Saturday, May 29, 2021

Robert Bloch: "The Opener of the Way," "The Secret of Sebek," "Return to the Sabbath" & "The Mandarin's Canaries"

Bopping around the isfdb, I saw that the 1963 Robert Bloch collection Horror-7 has had some pretty great covers.  This was all the spur I needed to continue my project of blogging about at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales printed in the 1930s by looking at stories that were reprinted in Horror-7 after first appearing in that famous magazine almost 30 years before.  I'm reading all of these in scans of the magazines available to one and all, free of charge. at the internet archive.

"The Opener of the Way" (1936)

"The Opener of the Way" was the title story of a 1945 Arkham House collection of Bloch tales and has appeared in a number of later collections and anthologies, among them The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology.  

Sir Ronald Barton is an archaeologist who has spent twenty years as a junior member of government expeditions in Egypt, digging up old tombs and so forth.  He feels he has never received the recognition and remuneration he deserves, and now is getting on in years.  So, from a recent dig Barton stole a three-thousand-year-old manuscript which presents a map to a tomb seven hundred feet beneath the desert that is purportedly full of treasure and details the sacrifices one must make and spells one must cast to unseal the tomb.

(The reader wonders why, if he wants to portray Barton as poor and unrecognized, Bloch makes the man a knight, which implies he was awarded an honor by the King of England in recognition of his services to the British people or that an ancestor had the money to purchase a baronetcy.)

The story describes Barton's expedition to the secret tomb with his son, Peter, focusing on Peter's skepticism and fear as dear old Dad sacrifices goats and jackals and chants spells and performs other outré and unsettling operations.  Once in the smelly old tomb, where looms an eight-foot-tall statue of Anubis, Sir Ronald admits to his son that he suspects the treasure in the tomb is an arsenal of superweapons and magical devices that he aspires to use to take over the world and revive the worship of the malevolent forgotten gods that reigned before recorded history!  Yikes!   

According to the ancient manuscript, to reveal the secret door to the treasure one must shift one's soul  into the statue and thusly animate it.  Sir Ronald attempts this risky procedure via self-hypnosis, and tragedy and horror almost beyond belief is the result!

This is a good story; the description of the door to the tomb is especially good.  Much better than Bloch's average--all the occult business is interesting, all the atmospheric stuff works, and Bob doesn't waste our time with dumb puns and lame social commentary and psychological blah blah blah, as he does so often in his later work.  One can see in Sir Ronald's career and desperate pursuit of power, and in Peter's reactions to his father's moral degradation and catastrophic risk taking, some psychological phenomena and maybe even comment on social relations (those between a father and son and a man and his government), but these elements are organic to the story and strengthen it, they aren't just obtrusively piled on top of the plot to dull and burden it the way Bloch's psychological jargon and jeremiads against our culture sometimes can.

Thumbs up for "The Opener of the Way."   


"The Secret of Sebek" (1937)

This story features the forbidden book Bloch invented to put up on the shelf next to Lovecraft's Necronomicon and Howard's Nameless Cults: Ludvig Prinn's Mysteries of the Worm.  The narrator of "The Secret of Sebek" starts the story off by telling us he suffers recurring nightmares because of what he saw in New Orleans while there working on stories about Ancient Egypt.

It is Mardi Gras, and after a long day slaving over a hot typewriter our hero goes out into the streets to get drunk and mingle with the party goers.  He is approached by a man dressed like an ancient Egyptian priest--this guy knows of the narrator's work and is himself a student of the occult.  He takes the narrator to a costume party at his mansion, where many people are dressed up as devils and monsters and so forth.  The guy introduces the narrator to his inner circle of fellow occult researchers, and they show the narrator their little occult library, which includes a copy of Mysteries of the Worm, and produce from behind a secret panel a mummy case, the markings of which indicate it contains the remains of a priest of Sebek, the Crocodile God of the Nile, to whom were sacrificed virgin maidens.

These priests of Sebek's mummies are said to be protected by crocodile-headed men, and just such a monster, which the narrator had seen among the partygoers but simply assumed was a guy wearing a mask, appears and kills our narrator's host by biting his throat, and then leaves.  The narrator flees New Orleans and since has been trying to forget the whole incident.

I have to give this one a thumbs down.  "The Secret of Sebek" is a little too obvious and too slow, with not much happening and too many long boring descriptions of New Orleans and the party, descriptions that I found didn't conjure up any images or emotions in my mind but were simply strings of characters that accumulated on the page before me.

"The Secret of Sebek" has been reprinted plenty of times, including in Bloch collections, volumes dedicated to Lovecraftian stories, and a mummy anthology.

"Return to the Sabbath" (1938)  

"Return to the Sabbath" appeared in an issue of Weird Tales that features one of the most widely reprinted Edmond Hamilton stories, "He That Hath Wings," a story that tells you maybe you shouldn't deny your true nature in order to please your family, and an Elak of Atlantis story by Henry Kuttner that I read before I started this blog.  (A good idea for a future blog post is one in which I address all four Elak stories, all of which debuted in Weird Tales.)  There's also a Clark Ashton Smith story with a great title: "Mother of Toads."  This looks like a good issue!

The narrator of "Return to the Sabbath" is a Hollywood PR guy.  He and a colleague, an assistant producer, are sitting in a low class theatre that shows short films between vaudeville acts and stripteases, and see an amazing horror film from Europe that the theatre was sent by mistake, Return to the Sabbath.  The film's lead, an Austrian who portrays a scientist who is buried alive and makes a pact with Satan and rises from the grave to wreak revenge, Karl Jorla, is so good the assistant producer tracks him down via phone and cable and hires him. 

Jorla arrives and our narrator learns the amazing truth--that foreign flick was so good because Jorla and the film's director are real devil worshippers and the black sabbath depicted was no act!  Jorla confides that Return to the Sabbath was never meant to be seen by the public, and the fact that it has been accidentally released has incensed Jorla's former friends in the Satan cult and they are searching the world for him with the intention of killing him.  He only accepted this acting job in Tinseltown as a means of getting his ass out of Europe.  

Production begins on the movie that has been built around Jorla's persona, but Jorla and the narrator fear the agents of Lucifer will get him before the film can be completed, and Bloch gives us a decent build up and pretty good horror climax.  

Entertaining.  Film buffs might appreciate all the references to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and other horror cinema icons.  Another above-average effort from Bloch, "Return to the Sabbath" has been reprinted many times in English and in translation.  

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"The Mandarin's Canaries" (1938)

This story depicts an Imperial China whose ruling elite is corrupt, authoritarian, arbitrary, and cruel.  Worst of the monsters who misrule the Chinese people is the Mandarin Quong, a sadist whose main source of joy is inflicting and observing pain.  He is a connoisseur of pain who is even writing a scholarly treatise on pain!  At Quong's direction people unlucky enough to live under his jurisdiction are arrested and convicted on trumped up charges so he can seize their wealth and then thrill at the sight of them being tortured to death among the orchids in his Garden of Pain.

Years ago some Portuguese missionaries came to visit Quong.  They brought with them some canaries.  Quong had the two priests crucified, and the freed canaries became regular visitors to the Garden of Pain; somehow, the birds took to eating the flesh of the corpses that are a daily fixture of the Garden.  Over the years the canaries multiplied, until today they number in the thousands; in half an hour the flock strip the flesh off a man who hangs dead on a cross or lies dead on a rack or is slumped against a tree, perforated by crossbow bolts, leaving him a gleaming white skeleton.  After their daily feast of human flesh the canaries congregate in the trees and sing a beautiful song that brings tears to the eyes of Quong.  The local people fear these birds as symbols of the Mandarin's absolute power, and come to believe they carry the souls of those they have devoured.  

Such is the background of the story.  The plot concerns the greatest crossbowman in China, whom Quong hires to torture people by shooting them a dozen or more times without killing them.  This soldier has a beautiful wife, whom Quong appropriates.  After enjoying her a few times he gets angry at her one day and kills her and the canaries eat her flesh.  The crossbowman turns the tables on the Mandarin, inflicting upon him the torture of being shot repeatedly but allowed to linger, alive, in agony.  The Mandarin, surprisingly, then turns the tables on the soldier, affixing him to a tree with a crossbow bolt and summoning his canaries, who kill and eat the soldier.  But then the canaries attack the Mandarin as he lies bleeding to death, and the Mandarin's last thoughts are the suspicion that this is because the souls of the soldier and his wife are animating the birds.

"The Mandarin's Canaries" is an exploitation story that seeks to leverage our prurient interest in torture, our fears of being cuckolded, and our fears of foreigners (or maybe just foreign rulers) who don't share our values (to put it diplomatically.)  It would be easy to dismiss the story as vulgarity, xenophobia,  cultural appropriation, etc., but that is not my bag--I'm more interested in whether or not the story succeeds as a piece of literature or entertainment than in measuring its fealty to the attitudes of the au courant.   

The background sections, which form over half the story's page count, I think do work at creating a horrible character and horrific setting.  Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really work.  How is the soldier able to just overpower and torture the Mandarin--aren't there any guards?  How is the Mandarin, as he is bleeding to death after being punctured by dozens of crossbow bolts, able to overpower the uninjured soldier who minutes earlier easily manhandled him?  If the Mandarin's victims' souls can animate the birds, why did they do his bidding for years--shouldn't they identify with the Mandarin's victims, not the Mandarin?  Why did the flock seek vengeance on Quong at the end of the story, and not earlier?  I can't help but think Bloch could have come up with an ending that wouldn't be so full of holes and would do a better job of presenting his themes.  

(As a side note, it is interesting to compare this story to Clark Ashton Smith stories which are basically similar in that they are about sadists torturing people, e. g., "Isle of the Torturers," but are set in some fantasy land and so are less susceptible to being called racist.)

I guess I'll call "The Mandarin's Canaries" "acceptable" because it is sort of crazy and never boring, and scholarly types might consider it an interesting example of "Yellow Peril" fiction as well as body horror, but the ending just doesn't work so I can't call it good.  The story has appeared in Bloch collections, but not in any anthologies, though the editors of Cavalier magazine in 1960 saw fit to include it in their publication along with (it appears) fun paintings of World War I fighter planes.    

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Dull and routine, "The Secret of Sebek" is a waste of time, but the other three stories are good or at least provide insight into the popular culture of the 1930s.  I haven't run a spreadsheet and I don't have a specific year that distinguishes "early" from "late," but I think on average over the course of this blog's life I have been finding Bloch's early work more rewarding than his later work.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Edmond Hamilton: "Murder in the Grave," "The House of the Evil Eye," "When the World Slept," and "The Door into Infinity"

We've spent weeks reading mainstream literature from Philip Roth and Doris Lessing, popular fiction by P. G. Wodehouse, pulp SF by such peeps as Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner and Poul Anderson, and "serious" literary SF by the likes of Brian Aldiss and Samuel R. Delany.  But I haven't abandoned my plan of reading a story from each and every issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s!  Today let's check out four stories by MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton first published in Farnsworth Wright's magazine of the bizarre and unusual in 1935 and '36.  These are what a DJ would call deep cuts, stories that, with one exception, were never reprinted in the 20th century and are still quite rare.  Of course, I am reading them all at the world's greatest website, the internet archive, and so can you.

"Murder in the Grave" (1935)

We've read two stories from this issue of Weird Tales already, Robert E. Howard's "The Grisly Horror" AKA "The Moon of Zambebwei" and Frank Belknap Long's "The Body-Masters" AKA "The Love-Slave and the Scientists." 

"Murder in the Grace" is the story of a carny, Walters, who is cuckolding one of his fellow carnies, Morden.  The main character's gag is to be buried in a roomy coffin ten feet underground for a week at a time; there is a foot-wide square tube connecting the coffin to the surface, and carnival customers pay to look down the tube into the lighted coffin to see Walters.  

One night Walters is lying in his coffin, sleeping, when Morden wakes him up by calling down the tube.  Having discovered his wife's infidelity, Morden shot her down and now has come to murder Walters by dropping a rattlesnake down the ten-foot tube and into the coffin!  

This story is actually pretty good if you want to read a claustrophobic piece about a guy's terror-addled mind racing as he tries to figure out how to escape certain death.  And there is a little twist at the end.  Thumbs up!  

"The House of the Evil Eye" (1936)

Here's another issue of Weird Tales we've already explored a little; we read Robert Bloch's "The Grinning Ghoul" in January of this year and Robert E. Howard's "Black Canaan" in June of 2019.  

"The House of the Evil Eye" appears under the pen name Hugh Davidson, and features the same character as Hamilton's other Hugh Davidson piece, "The Vampire Master," which we read in February: Doctor John Dale, specialist in fighting evil!

Our narrator is Harley Owen, Dr. Dale's assistant.  A rich guy from Tauriston, Massachusetts, Henry Carlin, comes to Dale's New York office to beg for help--his son Donald is a victim of the evil eye!  Dale gives a lecture on the evil eye.  A person, Dale relates, who makes a pact with "the forces of evil" can acquire the ability to sicken people by looking in their eyes.  Dale goes on to say that descendants of the person who made the pact will "inescapably" inherit this power, even if they are not evil themselves, which sounds like Lamarkism to me, but let's be charitable and figure making a pact with the forces of evil alters your genes.  After the lecture Carlin tells the story of how his son Donald became pale and weak and soon collapsed soon after he met and fell in love with a young woman from Tauriston's Italian neighborhood, Rose Mione.

Dale and Owen go to Tauriston's "dingy foreign section" to investigate; the Italian-American community there explains that the Mione family uses its power of the evil eye to dominate and abuse them.  A series of episodes demonstrates that Rose and her father Joseph are decent people who would like to be rid of the evil eye that prevents them from having healthy friendships with other people.  Joseph tells our heroes the story of his father Peter's career of evil in Italy and America and of his own dreadful discovery that he himself carried the curse of the evil eye and had sickened and killed his own wife, Rose's mother, simply by looking at her.       

The least convincing part of Dr. Dale's lecture at the start of the story was the idea that the person who made the pact with the forces of darkness could renounce the pact, giving up the power of the evil eye and even freeing his descendants from its curse.  (The idea that the forces of darkness would be so accommodating--once some evil god or devil has its hooks in you, would it really set you free if you just asked?--is a real weakness of "The House of the Evil Eye.")  Anyway, Dale uses this unlikely fact to save the day.  The good doctor and Owen ambush Peter Mione and tie him to a chair and Dale sits across from him, staring into his eyes.  (In a more exploitative tale, the lead villain who gets wrestled into a chair and tied up would be an attractive woman.)  Dale uses esoteric devices to channel the powers of good and the two have a stare-off, Dale trying to bend Mione's will, to force him to renounce his pact with the forces of darkness.  As this psychic struggle rages a violent mob comes to the Mione house to kill Peter Mione--this morning Mione used the evil eye to slay a teenaged girl and the local people have had it with him.  (As does so much fiction, Hamilton's story here argues that ordinary people, presented as a mob, shouldn't try to solve their problems themselves but rather rely on elites with credentials to solve their problems for them.)  Dale (and the forces of goodness through him) force Mione to revoke the pact just as the mob busts into the house; the strain of the spiritual battle kills Mione, which appeases the mob.  Joseph and Rose Mione are cured, their eyes becoming normal, so Rose and Donald Carlin can be married. 

As I thought of Hamilton's "The Vampire Master," I think "The House of the Evil Eye" might be better if it embraced conventional religion or mythology and had Satan and the God of Abraham as animating forces, or maybe Greek or Egyptian gods, or even just gods he made up as Lovecraft famously did.  Supernatural forces with some kind of emotional resonance among readers would be a big improvement over the vaguely defined "forces of darkness" and "benign forces" Hamilton invokes here without telling us anything interesting or affecting about them.

Acceptable filler.  "The House of the Evil Eye" might be interesting to cultural historians for its depiction of an early-20th-century New England factory town with its ethnic ghettos and the uneasy relationship between the WASPs who have lived there since colonial days and the Catholic population who arrived relatively recently to work in the factories.  Dr. Dale's expedition into the ghetto has something of an imperialist narrative to it--the Anglo man of science arrives and liberates the somewhat childish "other" (more or less decent and innocent people who are emotional, ignorant and not really ready for self-government) from their fiendish oppressors and shows them a better way to live; this story might serve as a piece of evidence in the debate over the thesis that, in the past, Irishmen, Italians and other European ethnicities weren't considered white by Anglo-Saxon Americans and German-Americans.   

In 2000, "The House of the Evil Eye" was reprinted by Haffner Press in its Hamilton collection The Vampire Master and Other Tales of Terror.

"When the World Slept" (1936)

This issue of Weird Tales includes stories by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C. L. Moore that, barring death, senility, or the total collapse of the internet, I will one day blog about.  But today we read Hamilton's contribution.    

For over a year now, all the responsible members of the establishment have been telling us that lab leaks don't happen, that world wide plagues are just a natural occurrence, not the result of the negligence of careless scientists, and that people who talk about lab leaks are dangerous renegades, bigoted conspiracy theorists!  Well, schedule Edmond Hamilton for cancellation because "When the World Slept" is all about a global epidemic caused by some boneheaded scientist letting germs get out of his poorly maintained laboratory!

Our narrator is Jason Lane, a twenty-something bacteriologist who, in his remote cabin in the woods of upstate New York, was reviving and fostering the multiplication of two different germs found dormant on a meteorite.  He injected the first sort of germs into a rabbit to see what would happen; when nothing happened he did the logical thing and injected them into himself, with the same lack of result.  After following the same process with the second germ culture and again seeing no result he did the emotional thing and angrily threw the vial with the second of the germ cultures out the window against a tree.

A few days later he notices that the birds aren't singing and the insects aren't buzzing and the grocery delivery guy hasn't delivered his Ovaltine.  (I'm just assuming that, like all educated people, he drinks Ovaltine--Hamilton doesn't actually give us Lane's shopping list.  Remember that A. E. van Vogt in his literary criticism has told us that SF is the type of literature in which there are gaps which the creative reader must fill.)  Lane explores the surrounding countryside and finds that every living creature is asleep!  Even germs are asleep!  When he goes down to New York City he finds that everybody there is also asleep!  The streets are jammed with cars, sleepers bent over their steering wheels.  The sidewalks are carpeted with sleeping men and women!  (Oy, imagine sleeping on all those cigarette butts--gross!)  Lane sees a pretty girl asleep on a park bench and falls in love with her!  He puts her in a wheel chair and starts pushing her around the city, propping her up in seats at restaurants, tucking her into hotel beds at night, talking to her like she is awake.        

In college one of Lane's hobbies was flying planes, and he finds a plane and flies all over the world, looking for somebody who is awake like he is; this reminded me of the behavior of the guy in M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud, which I read ages ago, and I guess is sort of the exemplar of these "last man on Earth" style stories.  (That guy has a ship or a boat, not a plane.)  Lane brings the sleeping girl with him everywhere.  After a year of finding no people awake he decides to commit suicide, and returns to his upstate New York cabin to end his life.  When he sees the broken vial of the second germ culture under that tree he realizes what we readers have known all along--he is responsible for everybody falling asleep and he didn't fall asleep himself because he had first injected himself with that first germ culture, which inoculated him.  He breaks open the vial with the first germ culture and everyone the world over is soon awake; well, except for all the people who fell asleep in airplanes or while rock climbing or whatever.  Adding to the happy ending is the fact that Lane is (God knows why) confident that the girl he has been lugging around for a year is going to fall in love with him.

"When the World Slept" is entertaining in large part because it is so crazy; it is hard to call it "good" because much of it is so incredible, though I would consider the scenes describing a New York in which everybody has fallen asleep and some of Lane's insane actions, like falling in love with a sleeping young woman, legitimately good.  A mild recommendation then, I suppose--it is better than my oft-deployed rating of "acceptable" because it has novelty.   

"The Door into Infinity" (1936)

We finish up with a Hamilton story that dominates the cover of its issue of Weird Tales (which also contains an August Derleth story we read in February, "Death Holds the Post.")  

Paul Ennis is a good-looking American, blond and blue-eyed, who was on his honeymoon in London when his wife Ruth was kidnapped!  The story begins in an office at Scotland Yard, where Inspector Pierce Campbell is telling Ennis that Ruth has probably been captured by "the most unholy and blackly evil organization that has ever existed on this earth," The Brotherhood of the Door!  This multicultural worldwide organization gathers in England around this time every year and kidnaps a bunch people; said people are never seen again, and rumor has it that they are tossed through a door to another universe as a sacrifice to extra-dimensional aliens!  This crime against humanity has been going on for decades, and somehow it has been kept out of the newspapers!  (Maybe this sheds light on the recent anti-free speech activism of certain mentally ill members of the British royal family.) 

Paul and Ruth may have had the bad luck to schedule their honeymoon to coincide with this yearly convention of people who worship aliens, but they have also had the good luck that, after investigating The Brotherhood of the Door for twenty years (no rush, bro), Inspector Campbell has just recently figured out where their headquarters in London may be--a dive bar on the docks owned by a "Hindoo" named Chandra Dass.  Campbell and a bunch of coppers disguise themselves and go to this bar to look for Ruth and they let Ennis accompany them!  

Hamilton gives us some decent action and horror scenes as Ennis and the bobbies try to search the bar surreptitiously, get captured, escape, then jump in a police cutter to chase Chandra Dass's motor boat up the Thames and into the Channel.  There is fighting against dagger-wielding Malays and numerous people are slain.  Our heroes discover the secret meeting place of the Brotherhood in a cavern by the sea, and get captured again and escape again, killing Chandra Dass in the process.  Ennis dons Chandra Dass's concealing robe and hood and infiltrates the sacrificial ceremony at which hundreds of alien-worshippers are in attendance.  Campbell and Ennis interrupt the sacrifice and rescue Ruth just as the alien beings' pseudopods are reaching through the door to snatch her away.  In the ensuing confusion they exterminate the entire assembled Brotherhood and close the door by triggering a cave-in from which they themselves, of course, manage to escape.

This is a decent Fu Manchu style story with added Lovecraft/Howard elements--there's even a pre-James Bond Bondian element in that Campbell resolves the plot by using special concealed spy gadgets.  I can mildly recommend this one.

**********

Despite their neglect from anthologists and collections editors, I think these four stories are pretty entertaining.  Viva Hamilton!        

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Plot That Thickened by P. G. Wodehouse

"Married men don't assert themselves, not if they know what's good for them."

I decided to read the sequel to P. G. Wodehouse's The Luck of the Bodkins while that 1935 novel was still fresh in my mind, and hunted it up on the internet archive.  The best available scan of the book was not of the 1972 British edition, entitled Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin, but the 1973 U. S. printing, which bears the title The Plot That Thickened.  

Monty has worked for Ivor Llewellyn's Hollywood studio for a year as the novel opens.  Thinking this year of labor will satisfy his fiancé Gertrude Butterwick's father (J. G. Butterwick doesn't want his daughter marrying some loafer, even a loafer like Monty who is rich through inheritance) he quits his job and returns home to England.  Alas and alack, Gertrude honors her father to a fault, and told dear old Dad how Monty got his job with Llewellyn: by holding hostage a piece of jewelry Llewellyn was smuggling into America at the behest of his domineering wife Grayce.  J. G. rules that this underhanded method of gaining employment invalidates Monty's year of work as evidence he is not a loafer; if Monty wants to get Butterwick's essential approval for his marriage to Gertrude, he will have to take on another job, and it is not like this goofball has many marketable skills.

In Hollywood, Monty had a beautiful blonde secretary, Sandy Miller.  Sandy fell in love with the good-looking Monty, and was shaken when he suddenly left the Left Coast for his old stomping grounds in London.  But Sandy is resourceful; she gets a job as Grayce Llewelyn's assistant right before the Llewellyns leave for a trip to England; she accompanies the power couple and, once in London, quickly tracks down the love of her life.  Sandy immediately does Monty a good turn: Grayce is badgering her husband into writing a history of his film studio, Superba-Llewellyn, and Sandy fixes it up so Grayce orders Ivor to hire Monty as his secretary for this project, which Ivor has no interest in doing and to which Monty has no ability to contribute (in The Luck of the Bodkins he proved unable to spell "inexplicable.")

There is a high volume of odd discrepancies between The Plot that Thickened, which was written at the dawn of the disco era, and The Luck of the Bodkins, written in the Thirties.  The Luck of the Bodkins was very much set in the 1930s--the Depression and Prohibition are mentioned, for example, and Sir Stafford Cripps gets a shout out.  But, even though it takes place just a year later, in The Plot that Thickened, we get mentions of TV studio audiences, Playboy magazine, and the stereotype of the Texas oil millionaire, things which I'm pretty sure did not exist in the 1930s.  It seems crazy for Wodehouse to have set this sequel. in which his characters are only a year older, in the 1970s, but he did it anyway.

Other discrepancies have nothing to do with the date but are changes to the characters which seem to have been made to accommodate the plot Wodehouse wanted to run them through.  In The Luck of the Bodkins, Grayce was described as "young and lovely," but here in The Plot That Thickened we find she has a daughter from a previous marriage who has already graduated from Vassar.  This daughter, Mavis, is even more domineering than Grayce.  In The Luck of the Bodkins, Ivor Llewellyn had never heard of Alfred Lord Tennyson, but in The Plot That Thickened, when describing the customary tyranny of woman, he says he fell in love with a schoolteacher when he was young and she forced him to study English literature.  There are additional jarring incongruities, in particular regarding Monty and Gertrude, that I won't list here. 

Anyway, Ivor and Grayce have rented an English country house, and they take up residence there along with their assistants Monty and Sandy.  Mavis is worried that burglars will steal a pearl necklace (a different necklace from the one smuggled in The Luck of the Bodkins), so Mavis insists her mother hire a private detective to guard them; this detective will pretend to be Ivor's valet and also serve as Grayce's spy, reporting to Grayce if her obese husband goes off his diet.  The private dick Grayce hires is none other than thief Chimp Twist, who appeared in Ice in the Bedroom, a Wodehouse book I read back in 2015.  Ivor and Grayce have also foolishly befriended the other thieves from Ice in the Bedroom, the married couple Soapy and Dolly Molloy, and invited them to come stay in the country house.

One thread of the plot concerns the thieves' efforts to seize the necklace; Monty's life is complicated by the fact that Mavis suspects Monty of being in league with the thieves and Ivor actually hopes the necklace will be stolen, because it is an almost worthless string of "Japanese cultured" pearls, he having sold the real ones given Grayce by her first husband so he might have some ready cash--he needs cash because his bank account is a joint one and Grayce watches it like a hawk and would never approve expenditures on Ivor's hobbies, like gambling and drinking.  And Monty's life is already complicated, because the other main plot thread is how he has fallen in love with Sandy and lost interest in Gertrude, but feels he has to go through with his marriage to Gertrude because a Bodkin must keep his word.  In the end the criminals end up with the almost valueless pearls, Ivor is liberated from his oppressive marriage to Grayce when she demands a divorce (in The Luck of the Bodkins Ivor feared divorce but in The Plot That Thickened he welcomes it) and Gertrude calls off her engagement to Monty and he immediately gets engaged to Sandy.  Don't worry about Mavis and Gertrude; they also get engaged (to offscreen characters.)

The Plot That Thickened is not bad; I laughed and the style is pleasant.  But it is not as good as The Luck of the Bodkins--I am not terribly interested in crime story shenanigans being played for laughs, and Sandy, Mavis, and the three thieves are not nearly as fun as Lotus Blossum and Ambrose Tennyson, and there are none of the silly little touches like the pet alligator and the Mickey Mouse plush toy that enlivened The Luck of the Bodkins.  I also found the changes to the characters and setting kind of annoying.  Oh, well.  I'll probably be sticking to Wodehouse's earlier work in the future.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

1953 stories by R Bloch, T Sturgeon, M Leinster & M Reynolds

On a table at a flea market in Chambersburg, PA recently, I spotted a plastic bag containing two issues of Universe Science Fiction, a magazine edited by Ray Palmer that endured for ten issues in the 1950s.  There was really no reason to buy them, because you can read every issue of Universe at the internet archive, and when I had finally succeeded in wrestling the two magazines out of that single bag I saw that the cover of the second one was covered in a matte white film, as if it had been accidentally spray-painted.  As I gingerly scraped at this film with a fingernail a tiny white spider crawled around the spine and across the front of the magazine.  I blew the spider away and, after taking a brief look the magazines, tried to get them back into their bag.  This operation proved impossible.  I tried putting them back in together, then one at a time, but the task was beyond me, even with that extra room afforded by the absence of the spider.  The whole time I was struggling with this puzzle the owner of the assorted treasures on the table was watching me, which added to my anxiety.  When it became clear that I was never going to get these 70-year old magazines back into their plastic tomb without further damaging their already mangled corpuses, I decided it would just be easier to buy them.  The seller knocked a dollar off the price scrawled on the green circular sticker affixed to the bag (maybe in recognition that the spider was no longer included) and so I left Chambersburg with two issues of Universe, including the very first, only three bucks the poorer.  So let's read 1953 stories from our old acquaintances Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, and Mack Reynolds.

"Constant Reader" by Robert Bloch

Bloch of course is famous for writing about psychology, and "Constant Reader," in part, is about the psychological stress of being a spaceman crewing an exploration vessel.  For months at a time five men are cooped up in a small ship together, getting on each others' nerves as they seek out new worlds, then orbit them and send down a drone to take sensor readings and photographs of them.  Bloch does a good job of describing just such an operation and the mental toll it takes on the spacemen, and the feeling of release when the narrator and his four shipmates have the opportunity to land on a dusty desert planet dotted with ruins and finally stretch their legs after two months aboard ship.  The stuff about the spacers' joy at being back on terra firma actually reminded me a little of Ray Bradbury.

That first part, about half the story, is good, but the second half is mediocre, and is not really thematically connected to the first half--all the interesting technology Bloch described, and all the psychological stuff, is abandoned.  The crewman who narrates the story is a bookworm, and has brought three books with him on the trip to help pass the time.  The dead planet of dust and ruins that they land on, he eventually surmises, is home to an intelligence that is divorced from organic matter or conjoined with the planet itself.  This immaterial intelligence tried to read their minds and failed, but somehow managed to read the narrator's books.  The alien intelligence considers the Terran explorers a threat, and seeks to destroy them, and does so by bringing to life characters from the three books, Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.   

After the rigorously logical and believable beginning, I was pretty disappointed by the story's cheap and nonsensical ending--if the intelligence can just create matter out of thin air, and even give it life, why does it need to read the books at all to kill the astronauts, much less make monsters that resemble Lilliputians and Polyphemus?  In Ray Bradbury stories natives will make Mars look like Earth in order to trick Earthmen, but if the natives just want to kill you they have no reason to make your killer look like something out of an Earth book.

I guess averaging out the entire story leaves us with an acceptable rating for "Constant Reader."  "Constant Reader" would be reprinted in a a number of Bloch collections, including Atoms and Evil, and several anthologies, among them The Space Magicians.   


"The World Well Lost" by Theodore Sturgeon

"Theodore Sturgeon's most daring story" promises the cover of the first issue of Universe Science Fiction.  Well, let's cross our fingers and see if Sturgeon can cash the check Ray Palmer wrote out in his name.

It is the future of interstellar travel in which most Earthpeople spend their time watching TV and using drugs and electronic stimulation to get high.  Two aliens land on Earth, aliens who are in love with each other and who also love the Earth.  Their love is contagious, and they cause a sensation.  Just seeing these two lovebirds on TV who can never take their eyes off each other, who can never keep their hands off each other, makes you feel again the way you felt the first time you kissed a girl, Ted tells us. 

A computer reveals the secret of the lovebirds--they are fugitives from planet Dirbanu!  Dirbanu is a planet of aliens more advanced than Earth that refuses to trade with Earth, and whose force fields are totally impervious to Earth attack.  The rulers of Earth want a chance to acquire Dirbanu's high technology, and the lovebirds present just such an opportunity--the rulers of Dirbanu want the fugitives back, so the Earth elite captures them for shipment home in hopes of buttering up those reclusive Dirbanuans!  

Earth's two best spacemen, an inseparable team, are tasked with crewing the ship that will transport the love-oozing captives back to their home planet.  These men, Rootes and Grunty, are among the very few men of action--"doers"-- in a civilization of "thinkers" and "feelers" given over to opiates.  Rootes, the captain, is a man whose interests lie in enthusiastically sleeping with whores while on shore leave, while Grunty is a reader, his head full of poetry, his bookshelf supporting The Wind in the Willows, The Worm Ouroboros, The Garden of the Plynck, a book of photos of Michelangelo's sculptures, etc.

Sturgeon spends some time explaining how the ship's warp drive operates; the important aspect of the description is that making the jump to warp knocks people unconscious for some time, Rootes for a period somewhat longer than Grunty.  Grunty, it is revealed somewhat obliquely, is a homosexual, and is hopelessly in love with Rootes--while the captain sleeps Grunty sits and stares at him, even lovingly touches him!  Unfortunately for Grunty, Rootes is a homophobe--in fact, the entire human civilization, decadent though it is, is virulently homophobic!  Grunty has to not only keep his love for Rootes a secret, but if anybody finds out he's gay, his whole career as a spaceman will be washed up.

When Grunty realizes the two lovebirds can read minds and know he's gay he is horrified and enraged--maybe they will reveal his terrible secret to the galaxy!  He plots to kill them before they can spill the beans, but then they confide in him--Terrans thought the two lovebirds were a heterosexual couple because one was quite taller than the other, but the reality is they are both male--like Grunty, they are gay.  The couple fled Dirbanu because of pervasive homophobia there, and hoped to find freedom on Earth.  Grunty helps them escape in the ship's life boat while Rootes is asleep.  In ways that are not really all that convincing, Grunty mollifies Rootes' initial anger over letting the prisoners escape, and Rootes convinces the government of Dirbanu that the lovebirds, whom they admit they wanted dead, have been killed.  But Earth's hopes for some kind of lucrative technology transfer from Dirbanu are dashed--Dirbanuan males and females look radically different from each other, and in comparison human men and women look so similar that the Dirbanuans think Earth is a planet of homosexuals and want absolutely nothing to do with us!

Some parts of "The World Well Lost" feel more like a fable written to dramatize the argument that hostility to homosexuality is irrational and that love between two men is as beautiful (at least!) as love between a man and woman than a piece of fiction that strives to be believable.  But the heart of the story, Grunty's feelings for Rootes and his fear of exposure, is totally convincing, even moving, a fine bit of psychology that doesn't resort to using the language of psychology the way Bloch so often does.  This authentic humanity makes the story work.  Thumbs up for "The World Well Lost," a story people interested in the treatment of same-sex sexual relationships in SF should definitely check out.  And we can forgive Palmer for the exuberance of his cover come-on--Sturgeon's story really is daring!    

It looks like "The World Well Lost" appeared in the Sturgeon collection E Pluribus Unicorn the same year it was printed here in Universe.  Groff Conklin included it in the anthology Twisted, another Belmont paperback with an awesome cover (whoever was making decisions about covers at Belmont deserves some kind of award) and Thomas N. Scortia selected it for Strange Bedfellows, the cover of which is just sad.

"An unholy bible" has me laughing out loud, but 
I am laughing with you Belmont, not at you

"The Castaway" by Murray Leinster

This one hasn't been as successful as Bloch's or Sturgeon's contributions to Universe's inaugural issue, having only been reprinted in Leinster collections, but I won't let that discourage me from giving it a look.  

Ben Lyon runs the newspaper in a tiny rural town surrounded by mountains.  Leinster engages in some of the romanticization of small town life we sometimes see, even approvingly remarking on how the town doesn't receive radio signals and nobody in town has a TV.  It is sad to think these poor bastards were denied the opportunity to get acquainted with Jack Benny after a long day feeding pigs or pulling weeds or whatever it is they do to put food on the table of city folk.

A meteor flies over the town the day before Ben the journo leaves town on horseback to meet his old war buddy Tom at Tom's ranch in the mountains.  But Tom isn't home, though Ben is expected.  Instead, at Tom's place Ben meets a space alien!

The alien talks to Ben from the shadows--it has read the mind of a local man, the town drunk, so knows English and all about the human race and its penchant for war and violence.  The alien says it is a castaway and wants to make friends, but when Tom appears with that town drunk stretched across one of his horses, he having been knocked unconscious by the alien's mysterious weapons, the only dimly glimpsed alien sneaks off, discouraging pursuit by demonstrating the power of another of its weapons.

Tom figures the alien is a dangerous menace, that the technologically superior aliens will treat Earthmen the way technologically superior Europeans treated nonwhite people they encountered.  If the alien really is a lone castaway and it can be neutralized before it gets a message back to its civilization then Earth will be spared the experience of becoming a victim of space imperialism!  Tom and Ben take up their shotguns and rifles and go alien hunting, Tom confident in their mission but Ben torn between fear of Earthmen suffering the fate of the natives of the Americas and his conviction that the alien is probably an OK guy who really would like to be friends.  Will they destroy the alien, befriend it, or will it escape?  If it does get away, what will the consequences be for the human race?   

We've seen plenty of SF stories that lament human aggression and European imperialism and plump for the simple life of primitives and rural people over sophisticated modern life, and "The Castaway" is another one.  But while the themes aren't exactly fresh, Leinster handles them with a little ambiguity, and does a good job with the action-adventure and horror elements of the story, making this piece a decent read--"The Castaway" gets a moderate recommendation from me. 


"Stowaway" by Mack Reynolds

As I have discussed before at this blog of mine, Mack Reynolds had an interesting life and at times perplexing writing career, and I actually don't think his fiction as a general rule is particularly good.  Let's see how this cover story compares to Reynolds' larger body of work.

It is the future, a time of intergalactic warfare long after the fall of the United States and the obsolescence of the Gregorian calendar.  It is so far in the future that unnecessary vowels have been expunged and the starship New Taos doesn't have a "doctor," it has a "doctr!"

New Taos also has the finest captain in the space navy.  A captain who won't keep his mouth shut!  You see, Captain Mike Gurloff is opposed to the current administration on Earth, and gives speeches attacking the policies of the government in between going on the dangerous missions that government is always assigning him and his forty-odd crewmen.  He has become quite popular, and is a real thorn in the side of the government.  (Maybe this story was inspired by the career of Douglas MacArthur, a popular general who was sacked in 1951 after publicly disagreeing with the Truman Administration.)  All you Biblical scholars out there who know how King David treated Uriah, and all you classicists who know about Cato being sent to Cyprus by Clodius, won't be surprised to hear that the Earth government keeps sending our dude Gurloff on these difficult missions in hopes he'll screw up and his prestige will be tarnished.  

A big theme of "Stowaway," like the first part of Bloch's "Constant Reader," is the psychological stress of space travel.  Policies are in place to keep spacemen from getting bored and going insane, a contingency considered quite likely, and early in the story there are scenes in which we learn that the spacemen read the same books over and over again, watch the same TV shows repeatedly, play complex versions of darts so much they are all now dart throwing experts, etc.  Well, the Earth government's plan to bring Gurloff down a notch this time is to send his ship on a new mission so fast that there is no time to switch out the books, games and video tapes!  With no fresh entertainment, Doctr Thorndon predicts the crew will go insane six months into this mission which is slated to last over a year!

The New Taos is on the third day of its year-long cruise when a female stowaway is discovered in a storage area.  Women are forbidden from joining space crews, but this young woman, Kathy, has always wanted to be a spaceman and sneaked aboard in order to prove that women do have the right stuff!  Or so she says!  At first, Gurloff and Thornton fear the ship's crew will be totally thrown off kilter psychologically by her presence, but Thornton figures out how to use her in a campaign to ease the crew's boredom.  Basically, Thornton allows the crew to let off steam and find distraction by helping them break the rules and gamble, get in fights, set up a still and get drunk, and so on, but his  important distraction is Kathy, whom he compels to put on shows and even encourages in leading the men on; by the end of the trip every man on New Taos (save doctr and captain themselves) is in love with Kathy and believes she returns his feelings.  Thorndon walks a tight rope, allowing the crew to become just ill-disciplined enough to avoid insanity from boredom, but not so out of control that the mission fails.  Anyway, they make it back to Earth successfully.

This main plot is pretty gimmicky and kind of hard to believe, but it is the twist ending that is totally beyond the pale and means I have to give "Stowaway" a thumbs down.  Immediately after New Taos lands on Earth, before the rest of the crew disembarks, Kathy sneaks off the ship, and Thorndon reveals to everybody that Kathy is a man!  And not just any man, but a famous Robin Hood-type space criminal we've been hearing the crew talk about all through the story!  This interstellar bandito was not only wearing fake breasts, but carrying with him documents proving the corruption of the current administration.  Thornton let him get away in return for the documents, which Gurloff can use to win the next election or get the current office holders impeached or something.  

Reynolds fails to make his silly plot twist fun enough, or believable enough, to swallow, so gotta give this one a negative vote.  It is also annoying that he raises the issue of the eligibility of women crewing spaceships and then drops it altogether without resolving it one way or another.  

It looks like "Stowaway" wasn't reprinted until 2011, when Armchair Fiction put out the fourth volume of its Masters of Science Fiction series, Mack Reynolds: Part One.  The people at Armchair Fiction used the cover illo of this copy of Universe for the cover of their collection, which makes senses as it is a pretty good picture, though those of us who have actually read "Stowaway" know that those luscious lips are the lips of a man!   

**********

The Sturgeon is the winner here, though I like the Leinster and the Bloch at least starts off well.  Checking out this artifact of 1953 is worth the time of the student of classic SF.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Luck of the Bodkins by P. G. Wodehouse

The revelation of the depths to which women can sink is always a stunning one.  

Looking over the clearance table at Wonderbooks in Frederick, MD, while I waited for the pan-Asian restaurant in the same complex to finish cooking our takeout dinner, I spotted a Penguin paperback of P. G. Wodehouse's The Luck of the Bodkins.  The book's cover illustration was still floating around in my cranium a few days later and so I decided to read the novel.

Wikipedia tells us that The Luck of the Bodkins had a strange publication history.  It was first serialized in Britain in the magazine The Passing Show in 1935, and then serialized in the American magazine Redbook a few months later, but in a version rewritten by Wodehouse to make it shorter.  When the novel was released in book form the British editions presented the longer version, while the U. S. publisher printed the shorter version. I read the 2002 Collector's Wodehouse printing of the book that some generous soul scanned and put up at the internet archive; I believe this is the British version--it is like 350 pages of text, after all, which seems pretty long.  

The Luck of the Bodkins is a light-hearted tale of men being manipulated, dominated, and generally run ragged by women, men doing things that go against their natural inclinations in order to please or appease members of the opposite sex.  There is a pretty large cast of characters, but I think these six are the important ones:    

Montague Bodkin

He worshipped Gertrude Butterwick as no man had worshipped woman before.

Monty is a good-looking Englishman who is a poor speller.  He inherited a pile of money from an aunt and is not interested in working.  He is deeply in love with and engaged to Gertrude Butterwick, daughter of businessman J. G. Butterwick of Butterwick, Price & Mandelbaum, Import and Export Merchants.  Mr. Butterwick refuses to let his daughter marry a man who is not gainfully employed, and so Monty took a series of jobs, promptly being fired from each of them.  Finally, he bribed the head of a detective agency to hire him so he would at least appear to be gainfully employed.  In Chapter 1 Monty is vacationing in Cannes when he receives a devastating telegram from Gertrude back in Blighty: she is breaking off their engagement!

Ivor Llewellyn

Mr. Llewellyn shuddered.  That word 'divorce' had always been a spectre. haunting him.  His attitude towards his young and lovely wife ever since their marriage had been consistently that of a man hanging by his finger-tips to the edge of a precipice.

Mr. Llewellyn is the middle-aged and obese head of a Hollywood film studio.  He has a beautiful young wife, Grayce, whom he goes out of his way to please lest she divorce him.  In the first chapter of the novel he is vacationing in Cannes while Grayce is in Paris, shopping.  The domineering Grayce sends Mabel Spence, her sister, to Cannes to tell the movie mogul that she (Grayce) has purchased a pearl necklace and he (Llewellyn) must smuggle it into America when he sails back across the Atlantic.  Mabel will give it to to him, sewn into a hat, when she boards the Atlantic, the ocean liner which he will board in England, stops to collect passengers, she among them, in France.  Llewellyn is paranoid about getting caught committing this crime, and assumes U. S. Customs spies are everywhere.  When in Chapter 1, Monty, who is hanging around the same hotel as Llewellyn, comes over to ask Llewellyn and Mabel how to spell "sciatica" (a malady with which J. G. Butterwick is afflicted), Llewellyn suspects Monty is a Customs spy who has overheard Grayce's felonious instructions coming out of Mabel's mouth.  

Gertrude Butterwick

'Well, it's about that Blossom girl.  Oh, I know,' said Gertrude, as Monty began to fling his arms heavenwards, 'that there's absolutely nothing between you.  But oh, Monty darling, will you promise me to never speak to her again?'

Monty's on and off again fiancé, Gertrude, comes on screen in Chapter 2.  Gertrude is very jealous; for example, when she and Monty were at the cinema she took offense when she noticed her fiancé admiring the performance up on the silver screen of American actress Lotus Blossom.  We eventually learn that Gertrude called off their engagement because, in a photo of himself bathing he sent to her, Gertrude noticed on Monty's chest a tattoo of the name "Sue" in a heart--this is a souvenir from an earlier, brief, engagement of Monty's.  Gertrude is a top hockey player, and is headed to America on a tour with the All England Ladies Hockey Team; she will also be sailing on the Atlantic.

Reginald Tennyson

'The family are sending you off to Canada to work in an office....Well, it's about time.  Work is what you want.'

'Work is not what I want.  I hate the thought of it.'

Reggie is another English slacker ("loafer" is the word used in the text), but he lacks the kind of wealth his friend Monty enjoys and his family (lead by his uncle, that strong proponent of gainful employment J. G. Butterwick) is sending him to Montreal to toil in some office; by coincidence he will be on the Atlantic as well; in Chapter 2 he is surprised to run into his hockey-playing cousin Gertrude at the train station where they are both catching the train to the port where they will board the Atlantic.  In Chapter 3 he finds himself in the same train car as his crony Monty--Monty explains that he has booked passage on the Atlantic in hopes of confronting Gertrude and winning her back. 

Ambrose Tennyson

'Have you ever read any of Ambrose's bilge?'

'No.'

'Well, it's absolute drip.  Not a corpse or a mysterious Chinaman in it from beginning to end.  And this fellow Llewelyn is paying him fifteen hundred dollars a week!'

Reggie's brother Ambrose is a writer of serious literature that does not sell and has been holding down a responsible government job--the Tennyson family is always badgering Reggie, telling him to be more like his brother Ambrose.  As the novel starts Ambrose is making a change in his life, however.  He has resigned from the Admiralty and accepted a lucrative job offer from Ivor Llewellyn to write scenarios in Hollywood, and is accompanying Llewellyn on the Atlantic.  Perhaps even more importantly, Ambrose is engaged to American actress Lotus Blossom, who will be travelling along with them.

Lotus Blossom

Life, to be really life for her, had to consist of a series of devastating rows and terrific reconciliations.  Anything milder she considered insipid.

A sexy red-headed film actress, born a Murphy in New Jersey, greatest state in the Union, Lottie is an exuberant type who loves drama and fun; as a publicity stunt she brings with her on the ship a wicker basket containing a pet alligator named Wilfred.  Her engagement to Ambrose has been kept a secret from Reggie--symmetrically, the fact that some years ago she was engaged to Reggie has been kept a secret from Ambrose.

Characters of lesser prominence who nevertheless play pivotal roles in the novel's intricate clockwork mechanisms include Grayce's sister Mabel Spence, an osteopath with whom Reggie falls in love after she provides him some hands-on treatment, and Albert Peasemarch, a long-winded and overly-chummy steward on the ship whose butting in and gossiping adds to everybody's trouble.  Peasemarch is the weakest component of the novel--his scenes slow down the narrative and the jokes featured therein are among the least effective in the book--he mispronounces many words, for example.  When overeducated English goofs like Monty and Reggie or deceptive Hollywood jerks like Llewelyn and Lottie, all of them people who can be selfish and act like they are above society's rules, expose their ignorance it is funny in part because it punctures their pretensions, but when an essentially inoffensive working-class guy mispronounces words and is inordinately proud of his meager accomplishments it is a little sad, and laughing at him feels like, as the social justice types say, "punching down." 

On the voyage there are bouts of jealousy and a series of comic misunderstandings that put everyone's relationship with his or her spouse or fiancé at risk.  Ambrose is jealous when he learns of his brother Reggie's past relationship with Lottie.  Monty convinces Gertrude that Sue is long forgotten, but then Gertrude becomes jealous when she finds Lottie's stateroom is right next to Monty's and she breaks off their engagement again.  Lottie's forward fun-loving nature, which has her kissing Reggie and spending time in Monty's room, is a major source of difficulties.

Llewelyn thinks Monty is a government spy onto his smuggling plans, and so he tries to bribe Monty by offering him a job as an actor; Monty has no interest in being an actor and refuses the offer.  Llewelyn fires Ambrose upon realizing he is not the famous poet Tennyson (the Hollywood mogul missed the news that the author of "Charge of the Light Brigade" died forty years ago), sparking Lottie's descent in Machiavellian ruthlessness.  Lottie kidnaps from Monty's room a plush Mickey Mouse, a gift Monty gave to Gertrude after their reconciliation and which Gertrude returned when she broke off their engagement the second time.  Now that they have reconciled a second time, Gertrude is expecting Mickey back from Monty.  Lottie demands that Monty accept the acting job offer from Llewelyn so he (Monty) will be in a position to force Llewelyn into rehiring Ambrose--otherwise she will parade around the ship clutching the Mickey Mouse, which will no doubt presumably lead to Gertrude again breaking off her engagement to Monty.  Monty's negotiations with Lottie are hampered by the fact that he has promised Gertrude he will never again speak to Lottie.

There is a bracing quality about the streets of New York, and only a very dejected man can fail to be cheered and uplifted by a drive through them in an open taxi on a fine summer afternoon.

The last fifty pages of this epic saga take place in beautiful New York City, where everybody comes to his or her senses and everything works out perfectly for all the young attractive people, with all of them engaged to each other and employed by Llewelyn's studio at exorbitant salaries (in the middle of the Depression, no less!)  Even overweight and middle-aged Ivor Llewelyn and Albert Peasemarch accomplish their goals, though the path to success for them lies through considerable humiliation.   

Like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin books, Wodehouse's books are all expertly crafted, their narrative structures and each individual sentence skillfully put together, and they are all quite enjoyable, but each one is very much like any other one.  And while you can argue O'Brian's naval adventure stories perhaps say something about male relationships and duty and courage and so forth, it is hard to argue that Wodehouse's books are anything more than frivolous entertainment, albeit in its highest form, wish-fulfillment fantasies for men who covet a life of leisure and respectable irresponsibility.  The Luck of the Bodkins is a smooth read that makes you laugh and inspires admiration for the author for having fashioned such a superior piece of workmanship, but the novel doesn't move you emotionally or challenge you by presenting an idiosyncratic view of the universe or life or morality or by offering speculations about life under different circumstances.  

Of course, like all old books, The Luck of the Bodkins offers a window for those of us living in the 21st century onto another culture--it is a primary source from the world of the past.  The world of Monty and Reggie is one in which everybody smokes cigarettes, people casually mention Greta Garbo and Ronald Colman and say of a generous friend that he is "The whitest man I know," a world in which even men who avoid work like it is a plague are ashamed to marry a woman who has more money than they do.  Wodehouse expects his readers to get jokes about Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Stafford Cripps, to know something about the Crusades, and to find it amusing that almost everybody in the book is familiar with the poem "Casabianca" but confidently misattributes its authorship.

If you are looking for a few laughs and a little of the atmosphere of the 1930s, this novel fits the bill.  Thumbs up for The Luck of the Bodkins; it is likely I will soon read the sequel, which was published over 35 years later, Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin.  

Sunday, May 16, 2021

1967 SF stories by Brian Aldiss, Fritz Leiber, and Samuel R. Delany

I took my copy of the 1969 paperback printing of Judith Merril's 1968 SF 12 off the shelf to read her commentary on Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" for my last blog post.  Before returning it to the bookcase, let's look at included stories by Brian Aldiss, Fritz Leiber, and Samuel R. Delany, all of which were first printed in magazines in 1967.

"Confluence" by Brian W. Aldiss 

This is a New Wave experimental piece, a six-page glossary of over one hundred words and phrases from the language of a race of extraterrestrials.  The definitions provide clues about the aliens' life and culture (for example, they seem to be dominated by robots and computers--machines write novels and determine people's status and actually clean their anuses after they take a dump--and they seem to regret it) but many are also meant to evoke laughter (there's quite a lot of scatological humor) or poignant memories in the reader of his sex life ("YON U SAN" means "The hesitation a boy experiences before first kissing his first girl" and "NO LEE LE MUN" means "The love of a wife that becomes especially vivid when she is almost out-of-sight.")

Aldiss provides specimens of many odd and interesting linguistic phenomena, like homophones which have opposite meanings and euphemisms and metaphors--"PIT HOR" means both "the droppings of pigs" and "the act of name-dropping" while "U" means "the amount of time it takes for a lizard to turn into a bird" as well as "love."

I often scorn New Wave experiments as a waste of time, but Aldiss makes this one work--I really did try to figure out what was up with these aliens, I really did laugh, and moving memories of my relationships really were conjured up.  So, thumbs up!

"Confluence" was first printed in Punch, and has appeared in many Aldiss collections, but only Merril ever saw fit to anthologize it, which speaks well of her.  

"The Winter Flies" by Fritz Leiber 

I have enjoyed lots of Leiber's work in the past, but "The Winter Flies" is quite tedious.  Gott, a middle-class guy who works in an office and once had dreams of being a writer, is bored and depressed, and so has concocted imaginary companions and day dreams he is interacting with them while he sits reading Plutarch in the same room is which his wife is painting and his kid is playing.  There is a man in black flannel who tries to recruit Gott into the cabal that secretly rules the world behind the scenes. and the black-clad jester who plays devil's advocate, enumerating the career failures and physical shortcomings that render Gott unsuited to rule the Earth.  Gott fantasizes about voluptuous young women, but into his thoughts intrudes a skinny old witch who represents his sexual guilt and berates him, pointing out that he is a slave to his lusts.  Finally Death appears, reminding Gott of his plans to commit suicide.  Death is in some way "real," and Gott's wife and child can sense Death's malignant presence, and it is even suggested that Death may actually be able to harm the little boy.  Gott overcomes his ennui and dismisses Death and embraces his wife and son in a happy ending that comes out of nowhere.

I like the topic of middle-class men who are driven bonkers by the tragedies of bourgeois life, the broken dreams of being an artist and the boring job and the annoying brat and the sexually-unavailable wife and all that--I love The KinksSoap Opera, for example, and thought Barry Malzberg presented many of these themes very ably in Herovit's World.  But "The Winter Flies" is uninvolving and tiresome, the characters and situations mind-numbing.  The whole thing feels static and flat, and the dialogues of the imaginary figures are long and boring and, as we know they are not real, they feel pointless.  The ending, in which Death is revealed to be real and Gott inexplicably becomes a hero, does not feel like a logical development from what came before.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.

In her afterword to "The Winter Flies," Merril tells us Leiber wrote this story in 1959 and sold it to Esquire, but that magazine never published it.  Its first public appearance was under the title "The Inner Circles" in F&SF, and, perhaps showing how out of sync I am with SF professionals, it has been reliably reprinted by such establishment figures as Damon Knight, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Terry Carr Maybe the SF literati liked "The Winter Flies" because it is like an avant garde play (Leiber is closely connected to the theatre, remember) and demonstrates SF isn't all astronauts and monsters but can address ordinary life.  Putting such a story in your anthology is a reasonable idea, but it should be an interesting or entertaining example of a "mature" or "literary" SF story, not a boring one.

"The Star-Pit" by Samuel R. Delany 

Delany presents to us a universe in which the human race has colonized much of the galaxy over three hundred years of interstellar travel, but is essentially barred from other galaxies.  The space between the galaxies is so empty, is home to so little matter and subject to so few gravitational forces, that in those voids the laws of physics, the very nature of reality, are subtly different.  As a result, most human beings who travel twenty-thousand light years from the Milky Way go insane; we can't explore other galaxies by sending automatic ships, either, because at the same distance human-manufactured computers fail.  Damn!

But it has been discovered that a tiny percentage of humans, like one in 34,000, is able to maintain his or her sanity in that horrible empty space between the galaxies.  These individuals, called "goldens," owe their special ability to a mix of atypical genetic and environmental factors, and tend to be anti-social or actually psycopathic--they behave erratically, treating other people like crap.  Thanks to their ability to bring back to our galaxy valuable trade goods from extragalactic worlds, goldens become rich, and form a sort of distinct upper class to whom the rules do not apply--they are so important to the economy of the galaxy that their crimes, which include murder, are not punished.  Extreme social tensions exist between the goldens and ordinary people, and one of the themes of "The Star-Pit" is the extent to which the goldens exploit the mundanes, and the extent to which the mundane authorities, who manipulate troubled young people in hopes of encouraging or preserving golden abilities, exploit the goldens.  This is related to the larger theme of the story of how people feel trapped when they cannot go places and do things others can.

"The Star-Pit" is a first person narrative of some sixty-odd pages.  Our narrator, Vyme, is a mechanic who works on space ships, a man born in New York City in these future days when Earth is a backwater far from the main trade routes visited by few humans.  We see Vyme in various episodes throughout his life, times when he feels trapped and acts out violently and irrationally; maybe we are supposed to suspect he may be a golden, though this is never explicitly stated.

The first ten or so pages of the story are set on a planet in the Sigma system where Vyme is a member of a group marriage ("procreation group" or "proke group") that resides on a beach; the main topic of this section is a sort of large terrarium or aviary (an "ecologarium") set on the beach in which a variety of strange plants and animals proceed through their complex life cycles, attentively observed by the children of the proke group.  (With its first-person narrator, array of strange but sympathetic alien animals, alternative family arrangements and nudism, theme of growing up, and the prominence in the story of waldos, "The Star-Pit" reminded me at times of Robert Heinlein's work.)  The ecologarium symbolizes all of the story's themes: a sense of being trapped, life-cycles which feature metamorphoses, and the way the individual species in an ecosystem all work in concert, almost as if they together form a single organism.  This Sigma section of the story also features a clever bit of foreshadowing for which there is a very effective and satisfying pay off in the final pages of the story.

Unsuited to married life, Vyme leaves the Sigma proke group and sets up a space ship repair and maintenance business at a space station, the star-pit of the title.  The main narrative follows his relationships with his employees and other friends and acquaintances, goldens among them; as Delany expands on all this themes we learn more about Vyme's own psychology and life and, along with Vyme, learn more about the true nature of the universe, leading up to the big revelation at the end.

Sixty pages might sound long, but "The Star-Pit" never feels slow or boring: the story moves very smoothly and is full of compelling images and interesting ideas, with new revelations coming all the time that keep the reader engaged.  Quite good!

"The Star-Pit" was first published in Worlds of Tomorrow, where it was illustrated by Jack Gaughan, and has since reappeared in the Delany collection Driftglass and in a number of anthologies.    


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I think we can call all three of these stories "literary SF."  Aldiss in "Confluence" does something strange and experimental and the risks of doing so pay off handsomely.  Delany in "The Star-Pit" expertly employs a battery of beloved traditional SF elements like weird aliens, war and trade in outer space, a girl with psychic powers, a wealthy anti-social elite that lords it over the mundanes, and novel ways of organizing sex life and child rearing to tell a very effective story about human relationships on both the individual and social levels.  Leiber, unfortunately, gives us an obvious and boring mainstream story about how some guy's daydreams reflect his unhappy career and family life, a story that feels ten times longer than it actually is.  Still, any blog post in which I can give two strong recommendations feels like a cause for celebration, so, no regrets! 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

1966 stories by Bob Shaw, Avram Davidson, Frederik Pohl and Brian Aldiss

I have to wonder about the discussion behind the decision to drop
 Davidson's name and replace it with Lafferty's on the cover.

In 1970, Ace republished its paperback anthology World's Best Science Fiction: 1967, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr, under the title World's Best Science Fiction: Third Series.  I own a copy of World's Best Science Fiction: Third Series, so let's crack 'er open and check out well-regarded stories from 1966 by authors we care about here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

"Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw

"Light of Other Days" made its debut in John W. Campbell's Analog, and it seems to have been a huge hit--it looks like almost every famous SF editor--Judith Merril, Damon Knight, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Brian Aldiss, and James Gunn, as well as Campbell, Wollheim and Carr--included it in an anthology at some point.  "Light of Other Days" is in at least three books I own, but this will be the first time I read it.

Judith Merril, in my copy of SF 12, stresses in her intro and afterword to "Light of other Days" that Shaw's story is "actually science fiction" (her italics): it presents a new idea about light and time and the effects of technology on human life, and isn't just a detective story or action tale set on another planet or outer space.  Perhaps more importantly for those of us who care more about sex and death than particles and waves is the fact that this story is a total heartbreaker about disastrous love relationships! 

Shaw's new scientific idea is "slow glass," sheets of glass through which light passes very slowly.  A new piece of slow glass (AKA a "scenedow") is black as night, because no light has yet passed through it.  But if the pane is, say, "one-year-thick," after it has stood for a year a person looking at the glass will see through it what happened in its environs a year ago.  This has great decorative value, as one can take a five-year-thick scenedow that has stood on a tropical beach or before a bucolic meadow for five years and bring it to his city apartment and for the next five years enjoy a 100% authentic view of natural beauty, the pane of glass displaying all the vagaries of weather and season and animal life in a country spot of the recent past while living in the middle of the metropolis.

Personally I loved city life, was thrilled to see skyscrapers and subway trains every day, and find living in the country where I see cows and tractors every day an endless source of dismay, but it is normal to assert the opposite and Shaw in this story exploits that typical attitude--scenedows are big business, as city dwellers yearn to decorate their apartments with living country views.  (Presumably somebody like me could get a scendeow of Times Square or the Manhattan skyline for his camel-cricket-infested country house.)

On to the heartbreak.  Our narrator is a poet in an unhappy marriage; he and his wife are sick of each other (he even admits to hoping she will be killed in an accident) and their misery is compounded by the fact that they are expectant parents.  (I guess nowadays the narrator's wife would just get an abortion, but in Britain in 1966 legal restrictions on abortion were pretty strict and it was more common to think of a fetus as a human being and not just some nuisance to be casually destroyed like the camel crickets in my new home--at least that is the idea I got from watching Michael Caine's finest film, Alfie.)

The narrator and his wife are in Scotland on a vacation (they say "holiday," of course) and the narrator wants to buy a scendow from some old dude who lives in an old farmhouse overlooking a loch.  Shaw skillfully foreshadows the depressing revelation that comes at the end: this guy's wife and child were killed in an automobile accident some years before, but their last few years were recorded by one of his pieces of slow glass, and he has set it up in a window of the farm house to provide the illusion that they are still alive.  I believe Shaw gives us room to hope that this demonstration of love and the fragility of life will trigger some kind of reformation in the attitudes of the narrator and his wife and save their marriage.

Shaw handles both the science/technology stuff and the human drama stuff quite well in this short and pungent story--I have to concur with all those editors: "Light of Other Days" is very good.  Recommended!

Two German anthologies which include "Light of Other Days;"
"Nymphenburger" is going to be my new pet name for my wife


"Bumberboom" by Avram Davidson

This one first appeared in F&SF, where it was the cover story--the story title may not be on the cover, but the cover illo was inspired by "Bumberboom" and Davidson's name is at the top of the list of contributors, even above those of icon Isaac Asimov and MPorcius fave Thomas Disch.  (The back cover of this issue of F&SF has a charming ad for the magazine featuring testimonials not only from SF pioneer Hugo Gernsback and three literary/journalistic guys you never heard of, but jazz titan Louis Armstrong!)  The editor of F&SF, Edward L. Ferman, included "Bumberboom" in an anthology of the best stories from his magazine, and Gardner Dozois in 2000 also anthologized it in The Furthest Horizon: SF Adventures to the Far Future.

"Bumberboom" immediately reminded me of a Jack Vance Dying Earth thing, with its feudalistic far future in which people fight with swords and believe in magic and farcically haughty rapscallions communicate in elaborately embroidered deceptions and highly ornamented rodomontades: 

"Important matters," he said, importantly, holding up his chin so that his jowls withdrew, "are not to be discussed where every lack-work may gawp at an inoffensive visitor.  Come along with me, my young, and I will not scruple to take time away from my many important affairs and inform you."  

Mallian, a sort of Cugel figure, is a prince ("son Hazelip, High Man to the Hereditor of Land Qanaras") travelling on foot, on a quest for some kind of "medicine," which in this context means "magic" or "knowledge," needed to succor his native land.  (This quest is never resolved--maybe "Bumberboom" was meant to be one of a series of stories about Mallian.)  While he is passing through the Land of the Dwerfs (who are short) on his way to the Land of Elver State (where people wear caps with fake ears attached to them), from atop a high hill Mallian sees that the Bumberboom Juggernaut is following a course similar to his own, though on a different road.  Bumberboom is a huge artillery piece, laboriously propelled by hand by its Crew, an army of inbred imbeciles (as a kid I would have called them "retards.")  From natives of the Land of the Dwerfs and The Land of Elver State Mallian learns that Bumberboom has been crisscrossing this region for generations, and everywhere it goes people surrender food to the idiotic Crew, in fear of the implicit threat represented by the monstrous gun.  We readers, and Mallian, soon realize the Crew members, who are so stupid they can barely talk, are totally incapable of operating the weapon their ancestors apparently designed, built and employed to terrorize the countryside.  Mallian makes himself master of the Crew with ease (through violence), figures out how to operate the gun (there are longish scenes of making gunpowder and firing the gun's first shot in generations, which providentially reveals the burial place of the Statue of Liberty), and then tries to use the gun to conquer a region where there is no formal government--due to negligence he fails and the Juggernaut is knocked out of action, permanently.

"Bumberboom" is an "actual" science fiction story, in that it is about a smart guy who tries to achieve his goals through intelligence and knowledge of science, and an adventure story in that there is a quest, conflict and danger, but the science is pretty elementary (class, what are the three ingredients of gunpowder?) and the adventure is not thrilling.  I believe Davidson meant the story's strengths to be its rococo dialogue and his efforts at humor.  Because the fancy style is more of an obstacle than a source of pleasure, and the jokes are not funny (sample joke: an inbred moron gets run over and killed by the vehicle his idiot relatives are pushing), I have to give this overly long exercise a thumbs down.

The only thing that is really good about "Bumberboom," and probably the most noteworthy thing about it, is that it is a hardcore anti-government and anti-taxation story.  Mallian the prince is a thief who dominates others through duplicity, threats and direct violence.  The governments of the Dwerfs and Elvers are portrayed as incompetent and tyrannical.  The towns of the ungoverned zone are prosperous, their citizens characterized by foresight, alacrity and independence, as well as a sense of fun.  If only this welcome message was embedded in a more entertaining story--we aren't going to beat the commies with mediocre stories like this one!



"Day Million" by Frederik Pohl

This five-page piece is one of those gimmicky and tendentious experimental New Wave stories in which the author speaks directly to the reader in a smart-alecky fashion and abandons all traditional story-telling concerns like suspension of disbelief, plot, character, etc.  This story is almost all exposition and cantankerous in-your-face argument.  

The point of the story is that people ten thousand years from now will be very different from today, almost incomprehensible to us (the last line of the story reminds us that Attila the Hun and Tiglath-Pileser would find mid-20th century middle-class American office workers very strange) and that all our opinions and attitudes, like what we find sexually attractive, are irrational and arbitrary.  Pohl posits that in that far future it will be routine to radically physically alter people's bodies, starting in the womb, and as an example presents omicron-Dibase seven-group totter-oot S Doradus 5314, who as a zygote had XY chromosomes but has since been modified to have mammary glands, ovaries and a vagina, as well as gills and a tail and a silky pelt--the mature "Dora" is a transwoman furry who lives underwater.

Pohl offers a second example of an altered person, Dora's lover, a cyborg who has travelled to a thousand different star systems.  These two meet only once, but trade electronic simulacra of themselves ("mathematical analogues") with whom to later have sex via simulation computers ("symbol manipulators") they plug directly into their brains.

Proponents of the story can argue that it is prophetic, seeing as we all now live in a world in which we are enjoined to celebrate sex changes and anticipate designer babies and integration into computers, where millions of people spend their free time masturbating while watching internet porn or playing hentai computer games, but "Day Million" fails as a piece of literature or entertainment--it is an idea, not a story.  

Despite my thinking "Day Million" little more than a waste of time, it has been reprinted a million times and is considered to be one of Pohl's best stories--among the many places it has reappeared are a collection for which it is the title story, an "author's choice" anthology, and a Pohl "best of" collection.  "Day Million" first appeared in the men's magazine Rogue, which seems appropriate because it is more like an article speculating on the future of sex and the family that advocates acceptance of sexual minorities than an actual work of fiction.

"Amen and Out" by Brian W. Aldiss

It is the future!  Our story is set in a vast automated city run by an army of robots and machines and inhabited by a small number of humans.  Beyond the city lie the space ports from which are launched the automated spaceships that explore the universe, but in the heart of the city humans conduct experiments and explorations.  Hundreds of elderly people who have been given immortality drugs lounge in and around warm indoor pools, wretchedly weak, their emaciated bodies covered in strange patterns, a side effect of the drugs.  These men and women, the "immortals" or "Immies" who have aged beyond one hundred and fifty years, have "penetrated the senility barrier" and spend all their time thinking, coming up with all manner of wacky theories.  The Immies are regularly interviewed, because among the dross of all the useless ideas sometimes crops up a revolutionary idea of tremendous value.

Most of the main characters of this seventeen-page story work at the Immortality Investigation Project, and we follow them on a typical day as they wake up and go to work and pursue their duties.  Theirs is a religious society, and all of them, even the LSD-addicted homeless man who comes to visit one particular Immortal, his great-great-great-great-greatuncle (give or take a great or two), are in close contact with their Gods, with whom they communicate directly via desktop and pocket computers they call "shrines."  These Gods seem to know all and offer advice to the dissatisfied ("You must build your own confidence bit by bit....Resolve to use your own judgement at least once today...") and admonitions to the ill-disciplined ("You wenched and fornicated yesterday night: in consequence you will be late on the project today.")     

After introducing us to the setting and characters, Aldiss gives us a few pages of plot that satisfyingly tie everything together--all the background stuff turns out to be significant.  The Immies are pathetically weak and have an irresistible psychological need to be near water (there is a lot of mumbo jumbo about how this is because life came from the sea and the womb is wet and so forth) and so none has ever left the Immortality Investigation Project's precincts, but the LSD addict tries to spirit away his great-great-etc. uncle to an abandoned country house with a big pool where he and other itinerents are squatting.  The escape comes off, and Aldiss gives the reader reason to believe its success is a result of the Gods having set up a Rube Goldberg contraption of psychological manipulations of the main characters.  The final sting at the end of the story that ties the whole thing up in a neat bow is the revelation of the origin of the Gods--having the computers who already basically ran the world take on the form of Gods with a direct line of communication to everybody was one of the first ideas of the Immortality Investigation Project that was put into action.

I like it.  One can see "Amen and Out" as a cynical attack on the credulity of human beings and a work advocating all-powerful technocratic world government; another big theme of the story is the value of drug-induced altered states of consciousness.  Whereas I sympathized with Davidson's apparent argument in "Bumberboom" but found his story tedious and clunky, I am pretty skeptical of what I take to be Aldiss's arguments here, but the story is well-written and smoothly structured, every component contributing to plot and atmosphere in an effective way.

After its debut in New Worlds, "Amen and Out" has been reprinted in several Aldiss collections.   


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Looking back on these stories, I think, in three of them at least, we can see a perhaps surprising theme of optimism; Shaw, Pohl and Aldiss all suggest that technology is going to make our lives better.  In "Light of Other Days" new technology brings a new source of beauty into the world and get us closer to our roots in the countryside; Pohl tells us a world in which everybody is a cyborg or a furry and has sex with computers is going to be a happy one, and Aldiss argues that replacing politicians and clergymen with computers and giving them total control of our lives will create a world without war and a civilization that will conquer the stars.  Even Davidson's anti-government "Bumberboom," in which technology is used to oppress people, has its optimistic side, as he suggests that people can get along just fine without government and ends his story by portraying a would-be tyrant being hoist by his own petard. 

More mid-Sixties SF stories in our next episode; we'll see if they are as optimistic as were today's subjects.