Saturday, December 31, 2022

C. L. Moore: "The Tree of Life," "Werewoman" and "Song in a Minor Key"

Let's read the last three stories of C. L. Moore's interplanetary rogue and babe magnet, Northwest Smith.  We've already read the first nine; click the links below to be whisked off to my blog posts on them:

"The Tree of Life" (1936)

The tenth Northwest Smith story made its debut in Weird Tales, alongside stories we have already read by Robert Bloch and by Moore's husband, Henry Kuttner.  This October 1936 issue also includes a letter from Donald Wollheim praising Robert Bloch, and a letter from Bloch himself suggesting that Robert E. Howard's Kull stories are much better than his Conan tales.  The letters column also rings with praise for Virgil Finlay, who provides a female nude as an illustration to "The Tree of Life."

Northwest Smith is on the run from the law, hiding in the million-year-old ruins of the Martian city near which his flying craft was shot down.  The aircraft of the authorities circle overhead, hunting him.  Smith finds a surprisingly intact work of art adorning an ancient well, a grill in the shape of a tree.  Then he encounters a mysterious weeping woman--his eyes cannot focus upon her, so she appears to him as a vague blur, only her milky white eyes sharp and clear in his vision.  

Via telepathy and body language, the woman begs Smith to help her find "The Tree of Life."  So he leads her to that grill, which casts a crisp shadow on the ground.  When she enters the shadow she vanishes, and Smith is unable to resist the urge to follow her through that portal into another world, a world where the ground is not dry broken stone but covered in grass and flowers reminiscent of those in a Botticelli.  This gray world appears to Smith's eyes entirely dim and blurry, though he can now see the girl more clearly; she is naked and has ankle-length black hair.

Smith comes to learn that this young woman is the priestess of an alien god, Thag, and has tricked him into this gray world to offer him to Thag in sacrifice.  Smith tries to escape and finds himself lost in this monotonous universe where the sky is a starless black and the ground offers few landmarks.  He eventually comes to the edge of this little artificial universe, purportedly created by a wizard a million or more years ago when he summoned Thag, and meets the shy and diminutive locals, the shrunken and degenerate descendants of the heroic Martians of those days a thousand millennia ago when Mars was green; these poor bastards live in impotent trembling fear of Thag, and the only advice they can offer Smith is to avoid Thag, advice they cannot follow themselves. 

Eventually we get the showdown with Thag and the priestess.  Thag appears as a hideous tree with tentacle-like branches and he calls his victims to him via an irresistible song.  Smith, like the little men, is drawn into Thag's clutches by the song, but when the monster god is about to devour him Smith proves to be one of the one in a billion people strong enough to overcome Thag's psychic powers and he whips out his ray gun and blasts the monster, causing the artificial universe to collapse, wiping out Thag, the priestess, and the little degenerates, but depositing Smith safe and sound back in the ruins on Mars in our own universe.  (Enough time has passed that the police have stopped looking for him.)  

"The Tree of Life" is like a lot of Moore's Jirel and Smith stories--a moody thing that moves at a slow pace and is long on description and in which the protagonist finds herself or himself in a mysterious alien world and survives a long climactic psychic battle of wills.  The story is too long and too repetitive; for example, Moore gives us multiple paragraphs describing the music of Thag when one would have been enough--she even uses the same words to describe the song again and again.  Another example: Smith goes to Thag after meeting the degenerate little people, looks at Thag, and we get a description of the monster god, and then Smith, scared, runs back to the little people.  Then Thag starts voicing his siren song and Smith and the little people march to Thag to get sacrificed.  Why does Moore have Smith go to Thag two times?  Just once would have been fine.

We might also argue that Smith doesn't actually do much in the story--every step of the way he is controlled by aliens until the very end, when it is some inherent factor of his genetics that saves him, not any decision he makes or idea he comes up with.  Now, this may be an accurate allegory of life (external forces drive everybody and those who are successful owe their destiny to having born smart or healthy or good-looking or whatever) but it doesn't make for a particularly good plot.  The secondary characters also add little to the story; the little people don't actually do anything to alter the narrative, don't tell Smith anything he couldn't have figured out himself, and even the priestess becomes little more than an extra after she tricks Smith into the little pocket universe.  In theory, Smith could have been the impetus for the little people finding courage or the priestess rebelling against Thag or whatever--instead of filling up her pages of Weird Tales with repetitive descriptions, Moore could have depicted people evolving; if she had done so their deaths may have had some emotional power.

Merely acceptable.

"The Tree of Life" appears in many Moore collections, including Gollancz's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, which I myself own (I read the story in Weird Tales, however, not feeling like digging through my shelves for the book.)  Even though I have been pretty hard on the story, Peter Haining seems to have thought it a notably representative specimen of its genre, including "The Tree of Life" in his 1975 anthology The Fantastic Pulps.

"Werewoman" (1938)

"Werewoman" is apparently a lesser known entry in the Northwest Smith catalog.  It debuted in the second issue of Leaves, a fanzine full of material by H. P. Lovecraft and members of the Lovecraft circle, among them Moore, Fritz Leiber, and Frank Belknap Long.  For some reason, many Northwest Smith collections, including Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, don't include "Werewoman;" its first book publication appears to have been in 1971, in Sam Moskowitz's Horrors Unknown.  Since then a number of anthologists, including Robert Hoskins and Karl Edward Wagner, have reprinted the story.  I am reading it in the scan at the internet archive of Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski's 1978 Dark Imaginings.

Northwest Smith, injured, his weapons lost, staggers away from a battle; to foil pursuit, he makes his way into a gray and featureless wasteland that is shunned by all because it is said to be the site of city razed and cursed a bazillion years ago.  (Gray and featureless landscapes speak to Moore, I guess.)  In the waste an exhausted and delirious Smith encounters a pack of female werewolves!  They sense that Smith, underneath, is a fellow savage, and instead of devouring him the women fight over who will be his lover!  He joins the pack and soon is howling at the night sky and running with the naked women through ghost cities and proving themselves the masters of various ghost monsters.  When they meet some real live men armed with guns, hunters, Smith participates in the attack, panting to drink human blood!  The horrified hunters shoot at them without effect, but just before Smith gets a taste of human blood one of the hunters draws from his raiment a cross, the sight of which drives Smith and the other werewolves away.       

An invisible force or entity begins pursuing the werewolves, and Moore, as is her wont, describes Smith's fear of this invisible thing in great and repetitive detail as he and his new girlfriend flee from it.  The universe, or Smith's perception of it, is warped, so that Smith and the naked woman whose hand he is holding pass over the same ground again and again, as if running in a circle, flying time and time again through the phantom towers of the long leveled city. 

After the long chase comes the long battle of wills between Smith and the unnamable thing.  Smith finds the rune or glyph or whatever that is the key to the curse and shatters the stone into which it is carved, ending the curse and killing or banishing all the werewolves and other ghost creatures.  The hunters whom Smith almost murdered find our exhausted hero--they don't recognize him as their tormentor, as to them he and the hot girls looked like wolves, and Smith doesn't even remember his bizarre adventure.

Again too long and repetitive, but a little better than "The Tree of Life."  The idea of being swept up in the thrill of running like a wolf with a pack of hot naked girls is kind of exciting, and I like that Moore leans into the idea that Smith is a murderous criminal.

In a 1976 interview for the fanzine Chacal, which you can read at the internet archive, Moore says "I don't think that I ever wrote science fiction--hard science fiction.  Everything I did was fantasy..." and here in "Werewoman" she drops all pretense of writing science fiction, even including the scene in which the power of the cross drives off the monsters, an event which only makes sense if the story takes place in a universe in which Christianity is true.  One wonders if this story was originally set on Earth in North Africa or Afghanistan or some such place, with the protagonist a deserting British soldier or an unscrupulous American arms dealer or whatever, and Moore just changed the protagonist's name to Northwest Smith because she knew that would have more immediate appeal.   The text in Dark Imaginings doesn't directly refer to ray guns or other planets or anything like that.    

"Song in a Minor Key" (1940)

Here's another story that debuted in a fanzine, this time Scienti-Snaps, where Moore's "Song in a Minor Key" appeared alongside work by fellow weirdies Henry Kuttner, August Derleth, and Clark Ashton Smith, and an essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.  I am reading the brief piece in a 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe.

This short short depicts Smith back on Earth after twenty years of criminal adventures among the other planets.  He recalls the first crime he committed, the crime that forced him to leave Earth, and reflects that if he hadn't committed that crime he would have committed some other one because there was "a fatal flaw in him from the very first..." and his life would have been much the same.  The same strain of genetic determinism that was evident in "The Tree of Life," and I guess in "Werewoman," too, is thus evident here as well--there is something savage, even animal, inside Smith that makes him a dangerous outlaw but also gives him the strength to overcome obstacles no decent person could survive.

Short and to the point and with some real human feeling, instead of page after page of vague surreal visions, this is one of the better Northwest Smith stories.  It is perhaps a pity Moore didn't explore Smith's regrets and his life of crime a little more, instead of making every Smith story I can remember be about some alien vixen trying to seduce him with her psychic powers.  "Song in a Minor Key" would reappear in many collections of Smith stories.


So now I have blogged about all the stories assigned to the Northwest Smith series by isfdb.  I am told that Smith also appears in a story Moore co-wrote with husband Kuttner, a story which isfdb assigns to the Jirel of Joiry series.  Stay tuned Northwest Smith fans, because we'll cover that tale that defies the Smith-Jirel binary, as well as other stories by famous members of the Lovecraft circle, in the next Weird Tales-centric episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Ray Bradbury: "A Bed for Maria" and "The Long After Midnight Girl"

At Beaver Creek Antiques in Hagerstown I spotted a quite damaged copy of the fourth and final issue of Eros with a price tag of $2.00.  Eros, I later learned online, was a hardcover periodical published from Spring to Winter of 1962, a sort of literary (you might say pretentious) sex magazine offering such hi-brow erotic material as a translation of Lysistrata with charming illustrations by Australian artist Norman Lindsay, a photo essay about the erotic sculptures at the Konark Sun Temple, and a condensation of Fanny Hill along with such sensational and up-to-date fare as a pictorial of Marilyn Monroe and an essay by Dr. Albert Ellis urging people to enter into plural marriages.

Safe-for-work details of representative images from Eros

You can check out all four issues of Eros at this page of a website dedicated to its short-lived publisher; at the same website are scans of another of that publisher's magazines, Avant Garde, which also serves up healthy doses of more or less high-minded sex-themed art, though Avant Garde's main purpose seems to be to run down American society.  Even if you aren't all that interested in sex and don't think America is all that bad, you may find Avant Garde worth a look because of its modern design aesthetic; also, the issue dated Summer 1971(the summer I was born!) features an ad for the Science Fiction Book Club I haven't seen before.  

I bring Eros up not only to alert you to a source of artistically credible depictions of young women's bodies, but because within Eros's pages are to be found two stories by the universally beloved Ray Bradbury.  Eros is not listed at isfdb, so these appearances may have escaped the notice of some SF fans.  Let's read the Eros printings of these tales and talk about them below.

"A Bed for Maria"

"A Bed for Maria" appears in the second issue of Eros, along with the photo essay "We All Love Jack," which consists of like two dozen pictures of women making googly eyes at John F. Kennedy, and an article by Arthur Herzog which is apparently about how Native Americans of the Southwest are less uptight about sex than white people.  (I assume this is the same Arthur Herzog who penned Make Us Happy, a SF novel that I read as a teenager and which features, if memory serves, a Sex Olympics in which competitors wrestle, each trying to make the other orgasm first.) 

Promoted as a "short, short story," "A Bed for Maria" takes up one page in Eros.  A guy owns a bed that has been in his family for centuries, an elaborately decorated thing with a headboard covered in carved musical instruments and beasts.  The springs are creaky and the mattress lumpy, but he claims that the bed is molded to his own form and thus supremely comfortable.  His wife of two years disagrees; she even seems to blame the bed for their childlessness!  On the very same day that he orders a new bed, his wife finds out she is pregnant, and everybody is happy and the wife begins to fall in love with the bed herself.

A sweet little trifle, perhaps a romanticization of family traditions.  "A Bed for Maria" apparently first appeared in the 1959 collection A Medicine for Melancholy under the title "The Marriage Mender."  The people at Eros seem to have introduced some typos to the text.  Tsk, tsk. 

"The Long After Midnight Girl" 

Among the features of the the final issue of Eros are an article on the topic of whether Shakespeare was gay, a "photographic tone poem on the subject of interracial love," and Ray Bradbury's "The Long After Midnight Girl," which, if isfdb is to be believed, was not reprinted until 1976 when there appeared a collection named after the story's new title, "Long After Midnight."

Three employees of the police department collect the body of a suicide hanging from a tree over the ocean.  The three men are saddened by this tragedy, and speculate on why this teenaged girl killed herself, theorizing that some callous man broke her heart and this triggered her self-destruction.  On closer examination, they realize that the dead body in their ambulance is not that of a young woman, but of a skinny man disguised as a woman.  The guy most upset over the death, the rookie, wonders aloud if this revelation should make them feel better or worse.

An interesting little story about what you might call sexism, the way people respond differently to events depending on the sex of those involved and have different expectations of the behavior of the different sexes.  I like it.


Minor stories, but good; Bradbury delivers again.

The Right to an Answer by Anthony Burgess

'Never mind who started it.  You've committed the great sin against stability and you see now what a bloody mess you can land into when you do that.'

As followers of my twitter feed--and perhaps several former or current FBI agents--may know, on a recent trip to Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, I purchased a Murray Leinster paperback with an adorable title and a great Richard Powers cover, War with the Gizmos, and two additional paperbacks, each by a polymath British genius with some connection to the SF community.  Let's today read one of those, a 1970 Ballantine printing of Anthony Burgess's 1960 novel, The Right to an Answer, which is billed on the covers of my copy as some kind of hilarious comedy and which I am interpreting as a lament about changes in English and world society since the Second World War and a tragic rumination about morality and justice, its primary lenses being the topics of sex and racism.    

The narrator of The Right to an Answer is Denham, the middle-aged son of a printer who has made for himself a successful career travelling the world for an export firm, spending years at a time in Asia and Africa; currently he is head of a big office in Tokyo.  Though a serious man of business, Denham studied English at university and so is conversant with the arts and literature, and there are many references to Shakespeare in the novel.

As The Right to an Answer begins, Denham is returning to England for a few months leave after having been abroad for years, and makes the acquaintance of his retired father's cronies in the suburban pub where they all hang out.  Burgess gives all these characters fun (and mostly sad) little personalities and interconnecting relationships.  One of the novel's multiple themes is how this pub is the center of the community, and its owner-operator the community's true leader and a pillar of its survival; the pub is contrasted with the center of post-war Western life, the TV, which is associated with America and is depicted as an almost impossible-to-resist drug that addicts people and breaks down community, inspiring people to stay at home every night and ignore their neighbors.  Before I moved to New York I watched TV incessantly myself, and after leaving New York I have increasingly found the TV irritating, and so all this talk of television and its baleful effects was interesting to me.  Still, I am considering the main topic of Burgess's novel to be adultery.

Most of the secondary characters in The Right to an Answer, people who are of lower social class than the educated Denham, or, if of similar class status, have failed to accumulate the money Denham has, are engaged in adulterous sexual relationships which Denham feels are immoral.  One of the philosophical topics Burgess addresses in the novel is the question of who, if anybody, has the standing to pass such moral judgements, and it is clear that Denham himself is really in no position to do so: never married himself, he has no grounds to criticize the behavior of married people, and as a customer of prostitutes is himself guilty of violating sexual mores.  Denham has in fact never had sex with an Englishwoman, all his sexual relationships having been while abroad, and it is implied that all of these relationships have been of a sort of exploitative character--in fact, one of the themes of the novel is the disastrous nature of interracial sexual relationships, and, in general, all relations between different ethnic and racial groups.  Burgess in the novel does not portray dealings between the classes in a positive light, either--people who look to Denham for advice and financial support, and they are many, do not fare well.  

The first third or so of the 210 pages of the novel's text are set in England, where (among other characters) Denham meets a printer, Winterbottom, and his strong-willed wife, Alice.  Alice Winterbottom psychologically dominates her weak-willed husband, and he pathetically assents to her vigorous sexual relationships with other men; the weak Winterbottom does not himself have sex with other women.  Another individual Denham meets is a newspaperman who works with Denham's sister, with whom Denham does not get along (another way Denham is depicted as deracinated and alienated from his own people.)  This journalist, Everett, is an almost forgotten poet of the Georgian school, and tries to get Denham to finance the publication of a collection of his poetry--there is no chance such a book will turn a profit, so essentially this is a request for charity, and Denham is reluctant to play the role of patron of the arts.  Everett has a sexy young daughter, Imogen, who returns home to daddy after abandoning her husband, whom she considers a bore.  Imogen, like Alice, is domineering and manipulative, and she takes up with Winterbottom, convincing him to leave Alice and move with her to London.  The weak and naïve Winterbottom falls in love with Imogen, whose feelings for Winterbottom are closer to pity or even contempt.  Without any work, Imogen and Winterbottom join Imogen's father in importuning Denham for financial support for their new London lifestyle and Winterbottom's half-assed effort to start an independent small printing business.  Even if Denham is in no position to criticize these people's marital infidelity and sexual improprieties, his instincts are correct, and they all suffer from their "sins against stability," their destruction of their own and other people's marriages.   

In the middle third of the novel Denham has to go to Ceylon for a month or so to handle some unexpected business, and he runs into a college-educated Ceylonese man, Raj, who introduces himself on the pretext (which we later learn is fabricated) that Denham has the same last name as one of Raj's favorite college professors.  Raj is forward and loquacious and with astonishing rapidity forces his friendship on Denham, so that Denham has yet another person demanding his advice and support, another person who ultimately suffers from Denham's poor guidance.  Raj is headed to England to study for an advanced degree and to do research on race relations, and manipulates events so that he sits next to Denham on the narrator's return flight to Britain; once in Blighty Raj insinuates himself into the elder Denham's circle of friends and acquaintances at that pub.  Raj has various adventures in the suburb inhabited by Denham's father; he is repeatedly assaulted by racists, of example, but, a skilled fighter, triumphs over them.  Raj seeks lodgings, and Denham's father's reluctance to accommodate him--apparently based on racism--is overcome when he tastes Raj's excellent curry--the curry is not only delicious, but cures the old man's persistent cough.  

Denham heads back to Japan and his position there, leaving his room in his father's house to Raj, foolishly thinking that Raj and his father, two men in need of support--the one a foreigner in a sometimes hostile or bewildering land and the other an ailing oldster--will provide beneficial support to each other.  Denham travels to Yokahama as a passenger on a Dutch ship, and Burgess offers us an English view of the Dutch, suggesting the Netherlands is "a jolly nightmare parody of England" and of Japan, where women are so different from the assertive, aggressive and manipulative Alice and Imogen.  Aboard the vessel, he receives numerous postcards from Raj requesting advice--Raj has fallen in love with Alice Winterbottom.

In the final third of the novel the plot accelerates and, for a book advertised as "funny," we get a lot of abuse and death.  Denham's live-in Japanese girlfriend is sexually assaulted by American teenagers, the sons of United States Air Force personnel.  To support herself and Winterbottom, Imogen has taken up a risky bit of thievery, acting the part of a prostitute and accepting payment from her clients and sneaking off before preforming the promised services; she pulls this scam on the wrong guy, and is beaten up, giving occasion for several secondary and minor characters to muse on the nature of justice: some see Imogen's deception as a just punishment of the johns for their indulgence in prostitution, some see Imogen's beating as a just punishment for deceiving and robbing men.  Denham gets word that his father is dying, and flies home on a Scandinavian airline, on a plane on which a French sex symbol and her entourage are also passengers, giving Burgess the chance to caricature the Nordic peoples as he earlier did the Dutch, and to lampoon the artificiality of the world of cinema.  Back in the London suburb he finds his father has died, and that there is reason to suspect that Raj may be in somewise culpable for the old man's demise.  Imogen, missing multiple teeth, has left Winterbottom and moved in with her father, the poet Everett.  Winterbottom returns to his wife Alice, and Raj, perhaps thinking Winterbottom is an intruder, perhaps merely out of jealousy, kills Winterbottom, shooting him by surprise from behind, and then kills himself.  

One of Burgess's themes is the ambiguous and overlapping nature of responsibility and blame, and the black fates of the elder Denham, Winterbottom, and Raj are a good example of this theme--obviously Raj bears responsibility for shooting pathetic Winterbottom, but Winterbottom and Alice's poor choices regarding their marriage and Denham's crummy advice to everybody and his introduction of the alien Raj into the suburban English community set the stage for the cataclysm.

After all this tragedy, there is a deus ex machina sort of ending that rewards the owner of the pub, who has proven himself the true leader of the community throughout the book, and Everett the poet, who represents the world of literature which is sinking beneath the inexorable tide of TV (the untimely death of both the novel's printers symbolizes the peril and decline of literature in the mid-century age of electronics and globalism.)  It is hard not to take "deus ex machina" literally and think that the happy ending for the pub owner and Everett are Burgess's suggestion that only God can accurately judge who is good and deserving of read and who is evil and deserving of punishment.

Despite the happy ending for those two guys, The Right to an Answer is a very tragic book.  Sexual relationships don't work, family relationships don't work, and interactions between different communities are destructive.  It is also a very conservative book which argues that any innovation, anything you might describe as "progress," is a disaster that is going to weaken the community and make life worse.  Technological advance is represented by the American innovations of the atomic bomb which threatens all life and the TV which is destroying the world of print and the English community.  International trade, immigration and increased interactions between different civilizations and nations and races lead to exploitation and violence and the decay of traditional community--American whites rape Japanese women, American TV destroys English neighborliness, British whites assault the Hindu Raj, Raj (who himself is racist against Africans even as he complains of the racism he himself suffers from Britons) comes to England to learn and ends up killing another man and then himself largely because of the advice of Denham.

The Right to an Answer is thus full of interesting and thought-provoking stuff.  But is it fun, is it a good read?  I think it is.  While I only laughed out loud once (when the text incorporated a defamatory newspaper article by Denham's bitter sister and the rejected Everett about Denham), the jokes all actually work and do not irritate or detract from the larger tragic vision.  On the scale of individual sentences and paragraphs there are lots of little clever bits, metaphors and things, like how Burgess compares air travel to an illness, with the flight crew as doctors and the stewardesses as nurses, and how he likens walking through a train station--"past the Station Master and the Telegraph Office and the Restaurant" to walking the Stations of the Cross in a Catholic Church.  On the larger scale of the structure of the novel, Burgess also succeeds, with lots of effective foreshadowing--stuff you learn early on later pays off in satisfying ways.  A good example is the evolution of Raj from a silly and sympathetic character to a dangerous and sinister one--it is totally believable, because Raj himself doesn't really change, just the way we view him--even in his earliest appearances there are hints of the sinister and even in his last moments he is sad and ridiculous, a victim as well as a destroyer; Burgess has not been lying to the reader or tricking him, what happens feels natural and is thus all the more powerful and surprising.  I remember thinking the ends of some of the other Burgess novels I have read, like The Pianoplayers, felt poorly integrated with the rest of the book, but The Right to an Answer doesn't have that problem; all the different parts work together smoothly.

So, thumbs up for The Right to an Answer.  It is a well-crafted novel that, if you are like the peeps at The Washington Star or The New York Review of Books, you will think is hilarious, if you are familiar with Burgess's biography, will present to you all kinds of connections to his own life (for example, Burgess spent years in the East, during which time his wife was raped by American servicemen), and if you are the social history type will offer insight into what an educated and well-travelled Englishman in the 1950s thought of his own country, as well as of the Japanese, Hindus, Americans, Scandinavians and the Dutch.  Worth your time.

Just yesterday at a Pennsylvania antique store I bought a water damaged collection of Burgess short stories, so expect more Burgess here at MPorcius Fiction Log in the future.  But first, a return to the American weird.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Weird Tales, Jan 1937: Thorp McClusky and Duane W. Rimel & H. P. Lovecraft

The January 1937 issue of Weird Tales contains two stories by big names I have already blogged about: one of my favorite H. P. Lovecraft stories, "The Thing on the Doorstep," and a quite short piece by Henry Kuttner, "The Eater of Souls."  Two other pieces in the issue are catching my eye, a tale by Thorp McClusky and a collaboration between Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel, which appears in the magazine solely under Rimel's name.  

"The Woman in Room 607" by Thorp McClusky

Back in 2020 we read McClusky's "The Crawling Horror," the tale of a shapeshifting monster.   In "The Woman in Room 607" McClusky offers readers another menace characterized by physical instability.

Police Commissioner Charles Ethredge has a steady girlfriend, Mary Roberts, but he must be some special guy, because another woman is after him, one of the sexiest chicks in town, dancer Marilyn Des Lys!  Des Lys spots this top cop on the street and exerts an hypnotic power over him, drawing him into her room in a flea bag hotel where she embraces him.  Ethredge tries to resist, but finds himself unable to break the spell she has over him until he sees in a mirror that he is embracing not the hottest girl he has ever laid eyes on, but something akin to a cloud of smoke or mist!  He flees!

The next day Ethredge begins to get an inkling of the mind-blowing truth--Marilyn Des Lys died over a week ago!  As the story proceeds he and his right hand man, detective Peters, fill in the blanks of this otherworldly case and we get a melodramatic tale of interlocking love triangles, murder, and the occult.  Des Lys was the charismatic leader of a cult that learned how to cheat death; as they surrounded her death bed, cult members cast part of their own life forces out to Des Lys' departing soul, so that, while her body expired and was cremated, her ghost endured in this world, invisible and unable to interact very much with solid matter.  But by drawing further life energy from a man in love with her, Italian-American Nick Gallichio, she became stronger, took on some substance, became capable of presenting the image of her gorgeous body, and thus able to seduce a series of disreputable men and suck away most of their life force, leaving them shriveled wrecks who were casually diagnosed by the indifferent authorities as junkies.  

Now that the diabolical dancer's physical matter meter is at like 90%, she is setting her sights higher, trying to seduce Ethredge, a respectable man for whom she feels true desire and with whom she plans to share the secret of life eternal.  She no longer has any time for poor Gallichio--Des Lys reveals to her biggest fan her absolute contempt, calling him "a wop" and telling him, "Fool, you were just the rent!"  Heartsick Gallichio kills himself after directing the fuzz to Des Lys' new HQ; there, Des Lys almost hypnotizes Ethredge into joining her in a centuries long career of vampire like parasitism, but Peters, with a silver bladed knife, and Mary Roberts, with her love, save Ethredge's soul and destroy the living dead dancer.

I like McClusky's themes (the femme fatale, the quest for immortality, suicide), but he could have explained some things better (e.g., why some people can see Marilyn Des Lys and some can't, what killed this athletic young person and why the police commissioner didn't know such a celebrity had died) and he writes his erotically charged tale about how we poor men are at the mercy of sexy babes in a very simple, almost juvenile, style.  We'll call "The Woman in Room 607" acceptable.  It looks like McClusky wrote several stories starring Ethredge and Peters, most of which debuted in Weird Tales and all of which were collected in a 1975 book, Loot of the Vampire.    

"The Disinterment" by Duane W. Rimel and H. P. Lovecraft

Back in October we read Rimel's "The Metal Chamber," about a guy who developed his telepathic abilities via drugs and ended up going insane after he contacted some aliens.  Rimel was one of H. P. Lovecraft's many correspondents, and it appears the man from Providence read many of Rimel's manuscripts and offered advice and support.  In the introductory matter to my copy of the Corrected Fifth Printing of The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, leading scholar of the weird S. T. Joshi writes "Rimel maintains that Lovecraft's revisions in the story ["The Disinterment"] were very light, and letters by Lovecraft unearthed by Murray and myself appear to confirm that claim."  I am reading "The Disinterment" in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

Our narrator and his best friend are medical men from prominent families--in fact, their stone mansions, which resemble medieval castles, sit within a quarter-mile of each other.  When the narrator returns from the Philippines, best friend diagnoses him with leprosy!  Our narrator fears the authorities will shut him away if anybody finds out.  His pal comes up with a crazy scheme.  Best friend has acquired a drug in Haiti that will put you in a coma which appears precisely like death!  Our narrator can thus fake his death, be buried (his buddy will supervise the proceedings so he doesn't get embalmed or anything) and then, when nobody is looking, best friend will dig up the narrator, who can live out his life in secret in best friend's mansion.

I didn't quite understand the supposed utility of the narrator faking his death and being buried alive--why did he agree to this crazy scheme, how did he think it would help him?  It seems the idea is that dying of leprosy is embarrassing, so by concealing the cause of his death he is preserving the family name from shame.  Personally, I think the plot of "The Disinterment" would have made more sense if the narrator was wanted by the cops or a crime syndicate or something, though I guess the fact that the best friend has fooled the narrator into thinking he has leprosy makes him more diabolical.  And maybe "saving the family name from shame" was more resonant in the 1930s than it is today, when we are all radical individualists and the family is typically seen as an institution that stifles you and should be rebelled against. 

Anyway, the good parts of the story are how the narrator, after waking up after being buried alive, comes to realize his friend is in fact experimenting on him, discovers what the experiment is, achieves his revenge, and then commits suicide.

I like it.  Besides a few Lovecraft collections, "The Disinterment" has reappeared in a 1990 small press Rimel collection entitled To Yith and Beyond.


Lots of murder, suicide and morally suspect efforts to cheat death today.  Not bad.  We'll probably hear more from Thorp McClusky and Duane W. Rimel as we continue to explore the weird here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

"Tom, a couple weeks ago, I found out I was alive.  Boy, did I hop around.  And then, just last week in the movies, I found out I'd have to die someday.  I never really thought of that, really."

I feel like the books at the Goodwill in tony Middletown are like twice as expensive as those in the Goodwill at that sketchy strip mall in Hagerstown, but that didn't stop me from buying their copy of HP55, the early 1967 paperback printing of Ray Bradbury's 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.  Even the huge price sticker with which the Goodwill people wrecked the cover didn't stop me.  Such a purchase was easily justified as a souvenir of my visit to fair Middletown, after all. 

The forty chapters of Dandelion Wine, a book of 184 pages, are not numbered and have no titles, but isfdb identifies it as a fix-up novel; large portions of the work consist of stories that originally appeared in mainstream magazines like Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan and McCall's, and it certainly feels like a bunch of stories with a similar tone and setting.  Several chapters original to the novel would later appear as short stories in Bradbury collections under titles not affixed to them in this book.  (isfdb helpfully numbers the chapters and identifies the stories associated with each and where to find them.)

The story that gives the novel its title first appeared in Gourmet.
"The Happiness Machine" was first published in The Saturday Evening Post;
at the internet archive you can see a scan of the magazine, including the good 
realistic illustration of a husband observing as his wife tests out his machine.

Dandelion Wine is a paean to childhood in a walkable town in the Middle West, a sort of chronicle of one twelve-year old boy's summer of 1928, during which you might say he "came of age."  Douglas Spaulding and his ten-year-old brother Tom set out to record in a notebook all the significant events of that summer, one of which is the family's annual ritual making of dandelion wine; one bottle is produced for each day of the three summer months, and during the cold dark winter the beverage will be drunk as a means of remembering the warm summer days.  I am tempted to compare Dandelion Wine with the Combray sections of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also a portrait of the happy life of a boy with a lovable family in a small town/countryside milieu, and also concerned with preserving and reliving memories, but Proust's immortal work is of course largely about love and sex and social class, issues Bradbury here addresses but rarely.  What Bradbury, alum of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Weird Tales, offers that Proust does not is science fiction and supernatural/horror elements.

Bradbury in some of his more straightforwardly science fiction work expresses skepticism of new technologies like TV and the automobile, and the science fiction material in Dandelion Wine is used to illustrate this kind of conservatism.  One townsperson who is handy with tools and electronics builds a happiness machine--you sit in it and have the experience of travelling around the world, hearing beautiful music, breathing clear temperate air, etc.  His wife takes a test drive in the machine, and reports it has made her miserable--she has now tasted delights she cannot consume in real life, and is now painfully aware of shortcomings in her life of which she had been blissfully ignorant.  At the end of that chapter it is pointed out that the real happiness machine is a stable and tightly knit family.  

A guy proposes replacing the Spauldings' grass, which must be mowed weekly, with new fangled grass that only grows so high and need never be mowed; Grandfather Spaulding explains why this is a terrible idea--for example, manual labor is good, keeping you busy and giving you a refuge from social life in which to think.  The well-meaning innovator finds Grandpa's line of argument convincing, and by the end of that chapter is mowing the lawn with enthusiasm.

All the characters in Dandelion Wine are skeptical of change, or are innovators who are forcefully shown the error of their ways.  When a well-meaning cousin tries to help Douglas's grandmother, a magician of a cook who follows no recipe and never serves a dish a second time, by introducing to the Spaulding's chaotic kitchen rational organization and to Grandma's improvisatory cuisine modern methods and a cookbook, the result is inedible dishes; the Spauldings and their boarders band together to force this visiting cousin out of the community at once lest she ruin Grandmas' natural born talents and doom them to a future of inedible meals.  The retirement of the town's electric trolley and replacement with a bus is seen by Douglas as a terrible tragedy.  

"The Trolley" debuted in Good Housekeeping and would be included in the 
collection S is for Space.

Nostalgia is a major theme of the book.  Obviously, a 1950s book that paints a rosy picture of 1928 is going to be inherently nostalgic, but the 1928 characters themselves are also nostalgic, expressing a fascination with the 19th century and a penchant for reliving their own personal histories via an array of methods, though the most common is describing their early lives at great length to others.  (It may be a traditional joke that young people find oldsters' reminiscences a bore, but the young people in Dandelion Wine relish hearing these old geezers go on and on for hours!)  One bit I thought particularly clever was when an elderly shut-in, a man the kids call "The Time Machine" because he is eager to relate to them the thrilling adventures of his youth, telephones a friend in Mexico City so he can hear the street noise of that bustling metropolis.  On the trolley's last ride before replacement by the bus, the conductor glowingly describes to the kids community events to which the trolley carried passengers twenty years before.  

Fantasy and references to the supernatural are at the heart of the book, and there is also a vein of realistic horror reminiscent of crime fiction.

Early in the novel, in a chapter later printed in short story collections under the title "Illumination," Doug, out in the woods with Tom and their father, senses something creeping up on him, a thing like an entity he sincerely wants to meet and is afraid he will scare away, the way a child might yearn to attract some bird or small animal and fear he will spook it.  When the something arrives, it is the revelation that Doug is alive, and should fervently recognize and embrace this fact rather than take it for granted.

In a comic section, an unattractive woman discovers that her attractive rival for the presidency of the Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge has purchased via the mails some books on witchcraft.  This frustrated woman blames her rival's alleged sorcery for her own shortcomings, like her lifelong clumsiness, and challenges the alleged witch at a Lodge meeting; she acts more like a witch herself than does the target of her ire, concocting and drinking her own anti-magic potion and making a fool of herself.  This conflict does have a happy ending, though, with the women reconciling and both accuser and accused being firmly embraced to the bosom of the community.

The one section of the book that addresses the topic of sexual love revolves around reincarnation.  A young journalist meets a woman in her nineties who never married and they become fast friends, she describing in detail her trips around the world to all the great cities, the two of them imagining they are the same age and he explored those exotic climes with her.  They are soul mates, somehow tragically born at dissonant times, and the old woman worries that throughout history their souls will meet again and again, always unable to consummate their relationship because their bodies are always decades apart in age.

As the reincarnation episode demonstrates, Dandelion Wine is not all sunshine and happy endings.  While Doug has the affirming epiphany at the start of the book that every moment of his life is to be cherished, near the end of the book, after many of those fascinating old geezers have died, one of his best friends has moved away, and the town has been witness to a horrendous crime drama, he recognizes equally the reality of death and concludes that no thing or person can be truly relied upon, as all must ultimately fail or die, himself included.

This brings us to the crime drama.  Sitting alongside the chapters about how much everybody loves ice cream and how great it is to have a big family of generous parents and grandparents and how scientific and technological advances are to be shunned is a subplot about a serial killer who stalks the town, killing a woman every month in the dark ravine that cuts through the town.  From the perspective of a genre fan, perhaps the best segment of the book is the chapters about one thirty-something woman who must descend into this ravine alone on a dark night just hours after herself discovering one of the serial killer's victims, a story that made it debut in McCall's under the title "The Whole Town's Sleeping" and would go on to be included in many horror anthologies.  Reinforcing the book's theme of the essential nature of family and community, the townspeople have given this serial killer the name "The Lonely One," suggesting his monstrous evil is the result of his failure to integrate himself into society.

Taken as a whole, Dandelion Wine is a sort of sampler that offers examples of various facets of Bradbury's body of work--many sappy sentimental stories, a few horror stories, plus the anti-progress SF tales; many of the stories offer the kind of ancient wisdom that might be summed up in cliches on the order of "stop and smell the roses," "savor the small things" and "the key to happiness is being content with what you have," and many of them stuffed with poetic metaphors.  Personally, I prefer the fear stories and the heartbreak stories, but none of the sunny sentimental pieces is bad, and I can't disagree with any of those hoary nuggets of advice, nor can I fault any of the metaphors or poetic passages, all of which work.  And the sweetness of the sentimental bits is cut by some bitter psychological realism, such as the disappointment of the kids when the serial killer's reign of terror is ended--it will make town life less exciting!--and Doug's desperate employment of the defense mechanism of hating his close friend when he has to leave town.

So, thumbs up for Dandelion Wine.  

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Frank Belknap Long: "The Critters," "A Guest in the House" and "Collector's Item"

"...Sonny Belknap has no job except his writing & revision; but as in my own case, his extremely low fund of nervous & physical energy makes this absolutely all he can handle in the hours he is able to devote to work.  He writes incessantly, but meets with consistent rejections from most magazines.  Others in his position might turn to something else, but he doggedly adheres to a perhaps vain hope that he will eventually stumble on the formula which opens editorial gates to a certain brand of hokum."

                                                     --H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, March 25, 1932

One magazine that opened its editorial gates to Frank Belknap Long was Astounding; Long had like two dozen stories printed in the most important science fiction magazine of the 1930s and 1940s, spanning the pre-Golden Age era of editor F. Orlin Tremaine and the Golden Age editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr., and I have read a proportion of them.  Below find a list of the Long stories from 1930s and 1940s issues of Astounding that I have blogged about, with links to my perhaps banal, perhaps idiosyncratic, comments on them.

Frank Belknap Long in Astounding, editor F. Orlin Tremaine

Frank Belknap Long in Astounding, editor John W. Campbell, Jr.




Today we put three more stories by "low energy Frank" under the MPorcius microscope, stories published in Astounding in the period 1946-47.

"The Critters" (1945)

The people of Venus don't just have a different physical form than Earthlings, what with their tentacles and beaks and so on, they have a radically different form of intelligence, a radically different psychology!  They are not very creative, but rather imitative; they don't come up with complex devices or tools, but are very good at disassembling, mastering, and then duplicating human made machines.  So, after the first Earth ship landed on Venus, the natives quickly built a space fleet of their own and conquered Earth, blasting our cities into oblivion and leaving the survivors to hide in the hills, living as scavengers.  The Venusians are dispassionate; they don't hate humans, so they don't go to the trouble of hunting down and exterminating the remnants of mankind; in fact, they think of us as little more than annoying insects--they'll swat us if we are making trouble, but they won't go out of their way to kill us.

Most of "The Critters" consists of conversation between two human survivors, decades after the Venusian conquest of Earth--we learn most of that history stuff above in their dialogue.  One is an old man who lives in the hills; in a secluded spot, he has cultivated a fair-sized farm for himself and lives a relatively peaceful and secure life--four times in 40 years Venusians have come by and burned his farm and his huts, but each time he has hid from them and then reemerged to rebuild.  The other guy is middle-aged, one of the last humans with any technical or medical knowledge.  He has a pregnant wife and has no fixed address, and is asking the old geez if he can take refuge on his farm.  What we readers learn is that this smarty smart has collected bits and pieces from the ruined cities and thinks, if left alone for some months, he can develop the super weapon that can liberate mother Earth from the tentacles of the Venusians!  You see, in the late 20th century, just before the conquest, a form of psychiatric therapy was developed that consisted of shooting a beam into your head to alter your psychology.  Our hero thinks he can build such a device and calibrate it to neutralize the Venusians from a long distance.

The climax of the story comes when this would-be savior and his wife are in a hut on the farm and a Venusian walks in.  In a close range one-on-one fight, a Venusian always beats a human, even when the human has a gun.  Is our hero doomed?  No!  The old geez in his own right is an expert in Venusian psychology, and he has set a "trap" in the hut against just such an eventuality.  When the door to the hut opens it activates a 19th-century cuckoo clock.  The Venusian is so distracted by this complex piece of machinery that it ignores the humans in the hut and takes away the clock to study.  Remember, the aliens are fascinated by mechanical devices and think of us as annoying bugs--if you found a bug and a treasure in a room, wouldn't you take the treasure away and ignore the bug?

Long includes a superfluous twist ending that had me scratching my noggin in perplexity, revealing that the old guy is blind.  I guess we are supposed to be amazed by how this guy knows his land so well he can farm it even though he has been sightless for like 14 years, and it is amazing to hear he is blind, because early in the story he identifies the color of the technician's boots and says that he likes to sit down on a crag and look down over his land.      

I kind of like this one, because the aliens really are alien, and not just the generic baddies or goodies we find in so much SF, the space Nazis and space pirates and space commies and space hippies who are there to serve as a satire or allegory of Earth politics or just to push our easily pushed buttons.  "The Critters" definitely has odd paragraphs that are confusing and seem to me to be unnecessary, but they don't cripple the story.

Besides the Long collection Rim of the Unknown, "The Critters" shows up in an anthology edited by August Derleth, The Outer Reaches, an abridged version of which appeared in Britain as The Time of Infinity

"A Guest in the House" (1946)

These Frank Belknap Long stories we've been reading are full of people who act against their own interests or contrary to the character of their own personalities, with Long sometimes explicitly describing and sometimes just implying that these people are under the influence of hypnosis or telepathy.  Maybe this reflects Long's interest in psychological theories and leftist ideologies?  Or is it just a convenient device that ensures characters behave in a manner that advances his plot and obviates any need for Long to construct for them personalities and motivations consonant with their activities?  Whatever the case, "A Guest in the House" starts with Roger and Elsie Shevlin moving out of the city with their nine-year-old boy and six-year-old girl and renting a huge 20-room house and immediately regretting they have done so.

The previous tenant of the house was a physics professor, and down in the damp basement Roger discovers a vast collection of elaborate and rusty machinery.  He accidentally activates this equipment and the house is propelled half a million years into the future.  Lazily, Long offers us readers no view of the future of 500,000 years from now, telling us that all the Shevlins can see out their windows is a dense fog.

A dwarfish man with an oversized cranium emerges from the fog and shows himself in by rendering the house's wall permeable t his passage with is little wand or rod.  This device can manipulate matter and energy at the atomic level and so serves as a universal tool and a weapon and shield that renders him invincible and invulnerable to 20th-century people and enables the future man to make himself master of the house.  The people of his time have not yet developed time travel, and he wants to figure out how the rusty conglomeration of machinery in the basement works.  He hints to the Shevlins that once they have mastered time travel the people of this future are going to conquer the 20th century and make sure people start behaving; after all, our wars and so forth have caused all manner of trouble.  Roger and Elsie are not thrilled with the idea of the Earth being ruled by these little weirdos; based on her experience with this one, Elsie believes the future people are "petulant...capricious...fretful...sour little spinsters...."  

There are plenty of lame jokes before we get there, but in the climax of the story the future man, intently working on the times travel equipment, lays aside the wand and Roger seizes it.  The cellar goes dark, and it looks like Roger is doomed, because he really doesn't know how to use the wand, and using it wrongly might blow up the house or the entire Earth, and the future man, though small, can see in the dark and has other mutant powers.  But before the future man can slay dear old Dad, Roger's nine-year-old son saves the day.  As foreshadowed, Junior is himself a mutant, one of the first in the long line of development which will, after thousands of years, culminate in such men as the one he is right now wrestling in the dark basement!  Junior can see in the dark and after subduing the future man he and Dad force him to leave the house.  Junior also has an IQ of 270 and has been spying on the future man's work on the time travel machinery, so he knows how to pilot the house back to the 20th century.  Our world is saved from tyranny and our wars can go on as scheduled!

The jokes in "A Guest on the House" revolve largely around the contrast between 20th-century and 5,020th-century attitudes about women and children, and may interest scholars of depictions of women and the family in SF.  We might also consider that the revelation in the end that Junior is a mutant genius with super powers means that "A Guest in the House" is one of those homo superior stories in which there is tension between homo sapiens parents and their mutant children; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore wrote a bunch of these, like "When the Bough Breaks," which I called a "Golden Age classic" and "Absalom," which I thought "pretty good."

"A Guest in the House" moves along smoothly, but it is not as good as the aforementioned Kuttner and Moore tales; I'm judging it acceptable.  (One of the First World problems I am suffering while reading these Frank Belknap Long stories from Astounding is that I keep being reminded of better writers than Long, like Kuttner and Moore and A. E. van Vogt, and wondering why I am not reading them instead.)

August Derleth did Long a solid and included "A Guest in the House" in his anthology Strange Ports of Call and I suppose he was doing the rest of the SF community a favor as well because Long has much worse stories than this one.

"Collector's Item" (1947)

This is a bad one: convoluted, contrived, pretentious, ridiculous, and full of extraneous material.

Neville, an inventor who is paranoid and hypochondriacal, stuck in a bad marriage and in and out of the loony bin, is the star of the first part of the story.  He has invented a time-travelling phonograph!  The idea is to send the device into the future, where it will record sounds, and then return to the 20th century, where the record will be played and insight gained about the future.

The next part of the story takes place in the future, like 600 years from now.  We learn that in the 20th century a scientist, Medlar, invented a force field that has rendered missiles impotent and prevented nuclear war for those 600 years.  But a guy has just invented a new weapon that can penetrate the Medlar force field.  Long asserts the belief in this story that humans are so violent they will inevitably destroy the world if given access to operable super weapons, and after several pages of dialogue and diplomacy and a maudlin scene in which a guy watches his son play with his super duper future toys we get a scene of a city being destroyed by the new weapon.
Atomic energy and man's innate combativeness were irreconcilable.  The human animal went at it hammer and tongs--every instant of every hour.  Quarrelling with warring elements in himself, and projecting that inner conflict to others also at war with themselves.
Then comes one of the multiple crazy and unbelievable coincidences upon which this story's plot rests.  The time travelling record player appears in the room of the guy who invented the weapon that can penetrate the Medlar field, in the shadows behind him so he can't see it.  Moved by the knowledge that his invention has destroyed a city, the guy recites out loud the formula for the super weapon.

Our next scene is back in the 20th century, with the force field inventor, Medlar.  Medlar is not only a leading physicist, but a fan of eccentric and esoteric music.  Taking a break from working on his not quite completed force field, he is at a record store, looking at the box in the back of the store of strange unclassifiable records.  He finds one that has no label but is made of a different material than your typical record.  It turns out that Neville has gone bonkers and been institutionalized and his wife has sold all his belongings, and this is the record with the super weapon formula of the future.  When Medlar hears it he realizes his force field project is futile, and abandons it.  He has a photographic memory and immediately telephones his assistant from a phone across the street from the record store and recites the formula to him, making inevitable the development of the super weapon.  Then on the way back to the record store Medlar is hit by truck and killed.

The story is not over!  The record goes back into the miscellaneous bin and is purchased by a jazz aficionado who assumes it is a jazz recording.  Long gives us a long digression about jazz that is bewildering and totally extraneous.  Then at a big dance party the mystery record is played.  The record from the future somehow conveys to listeners the feeling of dread that is in the air in that future world in which nuclear weapons, once neutralized, are now in use, chilling the revelers.  The end.

Bad.  Still, "Collector's Item" may be of interest to scholars of Cold War paranoia and those interested in pessimism and misanthropy in SF, it being an extreme example of those stories by left wingers who, unwilling to blame the Cold War on the Soviet Union, blame post-World War II conflict on some ineradicable flaw in the human biology and/or psyche.  And I have to admit that it is not bad in a boring way and may actually appeal to fans of material that is "so bad it is good," seeing as it is full of histrionic scenes and hyperbolic passages as well as the absolutely incredible (by which I mean "not credible") coincidences.    

"Collector's Item" has never been anthologized and has never appeared in a Long collection printed on paper.  It was reprinted in 1948, however, in a British edition of Astounding; it seems the UK edition of Astounding was quite different from its American parent, each issue consisting of an array of reprints from different issues of the US magazine.    


In a 1970s interview, Frank Belknap Long told Stuart D. Schiff that he believed his best short work was the stories he sold to John W. Campbell, Jr. for 1940s issues of Unknown and Astounding.  We have now read most of those stories, six from Unknown and nine from Astounding.  If we break these stories into three broad categories of good, acceptable and bad, we've got four good ones, five acceptable ones and six bad ones, in my opinion, at least.  

A fun little exploration of an intersection of the Lovecraft Circle and the flagship of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  We'll be returning to Astounding and to the vast body of work of "Sonny Belknap," of course, but before then expect explorations of other realms here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Frank Belknap Long: "Bridgehead," "Filch," and "The Trap"

The adventure continues!  Spurred by Long's comments in a 1970s interview, we are reading the stories Frank Belknap Long sold to John W. Campbell, Jr. for publication in Unknown and Astounding in the 1940s.  We have already devoted three blogposts to this endeavor, and I believe this will be the penultimate, covering three stories from issues of Astounding published in the mid-Forties.

"Bridgehead" (1944)

The August 1944 issue of Astounding includes articles full of technical data about television ("The light spot must be able to go from zero intensity to maximum in 1/7,500,000th of a second...") and optics ("Strangely enough, no use is made of the bright yellow mercury doublet at 5770 and 5791") and a story by A. E. van Vogt I don't think I have ever read.  Page after page of brain-busters!  But for today's purposes, what matters is Frank Belknap Long's novelette "Bridgehead."  "Bridgehead" would be included in some editions of the collection The Hounds of Tindalos and super-editor Donald Wollheim included it in an anthology that makes up half of an Ace Double--for that anthology Long's story was retitled "The Temporal Transgressor."

We spend the first section of "Bridgehead" with an apparatchik of some militaristic tyranny half a million years in the future.  He is interrogating one of his hulking subordinates, a kind of time travelling trailblazer and commando.  Through their dialogue we learn all about the capital "P" Plan to open up tunnels between this time and many other times, and then through them launch a surprise attack on all those different time periods.  His subordinate committed a blunder on a recent mission, leaving a valuable piece of equipment behind in the 20th century, and so the apparatchik sadistically slays him with a ray gun, mutilating his corpse with the weapon for good measure.

The narrative shifts to the 20th century, where we meet newlyweds Eddie and Betty-Jane.  Eddie is a writer whose finances swing from flush to indebtedness with great rapidity and frequency, based on whether or not he has recently sold a "gag."  Eddie is also a science fiction fan and science nerd who knows all about the space-time continuum and paleobiology; "Bridgehead" has recursive elements, our main characters referring (in general ways) to SF stories multiple times over the course of the tale.  (Eddie also has a chance to show off his knowledge of the different species of saber-toothed cats.)

Betty-Jane is trying to convince Eddie to start a new career with a more reliable income when he drives their car into a ditch.  Looking for a stone to put under one of the tires, Eddie finds the shoulder-fired energy projector that the future commando accidentally left behind.  The device has a hypnotic effect on the couple, and Betty-Jane feels compelled to fire it off, creating a tunnel through time which the couple passes through.  Long subjects us to a long series of paragraphs full of confusing metaphors in his effort to describe the newlyweds' psychedelic experience of travelling hither and yon through time, bopping from one era to another, fleeing or fighting dinosaurs, a saber-toothed tiger, a band of flint spear-flinging pre-human hominids, and the like.
The two island universes which had collided inside Eddie's head took their time in going their separate ways in silence.  They left a trail of blazing super-novae, and dizzily spinning giant and dwarf stars, hot, cold, red, blue and yellow--all in the plane of a super-ecliptic superimposed on the lobes of Eddie's bruised brain, and the little pools of white hot lava which studded his spinal column. 
Long also disgorges some vague commentary on psychological theory at us, invoking the names of Freud, Jung and Watson.  Not content to just tell us what he is trying to say about Freudian theory and the competing school of behaviorism, Long insists on obfuscatory metaphors, like saying that Freud and Jung built a house but it was creaky, blah blah blah.  The point of a metaphor or analogy is to make a concept easier to understand, but all too often writers inflict upon readers metaphors and analogies that they think sound poetic or learned, but which make their points harder to grasp.  (If they have a point--obviously, poor writers acting in bad faith use such devices to make themselves look smarter than they are, to disguise the vapidity of their work, or just to get a few ticks closer to some word count target.)   

The villains who are trying to put the Plan in operation send an agent after the couple, but fail to stop them for reasons I didn't quite understand--E and B-J go quite far back in time, further than can the Planners, who are suffering some kind of psychological block or post-hypnotic inhibition.  Eddie and Betty-Jane remain in the distant past, and begin to forget their 20th-century life.  It is implied that Eddie and Betty-Jane have somehow not only foiled Plan, but set things up so that the story of human civilization will be a peaceful one and not the chronicle of war and crime which you and I and our ancestors have all lived through.

Poor in every way, a series of lame events with no climax (Eddie and Betty-Ann never learn about the Plan or interact with the Planners), badly written and full of digressions only thinly connected to the thin plot.  Thumbs down for "Bridgehead."  Campbell and Wollheim had heroically successful careers as editors, and you have to wonder what they were thinking presenting this mess to the SF-reading public.      

The cover of the Panther edition of The Hounds of Tindalos on the right
is by Bruce Pennington--kudos to Pennington, as you rarely see a cover
which so effectively conveys speed, energy and motion

"Filch" (1945)

Long immediately raised my hackles by starting "Filch" off with something stupid that was totally incidental and unnecessary.  Our story takes place on one of the planets orbiting Rigel, and we are told the planet's atmosphere is very humid in some areas but very arid in others.  Seems OK.  But then it becomes clear that the planet's climate is a checker board, with each square only a few yards across, dripping wet sections right next to dusty dry sections.  This is ridiculous, and it has no bearing on the plot of the story.

The actual plot in outline isn't too bad.  There are two Terrans on this Rigelian world, employees of a private trading firm, a man, proctor Jim Griscom, and a woman, redhead Joan Mallory.  Their job is to make friends with the primitive natives and figure out what they might have to sell that could be marketed on other planets, but the pair have made little progress and are very stressed out and physically worn, Griscom in particular.  As the story begins a new guy, young Dick Bosworth, has arrived to join the team and perhaps replace as proctor the fatigued Griscom, who is eager to leave.  Bosworth thinks he can develop a good relationship with the natives and achieve success where Griscom and Mallory have failed.

When Bosworth sits down with the natives we get some clues as to how creepy and alien they really are, and then we get a scene in which Griscom and Mallory discuss their theories about what is going on on the planet.  Griscom, it turns out, had a complete grasp of what was up before Bosworth arrived, but was afraid to report the terrible, perhaps in credible, truth about the Rigel system and the reason for his failure without a corroborating report from an additional proctor-level employee.

The Rigelians are humanoid, but skeletally thin, so thin you can actually see their organs in operation.  We learn via observing them alongside Bosworth and then listening to Griscom's conversation with Mallory that these freaks are psychic vampires; they have crystals, and look into the crystals and go into some sort of trance and feed off the psychic energies of others who are some distance away, whom they can see in the crystal.  Griscom and Mallory are so thin and worn out because the natives are draining their life forces!  Even more creepy, with their telepathy the diabolical natives can awaken within a human our own latent and suppressed ability to perform this psychic vampirism, and when Bosworth sits down to eat with these aliens they nudge him into feeding off poor Mallory.  The crystals are not magical--their utility is that their shininess serves to focus the mind and facilitate the trance.  Shortly after Bosworth's eerie meeting with the aliens the three humans head back to Terra, and aboard the ship, alone in his cabin, a corrupted Bosworth goes into a trance after looking at a shiny glass and starts sucking the energy out of Mallory again--just like the vampires of fiction, the Rigelians can turn innocent people into vicious predators.

I think I'll call this one acceptable.  I like the actual plot, but Long's writing is confusing and full of odd phrases and distracting digressions, and the dialogue feels totally unnatural.

"Filch" was included in the Long collection Rim of the Unknown, which was translated into Italian over 20 years after it appeared in English.

"The Trap" (1945)         

"The Trap," like "Bridgehead," has a bunch of biology and psychology in it, but this material is better integrated into the story here and much of it constitutes interesting speculation rather than boring reiteration of something you might find in a science book or pointless nonsense.  "The Trap" also flatters writers, artists, and creative types, suggesting they are better than their mundane fellows.  The plot of the story is like something out of Weird Tales, and isn't burdened by a load of pointless phantasmagoria and metaphor.  All told, I think this is a pretty good story!

Two men are serving a tour of five years on a remote starship refueling station, all alone.  Hanley is a serious straightforward by-the-book kind of guy, and Gregg is a creative type whose singing and saxophone playing get on Hanley's nerves, and whose poetry writing and painting Hanley finds inexplicable.  Worse, Gregg is lazy, spending lots of time avoiding work and procrastinating--he won't attack a job until a deadline is right on top of him, though Hanley has to admit that, once Gregg gests down to work, he does a good job.  Gregg, of course, is a picture of how artists, writers, and the kind of people who read SF magazines think of themselves--smarter and more sensitive than others, oppressed by the schedules and deadlines and rules and regulations imposed on them by society, reluctant to do mundane work but, of course, just as good at mundane work as anybody, or better, should they deign to do it.  Gregg compares himself to a transitional life form between fishes and land animals, superior to the fish but too indolent, too addicted to relaxing in the sunlight in the shallows, to take the revolutionary step of conquering dry land.  Another of his flights of fancy is that he thinks of himself as a distinct species of humanity, homo indolensis.

A mysterious spaceship, one which lands without following all the various protocols and which does not transmit any messages to the base as required by regulation, arrives.  As a defense against pirates, standard operating procedure is to contain ships that act in such a fashion in a forcefield, and of course not refuel them.  The ship just sits there, and Hanley, despite the rules, feels compelled to go to the mysterious vessel and explore it.  Inside he falls into a trap; the ship is inhabited by intelligent telepathic life forms that are not flesh and blood, but in some inexplicable way a mere design or pattern.  The patterns are engraved upon the walls of the interior rooms of the ship, and above all else they desire to be appreciated.  Like several people before him, whose corpses sit in chairs, Hanley is hypnotized by such a pattern and sits down to stare at it, forgetting all about the need to drink and eat.

Gregg, proving himself the superior man, rescues Hanley, and, then it is revealed to the reader that Gregg is no mere dilettante and slacker, but a writer famous galaxy-wide working at the fueling station incognito!  Following this adventure, he adds a section on the pattern creatures to the new edition of his magisterial history of the human race's expansion throughout the galaxy.  

Like "Filch," this story can be found in Rim of the Unknown.  


Three more Frank Belknap long stories from Campbell magazines behind us, stories that ran the gamut from bad to good, and three more ahead of us!  Can we dream that all three of those stories will be good?  We'll find out if Long and Campbell can make our dreams come true next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log!