Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Stories by H Ellison, F Brown and J Bixby from midcentury men's magazines

At the internet archive you can browse literally thousands of 20th-century magazines whose raison d'etre was to print photographs of topless young women.  Many of these magazines also published fiction, and a significant proportion of this fiction was produced by people whose names will be familiar to the science fiction fan.  Today let's check out four such stories, two by Harlan Ellison and one each by Fredric Brown and Jerome Bixby. 

"The Hungry One" by Harlan Ellison (1957)

When it was revised for the 1975 collection No Doors, No Windows, "The Hungry One" was retitled "Nedra at f:5.6."  That's right, this is a story for all you photography nerds!  And even better, a story about New York City!

Our narrator is a photographer who has taken pictures of such luminaries as Anita Ekberg and Bettie Page--hubba hubba!  This October day he is walking around Central Park, taking photos, and he sees the sexiest woman he has ever seen, a redhead not only beautiful but who exudes a desire, radiates a hunger, for sex!  Ellison uses up a lot of ink describing this woman, who is perfect in every way, perfect eyes, perfect voice, perfect body, etc.

Anyway, ensorcelled, the photog addresses her and she immediately takes charge of their relationship, volunteering to pose for him in the park and then in his studio.  Ellison tries to throw in real life New York references, but I have to admit I don't remember a statue of Pulaski in Central Park; maybe Ellison is thinking of the monument to King Jagiello that was made for the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair; maybe to Ellison all Poles look alike.  This is a painful microaggression that is really diminishing my ability as a Polish-American to enjoy this story!  (Ha, ha.)

The forward beauty, whose name is Nedra, strips on her own initiative in the narrator's studio so he can photograph her naked and then have sex with her.  Ellison goes into great detail about the process of Nedra removing her duds and about her perfect body and about their kisses (her tongue is "like an electric eel") and their rough sexual intercourse.  When I was a thirteen-year old with no access to pornography this story probably would have blown my mind.  As a jaded 49-year-old all the sex stuff feels too long. 

Anyway, all the clues that the girl is a vampire that Ellison has been giving us turn out to be legitimate; when the narrator develops the film Nedra does not show up in any of the exposures, and then she, presumably, kills him.

Out of curiosity I looked at the 1975 revision of the story, which has the subtitle "An Hommage to Fritz Leiber."  Ellison actually rewrote a lot of the text, updating the list of women the narrator has photographed (Rita Moreno is out, Ann-Margaret is in), changing the photographer's age, for example.  In 1957 the narrator shoots two rolls of film of Nedra in the park; in 1975 he takes ten rolls of color film.  The 1975 version also has fewer clues that Nedra is a vampire, though the plot and climax are essentially the same.

Competent, I guess acceptable--or maybe mildly good if you are horny.  Interestingly, the isfdb lists "Nedra at f:5.6" as "non-genre."  This is obviously a vampire story (I mean, the girl's unusual name is an anagram of "drane," means "underground," and includes "dra," as in "Dracula," people!) so I would judge this an isfdb mistake.

If we set aside all the photos of half-naked women, the other thing in the magazine besides the Ellison story worth looking at is an article about Salvador Dali's elaborate art installation at the 1939 New York World's Fair, The Dream of Venus--like Ellison's story, Dali's installation, which featured topless women swimming in a pool with a glass wall, one of them painted to look like a piano keyboard, mixed prurience and a desire to push the envelope with traditional artistic values and skills. 

"Trace" by Jerome Bixby (1961)

"Trace" appeared in the fourth issue of Showcase, an issue with multiple SF connections.  The magazine's editorial includes book reviews, and the editor savages Harlan Ellison's collection The Juvies, saying the stories are "garish, hokey, and adolescently intense" and making fun of Ellison's vocabulary.  There is a tedious article by by Forrest J. Ackerman, full of anemic jokes, about actresses who appeared in horror movies.  There is also an article about William Rotsler, who would later write quite a few SF movie and TV tie-ins and illustrate many small press SF publications like Locus and Science Fiction Review.  The article on Rotsler here in Showcase focuses on his nude photography, which, we are told, is meant to not only be sexy and artistic, but funny.

Bixby of course is famous for the story "It's A Good Life."  His story here in Showcase is one page long--one page too long, I say.  The narrator gets lost on the road in an isolated part of Massachusetts, his car fails, and he uses the telephone of a guy living in this remote area--this guy is obviously the Devil, though the narrator doesn't realize it.  They have a conversation, then the tow truck arrives and the story ends.  There is no real plot, climax, or resolution to the story.  I guess there are jokes of the feeblest kind.  The most noteworthy element of the story is the fact that in the second column it is hinted that the Devil is God's (or maybe Christ's) brother, after in the first column we were reminded that Satan is a fallen angel.  How can he be both?  This kind of internal incoherence is annoying.

Thumbs down for this irritating waste of time.  Despite my bitter condemnation of it, "Trace" would be reprinted numerous times!  What is wrong with this world?

Interestingly, the isfdb says that "Trace"'s "first place of publication is unknown."  Now I'm rubbing my hands together like a movie villain, feeling like a person in possession of esoteric information.  How many people out there over the years have read "Trace" in a book and said to themselves "This story is so bad, I wonder who had the temerity to first publish this piece of rubbish..." and turned to the publication page only to find no clues to the identity of the first ground into which this bad seed set down roots.  Well, I know something they do not know!  And now, so do you!  I'll keep this forbidden knowledge to myself, but readers of this blog should feel free to alert the good people at isfdb that the first place of publication of "Trace" has been uncovered by a doughty adventurer who is content to remain anonymous!  (Feel free to tell them about "Nedra at f:5.6," as well.)  

"Tale of the Flesh Monger" by Fredric Brown (1963)

All these girlie magazines were competing with the king of the hill, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, which famously had fiction by the most prestigious authors and interviews with major cultural figures.  This issue of Gent isn't content to challenge Playboy's dominance with contributions from big guns like respected author Fredric Brown and Cassius Clay, one of the world's most prominent athletes, plus articles spotlighting beloved actors Roddy McDowell and Tony Randall; no, in this issue, Gent actually publishes an article making fun of Hefner's "The Playboy Philosophy" column.  From hell's heart I stab at thee, Hef!

The narrator of Brown's story, "Tale of the Flesh Monger," is on death row.  Don't shed any tears for him--he hastens to tell us he wants to die.  Then he relates the tale of how he came to this horrible pass.

Bill (that's his name) was a failed actor flipping burgers in La La Land when he found a lost wallet.  Instead of turning the wallet in to the police, he decided to use the credit cards to enjoy himself.  Amazingly, at the expensive restaurant at which he chose to start his night on the town, he meets the owner of the wallet, a dude named Roscoe!  This joker blackmails Bill in a bizarre way--he insists that Bill accept him as his agent, promising Bill that he will have a successful career in Hollywood if he assents to Roscoe's management and pays him ten percent of everything he makes.

A series of lucky breaks and odd coincidences leads to Bill becoming a movie star!  Also odd: Roscoe doesn't just take ten percent of Bill's pay, but ten percent of his winnings when Bill gets lucky at the craps table, and when Bill marries a woman as a publicity stunt Roscoe has sex with her one time for every ten times Bill does!  

After the marriage of convenience ends in an amicable divorce, Bill falls in love with a sweet girl, Bessie, but is afraid to marry her because he knows Roscoe will take a one-tenth slice of her sweet lovin'!  So he tries to kill Roscoe, but accidentally shoots down Bessie and ends up convicted of her murder.  The kicker at the end of the story is that Roscoe must be the Devil, and Bill wonders what form Roscoe's confiscation of ten percent of his death will take.

Cripes, another lame Devil story.  Who likes these?  This one is better than Bixby's abortion, but the gimmick is dumb and I'm giving it a thumbs down.  

"Tale of the Flesh Monger" would go on to be reprinted in some Brown collections under the title "Ten Percenter."  

"The Late, Great Arnie Draper"
by Harlan Ellison (1967)

We have come full circle...we started with Harlan and now we end with Harlan, and, I have to say, so far today Harlan is blowing away the competition with his sexy vampire story, which actually makes sense and shows some level of ambition and attention, unlike Bixby's and Brown's dumb Devil stories, which don't seem to make much sense and betray little effort.

It looks like "The Late, Great Arnie Draper" made its debut in the 1961 book Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation and was reprinted in this issue of Adam, where it takes up a single page.  The lead story of this issue is a cowboys and Indians adventure by Gary Paulsen, who would go on to become famous for writing young adult novels like Hatchet.  Paulsen's story here is favored with a drawing of a naked young woman being held captive by Native Americans who have bound her wrists, so, fetishists, take note!  There is also a lame five-page spoof comic of Batman and Robin called "Fatman and Bobbin."  Oy.

"The Late, Great Arnie Draper" is an acceptable mainstream literary story with a little twist ending that you might call cynical or a device for deflating people's pretensions and artificiality.  At a university, a smart, popular, successful student who apparently was a hard worker who was nice to everybody is killed in a car wreck.  The students who knew him well, his roommates, former girlfriends, etc., gather in the malt shop to tell stories about how awesome he was.  They all agree about how he was a genius and a gentleman and a kind person and so forth.  Finally, a girl who is just on the fringe of the group, a girl whom the others have seen around but whose name they don't know, says that Arnie "was a lousy bastard," and they all agree to that, too.

Why do they agree?  Were they all envious of Arnie?  Did Arnie have a second life that was a sort of open secret in which he fucked this nameless girl and broke her heart?  Maybe Arnie was a jerk who screwed over everybody but only this nameless woman had the balls to admit it today?  Are these people just sheep who act in a crowd, just agreeing with whatever some assertive person says?  Is the point of the story that Arnie was corrupt and artificial, that these kids are corrupt and artificial, or that everybody is corrupt and artificial, that love is a scam and our lives are just one lie after another? 

A trifle, but not bad.


Ellison' stories aren't great, but they are successful: Ellison has a goal, and he achieves it, and along the way presents phrases and effects that indicate he is a dedicated craftsman with some skill and produce some kind of worthwhile intellectual or emotional response in the reader.  Bixby and Brown have done good work elsewhere, but their stories discussed here are just bad--they lack a goal or aim at a goal that is not worth achieving and don't even reach it, and the journey they take the reader on, no matter how short, is tedious and irritating.  

In conclusion, let me say that looking at these old magazines is always fun, and enlightening, as they serve as a window into a different world, a world with different values and interests and preoccupations than our own, but which actually produced our own.  As always, the internet archive and its contributors are to be commended for making this fascinating and entertaining material accessible.

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