Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Black Magic stories by Fredric Brown, Anthony Boucher and Ramsey Campbell

I was admiring the skull covers Les Edwards provided for all six volumes of the Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories series and decided to read some of the stories selected or commissioned by editor Michel Parry for the series.  In our last blog post we read "Dig Me No Grave" by Robert E. Howard, which appeared in The 2nd Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories; today we'll read from each of the other five volumes one story that is readily available at the internet archive.

"Nasty" by Fredric Brown (1959)

Brown wrote lots of short short stories, stories that might fill a single page of a slick like Playboy, where "Nasty" made its debut.  Apparently Anthony Boucher called such stories "vignettes," and Brown called them "vinnies," and was considered a master of this genre.  I have blogged about two Brown vinnies already, "Too Far" (I liked it) and "Blood" (I didn't like it.)  We'll do two more Brown vinnies today--"Nasty" is the first.

"Nasty" is a lame dirty joke told slightly obliquely.  My summary here will go the literal route.  A rich womanizer at age 65 can no longer get an erection.  So he summons a demon to help him.  The demon gives him silvery indestructible swimming trunks from the far future.  When the guy wears them he can get an erection.  The twist ending is that if he takes the trunks off he loses his erection, so he still can't have sex.

Waste of time.  

Besides in The 1st Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, "Nasty" would reappear in many Brown collections, including quite a few in translation, and anthologies.  I read the Playboy printing.

"Naturally" by Fredric Brown (1954)

"Naturally" first appeared in Beyond Fantasy Fiction, where its editor H. L. Gold called Brown "The Vignette Wizard," which I have to admit made me laugh more than either of Brown's stories I am reading today.  (Don't think I am a Brown hater; I really liked the paperback edition of Rogue in Space I read in 2016.)

A college student is going to be thrown out of school if he can't pass a geometry exam.  Looking for help, he does the obvious thing and summons a demon.  But he drew a hexagram on the floor instead of a pentagram, so he is at the demon's mercy.

This "vinnie" is much better than "Nasty;" the tough graders here at MPorcius U give it a passing grade.

"Naturally" also resurfaced in many Brown collections, including more foreign ones with wacky covers.  I read it in Beyond Fantasy Fiction.

"Dolls" by Ramsey Campbell (1976)

"Dolls" made its first appearance in The 4th Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories and was later included in the collection Scared Stiff.  You may recall that we read a story from Scared Stiff in 2020, "Merry May," when we read "erotic" tales by four important SF figures, Campbell, Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, and Samuel R. Delany.  I actually thought "Merry May" pretty effective; let's hope "Dolls," which I am reading in a scan of Scared Stiff, is as good.

Anne Norton is a married woman living in an 18th-century village whose minister is always preaching against sex.  Parson Jenner is a powerful speaker, and Anne, and other people in the town, are sexually repressed as a result of his preaching.  Anne has a sexual outlet, however--there is a coven of Satan-worshipping promiscuous witches in the village, and Anne has been a member since she was 16!  Every full moon the coven, including Anne and her husband John, a talented furniture-maker and woodcarver, meets naked in a glade and has an orgy.  Before the wild sexual activity commences the witches dance around and John leads in the casting of curses, and after they are all done having sex (except John, who is busy with the cursing) a devil appears who has sex with one of the women; for some reason the devil has never had sex with Anne.

The first part of the story ("Dolls" is like 23 pages in the printing I read) is a detailed description of one such orgy.  Campbell goes overboard with his metaphors and poetical phrasings and paradoxes, some of which don't make much sense.  When John makes a doll of a townsperson who suspects the existence of the coven and so must be cursed, Campbell writes, "His carving had the economy and skill of pure hatred."  Do we normally think of hatred as something economical or skillful?  No, I think we typically think of hatred as passionate and wasteful, as blinding and confusing.  Maybe we are expected to think "pure" hatred is exacting and precise.  Well, whatever.  Campbell's descriptions of Anne's privates are also a little strange...and by strange I mean funny.  ("The wind stroked her genitals, which gulped eagerly...her genitals smacked their lips eagerly....Her genitals gasped with excitement.")  Anne's genitals are an important element of the story; her body is apparently incapable of lubricating itself down there, and so the witches provide Anne ointment, and Campbell mentions this ointment again and again.  (John is also suffering some kind of sexual dysfunction.) 

Some of the tension of the story lies in whether or not the witches have real magic powers.  Is the devil that appears at the orgies real, or just one of their number in a disguise?  Will the voodoo doll curse really harm that dangerously perceptive woman in the town? 

The plot of "Dolls" is about female jealousy as much as it is about Christian prudery or black magic.  Anne comes to believe that the devil who comes to the orgy to fuck all the women but never fucks her must be John in disguise, and she seeks to expose his imposture.  The truth is crazier than she (and I) could have expected--John is a powerful wizard and his curses have crippled numerous people, but the devil is not "real."  Instead, it is a giant voodoo doll that John animates with his sorcery--when Anne breaks off the doll's wooden prick, John, hiding nearby, is castrated and he bleeds to death.  The coven is destroyed--but don't think the Christians have got off easy; right before Anne exposed John's chicanery she had him carve and curse a doll of Parson Jenner and we have to assume Jenner is going to suffer some horrible "accident."  Anne has blown up both power centers in the village, the prudish cleric who was stifling everybody's sexual urges and the diabolical wizard who was maiming people with his esoteric abilities.

Acceptable.  Scared Stiff has gone through many editions between 1987 and 2002 (sex sells, even when the stories tend to feature guys being emasculated) and since then "Dolls" has been included in at least two anthologies.

According to Amazon, Guilty Pleasures and Other Dark Delights consists
mainly of "drabbles" and "double drabbles"--a drabble is a "vinnie" for the 
21st century, a story less than 100 words long!  It also includes an essay 
about Scared Stiff by S. T. Joshi, which is probably interesting.  

"Nellthu" by Anthony Boucher (1955)

Here's another "vinnie."  "Nellthu" took up a single page of the issue of F&SF that saw the debut of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Two-Handed Engine," a classic I praised on this very blog back in 2015.  (The back cover of this issue features blurbs about how awesome F&SF is from Eva Gabor and Guy Lombardo.)  "Nellthu" has been reprinted many times, including in Playboy--writing these vinnies must be lucrative. 

The narrator meets a woman, Ailsa, whom he knew in college; Ailsa in those days was smart but ugly.  Now she is rich and famous for being a skilled pianist, painter, singer, scholar, etc.  And beautiful.  The narrator has sex with her, and she is terrific in bed.  Then he finds out how she got to be so good-looking and so skilled: she summoned a demon named Nellthu who granted her a wish and she wished that he (the demon, Nellthu) would fall in love with her.  Nellthu loves Ailsa so much he will do anything to make her happy, including letting her sleep around.

A waste of everybody's time.


"The Seductress" by Ramsey Campbell (1977)

Here's another Ramsey Campbell tale of over 20 pages that made its debut in a Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories and was later included in Scared Stiff, where I am reading it.  I have to admit I found this one boring and tedious and kept getting distracted and stopping to read 1970s Judge Dredd comics and listen to Pink Floyd's Meddle.

Betty is a 25-year-old novelist, living in a somewhat depressing English city, working on her second novel--her first was about this very city, about how lame it is.  The novel was a success, selling pretty well and getting good reviews, except from reviewers who live in the city she was slagging.  Betty is lonely; she has no friends in the city, she has a poor relationship with her father back home, and is trying hard to be independent of him.  She dates a guy for a little while, Alastair, but the first time she sees his room she realizes he is practicing witchcraft--he has a big blown up photo of her on the wall with herbs and goop on it, and flees from him.  Alastair sends her a suicide note, and then Betty has tea with Alastair's mother, who accuses Betty of breaking Alastair's heart by sleeping with him and then abandoning him--Betty however never had sex with Alastair.  The tea is apparently drugged and Betty feels weird after drinking it.

Betty meets another guy, James.  James is like 45 or 50.  He is sort of sad and mysterious, but he introduces her to lots of people in the city, people maybe she can use as source material for her second novel, which is giving her trouble, weirdos like members of a commune, nationalist political activists, a creepy painter, and musicians who sing in unidentifiable foreign languages.  Betty also likes having someone to spend time with; not only is she lonely, but post-Alastair she is scared, often having scary dreams and seeing scary shadows and hearing scary sounds--Betty ascribes these disturbing hallucinations and dreams to the aftereffects of the drug.

James and Betty start having sex, and their couplings are increasingly odd and fetishistic.  James always takes charge sexually, but never seems to have an orgasm.  They have sex on Alastair's grave, and in a church.  In the final scene James ties up Betty to have bondage sex with her, and reveals that "he" is Alastair's mother in disguise--she has been using a strap-on dildo on Betty.  All those weirdos were members of a witch's coven and are here to watch... watch as Alastair, risen from the grave, drags his broken body over to bound and gagged Betty to rape her. 

My summary above makes "The Seductress" sound pretty good, and the plot is definitely serviceable, but Campbell piles on too many extraneous details and there are too many repetitive scenes, making the thing long and monotonous.  The characters are also flat and uninteresting.  Betty is just kind of drifting along, weak and pathetic, which doesn't really make sense when we consider she was enough of a go-getter to get a novel published and to see it succeed with the public and the critics; she also had the gumption to move away from home to live alone in a strange city.  The other characters are just ciphers, which I guess they have to be to preserve the final surprise.  One angle I think is interesting but which Campbell does surprisingly little with is the idea that Betty is a snobbish jerk who has contempt for this town and the town citizens in response are getting revenge on her.  If the story focused on that angle we might see a strong-willed Betty whose will was tested and perhaps broken, and strong-willed vengeful antagonists as well, people whose success or failure might mean something to readers.  (The other Campbell story we read today is full of strong-willed characters pursuing their own agendas with passion and cunning--such characters make for a compelling narrative.)  

I think I have to give "The Seductress" a thumbs down. 

Besides the many editions of Scared Stiff, "The Seductress" has been included in the anthology Hot Blood X, the tenth of the Hot Blood series.  We here at MPorcius Fiction Log actually read five stories from the first volume in the Hot Blood series a few years ago.  Please keep the "MPervert Fiction Log" jokes to yourself.


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I think I may have had enough black magic and creepy sex for a while; the crew of the MPorcius are plotting a course for outer space as we speak, and when next we meet we'll hopefully be safely in orbit.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Robert E. Howard: "Old Garfield's Heart," "Dig Me No Grave," and "The Dwellers Under the Tombs"

Let's check out some horror stories by Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan.  (Remember when I spotted Marvel Comics' Red Sonja at the Smithsonian?  Good times, good times.)

"Old Garfield's Heart" (1933)

"Old Garfield's Heart" first appeared in Weird Tales and has been reprinted in many Howard collections and a few anthologies (I read the Weird Tales version.)  This is a top-notch weird horror story about white settlers, Native Americans, and elder gods in the American West, full of gruesome scenes and eerie doings!

Our narrator lives in some little western town, and knows an old geezer, Jim Garfield, who looked old when the narrator was a kid and has never visibly aged; Old Jim tells stories about participating in events--Indian fights and what not--that the narrator is sure must have happened before Jim was born.  One day Old Jim is quite sick, and everybody thinks he is a goner.  Delirious in his illness, Old Jim claims he can only die if his head is so wrecked that his soul departs his body--his other organs will heal up because long ago, after an Indian bandit stabbed him in the chest, a friendly Indian priest replaced his ruined mortal heart with the immortal heart of his god!  Sure enough, Old Jim recovers from his illness.

Later, the narrator and Old Jim get involved in a dispute with some white ne'er-do-wells and in the ensuing violence the narrator has an opportunity to gain more direct knowledge of Old Jim's alien heart and the Native American witch doctor who gifted it to him.

Very good, recommended to all fans of the weird. 


"Dig Me No Grave" (1937)

"Dig Me No Grave" has been reprinted quite widely, including in Michel Parry's The 2nd Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, an abridged version of which was translated into German.  As with "Old Garfield's Heart," I read it in the scan at the internet archive of the issue of Weird Tales in which it debuted.  

"Dig Me No Grave" shares many themes and elements with "Old Garfield's Heart."  John Grimlan was the meanest man in town, a hermit with almost no friends who seemed to never age and who suffered strange epileptic seizures.  He was known to have spent much time travelling the world studying devil-worship, voodoo, and Shintoism!  (It is funny to see Howard throw Shinto in there--I don't think I've read any horror stories before in which Shinto is even mentioned, much less presented as dangerous or villainous.)  Only one man was friendly with Grimlan, John Conrad, a fellow student of the occult, and even he recognized that Grimlan was totally evil.

Grimlan dies in Conrad's presence, and Conrad asks our narrator, John Kirowan, to help him fulfill the strange instructions Grimlan has left those who must dispose of his body.  In Grimlan's house they discover evidence that he was like 300 years old and secured that longevity long long ago by making a pact with some demonic god; they also find an "oriental" man whose eyes are yellow and who wears a yellow robe awaiting them by Grimlan's corpse.  Conrad must read a long incantation before Grimlan's cadaver, and when the spell is complete Grimlan's body and the Asian man vanish--we are given every reason to believe Grimlan's soul and body are now in the hands of the diabolical being who granted Grimlan longevity, payment for that boon.

This story is just OK.  It compares very unfavorably with "Old Garfield's Heart," which it so resembles in theme.  The characters in "Dig Me No Grave" and their relationships with each other are undeveloped and they demonstrate little agency and have little at stake in what is happening--it is said that Grimlan was evil, but I can't remember any actual crimes being ascribed to him, the "oriental" never speaks, and Conrad and Kirowan are never at risk, do not make any decisions or pursue any goals, they are just witnesses to some unusual events.  While "Old Garfield's Heart" drew on Howard's interest in and knowledge about the American West, giving the story a level of authenticity and depth, the references to Africa and Asia in "Dig Me No Grave" are vague and sketchy.  The horror images in "Old Garfield's Heart" are also much better than those in "Dig Me No Grave," more gruesome and more original and specific--the black candles and the mirage of a demon in "Dig Me No Grave" feel generic and banal.

Too bad; this one is no more than acceptable filler.       

The Les Edwards cover (left) reminds us of his striking cover for that Carl Jacobi
collection The Tomb from Beyond; the Bruce Pennington cover on the German 
anthology was first used on a British edition of Clark Ashton Smith's 
The Abominations of Yondo
 
"The Dwellers Under the Tombs" (1976)

This one first saw print in a 1976 anthology edited by Robert Weinberg, Lost Fantasies #4; two years later it was included in the collection Black Canaan, and it is that version I am reading.  (Sadly, I must report that the version of the story printed in Black Canaan is rife with exasperating typos.)  Our friends over in Europe, the ones who are reputed to eat snails and frogs, made "The Dwellers Under the Tombs" the title story of a Howard collection, so they must have liked it; we know those guys have good taste, so I started "The Dwellers Under the Tombs" expecting it must be pretty good.
  
Old Jonas Kiles just died; Jonas was one of those guys who spent a lot of time travelling in the mysterious East.  Sitting at his deathbed was his estranged brother Job, and right before he expired Jonas told Job that after he died he was going to rise from the grave and drag his brother down to Hell!  A few nights later old Job comes running to our narrator, O'Donnel, and his friend Conrad (Howard reuses names with insouciance)--he saw Jonas's face at his window!  Job wants to go to Jonas's tomb, a structure first built 300 years ago by their ancestor the pirate but never used because said buccaneer was lost at sea, to see if Jonas's body is there, and he gets O'Donnel and Conrad to accompany him on this creepy mission.

Over the course of a night of horrifying exploration, O'Donnel and Conrad learn that Jonas Kiles faked his death (over in India or someplace he learned how to slow his breathing) and manufactured all kinds of clues that would make his brother Job think he was a vampire.  Jonas expected Job to come to his coffin to kill him with a stake, and he planned to ambush and kill his brother, and then impersonate him and move in to Job's comfortable house; while Job was frugal, Jonas was a spendthrift and envied his brother's lifestyle.  This plan was facilitated by the fact that Jonas had found a secret door in the 300-year old tomb leading to chambers where that 17th-century pirate must have hidden treasure and to another door outside on the other side of the hill.  

The secret treasure chamber is also connected to an ancient underground labyrinth; Jonas's plan fell apart because he accidentally aroused the attention of a race of troglodytes, a people, once human, who lost a war with Native Americans long before the arrival of Europeans and were driven to live underground; over the centuries they degenerated into monsters.  The Kiles brothers both lose their lives in encounters with these monsters, while Conrad and O'Donnel just barely escape out that back door.

This is a fun story, though open to some criticism.  There is plenty of melodramatic, over-the-top dialogue, but it is fun, and the plot is a little convoluted and its constituent elements are not exactly original (we see such common Lovecraftian elements as a recovered diary that explains Jonas's plans and explorations and wall paintings that provide insight on the history of the ancient inhabitants of the tunnels), but overall "The Dwellers Under the Tombs" is successfully put together and entertaining. 

Moderately good.        
 

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S. T. Joshi was right to include "Old Garfield's Heart" in American Supernatural Tales--it is a superior and very American story.  "Dig Me No Grave" and "The Dwellers Under the Tombs" are not very original, but while "Dig Me No Grave" is flat filler, "The Dwellers Under the Tombs" is fun and exciting, with passionate characters with powerful motivations and the tension and violence we hope to find in our genre fiction.  

Friday, July 23, 2021

1976 stories by B Aldiss, M Coney, L Del Rey, B Bayley, & D Knight

Let's take DAW No. 240, The 1977 Annual World's Best SF edited by Donald Wollheim with Arthur Saha, off the shelf and take a look.  The fun cover, which exemplifies many themes we find in SF (explorations conducted at some risk made possible by the use of high technology), is by Jack Gaughan.  Wollheim's intro is about the publishing biz--is SF in 1977 in a boom period, and if so can such a boom be sustained?  Wollheim seems particularly worried about "overproduction" and the "flooding of the market;" I guess it makes sense for Wollheim, as a publisher, to discourage competition.  In the intro Wollheim takes a somewhat oblique swipe at The New Wave, and there is a similar attack from Don Hutchison printed on the back cover; I guess DAW saw as its market people unimpressed by the New Wave.  

There are ten stories in The 1977 Annual World's Best SF; let's read five.  One of the five we won't be reading today, John Varley's "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank," I read before I started this blog, and I have to admit I remember very little about it.

(Joachim Boaz read and blogged about The 1977 Annual World's Best SF in August of 2019; click the link to check out what he had to say.  I reread his blog post after I drafted mine below and we have differing opinions and focus on different elements of the stories so reading both of our posts isn't going to feel redundant.)

"Appearance of Life" by Brian W. Aldiss (1976)

In their intro to "Appearance of Life" here in The 1977 Annual World's Best SF editors Wollheim and Saha tell us that lately Aldiss has been writing stories that "baffle the comprehension" and lie on "the margins of the sf sphere."  But then they put us at ease by informing us that "Appearance of Life" was a "pleasant surprise" that is "truly science fiction."

It is the far future, like 100,000 years from now!  Mankind has colonized the galaxy.  On many planets human explorers have discovered evidence of a now-vanished alien race, a race so advanced they transcended the need for the written word!  On one world, Norma, these ancients left a building so huge it girdles the equator of the entire planet; the building was empty when humans found it, and for centuries have been using it as a museum, filling it up with specimens and artifacts.

Our narrator is a guy who as a child was identified by the authorities as one with special skills; he can intuitively see the connections between things.  So he got the job of "Seeker," and travels around the galaxy, collecting evidence for other scholars and researchers.  He is at the museum on Norma with a list of assignments from those other brainiacs.  

The narrator's exploration of the museum allows Aldiss to contrast the people of the Seeker's far future society who are cold and live alone and have little intercourse with each other and let robots do all the work with people of like 45,000 years from now, people who are much like us, passionate people who fall in love and have tumultuous marriages and go to war and so forth.  The narrator has one of his intuitive leaps and suddenly realizes that those ancient aliens created the human race as an experiment or an inferior reproduction of themselves or something, and that the human race is running down, becoming less connected to each other and less energetic.  Not wanting to reveal this depressing news to the human race, the narrator abandons his job and becomes a hermit on a desert planet!     

A pretty good story.  "Appearance of Life" is a little ambiguous: one might argue Aldiss is portraying the future of 100,000 years from now as some kind of feminist or commie utopia--women outnumber men ten to one, marriage and the family have been abolished, and there are no possessions--but I think you can also interpret the story as presenting the people of the Seeker's far future as barely alive, while the people of the past--our present--though a bunch of greedy bigots who are always betraying and murdering each other, are vibrantly alive.  One interesting little thing about the story are its references to Indians--Aldiss, of course, served in Burma during World War II.  

"Appearance of Life" made its debut in the anthology Andromeda (isfdb lists it as Andromeda I, though the number does not appear on the cover) and has been reprinted in several anthologies and Aldiss collections, including a "best of" collection.

"Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel" by Michael G. Coney (1976)

I haven't read much Coney since I started this here blog--the last thing I read by him was "The Sharks of Pentreath," and that was in 2016.  But I liked that story, so let's give this one a shot.

You know how The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is full of songs about how life gets worse as time passes because you lose contact with your friends and fail to realize your dreams and all the fine things that were around when you were a kid are discarded and replaced?  Well, this story is like that.  Also, there is a whole plot thread about how women manipulate you and come between you and your friends and you and your other interests.  "Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel" feels like conventional mainstream fiction clad in SF clothing--there is little of the crazy ideas or exploitation elements, the outrageous satire or sense of wonder, that we associate with genre fiction and especially SF; I guess some will consider this a bug and others a feature.   

It is the future of starships!  These starships remain in orbit and people and goods move between them and planetary surfaces via shuttles.  As a kid our narrator and his friend loved to watch the shuttles, which were loud because they were powered by rockets.  But then his friend got involved with some chick and this girl didn't want to watch the shuttles anymore.  Our narrator reminisces about this stuff when, as an adult who has some lame job in which he doesn't use his college degree in alien languages, he learns the rocket-powered shuttles, which have been sitting around rusting after being replaced by quiet anti-grav shuttles, are going to be torn up for scrap.

This is a competent story with themes with which I can totally identify, and there is a decent twist ending and a black humor joke I actually laughed at, so I am judging it acceptable or maybe marginally good.  

"Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel" is part of a series called "Peninsula,"isfdb is telling me, and first appeared in F&SF.  I don't see evidence there that the Peninsula stories were ever collected in English, though there was a French collection.  

"Natural Advantage" by Lester Del Rey (1976)

Del Rey is an important figure in the history of SF whom I have read very little of since this blog first cast its malignant shadow across the interwebs.  Back in 2014 I read his award-winning "Nerves" and found it remarkably boring and "I Am Tomorrow" and thought it alright.  Well, here I'm giving del Rey another chance for to impress me. 

"Natural Advantage" appears to be a throwback to the kind of stories written by Edmond Hamilton (e.g., "Thundering Worlds" and "Crashing Suns") in which humans deal with aliens and entire star systems are threatened with destruction and planets are moved about via high technology.  

A spacefaring race of people with three eyes, one of which can "see time" or something like that, have finally made contact with another intelligent species--they have discovered Earth.  The E. T.s have bad news for us--in ten years a cloud of antimatter is going to sweep through our solar system and kill us all.  These aliens and the humans exchange scientific and technical knowledge.  The fact that the aliens can "see time" or whatever has somehow meant that they have never developed an interest in two-dimensional representations like drawing, painting, or TV.  And it has limited them in other ways as well.  After becoming familiar with the technology of the aliens it only takes a couple of years before humankind has improved upon it to they point that we have bigger and faster starships than they do, and can even move our solar system out of the way of the anti-matter cloud.  

Acceptable.  "Natural Advantage" debuted in the 50th Anniversary issue of Amazing and does not seem to have appeared elsewhere after being selected by Wollheim and Saha.  

"The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" by Barrington J. Bayley (1976)

(Nota bene: I've never seen The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, one of those things every literate person is supposed to know all about.)

"The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" is a long tedious thing, at times surreal and philosophical, with references to major thinkers and schools of philosophy, and at times feeling like an extended absurdist joke that is not funny, full of pop culture allusions and references.  It posits a near future in which the United Kingdom embraces protectionism and closes off all trade with the world, and this somehow causes an explosion of technological and cultural growth, so that British scientists invent not only a device that can create anything you might want (don't they have this in Star Trek?) but also a space drive that can safely propel you at 186 times the speed of light for so modest a price that many private individuals own one-man intergalactic space vessels.  

Our hero, the Naylor of the title, is an inventor and philosopher who has one of these intergalactic spacecraft and who is travelling between the galaxies at random to get the solitude he needs for his next big project.  His last big project was inventing a TV that constantly produces original movies, mostly Elizabethan dramas and noirish thrillers; these dramas are so well-realized that you can interact with them, talk to the characters about their "worlds."  Naylor picks up a passenger (there are so many people crisscrossing the universe in these space ships that some people live a life of intergalactic hitchhiking) who is looking for an artist.  When they catch up to the artist's space ship it turns out the passenger is a space cop and he arrests the artist.

Or tries to.  The artist is something of a mad scientist--he has an arsenal of powerful devices which he has acquired from some nearby aliens.  The story briefly comes to life as the artist and the cop confront each other, and as we learn about the artist and his "common-law wife," a woman he is charged with kidnapping, whom he abuses verbally and physically, though there are hints she is a willing participant in a sado-masochistic relationship.  (The shocking treatment of the woman in this story, by all the characters and by the author, may well enrage feminists.  These disturbing scenes were like an oasis of feeling in the vast lifeless desert of this boring story.) The artist may also have the key to clearing away the obstacles to the completion of Naylor's current project.  

Alas, it is not to be.  The artist outwits the cop and Naylor, killing the lawman and sending Naylor's ship, with Naylor in it, into a "matterless" area of space from which he cannot return.  In complicated ways that are described at length in the story, being in this sea of matterlessness is going to cause Naylor to lose his identity and consciousness.  (Don't worry that the artist is getting away scot-free--it is strongly implied his ship is soon going to explode.)           

This is one of those stories that had me counting every page the way I'd count every minute at the office or count every mile on a cross country trip.  I liked the sex and violence section with the artist, but that is like a quarter of the page count; the remainder of the text has no human feeling and no tension, all that exposition, philosophical discussion, and homage to Hollywood detective films making my eyes glaze over.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.   

"The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor" made its debut in New Worlds Ten, and would be included in the Bayley collection The Knights of the Limits.

"I See You" by Damon Knight (1976)

In their intro to "I See You" Wollheim and Saha suggest that many of the stories in Knight's famous Orbit series of original anthologies are not "science fiction" at all and express a wish that he would write more and edit less!

I remembered this story the instant I started it; this is a memorable and powerful story whose title, but not its content, I had forgotten.  A scientist invents a device, a viewer, which can display any point in the universe at any previous time,; the device is affordable and he distributes it widely.  Knight discusses the technical issues of the device and relates the devious way it is initially distributed, but more importantly he considers what life would be like in a society in which there is no privacy, no secrets, no mysteries.  

One can quibble with some of Knight's decisions (he indulges JFK conspiracy theories, and the Mary Celeste section is too long) but this is a classic of hard science fiction and social science fiction: how would some new piece of technology revolutionize our lives?  It has sense of wonder in abundance: anybody reading it can imagine how he would use the viewer to indulge his interests, say, study military tactics in the Crusades or watch every single performance of the Beatles in Germany or become intimately familiar with the painting techniques of Raphael and Michelangelo or whatever, and how having zero privacy and zero ignorance might wreak psychological and social harm.  Very good--this is a great example of a science fiction story that buttresses the argument that SF is a "literature of ideas" distinct from other genres.

"I See You" debuted with some fanfare in F&SF and has been reprinted many times.  

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Taken as a whole, a decent crop of stories.  Even the one I thought was a drag was ambitious and the product of deep thought and hard work.  A good anthology.  

Hardcover edition cover (Corben seems to be illustrating the Del Rey selection)
and back of my paperback copy

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Carl Jacobi: "A Pair of Swords," "The Cane," and "The Satanic Piano"

It's more Weird Tales!  Don't look so surprised!  Today we're reading stories from 1933 and '34 by Carl Jacobi.  All three of these tales were included in the 1947 collection Revelations in Black, as well as the monster 2014 collection Masters of the Weird Tale, and all three were also anthologized.

"A Pair of Swords" (1933)

This is a gimmicky waste of time, just two and a half pages.  A guy is in an art museum, in the room with antique weapons.  Suddenly two men accost him, men dressed like characters from The Three Musketeers.  (The story, at least here in Weird Tales, includes a typo, referring to Louis III instead of Louis XIII.  Sad!)  They ask the guy to be their second as they duel over a woman.  One is killed, and then they vanish, and the guy notices their swords on the wall.

A pointless trifle.  Ignoring my assessment, in fact not even consulting me, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg included "A Pair of Swords" in one of their Barnes & Noble anthologies, and it also showed up in the Jacobi collection The Tomb From Beyond, which has an arresting cover by Les Edwards.   


"The Cane"
(1934)

This one appears in the same issue of Weird Tales as the Conan story "Shadows in the Moonlight" (later known as "Iron Shadows in the Moon") and the Northwest Smith story "Black Thirst" (not yet known as "Thirst of Color," though it could happen.)  Not only are Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore represented in this issue, but Edmond Hamilton and Clark Ashton Smith as well, so you know we'll be back to it!

But today our topic is Jacobi and "The Cane," which August Derleth included in the anthology Sleep No More and which also appeared in a Belgian anthology.

Mr. Grenning is a retired lawyer living in London.  He takes a walk every morning on the same route.  This guy collects canes, and has a different cane for everyday of the week.  Recently one broke, so he bought a new one at an auction of the estate of the recently deceased Stephen Wells.  The first day Grenning walks with his new cane, by a crazy coincidence he comes upon the funeral party of Stephen Wells, lugging the coffin out of the Wells house.  The cane seems to come to life in his hand and, pulled by it, Grenning assaults one of the pall bearers, beating him bloody before fleeing.  Grenning runs to the home of a friend, Sir Hugh Stanway.  Stanway hears this story and then goes out to investigate.

That night, Grenning succumbs to an irresistible urge to go to the Wells house, enter, and assault a beautiful woman sleeping therein, the recently widowed Mrs. Wells!  After striking her he flees.

Sir Hugh's investigations reveal that Wells got the cane in Borneo from a witch doctor, and it was said to be a magic cane that would defend its owner and avenge him on his enemies.  Also, that Mrs. Wells was not in love with her husband, but with that pall bearer guy!  The end of the story consists of the ghosts of Wells and his friend the witch doctor coming to Grenning to collect the cane, after which Mrs. Wells and her lover turn up dead, bludgeoned to death.    

Acceptable.

"The Satanic Piano" (1934)

We just encountered a dangerous piano in our last blog post, and here is another one!  In real life, you tickle the ivories--at MPorcius Fiction Log, the ivories tickle you...to death!

"The Satanic Piano" was made into a 1985 episode of Tales from the Darkside starring Lisa Bonet and was reprinted in the 1988 anthology Tales from the Darkside.

Wilson Farber is some kind of Renaissance Man--not only does he own a music shop in London, but he wrote a widely discussed book on telepathy and hypnotism!  One night our narrator, the composer and concert pianist Bancroft, gets a note from Farber, a request to see him at once, and when we get a look inside Farber's crib (as the kids say), we find that Farber is a mad scientist!  He has built a device that looks like a miniature piano (like a yard wide) with all kinds of wires and knobs and lights connected to it.  Farber demonstrates how this device can read the thoughts of a musician and play the notes he thinks about in real time and even record them for later playback.  Bancroft is astounded--this device will facilitate composing in a revolutionary way; it offers a means of overcoming all the obstacles keeping him from becoming a world-class composer, and he wants it, badly!  

Farber lets Bancroft borrow the machine for a few weeks, during which time the pianist uses it to compose several works superior to all his previous output.  The same day Farber takes back the device, Bancroft's fiancĂ©, Martha, comes back from a trip.  Martha is worried because her maid Kari, a Jamaican obea woman who claims she can tell the future, has predicted that dangerous times are ahead for Martha!  Bancroft then has to take a three-day job playing the piano at a country estate; when he returns to London, Martha and Kari have disappeared!  Bancroft and the police search London for a week but find no clues.

It turns out Farber has captured the women and has plans to use them to improve his device--he wants the machine to compose its own music, and so has developed a way to remove a person's brain and heart and hook them up, still alive, to the machine!  Farber chooses Kari as the subject of his first attempt at this delicate operation, but, as she is a devotee of black magic, the music she produces is horrific devil music that has the power to drive people insane.  So, Farber discards the Jamaican's organs and prepares Martha for surgery, but before he can cut up his fiancĂ© Bancroft appears on the scene, only to lose a fight with Farber, who is tougher than he looks!   Things are looking bleak for these love birds, but somehow Kari's soul is still in the machine, and with the help of the mental emanations of a bound Bancroft, Kari wrecks the device and as if fails it, in a contrived way that disappointed me, also destroys the mad scientist.

I like mad scientist stories, and on balance I like "The Satanic Piano," but it has some problems.  A machine that can read your mind, brain transplants, and black magic are all very good concepts on which to ground a weird story, but I'm afraid the third, which requires belief in the soul and supernatural beings, doesn't necessarily work well with the other more hard core sciencey ideas.  A related issue is the character of Kari and her relationship with Martha; as the story stands the plot sort of requires her to be both an evil person in league with the devil and personally devoted to Martha, and Jacobi doesn't spend any time explaining Kari's motivation or personality so that this paradox is credible in the eyes of the reader--the story would perhaps work better if Kari betrayed Martha and then in turn was betrayed by Farber.  Most of the ending is good, but the way the failing machine kills Farber could have been better.  I also think the story may be a little too long.  Still "The Satanic Piano" is worth a read, a notch above "acceptable."

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It feels good to make further progress in our exploration of 1930s Weird Tales, but next time we'll be sampling 1970s stories that, I think, will be more science- and less black magic-oriented than today's readings.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Tanith Lee: "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)," "The Beautiful Biting Machine" and "The Isle is Full of Noises"

In 2015 Telos Publishing released Blood 20: Tales of Vampire Horror, a collection of stories by Tanith Lee.  I looked over the volume's table of contents at isfdb, thinking to use it as a guide to what Lee stories I should read next, and picked out three interesting titles that were readily available at the internet archive.  Let's try these stories by the talented Ms. Lee on for size.

But first, links to my blog posts about four stories presented in Blood 20 that I have already read:


"Il Bacio (Il Chiabve)" (1983)

This story made its debut in Amazing, in an issue with an ad for Star Frontiers, a game my brother and I spent many hours playing, an interview with R. A. Lafferty, and a poem by Thomas Disch.  The art in this issue is also pretty good.  Definitely an issue worth checking out.    

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" takes place in 15th-century Rome.  Four rich young men, the eldest no older than twenty, are hanging around at one of their homes, drinking, gambling, and talking.  One of the men, Valore della Scorpione, is so good-looking it is hinted that his friends have a homosexual attraction to him, and the third-person omniscient narrator suggests he is like the group's god.  Part of Scorpione's attraction to these aristocrats is that he is a bad boy, his family having a bad reputation and he being a man who owes everybody money and refuses to pay these debts.

Scorpione proposes to his cronies a way he might get out from under these debts.  He produces a key and says it is the key to the bedroom of a beautiful female relative of his, and suggests they dice for the key--the winner of the key can go to the woman's room and have his way with the lovely woman--he promises she will not resist his attentions.  If Scorpione should win the key his debts are forgiven.

As we saw recently when we read The Birthgrave and its sequels, Lee does not balk at including in her writing stuff that might offend or disgust people.  Before the dicing for the key can begin, a guest of the host arrives, a tall arrogant Jew in fashionable attire, Olivio di Giueda, a talented painter and experienced alchemist, and some of the characters and even the narrator say things that are quite anti-Semitic.  One of the four men even storms out rather than sit with a Jew, and di Giueda, with whom the host has a business relationship, takes the empty seat.

Knowing this was a vampire story before starting it, I had been primed to scrutinize each character with an eye towards whether he might be a blood-sucking fiend.  Sexy and charismatic Scorpione was, of course, a prime suspect, but when di Giueda arrived he joined Scorpione near the top of the list--not only is he tall and commanding and all that, but in his repartee with the three remaining aristocrats he seemed to be exhibiting some pretty intimate knowledge of ancient times.  Could both Scorpione and di Giudea be vampires?

The men dice for the key--Scorpione plays foolishly, as if he wants to lose.  When the dicing is over di Giudea has the key, and to the chagrin of the other gentiles, Scorpione leads the Jew off to the promised lady's bedroom.  It turns out that the key unlocks a tomb--in which lies a dazzlingly beautiful woman; she died 150 years ago of plague but, uncannily, her luscious form has been preserved.  In the tomb we readers are witnesses to eye-popping events redolent of incest and necrophilia and learn who is and who is not a vampire.

A solid icky vampire story noteworthy for the surprisingly acerbic stuff about Jews--it is hard not to think Lee is suggesting that Jews and vampires are sort of similar, that both constitute out groups whom the mainstream accuses of arrogance and of drinking Christian blood.  As I read "Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" I wondered if di Giueda, the talented and well-dressed Jew who is hobnobbing with the aristocracy of 15th-century Italy, was meant to remind readers of Benjamin Disraeli, the well-dressed Jewish intellectual who became a leading politician in 19th-century Britain and friend of Queen Victoria and who thought that the Jewish people were a sort of natural aristocracy. 

"Il Bacio (Il Chiave)" was included in a 1993 pamphlet of essays about Lee put out by the British Fantasy Society called Tanith Lee: Mistress of Delirium, and since has appeared in three different Lee collections, including a French one.


"The Beautiful Biting Machine" (1984)

"The Beautiful Biting Machine" first appeared in a small run chapbook that was illustrated by Judy King-Rieniets and signed by Lee and King-Rieniets; five years later in 1989 it was included in the anthology Arrows of Eros.  I read the story in the 2013 collection Space is Just a Starry Night.  

This is one of those stories in which mysterious things happen and are described obscurely, and then explained fully at the end of the piece.  I have to admit that, while I was in the middle of the story, trying to figure out what was going on, I thought the story would end ambiguously and I would never really know if my guesses had been correct, and was a little disappointed that Lee just explained everything at the end.

Anyway, I'm just going to tell you what is going on in the story--remember that this blog is super-spoily by design.  

It is the future!  The human race has colonized the galaxy and has peaceful interactions with all kinds of intelligent spacefaring aliens.  Our story is set on a "pleasure planet" where a Mr. Qire owns a sort of brothel that caters to clients with a peculiar fetish by providing them a robot to have sex with.  This robot (described in detail by Lee, who also describes in detail the decor of the robot's chamber the way she customarily describes rooms and settings in her work) has the form of a sexy vampire woman--the brothel's customers are people who find the idea of being attacked by a vampire sexually arousing.  The robot has been programmed to bite people and suck their blood, but only a little blood, not a life-threatening amount, and everything is sterile and sanitary and the robot injects drugs in the johns in order to make sure their wounds heal quickly and so forth.

The sex robot is a very complex piece of machinery, and works to fine tolerances, and in fact has malfunctioned a couple of times and accidentally killed clients.  A very skilled technician is required to keep this thing in proper working order so it won't kill clients, and luckily Qire has just such a dedicated man on staff--Beldek.  

One day Beldek is in the robot's elaborate chamber, conducting delicate repairs.  One of Mr. Qire's other employees, a "runner," sneaks in to the chamber.  This runner wants to have sex with the vampire girl robot, but can't afford the fee, and Mr. Qire doesn't give freebies to the staff--the runner bitterly assumes that Beldek has sex with the robot all the time, but he is wrong.  He finds Beldek not having sex with the robot, but drinking the blood that has accumulated inside the in the course of its normal operations.  Beldek is a vampire, a real vampire, and drinking the blood legally and nonlethally collected by the robot is easier and safer than hunting victims down the way vampires had to in the old days.

Beldek has to keep his secret, of course, and kills the runner by letting him have sex with the robot (ostensibly a bribe so he'll keep mum about Beldek's secret) and signaling the robot to kill him.  

Lee stories are often full of strange and even disgusting sex, and one of the tricks in this story is--before revealing the vampiric nature of the robot--allowing us readers to think that the robot performs fellatio, that Beldek's" kink" is that he drinks other men's ejaculate, and that the runner is slain by having his penis bitten off.  

This story is well-written and cleverly constructed and all that--it is certainly not bad--but I am feeling a little underwhelmed by it, maybe because 1) Lee just tells you the answer to the mystery at the end and 2) the answer (this dude is a vampire!) is no big deal because there are hundreds of vampire stories out there and Lee herself has written dozens of them.  The idea of some freako secretly drinking other guys' semen on the regular is more shocking and sickening than the revelation that we have here yet again another story about a vampire.

For another thing, I have to question why "The Beautiful Biting Machine" is set on an extrasolar planet and why are there so many minor characters who are nonhuman.  The same exact story could have just been set on Earth in the near future and had a fully human cast.  Is all that standard space opera stuff in there to serve as chaff, to divert reader suspicions that the story is in fact about a vampire, which Lee keeps hinting with puns (Beldek is said to be "re-vamping the computer program") and motifs (the brothel is only open at night and actually sinks into the ground at sunrise?) 

Objectively this is a better story than most of the stories I read, but somehow it is rubbing me the wrong way, maybe just because I expect a lot out of Lee.  (And it doesn't help that the version I read had typos that I suspect were scanning errors, like "The door had dosed.")


"The Isle is Full of Noises" (2000)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" first appeared in Marvin Kaye's anthology Vampire Sextette, and it is in a scan of that book which I read it.  In the intro to Vampire Sextette Kaye tells us that the volume is his 22nd anthology and that it was actually Lee's idea.  Kaye also offers some interesting literary criticism, including a list of what he considers the best vampire stories (I have blogged about most of them) and a brief discussion the post-Anne Rice vampire craze.  An introduction actually worth reading.  (Remember when I took Kaye to task back in 2019 for the intro to Haunted America?)

"The Isle is Full of Noises" is like 90 pages long, set in a coastal city which a decade ago was partially flooded.  Some people, including Yse, the protagonist, live on the upper floors of buildings whose lower stories have been underwater for ten years and are today haunted by barracuda.  This is a great setting and Lee (whose work Kaye in that intro calls "poetically crafted") does a great job of bringing the image and atmosphere of such a weird and creepy place to life.  

This story is all about illusions, delusions, and fictions, our inability (and unwillingness) to distinguish truth and reality from fantasy and unreality and the way the real and unreal influence and interpenetrate each other.  Yse is a fat middle-aged woman, a writer who lives alone and pursues what little satisfaction she can by vicariously living through her characters and by following the career of a TV star she met briefly years ago, Per Laszd, a man she is in love with but with whom she has never spent a private moment.  Her friend Lucius, a gay man, seems to similarly enliven his life through fantasy--he has a scar on his neck that he sometimes claims is a shark bite and other times claims was given him by a vampire with whom he had sex.  

Large portions of "The Isle is Full of Noises" consist of chapters of a novel or long story Yse is writing about a beautiful teenager living in the early 19th century, Antoinelle.  Where Yse is independent, Antoinelle hates independence and spends her entire life dominated by others.  A cruel young man ruins her reputation, and then cruel relatives punish her by exiling her to the country where an aunt gives her the silent treatment for months.  Antoinelle then comes under the control of a powerful man with a voracious appetitive for sex, Vonderjan; it turns out Antoinelle also has an inexhaustible lust for sex.  In contrast to Yse's sexless life, Antoinelle and Vonderjan have sex for hours and hours every night, their couplings ferociously loud, Antoinelle screaming in ecstasy as her husband manipulates her body.  After taking revenge on those who had tormented Antoinelle, Vonderjan carries his bride away to a Caribbean island where he has an estate. 

Yse's writing incorporates everyday things from her daily life as well as reflecting her own unsatisfied desires.  Vonderjan is directly based on Per Laszd the TV star, for example.  Through the story Yse not only lives out her lust for Per Laszd, but inflicts on him punishment for his crime of not noticing her--after his marriage Vonderjan has a run of bad luck and his business fortunes collapse, as if Antoinelle, like a vampire, is sucking the life out of him.  Yse's story is full of clues that are probably red herrings  that Antoinelle is a vampire or that Vonderjan is a vampire; the actual vampire in Yse's story is so bizarre and surreal that Lee pushes our willing suspension of disbelief to the limit--it makes sense that she didn't present this vampire as her own creation but as that of a perhaps mentally disturbed character.

A pianoforte is washed up by the tide onto Yse's doorstep, and she has it carried into her rooms and incorporates it into the story of Antoinelle.  The blacks who work the fields on that Caribbean island sense a terrible monster has come up from the sea, and Vonderjan finds that something, a pianoforte, has indeed washed up on the island.  A monster actually does begin terrorizing the island, and it is never quite clear if the monster is just carrying the piano around with it as it stalks the island or if it actually takes the form of a piano the way a traditional vampire can take the form of a wolf.  Yse's text seems to be suggesting at times that her white and black characters experience the presence of the monster in different ways, with a mixed race man, a clerk come to the island to assess Vonderjan's estate for liquidation, able perhaps to see what is going on from both a European and an Afro-Caribbean perspective.  

Whatever the monster's relationship to the piano may be, it has six limbs and a tail and I guess is sort of like a giant monkey.  This creature climbs through the windows of the estate to have sex with women, Antoinelle among them, penetrating them with multiple appendages.  The arrival of the monster destroys Antoinelle's relationship with Vonderjan and throws the island into turmoil, so that everyone who is able to flees the island--Antoinelle stays there with the monster.

In real life, the arrival of the pianoforte seems at first to signal an improvement in Yse's looks and health and social status, but cataclysm is not far behind.  The story ends with a catastrophe that may involve Yse committing suicide and/or being seduced and murdered by a vampire disguised as Per Laszd or maybe by some monster; said vampire or monster may have climbed out of the pianoforte or out of Yse's writings.  All we can be sure about is that Yse, the pianoforte, and her writings vanish and some months later the pianoforte washes up on a shore with her broken body encased within it--some feel sharks are to blame, no doubt a callback to Lucius's shifting claims about that scar on his neck; Lee leaves us room to accept or reject the idea that vampires are real in Yse's world.          

This is a challenging literary story (it may be based on The Tempest, a play I remember nothing about) full of ambiguity and allusions as well as fetishistic sex.  While I was reading it I thought it felt long and lacking in narrative drive.   

I also feel like the monsters are a weakness in the story, and not just because a piano that walks around terrorizing people is ridiculous, and the six-limbed giant fuck monkey is like something from a pornographic parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom novels.  Antoinelle and Vonderjan are interesting characters with psychologies and back stories and relationships with multiple minor characters--family members, lovers, servants, etc.  The half-white, half-black clerk is also good, with his own back story and personality and relationships.  But the monster that shatters the Vonderjan marriage and upends the entire society of the island just comes out of nowhere--a six legged giant monkey who hides in a piano or disguises itself as a piano doesn't fit in the milieu of 19th-century Earth, and Yse/Lee offer no satisfying explanation of how it got there.    I guess we are supposed to see the crazy monster as the product of Yse's (crazy?) psychology--Yse tells Lucius that the monster is the product of Antoinelle and Vonderjan's sexual obsession--but there is no depth to it so it is not very interesting or very believable.  As for the vampire that perhaps had sex with Lucius and perhaps murdered Yse, like the vampire in "The Beautiful Biting Machine" it feels a little incongruous in a science fiction setting and like the piano monster in Yse's lost manuscript it isn't fleshed out enough to feel real or engage the reader's interest.  Maybe the vampire is just supposed to be a reflection of Lucius and Yse's unfulfilled desires and/or a representation of how they are frustrated because they are marginalized in our heteronormative patriarchal society, but that is just not very satisfying.    
      
So, I have my reservations about "The Isle is Full of Noises," but it is still worthwhile--all of Lee's vivid images, clever phrases, many clues that are perhaps just distractions and her focus on some of my favorite topics (like sex and suicide) outweigh the issues about which I have complained.  The story would reappear in not only Blood 20, but the Lee collections Sounds and Furies (Shakespeare again) and Tanith by Choice, a "best of" collection.


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I guess I have been pretty critical of these stories, but by any objective measure they are all good.  Tanith Lee is like Thomas Disch or Gene Wolfe in that she has real traditional literary talent, works hard to craft each story--on the level of the individual sentence as well as on the larger level of the story's structure--and often produces stories that are difficult or challenging, either because they are hard to figure out or present bold and possibly offensive subject matter or both.

Friday, July 16, 2021

From the Feb '33 issue of Weird Tales: H B Cave, C A Smith, H P Lovecraft & A Derleth

Let's take a gander at the February 1933 issue of Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.  Now, we've already read one story from its pages, Donald Wandrei's "The Fire Vampires," but the issue also includes stories from two men we venerate, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and two men whose work we (sometimes) tolerate, Hugh B. Cave and August Derleth, so let's check them out.

(I read the Cave and Derleth pieces from the scan of the February 1933 issue of WT, where they debuted, at the internet archive.  Seeking the best possible texts, I read the Lovecraft from my copy of the corrected Ninth printing of Arkham House's Dagon and Other Macabre Tales and the Smith from an electronic library copy of The Maze of the Enchanter: Volume Four of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger.)

"The Cult of the White Ape" by Hugh B. Cave (1933)

"The Cult of the White Ape" has been reprinted in numerous places, like Keep on the Light (less than a year after it appeared in Weird Tales) and Michel Parry's The Rivals of King Kong (in 1978) so I'm thinking this might be a good one.  Anyway, I love the idea of a killer ape--the 1933 King Kong is my favorite movie, beating out even such classics as The Driller Killer, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Gamera vs Guiron in the MPorcius film pantheon--so I am starting this blog post with high hopes!  

This novelette (14 pages here in Weird Tales) is a memoir by an administrator in the Belgian Congo, Varicks, the only white man in a remote village deep in a jungle where it is always raining.  He tells us what happened when a white couple, oafish fat drunk Betts and his pretty young wife Lucilia, moved into the area to start a rubber tree plantation.  The drunken Betts immediately trips over the local witch doctor, a deformed man with filed teeth who is reclining on the veranda of Varicks's dwelling, and then brutally kicks him.  Betts is also physically abusive to his native employees and to his wife, and even plants some of his rubber trees in a clearing said to be sacred to a secretive cult of lycanthropes.

The rubber planter goes increasingly crazy as the story progresses.  When he beats two workers to death the narrator goes to arrest him, but Betts, absolutely mad, overpowers Varicks and carries the administrator and Lucilia to that sacred clearing, binding them in front of the tower at the clearing's center.  Naked, the maniac, moving like an ape, dances around and around the tower.  When moonlight falls on the tower (Cave I think makes a mistake, having the moonlight touch the bottom of the tower before the apex) the insane planter moves to kill his captives!  Amazingly, they are rescued by a pack of white apes bigger than gorillas!  These apes are joined by snakes and great cats and reptiles, apparently local inhabitants in their lycanthropic forms; the white ape who carries Varicks and Lucilia to safety is the witch doctor in his animal form, doing Varicks a solid because he has always tried to be a fair administrator--he tended to the witch doctor's injuries after Beets kicked him, for example.  Beets is killed and apparently eaten, and the narrator and Lucilia lose consciousness, waking up back in the village.  Varicks quits his job and leaves the jungle and he and Lucilia get married.

"The Cult of the White Ape" kind of reminds me of those Somerset Maugham stories about two white guys in a colony, one of whom knows how to correctly deal with the natives while the other doesn't; lots of Maugham stories of this type also feature love triangles, as Cave's story here does.  "The Cult of the White Ape" isn't very well-written, but I guess reaches the level of "acceptable," and the plot is not bad.  The story is never boring, being full of violence and blood, and the author's treatment of the black Africans is interesting--they are obviously very alien, but are portrayed as essentially sympathetic, as victims and as meters out of justice; in the last line of the story Varicks tells us that the witch doctor is "wiser by far than any of us."

A passing grade for this one.     

"The Mandrakes" by Clark Ashton Smith (1933) 

This is one of Smith's stories of the French province of Averoigne.  In the fifteenth century, there live a wizard and a witch, a married couple who, in their hut on the edge of a village, make and sell love potions.  Ironically, their marriage is not too good--the witch is violent and impossible to get along with.  One day she attacks the wizard with a knife and in the resulting fight he kills her.  The wizard buries her body under a bed of mandrake plants.  When he harvests the mandrake roots for his potions some months later he finds the roots, which often somewhat resemble a human form, to be shockingly accurate representations of his dead wife's body!  When he cuts them they writhe and bleed!  He uses them to make potions anyway, and these love potions have a calamitous effect on all who imbibe them!  The villagers who tolerated the wizard's illegal trade when he provided them wares that facilitated their love affairs now turn on him and the authorities exact the ultimate penalty!

A brief and well crafted story with lots of fun horror and supernatural elements.  Thumbs up!  "The Mandrakes" would be reprinted in numerous Smith collections and in one of those Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg and Robert Weinberg anthologies put out by Barnes & Noble.

"The Cats of Ulthar" by H. P. Lovecraft (1920)

This quite brief piece, according to isfdb part of Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle," first appeared in the amateur press publication Tryout and was reprinted in Weird Tales in 1926 and again in this 1933 issue.

In a town in some fantasy land live a couple who hate cats and capture and murder any who come into their yard.  The cat-loving townspeople are too scared of this couple to do anything about it, but one day a caravan of what we might call gypsies if we forgot we weren't supposed to say that anymore comes to town.  When a cat who is the comfort of an orphan among the travelers' ranks is (apparently) killed by the sinister couple the child calls upon the travelers' gods and after the caravan has left the cats of the town unite to eat the cat-killing couple.

"The Cats of Ulthar" has a tone sort of like a fairy tale, and I have to admit I prefer those Lovecraft stories that are presented in the form of first-person narratives and/or news clippings and scientific reports.  This story is just OK; presumably a lot of people connect to the story because they love cats, the way I connect to a story like Smith's "The Mandrakes" because it is about a topic close to my heart, the disastrous sexual relationship. 

As you might expect, besides appearing in three billion Lovecraft collections, "The Cats of Ulthar" has been included in several cat anthologies.

I almost didn't include these covers in the blog post because they are so bad, but 
decided that they are bad in a way that excites laughter and so may add entertainment value
to MPorcius Fiction Log.

"The Vanishing of Simmons" by August Derleth (1933)

If isfdb is to be believed, this story has never been reprinted, so I am readying myself for a total disaster.

Efficiency expert and amateur investigator into the occult John Simmons has vanished, and the narrator, a medical man and friend of Simmons named Sexton, tells us how it happened.  

Simmons's father, the Major, had a big estate near Richmond.  Jennie, a young "mulatto" woman worked there, as did Jennie's mother.  Simmons found Jennie attractive, but Jennie and Mom left the Major's employ when the Major heard rumors that Jennie was in a voodoo cult and his efforts to get her to abandon the practice of black magic lead to violence between himself and the two women.  The Major, a healthy man, died of a heart attack soon after this fracas--could he have been the victim of voodoo?

Simmons sold the estate and moved into town.  Jennie's mother showed up one day, selling photographs.  Simmons purchased one, a photo of a slender mixed race woman clad in the costume of a voodoo priestess; the figure was facing away from the camera, but Simmons presumed it was Jennie.  Simmons hung it up in his home where he could see it all the time and became sort of obsessed with it.

One day Simmons comes to Sexton to say the picture has changed--the woman has turned to face the camera and her face is a grotesque mask of hate!  Sexton confirms Simmons's story--the picture has changed, and looking at it is very disturbing.  Sexton takes away the picture, but he is too late--Simmons develops a mysterious injury on his chest, which first looks like a bruise and then later like a stab wound.  Then he disappears, never to be seen again.  When Sexton looks at the photo it has changed again--the woman holds a knife and laying before her on the ground, dead, is Simmons!  Sexton throws the horrifying photo into the fire, and some time later learns that Jennie and her mother have been found dead, mysteriously burned to death!

This story feels like something Derleth threw together quickly without carefully thinking it over and  without troubling to revise it.  There are passages that feel extraneous, like a preamble about "loopholes in natural laws," and others that are needlessly confusing, while some plot points feel disconnected and elements that should have been elaborated on, like Simmons's feelings for Jennie, are given short shrift.   The basic idea of voodoo practitioners using a photograph to exact revenge on white people who mistreated them is good, but the fact that Jennie and her mother leave themselves vulnerable to an obvious counter attack--or just an ordinary accident which causes damage to the photo--feels like a plot hole.  Also, why does Derleth have the voodoo priestess both kill Simmons through the picture and suck him into the picture?  Just one or the other would make more sense and be scarier--for example, if Jennie had imprisoned Simmons in the picture alive, maybe torturing or tormenting him or something, Sexton would face a terrible dilemma: burning the picture might liberate Simmons but also kill him; maybe instead of destroying the photo Sexton would feel impelled to obsessively protect it from Jennie and her cult.  

The bones of a good story are here, but not enough work was done to erect those bones and give them life, and as the tale stands I've gotta give "The Disappearance of Simmons" a thumbs down.   

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Our exploration of 1930s Weird Tales creeps forward on little cat feet, or maybe stomps forward on the paws of righteous apes.  Either way, progress on this weird odyssey continues.