Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Stories of Haunted America by Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Carl Jacobi, and Barry N. Malzberg

Let's dip again into Marvin Kaye's 1991 anthology Haunted America.  As I mentioned in our last installment, for this book Kaye split the USA into five regions, and selected eight to ten stories to represent each region.  Today we'll look at one story set in The West, Fritz Leiber's "The Glove," and three about The MidWest: Robert E. Howard's "The Dead Remember," Carl Jacobi's "The Chadwick Pit," and Barry Malzberg's "Away."

"The Glove" by Fritz Leiber (1975)

"The Glove" is about a rape at a San Francisco apartment building where live a bunch of homosexuals, people who believe in witchcraft, women who get attention by cutting themselves or overdosing on pills, a guy with some strange sexual fetish that drives him to violence, and other weirdos.  Leiber infuses the story with sad nostalgia, using the building and its inhabitants as a sort of model in miniature of a United States in social decline.  The now grim apartment building was once a bustling hotel, the now empty closets and inert dumbwaiters then in constant use by a legion of accommodating servants.  Almost all the current tenants of the building are single, and there are no servants, making the big building feel empty and lonely, and our narrator says that because people nowadays have fewer children that the entire world is perhaps similarly becoming big and lonely.

Our narrator is Jeff Winter.  He tells us he slept through the break-in of the apartment next to his and the rape of its occupant, Evelyn Mayne, a 65-year-old woman who is neglected by her family, is always hitting the bottle and who makes half-hearted attempts to commit suicide several times a year.  Winter knows all the details of the crime through conversations with the victim and another tenant, an attractive woman he is dating, Marcia Everly, who was the first person Mayne went to for help.  After the police have come and left, Mayne finds a clue in her apartment, a glove.  When Mayne is taken away by her family, Marcia Everly gets custody of the glove, but the glove creeps her out so she asks Jeff to keep a hold of it until the cops return.

That night Jeff keeps waking up, thinking the glove has come to life and is touching him, and it does seem to move about the room, though probably this is just because of the wind from an open window.  When the police come to collect the glove, the glove's unusual movements (merely at the whims of the wind and gravity, probably) help to pinpoint the rapist, who turns out to be the most outwardly helpful and neighborly person in the building!  In the story's last line we learn the gloves worn by the rapist were handed down to him by his father, who was a judge.

This is a well-written and enjoyable story, though the business with the moving glove is probably the least interesting part, and I suppose in a lot of ways the piece isn't "woke."  I note that Leiber seems to write a lot about rape--see: "Alice and the Allergy" (1947) and "The Sadness of the Executioner" (1973)--and politically incorrect sex in general--see "The Bait" (1973.)  The rape scene in "The Sadness of the Executioner" is played for laughs, and I thought Leiber was pulling an inside joke on us here in "The Glove" when he has Jeff relate that, after hearing Mayne describe her victimization, "I realized, perhaps for the first time, just what a vicious and sick crime rape is and how cheap are all the easy jokes about it."  On second thought, perhaps this is not a sly joke directed at his fans, but Leiber's subtle mea culpa.

Of the stories in Haunted America I have read, "The Glove" seems most successfully to accomplish what Kaye set out to do with the anthology: it actually paints a recognizable picture of the place it is set in (San Francisco as a place full of people with sexual appetites outside the mainstream) it actually features a haunt focused on a particular location or item, it actually has something to say about American culture, and it is actually good.

"The Glove" was first printed in the June 1975 issue of Stuart David Schiff's Whispers, and selected by Gerald Page for DAW's The Years Best Horror Stories: Series IV.

"The Dead Remember" by Robert E. Howard (1936)

"The Dead Remember" was first printed in Argosy, but Cele Goldsmith included it in a 1961 issue of Fantastic 25 years later, even advertising it on the cover and printing a page-long essay by speculative fiction historian Sam Moskowitz on Howard along with it.

"The Dead Remember" is a solid competent horror story about cowboys and race relations.  Over half of the tale consists of a letter written by cowboy Jim Gordon back home to his brother Bill; Jim was working a cattle drive from Texas that has just reached its destination in Kansas.  Jim tells Bill he expects that he will soon be dead, and explains why.  Jim, who seems like something of a swaggering jerk who was always throwing his weight around, four months ago, before the cattle drive, got drunk and outrageously mistreated a black man, Joel.  After abusing Joel's hospitality and accusing Joel of cheating him at dice, Jim instigated a fight with Joel in which Joel's wife, Jezebel, a light-skinned black woman reputed to be a witch, also became involved.  When the fight was over Joel and Jezebel were dead, but as she was expiring Jezebel put a curse on Jim.  While on the way to Kansas with the herd of 3,400 head of cattle, Jim repeatedly escaped death, narrowly, from various accidents--no doubt these accidents were the work of the curse!

After the letter comes a bunch of legal testimonials from a sheriff and various witnesses which relate to us readers how Jim was finally undone by Jezebel's curse in Dodge City, Kansas.

I like it.  In my last blog post I mentioned how one of Lovecraft's early stories, "The Terrible Old Man," perhaps had something to tell us about the author's attitudes about immigrants, and maybe this story, one of Howard's last, similarly can tell us something about Howard's attitudes about African-Americans and their relationship with the white majority.


"The Chadwick Pit" by Carl Jacobi (1980)

This story appeared in the first of four paperback editions of Weird Tales published in the early 1980s and edited by Lin Carter; in that book it was simply titled "The Pit."  In his intro to "The Chadwick Pit" here in Haunted America, Kaye tells us a version of the story with all the supernatural elements removed appeared in a 1976 issue of Mike Shane's Mystery Magazine.

Back in July I read Jacobi's 1936 story "The Face in the Wind" and bitterly denounced it, but maybe this one will be good?

Chadwick is a dude who likes to live alone and has just moved into a house in a relatively remote area.  At the edge of his property is a huge sinkhole full of stones and black water; he has been told this is the site of an Indian burial mound that some enterprising jokers dug up, looking for artifacts.  The pit is an eyesore and a danger, but when Chadwick says he is thinking of filling it in, people warn him to just leave it alone.     

Chadwick builds what he calls "a summer house."  In my experience, in New Jersey and New York, people use the phrase "summer house" to mean an actual second house you own or rent that is far from your main residence, a place you go to on vacations.  My boss when I worked in public academia in Manhattan had a summer house in the Hamptons; she cunningly claimed to the tax collector that it was her main residence, thus allowing her to avoid paying income taxes to New York City, where she lived in an apartment like 300 days of the year.  Anyway, I was amazed when Jacobi wrote that Chadwick built this summer house in "several weeks."  A quick look at wikipedia indicates that some people use the phrase "summer house" to mean a thing like a shed or shack you put in your yard to sit in instead of sitting in your actual house.  I guess you use such a thing the way you'd use a porch or veranda, especially if you don't have an air conditioner in your house. 

Anyway, Chadwick uses stones from the pit to build the foundation of this "summer house."  He starts sleeping in the little summer house, but he always has nightmares when he does so, nightmares in which he chases people and is chased in turn.  When news comes from town that people are being murdered, we readers assume Chadwick, under the influence of the stones from the pit, is spending his nights driving around murdering people, Mr. Hyde-style.  Chadwick suddenly finds a room in his house that he never noticed before. (?)  In it are a bunch of psychology books; they fall open naturally to their chapters about dreams.  There is also a bunch of books about Native Americans, including one that claims a mysterious race inhabited North America before the arrival of the Indians.  (I'm guessing that in the Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine version of the story the Lovecraftian lost race jazz was left out.  Maybe Lin Carter should have convinced Jacobi to leave the psych books out of the Weird Tales version and focus a little more on the ancient monster people.)

Chadwick has a crush on the girl who works at the library, whom he met when checking out books on how to build a summer house.  (If only these books had warned him not to use stones from an Indian burial mound.)  When this girl turns up missing, Chadwick's Dr. Jekyll side briefly overpowers his Mr. Hyde side and he leads the cops to where he has hidden the librarian while in his most recent Mr. Hyde period.  The police rescue the girl and drag Chadwick off to jail.

An unremarkable and pedestrian piece of work that feels clumsy and contrived at times.  One example is that room with the books that comes out of nowhere.  Whose psychology books were those?  Did the people who were there before have bad dreams, even though they didn't build a haunted summer house?  (Jacobi makes clear that Chadwick doesn't have the bad dreams if he sleeps in the actual house he bought.)  Another example is how when Jacobi needs the sheriff to be a passenger in Chadwick's car for his plot to work, all of a sudden Chadwick reveals he was a cop back in Chicago in '55 so the sheriff will deputize him.  Instead of the two of them searching for the missing librarian separately, you know, to cover more ground, the sheriff decides he'll leave his police car behind and ride with Chadwick in his civilian car.  What?  I'll judge "The Chadwick Pit" just barely acceptable.     

"Away" by Barry N. Malzberg (1985)

In "Away," Barry Malzberg, a creature of New York and New Jersey, like myself, tries to say something about Iowa, where I lived for four years.  I don't know if Malzberg ever lived there.  This story is a first-person narrative with stream of consciousness elements, delivered by the ghost of Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, the New Englander who founded Grinnell College in 1846.  Grinnell materializes at a Fourth of July picnic in 1954 where one of Iowa's senators, Bourke B. Hickenlooper, is giving an anti-communist speech.  Grinnell's ghost cries out that the orator is "all wrong....This man is not telling the truth!  We lived to open frontiers, he is closing them!"  Neither Malzberg nor the ghost of Grinnell bothers to make a case that we should be more open to communism--instead ad hominem attacks are employed, Grinnell accusing the politician of hating black people and suggesting he doesn't really believe what he is saying.

The main interesting and sole creative element of "Away" is the idea that the character of the people of Iowa is the product of the influence of the ghosts of white people murdered in an 1857 massacre perpetrated by Sioux Indians at Spirit Lake.  Hickenlooper's hostility to black people, for example, is said to be the result of his being "linked to Spirit Lake by ancestry and blood, [he] still sees the frame of the assassin arched against the moonlight."  Grinnell is also linked to the massacre, having flashbacks to the murders and, in what I guess is a joke, yelling to the crowd that Hickenlooper "speaketh with forked tongue!"

Needless to say, Malzberg's work is much more interesting and valuable when he is writing from his own experience of working as a writer and social worker in New York and New Jersey, or addressing universal problems like sexual dysfunction and the general futility of life.  Here he seems to be writing about Iowa based on stuff he read in an encyclopedia.  Malzberg is famous for arguing that the space program is a pointless waste of time, that humanity is not up to the task of colonizing space, and there is an additional flicker of interest in "Away" when it is hinted that Malzberg feels the same about American expansion to the West; for example, when the ghost of Grinnell moans that he was gullible to take seriously Horace Greeley's suggestion "Go West, young man."  I wish Malzberg had spent more energy on this theme, though, just as it is hard to argue that communism was a big success, it is hard to argue that the settlement of the American West has been a failure.  As it stands, "Away" feels like a dashed off bit of New York parochialism, an expression of the stereotypical New Yorker's view that, beyond the Big Apple, white people are all irrational racists with an irrational skepticism of all the wonderful things their betters in government, academia and the media are doing for them, and not a very entertaining or self-conscious one.

"Away" appears to have been written to fill in the Iowa slot of the 1985 anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, a book which presents fifty-one horror tales, one for each state plus an additional one for the District of Columbia.  Of the 51 stories, it looks like 49 were reprints, with only Malzberg's "Away" and Edward D. Hoch's "Bigfish" being original to the anthology.  (Too bad Martin H. Greenberg didn't recruit Iowa-born Thomas Disch to fulfill that commission.)

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

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I feel like I have been pretty bitchy about Kaye and his anthology here, but there's nothing wrong with livening up the blog a little, am I right?  And Haunted America does include numerous good stories--the Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber, Wellman, Matheson and Boucher stories are worth the time of all you Weird Tales kids, and Kaye also includes in the anthology stories by major American authors you are supposed to like, like Poe, Twain, Cather, Irving, Wharton, James and Hawthorne.  So don't let my irascibility keep you from checking it out for free at the internet archive. 

After this year-end rapid fire barrage of posts about short stories, we'll start the new year at MPorcius Fiction Log with a novel.  See you in 2020!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Star-Spangled Supernatural Stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, and Frank Belknap Long

Poking around in the internet archive as I sometimes do, I came upon Marvin Kaye's 1991 anthology Haunted America: Star-Spangled Supernatural Stories.  The gimmicky conceit of this anthology is that it breaks our great nation into five regions, New England, The East, The South, The West, and The Midwest, and presents eight to ten stories for each of the regions.  (One of the questions I would like to ask people here in Maryland, where I have lived, or you might say survived, for like two years now, but which I am way too shy to pose to people, is whether Maryland is in The South.  Manhattanite Kaye assures us that Maryland is in fact in The East.)  I noticed Haunted America contained quite a few pieces of fiction by writers we care about here at MPoricus Fiction Log, so I decided to read some of them.  I was at first reluctant to delve into Haunted America, as Kaye in his self-important and tendentious Introduction (he hates religious people, apparently) hints that this is a book of ghost stories:
Once I found tales of devils, ghouls, monsters, werewolves, witches and vampires frightening, but time has diluted their potency; they are offshoots of a dualistic theology that has wrought great harm on the human mind and spirit.  But ghost stories still chill me.   
I have to admit that Kaye's claim--that monster stories do not scare him but ghost stories do--seems nonsensical to me.  Devils, ghouls, werewolves, witches and vampires are allegories, symbols, of all too real human evil, of the tyrants, murderers, rapists and thieves who threaten our lives and liberty and property every day, as well as nonhuman dangers like disease or predatory creatures or natural disasters.  Such things are truly scary.  But what is a ghost?  A ghost is not a symbol of anything, it is just a pile of hokum, something so obviously untrue that it should have no emotional effect on a person, like Kaye, who realizes religion is bunk.  (Kaye's excuse is a vague assertion that he has witnessed ghostly phenomena himself during his acting career in Great Britain.)  If anything, seeing a ghost should cheer you up rather than scare you, because the existence of a ghost proves that the soul is real and your personality does not expire after death.  In short, I don't care for ghost stories.

Anyway, Kaye then explains that he didn't really limit Haunted America to ghost stories, but, putting the emphasis on the word "haunt," to stories about beings or creatures or whatever closely associated with a particular place.  Alright, then.  Let's take a look at stories Kaye selected by our old friends H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, Fritz Leiber and Barry Malzberg, and two people whose work I am really just beginning to explore, Manly Wade Wellman and Carl Jacobi.  We'll do three stories today and four in the next blog post.

(First I should note that I have already read and scribbled about four stories that appear in Haunted America: Donald Wollheim's "Bones," which I did not like, Henry Kuttner's "We Are the Dead," another dud, Richard Matheson's good "Slaughter House," and Anthony Boucher's "They Bite," which I also enjoyed.)

"The Terrible Old Man" by H. P. Lovecraft (1921)

"The Terrible Old Man," one of Kaye's New England selections, first saw print in the amateur press publication The Tryout, and reappeared in the same 1926 issue of Weird Tales that featured Edmond Hamilton's "The Monster-God of Mamurth."  I read "The Terrible Old Man" in my year 2000 printing of The Dunwich Horror and Others.

This three-page story is written in a sort of ironic, jocular tone.  An old sea captain is said to be hoarding a pile of gold and silver coins.  This guy is shunned by the locals because of his strange ways--it is obvious to us readers that this odd personage has learned some sinister magic while over in the mysterious East, and Lovecraft presents a memorable vision of the captive/preserved souls of the mariner's former shipmates, which are somehow associated with pieces of lead suspended in bottles.  The old sailor will talk to these bottles, and the pieces of lead vibrate in response.  Creepy!

Three interlopers with "ethnic" names--I guess Italian, Slav and Portuguese--try to rob the old man and are killed in a mysterious way.  Their bodies later wash up on the shore, looking as though they have been hacked to death by cutlasses.

Sort of trifling, but entertaining.  I love the thing with the lead in the bottles.  The ethnic identities of the criminals and the light-hearted tone Lovecraft uses as he relates their horrendous deaths presumably reflect Lovecraft's snobby nativism, adding a layer of interest to this early work by one of speculative fiction's most influential and controversial voices.

"Nobody Ever Goes There" by Manly Wade Wellman (1981)

This is one of Wellman's stories of John the Balladeer, and appears here in Kaye's section of stories about The South.  We read a John the Balladeer story, "Trill Coster's Burden," in July, and I thought it pretty good.  "Nobody Ever Goes There" was first printed in the third of a series of four paperback books published in the early 1980s bearing the Weird Tales moniker and edited by Lin Carter.  I read the story in a scan at the internet archive of that 1981 printing, the typeface there being a little easier on my eyes than that in Haunted America.

Trimble is a little town on the Catch River, near the border of Kentucky and North Carolina.  Across the river is plainly visible an abandoned textile mill at the base of Music Mountain.  As a kid Mark always wondered about that old mill and the workers' housing alongside it, but all anybody would ever tell him is that no one ever crosses the bridge to Music Mountain; the one time he tried to cross the bridge the police rushed to stop him.  Eventually the oldest man in town, Glover Shelton, let on that one day seventy-five years ago the entire population of the mill, management, labor, and all their wives and children, suddenly vanished

As an adult Mark is the Trimble school's phys ed teacher, and he is dating the new history teacher, Ruth, a transplant who wants to write a history of Trimble and is curious about that mill on the other side of Catch River.  Old man Shelton is dead, but John the Balladeer is passing through town, and he knows a little about Music Mountain.  The Indians, he relates to the young couple, believe that a race of dangerous monsters lives over there; Native Americans would pacify these creatures by singing to them (hence the mountain's name.)  Impulsive Ruth, a bold seeker after knowledge, runs across the bridge, and Mark chases after her.  When the monsters emerge from the shadows, John saves the day by playing his silver-stringed guitar and singing, thus keeping the creatures at bay.

Wellman's style and pacing are good, making this somewhat slight story a smooth and pleasant entertainment.

"The Elemental" by Frank Belknap Long (1939)

"The Elemental" was first printed in Unknown, a sort of fantasy companion to John W. Campbell Jr.'s seminal Astounding.  I have often found Long's work to be poorly written and poorly constructed, but if both Campbell and Kaye (who files "The Elemental" in Haunted America's section on The South) chose to print it, how bad can "The Elemental" be?

Pretty bad, it turns out.  The tone is uneven, Long unsure if he is writing a joke story or a tragedy, giving us lame jokes in one paragraph and a self-sacrificing death in the next paragraph, only to quickly return to the bad jokes. (I noticed this same unevenness in one of Long's most famous works, "The Horror from the Hills.")  The dialogue is embarrassing.  Long uses incomprehensible metaphors: on the first page our protagonist is at the track in Kentucky, watching a horse race, and Long tells us "She [racehorse Ebony Lady] retook the lead in less than five seconds spurting past three horses like a jet of liquid petrolatum."  Then he uses the exact same terrible metaphor on the next page!  "Like jets of liquid petrolatum three horses, including Radio Crooner, spurted past Ebony Lady."

"The Elemental"'s plot is contrived and dumb.  Wheeler, a man down on his luck, has been possessed by a poltergeist-like spirit that calls itself an elemental.  But even though the spirit is said to possess him, it is Wheeler who controls the spirit, and can command it to achieve telekinetic-like effects, such as making Ebony Lady win the horse race, propelling fat people through the air, and even allowing Wheeler to fly.  Wheeler flies so long that he exhausts the spirit, and he has to land on an island.  Long comes up with the weakest and least convincing possible explanations for why and how the elemental has possessed Wheeler and cannot escape him.  The spirit derives its energy from light, and dies because the island becomes fog bound.  When the spirit dies it explodes in a flash of fire, and the fire attracts the attention of a seaplane full of passengers--the plane lands on the ocean and picks up Wheeler and the passengers give him some of their dry clothes.  The story ends with a joke that a child might have written, right after Wheeler's heartfelt lament that he could feel the spirit dying, and that it died to save him.

This story is very bad, and Long is to blame, which is what matters, but I also want to take a moment to bitch about whoever put Haunted America together.  I briefly compared the versions of "The Elemental" in Unknown and Haunted America and the 1991 version introduces irritating typos that were not in the 1939 version.  Sad!

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You read stories like "The Terrible Old Man" and "Nobody Ever Goes There" and you think, "These stories are pretty good, no big deal."  Then you read something so utterly incompetent as Frank Belknap Long's "The Elemental" and it makes H. P. Lovecraft's and Manly Wade Wellman's basically ordinary work look like scintillating masterpieces.  Maybe Campbell had trouble finding copy, but what is Kaye's excuse for inflicting this stinker on the SF-reading public?

In our next episode we'll read stories Kaye selected to represent the West and MidWest by Robert Howard of Conan fame, Fritz Leiber of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser fame, Carl Jacobi (whom I fear may be as overrated as Frank Belknap Long), and New Jersey's own Barry N. Malzberg.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Weird Tales Winners by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Henry Kuttner


I recently mentioned how French novelist Michel Houllebecq found H. P. Lovecraft's work compelling in part because Lovecraft gave little attention to the topics of sex and money, topics central to so much of our lives and our literature.  This comment of Houllebecq's always makes me think of Lovecraft's story "The Thing on the Doorstep" (published in 1937, but apparently written in 1933) because that story actually is about a sexual relationship.  Similarly, a comment of Clark Ashton Smith's recently brought to mind Robert E. Howard's Conan story, "The Scarlet Citadel" (published in 1933, but apparently written in 1931.)  So I decided to reread these stories by the two towering giants of the Weird Tales crowd.

I have already talked on this blog about how Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright kept track of what stories came in for praise in readers' letters to the magazine, and thus--scientifically!--determined which stories and authors were the readership's favorites.  SF historian Sam Moskowitz obtained the note cards on which Wright kept these tallies, and in 1983 published an article including a chart showing the most popular story in each issue of Weird Tales from November 1924 to January 1940.  "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Scarlet Citadel" were both the most popular stories in the issues in which they appeared.  I decided to round out this blog post with a third Weird Tales winner, and settled on Henry Kuttner's "Towers of Death," from 1939, which I have never read.

"The Thing on the Doorstep" by H. P. Lovecraft (published 1937)

"The Thing on the Doorstep," after making its debut in Weird Tales, has been reprinted many times; I am reading it in my "Corrected Eleventh Printing" of Arkham House's The Dunwich Horror and Others, printed in the year 2000.

"The Thing on the Doorstep" is the story of the relationship of architect Daniel Upton, our narrator, and poet Edward Pickman Derby; these men shared an interest in the weird and fantastic.  In the first paragraph of the story (which comes to about 27 total pages in my book here) Upton admits that he shot Derby in the head six times when he last met him in Arkham Sanitarium, but our narrator insists he did not murder Derby thereby, but rather avenged him!  How to explain this bizarre claim?  Well, Derby's soul was already dead when Upton shot up his body, and that body was inhabited by an evil wizard who sought to achieve immortality by shifting from body to body over the centuries as each body grew old and wore out!

Upton and Derby had been friends for like thirty years when Derby, a shy and retiring sort of gent, the son of overprotective parents, finally, at age thirty-eight, developed some kind of a relationship with a woman.  Derby would come over to Upton's place all the time; Upton could even recognize Derby's distinctive knock on his door--three brisk strokes followed, after a pause, by two more.  The woman in question was twenty-three-year-old Asenath Waite, a pretty thing, but odd, with protuberant eyes and strange manners--Asentah was one of the Innsmouth Waites, and we all know what that means--Asenath's mother wasn't entirely human, but part fishperson!  Upton gives us a description of rumors and stories about Asenath and her father Ephraim that make it clear to us readers that Ephraim Waite of Innsmouth knew how to transfer his consciousness into other bodies, and that Asenath's young body is inhabited by Ephraim's wicked soul.  (Presumably the merciless Ephraim murdered his daughter's soul after trapping it in his own senescent body.)  Some of "Asenath"'s many unaccountable comments suggest that Ephraim hates being in a female body because the female brain is inferior to the male brain and being stuck in a woman's physical form is limiting his arcane powers.  "Asenath" is, no doubt, cultivating a relationship with Derby because Ephraim covets the poet's body--Derby is a child prodigy, after all, with a superior brain, and his lack of willpower (a result of coddling by his smothering parents!) makes him relatively easy prey.

To his father's dismay, Derby marries the strange girl, and Upton and the elder Derby see less and less of the poet as time passes.  The local people love to gossip about the oddball Derby menage, though, and from clues Upton provides us we know that Ephraim is regularly switching bodies with Derby, trapping the poet in Asenath's inferior girlish body and using Derby's own male body to go on expeditions to Innsmouth and elsewhere (e. g., "Cyclopean ruins in the heart of the Maine woods beneath which vast staircases lead down to abysses of nighted secrets....") in pursuit of otherworldy information and artifacts, knowledge and apparatus from other dimensions and other planets.  Sometimes these expeditions go awry, and Derby wakes up in his own body, far from his Arkham, Massachusetts home, in some remote forest or desolate ruin.  Over three years after Derby's fateful wedding, Upton has to drive up to Maine to collect the poet when he staggers out of the woods, apparently insane, babbling about alien monsters and diabolical rites.  The drive back is shocking for Upton, as Derby, at first depressed and then raving about his incredible and sinister experiences, suddenly gets a hold of himself and becomes smooth, confident, charismatic, a master of the situation who even succeeds in convincing Upton to let him drive the motor car himself, even though Upton knows Derby never learned to drive--Ephraim has regained control of Derby's body before Upton's unbelieving eyes!

The climax of the story comes after a desperate Derby finally asserts himself, bludgeoning "Asenath" and apparently killing her.  One can only imagine the catharsis the inoffensive versifier must have felt seeing that fish-eyed freak fall to the floor with a nice big dent in her pate after three and a half years of "her" tyranny.  Derby buries his not-quite-human wife's cadaver in the basement of their large house and tells everybody she is on a long research trip and that they are soon going to be divorced.  But Derby isn't out of the woods yet!  The body in which it is housed may be inert, but the wizard Ephraim's malign soul endures!  Ephraim keeps trying to take over Derby's body, sending Derby into seizures that land him in Arkham Sanitarium.  Finally, three months after Derby murdered Asenath's body, Ephraim succeeds, and Derby wakes up under the dirt of his basement, in his wife's rotting corpse!  Determined to put the kibosh on Ephraim's plans to live forever--and use his foully acquired extra centuries to collaborate with the monstrous aliens who want to take over the Earth--the poet digs himself out of the grave in which he himself interred Asenath.  Unable to talk because wifey's face and throat have decayed (the best he can come up with is a "sort of half-liquid bubbling noise--"glub...glub...glub"), Derby writes a note to Upton and staggers to Upton's house, giving his distinctive knock so Upton knows it must be his friend.  When he sees the rotting corpse on his doorstep Upton faints, but not before he has taken the note in hand.  When he revives, Derby's soul has expired and Asenath's putrid corpse has collapsed, but after reading the note Upton takes up a firearm and goes to the sanitarium to blast Derby's head, which houses Ephraim's satanic consciousness, to pieces.

But there is a hitch.  If Derby's body isn't quickly cremated, Ephraim's powerful malevolent soul may be able to invade another body and continue its campaign of evil!  Upton insists on a rapid cremation, but of course who is going to listen to a murderer's advice on how to dispose of his victim's body?  The doctors at the sanitarium are eager to preserve the cadaver of this patient and conduct a careful autopsy...as the story ends we have no idea if Ephraim Waite has been truly exorcised or if his soul will soon be abroad, menacing an unsuspecting world.  Will Derby's superhuman efforts and Upton's sacrifice be in vain?

I love this story.  It not only foregrounds some of my favorite SF themes--immortality and the switching of brains or souls between bodies--but some of my favorite literary themes--unhappy relationships between parents and children and unhappy sexual relationships.  "The Thing on the Doorstep" also exploits heterosexual men's horror and disgust at women's bodies (Ephraim and Derby both find being trapped in a woman's body to be a nightmare) and at homosexual relationships.  And of course the brilliantly horrible final image of a shrouded half-rotten corpse thrusting forward a sheet of paper to his only real friend, a doomed man's final act, an effort to redeem his wasted and miserable life!

A weird classic that pushes a multitude of buttons!

Here are two anthologies that feature "The Thing on the Doorstep" which I thought had interesting covers.
"The Scarlet Citadel" by Robert E. Howard (published 1933)

I am reading "The Scarlet Citadel" in my trade paperback copy of the 2003 collection The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian edited by Patrice Louinet and published by Del Rey.

"The Scarlet Citadel" takes place during the period of Conan's life in which he is King of Aquilonia, and through Conan's dialogue Howard gives us a brief sort of treatise on his theory of what constitutes legitimate government and what constitutes good government.  Conan became ruler of Aquilonia by taking the place over by force from a tyrannical king whose family had ruled for a thousand years--Conan's rule stems from ability, legitimizing it; Howard and Conan do not consider inheritance to confer legitimacy on a ruler.  Once in charge, Conan lowered tax rates so that Aquilonians enjoyed the lowest taxes in the civilized world, and in turn Aquilonians thrived and were loyal to Conan.

Conan may be a good king whose rule is, in Howard's opinion at least, legitimate, but as the story begins Conan and Aquilonia are in serious trouble.  Tricked by two treacherous neighboring monarchs, our hero has marched five thousand Aquilonain knights into a trap and they all have been massacred by enemy archers and pikemen, and Conan himself has been taken captive by the wizard who is the power behind the two tricksy kings--Howard underscores the impotence and illegitimacy of these hereditary kings by showing how the wizard, Tsotha, pushes them around and humiliates them.  Compared to the self-made man of brawn (Conan) and self-made man of brain (Tsotha), these two hereditary kings are contemptible.

Tsotha and his pet kings offer Conan a pile of money to repudiate his throne, and when Conan refuses he is tossed in the dungeons under Tsotha's tower.  These subterranean corridors are thousands of years old, and full of alien monsters as well as the products of Tsotha's experiments in necromancy and other sorceries.  Conan, by luck, escapes his cell and the eighty-foot long snake that sought to devour him there, and stumbles upon the cell of the wizard Pelias, a rival of Tsotha's.  Conan liberates Pelias from the noxious monster flora that has been holding him in a sort of coma for ten years, and then Pelias uses his magic to spring the two of them from the dungeon.

The monsters in the dungeon and Pelias's magic are fun and creepy--this is the best part of the story.  In this printing, "The Scarlet Citadel" is like 33 pages, and about half of them consist of this fun dungeon stuff.

Pelias summons a flying monster from outer space (I guess) that carries Conan to the capital of Aquilonia, which is in chaos after news of his death; the commoners are rioting, the aristocrats are overtaxing the merchants and fighting each other, etc.  Meanwhile, Tsotha's pet kings' armies are trying to take a fortified border town on a river.  We get page after page of fictional military history stuff: orders of battle, Conan arriving at the head of his hastily-assembled relief force, archers and siege engines shooting, a bridge of boats across the river, cavalry charges, etc.  I am a military history buff--this month I read a lot about RAF Wellington bomber operations in the Mediterranean in Martin Bowman's Wellington: The Geodetic Giant and about the RAF's bombing campaign directed against Berlin in Martin Middlebrook's The Berlin Raids--but I often find blow by blow descriptions of fictional battles tiresome, and the battle at the end of "The Scarlet Citadel" is pretty boring.  Fortunately it ends on a good note, the confrontation of Tsotha and Pelias.           

An acceptable Conan story--the part comparing Conan the barbarian usurper king to the hereditary monarchs and the part following Conan's adventures in the ancient dungeon were good--but "The Scarlet Citadel" would have been better if the big battle at the end had happened off screen.  Who cares about a bunch of minor characters and extras tolchocking each other?  A Conan story should be about Conan fighting monsters and wizards and city folk, thus contrasting the barbarian with the civilized man, the man of action with the man of contemplation, the straightforward man with the subtle man, etc.

"The Scarlet Citadel" has appeared in a profusion of Howard collections, of course, but not many anthologies.  Jacques Sadoul did see fit to include it in a French anthology of selections from Weird Tales, however.

"Towers of Death" by Henry Kuttner (1939)

"Towers of Death" was a favorite of Weird Tales readers, but apparently not of editors and critics--it would not be reprinted for fifty years, finally reappearing in the fanzine Revelations from Yuggoth in 1989.  "Towers of Death" would be included in two 21st-century hardcover publications, the very expensive ($295.00!) Centipede Press volume on Kuttner from their Masters of the Weird Tale series, and the more affordable ($45.00) Haffner Press book The Watcher at the Door: The Early Henry Kuttner, Volume Two.

Besides Kuttner's story, which got the cover, the November 1939 issue of Weird Tales includes a fun letter from Ray Bradbury in which he praises H. P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air," a 1928 story reprinted in the September 1939 issue of Weird Tales, and Clark Ashton Smith's 1933 "A Night in Malneat," a reprint of which also was included in that September issue.

Kuttner is a good writer, and I have enjoyed many of his stories and many of his collaborations with his wife C. L. Moore, but "Towers of Death" is not a good story.  The plot and pacing and style are pedestrian and clunky.  The plot actually has much in common with Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep," but while that story is evocative, rich with dimly glimpsed background and written in a distinctive style, Kuttner's piece here is leaden and flat, written like a bland detective story.  And while the plot of "The Thing on the Doorstep" flows naturally from the characters' personalities and is driven by their decisions, a lot of "Towers of Death"'s narrative is driven by coincidences and dumb luck.  Kuttner maybe just threw this one together to get some much-needed cash.

Simeon Gerard is a rich old dude who got involved with the occult and has spent a lot of time in the Orient, especially Tehran, learning about magic and the worship of "the dark god Ahriman" and so forth.  When his American physician, Stone, tells him he only has a month to live he puts into action his plan to move his soul into the body of his big healthy young nephew Steven.  All this is written in the third person, and we get boring scenes of conversations between Gerard and Stone the sawbones, Gerard and his Persian accomplice Dagh Ziaret, Gerard and his lawyer Morton (Gerard has to make sure all his property is legally handed over to Steven before he dies so he can have his hands on it after he switches bodies) and of course Gerard and Steven and Steven's hot girlfriend Jean Sloane.

Gerard tricks Steven into the temple to Ahriman he has in his basement, and there Dagh Ziaret swaps out their souls.  (If there is one thing you learn from reading Weird Tales, it is that you should never go into some dude's basement--nothing good ever happens underground.)  Gerard, now in Steven's healthy body, cuts the tongue out of his old body so Steven can't talk, and has his criminal contacts put Steven on a ship to the Persian Gulf.  Dagh Ziaret warns that the operation isn't final, that Gerard has to take a drug periodically for a year or his soul might get switched back into his feeble (and now mute) body.  Ziaret demands a high price for the drug, but cheapo Gerard tries to murder Ziaret and steal it; in the ensuing fracas a fire starts in which Ziaret is killed and most of the supply of the drug is destroyed.  When the drug runs out in a few weeks Gerard returns to his decrepit body and Steven returns to his healthy body.  In a contrived bit of irony, while Steven was in Gerard's body, some Ahriman worshipers put it up on one of those towers where they leave dead people to be eaten by vultures--Gerard suffers terribly as the birds devour him.  In a contrived bit of lameness, Steven, back in his own healthy body, doesn't remember anything that happened while he was in Gerard's body and so can just happily go on with his life, enjoying his uncle's wealth and his charming wife, thinking that he just forgot a few weeks due to a bout of amnesia right after his terminally ill uncle left to spend his last days in his beloved Middle East.

It pains me to do it, but I have to give a thumbs down to this story.  No wonder nobody wanted to reprint "Towers of Death"--this is a weak piece of work that only Kuttner completists and weird specialists will want to read for scholarly purposes.

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It was great to revisit a classic like "The Thing on the Doorstep" and find it as good as I had remembered--Lovecraft deserves his high reputation.  And it was interesting to reread "The Scarlet Citadel," which I know I must have read in the "oughts" but which I had totally forgotten.  And it was worth my time reading a little-known Kuttner story, even if it was a real disappointment, as I am very interested in Kuttner's career.

More short horror tales from authors that interest me in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Ice-Demon," "The Voyage of King Euvoran," and "The Enchantress of Sylaire" by Clark Ashton Smith


Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading magazine printings of the stories collected in 1960's The Abominations of Yondo, a volume of fiction and poetry by Clark Ashton Smith.  So far we've read the first six stories in The Abominations of Yondo in two batches, talking about "The Nameless Offspring," "The Witchcraft of Ulua," and "The Devotee of Evil" in one blog poat, and "The Epiphany of Death," "A Vintage from Atlantis" and "The Abominations of Yondo" in a second.  It doesn't look like "The White Sibyl," the seventh story in The Abominations of Yondo, ever appeared in a magazine, so until such time as I get my hands on a copy of a book with that story, we'll have to skip it.  I have already read the tenth story in the 1960 collection, "The Master of Crabs," so today we'll talk about the eighth, "The Ice-Demon," ninth "The Voyage of King Euvoran," AKA "Quest of the Gazolba," and eleventh, "The Enchantress of Sylaire," all of which appeared in Weird Tales issues available to one and all at the internet archive.

"The Ice-Demon" (1933)

The April 1933 issue of Weird Tales includes not only the debut of "The Ice-Demon," but a letter from Clark Ashton Smith in which he praises Robert E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel" and Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Mastermind of Mars, a poem by Howard, "Autumn," a famous story by Carl Jacobi, "Revelations in Black," and the only appearance anywhere (as far as isfdb knows) of Edmond Hamilton's "The Star-Roamers."  I'll have to revisit this issue in the future, but today we'll focus on "The Ice-Demon."

Like "The Testament of Athammaus" and "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan," which I praised in August of this year, "The Ice-Demon" is set in the prehistoric fantasy milieu of Hyperborea, where there are wizards and monsters and so forth.  The background to this story is that over the centuries a glacier has been travelling south, engulfing cities and driving before it the populations of various kingdoms.  Fifty years ago a king marched north at the head of an army, a wizard by his side, to challenge the glacier.  The wizard conjured up a globe of fire to melt the glacier, but, as a handful of survivors described, the expedition came to disaster and king and wizard were among those who did not return.  Recently, a hunter pursuing an unusually large fox onto the glacier spotted the bodies of the king and wizard frozen in the ice--he reported to his brother that the king's robes were adorned with rubies of tremendous worth.  That hunter's brother, Quanga, as the story begins, is guiding two jewel merchants up into the environs of the glacier in quest of these valuable gems.  This is a forbidding mission, as both the survivors of that doomed royal expedition of fifty years ago, and Quanga's brother (who got killed by a bear after telling Quanga of the rubies), were convinced that the glacier was a living, malevolent being.

The plot of the story concerns this mission and the horrifying supernatural dangers faced by the three greedy men; these dangers are a little unusual, consisting not of attacking ghosts or monsters made of ice or living dead corpses, as you might expect, but the ice and environment themselves shifting and changing.  Smith handles this material ably, with vivid descriptions and effective pacing; "The Ice-Demon" is a solid sword and sorcery horror piece, and I enjoyed it.  Elements of the tale reminded me of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, in particular the very first F&GM story, "Jewels in the Forest" (AKA "Two Sought Adventure") and I wondered what influence "The Ice-Demon," and Smith's larger oeuvre, might have had on Leiber's famous series.

The least complex and challenging of the three Smith stories we are exploring today, it doesn't look like "The Ice-Demon" has been anthologized beyond various Smith collections.

"The Voyage of King Euvoran" (AKA "Quest of the Gazolba") (1933)

Like "Devotee of Evil," "The Voyage of King Euvoran" first appeared in the small press publication The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, a 30-page collection of six stories by Smith.  Under the title "Quest of the Gazolba" it was reprinted in 1947 as a Weird Tales cover story; it is this 1947 version that I am reading.

This is a fun and clever story!  Sadistic and gluttonous King Euvoran is the ninth of his line to wear a crown made of metal from a meteorite adorned with a stuffed specimen of the purportedly extinct gazolba bird.  This one-of-a-kind crown is the symbol of his royal family and his political legitimacy, so when a necromancer that Euvoran offends brings the stuffed bird to life and it flies away with the crown, Euvoran's rule is threatened.  After consulting a local god, the bare-pated potentate organizes an expedition and sails to the semi-mythical islands where the gazolba bird is said to be, armed with bow, sling, and blowpipe with poison darts--the god told him that he must kill the undead gazolba with is own hand.

Smith puts the king through a series of horrifying and at times amusing adventures, all of them quite entertaining.  One of the strengths of this story is that I had no idea what the king's ultimate fate would be, return home in triumph, an agonizing death far from his throne, or something in between?  An interesting aspect of "Quest of the Gazolba" is the question of to what extent we should see it as a morality tale.  Do his harrowing adventures inflict upon King Euvoran condign punishment for his perversions and vices?  Does his perilous voyage inspire him to reform?  Or does Smith refuse to take a stand on moral and ethical issues, simply describing a world with a morality and code of ethics different from his own?

Like "The Testament of Athammaus," "Quest of the Gazolba" is a great mix of adventure, magic, gore and humor.  I awarded "The Testament of Athammaus" nine out of a possible ten flesh-eating orifices; I'll give "The Voyage of King Euvoran" (in its 1947 "Quest of the Gazolba" guise) eight out of a possible ten drowned concubines.

Besides the expected Smith collections, "The Voyage of King Euvoran" has appeared in a French and an Italian anthology.


"The Enchantress of Sylaire" (1941)

 "The Enchantress of Sylaire" is a story about sexual desire, the perils it leads us into and the compromises it leads us to make, and about how people's surface appearances and self-presentations so often differ from their true identities.  How are we to navigate such a world, to seek fulfilling relationships within it?

When bookish young aristocrat Anselme is rejected by pretty Dorothee he is so shaken he retreats to the forests of Averoigne to live as a hermit!  (Smith wrote quite a few stories about the province of medieval France he called Averoigne, including "The Maker of Gargoyles," which we also read in August.)  This dude is horny--his sleep at night is disturbed by feverish erotic dreams!  Over a year after leaving society to live in rustic solitude, Anselme meets a beautiful woman who introduces herself as Sephora the Enchantress.

Anselme meets Sephora in the time-honored way young men in fiction generally meet hot chicks in the woods--he spies her as she bathes nude in a pool!  Smith describes in detail Sephora's beauty, and how Sephora employs her charms to drive Anselme into a frenzy of desire as she leads him to the entrance of her magical domain, a doorway composed of old druid megaliths.  Beyond this magical portal, in Sylaire, which Sephora tells Anselme is "a land lying outside time and space as you have hitherto known them," Anselme learns that there is reason to believe that Sephora is no hot chick, but a hideous monster in disguise!  The spoiler-rich table of contents of this issue of Weird Tales has already made this clear to us eagle-eyed readers, but Anselme only begins to realize this after already having had sex with her!


You see, after Anselme and Sephora have consummated their love on the grass as the sun sets and then all night long in her castle (despite the apparent jealousy of the huge black wolf Sephora keeps as a pet), Sephora has to go to her magical library to tend to her magical business, so Anselme takes a walk around the grounds.  Out there he meets the huge wolf, who transforms into a man and explains that Sephora is a lamia, an ancient monster that sucks the life force out of young men, and that her curiously pale servants are vampires.  This guy is the wizard Malachie, a discarded lover of Sephora's whom she has turned into a werewolf--only rarely can he assume human form, and he has used one of these rare opportunities to warn poor Anselme.

Or so he claims!  When Anselme, still smitten, fesses up to Sephora, relating his conversation with the werewolf to her, she claims that it is Malachie who is the evil monster and that the disgruntled wizard has passed along a lot of lies born of his jealousy.  Anselme gets mixed up in the sorcerous war between these bitter ex-lovers, and things get still more crazed when Dorothee, having relented and now interested in marrying Anselme, shows up--our hero is now involved in two love triangles!

Harassed Anselme has to choose which magic-user, Sephora or Malachie, to side with, and which woman, Sephora or Dorothee, to take as his (as we say nowadays) "life-partner."  As in "The Voyage of King Euvoran," Smith's choices in how he concludes "The Enchantress of Sylaire" force us to consider to what extent Smith is endorsing, refuting, or just ignoring conventional 20th-century Western morality; feminists may be preoccupied by the fact that the story is about how women who are beautiful on the outside may be ugly on the inside and by Smith's ambiguous take on whether men should investigate a sexually attractive woman's true character or just embrace and enjoy her surface beauty and ignore the likely grim reality under that surface.

Entertaining.

After its debut in Weird Tales, "The Enchantress of Sylaire" was included by Robert Boyer and Kenneth Zahorski in their 1978 anthology Dark Imaginings: A Collection of Gothic Fantasy, and by Jean Marigny in a French anthology (also 1978) of translations of vampire stories originally written in English, as well as various Smith collections.


**********

Three readable and engaging stories that fit comfortably within the sword and sorcery genre (there are wizards, monsters, and guys shooting arrows and swinging swords at them) but are also full of surprises.  Bravo to Clark Ashton Smith.  More Smith and more Weird Tales in our future!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

To Walk the Night by William Sloane

For the first time I admitted to myself that there was a possibility of connection between small, disturbing things in the past and the present fact of Jerry's death.  What that common denominator was I did not know, but I was certain that I did not want to find it out.
The copy I read looked more or less like this
What does cosmic horror mean to you?  To me, cosmic horror is the horror of the realization of man's true place in the universe; cosmic horror, if only metaphorically through the medium of stories about alien monsters, refutes the thinking of men of religion (who claim the universe is orderly because God orders it, and God loves us and guides us and enforces justice) and men of science (who claim the universe is orderly because it follows laws we can comprehend, and comprehension of these laws can improve our lives.)  In a classic story of cosmic horror the characters come to realize that the universe and/or "gods" are indifferent or actually inimical to us, our lives are meaningless, the universe is essentially incomprehensible, and what knowledge we can acquire threatens our sanity and our society.

In 2015 the people at New York Review of Books released a new edition of The Rim of Morning, a 1964 omnibus of two 1930s novels by William Sloane; the NYRB volume has the subtitle "Two Tales of Cosmic Horror."  I am a fan of cosmic horror, so I thought it worthwhile to check out at least one of Sloane's novels.  In a piece of good fortune that perhaps undermines my suspicions that all the tenets of cosmic horror are true, there was actually a copy of The Rim of Morning at a library nearby MPorcius headquarters here in suburban Maryland.  I borrowed said volume and today discuss 1937's To Walk the Night.

The first and last chapters of To Walk the Night, which is like 215 pages long in this edition, are a sort of frame for the main body of the tale.  As we meet him, our narrator Berkeley M. Jones, after three days on a train from the desert of the SouthWest, is returning to the Long Island house of Dr. Lister, the house in which he grew up with his best friend Jerry Lister, the doctor's son.  (Jones's own mother, whom he calls by her first name, "Grace," is an artistic woman about town who had no time for or interest in raising her own son and was happy to hand her kid over to the stable and respectable medical man Lister.)  Jones, or "Bark" as his friends call him, has horrible news to tell the man he calls "Dad": out West, Jerry, while Bark and Jerry's wife Selena watched, shot himself in the head!

This first chapter directly addresses the cosmic horror themes I outlined above.  Dr. Lister, a man of science and logic, wants Bark to tell him all the details he knows of Jerry's life out West, to try to figure out why a dependable and decent young man like Jerry would take his own life, presumptively an act of cowardice and selfishness and weakness.  Bark resists telling him all the details, saying that thinking and logic cannot solve this problem, even arguing that thinking over what has happened could be dangerous:
"I don't want to die.  Jerry thought this thing through, and that's why he's not alive now."
Bark, of course, relents, or we wouldn't have a novel.  As they sit on the porch of that big Long Island home, the hissing of the surf audible in the near distance, Bark tells Dr. Lister everything, starting two years ago, his tale of the uncanny Selena and her relationships making up the bulk of the succeeding 13 of the novel's 15 chapters.

Two years after graduation, and two years before Jerry's death, Jerry and Bark visit their alma mater which is like two hours from New York City.  (Sloane never specifies what state or town the university is in, not what arid state in the SouthWest Jerry commits suicide in.)  After taking in a football game they call on the world famous mathematician and astronomer LeNormand, whose assistant Jerry, a math whiz, had been as a student.  As they enter the observatory they catch sight of LeNormand as he is burned to death in a mysterious fire that doesn't burn the chair he is sitting on.  The book at this point takes on much of the apparatus of a locked-room detective story--presumably somebody murdered the scientist, but how could they have gotten out of the observatory without Jerry and Bark seeing him?--with policemen and detectives looking for footprints and considering possible suspects and all that jazz.

Almost as shocking as LeNormand's bizarre death is the fact Jerry and Bark learn from the University President whom they (Chappaquiddick-style) summon before calling the cops--just three months ago the reclusive and solitary LeNormand, who had apparently had no use for women and spent all his time and energy coming up with theories contravening Einstein, married a beautiful woman named Selena!  (Selena's very name, of course, signals to us readers that she is of another world and of superior rank and power.)  When Bark meets this female, he can't deny that she is a striking beauty, but also has the nagging feeling that there is something cold and emotionless about her, that she lacks personality and expression--that is until she gets a load of Jerry.  Jerry seems to bring her to life!   And the feeling is mutual!  LeNormand's blackened corpse is hardly in the ground before Selena has moved to New York, where Jerry and Bark live as roommates, and hanging around with them; in a few weeks it becomes clear to everybody that Jerry is going to marry this woman, even though she refuses to say anything about her family or her past!

Bark can sense that this chick is bad news, but he has no luck getting the bros before hos message across to his bro.  Jerry enlists the fashion forward Grace to guide Selena in picking out new clothes--though she obviously has a powerful analytic mind, Selena seems naive and ignorant of fashion, art and culture: she makes a cogent assessment of a Brancusi in Grace's apartment in seconds, but apparently has never heard of Brancusi before; nor is she familiar with Noel Coward or even Shakespeare!  Grace doesn't like Selena, either, remarking on how she has a flawless young body but the eyes of an older woman, eyes that are "cool and wise."  Bark begins thinking of her as being like a foreigner who has little knowledge of American life, and we readers of course begin thinking of her (if we haven't been thinking this already) as being a space alien with little knowledge of human life.

Halfway through the novel, four weeks or so after the murder of Dr. LeNormand, the detective in charge of that case reenters the story, summoning Bark to his office, and we learn where Selena's body came from--just two days before Selena and LeNormand got their marriage license a twenty-something retarded woman who looks just like Selena disappeared while her impoverished parents, driving through the area, were temporarily distracted.  (Of course, in this 1937 book the characters don't say this poor missing woman is "retarded," they say she is an "idiot.")  The idea that genius Selena is really this developmentally disabled woman who couldn't talk or even feed herself four months ago is so incredible that the gumshoe and Bark don't share it with anybody.

Little events occur that let us readers know that Selena can read minds and hypnotize people and see around corners and that sort of thing, though the narrator doesn't put two and two together.  After Jerry and Serena get married Jerry gets bored at his job at a statistics firm, and decides to become a math professor.  He publishes an article in a scholarly journal and moves to the desert in the SouthWest to work on his thesis, which is apparently based on LeNormand's controversial theories which go against Einstein.  Selena simultaneously assures everyone that Jerry's math theories are correct and discourages him from pursuing them.

Over a year after moving to the desert Jerry summons Bark via telegram, and Bark makes the long train ride to the barren Southwest; Sloane puts a lot of effort into describing how barren and uncomfortable and depressing the desert is--the heat, the vast lifeless spaces, the tiny ugly town with zero culture or sophistication or amenities.  (Maybe we should see this as a parochial New Jersey/New York view--Sloane went to college at Princeton and worked for Rutgers University Press and other publishers for most of his career.  As I know from bitter experience, leaving the NY/NJ area for the provinces can be a painful, even soul-crushing, experience.)  While Bark is visiting, Jerry suddenly figures out LeNormand's equations and Selena's true nature and kills himself tout suite, before he can explain to Bark.  Selena slips out and, after he deals with the inquest and funeral, Bark rides the train back to New York to see Dr. Lister.

In the novel's fifteenth and final chapter Bark, having reviewed all the clues, including Selena's response to reading Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid," figures out that Selena must be an immaterial mind from another time and/or planet who inhabited the retarded girl's body and sought out mathematical geniuses like LeNormand and Jerry.  Unfortunately, when those math whizzes' calculations led them to realize that minds can move between times, Selena felt threatened--those brainiacs had to be neutralized, lest the world know of the possibility of such alien invasion.  Selena appears at the seaside Lister house, and explains herself; the author mitigates her responsibility to some extent--Selena only killed LeNormand by mistake, the collective psychic force of that nearby football game increasing the power of her effort to erase data from LeNormand's mind.  As for Jerry, it is suggested that Selena's husband killed himself because he couldn't face the reality that he fell in love with and had sex with an alien who had hypnotized him.  Selena feels no need to kill Bark and Dr. Lister because, without the mathematical evidence, nobody will believe their crazy story that an alien mind came to Earth to take over an idiot's body.  Selena leaves the house, and a sort of epilogue lets us know that Selena must have left this planet or time or whatever because the beautiful body, that of the idiot, returns home to her loving parents, just as idiotic as before.

The big name in cosmic horror, of course, is H. P. Lovecraft.  A major reason famous French novelist and Lovecraft fan Michel Houellebecq cites for his fascination with Lovecraft is that the Rhode Islander doesn't write much about sex and money, a central facet of most of our lives and a prominent topic in much literature.  As anybody who has been following this blog knows, I find sexual relationships, and the challenges and problems they cause, fascinating, and so I very much appreciated that To Walk The Night integrates with its cosmic horror themes the themes of irresistible, inexplicable and unhealthy sexual relationships, and the way the appearance of a woman can wreck the warm and life-affirming relationships men can have with each other.  Many men have the experience of being manipulated by women, of taking stupid risks and making foolish sacrifices because they desire some woman only to later find their reckless devotion incomprehensible*, and Selena, an inexplicable alien who can read your mind and hypnotize you, is a good allegory for that common but mystifying phenomenon.

*Remember the last lines of Part II of Swann's Way: "To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I felt my deepest love, for a woman who did not appeal to me, who was not my type!" (trans. Lydia Davis)

(One might see To Walk the Night as being pretty hard on women, especially smart women; besides the life-destroying alien Selena we have Grace, who cares more about interior design and fashion and social functions than her own son.  The relationship we see between Grace and Bark, now an adult, is also pretty odd--they seem to be flirting with each other in a way that I found sort of uncomfortable.  Selena as femme fatale, of course, is another connection of To Walk the Night with detective fiction.)

I liked To Walk the Night, but I didn't love it.  Each individual scene is good, but taken as a whole the novel feels long--the scenes can be a little redundant, Sloane belaboring his points a bit.  There are multiple scenes about how nobody knows about Selena's past, multiple scenes in which Selena's psychic powers manifest themselves, multiple scenes in which Selena discourages Jerry from digging too deeply into LeNormand's equations.  Once Sloane has transmitted this info to us, and made clear that Jerry and Bark haven't picked upon the info, there's not much value in presenting similar scenes that achieve the same goal.  There is also a sort of plot hole at the end--it appears that Selena needs to be near a mathematical genius to thrive; after LeNormand's death and before she meets Jerry, Selena is without character or personality.  As Bark says in Chapter 15:
When we met her first, after his [LeNormand's] death, she was dull and stupid, almost in a trance, till she met Jerry.
But after Jerry's death she isn't dull and lifeless; Selena destroys Jerry's notes, makes her way to Long Island from the SouthWest, and is clever and emotional when she talks to Bark and Dr. Lister, claiming she loved Jerry and criticizing us humans for thinking we are special ("Did you suppose...that you were one in the enormous spaces of the universe?  Do you believe that you are the ultimate product of creation?  There is nothing unique about you.")  Oh, well.   

A solid piece of work, but perhaps not as terrific as advertised.  These end of year holidays and the demands of the pursuit of remuneration have severely cut down on the time I have to read and write, but I hope to read Sloane's other novel, The Edge of Running Water, soon.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Rebel Worlds by Poul Anderson

"A hundred thousand planets, gentlemen, more or less...each with its millions or billions of inhabitants, its complexities and mysteries...its own complicated, ever-changing, unique set of relationships to the Imperium. We can't control that, can we? We can't even hope to comprehend it. At most we can try to maintain the Pax. At most, gentlemen."
Here it is, the fourteenth title from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library to be discussed here at the blog.  As you know, in summer 2018, Joachim, one of the leading lights of the internet vintage SF community, made a generous donation of books to my collection, and I have slowly been working my way through them.  Below find a list of my first thirteen reads from this donation, with handy links to my blog posts about each.

Slave Planet by Laurence M. Janifer
Three Novels by Damon Knight
Dark Dominion by David Duncan
New Writings in SF6 edited by John Carnell
Tama of the Light Country by Ray Cummings
Tama, Princess of Mercury by Ray Cummings
A Brand New World by Ray Cummings
Ultimatum in 2050 A.D. by Jack Sharkey
The Power of X by Arthur Sellings
The Enemy of My Enemy by Avram Davidson
The Bright Phoenix by Harold Mead
The Stone God Awakens by Philip Jose Farmer
Garbage World by Charles Platt

Today's topic of discussion is Poul Anderson's 1969 The Rebel Worlds, a Signet paperback with what looks like a monkey and that bird from Captain Harlock riding a rhino on the front and an ad for a novel about a plot to murder the pope by New York fixture Pete Hamill on the back.  (Growing up in Northern New Jersey in the '70s and '80s, where most of channels on our TV were broadcast from New York, and then living in New York in the '90s and aughts, Pete Hamill's name was one I heard bandied about all the time, but I never expended any of the precious minutes of my all-too-brief life actually reading anything he wrote.)  The Rebel Worlds stars Dominc Flandry; there are a multitude of Flandry stories and novels, but so far I have only read one Flandry short story, 1951's "Honorable Enemies."  I liked "Honorable Enemies," so hopefully I'll like this 135-page novel.  The Flandry stories are set in the same universe as the van Rijn and Falkayn stories, of which I have read quite a few (the planet Satan, the main object of contention in Anderson's 1968 novel about van Rijn and Falkayn, Satan's World, plays a minor role in this novel), but while those stories are set in the period of the human race's exploration and growth across our arm of the Milky Way, the Flandry tales are set in a later era of big government, decadence and the threat of decline.

The Terran Empire of 100,000 planets is in trouble: its borders are threatened by fleets of barbarians and by the Merseian empire, its Emperor and his court are corrupt and the imperial bureaucracy is unable to keep tabs on every one of those 100K worlds.  After a brief and mysterious prologue in the voice of aliens with a sort of collective consciousness thing going, in Chapter I we meet Admiral Hugh McCormac, commander of the naval forces in the Alpha Crucis sector, one of the more impressive men charged with keeping the peace in the Terran Empire.  We find that this dude is in pickle--interned in a prison cell on a satellite orbiting planet Llynathawr, seat of the governor of the sector!  It appears that the governor, Aaron Snelund, the son of a whore who was made governor of Alpha Crucis after (allegedly) serving as the Emperor's catamite, is an absolutely corrupt pervert and has arrested McCormac so he could seize and rape the Admiral's beautiful wife, Lady Kathryn!

In Chapter II we are on Terra where ladies' man and 25-year old naval intelligence officer Dominic Flandry travels to Intelligence HQ via air car taxi and grav tube; the head of Intelligence has heard from Snelund that he has arrested McCormac, and the Intelligence chief wants Flandry to investigate what the hell is going on in Alpha Crucis sector--after all, everybody knows McCormac is an honorable man and Snelund is a nauseous rotter.  Flandry is given command of an escort destroyer and heads off to Alpha Crucis on this fact-finding mission.

In the Alpha Crucis sector Flandry and his multi-species crew (the second-in-command of the escort destroyer is a six-limbed sabre-toothed tiger man named Rovian) recognize the extent of Snelund's crimes, which include mass-crucifixion of the green-skinned natives of one planet when they refuse to serve as slavers--Snelund is apparently selling to barbarians living outside the Empire's borders innocent people who have every right to Imperial protection.  It looks like Snelund seized Admiral McCormac and his wife Kathryn in order to conceal these sorts of atrocities.  Flandry and crew also learn that McCormac's men have liberated him from prison and the popular Admiral has declared himself Emperor and is massing a rebel fleet and receiving pledges of allegiance from a number of planets--civil war is in the offing!

Flandry has an interview with the feminine Snelund on Llynathawr, and then Rovian leads a raid that frees Lady McCormac--before Snelund knows what is up, Flandry's ship is in hyperspace with Lady McCormac aboard.  From the Lady, Flandry learns more about Snelund's crimes and plans--the clever creep is trying to amass enough money to return to Terra and become the eminence grise behind the dim-witted Emperor, and actually hopes for a local war in Alpha Crucis sector that will provide an opportunity to nuke planets and thus destroy evidence of his abuses and atrocities.

The Rebel Worlds has appeared in numerous
omnibus editions of multiple Flandry novels, like
this one....
Flandry steers his ship towards the McCormacs' home system (star Virgil, its planets named after characters from The Aeneid), hoping to open negotiations with the rebel admiral, whom he expects will be there with the rebel fleet.  But, before he can talk to anybody, Flandry's ship is wrecked in a naval battle with mercenary barbarians hired by Admiral McCormac.  The surviving half of Flandry's crew crashlands in a disabled space boat on planet Dido, which Kathryn McCormac knows pretty well--she is a scientist who conducted research there.  With Rovian dead, Lady McCormac, who is smart and resourceful and kind, becomes Flandry's confidant and support; she guides the survivors as they march hundreds of kilometers across the planet.  Flandry, already attracted to her on the ship, falls deeply in love with the pretender to the throne's wife during this adventure; Kathryn herself has feelings for Flandry, but she is loyal to her husband and to his cause--overthrowing not only the decadent and perverted Snelund but the perhaps equally reprehensible Emperor and putting in place a more just Terran administration.

One of the many critical roles Lady McCormac plays on the long march is negotiating with the Stone Age natives of Dido, those aliens depicted on the cover, whose oral history is quoted in the prologue.  The Dido natives are the most remarkable part of Anderson's novel, and it is fully appropriate that they are depicted on the cover instead of the more conventional choice of a space warship or a bunch of human space marines.  A tribe of Didonians is made up of a bunch of creatures of three types--one much like a rhino, one much like a monkey, and one much like a bird.  When these creatures act as individuals they conduct themselves much like animals, following their instincts, but they can connect their brains via tentacles, and when individuals from three different species are connected they have high intelligence and can speak and use tools and so forth.  Different combinations of the creatures have unique personalities and skill sets and are thus more appropriate for different conditions and challenges that the tribe might face; a single rhino might sometimes be part of the collective entity called "Cave Explorer" but when combined with a different monkey and bird be part of the entity called "Master of Songs," or yet another known as "Raft Farer."  I was impressed by Anderson's concoction of aliens for his adventure story that are actually novel and alien and not just obvious analogs of Earth ethnic or political groups as we see so often in SF.  The native Didonians play an important role in facilitating the march across Dido and in the way Flandry resolves the plot.

Flandry, in the hoary tradition of classic SF, figures out a way to trick and manipulate everybody else in the novel so that the evil Snelund is deposed and Lady McCormac achieves her revenge on him and the civil war is ended with a minimum of death and destruction, with Hugh and Kathryn McCormac and their followers permitted to escape the Terran Empire without being punished for trying to launch a revolution.  When Flandry negotiates with McCormac, Anderson has him express the attitude towards revolution of conservatives who have a tragic view of history and human nature: sure the Empire sucks, but violent revolution will only make things worse by killing lots of people and setting a precedent in favor of violent change that other ambitious people, people much less decent and less capable than the McCormacs, will follow, leading to total chaos and mass misery.

...and this one.
The Rebel Worlds is not difficult or challenging (though some readers may find the implied homosexual relationship between Snelund and the Emperor and Snelund's offscreen rape of Lady Kathryn McCormac to be what the kids call "problematic") but it works like a charm, each individual component at least adequate and many better than adequate (I've already praised the Didonians, and all the standard SF stuff we love--the rays guns and star ships and spacesuits and space naval battle--are also good) and all of them working smoothly together; The Rebel Worlds is always entertaining or interesting, never boring or irritating.  One might see The Rebel Worlds as a more sophisticated version of classic space operas like Edmond Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol stories, in which various starfaring species ally with humans to battle evil aliens (Kathryn McCormac's abuse at the hands of Snelund has an analog in the scenes of torture and horror Hamilton included in his Patrol tales) or Jack Williamson's Legion stories, which have a strong element of human vs human political intrigue as well as space battles and monstrous aliens.  Anderson classes up his tale here with references to Mozart, Virgil, and The Tale of Genji, and soberly explores how empires and revolutions actually work--not very well, we must sadly admit.

I'm looking forward to reading more Flandry stories in the future.