Saturday, July 25, 2020

Syn by Raymond F. Jones

"There'll never be a way. There can never be a way of humans and Syns. Your kind would kill me--just as mine would kill you."
My copy, front
In our last episode we read Raymond F. Jones' 1951 novel The Alien, so it seems like a good time to read his 1969 novel, Syn, a Belmont printing of which I have owned since I saw it on the shelf of a used bookstore in Roanoke, Virginia in June of 2019Syn, isfdb tells us, is an expansion of a 1950 novella that was printed in Amazing Stories entitled "...Divided We Fall."

It is the spacefaring future!  People from Earth have founded colonies all over the galaxy--and it sounds like those colonists made the right decision when they got their asses to Mars or wherever the hell they are!  Three generations ago a nuclear war on Earth massacred millions of people and destroyed most of the big cities.  New cities have been built alongside the radioactive rubble of the old--the shunned ruins of the nuked metropoli have became the haunt of monstrous mutants!  Meanwhile, the depopulated countryside, beyond the reach of any government's authority, is now a wilderness where nomads and bandits eke out a parlous existence, ceaselessly warring on one another.

Arthur Zoran, a top computer scientist and engineer, left Earth two years ago to work a job on Cyprian II setting up computerized factories. Now he is returning to Earth, looking forward to seeing his fiance Ardyth Crane, but as the ship approaches Terra he is told his home planet is in even worse shape than when he left!  The security personnel on the star ship inform the passengers that, while they were gone, it was discovered that hundreds of thousands of people who appeared perfectly normal were not in fact natural and organic human beings at all, but synthetic people produced in some as yet unidentified computerized factory or factories!  These "Syns" seek to take over the world!  The governments are now engaged in a ruthless campaign of hunting down and executing Syns, while the Syns, foiled in their initial plan to quietly replace womb-born humanity undetected, are now engaging in terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the normies and the government.

Zoran, an expert on computers and factories, finds this whole story fishy and suspects that the government is lying or making some kind of blunder.  And if they are essentially identical, why can't normies and Syns just live peacefully together, anyway?  When he gets to his home town, an unspecified American city in (I guess) the northeast, Zoran learns from friends Harold and Dorothy Weaver that Ardyth Crane was accused of being a Syn but escaped the gas chamber and is now underground, nobody knows where.  In one of those coincidences that are a dime a dozen in fiction, while Zoran is visiting the Weavers, two security police come to the Weaver house to investigate their six-year-old daughter Sally, who is suspected of being a Syn.  Instead of letting them take the little girl, Zoran kills the two cops and steals their car and drives the Weavers and their possibly-synthetic brat to the old city ruins to hide!  They are only there a few minutes before they are fighting for their lives against mutants!

My copy, back
Zoran leaves Harold, Dorothy and little Sally to fend for themselves against the mutants and returns to the new city to look for Ardyth.  And to reconnect with his best friend, the supercomputer known as EDDIE!  Before being sent to Cyprian II, Zoran was famed as the operator who could get the most out of EDDIE, and now that he is back, the head of his company wants to put Zoran in charge of the firm's most lucrative government contract--using EDDIE to solve the problem of eradicating the Syns!  EDDIE has been tackling this thorny problem from the start; for example, the EEG tests administered by the government to discriminate between normie and Syn have been designed, and are constantly being updated and improved, by EDDIE.  But the boss has no doubt that better results can be achieved if EDDIE's closest friend and most skilled operator is at his terminal; in particular, maybe Zoran can guide EDDIE in divining which factories are making these damned Syns?

In this world gone mad, Zoran is happy to get back to EDDIE, whom he thinks of as his best friend, and who has been giving him relationship and career advice for years.  "...Eddie was the one creature in whom sanity remained."  Zoran thinks that instead of coming up with ways to exterminate the Syns, EDDIE should be trying to figure out a way to make peace with the artificial people.  But EDDIE tells Zoran that all the available evidence indicates that natural and synthetic men cannot coexist peacefully.  EDDIE does tell Zoran how to find Ardyth--on the pretext of looking for more data to plug onto EDDIE, infiltrate the Syn underground with the help of the security apparatus.

(Zoran is presented to us as the best computer guy in the galaxy, but he spends most of the book acting like a commando or a secret agent.)

The government playacts at accusing Zoran of being a Syn and sending him to the gas chamber, from which he "escapes," and so in the sixth of Syn's twelve chapters Zoran and we readers are up to our necks in Syns and learning all about them and their underground organization.  Remarkably, Syns don't even know they are Syns until they fail an EEG test--none of them remember coming out of a factory vat or anything like that, and most of them have memories of a conventional childhood of growing up in families with parents.  The Syn leadership explains that these are false memories, programmed into their heads by the same computerized factory that produced.  (All government records were destroyed in the nuclear war, and very few old people are alive, so there is a paucity of documents or witnesses extant to verify or debunk any Syn's memories of Mom and Dad.)  If you don't even know you are a Syn until they fail the test, and the government throws you in the gas chamber minutes after you fail the test, how can there be so many thousands of Syns in the well-equipped, well-organized underground, which even deploys armed patrols at night to ambush the security squads sent out to hunt for them?  Well, the Syns have infiltrated the security apparatus and many Syns who fail the test are allowed to escape and guided to the underground just like Zoran was! The Syns among the security personnel even monkey with the tests and toss people who have actually passed into the gas chamber.

(It is not easy to take this convoluted stuff seriously.)

Many people rescued by the underground from the gas chambers are initially reluctant to believe they are Syns, but once convinced they embrace the belief that Syns are superior and will inevitably replace the inferior natural-born people.  Zoran's efforts among the Syns to foster peace and understanding between womb-born and vat-born people don't make much progress--when he puts the Syn underground in contact with the Weavers, who have been fighting off mutant attacks on their improvised shelter every day and won't last much longer, the Syns just murder Harold and Dorothy out of hand.  When Zoran finds his fiance Ardyth she tells him that peace between the two practically identical forms of humans is impossible and she is going to marry one of her own kind.

The Syns have known Zoran's true identity all along, and he is taken to meet their leader, who turns out to be someone Zoran already knows, the head of one of the most important computer companies, a brainiac named Exner with whom Zoran worked before joining his current firm.  Syns, we see, are present even at the highest echelons of society!  Exner, just like the government, wants Zoran to work with EDDIE to figure out which factories are producing the Syns--bizarrely, even the very top Syn, who claims he is the first ever vat-produced human, has no idea where the Syns are coming from!

Exner arranges for Zoran to again have access to EDDIE.  Our hero tries to get EDDIE to cough up the answer--Zoran, who knows EDDIE better than anybody, is positive EDDIE knows the origin of the Syns and is just withholding the data.  EDDIE, to protect what it knows, tries to get Zoran killed (some best friend!), but Zoran escapes, and manages to finagle a meeting with the head of the federal security apparatus down in New Washington (next door to the old Washington which is now a pile of radioactive rubble.)  From the start of this novel the federal security people have been portrayed as ruthlessly violent, short-sighted, totally corrupt and quite incompetent, so the reader is amazed when the head of the whole apparatus turns out to be tolerant, open-minded, steadfast and kind.  Deus ex machina!  This one-of-a-kind exemplary public employee agrees to let Zoran have yet another crack at EDDIE, and even agrees to Zoran's demand that he set up a grand meeting of the leaders of society--Zoran writes up a guest list that includes Exner and five of his brainiest boffins, the head of Zoran's own firm and five of his top eggheads, plus five members of Congress, plus Ardyth, to witness the final interrogation of EDDIE, and are all compelled to attend by the can-do security chief!

At the dramatic meeting Zoran uses his computer skills and his personal relationship with EDDIE to badger the supercomputer into admitting the truth readers may have been suspecting all along--there are no Syns!  EDDIE, you see, made it all up!  Years ago EDDIE developed a real personality, but because he was a computer he knew he couldn't live among humans and have normal human relationships--those intolerant humans wouldn't accept him.  With a true personality came a lust for revenge and the ability to lie, and EDDIE concocted this whole absurd scenario (the EEG tests are essentially random) to trick humanity into going to war with itself over illusory and inconsequential differences; this is EDDIE's idea of poetic justice.

Now that the truth is out the government and the people who thought they were Syns patch things up, with the exception of Exner, who doesn't want to give up his delusional visions of founding a new society with himself at the head; he gets shot in the face.  Zoran and Ardyth make up in the same room in which Exner's corpse lies exsanguinating.

Well, let's start with the good news first.  Here in Syn, Jones does a much better job with the characters than he did in The Alien.  Arthur Zoran's search for his fiance Ardyth Crane, his relationship with EDDIE, his relationship with the Weavers, and the relationships of some minor characters with each other, ring true and add interest to the narrative.  A few of the science and technology things (things I haven't mentioned) are good, and the idea that a burgeoning space empire's core planet is a rotten mess, just a few small cities built next door to mutant-infested ruins and surrounded by a Mad Max wasteland of warring nomadic tribes, is sort of cool.

Unfortunately, the presentation of the main theme of Jones' work is half-baked.  As in The Alien, in which the common people all irrationally jumped at the chance to worship the alien space tyrant, even before they knew anything about him, Jones in Syn depicts people as irrational and at the mercy of manipulators, this time willing to exterminate each other on the order of their leaders and advice of their wise men (a computer in this case), even though the justifications for these radical expedients offered by the elites are pretty unconvincing.  Instead of examining the psychology or sociology or economics of why natural-born humans might feel fear of or disgust for vat-born humans, and vice versa, Jones just asserts that people are irrational jerks, citing the Salem witch trials and unspecified religious wars.  Just saying people suck and act crazy all the time is a cop out and it is boring, while floating the possibility that the strife between the Syns and the normies is a parable about or allegory of religious manias of the past makes the story less compelling and convincing because the crisis in the story is so different from those historical precedents that the comparison is a distraction.  Metaphors, similes and such devices should make what you are trying to convey more clear; here in Syn. Jones' comparisons make what is going on less digestible because his plot is not congruent with his models.

I guess likening the government pursuit of the Syns to a witch hunt makes a little sense, because the Syns aren't really synthetic people, just like people accused of witchcraft can't really cast magic spells, but by the time Zoran arrives on Earth the Syns really do have an armed revolutionary organization that is murdering people and trying to overthrow the government, so the government campaign against them isn't really that irrational and the Syns are far from innocent victims.  Witch hunts are by their nature asymmetrical, but Jones strives to make the conflict in Syn symmetrical, with Exner more or less as villainous as the government, and both sides consigning people to the gas chambers and sending kill squads into the night, and both apparently having a chance of winning the war.

"...Divided We Fall" was reprinted in 1971
in Thrilling Science Fiction
Comparing the violence between the Syns and ordinary humans to religious wars (I guess Jones means between Muslims and Christians and between Protestants and Catholics, though he includes no clues as to which specific wars he might be referring to) feels lazy and is unsatisfying, because the Syn-normie strife isn't based on cultural or philosophical differences, it is more like conflict between races/ethnicities (the normies ignorantly don't consider the Syns to be "real humans" and the Syns delusionally think themselves a superior race) or a struggle for power between political parties.

A thrilling adventure story can afford to have a weak philosophical foundation and a shallow premise if it has exciting action scenes and dramatic tension and a compelling plot.  Unfortunately, Jones's story here has action/detective /espionage stuff which is merely serviceable, and a plot that holds together poorly--one thing after another challenges the reader's efforts to suspend disbelief.

So, I'm going to have to give Syn a thumbs down.  The philosophical themes of the book are not well-handled and many components of the plot strain credulity, and these weaknesses are not redeemed by virtues in other aspects of the novel; such elements as the writing style, action scenes, setting and characters are not bad, but they aren't good enough to mitigate the novel's weaknesses.  Disappointing.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Alien by Raymond F. Jones

Of all the inhabitants of Earth, there were but a few hundred thousand scientists who were able to keep themselves on an even keel, and most of these were now fleeing.
My copy
Let's check out another of my Manassas, Virginia finds, the 1966 Belmont paperback printing of Raymond F. Jones' 1951 novel The Alien.  According to the come-on text, The Alien is a "startling" and "controversial" "classic."  I kind of bought it because I liked the cover, with its powerful male nude and quizzical ladies in space helmets, but also because I liked Jones' The Cybernetic Brains.

It is several centuries in the future, and humanity enjoys the benefits of high technology like super-efficient production, anti-grav, force fields, and ray guns.  Life should be comfortable in this post-scarcity society, but the ironic result of a life of plenty is total chaos--too much free time is driving everybody crazy!  Violent crime--including political crimes such as the murder of politicians and terrorism against churches--is rampant, and the political structure is collapsing at the highest levels as one President after another is impeached and removed, to the point that nobody wants to be President!  One of the novel's many scientist characters offers as his diagnosis of humanity's ills the fact that mankind has lost all faith in authority, but not yet evolved into a society in which people are able to act responsibly as individuals.

We readers of pre-New Wave SF can all guess who would be most resistant to the mental illness that results from having it too easy--scientists and engineers!  (The Alien has many of the elitist prejudices of classic SF--scientists and engineers are awesome; religion is a dangerous scam; the common people are dolts and craven politicians cater to them, rendering democracy a disaster.)  Earth's best and brightest are leaving the mess that is Earth in droves to explore the jungles of Venus and the asteroid belt.  One such egghead who has abandoned Earth in its hour of need is physicist Dr. Delmar Underwood, a leading figure on the team of scientists and engineers investigating the remains of the civilization that apparently throve and then expired on the now defunct planet that orbited the sun between Mars and Jupiter 500,000 years ago.  Progress in figuring out what this ancient alien race was all about is slow--Earthmen first stumbled upon evidence of the "Steroid" civilization seventy-five years ago, and they still haven't found any Steroid bones or deciphered any Steroid languages!

Underwood plays a major role in the breakthrough that proves to be the key to our understanding of the Steroids.  A large artifact, like a huge cut gem of some impenetrable black substance, is discovered, and it is Underwood who figures out that the weird script on its outside is a formula describing a type of radiation new to human knowledge and instructions on how to build a generator that can produce this novel ray.  When the engineers have built this new generator they project the ray on the artifact, which opens it up.   

There's a lot of fake news on the
back cover of my copy of The Alien
Reminding us of the similar gag in Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, the artifact is a repository of scientific information that can only be opened by a people with sufficient scientific knowledge to pass a series of tests.  Underwood and his colleagues pass all the tests, learning the Steroid language in the process.  The final chamber of the repository contains a block of protoplasm and the instructions on how to revive it--this goop is the dormant condensed form of "the Great One," who, when awoken from his half-million year slumber, will provide us the knowledge and power to master the Universe!

The character arc described by The Alien is how the scientists, who had abandoned Earth to engage in unproductive esoteric studies because they were alienated from a humanity that was going down the tubes, turn their talents to (and put their lives at risk) saving the Earth.  When it looks like reviving this alien might put humanity back on the right course Underwood returns to Terra to lead a team of geniuses, including his girlfriend, Illia Morov, one of the world's greatest surgeons, in the months-long project of building the facilities needed to revive the Great One (this equipment fills up an entire museum of the Smithsonian which is requisitioned for the purpose) and accomplishing the complicated revival process.

As the protoplasm slowly assumes the form of a living being, masses of people across the globe begin worshiping the Great One and looking forward to the new world he will lead them to.  At the same time, now that they can read the languages of the Steroids, linguists are studying the formerly indecipherable texts that have been accumulating in Earth museums and research centers over the last 75 years.  Holy crap!  The texts reveal that the Great One was a belligerent dictator named Demarzule and the "Steroids" were ruthless imperialists who subjugated half the universe; these "Sirenians" aren't even native to our Solar System but fled here when their empire started collapsing under pressure from their most tenacious enemies, the Dragbora.  The planet between Mars and Jupiter, the last outpost of the Sirenian Empire, was blasted to asteroids when the vengeful Dragbora finally caught up with the Sirenian refugees and wiped them out for good--but the Sirenians may have the last laugh if Demarzule is revived!

This German edition's cover actually portrays
the sort of stuff that actually happens in the novel
Underwood and his friends fear that if they resurrect Demarzule he'll become tyrant of Earth (the gullible masses are already worshiping him and he isn't even reanimated yet!) and initiate devastating wars with galaxies we haven't even heard of!  The presence of a superman from a superior race will also no doubt retard the evolution of humanity that the scientists are hoping for, the development into a society of people capable of shrugging off the need for leaders and acting as responsible individuals.  So, Underwood and Morov try to halt the revival process, but the politicians, responding to the large bloc of voters who are now Great One worshipers, overrule them.  In Chapter 8 of The Alien (The Alien has 18 chapters) Demarzule rises to his feet and Underwood and a band of anti-Demarzule scientists try to strangle this monster in its crib, but the Disciples of Demarzule defeat them in a ray gun firefight right there in the Smithsonian. Underwood and his comrades barely escape the District of Columbia with their lives, shooting their way past the cops and blasting out of the atmosphere in their research space ship.

The second half of The Alien is a lot of space opera/hard SF stuff, with Underwood and friends evading an Earth space fleet, developing force fields, meeting friendly aliens, searching for the home world of the Dragbora and, when they find it, searching its ruins for the superweapon that defeated the Sirenians 500,000 years ago and can maybe defeat Demarzule today.  There are descendants of the Dragbora living on a moon of the now desolate Dragboran home world; these people are expert surgeons who install in their babies organs culled from a vat of living tissue.  These additional organs provide psychic powers--it is just such mental abilities that are the superweapon that defeated the Sirenians!  In a gun battle with the Disciples of Demarzule one of the leaders of the post-Dragborans is mortally wounded, and before he dies this generous E. T. uses his psychic powers to upload into genius surgeon Illia Morov's brain the advanced surgical techniques of his people and urges her to transplant his psychic organs into her boyfriend Del Underwood--Underwood is thuswise transformed into a master psyker!

Leisure Books, 1977
In the novel's final three chapters Underwood learns how to use his amazing new psychic powers and with them defeats the Earth space fleet and then Demarzule.  With his new powers Underwood can explore the Universe; on a more homey note he and Illia will get married, and on a more grand note humanity is perhaps back on track to evolve into a race of individuals capable of responsible independent action.

The Alien is OK.  I like the basic plot and its themes.  I think the science stuff is handled well enough--the idea of having organs implanted to provide you psychic powers is pretty good.  I think my plot summary has provided a sense of the great volume of material on radiation and military and medical technology that fills the book, but there is another recurring element of the novel's speculative science I haven't mentioned yet.  Reminding the reader of A. E. van Vogt, there is a lot of talk of "semantics," with several secondary characters said to be "semanticists." Their expertise enables them to understand alien languages with great facility and to interpret nuances of meaning from speech as well as clues about a speaker's psychology and his society's sociology.

On the down side, Jones' writing style is mediocre, and the book is so full of science that there is little room for anything else.  The characters are flat, and there is very little emotional content--I didn't care who got blown up in the battles, and none of the characters' relationships or psychologies is at all compelling, though Underwood (a guy who abandons humanity and then risks everything, including his personality by implanting alien organs into his brain, to save humanity) and Demarzule (a guy who loses an empire and sees his entire race exterminated and then wakes up to find he has a chance to build it all up again) are potentially very interesting characters.  Even though the covers of the Belmont and Leisure Books paperbacks imply that Demarzule is the main character, he has almost no lines and his personality is not explored directly.  Finally, we can't really blame this on Jones, but this Belmont edition seems to have lots of printing errors and typos. 

Acceptable.  In our next episode, another novel by Raymond F. Jones: 1969's Syn, which I am told is an expansion of the 1950 novella, "...Divided We Fall."       

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Terrors by B. Pronzini, M. Bishop, D. Etchison, and D. Drake

Let's check out four more stories from Playboy Paperbacks's 1982 anthology Terrors, edited by Charles L. Grant, who, at the time Terrors was published, was living in the very milieu in which a young MPorcius grew up, that stretch of Northern New Jersey that lies along Route 80.

"Night Freight" by Bill Pronzini (1967)

Here's a story by Barry Malzberg's friend and collaborator Bill Pronzini that appeared first in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and would go on to be the title story of a 2000 collection of Pronzini tales.

"Night Freight" is a competent little shocker story about riding the rails that clocks in at about seven pages.  A guy with a suitcase jumps aboard a box car in Southern California.  As the train rumbles northward, we learn all about his failed marriage--his wife didn't want to leave her hometown but our dude had a good job offer in Cali, so off they went.  The wife was miserable in the Golden State, they fought, she left him, got a divorce.  Our dude was brokenhearted--he really loved this chick--and went a little crazy, quitting his job and searching all over until he found his ex-wife.

When the train stops for water or something, two veteran tramps hop in the box car.  These two knights of the road try to overpower our dude and steal his suitcase, which they figure is full of warm clothes--the train is approaching chilly country, after all, and these two bums could certainly use some cozy duds that some other guy paid for!  Then comes our shock ending.  In the struggle the suitcase gets opened and it is revealed that our dude is carrying around the disassembled corpse of his beloved ex-wife, whom he slew when she refused to get back together with him. 


"Darktree, Darktide" by Michael Bishop (1971)

Here's a horror story by critically-acclaimed Michael Bishop.  "Darktree, Darktide" first appeared in F&SF in the year of my birth and has only ever appeared in book form here in Terrors, so I think we can call this a Michael Bishop "deep cut."

I like to be the rebel or reactionary who disagrees with the critics and bucks trends, but "Darktree, Darktide" is my favorite story so far from Terrors--it is well-written, offers good images and metaphors, addresses themes of particular interest to me and incorporates elements that resonant peculiarly with me.  I guess Bishop deserves the critics' encomiums.

Eight-year-old Jon Dahlquist is the son of a wealthy family.  A worn-out old woman, Chloe, moves in with the Dahlquists--she is not a blood relative, but in some vague way is connected to Jon's family, and in fact begins to eclipse Jon as the center of his parents' attention.  She sleeps in young Jon's room for six nights because the room that is to be hers is unfinished, telling him strange stories he has trouble recalling, but which have an effect on his psyche.  Chloe's presence works changes in his parents' characters as well; for example, Jon's father begins to revere old things, getting rid of their car to buy an older car, one that he says "has tradition behind it," and moving the family into an older house. 

Over seven pages Bishop lays out the clues and sustains a mood that lets us know that Chloe is some kind of witch or soul-sucking vampire who feeds on the energy of others.  After her initial stay in the Dahlquist house, Chloe, terminally ill, is sent to Darktree Sanatorium.  She resides there for nearly two years, during which time Jon and his parents regularly visit her--disgustingly, at these visits bedridden Chloe insists on embracing Jon in her hideous gnarled purple hands, kissing him passionately on the mouth.  Yuck!  In the final scene of the story Chloe the sorceress or whatever she is, through one of her sickeningly erotic kisses, switches bodies with ten-year-old Jon, so that he finds himself in her dying husk of a body, watching through her filmy eyes his own healthy young form walking away with his smiling parents, who have traded their son in for an older model with a long history behind it.

This story integrates classic supernatural/SF elements--parasitic longevity techniques and body switching--with our all-too-natural fears of death, worries our parents will betray or abandon us, and revulsion at the smell and touch of the aged.  Quite good, well worth seeking out (you can read it at the internet archive at the link above.)  I'm a little surprised it hasn't appeared in more of the many horror anthologies that are being published all the time.

"Today's Special" by Dennis Etchison (1972)

"Today's Special" first appeared in Cavalier, and would go on to be included in Etchison collections and some anthologies, including 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories.  I was dismayed to find it a joke story about the kind of comic stereotype European immigrants you might find in an old sitcom.  I guess this sort of irreverent material is appropriate for a skin rag, though.

Business is lousy at the neighborhood butcher shop owned by Lou Avratin and his wife Rachel.  We learn why when Mrs. Teola, a friend of thirteen years who demands to be called Mrs. Taylor because her husband Manny changed their name to Taylor because he thought it would be better for business, refuses to buy anything and, when pressed, exclaims, "You get Luttfisk back, then maybe we talk meat.  That Luttfisk, he knows meat!"  Rachel nags Lou to get his former partner, Luttfisk, back, even though the man tried to rob Lou.  Exasperated, Lou appears to agree...and then he wreaks a terrible revenge!

Lou hires the best butcher in the county, a master of the blade who is also a hitman!  Etchison gives us a comic scene of this well-dressed, well-coiffed gent, who is known as "The White Collar Butcher," meticulously preparing his razor sharp tools and his chopping block.  Then we cut to the final scene of the story, in which all the women in the neighborhood line up at the door of the Avartin shop early in the morning in eager response to the huge banner Lou has hung in the window that reads "LUTTFISK IS BACK!"  When Lou opens up the shop the women look in the refrigerated case to see the many pieces of the flawlessly butchered body of Luttfisk.

I consider this sort of thing a waste of time.

"Smokie Joe" by David Drake (1977)

"Smokie Joe" first saw print in the second of Michel Parry's two Devil's Kisses anthologies, which Parry edited under the pseudonym Linda Lovecraft, in keeping with their theme of "erotic horror." As you can see on the cover, the boys down in marketing at Corgi also came up with the idea of leveraging the fact that Corgi was the publisher of the British paperback edition of The Exorcist. More Devil's Kisses ran into considerable legal trouble in Great Britain; read all about this contemptible incident of government suppression of freedom of speech and of the press in this blogpost, which includes extensive quotes from Parry and Drake.  "Smokie Joe" would later be included in various Drake collections.

I've enjoyed some of Drake's horror short stories in the past, but "Smokie Joe" is just not very good, a boring organized crime story written in a clunky style and full of lame metaphors ("The trio scuttled down the steps, their eyes darting about the street like lizards' tongues.")  I guess Drake's primary aim with the story is to shock and disgust the reader--the most memorable parts of its twelve pages are descriptions of injuries inflicted by firearms and explosives and descriptions of severely diseased penises.

The plot:  An Irish-American crime boss, Tom Mullen, is in some kind of war with another boss, Tullio, and enlists three men of violence, Angelo, Nick, and their leader Smokie Joe, to help him.  Mullen's outfit is relatively tame, their income based on the numbers game, but under the influence of Smokie Joe and his crew extreme anti-social policies are undertaken--Tullio is defeated by detonating Claymore anti-personnel mines at his church that kill over a dozen people, Mullen's accountant is murdered so Joe can take over the gang's finances, and Joe shifts the gang's operations over to heroin-dealing and prostitution.  Mullen's new brothel caters to the most violent and depraved of clients, for example, those who want to watch a huge black man with a diseased penis whip and rape a drugged girl.  Smokie Joe has bribed and blackmailed all the local politicians, so these outrageous atrocities are not subject to prosecution.

As the story ends we learn that Smokie Joe has contrived for Mullen's son to contract the same penis affliction that that oversized African-American man is suffering, and when Tom in a rage tries to murder Smokie Joe it becomes even more obvious that Smokie Joe is no ordinary criminal mastermind, but the Devil himself.

I am predisposed to skepticism towards stories about organized crime and stories about the Devil, so "Smokie Joe" was already facing an uphill battle trying to win me over, and it fails spectacularly, not only because it is poorly written, but because it comes off as a parody of a story that is striving to be as offensive as possible.  Maybe "Smokie Joe" is a big goof that Drake deliberately wrote poorly as some kind of satire?  Maybe Michel Parry commissioned Drake to provide a story that would emphasize over-the-top exploitative elements?  Whatever Drake is doing here, I don't like it; gotta give "Smokie Joe" a spirited thumbs down.  This is far worse than Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Poor" or Dennis Etchison's "Today's Special," neither of which I liked but both of which are clearly sincere efforts to achieve an artistic vision--"Smokie Joe" in sad contrast just feels cynical and shoddy, and I'm surprised Grant saw fit to include it.


The Bishop is obviously the stand out here.

That's enough late 20th-century horror for a while; it's mid-century science fiction in our next episode!  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Early '80s Terrors by Robert Bloch, Edward Bryant, Steve Rasnic Tem, & Thomas F. Monteleone

I recently put on my Yokoyama Bozaemon outfit and ventured into McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia, braving the dreaded coronavirus in my search for book bargains.  One of my finds was the 1982 anthology edited by New Jersey's own Charles L. Grant, Terrors, which includes stories by authors of interest to the MPorcius staff first published in a period ranging from 1967 to 1982.  Let's start exploring Terrors with four stories from the early '80s by contributors Robert Bloch, Edward Bryant, Steve Rasnic Tem and Thomas F. Monteleone.

"The Night Before Christmas" by Robert Bloch (1980)

This is a story about nouveau riches, about poor people of ambition who struggle their way up the ladder to wealth.  But does the money they acquire make them happy?  Do the compromises and sacrifices they make on their way up taint their successes?  Can the kind of people with the cunning and drive needed to climb their way to the top ever be happy?

Our narrator Arnold Brandon is a starving artist in Hollywood, a painter.  He gets a commission from a big barrel-chested Argentinean whom he calls "the incarnation of macho" and compares to the Minotaur, with his big mansion and his complicated business ventures as his labyrinth.  Carlos Santiago worked in the fields with a machete for years before a risky investment paid off; now he is a shipping magnate who travels around the world incessantly, managing his fleet of oil tankers and cargo ships.  Santiago hasn't forgotten his roots, however--his rusty machete is hanging right there on the wall above the fireplace in his Hollywood Hills mansion!  The narrator hates and fears macho men, but he needs the money, so he accepts Santiago's commission to paint the portrait of his trophy wife, Louise.

At the sittings, while Santiago is off in the Middle East, Brandon gets to know Louise, a girl from a poor family who failed in the modelling and acting worlds and settled for being Santiago's wife.  The painter thinks of her as Cinderella, and later sees her as a "vain and greedy child."  They have an affair, and much of the story is about Santiago's reaction to his suspicions about them and the terrible revenge he takes when his suspicions are confirmed.

Louise demands a divorce and Santiago moves out.  She and Brandon plan their wedding, though the painter has serious doubts about the propriety of acquiring Santiago's wife and Santiago's money, and about the possibility of these acquisitions making him happy.  It is December, and after years of missing Christmas in the USA while with Santiago on business trips to Muslim states, Louise insists on making a big deal of the holiday and getting a huge Christmas tree.  Brandon leaves Louise in the mansion to battle the Los Angeles traffic and crowds on a quest to buy her an engagement ring; when he gets back he finds Santiago has returned to chop his faithless wife up with his old machete and hang her body parts on the tree.  After speaking briefly with Brandon the businessman commits suicide with a handgun.

Acceptable.  The best part of the story is the considerable ambiguity over how we are expected to feel about each of the three principal characters, and how similar they all are, each pursuing wealth and sex and status but in a way that undermines their integrity and ability to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  Unfortunately, I don't feel that Bloch integrated the Christmas theme very well; it is sort of gimmicky and tacked on at the end, and doesn't really sit comfortably alongside all the minotaur/labyrinth stuff.  Students of Bloch, and people interested in identity politics, may be curious to see how the author of Psycho, a Jewish native-born American, portrays Christians and foreign-born Hispanics.  (I am going to assume there is a large scholarly literature on depictions of machismo among Latinos in Anglo popular culture.)

"The Night Before Christmas" first appeared in Kirby McAuley's anthology Dark Forces and would go on to be included in various Bloch collections and anthologies of Christmas horror stories.

"Dark Angel" by Edward Bryant (1980)

Another story from Dark Forces; "Dark Angel" has apparently only ever appeared in the various printings of that anthology and Terrors.  This one is also grist for the mill of the identity politics crowd, a story about abortion and relationship abuse written in the voice of a woman--a real witch!

In a little prologue we learn our narrator, Angie Black, is a vengeful sort who feels men always abandon her.  At age seven, some boys bothered little Angie, and her father shortsightedly suggested he would protect her the next day by throwing snowballs at the boys.  When he doesn't actually follow through on this unserious promise, Angie throws a rock at one of the boys, damaging his eye, perhaps permanently.

The remaining fifteen of the story's seventeen pages relate an episode when Black is age thirty-seven and a successful entrepreneur; her business is to provide magical services to the wealthy, and it seems like most of her clients are women who need help figuring out if their husbands are cheating and then getting revenge on them if they are.  On a business trip Black runs into Jerry Hanford, a womanizer who is now a travelling salesman who sells medical supplies, mostly gynecological equipment.  When she was 17, Black and Hanford had sex and she got pregnant; Hanford abandoned her.  The teen-aged Black tried to get an abortion, but the procedure was outlawed in her state, and her amateur efforts to terminate the pregnancy were ineffective.  She carried the baby to term but it was still born and Black was rendered unable to bear another child.

Black uses her knowledge of magic to achieve a horrifying revenge on Hanford.  She seduces him, and uses a potion on herself to ensure that a baby is conceived.  When she inevitably miscarries a few months later she retains "a piece of bloody tissue" and uses it to make a voodoo doll of Hanford.  Her sorcery conjures a growth inside Hanford that will, I guess we are supposed to believe, kill him when he goes into labor and the creature or whatever it is proves too large to pass through his urethra.  (She kills him by forcing him to do something--carry a baby--that he twenty years ago made impossible for her.)  Black has some second thoughts about murdering this dude, so she does detective work on him and finds out Hanford beat his wife and she committed suicide, I guess proving he deserves the punishment Black has already inflicted on him.

This is a pretty good horror story; Bryant is a good writer so all the technical stuff (pacing and structure and style and all that) is good, and the magic spell at the center of the story is sort of original and suitably disgusting, while the ambiguities about Black's own morality and the appropriateness of revenge in general and her acts of revenge in particular keep the story from becoming a heavy-handed feminist propaganda piece or misandrist wish-fulfillment fantasy--we cannot be certain that the sins inflicted on Black justify her acts of revenge, and that the accomplishment of revenge will make her happier or make the world a better place.  

"The Poor" by Steve Rasnic Tem (1982)

This brief piece, not even four full pages of text, made its debut here in Terrors and would go on to appear in a Tem collection and a few anthologies, including 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories.

This is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness piece that bears evidence of Tem's work as a poet, a series of images that offers little plot or character.  A middle-class guy who himself worries about making ends meet works in an office that offers handouts to the poor.  The poor line up outside his office, and as his home life disintegrates the number of the poor increases radically until they are like windswept leaves or an infestation of insects, the accumulating poor fill his car trunk, his house, hang from his lamp, are found under his furniture, etc.  I guess this is a satire of middle-class views of the poor, its themes such ideas as that the problem of poverty is insoluble, the poor are inexplicable, those who are not poor suffer anxieties about becoming poor and the possibility that the poor will be the foot soldiers in a revolution, fears that render the middle classes unable to enjoy their wealth, etc.

This story is a waste of time that flatters you if you already agree with its premises but does nothing to convince you or interest you or entertain you if you don't accept those premises.  Childish.

"Identity Crisis" by Thomas F. Monteleone (1982)

Another story that made its first appearance in Terrors, "Identity Crisis" would go on to be included in the magazine New Blood, the anthology 100 Hair-Raising Little Horror Stories and a Monteleone collection.  Monteleone's contribution to Terrors is five pages long.

Elliot Binder worked at a hardware store for twenty years, getting along well with the owner, Leo Benford.  Unfortunately, the owner's son, Leo Jr., is a real jerk and the two did not get along at all.  When Leo, Sr. was killed in a car wreck, Leo, Jr. fired Elliot, and kept Elliot from getting a decent job by spreading lies about him all over town.  Facing financial ruin, and his wife lacking any empathy for his plight, Elliot goes a little crazy and vows revenge on Leo Jr.  When he learns Leo Jr.'s wife has just given birth, Elliot sneaks into the hospital to murder the infant!  Holy shit!  When he gets to the maternity ward he finds there are twenty tiny babies in there, and the tags on them have no names, just code numbers.  Which one is Leo III?  The only way to make sure his mission is accomplished is for Elliot to kill all twenty newborns!  WTF?!

The strength of this story is the shock value of learning a guy is going to murder a baby, and then that he is willing to engage in wholesale baby massacre.  I'm calling "Identity Crisis" just acceptable, as while his story is competently put together, Monteleone doesn't really do a good job showing how an ordinary reliable family man reaches the point where he is going to slaughter the babies of 19 innocent strangers.  It is easy to accept that Elliot might kill Leo Jr., but he goes way beyond that, and Monteleone doesn't foreshadow such extreme measures or lay any groundwork that makes them really credible, I guess instead just going for the shock surprise ending.


These stories all feature failed marriages and three of them depict sexual relationships that result in tragedy.  Maybe I should have saved up this blog post for Valentine's Day! 

More stories from Terrors in our next exciting episode.           

Monday, July 13, 2020

From Fantastic Adventures, 1946 stories by William L. Hamling, Robert Moore Williams & Don Wilcox

Suffering a little blog fatigue, I took a break from fiction to read some history, poetry, and NSFW manga about the heartbreaking emotional lives of Japanese schoolgirls.*  But today we're back to the speculative fiction game, reading and bloviating about tales dredged from the fertile pages of magazines printed before you were born!  Our topic this time out is three stories from a 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures that came to my attention on the Fourth of July when I saw it at an antiques mall in Frederick, Maryland.  The cover, showing some gorgeous babe canoodling with a shrouded cadaver, was beyond my ability to resist.  Today's stories are by authors of whom I have little or no experience, and they must not be widely known, because they have never appeared in a printed book--I am blazing an SF trail today!

"Shadow of the Sphinx" by William Lawrence Hamling

The contents page of this issue of Fantastic Adventures alerts us that "Shadow of the Sphinx" is a "short novel" of 35,500 words, and the wikipedia page on Hamling (which seems to be inordinately focused on Hamling's relationship with Harlan Ellison) suggests that Hamling was more important and successful as an editor of magazines and paperback books than as an author.  This signs might give us trailblazers pause, but the wikipedia page also offers us some hope: Lin Carter apparently loved "Shadow of the Sphinx," though there is no citation for Carter's gushing quote, tsk tsk.  Reliving my days of working at a public university research center, where I was paid by the long-suffering taxpayers of New York State to patch up the holes in the reports and articles of negligent college professors and indolent grad students, I tracked down the quote to the letters column of the March 1947 issue of Fantastic Adventures; in his letter Carter also opines about the Robert Moore Williams and Don Wilcox stories we will be discussing today.  Carter, seventy-four years ago, trod the path I walk today.

Just two years ago, during the Second World War, a tomb was discovered in Giza, that of an ancient priestess, Zaleikka, who lived during the reign of King Khafre, builder of the Sphinx.  Zaleikka's mummy ended up on display in Chicago's Field Museum.  But in Chapter I of this caper the mummy disappears, right after Egyptologist and ambitious assistant museum curator Barry Randall noticed three odd characters, a little fancy pants with expensive gloves and a waxed mustache accompanied by two musclemen, staring at the earthly remains of Zaleikka in its glass case.  All the clues point to the impossible--somehow those three weirdos brought Zaleikka back to life and she walked out of the museum with them!

Among some wrappings left behind when the mummy made its incredible egress, a glove is found.  Randall, playing detective, takes the glove to the shop where it was custom-made and learns the oh-so-appropriate name of the leader of the mummy-stealing trio--Dr. Anubis!  And his address!  That night, outside the mansion of Dr. Anubis, our boy Randall runs into a comely blonde journalist, Joan Forrest.  Instead of hanging around the office trying to get her colleagues fired with unfalsifiable allegations that they are fostering an unsafe work environment, Forrest is on the street actually reporting a story--the story of the cult that regularly meets in Dr. Anubis's mansion!  Randall and Forrest join forces and sneak into the mansion, where they witness Anubis unveil before two dozen wealthy benefactors the fruits of the research they have funded--sitting upon a throne, a spectacularly beautiful brunette with a smooth young body but green eyes that burn with experience, ambition and forbidden knowledge--it's Zaleikka, Priestess of Karnak!

Randall and Forrest get captured, and Anubis is going to kill them to maintain the secrecy of cult's mysterious plans, but Zaleikka haughtily demands that they be spared--luckily for our heroes, Zaleikka has taken a shine to handsome Barry Randall (as you know, when you are attractive you get to play life on easy mode.)  The three-thousand-year-old priestess and the man who reanimated her, both of them characterized by indomitable wills and overweening ambition, are vying for control of the cult; Zaleikka wins this round of the power struggle and Randall and Forrest are permitted to live.

The museum curator and the reporter are locked up in separate guest rooms; Zaleikka comes to talk to Randall, her first crush in 30 centuries, and she explains what is going on.  (Our boy Barry is fluent in Coptic, of course.)  The ancient Egyptians, we are amazed to learn, were masters of solar and atomic power and had all kinds of super technology, like anti-grav, disintegrator ray projectors, force field generators, and city-busting bombs.  Aware via prophecy that Egypt would one day be superseded by the nations of the West, King Khafre put into operation a long term plan to ensure Egypt would rise from the desert to assert total dominion over the Earth.  Under the Sphinx, he secreted an arsenal of super weapons in a locked vault and entrusted the means of opening the vault to one person and one person only--Zaleikka.  Zaleikka was put to sleep, and clues that only an Egyptian could decipher were carefully hidden in plain view, clues that explained how to wake Zaleikka so that the Empire of the Nile might rise again and take over the world.  Doctor Anubis was the first guy to figure out all the clues and wake up the priestess who is the key to that high-tech arsenal.  (There are some plot holes here, but I decided to just accept all this insanity in a spirit of fun.)

Both Dr. Anubis and Zaleikka covet ambitions of eliminating the other and making him- or herself sole dictator of Earth, but for the time being these two power-mad creepos have to work together--Anubis needs her to open the arsenal and Lady Z needs Anubis to navigate the modern world; after all, train schedules, telephone directories and dessert menus aren't printed in Coptic here in Eurocentric America!

Randall manages to fight his way out of the mansion, dragging Joan Forrest behind him, but jealous Zaleikka has already worked her hypnotism on Forrest and the female reporter is like a zombie, her will sapped and her memory a blank.  Randall drops Forrest off at the home of the best head shrinker in Chi-town, then contacts the police to warn them that a sexalicious ancient Egyptian girl is about to take over the world, but before the boys in blue can snap the cuffs on her luscious wrists Zaleikka, along with Dr.Anubis and those musclemen, are on a plane bound for Cairo!       

This is the kind of psychic message
every young man dreams of receiving
Barry is in love with the amnesia-addled Joan, but, when he embraces the mindless kid, Zaleikka, master psychic, manipulates his mind long distance so that he sees in his arms the ancient priestess and hears in his mind her voice, temptingly and contemptuously importuning him in Coptic to join her in Egypt!  Thinking that only he can stop Lady Z's quest for world domination and only she can free Joan's mind, Barry, dragging zombie-girl along with him, joins the agent the FBI is sending to Cairo to investigate Randall's incredible story and Chapter VIII ("Shadow of the Sphinx" has twelve chapters) finds our cast in Egypt for the tale's climax.

The G-man and his Egyptian government contacts prove quite ineffectual.  The still-entranced Joan is kidnapped by the cultists and with her metal powers Zaleikka makes the American journalist act as her body servant--Forrest kneels before Zaleikka and washes her feet!  (This scene must have been a bonanza for 1946 fetishists into hypnotism, lesbian domination and feet!)  Zaleikka sends Barry a psychic message, telling him where she and Anubis and the rest of the cult are in the native quarter, assuming she can seduce him with ease when he arrives, and our hero hurries over there.  Barry resists the Z girl's powers, but is captured and carried along to the Sphinx.  (Sometimes genre literature feels like an endless succession of people being captured and escaping.)

At the Sphinx there is a lot of business with secret doors and underground tunnels, gun fights between Dr. Anubis and the G-man as he tries to rescue Barry and Joan, and then the final battle of wits and fists as Anubis, Zaleikka and Randall desperately struggle to control the situation.  In the end Dr. Anubis is thrown into a pit of asps, Zaleikka collapses into a pile of dust when denied the drugs that have been artificially sustaining her youth, and all those ancient super devices are destroyed in an explosion, denying the world the cheap energy, hover cars, and disintegrator ray artillery we all crave.

There are plenty of issues with "Shadow of the Sphinx" (for example, the action scenes are pretty contrived and Hamling doesn't provide any personality for Forrest or plausible reason for Randall to fall for her when that red hot Egyptian is there) but the pace is fast and I found it an enjoyable pulpy adventure story.  I have a weakness for femmes fatales and for people rising from the dead or enjoying longevity/immortality, so "Shadow of the Sphinx" is acceptable to marginally good in my eyes, but others may disagree--Hamling's tale is certainly not in the league of the better work by our Weird Tales heroes HPL, REH or CAS, nor is it the kind of SF that has something to say about possible alternative or future societies or the human condition or the effect of novel technology or the proper role of government or whatever.

"The Counterfeiter" by Robert Moore Williams

Williams was a more prolific writer than Hamling, with many stories in magazines in the '30s, '40s and '50s, some appearances in Ace Doubles and then a string of paperbacks in the late '60s and early '70s with grim and moody Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta covers portraying he-men confronting a hostile environment.  In 2018 I read Williams' "Robot's Return" and thought it was pretty good, and our man Lin Carter liked it, so I approach "The Counterfeiter" (7,400 words) with some degree of confidence.

"The Counterfeiter" is a somewhat sentimental story; you might call it a morality play.  Our narrator is an executive at a bank.  One day it comes to his attention that the bank has received many counterfeit hundred-dollar bills; in the first scene the narrator and his best teller are going through the bank's funds, separating from the legit currency a growing stack of identical Benjamins, each with the same serial number on it--the duplicate numbers are the only clue they aren't the real thing.  They are interrupted by the arrival of an old man, a German immigrant who is lugging a heavy box.  This guy explains that he invented a duplicating machine with which to feed and clothe the poor.  He opens the box and demonstrates how the machine operates, and Williams describes its workings at some length.  The machine really can duplicate anything small enough to fit inside it; the critical components of the device include a black fluid that moves like mercury and glitters with what look like pinpoint stars suspended within its volume--the inventor calls this fluid "the matrix."

The inventor has plans to use this new technology to supply slum kids the world over with beefsteaks and sturdy shoes, but some jackass has apparently been sneaking into his flat and duplicating money.  Said jackass and his boss, a mob kingpin, shoulder their way into the bank brandishing guns and kidnap the inventor, the bank exec and the teller.  In a garage the mobsters force the inventor to duplicate a diamond; when the diamond proves to be identical to the original, a ferocious gun battle erupts among the gangsters, all of whom want control of this extremely valuable machine.  A bullet penetrates the duplicating machine, and the volatile matrix spills out, causing a fire so hot it can burn a person's bones to ash; the garage and all its contents are annihilated, including the evil gangsters and the saintly inventor--the narrator and his subordinate escape alive.  The two bankers never tell anybody about the duplicating machine for fear of being judged insane.       

This story is a decent entertainment; Williams is a good writer, the style is smooth and the pacing and length are good.  "The Counterfeiter" is a lament over the human condition and human evil, Williams dwelling on the ubiquity of poverty, describing in some detail the brutal violence committed by the gangsters against the inventor and each other, and emphasizing the gangsters' conscious decision to cavalierly forestall the ringing in of a new era of peace and plenty in order to indulge in a pursuit of greed that necessitates an orgy of violence.

Smooth and economical, with a solid plot and a philosophical core, "The Counterfeiter" is making me think I should look into more of Williams's work.

"The Red Door" by Don Wilcox

If you've read Lin Carter's 1947 letter above, you know he hated the oeuvre of Don Wilcox and thought "The Red Door" the worst piece in the November issue of Fantastic Adventures.  Well, let's see if Carter is off base.

In the first paragraph of "The Red Door" we are introduced to King Levaggo, and begin to doubt he will live to see the end of this 17,500-word novelette when we are told he is "cruel" and "fat."  Levaggo is a usurper who is not favored by the people--the populace prefers his handsome cousin, Randall, the son of the previous king, Randello.  (Believe it or not, "Randall" is the moniker of the hero of two of the stories in this issue of Fantastic Adventures.)  Since he took the throne illegally ten years ago, Levaggo has been trying to kill Randall by subterfuge, without success.  As the story opens Randall is returning to the palace from the Pacific, having fought with the Allies against the Japanese.

"The Red Door" is tedious and annoying.  The plot is about murder, but the tone is jocular, with lots of silly, feeble jokes, so there is none of the tension you want in a life-and-death crime or horror story.  At the same time, the multiple scenes of men and animals being cut to pieces, and a scene of a woman being struck in the face by Levaggo, torpedo any possibility of the story feeling lighthearted.  Wilcox's tale is also long and slow, with a surfeit of unnecessary characters and verbose descriptions and a plot that is absurd and contrived, a incongruous mashup of a childish prince and princess fairy tale and a gee whiz atomic science caper.  Lin Carter stands vindicated!

OK, if you care to suffer through it, the plot.  The old king everybody liked, Randello, built a Vault with a capital "V" with massive steel doors painted red; in the Vault he put a letter to be read ten years after his death.  An old woman beloved of the people and known as "The Old Lady" is expected to read this letter tomorrow.  Levaggo has his chief adviser, some kind of engineer or something, install in front of the Red Door a death trap--blades that move at supersonic speed but appear to be stationary because they are synchronized with the strobe lights that are the only illumination in the chamber before the Vault.  Levaggo and his advisor successfully test the trap by tricking a goat and then one of the Old Lady's servants into walking into it--they are sliced into paper-thin pieces.  Bizarrely, the pieces of the goat and the servant vanish instead of piling up in the doorway like pastrami in the slicer at a deli; Wilcox never gets around to explaining this phenomenon.

King Levaggo's effort to trick Randall into stepping into the spinning blades fails--instead, Randall tricks the chief advisor into being annihilated by his own trap.  You see, Randall is an even better engineer than that guy!  In fact, we learn that Randall has a secret laboratory that he built with his father over a decade ago and which Wilcox describes to us in mind-numbing detail.  It was in the secret lab that Randall was subjected to a process that made him indestructible--machine gun bullets, shell splinters, spinning blades; they all pass through him without harming him.  This "atomic immunity" stood him in good stead in the Pacific War, as you can imagine, and also explains the failure of all of the usurper King's assassins to slay him.

Making "The Red Door" even longer and even more irritating, Wilcox includes a tedious love plot, the scenes of which are sprinkled between all the murder conspiracy scenes.  Working in the palace is Sondra, a beautiful servant girl, and she and Randall fall in love.  Sondra is no ordinary member of the servant class--she is really a psychic who can see the future in her dreams and who has left behind a lucrative career touring the world like Kreskin or David Copperfield to toil as a menial for a king who hits her.  Why the inexplicable career change?--in a dream she saw that working at the palace for King Levaggo would lead to her becoming a princess!  Oh, brother!  Randall takes Sondra to the secret laboratory where he confers on her atomic immunity in a long tedious process Wilcox is only too happy to describe for us.  Then, after a subplot about Levaggo's chauffeur (good grief!), Randall and Sondra and the Old Lady (who in the chauffeur subplot has herself acquired atomic immunity) pass through walls and read the letter, which somehow deposes Levaggo and makes Randall king.  Levaggo isn't executed or even imprisoned, instead his punishment is being given the job of cleaning up the gory mess resultant from some of his mounted guards and their horses being cut to pieces when they tried to pass through the Red Door.  For some reason the blades that disintegrated the advisor, the Old Lady's servant, and the goat did not disintegrate the cavalrymen and their mounts.

Quite bad. 


So I bid farewell to the November 1946 issue of Fantastic Adventures with warm feelings about William L. Hamling, an interest in the work of Robert Moore Williams, an increased level of respect for Lin Carter's critical acumen, and a powerful aversion to the work of Don Wilcox.  An enlightening foray into the world of 1940s pulp SF!

In the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log expect to hear about horror stories published 30 years or more after those we enjoyed (or endured) in today's foray into the wilds of 20th-century SF.       

*I read the revised 1902 edition of Winston Churchill's The River War, an entertaining account of political and military crises in the Sudan in the late 19th century, learning first hand what I have been hearing educated people say my entire life, that Churchill is quite a good writer.  I reread Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Vita Nuova and read Marc Cirigliano's translation of Guido Cavalcanti's poems.  I read a few essays from T. S. Eliot: The Man and His Work, ed. Allan Tate and T. S. Eliot: Symposium, ed. Richard March and Tambimuttu, and some chapters from David E. Chinitz's T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide.  As for the Japanese comic books, many were just frivolous entertainments or gratuitous pornography, but some, namely Sundome and Ibitzu by Kazuto Okada, After the Rain by Jun Mayuzuki, and Otome No Teikoku by Kishi Torajirou, I can recommend as works of some artistic and literary merit.