Wednesday, September 29, 2021

C. L. Moore: "Nymph of Darkness' (w/F J Ackerman), "Jirel Meets Magic" and "Here Lies..."

I've read quite a lot of C. L. Moore's work over the course of this blog's life.  When I was in grad school I knew a woman who was doing research on blogs, and she said that links are one of the distinguishing characteristics of blogs; so here are some links!




with Henry Kuttner

Damn, that was a lot of copying and pasting--I think my intern is going to quit!

Anyway, let's read three more stories by C. L. Moore.

"Nymph of Darkness"
by C. L. Moore and Forrest J. Ackerman (1935; Weird Tales version 1939)

"Nymph of Darkness" is a collaboration between Moore and noted SF and porn enthusiast Forrest J. Ackerman.  It was first published in the fanzine Fantasy Magazine in 1935, and then printed in Weird Tales in 1939; according to isfdb, the Weird Tales appearance is expurgated.  "Nymph of Darkness," the sixth Northwest Smith story, would later be included in anthologies like Echoes of Valor II and Ackermanthology.  My efforts to find electronic or physical copies of this story online and at Wonderbook in Hagerstown have yielded only the Weird Tales version at the internet archive, so that is the one I am reading.

Oy, this story is poorly written; it is like a draft that was never revised, and its many mistakes are distracting and irritating.  Reading "Nymph of Darkness" is like reading a student's paper-- the poor word choices and weak sentence construction jump out at you, begging for the red pen treatment.  One example: "It was typically a Venusian structure" instead of "It was a typical Venusian structure."  Grating on the nerves!

As the story starts Northwest Smith is walking on a dark street in a dangerous part of town and hears approaching footsteps so he puts his back to the wall and puts his hand on his holstered pistol.  He can tell the person approaching is a woman because the sound of the footsteps is a "light patter."  But a few paragraphs later we are told the "footsteps came storming down the dark street."  I don't need to tell you that "light patter" and "storming" don't really work together.  Anyway, the woman bumps into Smith in the dark and asks Smith to hide her.  All of a sudden it becomes apparent that there is "a pile of barrels at Smith's elbow," so he puts the girl behind the barrels.  The person from whom the girl is fleeing walks by, searching for her with some kind of weird flashlight.  This joker doesn't think to look behind the barrels beside which Smith is standing.  When the searcher has passed out of sight, Smith calls to the hidden girl and we are told "The all but soundless murmur of bare feet heralded her approach," reminding us that "storming" made no sense and making us wonder how long this "approach" can be--isn't this pile of barrels right there, "at Smith's elbow"?  The whole story is full of bad writing like this, superfluous phrases that are repetitive and add nothing but confusion.

The plot is no prize either.  The girl, Nyusa, is the daughter of a human woman who had sex with a god called "Darkness."  Somehow, being a daughter of darkness means Nyusa is invisible.  Darkness is worshipped by a bunch of people who are like slugs or worms, people short, squat, and pale, with what the authors call "formless features, intent and emotionless."  Nyusa has to dance at their rituals--they use their special flashlights during the ritual so they can see her dance.  Nyusa is sick of being their slave, and so has fled from them.  But in the middle of the story, after explaining her background to Smith, she suddenly decides to participate in the next ceremony anyway, and she leads Smith to the location of the ritual so he can watch her dance.  The slug people don't punish the girl when she returns, so Smith by putting her behind those barrels Smith didn't save her from anything.  In fact, Smith does nothing in this story to change the course of Nyusa's life or of the story's plot. 

As we would expect, Smith is mesmerized by how beautiful Nyusa is when she dances, illuminated by the special flashlights of the slug people.  If the central scene of your story is a guy being entranced by watching some chick's dancing, why bother to make her invisible?  The fact that Nyusa is invisible adds nothing to the story.  While he is watching Nyusa's dance the slug people's guard monster detects Smith and attacks; Smith kills it with his ray pistol, but then the slug people overwhelm him and capture him.  Smith has another gun in a secret holster, and when he is dragged before the slug people's leader, just a few feet away,  he kills him with it.  The rest of the slug-peeps are about to kill Smith when Nyusa unleashes her true power, scaring the worshipers of her father into leaving Smith alone.  There is a tedious surreal scene during which Smith closes his eyes as Darkness fills the room and fills his soul and Nyusa kisses him--his very atoms shudder, the kiss is both hot and cold, all that kind of goop.  Then Nyusa leaves for the dimension where her father lives.  The end.

Obviously Moore and Ackerman deserve to be harshly criticized for the state of this terrible story, but Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, also merits a sizable share of blame.  Why did he publish this piece of junk?  Wright is famous for rejecting stories, including stories from geniuses and heroes like Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft, and for making writers revise stories again and again to meet his requirements--in a 1977 interview in the fanzine Chacal, Manly Wade Wellman says that Wright made his wife Frances Garfield revise "Forbidden Cupboard" four times before he would buy it.  Wright was a very hands-on editor in no way reluctant to refuse stories or insist on changes to stories--why didn't he reject this disaster or force Moore and/or Ackerman to fix its glaring problems?  Was he afraid of offending these popular members of the SF community?  We also have to wonder if the original unexpurgated version was better...or even worse!   

This is the worst story I have read in a long time.  Bad!    


"Jirel Meets Magic" by C. L. Moore (1935)

The third Jirel story, "Jirel Meets Magic" is actually placed first in my copy of Gollancz's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, where I am reading it.  Why this is the case, I do not know.

In the opening scenes of the story Jirel is leading an assault on horseback, taking the castle of the wizard Giraud, whom she has sworn to kill because he ambushed some of her men recently.  The defenders are wiped out, and we get a taste of Jirel's leadership style as she calls her soldiers names ("fools...varlets...hell-spawned knaves") because they can't seem to find the wizard.  She dismounts and hunts for Giraud herself; in the very last tower she finds a shuttered window--when she opens the shutters she finds herself looking out upon another world, a beautiful place of singing birds and lovely trees.  No doubt Giraud fled this way.

In the first two Jirel stories, Jirel went through a portal into another world, and here in story #3 we see her doing it again.  What, is Mother Earth not good enough for this kid with the yellow eyes and the red hair?  

In this lovely wooded world Jirel soon comes upon a tall imposing woman with purple eyes who is using magic rays to torture a dying dryad, a naked girl with green hair whose tree has been felled.  The sorceress is Jarisme and after a little dialogue she teleports away.  The expiring dryad gives Jirel a talisman which can detect Jarisme and also perhaps destroy the lady wizard.

At Jarisme's tower Jirel finds her sitting on a couch with Giraud, who is like Jarisme's boy toy or something--Jarisme is obviously the one in charge in their relationship.  Jarisme teleports Jirel away and her tower moves to a mountainous area, but after a dreamy sequence in which our heroine passes through a "tropical garden" of flowers whose fragrances have a hallucinatory effect, Jirel climbs the mountains to enter the tower again.  Jarisme appears as a great cat with purple eyes, taunts Jirel, and leaves; Jirel navigates a "great door-lined hall;" these doors open on to other points in the universe, among them a snow planet, Hell, and outer space (a rocket even flies by.)  Finally Jirel opens a door that leads not to another world but to a descending stairway; at the bottom Jarisme awaits her in a room of one hundred mirrors.              
       
In this crystal room we get a long psychedelic scene as Jarisme plays a flute and Jirel can see the notes, "flying slivers of silvery brilliance," ricocheting about the room, and then in the mirrors she can see alien worlds.  From the alien worlds arrive a sort of coven or quorum of evil alien wizards--a giant snake with a one-eyed human head, a black blob like a giant amoeba, etc.--whom Jarisme has summoned to witness the punishment of Jirel.  Giraud is there, and warns Jarisme about the prophecy that Jarisme will be killed by an Earth woman, but Jarisme brushes aside this warning.

The worst possible punishment, opines Jarisme, is for a person to be physically frozen but have her mind free to contemplate her past, to be forced to relive all the regrettable things she has done.  Jirel suffers this punishment and is forced to remember killing Guillaume--Guillaume's name is not used, so you have to be a real Jirel fan to grok what is going on.  The pain and injustice are so great that Jirel becomes enraged enough to break free of Jarisme's spell.  She throws that talisman the dryad gave her at Jarisme's feet, and the tower collapses and the wizards disappear.  Except for Giraud, who knew how to escape the explosion.  He doesn't know how to escape getting stabbed to death by Jirel, however.

This story is about surreal sights and big emotions--it is about seeing things and feeling things, less about doing things.  The plot is just there to move Jirel from one crazy place where she is angry or sad to the next crazy place where she is angry or sad.  It's alright, no big deal.

"Jirel Meets Magic" debuted in the same issue of Weird Tales as one of my favorite Edmond Hamilton stories, "The Avenger from Atlantis."  It has reappeared in quite a few fantasy anthologies, as well as "women in SF" anthologies and the numerous Jirel collections.  (It is interesting to see the same story in both books purporting to offer "high fantasy" and those appealing to fans of gritty and gruesome sword and sorcery tales.  Well, if the covers below are any indication, aficionados of both vaguely defined subgenres share a love of boobs--boobs are a uniter, not a divider.)

  
"Here Lies..." by C. L. Moore (1956)

A lot of SF writers also penned detective/mystery/crime stories, and if you type "C. L. Moore" into the internet archive one of the things that comes up is the December 1956 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which includes this story by Moore.  Here's our chance to check out a different facet of Moore's work.

Cliff is at the beach in California when a woman in pink cries out and points--another woman, the skinniest Cliff has ever seen, is climbing up a fence, apparently a suicide trying to jump off the pier and down to the rocks below!

Cliff stops the skinny woman from accomplishing this desperate act and they sit in a bar, she drinking heavily and telling him her story.  Anne married some smart dude, Brewster, some years ago, worked hard to put him through law school, and then he divorced her and married Louise, a more intelligent woman who could offer him more help in his career.  For years now Anne has been thinking of a way to kill herself that would cause a scandal and ruin her former husband's career.  Well, today Brewster is in town, campaigning for a state senate seat, and this is her chance!  And Cliff ruined her chance!

Cliff tries to convince Anne to stop letting this turn of events dominate her life, to give up on suicide and get a new job and so on, but Anne is having none of it.  She flirts with Cliff and gets him to agree to walk with her to her car.  It is night, they walk a long ways along the road, out of sight of town, and Anne whips out a revolver and begs Cliff to kill her.  She forces the gun into his hands, they wrestle, the weapon goes off, blowing away half of Anne's face, killing her.

A car drives up.  It is the woman in pink!  She believes Cliff's story; she says she knew Anne, how wacky she was.  Cliff helps the woman in pink put the skinny corpse in her car and she drives a long distance into the desert, where he helps her bury Anne.  Then the woman in pink reveals her identity: she is Louise, the current Mrs. Brewster!  She put a distinctive item of Brewster's in the grave with Anne, so now she can blackmail her husband, whom she suspects would like to divorce her to get a still more helpful wife once he is a state senator.  Louise also has the revolver with Cliff's prints on it, so she can blackmail him into never speaking a word about this horrible adventure.  The End.

This is a competent mainstream story; no big deal.  Moore's stories often revolve around dangerous sexual relationships or love affairs, and here we see another example.  I guess you could call "Here Lies..." a feminist revenge story, but it is also, like so many Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories, a story of how if you are a man and get yourself mixed up with some woman because she is sexy or because she is in trouble you are perhaps asking for major trouble of your own because women are tricky and manipulative and will go to any lengths to achieve their (not necessarily rational) goals.  

**********

There's a lot more C. L. Moore and Weird Tales in our future, but in our next episode we'll be checking in with our pal Barry Malzberg, so stay tuned if you feel alienated, are scared of technology, and/or suffer from sexual dysfunction.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Weird Tales Dec '34: R E Howard, C L Moore & C A Smith

A lesser effort from Brundage--the colors are bad,
the perspective is clumsy, the composition
is weak, and the women's bodies
and faces are totally uninteresting

The December 1934 issue of Weird Tales features stories by three of the magazine's most successful writers, Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith.  Let's check out these stories, which, in search of more "authentic" texts, I will actually read in 21st century collections: 2003's The Bloody Crown of Conan from Ballantine/Del Rey, 2002's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams from Gollancz, and 2010's The Last Hieroglyph: Volume Five of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith from Night Shade Books.

"A Witch Shall Be Born" by Robert E. Howard

SF stories often offer fanciful explanations of the sources of religions and mythology; in "Shambleau," C. L. Moore tells us the source of the story of Medusa the Gorgon, in "Myths My Great-Granddaughter Told Me" Fritz Leiber offers a theory on the origin of Norse mythology, and Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood's End supplies an explanation of where our traditional image of the Devil comes from.  In "A Witch Shall Be Born" Robert E. Howard explains where the Biblical Salome came from!  You see, in the prehistoric civilization inhabited by Conan, there was a queen who had sex with a "fiend of darkness" and gave birth to a witch.  Her family was cursed, and so every century a queen of her dynasty gives birth to a baby girl with a "scarlet half moon" birthmark between her breasts--this baby girl is a diabolical witch!  These witches are always named Salome, and will continue to be born long after Conan's world is forgotten.

One of these Salomes was born in Conan's lifetime, the twin sister of a girl without such a birthmark, Taramis, and she was left in the desert to die.  But Salome did not die!  As "A Witch Shall Be Born" begins, the adult Taramis, Queen of Khauran, is awoken in the night to be confronted by the evil twin sister she didn't know was alive!

Salome explains to the queen how she survived being exposed in the desert, was raised by a wizard, and has now come to Khauran to impersonate Taramis and take her place as monarch.  An army of mercenaries led by Constantius the Falcon, a man who has designs on the virgin Taramis's body, marches into the city and Taramis is imprisoned in her own dungeon!

In the first half of Part II we eavesdrop on a conversation between Valerius, a soldier and a Taramis loyalist, and his girlfriend.  We learn that Conan of Cimmeria was captain of Taramis's palace guard, and when Salome ordered the army of Khauran disbanded and Constantius put in charge of defense, Conan, seeing through Salome's disguise, refused.  In the resulting fighting the loyalists were defeated by Constantius's mercenaries.  

In the second half of Part II we find Conan nailed to a cross a mile away from town!  (Howard is really into the allusions to the Bible and Christian history this time out!  You have to wonder if Howard isn't trolling Christians by having Conan survive crucifixion and naming a villain Constantius.)  Like the infant Salome, Conan is left alone to die, but his amazing strength keeps him alive; he is eventually rescued by some bandits who admire that strength and recognize him as the former captain of the queen's guard and thus perhaps a useful addition to their band.  Howard describes in gory detail Conan's time on the cross (the Cimmerian fights off a vulture attack with his teeth!) and the agony of having nails removed from his hands and feet and then mounting and riding a horse with such terrible wounds.  

Half of Part III is a letter written to a friend in the West by a foreign intellectual staying in Khauran; it is seven months since the arrival of Constantius and this philosophe has been here to see the whole thing.  He describes life in Khauran under Salome, whom he, like everybody besides Conan and Valerius, thinks is a Taramis gone crazy.  Crushing taxation, human sacrifice and rape are the order of the day under the new regime, and it is rumored that the queen has summoned a monster to which she feeds captives.

In the other half of Part III Howard presents a scene of Salome tormenting Taramis by bringing to her cell the severed head of one of her friends.  "A Witch Shall Be Born" skimps on the depictions of hand-to-hand fighting we expect in a Conan story, but is full of torture and abuse.

In the brief Part IV we learn how, in the course of seven months, Conan has taken over the band of desert raiders and also amassed an army of emigres, soldiers who fled from Khauran and hunger to retake their home.  With these two forces united under his command, Conan hopes to liberate Khauran and settle his score with Constantius.

In Part V Howard again tells his story indirectly through the eyes of one of the characters, as we learn about the field battle between Conan's and Constantius's armies along with Salome, who observes it from atop a tower and then in her crystal ball.  The battle demonstrates Conan's cunning; first he tricks Constantius into marching outside the city walls, and then he surprises Constantius with his Khauran heavy cavalry; Constantius had planned his attack in the belief that Conan led only the light cavalry of the nomadic desert bandits.  Constntius beaten, Salome realizes she is doomed and hurries to murder Taramis before Conan can get into the city.     

In the final portion of the story, Part VI, Valerius and other members of the loyalist underground rescue Taramis from the dungeon, only to be ambushed by Salome and one of her priests.  The witch's sorcery overwhelms the true queen's rescuers and Taramis is carried off to be fed to the monster.  Luckily for Taramis, Valerius recovers and catches up to them, slaying the priest and the witch.  With her last breath Salome calls upon her monster, a huge black toad with fangs and talons, but before it can wreak havoc Conan's army arrives and their archery makes short work of the, apparently unarmored, creature.  Conan then has Constantius crucified and gloats that the mercenary lacks the sort of strength a barbarian like he himself has.  

This story is noteworthy for the crucifixion scenes, which are pretty gross and eye-opening, and noteworthy in a less impressive way for Howard's questionable narrative decisions which leave Conan off screen much of the time, keep Conan from personally coming to grips with either Salome or the monster, and have us experiencing much of the story through expository dialog and in the epistolary form.  While remarkable for these reasons, "A Witch Shall Be Born" is only a decent Conan story--Howard has produced much better ones.

Donald Wollheim made "A Witch Shall Be Born" the cover story of Avon Fantasy Reader No. 10 in 1949, and twenty years after that Hans Stefan Santesson included it in the anthology The Mighty Barbarians: Great Sword and Sorcery Heroes.

"Black God's Shadow" by C. L. Moore

In the letters column in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales we find ongoing debate over the appropriateness of Margaret Brundage's nude covers and of the inclusion of science-fiction space stories in WT, but the most enthusiasm discussion is inspired by C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry story from the October issue, "Black God's Kiss."  Among those who write in to praise Moore are Robert Bloch (who also takes a swipe at the Conan stories, which he considers "vile") and Manly Wade Wellman.  Let's check out the second Jirel story, which no doubt all these correspondents eagerly devoured.

Jirel, commander of the castle Joiry, in her dreams hears a small weak voice begging for help--it is the voice of Guillaume!  Because Jirel killed him with magic from an alien world beyond the dominion of God, Guillaume's soul did not go to Hell, but to some place worse--the alien world from which Jirel attained the super weapon from the nameless black god!  

Jirel takes up her two-handed sword and goes down that tunnel to the alien world--this part of "Black God's Shadow" feels like a repetition of the similar scene in the first Jirel story.  Once on the alien world Jirel again deals with a multitude of crazy apparitions and surreal terrain, though Moore has some new weird phenomena for us.  Jirel follows Guillaume's pathetic pleading voice to a hideous caricatured statue of him, a statue which represents all the evil in his character and life history.  Jirel, who is a good person even though it kind of sounds like she spends most of her time hitting people with swords, has a psychic battle with the unnamed black god for Guillaume's soul; this is a mental battle of light versus dark, Jirel summoning happy memories of friendship love and joy to hurl against the black god's engulfing darkness.

Guillaume's soul, in the form of a shadow, is liberated form the statue and floats across this insane countryside; Jirel gives chase, encountering viscous living bodies of water, dangerous animate trees, and other bizarre phenomena on the way which she must overcome with her wits, spirit and sword.  She has two more psychic battles with the black god, the final in a temple full of carvings depicting the souls of the guilty suffering their punishment.  (This alien world, I guess, is like Hell, but for people from other planets who are outside the influence of the God of Abraham, or something.)  After this final mental/spiritual struggle, Guillaume's soul is released from this alien world and Jirel is able to leave knowing she has done a good deed; the last line of the story is "She toiled up the slope, dragging her sword listlessly, weary to the very soul, but quite calm now, with a peace beyond understanding;" that last phrase is presumably a paraphrase of the famous line from Paul's letter to the Philippians, rendered in the King James Bible as "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."

Moore is a good writer who conveys emotional and psychological states with passion and intensity and also offers up striking and strange images.  However, in the Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories I am finding she hits the same themes and ideas again and again, within the same story and across stories, which makes them feel repetitive and dulls their power somewhat; "Black God's Shadow" is not a bad story, but it suffers from this characteristic of Moore's early writing.  Did Jirel really need to have three psychic light vs dark struggles with the black god, each of which is much like the other?  "Black God's Shadow" can also feel a little monotonous--there are no conversations and a minimum of physical confrontations; Jirel is just running through the dark from one surreal psychic battle to the next almost the entire time.

"Black God's Shadow" has been reprinted many times in Moore collections, but doesn't seem to have ever been anthologized in English.  Now that Moore has exhausted the possibilities of Jirel's relationship with Guillaume (I think!), I am wondering what the lady of Joiry will be up to in the third Jirel story. 

"Xeethra" by Clark Ashton Smith

Here we have one of Smith's tales of Zothique, a continent on a far future Earth which has long forgotten us.  In 1993 Tom Shippey saw fit to include "Xeethra" in the oft-reprinted Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories.

Xeethra is a teen-aged goatherd living in a desolate mountainous area with the irascible old uncle who raised him because his parents died when he was very young.  One day Xeethra finds a newly opened cleft in a cliff wall, from which a sweet smell wafts; he follows the tunnel to a beautiful fertile valley full of fruit trees and other vibrant life.  He eats a delicious fruit and is thus cursed by the demon, Thasaidon, who owns this paradise.

Xeethra is afflicted with the memories of a king of a prosperous seaside kingdom, forgets he is a poor goatherd in the remote wilderness and takes on this monarch's personality.  Not knowing how he ended up in this desolate mountain region, the king marches east for many days, seeking his kingdom.  When he finally reaches his kingdom he finds its once prosperous villages and farmlands an unpopulated desert, and when he gets to the seaside capital city where his lies his palace it is all ruins, inhabited by lepers who make fun of him.  His kingdom collapsed centuries ago. 

Xeethra regains his memories of his life as a goatherd so that he now has both his ancient royal and current goatherd memories.  A representative of Thasaidon appears, and makes Xeethra a bargain--if Xeethra pledges his soul to Thasaidon, his prosperous kingdom will be restored, but if he should ever regret being made monarch, the magic gift will be revoked.  Xeethra accepts the deal.

Again Xeethra forgets his goatherd existence as the city and the kingdom are restored to vibrant magnificent life.  For years, as peace and good economic times reign, Xeethra is a happy king.  But then war and plague and drought strike, and, having no leadership abilities and none of a soldier's or administrator's skills, Xeethra can do nothing to save the kingdom but only sink himself in ever more decadent and outré entertainments.  When he proves that he regrets being king by trying to sneak away, Thasaidon returns him to the present, to the ruined city haunted by lepers, where he again is afflicted with knowledge of a life as a monarch and as a goatherd, lives he precipitously threw away.

Much of this story is taken up by Smith's poetic descriptions of landscapes and cityscapes, which are good, but they are not particularly surprising or striking, and "Xeethra" lacks the horror or gore or jokes that make the best Smith stories so memorable. This one is just alright.  In their extensive and interesting notes on the story, the editors of The Last Hieroglyph: Volume Five of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, Scott Connors and Ron Hilger, call the story "heart-wrenching" (like Tom Shippey, they obviously enjoyed it more than I did) and quote Smith complaining that "the casual reader is purblind and even hostile to literature of a poetic cast" and that poetry in America "has fallen into the hands of a lot of literary gangsters."

**********

These stories are a little underwhelming; all three are competent, but all lack something.  "A Witch Shall Be Born" has the striking crucifixion scenes, but otherwise feels kind of detached, and Conan, Salome and the monster are all underutilized.  (Weird Tales readers still voted "A Witch Shall Be Born" the best piece in the issue.)  "Black God's Shadow" is kind of repetitive and monotonous, and "Xeethra" is a little long, flat and uninvolving.  Judged against the whole universe of SF stories these stories are moderately good, but they are far from the stories I would say best exemplify what I like about Howard's, Moore's or Smith's bodies of work.     

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Weird Tales Oct '34: C L Moore, C A Smith and M W Wellman

Let's continue our quest to read at least one story in each 1930s issue of Weird Tales by reading three stories from the October 1934 issue of the magazine of the bizarre and unusual.  This issue includes the second part of Robert E. Howard's "The People of the Black Circle," which I blogged about in March, and stories by our old friends C. L. Moore and Clark Ashton Smith, stories which I read years ago and which I will reread today.  To round out the post I'll read the story contributed by Manly Wade Wellman, whom I feel I am just sort of starting to get to know.

"The Black God's Kiss" by C. L. Moore

The people at WT sell this story for all they are worth, proclaiming it "the weirdest story ever told."  I am reading it in my copy of 2002's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, where it appears as "Black God's Kiss," without the article.

"Black God's Kiss" comes to us in five parts over 30 pages, and brief Part I consists almost entirely of eroticized violence!  The land of Joiry (which I guess is in medieval Western Europe) has just been conquered by the army of some guy named Guillaume, and he sits on the throne of Joiry, surrounded by dead bodies and pools of blood.  His men bring to him the captured commander of Joiry's defeated armies--when the bound warrior's helmet is removed all see that the captive is a tall yellow-eyed and red-haired woman!  Guillaume kisses her against her will, and in the struggle she bites him and he smacks her across the face, knocking her across the room!  Va va voom!

In Part II Jirel escapes form imprisonment in a cell of her own dungeon and sneaks to the chapel to see a priest; she requests a blessing because she is about to go on a terrible mission, to a place "outside God's dominion" to seek a super weapon with which to destroy Guillaume.

At the bottom of the dungeon below Jirel's castle is a winding twisting chute-like tunnel to another dimension built by intelligent beings who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  In Part III Jirel slides down this tunnel, the curves of which seem to be of an alien geometry.  In a level portion of tunnel Jirel is briefly tormented by a sort of living wind--the spirits of unhappy beings who transmit their misery to her--and then stumbles on a dinosaur-sized footprint.  Finally she comes to the end of the tunnel, and emerges on an alien world into which she cannot proceed without first removing her crucifix necklace.  Here, under a black sky filled with constellations she doesn't recognize, Jirel encounters strange creatures and crosses a swamp to a tower made of light.

In Pat IV Jirel enters the tower, meets a haughty being of light that mockingly takes Jirel's own form.  The alien, which Jirel thinks of as a "light-devil," tries to lure Jirel into a death trap, but when Jirel proves to have the intelligence and fortitude to avoid the trap, the alien offers her a boon.  When Jirel asks for a weapon to destroy the man she hates, the being hints that Jirel's hatred is the product of sublimated lust for Guillaume, then directs her to a black temple in a lake.  There she feels compelled to kiss the statue in the temple, a sexless "semi-human" cyclops figure that crouches forward, lips pursed.  After the kiss she is filled with fear and a spiritual or psychological weight and runs frantically to the tunnel, fighting monsters as she goes.

Back on Earth our heroine kisses Guillaume, passing that horrible weight on to him.  In his eyes she can see that he suffers a despair that no human has ever felt, an agony only aliens have ever before experienced, and then he keels over dead.  Only when she sees him dead before her does Jirel realize that he was the man for her, and she kneels over his corpse and cries.

Thumbs up for "Black God's Kiss;" all the weird landscapes and creatures work, and of course we like all those rough sex themes with women being tied up and kisses being a means to humiliate or kill somebody.  On a less exploitative level, the story is full of thematic tensions that contribute to making it compelling.  It is the tale of Jirel's triumph, but also of the tragedy she brings upon herself.  Moore integrates a sort of feminist revenge narrative in which a woman puts her soul as well as her life at risk to punish the guy who kissed her against her will with a not-at-all feminist narrative in which a strong woman realizes that what she really wants out of life is a man stronger than her, and that her very strength has kept her from the life she didn't realize she wanted to lead.  I think the role of Christianity in the story is also interesting, the way Brackett is trying to depict a universe in which all that Lovecraftian "there are alien monster gods and before humans the world was ruled by nonhuman people" stuff and Christian beliefs about hell and the power of Jesus are both true.  This is totally a sex and violence story, but Moore imbues it with emotion and even some level of (ambiguous) philosophical and psychological meaning.

On the back of my copy of Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams there is a Fritz Leiber quote about Moore's work: "there are strains of A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and even H. P. Lovecraft...."  Moore here definitely handles travel to other planets much like Lovecraft does in "Through the Gates of the Silver Key" and "Dreams in the Witch House," and Jirel does things like those Conan does; for example, carrying her two-handed sword in her teeth--Conan carries his sword in his teeth in "Jewels of Gwahlur," though Howard has the Cimmerian cut his lips in doing so.  (Jirel bites her lip, drawing blood, while trying to stifle a scream of terror while fleeing the alien world.)  Looking forward instead of back, I think we can see similarities to "Black God's Kiss" in Leigh Brackett's work (like the sexualized violence in the 1949 Eric John Stark story "Enchantress of Venus") and in the oeuvre of Michael Moorcock--I feel like in his Eternal Champion stories guys are always going to some other dimension or to some tower to get a super weapon.  

"Black God's Kiss" was a hit, the most popular story in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, and has been reprinted in many Moore collections, anthologies of superior fantasy stories and anthologies of SF by women.  isfdb lists five more Jirel stories, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of them.        


"The Seven Geases" by Clark Ashton Smith

Here we have one of Smith's stories of his prehistoric fantasy realm Hyperborea, where mastodons, dinosaurs, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and other creatures stalk an Earth haunted by wizards and alien gods.  "The Seven Geases"'s appearance in Weird Tales was augmented by a little sidebar defining the word "geas" and one of Smith's own drawings of the wide-faced god Tsathoggua.  I am reading "The Seven Geases" in a library copy of the electronic version of The Last Hieroglyph, the fifth volume of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. 

Lord Ralibar Vooz, third cousin to the king, goes hunting at the head of a party of twenty-six men.  His quarry: the subhuman savages known as the Voormis, who live in caves high atop volcanic Mount Voormithadreth.  Mount Voormithadreth is also said to be home of Tsathoggua, a god who came to Earth from Saturn long ago, but Ralibar Vooz is an atheist and scoffs at such stories.

Forging ahead of his fellows, Ralibat Vooz by chance stumbles upon the lair of a hermit wizard, interrupting the sorcerer's incantations.  His spell ruined, the angry wizard puts a geas on Ralibat Vooz, a sort of curse or hypnosis that compels him to pursue a quest--the quest is to fight his way through the fangs and claws of a tribe of Voormis to present himself to Tsathoggua as a snack!

Ralibat Vooz fights his way successfully to the god Tsathoggua, who looks kind of like a giant toad covered in bat fur.  He offers himself as a meal, but Tsathoggua is full, having just eaten.  So he puts a geas on Ralibat Vooz that has the man travelling through tunnels to a different monster god who lives under Mount Voormithadreth, a spider god who spins webs that serve as bridges across an abyss.  This monster god doesn't want to devour Ralibat Vooz either, and puts still another geas on the hunter that sends him to yet another dangerous creature.

This happens again and again to Ralibat Vooz--he is repeatedly sent to what seems like certain death at the hands of some wizard, monster, or race of serpent-people only to be rejected and then compelled to present himself to yet another diabolical being deeper under the mountain.  The shaggy dog ending of the story has the man getting killed thanks to an unlucky coincidence that has nothing much to do with the geases.

In letters quoted by Conners and Hilger in the extensive and insightful notes to "The Seven Geases," Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright complains that the story lacks plot, and H. P. Lovecraft expresses exasperation with plot, saying plot is "not only unnecessary but even intrinsically inartistic."  I have to agree with Wright here; I personally like plots--I like a story to have a logical course and ending, to present characters who pursue goals and make decisions and who are rewarded or punished based on those decisions or other factors attributable to them, their strength or intelligence or ideology or whatever.  Anyway, though "The Seven Geases" is well written and all the little episodes are fun, I, unlike Smith and Lovecraft, think it suffers from lacking a strong plot.  I am still giving it a passing grade, but my enthusiasm is only moderate.

"At the Bend of the Trail" by Manly Wade Wellman

In a interview conducted by Karl Edward Wagner for the second and final issue of the fanzine Chacal in 1977, Manly Wade Wellman, contra Lovecraft,  talks about how great an editor Weird Tales's Farnsworth Wright was, how he helped Wellman improve his stories.  He also talks a little about Wright's successor at Weird Tales, Dorothy McIlwraith, and her assistant, Lamont Buchanan, who Wagner and Wellman suggest was doing much of the actual editing, and about Hugo Gernsback, who was very reluctant to pay those writers whose work he had purchased.  At one point, Wellman, a big man who had played football, admits he physically intimidated someone in Gernsback's office, a David Blasser, in his efforts to secure the return of a story Gernsback had bought but never paid Wellman for.  (Wellman got the story back and sold it to Astounding editor F. Orlin Tremaine for a tidy sum.)  

We also learn from this interview that Wellman was born in Angola and lived in Africa until the age of six.  Which brings us to "At the Bend of the Trail," a very brief tale set in Africa.

Two British guys, one green, one an old Africa hand, are travelling through the jungle with their black bearers.  The older man, talking about how Africans invest unusual objects with "a supernatural personality," points out a long serpentine root sticking out of the ground at a bend in the trail, a somewhat mysterious root because there are no large trees nearby.  Every time he and his crew walk this way the Africans avoid the root scrupulously, and he follows suit.  The young man, determined to expose this as nonsense, intentionally steps on the root--everybody is alarmed to see the root writhe like an animal, and they all resolve to leave it alone.

But the young Englishman can't stop thinking about the root, and at night decides to take an axe to the thing.  But when he gets to the bend in the trail, the odd root is gone!  He goes back to bed, and later that night the root, like a constrictor snake, attacks, trying to crush the life out of him!  Luckily the older Briton snatches up the axe and chops up the monster; the young know-it-all suffers some broken bones, but will live.

A mediocre filler story, barely acceptable.  In the 1990s this thing reemerged in a fanzine, The Tome, and in Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenberg, and Robert Weinberg's Barnes & Noble bargain book 100 Tiny Tales of Terror.  In 2001, "At the Bend of the Trail" would be included in the Wellman collection The Devil is Not Mocked and Other Warnings.

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Another issue of Weird Tales we can cross off our list, and an experience which has acquainted us with a host of pretty crazy monsters.  Maybe we'll be meeting some new monsters in our next episode when we again read stories from an issue of Weird Tales.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

1958 SF (?) stories by Richard Gehman, Rog Phillips, Gerald Kersh & John Steinbeck

It is time to break out into some new territory here at MPorcius Fiction Log and read four stories by people I have never blogged about before.  Our guide on this expedition will be Judith Merril, a woman whose fan base may not be all that big (Barry Malzberg in a 2016 column for Galaxy's Edge reports that Donald Wollheim told him that Merril's famous anthology, England Swings! SF, "was the worst-selling Ace paperback in history") but its members are dedicated and powerful.  Merril, by including them in the fourth installment of "The Most Acclaimed S-F Anthology," is telling us that these four stories are among 1958's "greatest," so let's give them a shot.

"Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac" by Richard Gehman 

Richard Gehman appears to be a guy who wrote some novels and did lots of Hollywood and Broadway journalism, writing articles about celebrities for TV Guide and penning biographies of Bogie, Jerry Lewis, Gary Cooper, and the restaurant Sardi's.  He apparently also hung around with the "Rat Pack."  Gehman only has two fiction entries at isfdb.  Merril's little intro to the two-page "Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac" here in SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Fourth Annual Volume tells us it is a satire and points out that Playboy editor Ray Russell warned her he didn't think it fit into her SF anthology. 

I'm a little reluctant to say this story is a total waste of time because I haven't read any Kerouac so maybe nuances are going over my head, and maybe people familiar with Kerouac love "Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac" when first they encounter it.  But to me it is just a bunch of puns and goofs on hipster slang.  For example, the protagonist, a mouse, tries pot, but it doesn't give him any kicks, so he tries pan.  Later, still in pursuit of a transcendent experience, the mouse runs up and down a clock like in the nursery rhyme.  Then he gives up on trying to get high from external sources ("in the final analysis, he had to look inward") and writes a novel and gets rich.

I guess Merril considers this SF because animals talk, but there is no speculation in it, no escapist adventure, no science--it's a gentle parody of a cultural phenomenon.  I have to suspect she included it in her book of 1958's "greatest science-fiction and fantasy" stories in an effort to make it look like SF readers are sophisticates conversant with important literary movements and not just pimple-faced freaks who know how to use a slide rule. 

"Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac" appeared first in Playboy under the pen name Martin Scott, alongside photos by Shel Silverstein of his trip to Moscow and a story by Richard Matheson.  Merril loved it so much she included it in 1967's SF: The Best of the Best; Gehman didn't get his name on the cover among those of Brian Aldiss, Clifford Simak and Damon Knight (who famously panned Merril's novel The Tomorrow People at some risk to his career), but is instead lumped in with Steve Allen under the description "eleven other contemporary masters."  "Hickory, Dickory, Kerouac" would be reprinted again in 1974 in a McGraw-Hill textbook, Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvelous.  I guess if he is in a text book he really is a master!


"The Yellow Pill" by Rog Phillips

The pill in "Mother's Little Helper" is yellow, isn't it?  Now there's a great song.  And it's about a contemporary social issue--I wonder if Merril considered it one of the greatest SF songs of 1966.     

"The Yellow Pill" first appeared in John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding, so I think we can expect it to be a better fit for conventional notions of what constitutes SF than is Gehman's piece.  Rog Phillips actually has many stories listed at isfdb and a pretty long Wikipedia entry but somehow I have never read anything by him before.

Cedric Elton is the world's most famous psychiatrist.  The cops bring to him Gerald Bocek, a man who murdered five people in a supermarket.  Bocek claims those he shot down were in fact a boarding party of reptilian space pirates who had attacked the space ship upon which both he and Elton are serving as professional spacemen.  Bocek insists that if Elton really thinks himself a head shrinker on Earth it is because he is suffering from space madness, an occupational hazard of space travel, and should take one of the yellow pills carried aboard to dispel such madness.

Over the course of several days, each man tries to convince the other that he is delusional and each employs strategies to cure the other.  The twist ending of the story is that both succeed in changing the other's mind--as the story ends Elton has come to believe they really are spacemen whose vessel is full of charred lizardman corpses while Bocek has come to think himself a murderer (not guilty by reason of insanity) who has just been cured of his delusions by Elton the brilliant psychiatrist.  After expressing his gratitude, Bocek walks out of the doctor's office...or did he just step into the airlock where he will die of asphyxiation?           

This story is OK; competent, but no big deal.  Editors have been keen on "The Yellow Pill" and it has appeared in numerous anthologies and reprint magazines.  


"River of Riches" by Gerald Kersh

In her intro to "River of Riches," Merril says that "s-f has enjoyed a rather more reputable name in Great Britain than it has here--or at least a good many more 'literary' British authors have written it" and goes on to name Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and others.  Kersh himself is British, though he moved to New York and in 1958 became a U.S. citizen.  Kersh's novels, wikipedia is telling me, were about London low-life, but his post-war short stories were largely of the detective or speculative type.  Wikipedia also informs us Harlan Ellison told people that Kersh was his favorite author.  So maybe this story is going to be good.

The narrator, an Englishman in new York, meets an impecunious countryman in a bar.  This guy, Jack Pilgrim, tells the story of how he comes from a wealthy family but doesn't stand to currently inherit much and was sent to Canada to work and has since worked many jobs and gained and lost multiple fortunes.  

The central episode of this account is how Pilgrim found himself alone among cannibal Indians in a Latin American jungle and there made and quickly lost a fortune.  In brief, these primitives played a game like marbles using a certain species of nut.  As explained in their mythology, one in ten-million of these nuts is intelligent!  A tribal chief traded Pilgrim one of the rare intelligent nuts for the Englishman's rifle.  With the thinking nut Pilgrim won the game again and again, amassing a vast fortune in gold and jewels, which the natives do not consider valuable.  But, ignoring the advice of both natives and a European trader, Pilgrim went up against the chief of a tribe of Indians famed for their trickery, and those guys stripped Pilgrim of his wealth, including the super nut!

This is a well-put-together and entertaining story, so thumbs up.  "River of Riches" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and would be included in a British collection of Kersh's and in one of those anthologies with Alfred Hitchcock's name and handsome mug on them.           


"The Short-Short Story of Mankind" by John Steinbeck

Richard Gehman and Gerald Kersh may be forgotten, but I think people still read John Steinbeck--I feel like it was just a few years ago that there was a whole controversy over how much of Travels with Charley was just made up.  Whether they make kids in school read Of Mice and Men nowadays I don't know, but they made me read it back in the 1980s.

In her intro Merril admits "The Short-Short Story of Mankind" is not really SF, but as it is a "delightful" satire, and her famous anthology has begun including a non-fiction section, she included it.

This five-page joke story is about a bunch of cavemen who engage in incestuous sex and cannibalism.  The joke is that they say the same sorts of things and hold the same sorts of attitudes as 20th-century people whom people like Steinbeck and Merril look down upon.  They complain about the younger generation.  They are suspicious of foreigners and people of a different religion.  They fear new technology.  Besides the repetitive jokes, Steinbeck offers fable-like stories of how agriculture, trade and government arose, and finally suggests that people today are no different than the cave people he has depicted.  He ends on the positive note that in the past people chose to abandon their prejudices rather than go extinct, and so it is likely we 20th-century people will do the same, getting over our differences rather than nuking the world into oblivion.

Tedious self-satisfied conventional wisdom packaged with lame jokes.  Thumbs down!

"The Short-Short Story of Mankind" first appeared in Playboy and would be included by Brian Aldiss in the oft-reprinted Penguin Science Fiction.


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I might read something by Rog Phillips or Gerald Kersh in the future, but don't bet on seeing blog posts about Richard Gehman or John Steinbeck ever again here at MPorcius Fiction Log, oh my brothers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

1958 stories by F Leiber, B Aldiss, E C Tubb, and T Sturgeon hand picked by J Merril

Let's take a look at my paperback copy of Judith Merril's SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume, published in 1959.  One of Merril's practices in her famous series of anthologies is to include stories by mainstream writers you never heard of like Gerald Kersh, Daniel Lang and Richard Gehman as well as writers they told you to read in school like John Steinbeck.  I guess this is a strategy that aims to attract positive reviews for her anthologies in particular and more respect for SF in general and to provide evidence for Merril's belief that SF and the mainstream are not so different, really, that SF can have literary merit and mainstream lit often employs devices and explores themes we often associate with SF.

Today, however, we'll be reading stories from this volume by people firmly embedded in the SF world: Fritz Leiber, Brian Aldiss, E. C. Tubb, and Theodore Sturgeon.  Nota bene: SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume showcases another story by a genre writer of interest to the staff here at MPoricus Fiction Log, "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson, which I read in a different book and blogged about back in 2018.   

"Space-Time for Springers" by Fritz Leiber

SF people love cats.  And here we have another piece of evidence in support of this self-evident statement, a story which includes a surfeit of jokes on the themes that cats think they are as good as or better than humans and react in an adorable fashion to mirrors and things they see out the window.

Gummitch the cat is our main character.  As a tiny kitten Gummitch was sickly and abandoned, and a family adopted him and nursed him back to health.  Gummitch, however, thinks that he is the offspring of the man who heads the household, and that, while in a kitten body today, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon he will soon become a human being.  He also thinks he could transfer his soul into other creatures' bodies, inspired in a roundabout way by seeing his reflection in mirrors and windows.

For the most part "Space-Time for Springers" is a cutesy sweet story full of episodes designed to melt the hearts of cat lovers, but the actual plot of "Space-Time for Springers" is like a psychological horror story.  The family's human members, besides the adult man and his wife, are a young girl and a baby boy.  The girl has mental problems; not only is she unable to talk, long after she was expected to be able to do so, but she is a sadist.  In the climactic scene of the story Gummitch intervenes as the girl is methodically scratching the face of her baby brother with a hat pin.  Gummitch's attack not only saves the baby from being grievously injured, but shocks the girl out of her mental deficiencies--she quickly learns to talk and abandons all that sadism to become a nice person.  Gummitch credits the little girl's transformation to his having given her his noble feline soul.

This story is better written and better constructed than many of the stories I read, but I'm not really the audience for cat stories.  My biased judgement is that it is just acceptable, though probably it is good based on objective criteria.   

"Space-Time for Springers" first appeared in Fred Pohl's anthology Star Science Fiction No. 4, and since then has been anthologized many times in volumes of cat stories and books of "masterpieces" and "classics."  This story is very popular!  Isfdb is telling me there are two more Gummitch stories out there for me to stumble on if I continue to devote my precious few years on this Earth to reading old SF magazines and anthologies.  


"Ten-Story Jigsaw" by Brian Aldiss

It is the war torn future!  Nine years ago war broke out, apparently started by the dictator of Australia!  (Who would have thought the government of Australia would become dictatorial?)  The dictator of Australia disappeared early in the war when a bomb hit his bunker, but this didn't end the war, and for years all the major cities of the world have been under aerial attack.  

Our narrator is a salvage man in Sydney.  Every day he and his partner, an amnesiac bomb victim who turned up at the narrator's house early in the war, take off in their futuristic helicopter to hover over the ruin of a building hit during last night's bombing and recover valuable items.  The war has wrecked the world economy, making every usable appliance and even raw materials from damaged household items quite valuable.  One member of the two-man team descends into the ruin to explore and find valuables, to which he attaches a block and tackle system so they can be hauled up to the roomy salvage chopper.  Of course, exploring a building that has been damaged by a bomb and may further collapse at any moment is physically dangerous, and seeing the wrecked property and sometimes the torn bodies of ordinary people is psychologically wearing.

The plot of the story follows one such salvage mission.  The narrator's partner goes down into a bombed apartment building to salvage the apartments of middle-class city residents, and Aldiss does a compelling job of describing the operation.  There is a twist ending which I kind of think is unnecessary.  During the salvage operation today the amnesiac sees something shocking that brings back his memory--he is the dictator who was believed killed at the start of the war, the war he started!  When he realizes his true identity, he commits suicide.

A good story, even if I think the melodramatic ending is overkill that doesn't quite jive with the realistic sections (I don't mean the suicide business--I like that--I mean the revelation that the amnesiac is the dictator.)  "Ten-Story Jigsaw" first appeared in the magazine Nebula (as "Ten-Storey Jigsaw") which also features a film review column by Forrest J. Ackerman in which the controversial superfan brags he saw The Amazing Colossal Man with Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett.  I liked "Ten-Story Jigsaw" more than Leiber's widely anthologized "Space-Time for Springers" but I guess Merril and I are outliers in promoting it; Aldiss's tale of an amnesia-addled Australian tyrant committing suicide would not be reprinted again until the 21st-century in the Aldiss collection The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

"Fresh Guy" by E. C. Tubb

It feels like just two minutes go I was saying I was on the same page with Judith Merril in promoting Aldiss's "Ten-Story Jigsaw."  Well, now I am wondering why she thought it fitting to include this lame joke story--I have to assume there were many SF stories printed in 1958 better than this one.

Seven or eight years ago a nuclear war killed almost everybody and drove the survivors into underground cities.  But the ghouls, werewolves and vampires didn't follow humanity down there; they are living a parlous existence on the surface, waiting impatiently for the mainstream of the human race to return so they can resume their parasitic lifestyle.  

The narrative of this story concerns a ghoul, a werewolf and two vampires, one centuries-old, the other newly risen from his grave (the "Fresh Guy" of the title), hanging around the entrance to one of the underground bunker-cities, seeking signs their victims will emerge soon.  There is a lot of background exposition as the old hands describe to the newbie the story's setting and explain to him the rules of vampires in this story (many vampire stories expend a lot of ink explaining to us readers which of the traditional powers and vulnerabilities of vampires we see in such canonical sources as Dracula apply in this story, and science fictiony vampire stories in particular have to take time to tell you which Christian elements of vampire lore are stupid superstitions and detail convoluted justifications for the others) and then we finally get the plot in the last few pages as the old vampire and the ghoul plot against the new vampire, whom they suspect will league with the normal humans against them.  

Why did Merril print this boring and silly piece of pedestrian filler?  Maybe Tubb's weak Econ 101 jokes referring to private enterprise and supply and demand appealed to her leftist politics? (Wikipedia says she was a Marxist and a Trotskyist, at least in her teens.)  Maybe she wanted to include another non-American author?  (Over her entire life Merril exhibited an interest in internationalism and an allegiance to foreign countries as well as a lack of sympathy for the United States.)  Maybe she just likes joke stories and stories about vampires and werewolves and ghouls? (Remember when we read five stories from Merril's anthology called Galaxy of Ghouls?

Whatever the case, this story is poor and serves primarily to remind me of two things: 1) I am apparently never going to stop being angry about the commies and the pinkos and 2) I am apparently never going to stop being angry about lame joke stories.

I may think it is a waste of time, but "Fresh Guy" has been a success for E. C. Tubb; after its initial appearance in Science Fantasy it reappeared in several horror and vampire anthologies. (I actually like Tubb, having enjoyed the Dumarest books I have read and having thought his interview with Charles Platt in Dream Makers was fun, so I don't really begrudge him making a buck by pulling the wool over the eyes of all those editors.) 


"The Comedian's Children" by Theodore Sturgeon

"The Comedian's Children" is kind of long; in fact, it is longer than "Space-Time for Springers," "Ten-Story Jigsaw" and "Fresh Guy" put together--reading it is going to constitute a real investment!  We'll have to trust Merril that this investment is a wise one...and if you can't trust a Trotskyist, who can you trust?

It is the early 21st century!  Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, has a strange characteristic: it is bright on one side and dark on the other.  A space ship is sent to Iapetus to investigate--this is only the twelfth manned space mission that will land on another planetary body.  Communication with the ship is lost, but the ship returns; unfortunately it crashes in Arkansas--it seems the computer systems were down and the captain tried, without success, to land manually.  Soon after the crash, children begin suffering a strange disease.  The main symptom of this disease is that the kids' skin turns black on one side and white on the other, strictly observing a sharp borderline right down the middle of their bodies.  In response, the government forbids any travel beyond Earth orbit until they can figure out what is going on.

The world's top comedian, Heri Gonza, spends a ton of money setting up special hospitals for these kids and a research team of the top scientists to study this disease, and he puts on a regularly scheduled telethon to raise awareness and gather support.  (I guess this is based on Jerry Lewis's telethons.)  A public feud develops between Gonza and one of those top scientists, Dr. George Rehoboth Horowitz, who thinks the comedian is just using the sick kids to get publicity and has set up the hospitals and research facility as a tax shelter.  Horowitz, whom the public passionately turns against, starts his own one-man research effort in a secret location.

Like 400 kids have this crazy disease, and one of them is the little brother of leading physicist, Iris Barran.  Barran just won the Nobel Prize in Physics and wants to donate the money to Gonza.  Gonza rejects the donation, so she offers the money to Horowitz.  While she is meeting Horowitz, Gonza the comedian crashes the party, explaining that he had to reject Barran's donation to keep his finances secret--he has been secretly modifying a space ship so that it will be able to illegally travel to Iapetus.  Gonza wants Horowitz to go to Iapetus to research the virus in its natural habitat and he wants Barran to act as astrogater on this secret illegal voyage.        

Sturgeon makes the surprising decision to relate the space flight to Iapetus and back through the medium of the screenplay for a TV documentary about the voyage; reading this part of this long story is like reading a play, complete with the stage directions in italics.  The ship was sabotaged to murder the crew but by luck the cyanide bomb didn't work.  Iapetus turns out to be totally lifeless--there is no way the disease originated there--and Horowitz and Barran figure out that Gonza is giving the kids the nonlethal synthetic virus, and they will be cured as soon as they get out of the hospitals where he injects the disease into them when he comes by to perform for them.  

Back on Earth, Horowitz and Barran team up with the TV network to expose Gonza in dramatic fashion by producing and broadcasting the documentary whose screenplay Sturgeon just had us read.  Even though Gonza tried to murder them with cyanide, Horowitz and Gonza don't want him prosecuted, figuring that the ruin of his career is punishment enough.  

This story is too long and too silly.  It is also anti-climactic--you don't get much payoff for wading through all those boring conversations and descriptions of TV shows, what with the boring solutions to the mysteries of Iapetus's variable reflectance and the origins of and cure for the virus.  I also don't think Gonza's motives are clearly enough explained--are we supposed to think he is a pedophile?--or maybe they are just not explained in an interesting enough way for me to remember; could this whole crazy scheme really just be a tax dodge and a way to increase his exposure?  Boring!  

Gonza is a potentially interesting character--the world's greatest comedian who for some reason pulls a crazy scheme that sickens kids and leads to him trying to murder people in an elaborate way--but we spend more time with the personality-free scientists Horowitz and Barran.  If our hero Barry Malzberg had written this story it would be shorter and it would focus on Gonza's demented psychology, his insecurities and anxieties, his reasons for pulling this ridiculous scam and his fears of being caught, and it might be funny and at least it would not be dull.

Gotta give "The Comedian's Children" a thumbs down.  Why did Merril select this thing for her anthology of "the year's greatest" SF and impose this painful opportunity cost on me?  Maybe she hated Jerry Lewis and his telethons?                 

"The Comedian's Children," which first appeared in Venture, would reappear in other anthologies as well as plenty of Sturgeon collections.


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This has not been a great experience, but I am going to get my money's worth out of this anthology and read more stories from SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume in our next episode!  Am I just a glutton for punishment who is about to be punished again?  Tune in and see!

Monday, September 20, 2021

1970 stories by Brian Aldiss, David Gerrold and James Sallis

I recently found myself in Myrtle Beach, celebrating the birthday of one of my in-laws.  Of course it is nice to walk on the beach, finding dead crabs and hearing the surf and seeing how the moonlight is reflected on the breakers and all that, and I had a good time at the pottery stores in Seagrove, NC, and the antique stores in places like Weyer's Cave, VA, and Bennettsville, SC at which we stopped on the drive down, but let's be honest: Myrtle Beach is a hideous tourist town where I don't really belong.  So I had ample time to sit in the decrepit condo my in-laws rented and read old issues of Weird Tales and a 1971 paperback SF anthology I brought with me, Nova OneNova One, first of a series of four, was edited by Harry Harrison and first published in 1970 in hardcover.  My copy of Nova One once was part of the library of the M. I. T. Science Fiction Society, which is fun.

In his introduction to the volume, Harrison stresses that science fiction is about science, and argues that we should see H. G. Wells as the first science fiction author, obliquely dismissing Mary Shelly's claim ("Modern SF definitely does not date back to the second century and Lucian of Samosata, or even to the Gothic and fantastic novels of the last century.")  Then he crows that, while the mainstream short story is essentially moribund, science fiction writers continue to produce a large volume of short stories in magazines.  Finally, he produces somewhat vague arguments for why stories from a book of new stories like this one (13 of the 15 pieces in Nova One are brand new) should be better than stories written for a magazine.

Ray Bradbury's name is at the top of the list on the cover, but his contribution to Nova One is not a new story but a three-year-old poem, "And This Did Dante Do," which appeared in 1967 in Florida Quarterly.  The angle of this poem is that living in Chicago is hell, its fanciful conceit that Dante Alighieri created the Windy City in a dream or by travelling to the New World via some machine of his own invention.  That the monstrosity Dante is devising is Chicago is revealed at the end of the poem as a kind of surprise punchline, and Bradbury's complaints about the hog butcher to the world--there is pollution; apartments are small--could probably be said of any decent-sized 20th-century city.  This poem isn't all that bad an example of silly verse, but I enjoyed city life when I lived in a real city and so can't get behind the point of view Ray is espousing here.  

Our beloved Barry Malzberg has two stories in Nova One.  "Terminus Est" I read in 2018 when I decided to read all the stories that made up the fixup novel Universe Day as well as the novel itself; I really liked "Terminus Est" and suggested in my blog post that Malzberg was hewing closer to genre literature conventions when he wrote it, to its benefit.  "In the Pocket," which appears in Nova One under the pen name K. M. O'Donnell, is one of the stories upon which Malzberg's novel The Men Inside is based.  I read The Men Inside before I started this blog, and am toying with the idea of rereading and blogging about it; if I do I'll talk about "In the Pocket" in the same post.  Suffice to say here that "In the Pocket" is a pretty good story and doesn't feel like a fragment or anything.     

Now, let's read three stories new to me by authors with whom we here at MPorcius Fiction Log have some familiarity, Brian Aldiss, David Gerrold and James Sallis.

"Swastika!" by Brian Aldiss

This, Harrison warns us in his little intro to "Swastika!," is a joke story about Adolf Hitler!  The jokes in Aldiss's novel about serving in Burma during the Second World War, A Soldier Erect, made me laugh, so maybe the humor in this story will also work on me?  

Or maybe not.  Our narrator, whose name is Brian, has a meeting with Hitler, who survived the war and is living under an assumed name in Ostend.  The bulk of the story, I guess, is satire, the point of which, I guess, is that 1960s politicians are really little better than Hitler.  Lyndon Baines Johnson, Fidel Castro, Moshe Dayan, King Hussein of Jordan, and Sukarno, among others, are all said to have consulted Hitler, begging for his guidance, while Hitler admits to finding admirable qualities in Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Wallace and to having enjoyed the spectacle of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  

Throughout the story Brian expresses admiration for Hitler, and the punchline of the story is that Brian has come to Ostend to get Hitler to sign a contract so that Brian can put on a musical of Hitler's life, the title of which will be "Swastika!"  Mel Brooks's The Producers was in movie theaters in 1967, and it is a little odd to see Aldiss and editor Harrison not spiking this joke and coming up with some other gag for the ending of this 1970 story.  Maybe "The Producers" wasn't shown in England?

This story is not funny or interesting.  Any effect it might have on the reader relies on the shock value of the narrator expressing admiration for Hitler, from the absurdity of Hitler's claims that he hasn't really lost the war because the war isn't really over yet or the idea of a musical about Der Fuhrer, or from reader sympathy with Aldiss's shallow criticisms of 1960s politicians, which essentially amount to name-calling--Aldiss's attacks on LBJ and the rest aren't much more specific or persuasive than Bradbury's attack on Chicago in "And This Did Dante Do."  Aldiss's strategies in this story are basic, even childish, though maybe when the story was published their audacity excited readers.  Thumbs down from me in 2021, though.          

"Swastika!" would be included in Aldiss's oft-reprinted collection The Moment of Eclipse as well as Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss.  

"Love Story in Three Acts" by David Gerrold

Gerrold may be most famous for the tribbles of Star Trek which are so suspiciously like a creature from Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, but I always think of Gerrold as the guy behind the novels Deathbeast and Yesterday's Children, both of which are noteworthy and crazy in their own way; also memorable are the Chtorr books.  Relatively recently I read Gerrold's novel Space Skimmer, which I have to admit is not nearly as remarkable as the aforementioned books.

This story here is about a married couple...of the future!  In Act One they have sex and then consult the computer which has been reading their vital signs through bands on their wrists.  It reports they only achieved 34% pleasure!  The wife pesters the husband about getting a computer that will be even more invasive--I mean helpful--so they can get a better score.

Act Two is at the husband's office.  A salesman comes by; he was contacted by the wife.  He convinces a reluctant husband to invest in a computer system that won't just read the couple's vitals while they are having sex, but guide their movements to better pleasure each other!  

In Act Three the device is installed and the wife convinces the husband that they should use it.  (This entire story is about the husband resisting pressure from others but eventually giving in to their manipulations--the modern world of feminism, capitalism and technology--as depicted in this story--is a world in which men are at the mercy of women, businesspeople and machines.)  They hook themselves up to all the wires and then have better sex than they have had for years.  The optimistic trick ending to the story is the revelation that they forgot to turn the computer on--if their sex was better it was because of some reinvigorated rapport between them...or the placebo effect.

Acceptable.   

"Love Story in Three Acts" would resurface in a Gerrold collection and in anthologies, including a French one and an English one which has what must be one of the worst book covers of the 20th century.

"Faces & Hands" by James Sallis

I've read several things by Sallis, like the experimental "Field," "Delta Flight 281," and "The First Few Kinds of Truth," none of which I thought were worth my time.  But maybe this time Sallis and I will be on the same wavelength--hope springs eternal!

It is the future!  Mankind has achieved the ability to travel between the stars.  The Earth has recently joined a space federation called "The Union" which seems to be culturally dominated by people from the Vegan system--everywhere you go people wear Vegan fashions and speak Vegan.  In his little intro paragraph to "Faces & Hands," Harrison tells us Sallis is a poet, and Sallis employs little word games to make his story feel more alien or futuristic.  On the first page of the story we find that the cliché "playing by ear" is now rendered "playing by air;" on page two we learn that "ziggurat" is now styled "zikkurat" and that the name Stein is pronounced "stain."  

Our narrator, immediately after graduating college, was recruited by a guy named Stein to work as a "Courier," a sort of interstellar diplomat.  He relates how, while on a diplomatic mission, he got temporarily stranded on the planet Alsfort thanks to a labor strike.  While waiting for interstellar travel to resume  he sat in a "wayroom" by the spaceport, drinking and people watching.  Sallis gives us several pages of descriptions of people the narrator sees in the wayroom, giving us an idea of how diverse the Union is.  The most pages get devoted to a bird-like alien woman, a beautiful singer, who sits and talks to the narrator.  She describes how the culture of her race of bird people has been changed by contact with the peoples of the Union, changed in a way that causes social upheaval, with some embracing new technologies and ideas and others resisting them.  Presumably these bird people and their problems are supposed to remind us of the fate of Third Worlders who become integrated into the world economy dominated by Western ideas and technology.  Later Sallis makes his point explicit, that engagement with other cultures/economies/polities can both bring benefits and exact costs, and that whether such engagement is on balance worthwhile is not necessarily obvious.  

"Faces & Hands" is in two parts.  The second part is in the third person takes place after a space war between Earth and another planet; Vega sided with Earth and was severely bombed, reducing this formerly leading society to penury (there are black outs due to rationing of energy, as in poor countries nowadays and, according to rumor, California.)  The narrative of this eight-page section of the story concerns a prostitute who has mild psychic powers and a space traveler who spends time with her.  There are animal metaphors and a scene with bohemian artists that, I guess, is meant to show the effect of war on culture and maybe how different generations respond differently to change, echoing something the bird-lady said in the first part.  

Because it presents characters and images and human emotions, seems to be responding to interesting historical events like imperialism, the World Wars and Cold War, and the growth of international trade, and sort of has a plot, this is the best story by Sallis I have ever read.  I don't love it, but it at least is worth reading. 

"Faces & Hands" has been reprinted in Sallis collections (as "Faces, Hands") and in an anthology printed in brave little Belgium.  

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It is always interesting and often fun to look into these old SF anthologies.  So more short stories from one of the anthologies on the shelves of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!