Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Son of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It has been like seven years since I last read a Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs--it was The Beasts of Tarzan--though recerntly I have been reading some 1930s Hal Foster Tarzan comics and some 1970s Joe Kubert Tarzan comics, and in the interim I read some of Burroughs' non-Tarzan novels: The Cave Girl and The Cave Man, The Moon Maid, The Moon Men, and The Red Hawk.  Today I return to Lord Greystoke, with the fourth Tarzan novel, The Son of TarzanThe Son of Tarzan made its debut in All-Story Weekly, serialized across six issues of the magazine printed in December 1915 and January 1916, and has since been reprinted numerous times.  I am reading a Ballantine printing with a Neal Adams cover; touted as "The Only Authorized Edition, Complete And Unabridged," it is full of typos and printing errors--shame on you, Ballantine!

One of Tarzan's enemies in the second Tarzan book, The Return of Tarzan, and the third, The Beasts of Tarzan, was Russian freelance spy Alexis Paulvitch.  In the first chapter of  The Son of Tarzan we learn that, after fleeing from the invincible Lord Greystoke in The Beasts of Tarzan, Paulvitch was captured by a tribe of cannibals who tortured and otherwise mistreated him for ten years, an ordeal with changed his looks beyond recognition and damaged his psyche.  After escaping his tormentors Paulvitch meets Akut, a friendly ape, once a comrade of Tarzan's.  Akut accompanies Paulvitch to England--the Russian does not realize, but we readers do, that Akut is looking for his old friend--and Paulvitch's most dangerous enemy,--Tarzan.  In London Paulvitch makes money by having Akut perform in a music hall.

At the Greystoke town house we observe Lord Greystoke, Jane, and their son, Jack.  Mom and Dad have kept from Jack the truth of his father's wild youth, Jane fearing that her son, who like her husband is exceptionally smart and strong, will feel the same itch her husband perpetually experiences--the urge to throw off his clothes along with all the encumbrances of civilization and risk his life in the jungle.  In one of the crazy coincidences that fill to bursting the Tarzan books, or an instance of Lamarckian inheritance, Jack is indeed fascinated by accounts of primitive tribes, wild animals and European explorations of Africa, and when he hears about the performing ape he ignores his mother's wishes and takes in the show.  Because he looks so much like his father, Akut immediately befriends Jack, to the boy's delight, and when Jack's father is reunited with his old anthropoid buddy there is no way to keep Dad's exciting childhood from the kid.

Paulvitch harbors a grudge against the Greystoke family and tries to murder Jack, but gets killed by Akut.  Tarzan tries to have Akut sent back to Africa and Jack sent to a boarding school, but Jack is an insubordinate little rascal and, disguising Akut as a grandmother suffering some kind of social anxiety disorder--he hides "her" face with a lot of veils--accompanies the ape aboard a steamship in a private cabin.  Almost immediately after they touch land on Akut's home continent, an American criminal tries to rob them and Akut, who is running up a real kill count, slays this crook.  Rather than face a lynch mob or murder trial far from home, Jack impulsively decides to abandon civilization and take up life in the jungle with his ape friend.

In Chapter 5 (The Son of Tarzan has 26 chapters), Burroughs introduces us to a some new characters.  One is Meriem, a ten-year-old French girl who three years ago was kidnapped by an Arab sheik kn own to all as "The Sheik," a bandit who sought vengeance on Meriem's father, an officer of the Foreign Legion who had brought to justice one of the Sheik's felonious relatives.  Burroughs does not pull any punches in this book--the Sheik beats Meriem so much, and the "filthy" and "toothless" "old black hag" who is her nurse tortures her so much, that Meriem tells her little dolly that she wishes she was dead!  Damn!  There is a reward offered to anybody who can return Meriem to her farther, and when two Swedish poachers, cruel criminals themselves, spot Meriem while trying to work a business deal with the Sheik, they begin nursing a hope of getting hold of the girl and collecting the reward.

Jack and Akut march across plains and through forests for months, the ape teaching the English boy how to survive in the wild, and he takes to it readily, relishing a life of danger and violence.  Among many exploits, we witness him ambush a black warrior and murder him with his teeth!  Damn!  Having stolen that poor bastard's weapons, Jack learns how to use them and use them he does, on various beasts as well as additional African tribesmen.  Jack fully inhabits the moniker Akut bestows on him, "Korak," which means 'killer" in the language of the apes--he lives just as a forest carnivore loves, feeling no more guilt over killing an African warrior to steal his arrows than a crocodile feels guilt for killing a zebra for lunch.

Over a year after landing in Africa, Korak stumbles upon the village where live Meriem and the man she thinks her father, the cruel Sheik.  He rescues the little French girl from a beating and she joins Korak and Akut as a devotee of the tree-dwelling, beast-killing, ape-speaking jungle life; years go by and Meriem becomes nearly as good at jumping and climbing and tracking and killing as Korak.  She grows into a beautiful young woman and Korak falls in love with her.  She still sees him as an older brother, however.    

Burroughs' novel is full of fighting and diplomacy among a host of different parties: tribes of apes, tribes of black villagers, tribes of baboons, the evil Sheik and his followers, the evil Swedes and their browbeaten black "boys," and others still; many people get captured and then escape captivity, either thanks to their own pluck and ingenuity or the efforts of rescuers.  This is all pretty entertaining; among the highlights are Korak leading an army of baboons in an assault on a black village and Korak riding an elephant into the camp of one of the Swedes.  The villainous Swede suffers some rough justice when the elephant recognizes him as the guy who slew his mate years ago.

Burroughs uses the same plot devices again and again.  Many times throughout the novel, which is a hefty 222 pages, one character recognizes another who was important in his or her life many years ago, while the second individual does not recognize the first, leading to all kinds of melodramatic situations.  Another oft-used plot device sees somebody, usually but not always Tarzan or Korak, by chance, stumbling upon a situation in which some person is about to get tortured or killed and delivering this vulnerable individual from a terrible fate.  

Halfway through the novel, Tarzan, dressed in European fashion--complete with pith helmet and at the head of a party of his African employees, arrives, by chance, just in time to save a captive Meriem, who has been separated from Korak, from being raped by one of the Swedes.  Tarzan brings Meriam, who doesn't know Lord Greystoke is Korak's father, just as Tarzan doesn't know this Korak guy she keeps talking about is his son, to stay with him and Jane and their retainers and their pack of dogs and all that at his African estate.

Months go by, during which Meriem at the Greystroke estate and Korak hanging around with baboons and elephants, each think the other dead.  A visiting English gentleman finds Meriem irresistible, but he can't marry someone of such a lower social class, so he schemes to bring her to London and make a kept woman of her.  The Swedish would-be rapist, whom Tarzan spared, arrives in disguise, (he shaved his beard) and insinuates himself onto the estate.  He manipulates the English gentleman, hijacking the cad's project of carrying away Meriem to facilitate his similar designs.  The Englishman is transformed over the course of all the betrayals, chases, captures, escapes and bloody fights that ensue--the true and honorable love for Meriem that blossoms within his breast, and the dreadful hardships he endures, like getting stabbed by a black guy and shot by a Swede and then shot again by an Arab, spur him to grow from a selfish, snobby and cowardly bounder into a generous and brave man.  Of course, those hardships also kill him, but dying a good man is better than living as a scoundrel, right? 

The circuitous narrative of death, destruction, love and friendship that is The Son of Tarzan ends with joyous and tearful reunions as Tarzan and Jane see their son for the first time in years, and then Meriem in London is reunited with her French father, who we learn is a prince, making Meriem a princess!  Like so many Burroughs protagonists, Korak has married a princess!   

If 2014's MPorcius is to be believed, I was a little disappointed in Tarzan #3, The Beasts of Tarzan.  But 2022's MPorcius is keen on #4, The Son of Tarzan.  There is a ton of effective violence and animal action, but also quite a lot about the psychology and relationships of the characters--Burroughs depicts loneliness, lust, a passion for vengeance, guilt (or lack thereof), the tension that you feel when you want to live your life a certain way but that lifestyle puts a barrier between you and the people you love, and it all works.  The Son of Tarzan is a big success.    

So, thumbs up for this classic adventure story.  And on to Tarzan #5, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar!   

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

I began to realize that my mother would always regard me as an unfeeling child, a selfish monster, a little brute, capricious, scatterbrained…They had tried everything, done everything they could…it was really no use.  There’d never be any help for my disastrous, innate, incorrigible propensities…She could only face the facts, my father had been perfectly right…

Years ago, during my New York days, I read Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. I can’t remember much about it and can’t say I enjoyed it very much; I think maybe I took Céline’s attacks on America too seriously and they got my back up—maybe I had a softer skin then.  Despite this past experience, when I saw a fat (600 pages!) paperback edition of the man’s Death on the Installment Plan, translated by Ralph Manheim and published by New Directions, going for one dollar at a West Virginia antique mall, I decided to buy it.  The back cover of this copy says it is the sixth edition and that this translation is copywritten 1966 and first appeared as a New Directions Paperbook in 1971.  According to wikipedia the novel first appeared in 1936. 

I started Death on the Installment Plan while on a road trip to the Middle West where reside many of my in-laws, and finished it back at HQ; it took me kind of a long time to finish it partly because I was busy and distracted and partly because after 300 pages or so I got a little tired of it--the plot of the novel doesn't really pull you along, it is a series of anecdotes, all of which have sort of the same tone and achieve the same effects and make the same points, and it sort of got a little stale.

Death on the Installment Plan is a sort of fictionalized memoir written in a breathless style, consisting of short, pithy sentences separated by thousands of ellipses.  Exactly why there are ellipses in every paragraph, and how much this reflects the original French, I do not know.  The text includes many cliches and colloquialisms as well as lots of slang, adding to the feeling given by the short direct sentences and all those ellipses that the book is the transcription of the rambling monologue of some old and bitter man instead of an actual written literary artifact that has been carefully polished.  A good example of Céline's (or the translator's) use of stock phrases and cliched metaphors comes on page 464 when a woman delivers a speech full of ellipses denouncing her husband; her philippic incorporates, in the space of less than half a page, "He's coming apart at the seams," "He doesn't know where the next nickel is coming from," "I know the score," "He won't get away with it," "He'd better watch his step," and "I won't stand for it."  For long stretches I found Céline's style engaging and appreciated its economy and the way it sounded like real ordinary people (who are excited or angry) talking, but a steady diet of it began to wear on me.

The first 40 or so pages depict the novel’s present, in which an adult Ferdinand is a doctor working at a clinic in Paris, constantly in some kind of trouble with his colleagues and superiors; he does his writing on the side.  This portion of the book I found sort of vague and confusing, and much of it consists of a surrealistic dream sequence and tiresome digressions in which Ferdinand tells other characters fantasy stories about a King Krogold.  But then we flashback to the turn of the century, to Ferdinand's childhood, and this section I found vivid and compelling.  

The young Ferdinand lives on a dirty and smelly Parisian street, a covered passage, a sort of shopping arcade with apartments over the shops that is covered by a glass roof that keeps off the rain but also keeps in smells and heat.  Ferdinand is the only child of a man who works at an insurance company by day and on his off hours makes deliveries for the shop run by his wife, who sells antiques and lace articles.  Death on the Installment Plan is a long series of anecdotes and vignettes, all of which are disgusting and depressing, depicting life as a war of all against all and expressing the narrator's misanthropy and self-loathing.  Almost all the characters, the narrator not least of all, are pathetic (e.g., mom has a bad leg and limps constantly) and/or callous or even cruel (there are a multitude of scenes of domestic violence and sexual exploitation), and the incidents described generally conclude with people sobbing, vomiting, or being injured in some way.  The climax of the novel is a suicide and a long description of the challenging effort to deal with the shattered body.  Everyone is desperate, living on the edge of physical and/or financial destruction, taking desperate risks to make a little money and then seeing their enterprises come to disaster.  Father is always in fear of getting fired, the shop never sells enough to make a real profit, and little Ferdinand is so frazzled and put upon that he doesn’t have time to wipe his ass properly and so never stops smelling of shit.

I had a depraved nature…It was inexplicable…There wasn’t a speck or straw of honor in me…I was rotten through and through…repulsive, degenerate!  I was unfeeling, I had no future…I was as dry as a salt herring…I was a hard-hearted debauchee…a dungheap…full of sullen rancor…I was life’s disillusionment…I was grief itself.

The episodic novel's central plot, such as it is, consists of Ferdinand’s parents and uncle trying to find a place in the world for the smelly boy, get him a job in another shop or apprentice him to some artisan or something.  Bad luck, the ruthlessness and cruelty of others, and the narrator’s own questionable character conspire to render their early efforts a fiasco.  Along the way, little Ferdinand has grotesque sexual experiences with adult women and ugly girls closer to his own age, as well as homoerotic experiences with boys his age.    

At the same time that all this is pretty disgusting, it is often also pretty funny.  Céline describes everyone’s problems and their reactions to defeat—their rage and agony--in a hyperbolic fashion which is quite amusing.  Maybe I am cold-hearted, but the over-the-top nature of many passages transforms the tragedies they retail into extravagant farcical hilarity.

I had the best position in the football game, I kept goal…that gave me a chance to meditate…I didn’t like to be disturbed, I let almost everything through…When the whistle blew, the brats flung themselves into the battle, they plowed through the muck till their ankles cracked, they charged at the ball, full steam into the clay, they plastered themselves with it, their eyes were full of it, their whole heads were covered…When the game was over, our little angels were nothing but molded garbage, staggering hunks of clay…with big wads of pigeon shit sticking to them.  The muddier they were, the shittier, the more hermetically sealed, the happier they felt…They were wild with joy under their crusts of ice, welded into their clay helmets.  
Around page 200, Ferdinand having blown all his job opportunities in Paris, is sent to a school for boys in England, his relatives thinking that knowledge of English will be a skill that can open up to him new job opportunities in the City of Lights.  For me, Ferdinand’s time at the English school is a highlight of the novel, as Céline satirizes the English weather and the English mania for sport and presents some crazy English characters: the ugly schoolmaster and his beautiful wife; a horny student who can’t get enough of Ferdinand’s cock and semen (this kid enjoys pretending to be a dog!); and a retarded student who has to be watched like a hawk lest he eat inanimate objects or walk off a cliff or into traffic due to his horrible eyesight (at night they keep this moron in a cage!)  Ferdinand is bigger and older than his English classmates and physically dominates them; he also steadfastly refuses to cooperate with the schoolmaster—Ferdinand acts like a mute, declining to speak for weeks, even months, at a stretch.  He stops going to class and instead spends all his time with the schoolmaster’s wife, helping her chaperone the imbecile (sometimes Ferdinand jerks him, you know, to calm him down) and run errands in the town, where Ferdinand takes the opportunity to shoplift from all the stores.  Our hero is crazy with lust for the schoolmaster’s wife, but when she hints at the possibility of indulging his desires, Ferdinand, a thorough-going misogynist, doesn’t take advantage of her openness—women, he is sure, are all vampiric backstabbing liars, and instead he dreams about her while that horny canine of a student jerks him and sucks him off.

It wasn’t easy to resist…The harder it was for me, the stronger I became…She wasn’t going to soften me, the bloodsucker, even if she were a hundred times as pretty.

After the English episode, halfway through the novel, Ferdinand returns to Paris, where he severs relations with his parents after a ferocious hand-to-hand fight with his father.  An uncle takes him in and gets him a sort of internship with one of the smartest men in France, a science writer who not only edits a magazine that caters to inventors and writes books that explain scientific and engineering concepts to lay people, but flies his own hydrogen and methane balloon and drives experimental race cars.  Death on the Installment Plan is full of hyperbole and this character, who has written hundreds of books and throws around all kinds of scientific terminology, is like a comic figure from an early science fiction story, a genius in every field of science and engineering when it comes to theory but a physical klutz who can't drive a single nail without harming himself.  The second half of Céline's novel is all about Ferdinand's relti0nship with this guy, and over its 275 pages we learn how vice-ridden, mercenary and corrupt this genius really is, eventually meet his masculine, pipe-smoking, domineering wife and then witness all his publishing, scientific and financial projects come to absolute disaster.  It is his suicide and its gruesome and lachrymose aftermath that brings the novel to a close. 

For me, Death on the Installment Plan is too long and unvaried in tone and theme.  After four hundred pages or so the novelty of its fever pitch, of the characters' long shrieking tirades full of self pity and outrage, wears thin.  I probably would have enjoyed it more if it had come to me as two or three separate books--one on life among the shops of the covered passage, one on the school in England, one on life with the science writer--and I had taken a break of months or years between each book.        

I have to provide a trigger warning for my readers who were born in the 21st century or who were born in the 20th century but have embraced the current values of all right-thinking people who don’t want to lose their social media accounts.  Céline uses the dreaded “n-word” and calls Chinese people “Chinks” and says crummy things about women, and he doesn’t explicitly condemn men’s striking of women.  Céline is famous for being a Jew-hater and a sympathizer with fascism and Naziism, but that sort of thing is essentially under the surface here.   

Lefties (as well as anti-capitalism right-wingers) might appreciate Death on the Installment Plan as a stark portrait of life in the market economy, a dramatization of the ceaseless pressure in a market society to please customers and employers, to adapt to changing market conditions.  Ferdinand’s parents’ small shop suffers from competition with large stores and their fortunes are tied to unpredictable changes in taste—they are in real trouble when lace goes out of style or when the hats they purchased in bulk similarly lose popularity and become unsalable.  Céline satirizes the ideas of progress of the middle-class people of the industrial democracies, portraying changes in technology as a challenge or a trap rather than a boon or benefit—the narrator’s father struggles, with limited success, to learn how to use a typewriter, and the science writer's balloon is dangerous and out of control and his racecars even more so--one of them mysteriously explodes, blowing a female admirer to bits.  The second half of the book portrays inventors as well as investors in new technology as grasping maniacs who destroy themselves and everybody around them.  A disgruntled mob of inventors, readers of the magazine the science writer and Ferdinand publish, destroys the office of the magazine, forcing our heroes to move to the country, where they experiment, disastrously, with using radiation to increase crop yields.  And as the novel's title (Mort a credit en francais) suggests, buying things on credit and going into debt and being pursued by those to whom one owes money are recurring themes of the book.  If you hate Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and your credit card company, maybe this book is for you. 

I've told you it is too long and kind of wears out its welcome with its monotony, but I will still recommend Death on the Installment Plan to people who enjoy down-and-out narratives in the voices of creative types who act like jerks and describe their struggles to find and keep ordinary jobs, complain about their poverty and detail their sexual experiences, like those of Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski.  Much of it is pretty funny and it provides a window on life and attitudes of the past.  And Céline is supposed to be important (the article at this link ranks him alongside Proust and Joyce) and he was in the news last year, sixty years after his death, so you can tell yourself reading this thing is educational.    

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Cellar by Richard Laymon

A few weeks ago I was looking through some paperbacks at a West Virginia antique store and, besides a 1972 Fawcett Peanuts book (What Now, Charlie Brown?) and a 1970s New Directions Paperbook printing of Celine's Death on the Installment Plan (trans. Ralph Manheim), I picked up a seriously damaged copy of The Cellar by Richard Laymon, enticed by the idea that this was a book about "sadistic sensuality" and "sexual enslavement" and by its cost: 50 cents.  (What Now, Charlie Brown? was also $0.50, while the Celine was $1.00.)  

I didn't know anything about Laymon, and to avoid spoilers (I can dish out the spoilers, but I can't take them!) I didn't look up any discussions of his work or reviews of The Cellar online before reading the novel's 250 pages.  Those pages go by pretty quickly, the font being on the large side and there being plenty of blank space between most of the twenty-six chapters, which are preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue.

The Cellar is a pretty simple book, a relentless succession of gore and scenes of unconventional sex; many people are tortured and murdered, and many people, mostly but not exclusively women and girls, are sexually abused and raped.  The characters lack personality and their motivations are unexplored and at times their behavior is hard to believe.  The Cellar is like a book written by a kid who just wanted to get to the scenes of violence and came up with various scenarios which would, just barely, set the stage to talk about gruesome injuries, people vomiting, and about the violation of women's bodies--there is no development of tone or atmosphere, the story is all incident, one disgusting event after another.  The fights and crimes do not constitute oases of interest in the desert of blandness, however--from start to finish there is no discernible writing style or effort to inspire or manipulate the reader's emotions, everything is written plainly, matter-of-factly, there is no passion, no gusto to the writing, even in the episodes of violence.  The monsters aren't even described with any care or any flair, so you can't really picture them vividly in your mind--with one exception: Laymon provides a clear description of the monster's idiosyncratic penises, he seemingly having devoted all his creativity to developing alien genitalia.

I found a number of scenes in The Cellar surprising, and some amusing, because of their absurdity, their inability to convince.  I often enjoy fiction that is crazy or off the wall, like that of A. E. van Vogt and Barry N. Malzberg, but their stories generally have some kind of point to make and have a sort of internal philosophical consistency, their work is in dialogue with other fiction and with real life.  I tried to find some kind of theme or point to The Cellar--was Laymon saying something about how we are all driven by our sexual desires to break the rules and take stupid risks, or about how the entertainment industry exploits our base desires, or about the pervasive fear of crime in the time period in which it was written?--but I had to conclude that Laymon was just narrating one atrocity after another, these atrocities having little to do with each other and being presented with no ring of truth and no human feeling, not even the mischievous child's joy of breaking taboos or saying things you aren't supposed to say.    

A quick look at isfdb suggests that The Cellar was a commercial success: it has been printed many times in America and Europe, even in a $50.00 limited edition hardcover, and has spawned sequels that are collectively known, and it is hard to say this without smiling at the absurdity of it, The Beast House Chronicles.  Chronicles!  Famed horror blogger Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction and Paperbacks from Hell blogged about The Cellar in 2011 and just recently about its sequel The Beast House and had a reaction similar to mine--in fact, anything interesting I might have said above he had already said.  This blog post was rendered superfluous before I even started it!

Well, I won't be reading anything else by Richard Laymon.  A decisive thumbs down for The Cellar.  I took a lot of notes on the plot of The Cellar, and in case anybody is curious about what it is all about or wants to see some evidence for my hostile review, I offer my ludicrously long blow-by-blow plot synopsis below.

**********   

In the Prologue, it is night and a police officer sees a light in The Beast House, a Victorian house that is a sort of tourist attraction with a ticket booth in front of it.  Inside, a father is forcing his son to explore the house with him--Dad doesn't want his son to believe in nonsense like monsters.  (We later learn their name is Ziegler.) The monster attacks, kills skeptical father and believer son alike before the cop, who hears their screams, can get in through the turnstile and locked door.  (If it's locked, how did father and son get in? Is this a locked room mystery?)  The cop has brought his shotgun, but forgotten his flashlight, so he trips over the fresh corpses in the dark.  Then the monster pounces on him before he can bring his 12-gauge to bear.

In Chapter One we meet Donna and her twelve-year-old daughter Sandy.  Donna's ex-husband Roy--Sandy's father--is some kind of dangerous criminal, and it is implied that he sexually molested Sandy--we later learn her raped her.  According to Sandy, Roy said he would track them down and kill them after he got out of prison.  Uh oh, Donna just got a phone call warning her that her husband just got released from prison!  D & S flee home--Santa Monica--and drive northwards.  Laymon makes sure to tell us every time the ladies go to the bathroom on their long drive--whether this is supposed to instill in us feelings of vulnerability or appeal to readers with some kind of golden shower fetish, I don't know.  Donna drives into a fog bank near Bodega Bay (Google is telling me Bodega Bay is 440 miles from Santa Monica) and right into a ditch.  Sandy has to pee and there is a whole scene of her going to the woods to urinate and getting lost (Donna gets her own peeing in the woods scene later.)  

A person who is intellectually disabled (Sandy behind his back calls him a "retard" and then admits she knows you are supposed to call such people "special") and is also missing several fingers and afflicted with a trick knee appears; Donna is scared of him and assaults him, knocking him unconscious.  When he wakes up everybody makes friends and he drives them to the town where he lives and works--this special individual works at The Beast House as the janitor!  To prove how friendly he is, he gives Donna and Sandy some free passes for a tour of The Beast House!  Sandy, who five pages ago was sobbing with fear about getting murdered, is thrilled at the idea of going to a tourist attraction whose theme is getting fucking murdered!  I guess kids really are resilient!

In Chapter Two we meet Roy, Donna's husband, just released from the big house.  He tricks his way into a private house and inside murders a man and then his wife and then rapes their ten-year-old daughter; Laymon describes in detail the murders and his disrobing and caressing of the little girl, but the cameras go dark just before he penetrates her as three feet away her mother's bloody corpse cools.

In Chapter Three we meet two men who are plagued by nightmares--they are living in the same apartment building and meet when one hears the other's screams and recognizes the screams of a man having a nightmare.  It's like the secret handshake of an exclusive club!  Larry, as a kid in 1951, sneaked into The Beast House with a friend and escaped after seeing his friend killed and raped by the monster.  We learn the background of The Beast House from this guy and a newspaper clipping he shares; his nightmares are about The Beast House--the recent ones were triggered by newspaper stories about the killings, three weeks ago, of the Zieglers and that cop.  The other guy, Jud, was having nightmares are about being attacked by an army of black people, some "Nubians, dressed like pimps" with Kalashnikovs, others naked savages with spears.  "Jud" is short for Judgement--this guy's father was a Baptist minister.  I figured Jud must be a villain--not only is he connected to organized religion, and not only does he have racist dreams, but it is implied he is a hitman!

Chapter Four covers the detective work Roy undertakes when he isn't raping the ten-year-old girl.  In  Chapter Five, Donna and Sandy meet Larry and Jud, who have come to investigate The Beast House--Larry has hired Jud to kill the beast.  Donna and Sandy are stuck in the town, which has only one motel--a bunch of cabins--until their car is repaired.  Donna immediately has a crush on masculine Jud--when he looks at her it "set[s] warm fluid spreading in her loins."  Oh, brother!  Layman further bolsters the page-to-sex-content ratio by describing the breasts of the teenaged girl whose parents own the motel when she briefly appears on scene--her revealing clothes make Donna think, "The girl's going to get herself raped,"--foreshadowing!--and by having the widow of Mr. Ziegler, mentally unhinged, appear at The Beast House and feverishly denounce the tourists waiting in line at the ticket booth, baring her breasts, which we are told are very large.

Chapter Six is about the tour of the Beast House given our four main characters and a dozen other tourists by the owner of the house, Maggie Kutch, wife and mother of the victims of the second attack, in 1931.  We learn how Mr. Ziegler got into the Beast House (mystery solved!) and, later in Chapter Seven when Donna, Sandy, Jud and Larry go to the beach, that Maggie is mother to that "special" janitor, born after the murders and fathered by a boyfriend.  (At the beach Jud and Donna are already holding hands--that is quick work!) 

In Chapter Eight Roy tortures Donna's sister and gets one step closer to his wife and daughter.  In Chapter Nine Jud stakes out The Beast House at night, sitting in the woods behind the place.  We get more clues to his background--the source of his nightmares is the assassination her performed of a fictional African tyrant it appears is based on Idi Amin.  He sees Mrs. Zielger sneak into the house and follows her; she is there to burn the place down, but she is already dead when Jud catches up to her, not even having had time to take the cap off her can of gasoline.  Jud tangles with the beast but it gets away.

Chapter Ten covers part of Roy's road trip north; the ten-year-old girl is in the trunk.  He camps in the woods at night and Laymon describes how he abuses his captive, and plays a little trick on us, making us think he's killed her, but she's still alive in Chapter 13, in which she suffers further abuse before and after Roy kills two people in gory fashion in the process of stealing their car.  

In Chapter 11 Donna helps Jud bandage his wounds and they have sex, then Larry, Jud and Donna discuss their theories of who or what the monster is and what its motives are.  Larry, and the owners of the house/tourist attraction, insist the monster, which is only active at night, has killed eleven people since the first attack in 1903, but the government insists that all eleven of those victims were slain by garden variety knife-wielding criminals, and that the different murders are unconnected.  Larry is sure the monster is driven by lust and rapes its victims, but Maggie insists none of the beast's victims were raped.  Jud thinks a man in a suit killed Mrs. Ziegler and only raped her incidentally; he suspects Maggie and her family are behind the recent killings as they attract tourists.  In Chapter 12 Jud takes the tour of Beast House again, and Maggie and her boyfriend make no mention of the death of Mrs. Ziegler.

In Chapter 14 Donna telephones her sister's house and a police officer named Woo tells her her sister and brother-in-law were murdered.  In a surprising bit of comic relief, Woo keeps saying "So" on the phone, like a caricature of an Oriental.  In Chapter 15 Jud declares he will protect Donna and Sandy from Roy, and in Chapter 16 he and Larry sneak into the strange brick house where Maggie, Maggie's boyfriend, and their retarded adult son Axel live.  The house has no windows, and they find lots of BDSM gear in there, and a diary from the turn of the century which they steal.  Chapters 17, 18 and 19 cover Roy's arrival in town, his kidnapping and raping of the teenage daughter of the motel's owner, and his appropriation of a cabin from which he can watch Donna's cabin.  

Chapter 20 is devoted to Jud and Donna's reading of the 1903 diary, which was written by the mother of the victims of the first beast attack.  She was a widow with two kids living in what would come to be known as the Beast House.  In her diary, she describes getting engaged and having sex with her fiancé and this turns Jud and Donna on so they have sex.  Then comes the significant part of the diary.  The diarist finds a tunnel has been dug into her cellar and some one has been stealing the food she has been canning.  One day she meets the tunneller--it isn't some impoverished urchin, but a monster that proceeds to rape her!  The monster's penis has what amounts to a mouth and tongue, which means it is very good at providing pleasure to women, and so the diarist not only enjoys being raped, but falls in love with the beast!  Everyday she goes down to the cellar to have rough sex with the monster, and her body becomes covered with wounds.  She dumps her fiancé and sends her kids on a vacation so she can invite the monster into the house proper and have sex as much as possible with it!  

Chapters Twenty-One to Twenty-Six are the action climax of The Cellar.  Roy attacks, but Jud captures him.  Larry and Jud take Roy to the Beast House to use him as bait.  The beast kills Roy, and Larry attacks it with a machete, decapitating it.  But then a second beast appears and slays Larry.  Jud, with a .45 automatic, shoots this second beast, chases it through the tunnel described in the diary to the brick BDSM house.  It turns out there is a whole family of monsters, like eight or ten of them!  Hearing the fighting, Donna, armed with Jud's bolt action rifle, comes to help.  Jud busts into the mirrored sex room to find Maggie having group sex with monsters, and he kills quite a few of the beasts; meanwhile, Donna is fighting with Axel, who tries to rape her.  The last lines of the last full chapter describe Jud's disbelief as Maggie kills him with a knife.

In the Epilogue we learn that Donna and Sandy have been seized and are slaves of Maggie and the surviving monsters, and actually enjoy having sex with them.  Donna is even pregnant with the first of the next generation of beasts!

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Fritz Leiber: "The Princess in the Tower 250,000 Miles High," "Black Glass," and "The Button Molder"

Let's take a little trip to the late 1970s with the creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Grandmaster Fritz Leiber.  As is so often the case, I am reading these stories in scans at the internet archive.

"The Princess in the Tower 250,000 Miles High" (1977)

This one looks like something of a rarity, a story only ever printed once, in Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions in Science Fiction Number 7.

This story, just three pages, is written sort of like a fable.  It also exposes us, yet again, to Leiber's interest in teenage girls and incest.

In the far future the Earth is ruled by an insane emperor, Caligula (I guess as a kind of joke, and adding to the fairy tale feel of the story, the characters in "The Princess in the Tower 250,000 Miles High" have evocative classical names like Jason, Medea, and Helen.)  Using up all the Earth's resources, Caligula has a bridge built between the Earth and the Moon, and has lots of additional oxygen manufactured, enough for Terra, Luna and the bridge.  This destroys Earth's ecology, causing mass death.

The last man, Jason, flees the over-oxygenated Earth and starts ascending the space bridge.  He brings with him his infant daughter, Helen, the last woman and his child with his "mistress" Medea.  Plants are growing on the bridge, and animals have preceded Jason in their flight from Earth, so Jason and Helen have food.  It takes them seventeen years to get to the Moon, and they see many strange sights on the way.  When they get to the Moon, we are to assume, they become lovers.

The style is smooth and Leiber offers numerous compelling images, so even if it is somewhat ridiculous and throws all our sexual taboos in the dumpster this is an entertaining story.  Thumbs up!

SF fans who love cats or dinosaurs are always being catered to, so it is nice to see
Gino D'Achille throwing a bone to the niche audience of SF fans who want to see 
a monster walrus (these people sometimes refer to themselves as "Team Maguma.")

"Black Glass" (1978)

"Black Glass" made its debut in Peter Weston's Andromeda 3, and Terry Carr included it in his The Best Science Fiction of the Year for that year.  I'm reading it in a scan of the 1984 paperback edition of The Ghost Light, a profusely illustrated Leiber collection.

For most of its 26 pages "Black Glass" is a long-winded slowly-paced bit of surrealism or maybe magical realism.  A guy takes a long walk in Midtown Manhattan, much like MPorcius did in the days before his exile to the living death of the provinces, and the degradation of New York (because of crime and pollution and so forth) parallels the degradation of his own body and life due to age.  For example, many of the skyscrapers are sheathed in black glass through which outsiders cannot see, reminding the narrator of the recent problems he had with his eyes.  He also has visions or day dreams or whatever, like of the city being flooded or of the famous lions in front of the Research Library coming to life.            

He sees an attractive woman in green, and follows her, and she has some surreal adventures which he observes, like ice skating at Rockefeller Center with a guy who looks like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.  (SF people--Robert A. Heinlein and Philip José Farmer are coming to mind immediately, but they are far from the only ones--love cats and they also love the Oz books,)  In a subway station the narrator is accosted by a short Jew wearing "a white gauze mask such as the Japanese favor during cold epidemics."  This guy explains that "it's the dead Dreck I want none of, the Guck (that's the goyish word for it,) the black foam," a mutated form of industrial waste.  This guy seems paranoid, but when the narrator rides the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center he finds the Towers decrepit, and the city below buried hundreds of feet deep in what must be the black foam the masked man spoke about.  When the narrator descended the subway stairs and/or when he boarded the WTC elevator, was he transported forward in time?  Or is he just hallucinating?

Atop the World Trade Center he encounters the green clad girl, and he helps her perform a commando raid on an enemy artillery piece deployed in the World Trade Center that is firing upon the Empire State Building.  They knock out the gun, using a crew-served weapons system that harms inanimate objects but not people (this weapon is convenient for the plot and tone of the story, compelling the woman to seek aid, even from an old man--she cannot activate its powers by herself--and exempting the narrator from facing the moral dilemmas faced by real soldiers over the prospect of harming or killing strangers.)  The narrator is captured after they knock out the gun, but he immediately wakes up in 20th-century NYC again, safe and sound.  He knows his time travel adventure was real because he still has his component of the weapon, a sort of talisman sculpted into the shape of a lioness. 

The Jewish character, a sort of Jackie Mason figure, is amusing, and the plot is OK, but most of the story is boring.  In theory I should just eat up a story about a dude who is sad taking a walk around Manhattan, but Leiber fails to present crisp images or convey emotion--it is all tedious and drab, sort of vague and nebulous.  And it is very long, with lots of redundant, superfluous detail.  When the narrator looks out across New York from the observation deck of the World Trade Center, Leiber doesn't just say the city is half buried under 700 feet of black particles, but lists off a bunch of famous buildings and tells us what portions of each is still visible above the ebon flood.  All the New York geographic detail Leiber offers is, I suppose, some kind of love letter to Gotham, and I sympathize with the attitude Leiber is exhibiting, as I miss those views every day myself as I drive by herds of cows and flocks of sheep and whatevers of goats, but most of Lieber's NYC details encumber and detract from the traditional "I went to another world and met a sexy princess and helped her people fight their enemies" plot instead of elevating or complementing it. 

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  Presumably editors like "Black Glass" because they like New York and old Jewish comedians as much as I do and respect Leiber for trying to marry mainstream literary stuff with time-honored pulp plot elements, but for me the stoiry does not work.  

"The Button Molder" (1979)

"The Button Molder" first appeared in Whispers #13-14 and won a British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.   It reappeared in Whispers III, which is where I am reading it, The Best of Whispers, and various Leiber collections.

Like "Black Glass," "The Button Molder" is largely a story about urban life with characteristics of mainstream literary fiction, but is very successful; whereas "Black Glass"'s urban component was just a list of New York landmarks, "The Button Molder" is a vivid depiction of living in an apartment in a big city, of the city resident's relationship with other city dwellers, with his apartment, with the sights and sounds of the city, an evocative portrait of what makes city life rewarding and what makes it aggravating.

In his intro to the tale, Whispers editor Stuart David Schiff suggests it is to some extent autobiographical.  The plot of the first-person narrative follows a writer as he leaves one San Francisco apartment building because it has become inhabited by noisy and otherwise intrusive tenants (like "Black Glass," reflecting the urban crime wave of my youth) to move to another, much more salubrious, building.  We learn all about the narrator's hobbies and interests, even his attitude about life, follow his happiness at moving into a great new apartment and then his frustration and depression as he suffers writer's block when he realizes the big project he has embarked upon is beyond his powers.      

"The Button Molder" is a ghost story, and a recurring theme over its 28 pages is the narrator seeing things that are not actually there, ascribing life to things which are not alive, discovering hidden things, hearing things that he can't identify, and encountering mysteries which are never solved.  The climactic encounter with the ghost or hallucination is quite effective.  

The story also includes many literary references--to the Oz books, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen--and many astronomical references as well as a few references to chess and to classical music.  

I really enjoyed this one, and can recommend it strongly as a ghost story, a story about life in the city, and a story about life as a writer.  

**********

I find Leiber's body of work uneven, but stories like "The Button Molder" make all the bumps in the road along the way worthwhile.  If you want to hear me gush about other Leiber stories I think are great, try here, here and here...if you want to hear me condemn what I consider his misfires try here, here and here.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Donald Wandrei: "The Man Who Never Lived," "The Atom Smasher," and "The Blinding Shadows"

In our last blog post we read 1930s stories by Donald Wandrei about a hitman, a counterfeiter, and a robber who has a monkey as an accomplice.  Let's spend some more quality time with Donald, but switch to stories from 1934 issues of Astounding featuring college professors and scientists who risk their lives trying to expand man's knowledge of and power over the universe.  (Place your bets now on how many of these brainiacs are going to survive their explorations into the unknown.) 

"The Man Who Never Lived"

The March 1934 issue of Astounding has already fallen under our steely gaze; no doubt you recall our experience of Jack Williamson's story "Born of the Sun," in which we learned that the Earth was a giant egg and it was about to hatch and kill us all!  Let's see if Wandrei's tale from the issue is equally apocalyptic.

At the center of "The Man Who Never Lived" is the relationship between two college professors--try to contain your excitement!  Our narrator, a young academic, has made friends with an older faculty member, a philosopher also expert in math and physics, a man of undisclosed origin who looks like a prophet or mystic, with long hair and gnarled hands.  This dude has a theory that "all matter and life can be understood in the conception of one mind of which the universe and all its works, past, present and future, are only parts."  Today he tells the narrator that he has figured out after many years of study how to cast his mortal mind from his body and get in touch with this universal mind and know the entire universe--he will be able to predict the future!  

He asks the narrator to join him in his house and take notes of what he says while his mind is out there exploring the cosmos.  The older scholar lays on a "pallet" the narrator says is like "an altar," next to which is "an Easter Island sculpture" and sort of goes into a trance.  He decides to explore the past before he explores the future, but he finds that, once he has headed back in time, he cannot reverse course, but must keep traveling back in time until he has reached the very beginning of the universe.  Most of the story consists of the short declaratory sentences uttered by this mystic as he witnesses wars and then cavemen and then dinosaurs and then the moon leaving the Earth and then the planets leaving the sun, all in reverse.  When he gets to the beginning of time, before matter has coalesced, his body fades out of existence.

This is a silly filler story, mostly a catalog of historical, geological, and astronomical events presented in reverse.  Gotta give this one a marginal thumbs down for being a waste of time.  If you've got some time to spare, you can find "The Man Who Never Lived" in the 1965 Wandrei collection Strange Harvest and the 1997 collection Don't Dream.  

"The Atom Smasher"  

Here's another selection included in Strange Harvest, and what I would consider another filler story, though at least it is not silly.  "The Atom Smasher" is surprisingly similar to the Donald Wandrei story in the April 1935 issue of Astounding, "Life Current," though not as good as that later treatment of the scientist-slain-by-his-own-creation theme.

Our narrator is attending the demonstration of a machine that can achieve the "wireless transmission of matter."  The scientist who built the machine explains how it operates, neutron bombardments and electro-magnetic fields and all that.  It sounds like the transmitter disassembles the particles of the object to be transmitted, but the receiver does not reassemble them with exact fidelity to the way they were, but instead just sort of pours them into a sort of mold or template made of electro-magnetic fields.  The object to be transmitted for the demonstration is a large hunk of cork--the scientist points out all the little indentations in the surface of the piece of cork, and says that, when the cork is reassembled at the receiver thirty feet away, it will be perfectly smooth, perfectly symmetrical, because the particles will be packed into and formed in the shape of the electro-magnetic field at the receiving end. 

The demonstration begins, and the inventor trips and falls inside the transmitter.  He vanishes, and in the receiver appears a dark oozing pudding.

"Life Current" is a major improvement on this story because it included human emotion and psychology--the scientist who got killed died because he made bad decisions, and the story also depicted his relationship with his wife.  The scientist in "The Atom Smasher" gets killed because of bad luck, and the people who see him die have no emotional ties to him, making it far less compelling.  "The Atom Smasher" is well written and the science explanations of how the teleporter works are interesting, though, so I'm calling this one acceptable filler.

"The Atom Smasher," less than two pages long here in Astounding, would appear alongside "Life Current" in both Strange Harvest and 1989's Wandrei collection Colossus.

"The Blinding Shadows" 

This Astounding cover story is one of those SF stories that is like an excerpt from a history book written in the future.  That future is the year 1980, and the excerpt from the book describes a disaster that occurred in 1970, and also serves as a biography of a genius, G. M. Dowdson, a man who "was professor of mathematics, and also held degrees qualifying him as a doctor of optics and of philosophy."  "The Blinding Shadows" is also one of those SF stories in which the author tells you what the disaster is up front (in this case, New York City is inaccessible and surrounded by a government-built and guarded wall) and then explains how the disaster occurred. 

The world depicted in this story has seen a lot of trouble.  Between 1955 and 1958 raged a second World War, in which the British-American-Soviet alliance defeated the Asia-Africa alliance thanks to 30-something scientist Dowdson's development of a means of surveilling any spot in the world, giving the Anglo-Commie forces the ability to see everything going on behind enemy lines.  After the war, we are told, the scientists are rulers of the world.  Good grief!

In 1969 Dowdson presented a paper theorizing that coexistent with our universe another, one in which there are four dimensions, a universe we cannot see.  He cites the idea that matter is not solid, but consists of particles with large spaces between them, like the spaces between the stars of the galaxy--couldn't a piece of matter in another universe (Object X) occupy the same space as a piece of matter in this universe (Object Y) if its particles slid into the spaces between the particles that make up Object Y?  Dowdson also suggests that since a three-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow, maybe a four-dimensional object casts a three-dimensional shadow, and maybe if he can craft the appropriate lens or mirror, he can figure out a way to see these shadows cast by objects in that, to us, invisible universe.

Dowdson spends the rest of 1969 travelling the world, making astronomical observations and studying the inscriptions at ancient ruins.  Then in 1970 he and a colleague (the colleague's memoir is an extensively quoted primary source for the excerpt), in a secret lab in an Upper Manhattan industrial district, after many false starts, build a mirror out of hundreds of little prisms cut from the newly discovered 95th element, rhillium.  When an electric current is passed through a piece of rhillium 50% of the energy mysteriously disappears, and we readers of course assume it is being sent to that other universe of four dimensions Dowdson is always talking about.  When the scientists pass 500,000 volts through the rhillium mirror geometric and abstract shapes that glow more brightly than the sun appear in the lab; they hang still in the air; some hanging half in and half out of furniture or apparatus.  The scientists can walk through the glowing shadows without effect.

After some hours, however, the glowing forms, presumably the 3D shadows of 4D inhabitants of another universe, begin moving, pouncing on people and absorbing them, including Dowdson.  The monsters are totally unstoppable, and more and more appear until there are hundreds, and, before the Big Apple can be evacuated, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are seized and, one assumes, spirited off to another universe to suffer some mind-bogglingly horrific fate.  For whatever reason, the aliens cannot travel beyond a certain distance from the mirror, about ten miles, so humanity endures, but is life worth living if you are forever barred from Earth's greatest city by the blinding shadows that haunt it?

This is a fun story, Wandrei handling the outré science concepts and the horror elements deftly.  Thumbs up!  "The Blinding Shadows" has reappeared in Wandrei collections and anthologies edited by August Derleth.

**********

If you bet that the mad scientists would go zero for three today you are the winner.  "The Blinding Shadows" is the other winner today, at least by my lights--I own a copy of the paperback edition of Beachheads in Space, and a previous owner recorded ratings on the contents page, and I don't think he (or she) appreciated it.


      


  

Friday, January 7, 2022

Murderous stories by Harlan Ellison, Donald Wandrei, and Howard Wandrei

To commemorate the current rising rates of violent crime, let's read stories by SF authors we care about here at MPorcius Fiction Log that appear in Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg's 1998 Barnes & Noble instant remainder book, 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories.  We recently read Frank Belknap Long's 1981 story from this anthology (it featured a squirrel who snitched to the cops on a dude who had killed his old lady,) and there are many more stories with means and motive by SF writers lurking within its 600 pages.  Today let's take the opportunity provided by the internet archive to see whether the pieces in 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories by fan favorite Harlan Ellison and H. P. Lovecraft cronies Donald and Howard Wandrei are "realistic" stories meant to cater to the gritty hard-boiled crowd or clue-loving Agatha Christie fans, or are full of speculative elements like Long's.

(I'm going to read the stories in the order they are printed in the book, which appears to be alphabetical order by title, which is odd, but I guess made clerical work easier on the editors and the pencil pushers at Barnes & Noble--keeping 100 stories in chronological order or somehow categorized by theme would be a pain, I expect.) 

"Blank..." by Harlan Ellison (1957; revision 1982)

This story first appeared in an issue of Infinity Science Fiction with an awesome cover by Emsh featuring a sexalicious babe, a guy with a ray gun who looks like a zombie or a mummy or a vegetarian or something, and a computer console adorned with the male and female symbols.  Emsh deserves an award for this one!  It seems the editor of Infinity had the gimmicky idea of commissioning from Isaac Asimov, Randall Garrett and Ellison stories all titled some variation of the word "Blank."  Isfdb informs us that Ellison later revised the story for inclusion in his 1982 collection Stalking the Nightmare.  A glance at scans of the appropriate issue of Infinty and of Stalking the Nightmare, both available for free at the internet archive, indicates that, as expected, the version in 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories is the revised version.  (I'm afraid the original version may be marginally better; the minor changes I noticed in a quick skim don't seem to me to be improvements.)

It is the future of hyperspace starships, aircar taxi cabs, police who can read your mind and blasters!  Rike Amadeus Akisimov (oh, brother) was the worst criminal the computer judge had ever processed, so it sentenced him to 1,000 years on Io!  Our story starts in medias res, with Akisimov fleeing through the city from the psychic police--we learn in a flashback how he got convicted and how he blasted some flower girl who got in his way.  He makes it to the union hall where the psychics who guide starships into hyperspace hang out, kidnaps a hot chick who is one of these "Drivers," and forces her to take him up in a ship.

One of the story's contrived gimmicks is that these Drivers use their psychic powers to guide a ship into hyperspace, but when the ship jumps into hyperspace the Driver does not--the Driver is left floating in ordinary space where the ship was, to be picked up by a shuttle that follows every star ship when it leaves the planetary surface.  Of course, there is no shuttle following the highjacked ship, which left off schedule, and Akisimov didn't give the Driver woman a chance to put on a spacesuit before take off, so, when he forces her to "snap" the ship into hyperspace (overcoming her objections by burning one of her arms off with his blaster) she is left to die in the vacuum of space!

Luckily, one of the police ships chasing the stolen vessel picks up the woman before she dies.  The final paragraphs of "Blank..." describe the fate of Akisimov: the Driver sent the ship into the heart of a star, where the ship and the murderer are burned.  Alright, makes sense, good ending, Harlan.  But then Ellison goes too far and gives us a contrived Sisyphus/Prometheus ending.  The Driver has somehow set things up so that, an instant before Akisimov dies, as he is still feeling the pain of being burned, the ship teleports out of the star, and then back in, so Akisimov can burn to near death again and again and again until the end of time.  How does this work, why doesn't he get finished off by being burned a second time after being burned almost to death?  Is he going back in time after every teleportation, or healed after every teleportation?  Incomprehensible.
   
Even though I have criticisms of the ending, and question whether it is really a story about a murder, and don't really think the theme of "blank" is well-integrated into the story, "Blank..." is entertaining and deserves a thumbs up--the pace is brisk, the maiming of the woman is surprising and disturbing, and all the different high tech devices and psychic powers in the story are interesting.           

"Come Clean" by Donald Wandrei (1938)

"Come Clean" first appeared in the famous detective magazine Black Mask, and is a well-told straight story about a race car driver who travels America racing all over the country but keeps an apartment in an old half-empty boarding house in the city in which this story takes place.  As the story unfolds we learn that a team of counterfeiters has set up shop above the hero, knowing he is usually out of town.  But he is home today, and gets mixed up in the murderous dispute between the counterfeiters above.  The driver almost gets killed, and almost gets framed for the killing of one of the counterfeiters and of a cop that comes to investigate, but in the end he triumphs over the murderous criminal.  Wandrei adds a note of humor to the story--the driver is filthy from a race, and has disrobed to take a shower when the action begins, and so ends up fighting for his life, climbing out a window, and being interrogated by the cops, all while half naked, half covered in dirt, and clad only in a bath robe.

Acceptable.  

"Dramatic Touch" by Donald Wandrei (1934)
       
"Dramatic Touch" was published in Clues, a magazine edited by Orlin F. Tremaine, who edited Astounding in the same period.  

"Dramatic Touch" is a locked room mystery.  Remember a billion years ago when we read a locked room mystery by Fredric Brown and the explanation of the mystery was that the villain used an armadillo to access the interior of the locked room?  Well, in this story the villain uses a monkey! 

Two of New York's Finest, detectives, go to a crappy basement apartment in a crummy neighborhood near the theatre district which we are told is inhabited by "Kids, dozens of them, and fat, greasy women."  If you enjoy that insensitive jibe about the second sex sexism, maybe you'll also enjoy the ethnic chauvinism Wandrei serves up soon after.  The two cops find that the drug dealer living in the basement apartment has been shot dead, but the only entrances to the place are locked from the inside.  Could he have committed suicide?  It seems unlikely--they can't find the gun.  

When the police ask the landlord, Jim Maravano, whom we are repeatedly told has a face like a weasel, ask the dead tenant's name, Maravano replies "Harry Jones" and one of the cops scoffs,
"Jones, nuts!  He's probably on record for peddling dope.  Real name's more likely Moscowitz or Polecki."  
The cops question Maravano, get info from the medical examiner, search the room and adjoining corridor for clues.  Some little hairs they find are the key clue that breaks the case.  A "three-a-day variety" actor with a trained monkey lives in the building; this guy has a second monkey, this one on his back--an addiction to "snow."  He shot "Harry Jones" so he could steal a big pile of  "snow" (that's cocaine, right?) and then had his pet monkey lock the door from the inside and come back out to him through the transom.

(This provides me a chance to brag that the house my wife and I purchased last year here in the rural mountains is old enough to have transoms.)

The detectives pay a visit to this monkey-corrupting druggie and there is a shootout.  The murderer is captured and put on death row.  The monkey is also brought in, but his future fate is uncertain; hopefully he won't be forced to leave show business.

An acceptable gritty police detective thing, dramatizing the menace presented by foreigners, show biz types, and poor people to decent citizens and hard-working monkeys alike.

"The Last Pin" by Howard Wandrei (1940)      
    
"The Last Pin" first appeared in Black Mask, and was later included by August Derleth in his 1947 anthology The Sleeping and the Dead; "The Last Pin" would go on to be reprinted in a 1964 British paperback entitled The Unquiet Grave that collected fifteen stories from The Sleeping and the Dead.  When Fedogan & Bremer published a collection of Howard Wandrei mystery stories in 1996 they chose "The Last Pin" as the title story.

This is an understated first-person narrative; it feels more like a literary story than a genre story.  The narrator relates a series of  events from his youth relating to a somewhat strange and sinister family in his neighborhood, the black-eyed brothers Emil and Ernie and their equally black-eyed sister Edna.  When he is a little kid, the narrator is bullied by Ernie, who is like a year older than he.  Emil is considerably older than his brother, and is sent to prison for life for murder when Ernie and the narrator are still in school; upon being convicted Emil vows to get revenge on everyone who has played a role in incarcerating him.

Sure enough, as the years go by, the lawyers and jurors involved in the Emil Strobel murder case die prematurely in one way or another.  Meanwhile, Ernie grows up to be a talented athlete, an expert gymnast.  At the gym, the narrator's friend notices that, bizarrely, Ernie has safety pins stuck into the inner thigh of one of his legs.  By the end of the story it becomes clear that Ernie has been assassinating the men who put his brother Emil in prison and putting a safety pin in his flesh for each kill.  He gets up to fifteen before the police catch up to him and are forced to kill him because he is so proficient a hand-to-hand fighter that it is impossible to capture him.

I guess this is essentially a straight non-SF story, but a passage about rumors that Emil is bragging to people in prison that his mind can leave his body at night to murder people and have sex with beautiful women gives it a nice weird vibe.

The style and tone are quite good, and I like the weird element.  Thumbs up for "The Last Pin."


"Ormond Always Pays His Bills" by Harlan Ellison (1957/revision 1975)      

"Ormond Always Pays His Bills" first appeared in the short-lived (two issues!) magazine Pursued, and then was revised and included in the 1975 collection No Doors, No Windows.  

Hervey Ormond is short and fat, "almost the caricature of a butterball."  (Well, we can't all be beauty contest winners like you, Harlan.)  He runs a construction company and has been cheating the government and the tax payers, building roads with substandard supplies and bribing politicians to help ward off investigations.  His secretary discovers this malfeasance and tries to blackmail him into giving her a raise and more time off, and he shoots her down right there in the office.  Hervey tries to hide the body by covering it in cement and throwing it in a lake, but his company uses substandard cement which comes apart so the corpse rises to the surface and the police quickly seize Hervey.

Acceptable filler.

"The Rod and the Staff" by Donald Wandrei (1937)    

Here's another story by Donald Wandrei that made its debut in Black Mask.  "The Rod and the Staff" is a good little story that feels very short--in fact, I was surprised when it ended, because the whole thing, up to the last page, feels like background and scene-setting.

Johnny is a guy who enjoys killing people, and makes his living as a hitman, and we learn all about him.  When the police finally capture him, it is because a cop with a shoulder holster outdraws him--Johnny heretofore has kept his pistol in his pocket.  So, when he escapes custody, Johnny acquires a shoulder holster.  The next time a police officer catches up with him Johnny is killed, because he reflexively reaches for his pocket instead of his new shoulder holster.  Doh!

All the character stuff and atmosphere stuff as well as the style are good, but the plot is slight--once I had got to know him, I wanted to see Johnny interact with other creeps, go on some kind of adventure or something, but he's been slain by the forces of law and order before you know it.  I'll give "The Rod and the Staff" a thumbs up; what is there is quite entertaining, I just wish there was more of it.

"Two Inches in Tomorrow's Column" by Harlan Ellison (1965)

Like "Ormond Always Pays His Bills," "Two Inches in Tomorrow's Column" was revised for inclusion in No Doors, No Windows.  It first appeared in Adam Bedside Reader.

This is a brief, mediocre filler type item set in Hollywood.  A PR man is having sex with an aging gossip columnist so she will put nice things in her column about his clients.  She is horny all the time, and he has to bang her frequently even though he finds her unattractive.

Finally, he dumps her, via a letter (!).  She gets her revenge by figuring out a clever way to make one of his clients angry at him; this client is a former hitman who now owns a restaurant.  When the gossip columnist tricks the hitman into thinking her column is a pan of his restaurant instead of a rave, he murders the PR man with a ".38 Police Special" equipped with a silencer (?).  

Not exactly bad, but certainly slight.  


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I think we actually have a pretty good variety here: a hyperspace and ray guns science fiction tale, a locked-room we-gotta-find-clues police detective story, a creepy revenge tale, a story about a regular guy who survives a brush with professional criminals, and stories about ne'er-do-wells who are forced to pay for their sins.  Most importantly, none of the stories is bad; in fact, most of them are fun and have compelling elements.

There are still more stories in 100 Menacing Little Murder Stories by SF writers and maybe we'll be reading some of them soon.