Sunday, April 26, 2020

Worlds by Joe Haldeman

Jeff hadn't mentioned the third alternative, that I marry him and stay here.  What would that be like?  Marianne O'Hara, groundhog.  I couldn't see it.  Not even in this wonderful city.  The Earth is closed space; history's mistakes endlessly repeating.  The future belongs to the Worlds.   
My copy
I've owned a copy of Joe Haldeman's Worlds, a 1990 Avon paperback edition of the 1981 novel, for quite a while.  A twitter discussion of the cover art for the 1984 edition of the 1983 sequel, Worlds Apart, brought Worlds to mind so I decided to read it.

It is the future, the late 21st century.  Orbiting Earth are forty-one "Worlds," asteroids which, collectively, have a population of almost half a million people.  This is hard sf, and in the start of the book we hear how the asteroids were hollowed out and moved into position and spun for gravity and how they are mined for minerals that are sold to Earth and other Worlds, etc.  One of the most prominent of the Worlds is New New York, home to 250,000 people, including our protagonist, Marianne O'Hara; Worlds is sort of a biography of O'Hara's early life, you might call a bildungsroman.

Worlds immediately reminded of Robert Heinlein's work.  Like "The Menace from Earth" and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Haldeman's novel is largely concerned with speculations on what it will be like living on a satellite of Earth--the relationship between the satellite dwellers and the Earthers, in particular--and on future family arrangements and sexual life.  Like so many of Heinlein's juveniles, it follows a young person as he or she goes on an adventure, learns about the universe, and gets mixed up in war and/or politics.  Other Heinleinian notes are sounded--nudism, revolutionary organizations, ways in which a polity might limit the franchise, for example.

In the 21st century group marriages and regularized sexual promiscuity, of varying kinds, are the norm, with different customs prevailing on different Worlds, and drugs are used to control the onset of puberty and fertility--some girls have sex and bear children at age twelve, others elect to hold off puberty until they are 17 or 18. 

Marianne O'Hara is a superior person, a girl who delays puberty until 17 and spends her teen years focusing on her education, including grad school.  In the 21st century group marriages and regularized sexual promiscuity, of varying forms, are the norm, with different customs prevailing on different Worlds.  Drugs are used to control the onset of puberty and fertility--some girls have sex and bear children at age twelve, others, like Marianne, elect to hold off puberty until they are relatively old.

First edition
A genius, who has had academic papers published before her chemically-induced adulthood begins, Marianne wins a scholarship to spend a year doing postgraduate work on Earth--only one in a thousand people from Marianne's asteroid ever get the opportunity to visit Earth, we are told.

We spend like 30 pages in orbit as Marianne grows up, learning about the Worlds' array of cultures and meeting minor characters, and then our hero, at age 19 or 20, starts her visit to Earth in New York.  My old stomping grounds, in 2084 when Marianne gets there, is a crime ridden mess where there is a heavily armored cop on every corner, ordinary people wear long knives to deter muggers and rapists, and the Empire State Building is in ruins, left that way as a memorial of the Second American Revolution or Second American Civil War that put in place the current form of government.  Marianne makes friends with various people, becomes a crime victim, gets mixed up with an underground group of rebels who aren't crazy about the current form of government--they profess to be libertarian activists who act within the law in pursuit of a more representative government and consider violence a last resort, but in fact they are heavily armed terrorist revolutionaries who assassinate people with lasers and have already infiltrated high levels of government.

Haldeman uses a variety of narrative techniques in Worlds.  Much is in the third person, be he also offers up primary documents, like letters Marianne exchanges with her friends back on New New York, a media interview of one of her friends who describes Marianne's relationship with a third figure, diaries and journals written by Marianne and people who know her.  This way Haldeman can, for example, in one chapter--a diary entry--show us Marianne's view of the terrorists immediately after meeting them, and in the next chapter--a third-person omniscient passage--explicitly show how they are misrepresenting themselves.

The bulk of the plot of the novel consists of three intertwined threads.  One is Marianne's relationships with a number of men, and her decisions about whether she should have sex with each of them and which of them she should marry--remember, this is the promiscuous sex/group marriage future in which it is normal to have multiple concurrent lovers and spouses.  The men are all very different from each other, on New New York there's John the crippled engineer, Charlie the big muscular religious man from a World where they have a sex-focused religion and people customarily have sex in public, and Daniel, a scientist.  In New York there's Benny the poet and painter who gets mixed up with the revolutionary group, and Jeff the FBI agent who is taking classes.  The spy stuff involving the revolutionaries is another thread, and a third is souring relations between the USA and New New York, involving boycotts and embargoes and tariffs and all that, the result of sudden economic change when some valuable minerals are found on the moon--these minerals can substitute for stuff New New York is currently buying form Earth, and provide an opportunity for greater Worlds independence from Earth.  The danger of being arrested by the US government, or murdered by the rebels, or stuck on Earth because of the embargo, of course complicates things and dials up the tension when Marianne is considering with which men she should have sex and with whom she should build her future.   

Marianne goes on a group tour of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and we get plenty of travelogue stuff.  Marianne writes in her diary that Black Africa is "friendly and modern" but Haldeman doesn't expand on that at all.  He has much more to say about England, France, and the Islamic world--the Muslim countries are portrayed as abominably sexist, the women--including tourists like Marianne--forced to wear chadors, the men groping the female tourists at every opportunity.

Back in America everything comes to a head as relations between the US and New New York get so bad that blackouts occur because New New York stops selling solar power to Earth.  Under cover of the blackouts the revolutionaries make their move, detonating nuclear bombs in Washington D.C. and Chicago and declaring that they are the new government.  The USA is in total chaos--half the FBI and half the military are loyal to the revolutionaries and so these institutions are too busy to maintain order, and criminals take advantage of the power vacuum.  In the confusion missiles are launched from the US that strike many of the smaller Worlds, killing thousands of people and sending thousands as refugees to New New York, and then there is a nuclear exchange between the US and the communist states, leaving the Earth an absolute wreck!

Just before the blackout and revolution Marianne is kidnapped by revolutionaries for use as a bargaining ship or something (she is the most famous Worlder on Earth) and is rescued by Jeff the FBI agent, who has gone rogue from the Bureau.  When America falls into chaos Marianne and Jeff have to travel across the violence-stricken countryside to get to the spaceport, but there is no room for Jeff, so Marianne leaves for New New York without him. 

Worlds is good, but it is all plot, it didn't move me--I didn't really care which guys Marianne banged or married, which of them lived or died.  One of the reasons the novel felt a little flat is that Marianne doesn't really drive the plot, she doesn't set goals and then try to achieve them--as a student she follows a schedule, and then during the world-shattering revolutionary crisis she is a victim of circumstances.  She goes here and there, meeting some people who try to abuse or exploit her and some people who are nice to her and help protect her from the not nice people.  After all the talk of her being so single-minded and smart in the first 30 pages of the book, she doesn't do much that is particularly smart or assertive on Earth--I can't remember her ever using her smarts to overcome an obstacle or preserve her life or anything like that.  Rather than exercising the values and abilities she brought with her to Earth from New New York, she is corrupted by life on Earth, forced to commit acts of violence that she hadn't thought herself capable of. 

If the novel has a point, it is about the folly of (white and Muslim) man, whose ambitions and fears and weapons and sexism cause murder and oppression and eventually destroy the world.  To Marianne, Earth people seem insane ("What's wrong with you groundhogs?  What the hell is wrong with you?"), and Haldeman explicitly tells us that the guy who launches the missiles at the Worlds and at the communist countries does it because he is insane.  (One might quibble that this is weak storytelling--after coming up with complex political and economic reasons for the dispute between New New York and the United States, Haldeman is content to explain a nuclear war with "And then this crazy guy pushes a button....")  We only spend like 15% of the book on New New York, but we learn that on that World there are no guns, people don't accumulate wealth, and people are sexually liberated--maybe it's Haldeman's idea of a utopia.  (Maybe the symbolic reason Jeff can't come to New New York is that he has blood on his hands from shooting criminals...doesn't that sort of thing happen to King David in the Bible?)

Non-whites, African-Americans in particular, come off well in the novel.  Marianne loves Dixieland jazz and the people who treat her nicest are some black musicians who invite her to play clarinet in their jazz band in front of a packed house, and we get a long scene of her playing with them; for Marianne, the evening spent playing with the band feels like "six bright hours of orgasm."  This chapter is also significant in that it is one of the few times in the book when we actually see Marianne's talents and abilities in action.

It is implied that Marianne will become the leader of New New York, and there are two sequels, 1983's Worlds Apart and 1992's Worlds Enough and Time; maybe they follow her career as chief executive of New New York, and in them we will see Marianne use her intelligence to save her society or something.  I own Worlds Apart and will read it soon, while Worlds is still fresh in my mind, and find out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Vampire stories by R Bloch, R Zelazny, D Drake, K E Wagner & R Matheson

Looking around everybody's favorite online resource, the internet archive, for stories by Tanith Lee, I came upon prolific anthologist Martin H. Greenberg's 1997 Vampires: The Greatest Stories.  I've actually already read and blogged about the Lee story included by Greenberg, "Red as Blood," but Vampires: The Greatest Stories contains quite a few stories by other writers we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log--Robert Bloch of Psycho fame, Amber scribe Roger Zelazny, creator of Hammer's Slammers David Drake, the man who brought us Kane, Karl Edward Wagner, and the guy who wrote Vincent Price's and Steven Spielberg's best movies, Richard Matheson--and I decided to check them out.  Could they really be among the greatest of all the many vampire stories out there?

"The Bat is My Brother" by Robert Bloch (1944)

A title ripped from today's headlines!  Oh, wait, I thought it said "The Bat in My Broth."  Anyway, "The Bat is My Brother" debuted in Weird Tales, and was mentioned by name on the cover.  When I see that this issue includes stories by August Derleth, Manly Wade Wellman and Hannes Bok which I have never read, and a Ray Bradbury story I should reread, I realize that, unless I achieve immortality (you know, like a vampire!) I will never run out of weird fiction to read.

Graham Keene awakens to discover he has been buried alive!  A poor man, he was interred in a cheap unsealed coffin in a shallow pauper's grave, and manages to tear his way out of the casket and up out of the earth.  Back on the surface, in the cemetery, Keene is greeted by a gray-haired wrinkle-faced man who welcomes him to his new life--as a vampire!--and introduces himself as his guardian--this guy is going to show Keene the ropes!

"The Bat is My Brother" is one of those stories that divorces vampirism from religion and the supernatural and tries to explain it scientifically.  I am skeptical that this is really a good idea.  Keene's new friend tells him vampirism is a disease, and spends quite a number of pages explaining to the new recruit to the ranks of the undead what "rules" of vampirism hold in this story: it is true that vampires cast no shadow or reflection, but the idea that they can change into bats or wolves is just superstition; a vampire really can't be killed by weapons, but he is not truly immortal, eventually, he will decay.  And so forth.  If we accept the existence of God and the Devil (or the deities of polytheistic religions), it is easy to accept that a guy might suffer the curse of having no shadow or reflection or be granted the power to survive getting shot full of holes, but it is hard to accept that a mere disease might thusly exempt you from basic physical laws.

Anyway, the old vampire explains to Keene his plan to create an army of vampires to take over the world, and why no vampire over the centuries has ever done this before.  He wants Keene to be his lieutenant, and Keene must decide if he is willing join to this vampire revolution and embrace a position as a high ranking member of the vampire dictatorship.

This story is sort of pedestrian, though not actually bad.  The best scene is when the old vampire explains in detail how to best kill and feed on a young woman, using your left hand to cover her mouth and your right to pinion her arms, etc., because this scene is chillingly cruel and disturbingly erotic while fulfilling the story's theme of applying science and logic and practicality to the essentially supernatural or allegorical idea of vampirism.  Otherwise, "The Bat is My Brpother" is sort of bland.

Acceptable.  "The Bat is My Brother" has been included in several anthologies, including Michael Parry's The Rivals of Dracula.

The contents page of the 1944 issue of Weird Tales in which it appears teases
"The Bat is My Brother" with what we might call a social justice joke

"Dayblood" by Roger Zelazny (1985)

"Dayblood" was first published in Twilight Zone magazine.  It was first reprinted in the 1989 Zelazny collection Frost and Fire, which I own, but which I have yet to read anything from.  Unless I live forever (you know, like a vampire!) I'll never read all the SF books I have accumulated.

"Dayblood" fits the Twilight Zone brand, with a twist ending and a snarky, smart alecky, attitude.  A vampire has turned a local beauty into a vampire, and the woman's fiance forms a three-man posse with a priest and a physician and, armed with garlic and stakes, head to the ruined church where the vampire and his new companion are residing.  Our narrator is a smart ass journalist who complains that the vampire was foolish to let these mundanes (you kids say "muggles") detect his work and track him to his lair.  The reporter is waiting by the church when the three vampire hunters arrive.

The twist ending is that the journalist is a monster who feeds on vampires, so he ambushes the innocent Christians and murders them, preserving the two undead monsters so he can later kill them himself and gain sustenance from them.  The narrator talks of an "underworld ecosystem" that needs to be balanced, explaining that vampires haven't multiplied so much that they could take over the world because if there were too many vampires there would be too few living people for them to feed on.  Again we see scientific concepts applied to the fantastical idea of vampirism.

Acceptable.  This story has been widely anthologized in some of the many vampire books out there.


"Something Had to Be Done" by David Drake (1975)

"Something Had to Be Done" had its debut in F&SF and has reappeared in quite a few anthologies and Drake collections, including the 1976 edition of DAW's Year's Best Horror Stories.  It is short and economical, which I appreciate, is told in a clever and slightly oblique manner, and has a good twist ending that packs a punch.

Captain Richmond has the unenviable task of visiting the families of personnel killed in Vietnam.  He is accompanied on these visits by another officer, and on today's visit, to the Lunkowski family, it is a Sergeant Morzek, who served with the dead Private Lunkowski, who comes with him.  Morzek is old and emaciated and covered in weird moles, and seems to be drunk!

Morzek isn't acting like people usually do on these generally sad and solemn visits, and the three surviving Lunkowskis also act in an odd fashion as Morzek talks to them about their son's service and death.  Morzek's brief narrative and the Lunkowskis' reactions indicate that Private Lunkowski was a vampire, and so are the three people in the house here with Morzek and Richmond!  Lunkowski started murdering his comrades to drink their blood, and when Morzek realized this, he killed Lunkowski (who had proven immune to rifle fire during an attack by "the dinks") with a phosphorus grenade.  The Lunkowskis surround Morzek and Richmond and start closing in for the kill, but Morzek came with the specific purpose of cleansing the world of the Lunkowski menace and has brought another phosphorus grenade with him!  He tells Richmond to jump out the window and then detonates the explosive, incinerating himself and the monsters.

Quite good.  All the little details Drake includes as the story goes along that at first seem like window dressing or to hint at one thing in fact add to the tone or plot and end up hinting at something else--for example, because he is so sick-looking I initially thought Morzek might be a vampire, but in fact he has terminal cancer and the fact that he only has a few weeks to live has made easier his decision to die fighting the undead menace.


"Beyond Any Measure" by Karl Edward Wagner (1982)

"Beyond Any Measure" made its debut in Whispers #15-16, the special Ramsey Campbell issue of the magazine.  It has reappeared in many Wagner collections and vampire anthologies.

Lisette is an American art student studying in London; she shares a room with Danielle, another tall, slender young American artist.  Lisette has been having bad dreams, and Danielle arranges for her to meet a Dr. Magnus at a gallery opening--Magnus, she says, is an expert on dreams.  Lisette begins going to Magnus's office regularly to be hypnotized; Magnus believes that past lives have an influence on our thoughts, through racial memory in our DNA or because of reincarnation of the soul, and he provides "treatment" to Lisette free of charge because he thinks her case can finally settle the questions of the reality of racial memory and the immortality of the soul.  Under hypnosis Lisette relates memories of being a lady in the late 19th century, memories that all seem to have to do with coffins and graveyards and blood!

"Beyond Any Measure" is long, almost 50 pages in Vampires: The Greatest Stories, and it feels long because Wagner fills it with long conversations and long descriptions of people's clothes and bodies that do little to move the plot or generate emotion in the reader.  Wagner seems to be trying to make his story sexually arousing, so in every scene we have to hear all about about what clothes Lisette and Danielle are wearing and how their attire shows off their bodies, and Lisette's dreams and recovered memories always mention that her hair or rain water or blood or whatever is running over her breasts.  One of Wagner's themes in the story is the indulgence and license of the cultural elite, so in a scene at a masked ball where everybody snorts cocaine (which they call "toot") we get verbose descriptions of half a dozen people's BDSM outfits.

Lisette and Danielle are lesbian lovers, though their relationship is not very convincing or interesting--they don't act like any couple I have ever met or like any lesbians I have ever met; in most scenes they just act like casual friends, so when they suddenly started having sex in the shower I was taken by surprise.  "Beyond Any Measure" has three lesbian sex scenes, all of which end in blood.  In the first Lisette performs oral sex on Danielle, who hasn't realized she is on her period, so that when Lisette stands up sees herself in the mirror with blood on her face--you know, like a vampire!--and faints.  In the second a character introduced in the second half of the story, Beth Garrington, a wealthy woman who looks just like Lisette, murders Danielle after tricking her into thinking she is Lisette.

Then comes a long plodding explanation of what Dr. Magnus turned up by hypnotizing Lisette and by scouring old newspapers and public records.  In short, in the 19th century an aristocratic woman became a vampire.  When you become a vampire your soul leaves your body, but the soul is immortal, so the lost soul of this vampire lady--who now goes by the name Beth Garrington-- reincarnated in the body of Lisette when she was born.  Driven by the subconscious desire for justice and revenge that lies buried in her soul, without knowing what she was doing, Lisette came to London and sought out her former, now vampiric, body.  (I think.)

Beth Garrington, intrigued by Lisette's physical similarity to her, lures Lisette to her estate, where she starts having sex with the student and then bites her neck to drain her blood.  But, because they are, in some way, one person, this, for some reason, kills both of them.  Dr. Magnus arrives at the estate to find the two nude bodies, one still young and beautiful, one like a dried up mummy, intertwined in death.

Have to give "Beyond Any Measure" a thumbs down.  The plot is complicated and limp; the characters don't demonstrate drive or motivation, none of them seems to have any ambition or love or hate or fear, they act listlessly, like leaves in a gentle breeze.  The story feels very long and slow; there are repetitive and superfluous scenes and repetitive and superfluous sentences within scenes.  The whole time Wagner seems to be trying too hard, piling on the descriptions of clothes and boobs in an effort to be sexy, describing drug use and punk rock attire in an effort to be edgy, trying to get horror fans on his side with his name-checking of Psycho, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Edgar Allen Poe.

I must be some kind of outlier because this mess won a 1983 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella.  What did people like about it?  Maybe all the talk of people snorting cocaine, dropping acid, wearing black leather S&M outfits, and having lesbian sex was considered "with it," "an update of the vampire for the '80s?" 

Two Karl Edward Wagner collections from Centipede Press.  Left: 2011's Karl Edward Wagner:
Master of the Weird Tale
Right: 2012's Where the Summer Ends
"No Such Thing as a Vampire" by Richard Matheson (1959)

"No Such Thing as a Vampire" first appeared in Playboy, our most prestigious skin rag (unless you count National Geographic), and has been reprinted in numerable Matheson collections and horror anthologies.

This is a competent though somewhat pedestrian story in the twist-ending-Twilight-Zone mold, though suited for Playboy with its inclusion of nudity and a sexual element.  In a Romanian town full of superstitious peasants lives a doctor and his beautiful wife in a fancy house with a bunch of servants--the doc and the missus have separate bedrooms.  One morning the wife wakes up with her night dress pulled down, her bare breasts covered in blood!  The doctor finds two tiny holes in her neck!  Obviously a vampire has attacked!

The doctor and the brave butler (the other servants flee) do all they can with garlic and crosses to fortify the house, but to no avail--every morning, even when the sawbones stays in his wife's bedroom all night long, she wakes up having been further drained.  The doctor writes to their friend in another town, and he comes to help.  When he joins the doc to sit up all night with the wife we get our twist ending--the doc has been faking the vampire attacks by drawing his wife's blood with a syringe (don't worry, folks, she will recover...physically, at least.)  His wife having cheated on him with this friend when they went to visit him last summer, the doctor has been plotting a terrible revenge!  He drugs the friend, puts him in a coffin in the basement, and arranges it so that the heroic butler finds the "vampire" and kills it with a stake through the heart.

Acceptable.



**********

The Drake is the big winner here--his story is economical, striking, and "brings the vampire into the modern world" in a way that is interesting.  The Wagner is the polar opposite, long and tedious, and, by sticking a vampire in the middle of a bunch of coke-snorting punk rockers and lesbian art students, "updating" the vampire in a way that is lame and boring.

We'll be orbiting Mother Earth in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log, reading an early '80s SF novel by a SFWA Grandmaster.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Three stories from Venus Equilateral by George O. Smith

My copy, front
On the occasion of George O. Smith's recent birthdaypeople on twitter were praising Smith's work, so I decided to read the first three stories in my 1967 paperback copy of Venus Equilateral, which has an intro by John W. Campbell, Jr. and a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke.  Venus Equilateral first appeared in 1947 in hardcover; all the stories in this book were first printed in Campbell's Astounding.  A quick glance at the magazines indicates that the three stories we are talking about today were revised for book publication, I guess in part to make them flow a little bit more like a novel, with events in later stories foreshadowed in earlier ones.  One-page italicized interludes also appear in this book that help to link the stories.

(There are ten stories in this book--it seems that an additional three stories about the eponymous space station are included in a later edition published in the 1970s under the title The Complete Venus Equilateral.) 

"QRM--Interplanetary" (1942)

It is the future!  Man has colonized Mars and Venus, and so communications must be maintained between the three planets. Because the sun often lies between any two of these three worlds, a space station known as Venus Equilateral has been put into orbit around the sun at a point equally distant from both Venus and Sol--this point is on Venus's orbit, sixty degrees ahead of the planet--to relay messages between the planets when necessary, which is often.  The three-mile-long, one-mile-in-diameter station has a population of almost 2,700 people and spins to create gravity--people's apartments are on the inner side of the station's outer surface, heavy machinery is concentrated in the low gee center.

Much of "QRM--Interplanetary" is taken up with descriptions of and dialogue about all the science and engineering related to the station--this is the kind of SF that tries to educate you about the hard sciences and glorifies the scientist and the engineer.  The plot of the story is like something you might see in an episode of M*A*S*H* and mostly exists to provide reasons for Dr. Dan Channing, an engineer, to explain to a dolt (and incidentally us readers) all about the space station's systems.

Channing has been acting director of the station for some months, since the last director got sick.  As the story begins the new director has arrived and taken up the position Channing so enjoyed (in part because the director's secretary is sexy Arden Westland), demoting Channing to his previous position as head of the Electronics Department.  The new director is Francis Burbank, a fat guy, a teetotaler, and a businessman; this political appointee has given the task by "the Commission" of making Venus Equilateral more profitable by cutting expenses.  Burbank also takes it upon himself  to elevate the moral environment on the station.  To these ends, a tax is placed on candy and cigarettes, the movies are censored to remove scenes of sex and violence, and the policy of allowing crew members to send messages and receive packages free of charge is ended. 

Burbank introduces automation to the aiming of the high frequency transmission beams so that some of the crew can be laid off to save on labor expenses, but these changes result in many messages failing to reach their intended recipients.  He tries to narrow the beams and reduce the use of redundant beams to save energy, another mistake that leads to lost messages.  Channing points out the folly of all his schemes and when he gets particularly annoyed with him actually punches Burbank in the face.  When Burbank, out of ignorance, destroys the station's oxygen-generation system (a room full of Martian weeds) and puts the lives of everybody on the Venus Equilateral at risk, the Commission sacks him and gives the Directorship to Channing on a permanent basis.  Capping off the story, Arden Westland agrees to marry Channing.

The technical stuff in the story is all interesting, but the human story is perhaps a little weak.  Maybe now that the scene is set and we have learned all about how the station works the rest of the stories will have better plots?

Besides in all the collections of Venus Equilateral stories, "QRM--Interplanetary" can be found in quite a few anthologies, including one edited by Richard Curtis called Future Tense and several celebrating Astounding and its successor Analog.


"Calling the Empress" (1943)

The Empress of Kolain lifts off from Mars carrying not only a bunch of wealthy passengers, but a cargo of plants bound for Venus.  (Apparently they have awesome plants on Mars.)  Just after the Empress has blasted off, Mars receives a message--there is a plague on Venus so the Empress will be quarantined when it lands!  Those valuable plants can only survive on board a ship for a set number of days, and they are going to die if the ship sits sealed up at the Venus spaceport for the period the quarantine requires!  The Empress could change course for Earth to save the plants, but she is already out of radio range of Mars, so there is no way to tell her to do so!  As Director of Venus Equilateral Don Channing and the head of the Communications Department, Walt Franks, explain to Arden Westland, Channing's fiance and secretary, "I don't know whether we can contact a ship in space.  It hasn't been done to date, you know, except for short distances."  Spaceships, moving at incredible speeds in the vast volumes of empty space, are very hard to spot, and don't carry the kind of equipment needed to read the communication beams the station regularly directs at Mars, Venus and Earth.

Channing and Franks are given the job of being the first to communicate with a spaceship in transit.  They do a lot of math stuff that is totally beyond me, like "sketching conical sections," and then draw designs for a cam and have the mechanical department build it--the Empress is too far away to be detected, but its location relative to Venus Equilateral can be predicted based on its expected speed and course and expressed as an angular distance from Mars; if the communications apparatus is aimed at Mars in the conventional fashion the cam (rotated by a clock mechanism) can be engaged to correct the projector's aim so that the beam falls where the Empress should be.  And that is just the beginning of the science lectures and jury-rigging with bread boards, files, hacksaws and thyratrons (or is it "thyratons?") that make up "Calling the Empress," which has even less human drama than "QRM--Interplanetary."  Smith doesn't even gin up tension by having Channing and Franks racing against time to save a million lives by winning a war or stopping a collision--they are racing against time to save some businesspeople a few bucks!     

My copy, back
The most human part of the story comes at the very end.  Once they have finally devised a way to project a beam on the Empress, Franks and Channing flick it on and off to send a Morse code message.  But this is the future--not many people know Morse code.  A call goes out throughout the ship--does anybody on the Empress know Morse code?  A thirteen-year-old nerd pipes us, and he becomes a hero to everybody who cares about Martian plants!

This is a fun story if you care about science at all, as it considers the implications of the vast distances and speeds involved in interplanetary travel.  It also contains knowing references to SF magazines (e. g., one character jocularly says "Clear ether!", a phrase from E. E. Smith's Lensmen stories), in-jokes that Astounding readers would presumably have enjoyed.

"Calling the Empress" only ever appeared in George O. Smith collections after its debut in Astounding, and the same is true for "Recoil," the next Venus Equilateral story.

"Recoil" (1943)

"Recoil" was the cover story for the issue of Astounding in which it appeared.

Trying to flesh out his characters a bit, in this story Smith puts forward the idea (in the mouth of Walt Franks's secretary) that Dan Channing and Franks are a symbiotic pair, the sum of whom are greater than the parts, because they have complementary skills and knowledge bases and because each is prone to flights of fancy that the other can rein in.

Thanks to Channing and Franks's inventiveness in the last story, planets and space stations can now send messages to space ships at great distances as long as the ships stay on their plotted courses and at their standard speeds.  But sometimes ships have to dodge meteors, and so they are not where they are expected to be and can't receive the messages.  While newlyweds Don and Arden Channing are on their honeymoon on Mars, Franks takes it upon himself to build a prototype electron cannon housed in a gun turret that he hopes will be able to blast apart meteors, but his first attempt is a failure.

As luck would have it, mere days after the test firing of the electron gun fails, a mad scientist and convicted murderer who escaped from death row and vanished ten years ago reappears on the scene, threatening to interdict all interplanetary travel with his armed space ships if he is not paid protection money.  Seeking to control interplanetary communications, he demands Venus Equilateral be handed over to him--he gives the station crew five days in which to make up their minds before he starts shooting.  Don and Arden Channing blast off from Mars in their little space ship, slip through the pirates' blockade and make a desperate landing inside the station, where Channing schools Franks (and me!) on betatrons and oscillators and electromagnetic deflection.  (I had had no idea that the supply of a betatron was sinusoidal!  Where have I been living?)  Before the five days are up Channing and Franks have the new and improved version of Franks's electron gun up and running and blast the three pirate ships into submission.  But the weapon isn't suitable for use in shooting down meteors, as the titanic electrical forces it generates when firing play havoc with the rest of the station's systems (this is the recoil of the title.)

Because of the high stakes and the scenes of the Channings' crash landing and the pirates suffering under the fire of history's first energy weapon, "Recoil" is the most thrilling of the stories we are reading today.

**********

These are very science-forward stories; I certainly learned about a bunch of stuff with the "-tron" suffix (though none will replace "Ladytron" in my heart.)  The speculations about life and travel in space are interesting, and the optimistic can-do attitude is a change of pace from the evil, death and heartbreak that suffuses so much of what I read.  I enjoyed these stories enough that I will be returning to Venus Equilateral, but it's back to fear and blood for the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Late 20th century stories about vampiric creatures by Poppy Z. Brite, Tanith Lee and Melanie Tem

Vampires!  You love vampires.  I love vampires.  Everybody loves vampires.  So let's read about vampires!  Whatever it is you are doing--sheltering in place, living under quarantine, living under lockdown, working from home, searching for toilet paper, embroidering a snappy motto on your homemade face mask, attending a wedding via Zoom, breaking up with your not-as-significant-as-you-initially-thought-other via Skype--can probably be improved by simultaneously reading about vampires.

No doubt you recall our foray into The Mammoth Book of Erotica.  There is a Mammoth Book of most everything at this point; we can probably look forward to The Mammoth Book of Coronavirus Tales someday.  So let's seek our vampires in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women, edited by the indefatigable Stephen Jones and first published in 2001, picking out tales by three people we have talked about before here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Poppy Z. Brite, Tanith Lee, and Melanie Tem.   You won't be surprised to hear I am reading from a scan of the book available at the internet archive.  If that check for $1,200 that just mysteriously appeared in your bank account is burning a hole in your pocket you can pick up a trade paperback copy on ebay for less than $6.00.

"Homewrecker" by Poppy Z. Brite (1998) 

This one first appeared at the website Gettingiton.com, which I believe is currently defunct.  Enjoy your favorite website while you can, oh my brothers, it could be gone in an instant.  "Homewrecker" would first appear in a physical book in 2000 in Paula Guran's Embraces: Dark Erotica.  In the intro to "Homewrecker" here in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women, Brite suggests that to write a decent vampire story "requires the ability to plumb one's own darkness."

This story is like two and a half pages long, but it is chock full of stuff that is gross, like hints of incest, explicit nonconsensual sex, vomit, and animal blood.  Brite also  skillfully packs an entire traditional horror story plot into this tiny space while piling on the memorable (albeit gross) images.

Our narrator is a young boy who lives with his "Uncle Edna" (birth name Ed Slopes,) a crossdressing homosexual who works at a slaughterhouse killing pigs by day and wears lipstick and women's dresses at night.  The narrator has to make sure Uncle Edna's perfumed bath is ready when he gets home or he gets beat--when Uncle Edna beats the narrator he (Edna) gets an erection.

An Uncle Jude used to live with Edna and the narrator, but a few years ago a woman, a Verna, somehow stole him away.  Edna is still bitter about it, often ranting about that "bitch who stole his man" and banging the table and so on.  One day the narrator hears that Verna is back in town (no sign of long lost Jude, though.)  Fearing that Edna might murder Verna, the narrator provides oral sex to another kid in exchange for some Xanax, and uses the drugs to knock out Edna before he finds out the homewrecker is back in town.  When the narrator goes to talk to Verna, in hopes of learning something about the whereabouts of Jude, we readers realize Verna is a vampire who gets her kicks from using her hypnotic powers to get gay men to have sex with her.  She uses these powers on the teen-age narrator, and not only fellates him against his will (which he finds so sickening he vomits) but poisons his mind, filling his head with thoughts of the look, the smell, the feel of a woman's breasts and genitals--as a homosexual, he finds these thoughts disgusting, but, despite his professed inclinations, these obsessive thoughts physically arouse him to the point where he has to masturbate in public to relieve the pressure.

Brite is a good writer, and on a technical level this is a well-written piece, with good sentences and economical pacing and striking images and all the stuff I hope to find in stories.  It is also a sort of switcheroo story; in the past it was common for heterosexual men to express disgust at gay men and their sexual practices, and it was common to express fear that gay men would seduce young boys into joining the gay subculture.  Well, in this story we have gay men expressing their nausea at the thought of a woman's body, and we have a woman who seduces a gay boy into joining the straight culture (which in the story feels like a subculture, because all the male characters are sexually active gay men.)

(I guess I should point out, in case you don't know, that, since The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories by Women was published, Brite has come out as a gay man and taken hormone therapy and prefers to be called Billy Martin.)

I often complain that switcheroo stories are lame, but "Homewrecker" works because it is a well-crafted story and because the switcheroo feels fresh (at least to me) and because Brite doesn't stack the deck by portraying the gay men as angels and their lifestyle as ideal--the narrator is beaten by his father figure and trades sex for drugs as a matter of course, after all.

(For another switcheroo story about a straight minority in a gay milieu, check out Charles Beaumont's 1955 "The Crooked Man.")

Thumbs up, but I can't say this story is for everybody--it is disgusting and potentially offensive (for example, Brite does that thing where you compare the scent of a woman's vagina to a fish market, which I feel might piss some women off.)  But we read horror stories because we want to be shocked and speculative fiction in general because we want to be exposed to different ideas and learn about other points of view, don't we?

"Venus Rising on Water" by Tanith Lee  (1991)

I don't need to tell you I am a big fan of Lee's, as I told you that in our last episode when I read her gruesome story about family relationships that either smother you or let you down, "A Room with a Vie."  That story was set in an English seaside town; "Venus Rising on Water" takes place in a city much like Venice in a future alternate reality Earth.

The old city has been almost entirely abandoned, many of its buildings crumbling, its walls covered in vines and creepers, its streets and squares choked with trees and shrubbery.  Only a few nutcases live in the city, but the once beautiful metropolis, centuries ago home to aristocrats and artists in powdered wigs and elaborate masks, has been left to decay instead of torn down so it can serve as a kind of museum--every month a boat travels between the modern apartment buildings on the other side of the lagoon to the old ruin, and sometimes a scholar or journalist is on the boat.  Our heroine, 25-year-old Jonquil Hare, is one such writer who explores the city alone.  (Jonquil was Fritz Leiber's wife's name, which may or may not be significant.)

Jonquil, equipped with SF devices like an inflatable mattress and a machine that cooks fine meals for her, sets up camp in a glorious old pile called The Palace of the Planet which centuries ago was home to an astrologer named Johanus who claimed to have observed the surface of Venus.  She has an appointment with a caretaker who gives her a sort of remote control called a manual--by manipulating the buttons on the manual she can project holographic films in the palace which purport to show the now decayed edifice as it looked in its heyday, complete with costumed actors who act out masked balls.

Jonquil finds a chest, one that has not been opened in three centuries or more, one which the scholars who compiled the data in the manual believe is no chest at all, but a faux chest (a "jester chest,") an empty decoration.  Impelled by a dream about the chest, Jonquil figures out how to open it, and discovers a full-sized portrait of a boyish woman.  (A blurring of gender roles is one of the minor themes of the story.)  Jonquil, an expert on art and architecture, assesses the find and decides it must be a painting by Johanus the astrologer.  She begins having dreams of Johanus in which she learns that he believed that his long observations of the surface of Venus had opened up a path between the two planets which some Venerian creature used to travel to Earth, to this very palace.  This creature is like a cloth or large piece of paper or piece of skin that travels by inching along the floor or floating through the air.  Jonquil also has dreams, thrilling dreams, of the woman in the painting climbing atop her and bringing her to orgasm.

In the horror/action climax of the story it becomes clear that the canvas Jonquil discovered is the creature, that Johanus painted his idea (or the monster's memories transmitted into his mind!) of a Venerian woman upon this alien skin from Venus.  Dragging the picture frame along the floor like the shell of a clumsy turtle or snail, the monster pursues Jonquil (to eat of her flesh? to take control of her body? to slay her? to rape her?) through the palace, finally bursts free of the heavy frame and flies after her through the ruined streets of the town.  She takes refuge in an ancient mausoleum, but the monster from Venus is hot on her trail!  Among the long-interred coffins and mummies, a horde of the albino rats who infest the underworld of the abandoned city swarm over the alien, tearing it to pieces and devouring it.  Jonquil is saved, but we are left to consider the possibility that the alien still lives, that the rats will become a ravenous half-Terran half-alien plague which will threaten the entire human race! 

"Venus Rising on Water" is only about vampires if you are using the most liberal definition of what a vampire is, but it is a very good horror-SF piece; Lee's descriptions of the palace and city and the chase are quite fine.  It is kind of like one of Clark Ashton Smith's Mars stories, say "Vault of Yoh-Vombis" or "The Dweller in the Gulf" but with a rapey lesbian sex scene thrown in.  Who would gainsay that recipe?

Recommended.

"Venus Rising on Water" was first printed in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and would go on to be included in a 2019 collection of Lee tales published by Immanion Press, which has been printing collections of Lee's late work.

"Lunch at Charon's" by Melanie Tem (2001)

The Mammoth Book of Vampire Stories
by Women
includes several decorations
by Randy Broecker, this one among them 
I believe "Lunch at Charon's" was original to this anthology.

The narrator of "Lunch at Charon's" is a vain forty-something woman who is always working out and doing yoga and having plastic surgery and so on in order to maintain her looks and keep in shape--she talks a lot about whether or not her breasts are sagging, whether or not her finger nail polish is chipped, and about how her friends' fat bodies or unfashionable nail polish disgusts her.  This woman is a real jerk!  It soon becomes clear that one of her strategies for maintaining her looks is sucking the life force out of her friends!  Worse than a jerk, this woman is a god-damned vampire!

This story is apparently meant to be humorous--the narrator's obsession with her and her friends' appearances goes way overboard and Tem's learned references ("Charon's" as the name of a fancy restaurant, "Alighieri" as the name of one of the narrator's friends) are in-your-face obvious.  You know I often complain about joke stories, but this one is actually sort of funny, so good on Tem.

As for plot, the narrator chronicles how all her friends get old and die before their time because she is stealing their life force under the guise of giving them massages and hugging them and so forth.  One of her friends is a lonely lesbian college professor with an adopted Chinese baby--after the narrator sucks the life out of the horny prof through a kiss, she plots to make friends with the woman who is the newly orphaned baby's guardian, in hopes of feasting on the child's young and innocent life!

Not bad.

**********

I really thought these stories were going to be about more or less traditional vampires, but it turns out that the common thread running through them is homosexuality.  Fortunately these stories are all entertaining, so, no harm, no foul, right?

Friday, April 17, 2020

Stories by Fritz Leiber, Tanith Lee and Darrell Schweitzer about broken families and women at risk

In the last installment of MPorcius Fiction Log, we read one of Robert Bloch's better stories, 1949's "The Unspeakable Betrothal," which was reprinted in Marvin Kaye's 1995 anthology Angels of Darkness: Tales of Troubled and Troubling Women.  Before I close the browser tab with the internet archive scan of Kaye's book, let's read three more stories from it, one by Fritz Leiber (whose story "The Man Who Never Grew Young" I told you was "gimmicky" and "lame" in that last blog post), one by Tanith Lee (whom you know I am crazy about) and one by Darrell Schweitzer (whose 1983 novel The Shattered Goddess I had nice things to say about.)

"Game for Motel Room" by Fritz Leiber (1963)

Don't let my panning of "The Man Who Never Grew Young" fool you, I am a Fritz Leiber fan; not only do I have fond memories of reading the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories "Lean Times in Lankhmar," "Stardock," "Bazaar of the Bazaar" and "The Seven Black Priests" in my youth, but during the life of this blog I have praised "The Glove," "Ship of Shadows," "X Mark the Pedwalk," and "A Rite of Spring."  So I'm going into my reading of "Game for Motel Room," which first was printed in F&SF and would go on to be anthologized in SF Horizons 1 and Sex in the 21st Century (ooh la la!), as well as other places, rooting for Fritz.

Alas, Fritz and I are just not getting on lately.  "Game for Motel Room" is a childish joke story, the kind of thing I think is a waste of time.

A guy met a woman in a bar and they went to a motel in her Italian sports car and had sex.  Afterwards, she is prancing about the room, showing off her "trimly beautiful" body, and explaining that she is an alien on vacation who can read his mind and will live for thousands of years etc.; she tells him she will erase his memory of her startling admissions before they part.  At first the guy figures this is just a little game, but eventually begins to believe it.  From scant clues, he figures out that the space woman's husband is trying to murder her for her life insurance money.  (One of the story's jokes is that these superior aliens have a society just like ours with all the problems we on Earth have, wars and taxes and loveless marriages and so on.)  She has on her person a gift from her hubby that is a disguised bomb that can blow up the Earth.  Because she has the bomb with her, and the Earthman has explained how to avoid detonating it, she has all the evidence she needs to fly back home and sic the authorities on her husband.  She thanks the Earthman, as a sign of gratitude refrains from erasing his memory and simply makes it impossible for him to tell his story to anyone, and then jumps in her faux Italian sports car, which is really a space ship, and flies off.

Competent, but a lightweight trifle, reminiscent of a comic episode of The Twilight Zone.


"A Room with a Vie" by Tanith Lee (1980)

This is a story about how horrible family life can be, about the women who smother you with their needy love, about the men who abandon you after you have become reliant on them, about how you are bound to people whom you find it hard to love and who don't give you the love for which you ache.

Caroline is an artist.  In the past, she and her significant other, David, have taken a flat in a seaside town in the summer.  But their relationship is collapsing, and this summer they have not secured the room; at the last minute Caroline decides to go to the holiday town herself, to get away from David, whom she tells herself she is through with, but for whom, whenever she is troubled, she still feels a desperate need.

The holiday town is not the same without David.  There are somewhat scary teenage gangs roaming the streets, for example, and because she called so late, Caroline has to take a different room than the one she and David have rented in the past--this one is small and has a shared bathroom, and she has to share it with an annoying couple, a fat man and his wife who looks like a teen-aged girl, and their noisy brat.  This small room, Caroline learns, used to be rented for four months every year by a widower, Mr. Tinker.  Tinker lived eight months of the year with his daughter and her husband, but it seems that none of them was really comfortable with this arrangement, that it was an onerous obligation for the married couple, and Tinker thought of this little room with its view of the bay as his real home.  Tinker recently died, and several people have taken the room since then, but all soon left because they found the room mysteriously insalubrious.

Very quickly we get clues that indicate that the room is alive, that it loved Tinker and is now painfully lonely.  For example, one of the post-Tinker, pre-Caroline tenants scratched on the wall the phrase "a room with a vie."  Is this a mistake for "a room with a view," or are we to read "vie" as the French word for "life?"  The room has a smell that is variously described as "buttery," "milky," and "cowlike."  Caroline thinks back to her pathetic and irritating Aunt Sara.  Sara couldn't have children of her own, and desperately wanted a child, and directed all her maternal feelings towards little Caroline, keeping the six-year-old away from her friends and monopolizing her time, constantly crushing Caroline to her fat body, smothering her against her huge breasts, as if she wanted to engulf little Caroline in her cavernous and barren womb.  Caroline begins to think of the smelly little room as like a womb, as like Sara, as a stifling, smothering woman trying to fill with her the gulf left by the dead Tinker, as Sara tried to fill with her the lacuna in her life where she wished a child had been.
"Let me go," said Caroline.  "Auntie Sara, I'm all right, let me go.  I want to--please--"  
The story ends with gruesome and surreal scenes that perhaps strain the reader's credulity as Caroline fights for her independence.

As I have told you a hundred times I like stories about disastrous love relationships, and as I have told you several times I like stories in which a room and a character's feelings about the room, the way the room influences or reflects his personality, are described in detail (Proust of course does this, but an example closer to our classic SF hearts can be seen in Barry Malzberg's Herovit's World, in which Herovit's home office is described.)  So I was loving "A Room with a Vie" up until the end, which I think maybe went a little overboard.  When something impossible happens at the end of a weird or horror story, usually only one or a few people see it, or it turns out the viewer didn't really see it (he is insane or hypnotized), or there is some logical believable reason for it to have happened that makes it seem less impossible.  The thing that happens at the end of "A Room with a Vie" is witnessed by many people and is so unprecedented that it would be world news and change the way the whole of humanity looked upon life and the universe, and thus has a tone discordant with the rest of the piece, which is personal and small and realistic.

Despite my misgivings about the very ending, this is a good story and of course I recommend it.

"A Room with a Vie" was first published in New Terrors, an anthology edited by Ramsey Campbell with a cover that perhaps illustrates this very Lee story.  It has since appeared in two different Lee collections.

The cover illo of Arkham House's 1986 Dreams of Dark and Light is Max Ernst's La grande foret.
Joachim Boaz has a whole blog post on Max Ernst appearances on SF book covers that is worth
checking out--in the comments people talk about other modern fine artists whose work has
appeared on SF covers.
"Malevendra's Pool" by Darrell Schweitzer (1989)

This is a tragic story about knights in a medieval fantasy world in which people worship multiple gods and there are witches and monsters and so forth.  The main character and narrator, Vynae, is a crippled little boy who grows up in a war torn period, surrounded by ruined villages and soldiers and mercenaries and knights and refugees travelling back and forth.  His mother dies when he is young, and his father, an innkeeper, treats him badly, out of grief over his wife and frustration that his son is unhealthy.

Malevendra is one of the nine good gods, a goddess of sorrow and also, it turns out, vengeance.  Some few special people will encounter a vision of her pool, a pool made of her tears, and Vynae is one of those people.  The plot of the story follows Vynae's relationship with Malevendra, and Malevendra's relationship with two other broken people, one a witch who is raped by fighting men and with Malevendra's help seeks revenge on her rapists and on the world, the other a knight who seeks to atone for his sins.  This guilt-ridden knight acts as an intercessor between Vynae and Malevendra, and she heals the cripple and he starts his own career as a knight who fights in many battles.

This is a well-written, effective story that on the one hand sort of debunks chivalry and the glory of battle with its grimdark/anti-war elements, but still suggests that being a knight--a guy who pledges allegiance to a cause and some people and takes a million risks to maintain his oath and retain his honor--is something worthwhile.  I like it.

"Malevendra's Pool" first appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, a periodical I have to admit I'd never heard of before which ran for fifty issues between 1988 and 2000.

**********

Oy, it's one heartbreak after another out there, isn't?  Hang in there, kids--we'll be talking about more short stories from the late 20th century in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Stories by Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch and Donald Wandrei from Avon Fantasy Reader 9 (1949)


In our last episode we read a 1935 story by Clark Ashton Smith, "The Flower-Women," that in 1949 was reprinted in Donald Wollheim's Avon Fantasy Reader.  Let's read three more stories that appeared in that issue of the magazine, tales by people we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log: Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, and Donald Wandrei.

"The Man Who Never Grew Young" by Fritz Leiber (1947)

This story by the Grey Mouser scribe first appeared in a hardcover collection of Leiber stories published by Arkham House, Night's Black Agents.  "The Man Who Never Grew Young" has been widely anthologized and included in many Leiber collections since its first appearance, including in Ballantine's 1974 paperback The Best of Fritz Leiber.  I own a copy of the 1979 second printing of The Best of Fritz Leiber (purple cover, $2.25) that I got years ago at a book sale at the Des Moines Public Library's  South Side branch.  I am reading "The Man Who Never Grew Young" in that book, as the typeface is more comfortable for my 48-year-old eyes than that in the scan of Avon Fantasy Reader No. 9.

To my disappointment, this is a gimmicky story about time running backward.  Almost the entire text (like seven and a half pages in my 1979 paperback) is sentences like "I have seen Shakespeare unwrite the great plays" and scenes like those in which a weeping old woman goes to a funeral to watch her husband dug up and then he is taken to an embalmer to have embalming fluid taken out of his veins and blood put in and tedious sketches of history running in reverse, like how the Indians drove the white man out of the New World.

The narrator is a guy like John Carter who has lived forever; while everybody else rises from his death bed or from a battlefield or murder site and grows young and eventually climbs into his mother's womb, this dude is always in his mid-thirties.  His earliest memory is of living in the 20th (I guess) century, in the US.  It appears that a nuclear war caused time to run backwards, and the narrator has lived for thousands of years as history has regressed from the space age to the Bronze Age, and at the time of his relating this story it is the dawn of the civilization of Ancient Egypt.

There is no character, no plot, no feeling to this story, it is just an idea that, I guess, people find clever, and that, I suppose, is meant to inspire a reaction from the audience by exploiting our fear of nuclear war.  Leiber's effort to dramatize his idea is repetitive and silly.

Lame.

It looks like Damon Knight, Les Daniels, and Terry Carr
all liked "The Man Who Never Grew Young" a lot more than I did 

"The Unspeakable Betrothal" by Robert Bloch (1949) 

"The Unspeakable Betrothal" made its first appearance in Avon Fantasy Reader, which of course consists mostly of reprints, and in an intro Wollheim explains why.  He (Wollheim) was editing a book for Avon, The Girl with the Hungry Eyes and Other Stories, and Bloch's "The Unspeakable Betrothal" was supposed to be in it, but had to be cut for space reasons.

Since its debut the story has appeared in many Bloch collections and anthologies, and I read it in a scan of Marvin Kaye's 1995 Angels of Darkness: Tales of Troubled and Troubling Women.  You've come a long way, baby.

If the Fritz Leiber story we read today is a below average example of his work, we are fortunate in that "The Unspeakable Betrothal" is an above average specimen of Robert Bloch's writing.  The story moves quickly, and Bloch does a good job of describing its setting and the protagonist's feelings, and of mixing Lovecraftian horror with the ordinary horror of our lives, and of maintaining a level of ambiguity about the heroine: is she a victim or a hero, should we bemoan what she is doing as a catastrophic error or admire her for taking charge of her own life?

The plot:  As a little girl Avis (for once Bloch's wordplay is legitimately clever, as this girl gains the ability to fly) preferred laying in her bed and looking out the circular window high in the wall of her top story room to playing outside or reading books.  The wind that came through the window caressed her, and through the window she pretended she could see other worlds--she told the stories of those other worlds to a little boy, Marvin.  As time went by, on nights without a moon, she began to hear voices, see visions of impossible creatures; these beings wanted her to join them on Yuggoth, and she wanted to go with them, but they warned her that for her to come with them, they would have to alter her body, and as payment for helping her she would have to surrender something of herself to them.  She agreed, and one night her aunt and uncle, with whom she lived, found her perilously perched on the edge of the open window, which was much too high for her to have reached by any ordinary means.  They saved her from falling to her death, boarded up the window, and forced her to start playing outside and acting more like a regular kid.

I am totally in love with Tom Barber's
cover illo for this edition of
Mysteries of the Worm; the croc and the
bones are great, but the sunlight and shadow
on the walls are what really sell it
Avis grew up, went to college, Marvin and her got engaged.  But then her aunt and uncle died in a car wreck, and Marvin was sent overseas as part of his military service, leaving Avis alone in the big house.  She has the boards over the round window removed, and renews her relationship with the voices.  When Marvin gets back, eager to marry Avis, she is ill with a sickness no doctor can really understand, and she tells Marvin she doesn't want to get married, that she doesn't belong "here," like he does, but "somewhere else."

Can Marvin stop her from going to Yuggoth?  What form could her trip there possibly take?  What do the aliens want in return for aiding her?  Should we admire Avis as an individualist or feminist who is choosing a life of adventure over the boring domesticity of late 1940s American suburbia, or pity her as a dupe about to be exploited by merciless entities from another universe?

Bloch often disappoints me, but here he does everything just right.  "The Unspeakable Betrothal" works like clockwork--everything makes sense logically and emotionally and the story and individual passages are just the right length, with the right amount of detail and mystery.  Nine out of ten (spoiler alert!) decapitated starry-eyed young ladies!

"The Painted Mirror" by Donald Wandrei (1937)

Wow, this story first appeared in Esquire!  Fancy!  You can see what the original text looked like, as well as the painting of a woman in pink lingerie, black stockings and white heels (hubba hubba) on the page facing the story, at the Esquire website.

A child, Nicholas, is son of a man who owns a pawn shop.  Dad's business practices are a little odd; among other things, he will run a shop in one town for a year or two and then pack up and move to another town.  Nicholas is fascinated by old things and likes to hang around the shop and imagine the story behind each item, weaving elaborate tales about them.

One day Nicholas discovers that the door to the attic of the current location of the shop is unlocked, and he visits the attic for the first time.  Among the old junk and cans of paint and dried up brushes up there, apparently left by previous tenants, is a mirror whose surface is painted black.  A curious kid, Nicholas finds a chisel and commences the tedious project of scraping the mirror clean.  This takes some days, but luckily Dad has not noticed that the attic door has been unlocked and Nicholas can get back up to his little project day after day.  Instead of seeing his own face in the mirror, Nicholas sees a barren landscape interrupted by a cave mouth and a figure, a little girl like an "elfin princess," fleeing the cave!  This mirror is a window into another universe!  The image appears still at first, but Nicholas realizes that in fact it is moving at a very slow pace.  Over the course of a few days the beautiful little girl seems to take notice of Nicholas and begin running towards the mirror, her face, originally contorted with terror, taking on a look of hope.  When the lovely figure finally reaches the mirror Nicholas touches it, expecting some kind of wonderful friendship to ensue, but instead his soul is sucked into the slow and horrible mirror world, and an alien soul seizes his own body.  From within the mirror, Nicholas watches, powerless, as his own body takes up a can of black paint and paints over the mirror, trapping Nicholas, perhaps forever in the world of the mirror.

Not bad.

"The Painted Mirror" was first reprinted in the Arkham House collection The Eye and the Finger in 1944, which was translated into French in 1977.


**********

Of these three, the Bloch is the real find, though for us students of the weird and early 20th-century SF the Leiber and Wandrei are also important texts.

More short stories will be judged without fear or favor in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Clark Ashton Smith's "Vulthoom," "The Dweller in the Gulf" and "The Flower-Women"

In 1972 Ballantine published a paperback collection of short stories by Clark Ashton Smith entitled Xiccarph.  Editor Lin Carter explains in his introduction that Xiccarph collects stories that are set on alien planets and thus are, nominally at least, science fiction stories, though they have the sorts of plots and are written in the style we associate with weird fiction.  Carter suggests that writing weird stories set on alien planets is a real innovation of Smith's--"a miniscule sub-genre all his own"--and that only Smith himself and C. L. Moore ever worked in this sub-genre truly successfully.

In 2020 you can read Xiccarph for free at the internet archive, which is what I am doing.  I have already read three of the stories Carter included in Xiccarph, "The Monster of the Prophecy" which I thought fun, "The Planet of the Dead" which I declared acceptable and "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," which I thought was terrific.  ("The Planet of the Dead" appears in Xiccarph under the title "The Doom of Antarion.")  Today we'll read three stories from the volume that are new to me.


"Vulthoom" (1935)

"Vulthoom" made its debut in an issue of Weird Tales that also presented a reprint of Edmond Hamilton's "The Monster God of Mamurth," which I wrote about in 2017.  "Vulthoom" was the second most popular story in the issue, after the Hamilton reprint, according to Sam Moskowitz's research.  "Vulthoom" was included in the 1948 Arkham House collection of Smith stories Genius Loci and Other Tales and a 1951 issue of Donald Wollheim's Avon Science Fiction Reader.

Haines and Chanler are Earthmen who, through bad luck, find themselves penniless on Mars, living idly in the red planet's main commercial city and sole space port, Ignarh.  These guys are fascinated by Martian culture, and while exploring the eerie native quarter, where few Earthmen dare to go, lose track of time and get caught on the wrong side of the canal after nightfall!  As they hurry back towards the bridge to the modern quarter they are met by the tallest Martian they have ever seen, a native ten feet tall!  He wears the insignia that indicate he is the servant of a noble, and tells them their master would like to discuss a business arrangement with them.  H and C follow this guy into a building and take a long elevator ride, down down down into a mysterious subterranean city inhabited by Martians all of whom are as tall as their guide.

Down here they are taken to a room in which a giant flower sits on a tripod.  They hear a voice--the voice of Vulthoom!  Vulthoom tells them that he is a being from another dimension, a refugee from a far superior civilization forced into exile in our universe by implacable enemies.  He landed on Mars in his now inoperative space ship when Earthmen were little more than monkeys.  He set up this underground metropolis and chose from among the native Martians those who would be his servants, granting them stupendous longevity, not unlike his own.  Vulthoom's alien biology is such that he stays fully alert for a thousand of our years and then sleeps for a thousand years--his uplifted servants have the same sleep cycle.  Over the millennia Vulthoom has interfered but little with the Martians on the surface, who have come to regard him as legend, as an evil god worshiped by pariahs--for his part, Vulthoom says he is no god and that to him the word "evil" has no meaning.

After this background stuff, Vulthoom gets to the point.  "...I grow weary of Mars, a senile world that draws near to death; and I wish to establish myself in a younger planet.  The Earth would serve my purpose well."  His servants are building another spaceship right now to bring him to your favorite planet and mine, and Vulthoom wants H and C to precede him to Earth and organize cults of worshipers who will welcome him when he arrives.  In return they will receive money, the elixir of longevity, and flowers whose scent is a powerful narcotic.  By increasing the temperature of the chamber Vulthoom activates the flower, sending the Earthers on what we might call a psychedelic trip that has Chanler experiencing "an indescribable ecstasy."

The men have 48 hours to decide if they will become Vulthoom's proselytizers, and it is implied that, should they refuse, things will not go well for them.  They are given freedom of the subterranean city while they consider Vulthoom's offer, and try to escape via an ancient dry underground river bed.  When their escape attempt fails the Earthmen make a terrible sacrifice in order to retard Vulthoom's emergence, triggering the city's thousand-year sleep--the two humans are caught up in the thousand year slumber, from which they, with their puny lifespans, will never awake alive.  Before they all slip into dreamland, Vulthoom tells H and C that their sacrifice has been pointless, that in ten centuries he and his followers will take up their plans, the passing of time having seemed like no more than a single night to them, while H and C will be no more than dust.

This is a quite good one.

The 1972 British edition of Genius Loci and Other Tales features
the hideous visage of Man's most diabolical enemy, the Bat! 
          
"The Dweller in the Gulf" (1933)

This one first appeared under the title of "Dweller in Martian Depths" in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories.  Gernsback earned a reputation for not paying for the stories he had purchased and even printed, and Clark Ashton Smith was among those he stiffed.  In an April 24, 1935 letter to William F. Anger, H. P. Lovecraft discusses Donald A. Wollheim's article in a fan club newsletter exposing Gernsback's unethical practices, and tells Anger that while Frank Belknap Long thought the unpaid sum owed him by Gernsback for 1930's "The Thought Materializer" was too small to bother dragging  in the lawyers, "Others I know--including CAS--have recovered cash from the Rat only through legal action."  (Lovecraft and Smith's nickname for Gernsback was "Hugo the Rat.")  In a letter Lovecraft sent to F. Lee Baldwin on January 13, 1934 he covers some of the same ground, and in a footnote to that letter in 2015's Letters to Robert Bloch and Others, editors David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi inform us that Smith hired lawyer Ione Weber to collect $769 owed him by Wonder Stories.  Whoa, that's real money!

Three Earthmen are prospecting for gold on the same Mars upon which "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" and "Vulthoom" are set.  A sandstorm leads them to take shelter in a cavern, and within they discover a staircase carved into a cliff face that leads down into a stygian abyss.  In the interest of science, they leave behind their scaly Martian pack animals and descend the staircase.

Smith does a masterful job describing the horrendous adventures the three men suffer down in that black hell beneath the surface of the red planet: the hideous sights, the creepy sounds, the mounting suspense that culminates in the final horror!  Captured by a lost race of pale Martians only five feet tall whose eyes are missing and who move as if in a stupor, like "automata," the three prospectors are taken down into the lightless bottom of the abyss, where a pyramidal temple sits beside a dark pool.  The exhausted adventurers meet a fellow Earthman who was captured years ago--his clothes are mere ragged scraps and his "white beard and hair" are "matted with slime...full of unmentionable remnants."  Yuck!  This guy, whose eyes are also missing, introduces them to their new lives--they are in luck, today there is a ceremony!  Everybody, Martian and Earthman, zombie-like troops up the temple steps to the altar, where sits a small idol wrought from a unique material into the shape of their god, the Dweller.  All must caress the idol--this has a narcotic effect, and everybody lies down to dream.  The Earthers dream they are sharing the consciousness of both their fellow worshipers and of the Dweller himself--in a disturbing moment they experience the feelings of both the Dweller and one of his faithful as the god eats his follower alive!  When the prospectors awaken they see the half-eaten corpse of their predecessor and fellow human as well as a trail of bizarre footprints between the carcass and the pool!

Shocked out of their lethargy, the three adventurers flee up the steps, but do they have any chance of escaping the Dweller, a monster as big as an elephant that can climb up the cliff wall with its array of uncanny appendages?

This is a great story--the tone is quite fine, all of Smith's descriptions, such as how the idol feels and the sounds of the Dweller's footsteps, are great, and the Dweller itself is a brilliant monster design.  Nine out of ten empty eye sockets!

"The Dweller in the Gulf" was first reprinted in Arkham House's 1960 Smith collection The Abominations of Yondo (from which I have already read many stories), and in 1987 Necronomicon Press put out a chapbook of an unexpurgated version of the story, a text I should track down one of these days.


"The Flower-Women" (1935)

Maal Dweb is the cruel and amoral dictator of a solar system of three suns and six planets; his seat lies on the planet Xiccarph, a fortress decorated with fifty-one beautiful women he has turned to stone (to preserve their beauty) and defended by robots ("iron automatons.")  A genius wizard, he has developed esoteric means of observing his domain and of travelling within it--these magical contrivances of Smith's are clever and charming.

Maal Dweb grows bored--his life has no more suspense, offers no more challenge.  So he decides to put aside most of his magical devices and travel to one of his planets, Votalp, to intervene in an interesting conflict.  The flower-women, vampires who are half-human and half-plant and suck the blood of those whom they seduce with their mesmeric singing, are being carried off, one by one, day after day, by seven flying reptilemen who are themselves accomplished wizards.

After making friends with the vampire women, who initially seek to drink his blood, Maal Dweb shrinks himself to pygmy-size and hides among the petals of the flower-woman he divines will be tomorrow's victim.  When the pterodactyl men rip her up by the roots and carry her off to their citadel, Maal Dweb goes along for the ride, successfully sneaking into the scaly sorcerers' laboratory.  He finds they are cutting up the flower-women and mixing the parts with other rare ingredients in a cauldron, brewing up a magical potion.  Maal Dweb sabotages the potion behind the winged wizards' backs, and when they return he defeats them in a head to head contest of sorcerous power, sending them backwards on the evolutionary scale (a gag we've seen Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett employ.)  Six of his enemies reduced to mere snakes, Maal Dweb arrests the devolution of the seventh at the point at which it is a sort of dragon that he can ride back across the countryside of Votalp to the spot where he can initiate the magical transfer back to his castle on Xiccarph.

"The Flower-Women" has plenty of fun images, but the plot is a little slight and Smith here doesn't achieve the heights of fear and drama we see in "Vulthoom" and "The Dweller in the Gulf."  Good, but not great.

"The Flower-Women" had its debut in an issue of Weird Tales with one of the most bland and boring covers to ever grace the magazine--there's no girl and there's no monster and only one author and story are touted and that story is a murder mystery.  A murder mystery?  Were people picking up Weird Tales in hopes of reading about some gumshoe dusting for fingerprints?

Donald Wollheim put "The Flower-Women" front and center on the cover of a 1949 issue of The Avon Fantasy Reader, complete with a cover showing one of the reptilian wizards dragging off one of the vampiric flower women.  The repetitive images of the two women with their flat expressions and the flat-looking depiction of the reptile lend the colorful cover illo a sort of collage aspect that is strange and unnerving and modern.  (We'll ignore the incorrect spelling of Smith's name.)  "The Flower-Women" was also included in the 1944 Arkham House collection Lost Worlds

 
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These stories are easy to recommend to fans of the weird; "The Dweller in the Gulf" is particularly gruesome and is to be commended for introducing a novel and terrific monster.  Bravo to C A S!