in waiting rooms and, by looking through the wall, can "listen in" on the meetings of all these pols and magnates, and they all turn out to be totally corrupt, unabashedly so among their equally venal subordinates and colleagues!  This is a little more depressing than Winn expected it to be.  Then Winn heads over to Marta's.  On the way he passes through a slum, and past a prison and a hospital--able to see through walls and doors and floors, he witnesses every form of human evil and misfortune and misery!  He can't go on living if every moment he will be exposed to the hellish reality of human life, and the egghead told him that the surgery was irreversible!  Winn decides that after he marries Marta they will move to the country and become hermits!  But then comes the ultimate blow--through the wall as he approaches Winn can see Marta and her mother talking about him, and by reading their lips learns they both think he is a loser and that Marta is only marrying him because she expects she can't do any better.  "I have to marry someone, don't I?"

Winn proceeds to drown himself in the river.  (Winn is one impulsive dude.)

This is a pretty good story, even if Hamilton forgets that rubber and petroleum products are organic and erroneously has Winn unable to see automobiles--he should be able to see the tires, hoses, fuel and lubricants.  I can be much more enthusiastic about this one than the other two. 

"The Man With X-Ray Eyes" was reprinted in Startling Stories in 1946, where it was heralded as a "Hall of Fame Classic."  That same issue of Startling includes Henry Kuttner's The Dark World, which I didn't think was very good when I read it years ago.

Over in the British Isles, in 1945, "The Man With X-Ray Eyes" was included with Robert Bloch's "The Red Swimmer" and H. O. Dickinson's "The Sex Serum" in an odd little publication whose main selling point was apparently its cover photo of a topless woman.  The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has an article about the series of reprints of US fiction of which "The Sex Serum" was Number 9.


More stories from a Weird Tales habitue in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Jake's Thing by Kingsley Amis

"A nice man would have tried to make a girl feel it had been worth while, however tired and pissed he was.  No that's not fair, a man who sees more in women than creatures to go to bed with, a man who doesn't only want one thing.  So you see I've rather come around to Brenda's way of thinking."   
This week I tackled another Kinglsey Amis novel, 1978's Jake's Thing.  Living in the suburbs and lacking access to a university, there was no hope of finding in any library within easy reach any books by Kinglsey Amis beyond Lucky Jim, so I read the scan of a Penguin paperback edition of Jake's Thing available at the internet archive.

Jaques Cecil Richardson is a fifty-nine-year-old college professor--an Oxford don, no less--living in London with his third wife, the quite fat Brenda.  When he was younger, Jake (as everybody calls him) was very sexually active--he claims to have "been in bed with well over one hundred women" and has cheated on Brenda quite often.  But the last year or so he has suffered what the doctors categorize as a decline in libido.  "I don't fancy anyone, not even girls I can see are very attractive," Jake explains to the shrink his GP sends him to.

Jake's Thing is in part about how the passage of time wreaks changes, changes which may well not be welcome.  Starting with the very first chapter there are many scenes of the Jake walking and riding around London and Oxford, and Amis presents all manner of details pointing out how England has changed, and continues to change, and how Jake resents and to some extent has resisted such changes.  Jake's house is an early example.  It is one of a long row of brick homes put up a century ago which are now in demand and more expensive than Jake could afford to pay today.  All of the houses on the street have had their front gardens or facades altered for cosmetic or practical reasons, but Jake has refused to change a thing about the front of his own domicile.

Much of the novel is taken up with the odd methods of diagnosis and treatment prescribed by Jake's shrink.  Our hero is to "study" pornographic magazines, to write his own pornography (like so many college professors, Jake turns out to be an atrocious, or maybe just extremely lazy, writer), to attach a device to his penis that measures his nocturnal erections, among other things.  There are group therapy sessions; the patients in attendance have all manner of psychological problems--one man is a kleptomaniac, one woman suffers crippling shyness, etc.

In one scene that I suspect was deliberately constructed to remind readers of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Jake sits in an operating theatre with a machine connected to his member and is shown different images of women; over a dozen people, doctors and medical students, watch the experiment, the object of which is to determine Jake's sexual tastes.  Between pictures, to make sure Jake has returned to a state of zero arousal, Jake is instructed to read aloud long paragraphs from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty; Amis reproduces these paragraphs, which cover such topics as the value of free speech and individual autonomy, and the dangers of increased government power.  Presumably this is a hint that scientists and medical people in 1970s Britain think that the freedom of the individual is hogwash or that the very idea is alien to them.  In conversation Jake finds his shrink to be woefully ignorant of history and culture--to these men of science the things held dear by Jake, a specialist on classical Mediterranean civilization who translates Martial for fun, are beneath notice.

Jake spends about 10% of the year (he calculates) living up at Oxford, and we see him at his college, Comyns.  Comyns is one of the few colleges at Oxford that does not yet admit women students, and Jake is physically harassed by feminist protesters on his way to his office; when he opens his mail he finds what you might call anti-male hate mail.  In the next few scenes after the mail opening scene Jake has a conference with a lazy and incompetent female student and then hangs around with other Oxford profs--they decry the ignorance of their women students and all the zany feminist ideas they profess.

About halfway through the novel Brenda starts attending some of Jake's meetings with his psychologist, and Jake is shaken when she says that "she had had no pleasure or other benefit out of her marriage for a not very small number of years and only acquiesced in its continuance out of habit, laziness and dislike of upsets, and, in particular, that she considered her husband to be at best indifferent to all women except as sexual pabulum."  Then the head of Comyns College, who is planning on having a sort of hearing on whether Comyns should start admitting women, asks Jake to assemble and present at the hearing the case for admitting women.

Winston Smith at the end of 1984 and Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange have changes of heart, and there is a scene in Lolita in which Humbert Humbert admits he stole Lo's childhood.  I began to wonder if Jake, prodded by his long-suffering wife and his task of examining the benefits of admitting women to the college, would in similar wise become a more affectionate husband and begin to see women as more than sex objects.

As the final third of the novel of 277 pages begins, it is the day of the hearing and Jake wakes up with a terrible hangover in the bed of a member of the university administrative staff, having gotten drunk and cheated on Brenda again.   His bedmate of the night before tells him that he wasn't at all sweet or considerate after their lovemaking--he really does treat women as mere sex objects!  Jake hurries off to his office to prepare his presentation of the case for admitting women to Comyns, which of course he has not even started work on.  The case he presents is simply that admission of women will soon be inevitable and there is no point in resisting, and when directly asked if he thinks women are equal to men, Jake unleashes an impassioned description of how women will ruin the college:
"...there will be women everywhere, chattering, gossiping, telling you what they did today and what their daughter did yesterday and what their friend did last week and what somebody they heard about did last month and horrified if a chap brings up a topic or an argument.  They don't mean what they say, they don't use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that's the end for the search for truth, which is what the whole thing's supposed to be about."     
Jake does not reform!  At least, he does not develop a greater appreciation for or sensitivity towards women.  He does change his attitude about psychology, going from deep skepticism accompanied  by a willingness to give it a shot at the start of the book to abject hostility and refusal to even consider it by the end--after one of the patients who regularly attends the group therapy sessions tries to commit suicide Jake gives the medical professionals a tongue lashing, telling them their methods not only fail to resolve people's problems but make them worse and that their whole industry is a scam.  Brenda, who has been taking the therapy seriously and who, in an effort to become more attractive to Jake, "had lost something like two and a half stone and could no longer be called fat" leaves Jake for one of the many minor characters who fill the novel and about whom I will not be talking.  (I looked it up and can report that 2.5 stone is 35 pounds.)

On the last page of Jake's Thing, months after abandoning psychotherapy and being abandoned by his no-longer-fat third wife, the protagonist's GP tells Jake that it is likely his lowered libido is not psychological at all, but the result of a hormonal imbalance that can be treated with drugs.  Would Jake like to try this simple remedy?  Jake considers how much trouble women are and says "No thanks."

Many of the compliments and criticisms I had for Lucky Jim, Amis's 1954 novel which I read just recently, are equally applicable to this 1978 novel.  Jake's Thing is good, but it is just an ordinary novel, unless you think the constant unsexy talk of sex or the rank hostility to psychotherapy and women is extraordinary, and perhaps it would be for some people, especially in 1978, before Dr. Ruth and Howard Stern and Dr. Drew hot the airwaves.  The jokes are not bad, but they are not uproariously funny, either.  The novel feels a little slow, and the group therapy session, which takes up two chapters, really drags.  The whole thing is understated and lacks excitement and passion--the best part of the novel is Jake's harangue, quoted from above, about how women can't discuss abstract intellectual ideas and take personally any disagreement and so fill up time by telling pointless quotidian stories; this speech gets a rise out of the reader by making a controversial case with some spirit.  The exciting parts of Jake's Thing, like the ferocious attacks on women and on psychotherapy, are like islands in the novel's broad sea of interesting but bland text.

Like Jim, Jake is selfish and not terribly sympathetic.  (The most sympathetic character in Jake's Thing is Brenda, who really tries to make her marriage work but whom Jake is not willing to meet halfway.)  Where Jake's Thing is superior to Lucky Jim is in how Amis doesn't try to pawn off on us an inexplicable and bogus happy ending--Jake and Brenda act in a way that makes sense and they get their just deserts.   

Also on the good side, I enjoyed the various references, some learned, like talk of T. S. Eliot and the Greek Anthology (I love my Penguin edition of selections from the Greek Anthology edited by Peter Jay) and Thunderball, the 1965 James Bond movie that features a surfeit of underwater action.

Another noteworthy facet of the novel is Amis's depiction of London as a multicultural, international city.  As the most prominent members of Monty Python and The Smiths have been eager to tell us, there are very few English people left in London, and Amis as far back as the Seventies stresses how London is full of foreigners, with "Americans, Germans, Spaniards," and "black, brown or yellow" people taking up all the taxis, a Muslim in traditional Middle Eastern attire in the doctor's office, a "witch doctor" on the street.  Jake's shrink is an Irishman, and, as his first own name suggests, Jake himself is descended from a Frenchman who came to England in 1848, the year of revolutions.  ("Jakes" of course, is also slang for lavatory, and we all know what the shortened form of Richardson must be.)

Like Lucky Jim, I can give this one a moderate recommendation.

In our next episode we'll check in with one of our favorites here at MPorcius Fiction Log, space opera pioneer, Weird Tales scribe, and husband of Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Three 1940s stories by Hannes Bok from Future

I am of course familiar with the art of Hannes Bok, who created striking and distinctive covers as well as interior illustrations for a multitude of SF books and magazines.  But Bok was not only a painter and draughtsman of the fantastic--he also took up the pen to write SF fiction and poetry!  Today. for the first time, I will read some fiction by Bok, three stories that first appeared in the early 1940s in Future Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine.

There's Yarra and Frank Rogers as painted
by Bok himself
"The Alien Vibration" (1942)

"The Alien Vibration" was first published in the February 1942 issue of Future Combined with Science Fiction (Future went through a lot of name changes during its life), but I can't seem to find that issue at the internet archive.  But here at MPorcius Fiction Log, if we can't get in through the door we get in through the window!  "The Alien Vibration" was reprinted by super-editor Donald A. Wollheim in 1952 in Avon Science Fiction Reader, which is available at the internet archive, and that is where I read it. 

Frank Rogers has lived most of his life in congested cities, but now he has a house in the remote forest.  He spends a day walking in the woods, opening his consciousness up to nature.  That evening, he hears what must be a voice, and follows it into the woods and into another dimension, a dimension of chaos where the landscape around him is in constant flux.  The voice comes from a child-like figure floating amid "half-visible lilac draperies;" this giggling mischievous creature, named Shi-Voysieh, and its fellows, lead Rogers to a beautiful twenty-foot tall woman named Yarra, who is also known as "The Woman."  Yarra strongly attracts Rogers, but not sexually--rather, she is motherly: her "pervasive whiteness" and "milkiness" "sent him back to childhood...[she] seemed the mother of all mothers, the essence of maternity."

The Woman embraces Rogers and explains that the inhabitants of this universe create their environment via thought; the terrain and everything else around Rogers keeps changing because Yarra and Shi-Voysieh and his siblings--her children--are creating it and then, quickly tiring of what they have wrought, creating something new.  Yarra helps Rogers learn to create and manipulate matter himself.

While Yarra is away, Shi-Voysieh reveals that Rogers was once one of them, but he was ambitious and created his own entire universe and retired to it--that dimension, of course, is our own, dear reader!  Shi-Voysieh, Rogers's brother, missed him and so brought him back when Rogers rendered himself open to communication.  Rogers doesn't care for this chaotic universe, and tries to, by the power of his thoughts, recreate and return to our more orderly universe.  Yarra, his mother, is sick of her husband, B'Kuth (AKA "The Man"), the first creator and senior entity of this dimension, and begs Rogers to bring her with him.  B'Kuth is a sort of tyrant, and Yarra and her children are expected to ceremoniously salute him whenever they say his name--I wondered if this was an allusion to the Nazi salute.

Rogers succeeds in getting them back to his house in the forest, but Yarra doesn't stay more than a moment, perhaps because she missed her other children.  With her gone, Rogers has no concrete evidence that he really went to another dimension (or "vibration," as Bok sometimes calls parallel universes in this story) and decides his whole crazy adventure was just a dream or his imagination getting away from him.

I'm going to have to give "The Alien Vibration" a marginal thumbs down.  Elaborate descriptions take up too big a proportion of the text, and the plot too little.  My eyes were glazing over trying to read all the details about surreal vistas that a paragraph later would disappear and be replaced by some other phantasmagoria.  The story lacks real conflict--B'Kuth doesn't have any lines and doesn't really appear on screen, we just hear people talk about him and hear his menacing footfalls in the distance--and Rogers doesn't really make any decisions.  Stories in which the protagonist is just lead by the nose and doesn't actually do anything are a pet peeve of mine.

At the same time, the story is packed with elements ripe for some kind of psychological analysis.  Presumably one could dissect the story to try to suss out the beliefs and attitudes of Hannes Bok--a homosexual artist who abandoned his birth name and concocted a name for himself out of "Johann Sebastian Bach"--about gender roles, relationships between parents and children, and creativity.  Rogers and Shi-Voysieh have a whole conversation about whether creative artists can produce things that are truly original or can only rework things they have already seen.  Another thing that jumped out at me was a reference, when Rogers is trying to traverse radically changing terrain, to Eliza and the ice-floes; also notable is how, when Rogers compares our world to the world of B'Kuth and Yarra, Bok includes mention of prejudice and lynchings.  Perhaps this is a sign that Bok, as a member of one marginalized group (gay men), identified with, or, at least had at the forefront of his mind, the plight of another marginalized group, African-Americans.

"The Alien Vibration" is interesting, if not quite a success as a piece of entertainment.

I like Bok's depiction of the shadow elf;
it could have made a great mascot for Future,
a sort of SF version of Playboy's Femlin.
"Beauty" (1942)

A young woman in a "shabby coat" visits a psychic, begs that "gaunt wreck of an old woman" to make her pretty--nobody wants or needs her now, but she knows that if she were pretty "people would flock around me like they do to all the pretty girls."  She even tells the psychic that if she can't be pretty, she doesn't want to live!

The old woman, through use of a pentagram, some prisms, and a bell, sends the girl to another dimension, to a ruined city in the middle of a rocky desert.  The ruin is inhabited by moaning shadow figures.  As the Earth woman watches, one of the shadows climbs the stairs of an ancient temple and hurls itself at a huge dull gem embedded in the wall there; the figure is absorbed, and the gem briefly glows red, its rays bringing the desert to verdant life and revealing the sad wraiths to be jovial elves.  But only briefly; soon the gem is again dull and the jungle a barren desert, the elves again dim phantoms.

The nameless protagonist decides to throw herself into the gem, a way of committing suicide that will help the shadow elves see again the beauty of their wasted world.  But the psyker back on Earth is watching her, and just as she touches the gem the girl is transported back to our world.  Her adventure has (somehow--I think Bok could have made this a little more clear) taught her that there are more important things than looking pretty and cured her of her suicidal inclinations.

"Beauty" is similar to "The Alien Vibration" in its plot and in that it addresses a topic of interest to an artist, this time "beauty," and also in the fact that it is top heavy with images and descriptions.  However, being shorter than "The Alien Vibration," it doesn't wear out its welcome.


"Beauty" would be reprinted in the 1997 anthology Ackermanthology, edited by Forrest J Ackerman.

The image on the right is Bok's own illustration for "Dusk on the Moon," showing the moon of
200 million years ago, as meteors rain down on Yssa's people and a colossal statue of herself 

"Dusk on the Moon" (1943)

"Dusk on the Moon" begins by introducing us to Shizek, a spider creature the size of a cat who lives in a ruin in a crater on the Moon (breathable atmosphere persists in those craters.)  Shizek hides when an emergency space boat lands in the crater and two Earth people, Bob and Loretta, emerge.  Bob and Loretta are newlyweds and adventurers or government agents of some kind--they fled a space liner in the emergency life boat because a dangerous radical who resents them for interfering with his revolutionary plans was aboard.

When spotted by the Earthers, Shizek scats down a stairway into a series of sublunar chambers.  B & L then spot a space ship landing nearby--when a squad of those revolutionaries climbs out of it they flee down the stairs into the underground chambers themselves.  The radicals follow their tracks, and an energy gun firefight ensues--Bob shoots down one pursuer with an entropy ray that makes the thug decay into dust in seconds.  The villains chase the heroes through a labyrinth, where the arachnoid lunar natives help B & L prevail.

The spider people lead B & L to a cavern full of jungle where a gorgeous woman, a brunette as lovely as a goddess, lies in repose behind a force field.  Our heroes awaken her and she uses telepathy to transmit to them the story of her race, of whom she, Yssa, was absolute dictator thanks to her mental powers.  In times so ancient the continents of Earth had not yet separated, a meteor approached Luna.  The beautiful dictatrix hypnotized her people into building her the underground shelter in which B & L found her; all the lunar people save her were wiped out by the meteor's impact.  Then Yssa put herself into suspended animation; she has slept through the millions of years that have passed since then until today she was aroused by our heroes.

Instead of being grateful to or fascinated by her Terran rescuers, Yssa treats B & L as servants, making Loretta help her at her bath, for example.  Yssa is vain, spending lots of time looking in the mirror and primping.  When she realizes Earth is inhabited by millions of people she seeks to hypnotize the Earthers into taking her back home with them, where she will make herself Queen-Goddess of the world, and the skyscrapers of New York will be torn down to make way for hundreds of monumental statues of her!  Luckily, Shizek sneaks up on Yssa and stings her, killing her.

This is a sort of pedestrian story, and there are underdeveloped elements.  The revolutionaries and Bob and Loretta's relationship to them could have been fleshed out--as it stands we don't know anything about their aims or ideology and they just act like thugs, not leftist intellectuals or resentful proletarians or anything compelling like that.  I also expected Bok to do a thing where Bob and Loretta's young love was tested, with Yssa trying to seduce Bob, but the author only barely hints at such a plot element.

Still, I kind of like "Dusk on the Moon."  It is easy to imagine somebody like Leigh Brackett or Jack Vance taking this raw material and making an awesome short novel out of it, filling it with sexual tension and/or bitter irony, comparing the tyrannical government the revolutionaries are trying to erect on Earth with the tyrannical government Yssa had on Luna all those years ago, making the Earth rebels and the vain Queen into really interesting characters, etc.  But as it stands, still marginally good.

It looks like "Dusk on the Moon" was only reprinted once, in a sort of semi-pro anthology called Incredible Adventures 2.


These stories are not great, but I don't feel like I wasted my time sampling Bok's literary efforts.  Maybe we'll see more of Bok's fiction here at MPorcius Fiction Log (but no guarantees!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Stories by J P Brennan, A Davidson and R Bloch from Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Keep You Spellbound

Bloch and Davidson, you see,
 made the cover!
Maybe you accompanied the staff of MPoricus Fiction Log when we explored 1979's Whispers II, a hardcover anthology edited by Stuart Schiff.  In that volume of horror and fantasy stories, we read our first piece of fiction by Joseph Payne Brennan, a very brief story about a guy reuniting with a dead loved one at the beach.  Curious to sample more of Brennan's vast body of work, I looked around the internet archive, the indispensable source for those of us who seek to dig from the quarry of 20th-century popular culture, and found a few scans of anthologies with Brennan stories, among them 1976's Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Keep You Spellbound, edited by Eleanor Sullivan.  I decided to read not only the included Brennan story, but one by Avram Davidson (who also had a memorable story in Whispers II) and one by Robert Bloch, who didn't have a story in Whispers II, but had a blurb on the cover!  Feel free to think of this blog post as "The Revenge of Whispers II."

All three of these stories first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; in her introduction to the anthology, Sullivan tells us that Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Keep You Spellbound is being published in the year of that magazine's 20th anniversary.  Somewhat to my amazement, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is still being published and has passed its 60th anniversary!

"Death of a Derelict" by Joseph Payne Brennan (1967)

"Death of a Derelict" is one of Brennan's stories about Lucius Leffing; according to The Thrilling Detective Website, Leffing is kind of like Sherlock Holmes but sometimes deals with psychic and occult phenomena.  The founder of The Thrilling Detective Website, Kevin Burton Smith, suggests that when Brennan was writing stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine he went a little light on the supernatural elements, so maybe I shouldn't expect the dead derelict to be walking around haunting his still-living friends.  But let's see....

Oy, this story is so lame it made me laugh out loud--it is like something a kid would write!

Leffing is just like Sherlock Holmes and the narrator, whose name is Brennan, is just like Watson.  They are sitting around when a customer interested in engaging Leffing's services as a private eye drops by.  This guy, the obese "manager of entertainment concessions at Frolic Beach," an amusement park or seaside boardwalk kind of thing, is getting sued because a bum who hung around the place, Joel Karvey, was found dead at the base of the roller coaster, and some lawyer has convinced the bum's distant relative that the park is liable.  The fat guy wants Leffing to prove Karvey the bum did not in fact fall off the roller coaster but was murdered, so he is not legally or financially responsible for his demise.

Half or so of the story is Brennan and Leffing sitting around jawing about the case.  Then Brennan twice accompanies Leffing to Frolic Beach, the first time to ask questions of the park staff, and the second time with Leffing in disguise as a bum himself.  One of the park employees sees Leffing, thinks it is the ghost of the bum, and yells out "Karvey!  Get back!  You're dead, you crazy bum, I killed you!"

Then we get the explanation of why the employee murdered Karvey--this employee, a night watchman, to supplement his income, would retrieve coins from the gutter.  But when Karvey the bum moved into the area he presented the night watchman with some stiff competition!  Seeing his daily haul of coins drying up, the night watchman ambushed and assassinated Karvey, bashing in his cabeza with an old discarded piece of the railing that surrounds the roller coaster.

I'm not the audience for these mystery stories in which guys talk about clues and then trick the killer into revealing himself, and I am not a fan of "Death of a Derelict."  The next time I sample Joseph Payne Brennan's work I will make sure it is in what is incontrovertibly a horror anthology full of gore and monsters.

"Present for Lona" by Avram Davidson (1958)

A working class guy hasn't made any money since the road he was helping construct was finished weeks ago and things between him and the wife are getting rough!  So he takes a one-time job as a member of a firing squad and helps the state government execute a convicted murderer!  He takes his pay (twenty-five bucks) and buys a gift for his wife and a bottle of booze, but when he gets back to the trailer park the little wife refuses the present!  She doesn't want anything to do with the money he earned sending that killer to Hell, so he has taken on the heavy burden of guilt of killing a man for nothing.  This throws him into a rage, and, in his frenzy, he beats his wife to death with his bare hands.  In the story's final scene it is our protagonist who is facing a firing squad of men who will be paid $25.00!

Acceptable.  This story is reinforcing my suspicion that Avram Davidson is a man with a tragic view of life!

"A Home Away From Home" by Robert Bloch (1961)

"A Home Away From Home" has appeared in many Bloch collections and several anthologies, including multiple Alfred Hitchcock anthologies.  Maybe that indicates it is a real winner!

A young Australian woman's parents were killed in a car wreck, so she moves to England to live with her uncle, a psychiatrist whom she has never met who lives in the remote countryside.  The day she arrives everybody she meets is acting pretty funny, and as the story ends she realizes that her uncle's country house is an asylum and earlier that day the inmates rose up and massacred her uncle and his staff and these people pretending to be her uncle's colleagues and friends are the murderous mental patients and she is going to be their next victim.

Barely acceptable (not a real winner.)


Criminy, three gimmicky filler stories.  Seeing as she selected them for Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Keep You Spellbound, we have to assume that Eleanor Sullivan (editor in chief of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine from 1975 to 1981 and managing editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from 1970 to 1982) thought them among the best stories to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine over the course of two decades.  If these mediocre pieces are the best the magazine had to offer, what can the run-of-the-mill fare offered by the magazine be like?

Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is not for me.  The next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log will see us returning to more traditional MPorcius territory as we read three stories from 1940s issues of Future Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Dixon began to feel definitely alarmed.  Had Welch's long-heralded derangement finally come to pass?  Or was this a bitterly sarcastic way of alluding to Dixon's own disinclination to approach any possible arena of academic work?
I have often thought I should read something by Kinglsey Amis, important British man-of-letters, fan of genre literature (he wrote a lot about James Bond, for example) and co-editor with Robert Conquest, the Anglo-American poet and historian, of SF anthologies.  So from a Howard County library I borrowed a 2012 New York Review of Books Classics edition of Amis's first published novel, Lucky Jim, which is like 265 pages long in this edition.

James Dixon, the Jim of the title, is a young academic who doesn't like to read very much (his "policy it was to read as little as possible of any given book") and for eight or nine months has held a junior position at a mediocre English college lecturing on medieval history even though he doesn't know what the word "scholasticism" means (Dixon doesn't let lack of comprehension of its meaning keep him from using the term every day, however) and mixes up Aquinas and Augustine.  Dixon is on what they call a "two-year probation" and is in a constant state of fear that he will be let go by the erratic head of the History Department, Professor Ned Welch, and much of the novel's volume consists of Dixon trying to stay on Welch's good side--for example, by getting his admittedly boring article on the economic effects of innovations in shipbuilding in the 15th century published--and seeing his efforts upended by his own vices and shortcomings as well as bad luck.  Dixon has also been casually dating a female lecturer, Margaret Peels; he is not very attracted to Margaret at all, but feels trapped in a relationship with her out of pity and inertia and social pressure.  As the novel begins the semester is about to end, and it has been some weeks since Dixon's paper was rejected by a respectable journal and since Margaret, after being dumped by another man she was dating, one she was apparently dating much more seriously than she was Dixon, tried to commit suicide.  And it is only a few hours before Dixon is scheduled to head out to Welch's country house where a bunch of provincial smarties, including Margaret, will be participating in an "arty week-end."

Dixon, who doesn't even really want to be a college professor and whose main interests are drinking and smoking, is something of an outsider, and a causeless rebel who acts out for peevish childish reasons instead of any ideological conviction, expressing privately his contempt for everybody in caustic inner monologues and the making of faces and outwardly via the indulgence in some pretty intrusive practical jokes.  A music professor, Johns, is a particular target of Dixon's pranks; Dixon lifts a music magazine from Johns's mailbox and draws a mustache and fangs on the photo of a composer on its cover, and later forges a threatening letter to Johns that accuses the man of taking sexual liberties with his secretary and vows revenge.  All through the novel Dixon is pulling scams and deceptions like this, often to cover up his blunders but also, apparently, just for the hell of it.

The plot follows two main threads--Dixon's strivings to impress, or at least not appall, Welch, and Dixon's relationships with women.  The former plot thread is full of obvious sorts of comedy: Dixon claims he can read music and so at the arty week-end gets shanghaied into singing songs he's never heard before at an amateur concert, but of course he can't read music and is a poor singer anyway; Dixon gets drunk and falls asleep while smoking, burning holes in the sheets and table and carpet in his room at Welch's country house; Welch enlists Dixon to deliver a lecture on one of Welch's favorite topics and Dixon gets drunk right before his career-critical performance.

The latter plot thread, Dixon's relationships with women, is a little more serious.  This novel has many characters and they all have tangled relationships with each other...I considered drawing myself a chart with arrows signifying everybody's blood, sexual, and adversarial connections, but didn't quite reach that point.  Welch's son Bertrand is a painter, and, as is to be expected of an artist, he has all kinds of sexual affairs, including with the wife, Carol, of one of Dixon's colleagues in the History Department, Cecil Goldsmith.  Bertrand's latest girlfriend is the beautiful Christine Callaghan, who works in a London bookstore, but she has been resistant to surrendering her virginity to Bertrand, so Bertrand has still been seeing Carol on the side, though carefully, so as not to drive away Christine because he wants to get in good with Christine's Uncle, an important patron of the arts.  This uncle is looking for a sort of personal assistant, and Bertrand wants that job.  Dixon meets the obnoxious painter and the fetching virgin at the arty week-end and is immediately attracted to Christine, and Carol, apparently trying to buttress her own position or just out of spite, encourages Dixon to go after Christine; Dixon achieves some preliminary success, which leads to bitter conflict with Bertrand Welch, who of course threatens to put Dixon's job in jeopardy by tattling to his father.

Things look bleak in the final fifth or so of the book.  Christine feels stuck with Bertrand, and Dixon feels stuck with Margaret, and she lives in London and he far off in the provinces anyway, so Christine and Dixon abandon their blossoming relationship.  Dixon, after a physical fight with Bertrand and his disastrous performance of the big lecture where he was supposed to put forward Welch's ideas, is told he will not be asked to stay for the next semester.

But then the novel ends happily, deus ex machina style.  Christine's uncle offers Dixon the London-based personal assistant job Bertrand wanted.  Margaret's former boyfriend appears and he and Dixon piece together the clues that indicate that Margaret is not a sensitive soul who tried to commit suicide but a manipulative neurotic jerk who faked the suicide attempt in order to gain control over Dixon and/or the other guy.  This revelation means Dixon has no obligation to maintain his relationship with Margaret and can pursue Christine.  And Christine is now available because Carol has told her about her ongoing affair with Bertrand, releasing Christine from any obligations to the promiscuous painter.  As the book ends we have every reason to believe that Dixon and Christine will live happily ever after, with Dixon even shedding his bitter cynicism and ceasing to play his practical jokes on people. 

Lucky Jim is alright, but I was rather disappointed in it; it has such a high reputation ("The comic novel of out time") that I was expecting something something fun and laugh-out-loud hilarious like a P. G. Wodehouse caper, or some tremendous life-changing masterpiece, like Proust or Lolita or something.  Instead, Lucky Jim is just a good ordinary mainstream novel.  It is cynical instead of light-hearted, and the jokes, while good, generally elicit smiles rather than guffaws and are sort of predictable--how many jokes that revolve around people being drunk have we encountered in our lives?

Nothing about Lucky Jim is difficult or challenging; you don't have to wrestle with anything or figure out any kind of puzzle.  The style is a bit verbose but easy to understand, and understated rather than passionate or exciting.  Amis only nibbles at the edges of political or social issues, he rarely tries to tell you something tendentious about life or to move you.  There is nothing deep and philosophical, nothing outrageous or shocking--Lucky Jim is not labyrinthine and tragic like something from Proust or Nabokov, it is not blunt and outrageous like Charles Bukowski's work or pretentious and outrageous like Henry Miller's.  And while it is not satisfying in the way a "hard" literary novel can be, Lucky Jim is also not really satisfying in the way a popular novel or genre novel can be--there is no catharsis when Dixon succeeds because he doesn't seem to deserve to succeed (it was not really clear to me why Christine and her uncle take to Dixon so readily, as he is always acting irresponsibly and Christine and the uncle seem like responsible people) and because he is not quite likable; similarly his foes are not so terribly monstrous that you really want to see them thrashed.  How much better a person is Dixon than the Welches and Margaret, and how much more interesting?--not very much.

Before returning Lucky Jim to the public library, I'll note some good things about it, and repeat that I don't think it is bad or a failure, just underwhelming.  Obviously, I like that the protagonist is an outsider who hates everything and that it portrays academia as a corrupt scam and academics as a bunch of lazy and self-important jerks who contribute nothing to society and believe--and promulgate--a lot of nonsense.  I was very interested to take in a minor character's analysis of academic grade inflation and the lowering of admissions standards due to political and financial pressures which have nothing to do with (and even undermine) the search for knowledge.  This sort of thing resonates with my own experiences over the course of my spotty career at 2nd and 3rd rate institutions of higher learning.

In one memorable scene Dixon engages in spirited ridicule of modern romanticizing of the medieval period*:
As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages.  Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages.  The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.  Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the Middle Age--Margaret's way of referring to the Middle Ages?
In this scene Amis lets himself go a little, courts a little controversy, and Dixon exhibits some strong feelings--the novel could have done with more of this.  Another example of Amis turning up the heat and of Dixon demonstrating some passion is the book's best and funniest scene, in which, in the final pages of the novel, Dixon chases down and then rides a bus, desperate to catch a train he (erroneously) thinks is about to leave, and vents his frustrations over the bus's slow progress in a long series of extravagant fancies.

I will probably give some of Amis's later work a try, but for the nonce I am eager to get back to the science fiction and fantasy stories which have been the meat and potatoes of this blog throughout its life.

*You may recall that I recently found Gene Wolfe's romanticizing of the medieval period charming and exciting.  My point, here and there, is not that I find these arguments particularly convincing, but that they are thought provoking and fun to read because they evidence some kind of deeply considered thought and exhibit some deep emotion. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Whispers II: Leiber, Campbell, Drake, and Campton

Let's finish up Whispers II, the hardcover anthology of "stories of horror, supernatural horror, the macabre, and the generally weird" from 1979 put together by Stuart Schiff.  Only four stories to go, three of them by people pretty famous in the speculative fiction world.

"The Bait" by Fritz Leiber (1973)

I read the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories in the 1980s in Ace editions, five with Jeff Jones covers and one with a Michael Whelan cover, and I had definite opinions about which stories were good and which were not very good.  Looking at the contents pages of my six dog-eared Ace volumes and wracking my brain, I will say that the F&GM novel, The Swords of Lankhmar, and the short stories "The Seven Black Priests," "Bazaar of the Bizarre," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," and "Stardock" are among the definitely good.  Two long stories, "Adept's Gambit" and "Lords of Quarmall" I felt had the wrong tone and atmosphere, and a bunch of other stories were merely acceptable, and another group pointless trifles.  Among the pointless trifles was "The Bait," whose three pages I reread for this blog post.

(I often think about rereading all the F&GM stories...maybe some of the stories teen-aged MPorcius found mediocre or odd will appeal to a forty-something MPorcius?  But that is only one of many reading projects that I have conceived that have not yet blossomed into reality.)

Fafhrd and the Mouser are sleeping, dreaming of money.  They suddenly awake to find a naked teen-aged girl ("looked thirteen, but the lips smiled a cool self-infatuated seventeen") in their room.  They both want to have sex with her, and even propose to fight over her.  But then nine-foot tall demons appear in the little room, attack our heroes, and are quickly defeated.  The girl and the demon bodies then vanish.  F&GM speculate that Death, who appears as a character in a number of F&GM stories, sent the three beings to destroy them.

Leiber is a skilled writer and the style here, ironic and clever, is pleasant to read, but plotwise it is a big nothing and doesn't even really make sense.  The girl is not "bait," because she didn't lead the heroes to the demons, or even distract them so the demons could sneak up on them.  There was no reason for Death to send the girl there before he sent the demons; she is just included in the story to titillate the reader and set up jokes about Fafhrd and the Mouser's taste for girls in their early teens.

(One might also complain that "The Bait" has the exact same plot as 1974's "Beauty and the Beasts," and that both "Beauty and the Beasts" and "The Bait" are mere pendants to 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner.")

"The Bait" was first printed in Whispers #2, and later included in the sixth Fafhrd and Grey Mouser book, Swords and Ice Magic (the one with the Michael Whelan cover), as well as a few other Leiber collections and anthologies.  I find the inclusion of "The Bait" in so many venues puzzling, because I consider it weaker than most Fafhrd and Grey Mouser tales; maybe it was a convenient buy for anthologists because it was so short and could fill in a last few vacant pages that needed filling?  Or maybe editors liked that it was silly and seemed to be a parody of sword and sorcery, a sort of goof on Conan-style stories? 

"Above the World" by Ramsey Campbell (1979)

Here we have what I am calling a meditation on loneliness and alienation.  A divorced guy, Knox, whose ex-wife Wendy and her second husband Tooley recently got killed in a mountain climbing accident, goes to the touristy town where he and his ex-wife had their honeymoon, and where she and her new husband recently stayed--I think this town is also where they were staying when they got killed.  Knox walks around the town, and again and again we get images and mundane events which speak of inability to achieve a connection, to communicate, with others--he hears voices but can't discern the words; the wind blows a postcard along the street--he tries to read it but it falls down a storm grate before he can snatch it; he goes to a book store to get something to read but the store is closed.  And, of course, seeing so many places where he spent time with his wife triggers plenty of recollections of her.  Knox is even staying in the same hotel room they stayed in on their honeymoon!

Knox hikes up a somewhat treacherous path, up a mountain, and finds it exhausting.  On the summit he weeps, and on the way down, encroaching fog hindering visibility, his attention distracted by something he thinks he sees carved into a tree trunk, he gets lost in a forest.  He begins to panic as the mist thickens and the sun begins to set.  As the story ends Knox comes upon two people, no doubt meant to remind us of Wendy and Tooley, who themselves died on a mountain climb, just as Knox fears he will now, and we readers have no idea if these mysterious figures are going to help him or if they are monsters who will kill him or ghosts who signify that he is already dead, or what.  (Early in his climb Knox had a severe chest pain that struck and then passed; maybe he died then and during the the rest of the story he has been a ghost.  Metaphorically, he has been dead for a while, because he has "a hollow at the center of himself" that began growing during his marriage.)

This story is OK; if you want to read page after page about a guy slipping on rocks and grasping at tree branches and tripping over roots, and semi-poetic ways of describing stuff that is far away ("A few dots, too distant to have limbs, crept along that ridge"), well, "Above the World" is for you.  Also, Campbell uses the word "cagoule," which I don't think I've ever encountered before.  Always learning...always learning. 

"Above the World" had its premiere here in Whispers II and has been reprinted in numerous anthologies and Campbell collections, including Dark Companions.  You'll remember that early last year we conducted an ideological analysis of a story from Dark Companions, "Napier Court."

"The Red Leer" by David Drake (1979)

David Drake is an important figure in the history of WhispersAs he describes at his website, for much of the period in which the zine was published, Drake read the slush pile of manuscripts sent to Whispers, forwarding along to Stuart Schiff the small percentage in which he saw any value for Schiff to choose from among.  (Don't credit me with figuring this out--I got the link to Drake's interesting account of his tenure as assistant editor of Whispers from tarbandu's blog post on Whispers II.)

Old John Deehalter willed his 600-acre farm jointly to his son George and his daughter Alice, so now his son has to work the farm with his annoying brother-in-law Tom Kernes.  On the farm is an Indian burial mound, and Kernes wants to dig it up in hopes of finding a skull to display in his house.  Yuck!

The farmers bust open the mound and find what we readers immediately recognize as an alien high tech artifact.  Not long after that farm animals start turning up dead and people start seeing a strange figure in the night!  Deehalter and the Kernes are in the fight of their lives against a voracious alien creature--will they figure out its nature and weaknesses in time to defeat it, or will America's Great Plains soon be at the mercy of a slavering space monster?

This is sort of a standard horror story, but it is entertaining; Drake paces it well and is good at setting the scene and describing what goes on in the action sequences.  There are mystery elements around the powers and characteristics of the monster, but you can tell what the hell is going on, unlike the Grant and Campbell contributions to Whispers II, which leave you wondering whether the protagonist is dead or alive.

I liked it--thumbs up.  "The Red Leer" saw print first here in Whispers II and has resurfaced in several Drake collections and an anthology edited by Drake.

"At the Bottom of the Garden" by David Campton (1975)

Campton is a playwright and this story first appeared in a British juvenile anthology; like "Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole," I would have skipped such a thing under normal circumstances.  But while Ken Wisman's satiric folk song about marriage appeared in Whispers II and nowhere else, "At the Bottom of the Garden" appeared first in Armada Sci-Fi 1 and was included later in Whispers #9 and DAW's The Year's Best Horror Stories Series VI; maybe the wisdom of crowds indicates this story is actually good?

Mrs. Williams is a sad case: scatterbrained, shy and insecure, not very pretty, and a bad cook.  The first few pages of the story are largely taken up by a comic description of her disastrous efforts in the kitchen.  Mrs. Williams is so overwhelmed by her housework that she barely pays any attention to her equally unattractive and dim-witted daughter, Geraldine, who is I guess six or seven.  So Mom doesn't really take notice when Geraldine talks about her new friend; this new friend, according to Geraldine, removed the little girl's crooked and yellow teeth and straightened and whitened them and reinstalled them.

Having demonstrated prowess in the realm of dentistry, Geraldine figures her new friend might be able to cure her headaches and fix her terrible eyesight.  The friend disassembles the little girl, removing head from body and eyes from skull, to work on them.  When Mr. and Mrs. Williams see this shocking operation  underway in the distance, they sally forth in a state of panic, scaring off the little surgeon, who is some kind of alien or monster.  Geraldine, though in pieces, is still alive, and the uncanny medico could have put her back together again better than new, but the creature is too scared of the parents to return, so Geraldine, alive but immobile, is buried in pieces.

Because it first appeared in a SF anthology I thought we were going to learn all about the alien or whatever it is and how it can take people apart without shedding their blood or killing them, and I expected a warm and ironic happy ending in which Geraldine became smart and pretty and her parents never understood how this transformation took place, or, in their stupidity, took credit for their daughter's improvement .  But "At the Bottom of the Garden" is a surreal black humor horror story, not a science fiction story, so we learn nothing about the creature's origin or how it performs its medical miracles; the point of the story is to make us laugh at the antics of the members of the Williams family, three foolish and selfish dingbats, and/or make us imagine the mind-churning horror we would feel at finding one of our loved ones disassembled by a weird-looking creature.  And maybe consider the anguish of the helpful creature, whose efforts to do good were misunderstood and ended in tragedy.

Merely acceptable.


So there it is, Whispers II.  I'm considering this a worthwhile exploration.  I enjoyed the very good Lafferty story and the solid Drake story, and the Davidson, Jacobi and Wellman stories deepened my quite limited knowledge of those writers and made me think better of them than I did before I cracked open Whispers II.  And next time I play Scrabble with the wife, maybe I can flummox her by whipping out "cagoule."   

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Whispers II: Etchison, Wisman, Wellman and Moore

Four more stories from Whispers II, the 1979 anthology of horror and fantasy stories edited by Stuart Schiff, who sought to bring to the world in his magazine and anthology series (both called Whispers) speculative fiction that was "less commercial" than those productions he felt were "diluted for the masses" now that the literature of the fantastic was "big business."

Our man tarbandu read and blogged about Whispers II back in 2010 at The PorPor Books Blog--I am just catching up now!

"We Have All Been Here Before" by Dennis Etchison (1979)

This is one of the stories that first appeared here in this hardcover edition of Whispers II.  It would later be included in the Etchison collections The Dark Country and Talking in the Dark.

I find those police procedural things in which the detectives sit in the precinct and talk about clues to be boring, and that is what we have here.  A psychic woman who loves to smoke cigarettes sits in a Los Angeles police HQ with the obese police chief, going into a trance and seeing visions and giving the Chief all the clues he needs to collar a prime suspect.  This woman, we learn, travels all over the country helping catch murderers and find missing persons and all that.

By the end of the story we realize that this woman really has psychic powers, but she doesn't always use them for good!  The murderer the fuzz are looking for, she can see, is some Hispanic vagabond, but she leads the coppers to her ex-boyfriend, a college professor who dumped her and broke her heart!  She is trying to send an innocent man to the clink for life!  And she has a list of other people she thinks wronged her that she is going to similarly frame!

Etchison complicates the story by coming up with a bizarre explanation of how the corpse of the girl murdered by that Latino vagrant came to police attention--a powerful rainstorm caused a mudslide at a cemetery and 47 corpses were disinterred and flowed down hill into people's yards.  When the cops counted up the bodies there was one too many, because that Latino killer buried his victim in the cemetery.  Maybe Etchison included this convoluted series of events in his story for symbolic purposes, or just to provide an opportunity to introduce some weird visuals into his tale.

I guess I'll call this one acceptable filler.   

"Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" by Ken Wisman (1979)

Normally when I buy an anthology or get one from the library I just read a few stories that attract me and ignore most of the book's contents; life is brief, and I let my spider sense guide me away from stories I won't appreciate.  But sometimes, and this is the case this week with Whispers II, in a spirit of adventure and open-mindedness, I will grit my teeth and read all the stories in a book.  And here with "Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" it is teeth-gritting time, because this story is making my spider sense tingle like crazy.  First, there's the joke title; I rarely like joke stories.  Second, when I flipped through Whispers II I noticed that four or five of this story's dozen pages were taken up with verse.  Thirdly, I had never heard of Ken Wiseman before and when I looked him up I saw that he had written an environmentalist novel about a baseball-playing Neanderthal.  "Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" is the kind of story I would in ordinary circumstances dismiss out of hand and immediately forget even existed.

"Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" is written in a kind of fairy tale/tall tale style, but I guess ironically.  To employ a word I rarely use, I think we can also call it "ribald."  In the surreal universe it depicts, men drive to the country, an area known as Mount Nemesis, where there are seven lakes inhabited by sexy aquatic fairies--mermaids and naiads and the like--to go fishing; "fishing" in this context means attaching jewels or sweets to a line and tossing it in the water and then reeling in one of the females who grabs it to have sex with her.  This story is an uninspired satire conflating the hobby of angling and the pursuit of love.

The plot:  The narrator, Oscar, and his oversized friend Archie, are on a fishing trip.  Here's a sample of Wisman's poetry, describing Archie, for you:
Now, Arch he was a Nemesis man;
A mountain o' man was he.
No bigger lover in the land,
His pole was a huge oak tree.
Archie learns that there is a secret eighth pool known as Hades Hole.  In it our heroes spot a particularly beautiful water nymph, a Scylla, and over the years they spend many fishing seasons trying to catch her.  Finally, they acquire the biggest pearl imaginable, one with a magic spell on it, and the Scylla takes this bait.  But instead of being dragged ashore for a quickie, the Scylla pulls Archie down into her labyrinthine lair, where she makes him her husband and he must clean the cave all day.

I will concede that "Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" is a competent specimen of its type, but this is not the sort of thing I want to read.  I'll call this acceptable filler.

"Archie and the Scylla of Hades Hole" made its debut in Whispers II, and for some reason has never been reprinted anywhere.

"Trill Coster's Burden" by Manly Wade Wellman (1979)

Manly Wade Wellman has a good reputation, wrote one of the Captain Future novels and appeared in Weird Tales and Astounding, so in theory I should be interested in him, but I've avoided him because my impression has been that he writes about hillbillies and the American South, topics that have never exercised much hold over me.  But maybe I have been wrong, maybe this guy is some kind of virtuoso wordsmith and will inspire in me a fascination with moonshine and mint juleps?

John (Wellman's most famous character and our narrator) and his fiance Evadare come to a small town in the mountains.  The sexiest woman in this town, Trill Coster, a slut who used her feminine wiles to break up families and ruin men's lives, has just died.  The people in this town believe in "sin-eating," that a living person can take on the sins of a recently deceased person so that person won't go to Hell, and the one man in this town who still had tender feelings for the impious and malignant Trill Coster is begging people to take on the dead troublemaker's sins.  Evadare, whom John portrays as a woman of pure character, always trying to help everybody, agrees to accept Trill's sins.

That night around the campfire Trill's sins, smoky forms with green glowing eyes, surround our heroes and offer them jewels.  A woman from the town, a sexy wench who envied Trill's power over men, also comes by to try to seduce John.  Evadare rejects the sins and John rejects the seductress, and in the morning we learn that the seductress, who longed to be like Trill, has gone insane--she took up one of the jewels and Trill's sins have been transferred to her.  John and Evadare are married in the spot where, by resisting all temptation, she affirmed her goodness and he affirmed his commitment to her.

This isn't really my thing but it succeeds in its aims, the pacing and structure and style are all good.  Moderate recommendation, I suppose.  I will probably stop giving Wellman such a wide berth.

"Trill Coster's Burden" is another story that was first published in Whispers II, but it has been reprinted in a number of Wellman collections and some anthologies.

"Conversation Piece" by Ward Moore (1978)

Yes, there are two stories with this title in Whispers II.  We read Moore's "It Becomes Necessary" three years ago.

It is Independence Day in New York, the year 1805!  In the midst of the festivities a businessman, Nicholas Apperson, sees a beautiful foreign woman, he suspects a Russian, and is so taken with her he leads her away and has sex with her.  These two don't even talk--this woman doesn't even speak English, so they can't talk!

After much sport in the dark during the fireworks display, the foreign beauty's dozen or so companions, most of them men, catch up to them.  The woman was willing and seems to have no regrets, but her compatriots are agitated, drawing swords and pulling pistols.  None of them can speak English, but make their desires known by signs, many of which involve the pistols.  The merchant and the foreigners go to Apperson's house, where Apperson eagerly agrees to marry the beauty, whose name is apparently Tatyana and who is apparently a princess.  The marriage is accomplished that very evening and followed by a raucous party, the Russians having brought with them a violin and Apperson directing his servants to empty the wine cellar for the occasion.  The Russians depart, never to be seen again, and Nicholas and Tatyana Apperson enjoy a long happy married life, during which they never speak intelligibly to each other, instead communicating via little signs and smiles.

"Conversation Piece" is long, with lots of details of interior decor, costume, social customs, politics and ideology (Apperson keeps stressing that he is a republican who disdains aristocracy, for example) that I guess are supposed to make you think you are in the New York of the Napoleonic Era.  If there is speculative fiction content it is well-hidden--I kept thinking maybe it was going to be revealed that these Russians were time travelling refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution or something like that, but there were no signals I could decipher of such an esoteric meaning lurking below the surface.

I can't say this story is bad, but I can't recommend it, either.  Yet again "Acceptable" is what we have to go with.

"Conversation Piece" was first printed in Whispers #11-12, and has never appeared outside the Whispers brand.


All four of these stories are about women, as seen from a male perspective.  Women are mysterious, maybe incomprehensible; women have strange powers that can be used to make us do things that we don't want to do, things that may be immoral or dangerous; a relationship with a woman can make or break your life.

In our next episode we finish up with Whispers II.