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)"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)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)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.
"Nellthu" by Anthony Boucher (1955)"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)
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.
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.