Monday, February 28, 2022

"Doorway to Hell" by Raymond Palmer

"...instead of a batch of worthless shorts, get Patton to write another novel like 'Doorway to Hell.'"  So wrote voluble SF fan, and soon-to-be prolific SF author, Chad Oliver in a letter to Fantastic Adventures printed in the April 1944 issue.  "Frank Patton" was a penname used by several people who published stories and articles in magazines edited by Raymond Palmer, including Palmer himself, the author of "Doorway to Hell."  After reading that Oliver letter recently, I became curious about "Doorway to Hell," and decided to read it.  The story was serialized over the February and March issues of Fantastic Adventures in 1942 and has never appeared elsewhere.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement from the SF community.  But Chad's letter and the striking cover illustrating the story have me curious enough to surf on over to the internet archive, the indispensable source of primary documents for the student of early 20th-century SF, to check it out.

Max Welson is president of a downtown bank, the one right on King's Highway across the street from the newsstand.  Welson is not only a banker, but also a collector.  One of the art treasures he has acquired is a big pair of bronze doors carved with allegorical images of the deadly sins and of sinners being tormented in Hell and bearing the inscription "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."  Welson had these doors imbedded in the concrete exterior wall of the bank, right on the sidewalk, where all the foot traffic, people driving by, and the guy at the newsstand can see them.  They are not functional--they don't open...or do they?

The first installment of "Doorway to Hell" is a detective story with a strong supernatural element.  Our hero is Arnett Huston, a newspaper reporter who hangs around the downtown neighborhood where this bank is, the area being his beat.  He sees local gangsters mow down some joker with a tommy gun--the victim is standing by the bronze doors, and Huston could swear he glimpsed the doors open and somebody or something pull the bullet-ridden corpse inside...but where?  Not into the bank, surely, as a thick layer of concrete lies between the doors and the bank lobby.  

Huston investigates, talking to comic relief Irish-American cops, gangsters in the hospital, and the guy who runs the newsstand, and reading through files at the police station and at the newspaper.  He uncovers many clues involving some financial frauds and schemes, and learns the guy at the newsstand is in fact Peter Hardwicke, a financial wheeler-dealer in hiding from the fuzz because he was framed by crooked financier John Arkway.  Arkway, who was in league with the mob, died some time ago.  Hardwicke has seen numerous people go through those doors, and then Huston sees another somebody pulled through them, a hot girl who was lured to the dread portal by a letter from a friend who had disappeared!  In the brief time they are open, Huston sees beyond the doors fire and hideous monsters!  It turns out that the hot girl was Elaine Hardwicke, Peter Hardwicke's daughter, and the friend who had vanished was dating that fraudster Arkway!  

Huston and Hardwicke figure out a way to lure the head of the local mob to the doors, and as a stunned Huston watches, a bold Hardwicke takes the initiative, shooting down the mob boss after said gangster, somehow, opens the doors.  Hardwicke and the corpse pass through the doors, and Huston, who has fallen in love with Elaine Hardwicke, wants to follow, but the doors shut before he can reach them.  As the first episode of the serial ends, Huston has figured out the secret to opening the doors, and he and one of those Irish cops descend the stairs beyond the bronze portal, into a world of fire and monsters!

Since most of what was going on in that first installment of the serial was more or less realistic murder mystery jazz, I was dreading the possibility that the "hell" behind the bronze doors was a special effect consisting of a film projection and a guy in a monster suit or something.  So I was relieved to find that the doors were a portal to another planet and/or dimension, one where the laws of physics operate differently--the fire Huston saw was just his Terran eyes and brain misinterpreting the different ways molecules and waves behave in this other dimension.  All our ideas of what hell is like are based on such misunderstandings of people's brief glimpses through the bronze doors.

Palmer does in "Doorway to Hell"'s second installment what Philip José Farmer would do in the 1960s and the succeeding decades with his various "Riverworld" writings: come up with a whole science fiction explanation and depiction of the afterlife.  When we die, we go to this other world, where live some aliens but which is run by human beings who have very advanced technology, disintegrator pistols and teleporters and so forth.  Many of those who make up the bureaucracy and technical staff of this other universe are people from Earth who died and passed some kind of vetting or something.  Arkway, the crooked financial guy who was allied with the mob and framed Hardwicke, has continued his clever schemes in the afterlife!  He has gotten himself a good position in this afterlife world, and he has been learning about the technology there and amassing high tech equipment; he has even learned how to return to Earth after having died!  After some chapters in which Huston learns about the afterlife and tangles with the mob boss and reunites with Hardwicke and so forth, Arkway returns to Earth with an arsenal of super weapons and the hope of becoming dictator of Terra.  The resolution of the story comes about as the people who rule the afterlife world give Huston a ray pistol and send him and Hardwicke and the Irish cop back to Earth to destroy Arkway.  The afterlife overlords destroy the doors after Huston and company have passed through them so that these sorts of shenanigans never happen again.  

I generally am skeptical of these detective stories in which there are lots of clues, a convoluted plot full of doublecrosses and secret identities, and a legion of indistinguishable and disposable characters who serve as suspects and victims.  But Palmer moves things along at a brisk pace in the first installment, and I was curious about the truth behind the door and the monsters, so that first episode was not onerous.  The second installment is a little weaker, being somewhat slower paced and including some scenes set in various locales in the afterlife world that felt superfluous, to just be there to run up the page count.  But as a whole, "Doorway to Hell" is acceptable; it is not exactly good, but it is a curious production that is too strange and original to be considered mere filler, and put together more or less competently, with some decent violence and monsters.  I'm glad to now understand what the quite good cover of the February '44 issue of Fantastic Adventures is all about, and to have gained some familiarity with the output of Raymond A. Palmer, one of the many unusual characters who populate SF history.  

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Return of Jongor by Robert Moore Williams

In his editorial in the April 1944 issue of Fantastic Adventures, editor Ray Palmer, in introducing the second Jongor tale, "The Return of Jongor," relates to us SF fans a behind-the-scenes story about the first tale of Robert Moore Williams's ersatz Tarzan.  According to Ray, whom I practically called a liar in my last blog post, in late 1940 Fantastic Adventures was about to go out of business.  Only one more issue would be published!  That issue, the October issue, had a dinotastic cover by famous illustrator J. Allen St. John, bringing to life the cover story, Williams's "Jongor of Lost Land."  Williams, St. John, and Jongor saved Fantastic Adventures--the publisher decided to continue putting out the magazine when that October issue sold twice as many copies as the previous issue.

Besides the second Jongor caper, in the April '44 ish of FA we have a long letter from outspoke SF fan Chad Oliver, who would go on to produce many SF stories, of which I have blogged about quite a few.  Chad criticizes Fantastic Adventures with some asperity ("a succession of dull issues, that were inadequate to say the least,") sparing neither fiction nor art, even complaining that the covers too often depict women.  It's not unrelieved pans, though; like all of us, Chad loves J. Allen St. John and Virgil Finlay, and he has kind words for recent stories by Wallace West, Leroy Yerxa (writing under the pseudonym Lee Francis--Chad denounces with venom a story Yerxa published under his real name), and David Wright O'Brien.  He also expresses admiration for a story of Palmer's, "Doorway to Hell," which was published under the pen name Frank Patton--did Chad know about Palmer's and Yerxa's pen names?  Are some of his spirited assessments, in part, in-jokes?

This issue also includes a story by Robert Bloch, "Lefty Feep Does Time," but I can't bring myself to read a joke story today, even one from a series so popular that isfdb lists over twenty installments (among them, "Stuporman," "Time Wounds All Heels," "Jerk the Giant Killer" and "Son of a Witch."  Bloch loves puns.)  So we'll be sticking with Jongor, and give the rest of the fiction in this number of Fantastic Adventures a pass.

"The Return of Jongor" by Robert Moore Williams       

I had hopes that we would see Jongor in New York or on a steam ship or something, but "The Return of Jongor" starts up shortly after "Jongor of Lost Land," with Ann Hunter, her twin brother Alan, and their savior, Jongor, an American who was born in an Australian jungle full of pterosaurs after his parents' aircraft crashed there, marching away from Lost Land, towards whatever counts as civilization in Australia.  When they stop to drink from a pool, they see moving images on the surface of the water--Jongor says this is a message from one of his friends, Queen Nesca.  Her system of sending messages seems like magic, but for some reason Williams and/or Palmer want to maintain the perception that  "The Return of Jongor" is a science fiction story, and so in a footnote it is explained that there is a technological apparatus and a psychic element behind this medium of communication.

Alan spent months in a dungeon in a city of monkey people and only just recently escaped, a half-starved wreck, but he's not depressed or mentally scarred or anything.  I make this armchair diagnosis based on the fact that Williams spends much valuable ink describing Alan teasing his sister for being jealous over Jongor's having received a secret message from another girl.  I didn't sign up for this trip down under to hear the saccharine juvenile banter of two New York socialites, so I was relieved when Ann and Alan were captured by aborigines and tied to stakes alongside two white men captured earlier by the natives, Schiller and Morton.  These guys claim they are kangaroo hunters who got lost.  

I would have moved Alan to the head of the line, but instead the aborigines start torturing Morton.  Before Morton suffers any permanent damage, and before they even start on the New Yorkers, Jongor, riding a dinosaur, rescues the four prisoners.  Jongor announces that his trip to civilization must be postponed, as he is duty bound to return to Lost Land to answer Queen Nesca's plea for help her; after all, Nesca saved him from a pterosaur years ago.  The Hunter twins and the two 'roo hunters decide to go along, seeing as they will probably get killed if they aren't within rescue range of the indispensable Jangor.  Jongor, an expert judge of character despite the hermit's life he has lead, thinks there is something fishy about Schiller and Morton, but he lets them come along anyway.

Jongor stories are full of treachery and trickery.  That message Jongor received didn't come from Queen Nesca, but from one of her traitorous countrymen; Nesca's people love jewels, and in return for a handful of gems, this traitor is helping a band of monkey men get revenge on Jongor--he sent the message with the aim of luring Jongor into an ambush.  This band captures Ann, but fails to snag Jongor, who tricks one of the monkey men into revealing that the message purportedly from Nesca is a trick.

Ann manages to escape from the monkey people on her own steam, but then she is chased up a tree by a lion.  As fate would have it, Ann is rescued from the great cat by Queen Nesca, who guns the feline down with a ray gun and then brings Ann to the city of her people, a city older than Babylon which, while kind of decrepit, a reflection of how her race is falling into decadence, still houses some high technology.

Her name might lead you to think Nesca is the heiress to the fortune of a coffee and cocoa magnate, but in fact the noteworthy thing about Nesca is that she, like all her people, is a centaur.  These centaurs have idiosyncratic traditions and psychologies, and that traitor who sent the bogus message is exploiting these peculiarities to overthrow Nesca.  When Jongor, who has been following Ann's trail, shows up, we get a debate between Jongor and Nesca about how the centaur government operates.  (Remember the debates about government we got in Zanthar At Trip's End?)  Nesca's dedication to thousands of years of tradition prevents her from resisting the effort to overthrow her, so Jongor cuts the Gordian knot by just murdering an anti-Nesca official in the middle of the ceremony during which Nesca is to relinquish power.  The tradition that was shackling them thus shattered, the pro-Nesca forces leap into action and Nesca, her supporters and Jongor and company fight their way to a secret passage to an underground citadel and arsenal.  Schiller betrays them to the anti-Nesca centaurs, killing Morton and opening the gates to the enemy, so the Nesca team flees deeper into the mountain, to a beautiful temple. 

Jongor thinks they are going to make a last stand, but Nesca gives a histrionic speech about how her race is doomed, and Williams contributes a whole thing invoking evolution and Darwinism without using those words, suggesting the centaurs had some "elements of greatness" but also a genetic flaw or something and so had been "passed by" in "the fight for life."  Nesca tricks Jongor and the Hunter twins into a secret boat and, as the current of a subterranean river carries them to safety, the whole city blows up, exterminating the centaurs.           

"The Return of Jongor" is quite inferior to "Jongor of Lost Land."  The plot is haphazard, just a collection of underdeveloped people and loosely connected incidents.  Williams wants us to see some kind of tragedy in the fall of the centaur race, but he doesn't make them interesting enough that we care about their disappearance from the face of the Earth; the suicidal ending of the centaur people also renders moot all the debates about politics and all the fighting Jongor engages in.  Schiller and Morton are just stuck in there; unlike the two treacherous men in "Jongor of Lost Land," they are lacking in personality and do not add anything to the plot.  Like the characters, the fights and the alien technology in "The Return of Jongor" are less interesting than those in its predecessor, and less connected to the plot--instead of being integral pieces of the plot that help drive the narrative, they are just attached to the thin and inevitable plot like barnacles attached to the underside of a sluggish vessel put-putting in a straight line to a drab destination.  

The style is weak; I complained that the style of Williams's Zanthar At Trip's End felt like that of a children's book, with simple sentences that overexplained everything, and I got that same feeling here as well.  Also, there are too many jokes--Alan Hunter is like a jester character, constantly teasing Ann and teaching Jongor the battle cry the he-man uses throughout the story: "Give 'em hell, Yale!"  All the jokes and cutesy sibling teasing undermine any tension or horror the scenes of death and torture might generate.

Speaking of Alan, Williams pulls a major boner regarding this kid.  In "Jongor of Lost Land," Alan describes how he found the treasure rooms of the monkey city.  But in "The Return of Jongor," Alan needs to have explained to him that the monkeys have all that treasure.  Very annoying--it is like Williams and Palmer didn't reread "Jongor of Lost Land" before they penned and edited and published this thing.  

I have to call this one bad.  It doesn't look like I will be reading the third Jongor story, "Jongor Fights Back," any time soon.

In 1970, Popular Library put out a paperback edition of The Return of Jongor with a brilliant cover by Frank Frazetta.  So much do I admire this painting that a few months ago, long before I actually read any Jongor, I bought an old somewhat worn poster of this image at Wonder Book in Frederick, MD, though I have yet to frame it.    

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Oct '40 Fantastic Adventures: R M Williams and H Kuttner

I know it wasn't that long ago that I told you that Robert Moore Williams's 1969 novel Zanthar at Trip's End was "bad in almost every way."  But let's not be too hasty when it comes to throwing Williams into the dustbin of SF history.  Today we take advantage of the inestimably valuable internet archive to look at the October 1940 issue of Fantastic Adventures, the cover story of which is Williams's "Jongor of Lost Land."  To sweeten the deal, there are also two stories in this issue by Henry Kuttner, and we'll spoil, I mean scrutinize, those as well.

Fantastic Adventures editor Raymond Palmer, in his editorial, stresses that the magazine's emphasis is on fantasy, not science, and talks up the upcoming Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, as well as Edmond Hamilton's story "The Horse That Talked," which will appear in the next (the January '41) issue of Fantastic Adventures, and the fanzine Stardust.  He tells us about hanging out in Wisconsin with Robert Bloch (he calls him the "idea man of science fiction") and August Derleth (he has "one of the finest sf mag collections.")  He also relates some wacky legends I never heard of before and for which he offers no citations--maybe he just made them up?--one about how Moses and Pharaoh are said to have had access to electrical weapons and another about how in the early 15th century an Italian countess was scammed by some rapscallions who sold her a nonfunctional time machine, preying on her hopes of getting back with her dead husband.

The publisher of Fantastic Adventures, William B. Ziff, has his own two-page editorial in which he urges us to write our congressmen and tell them we are willing to pay a pile of taxes for a rearmament program so we don't go the way of the French and the Chinese.  Just change a few of the proper nouns and you can probably print this thing again today in your local paper.  In the letters column are missives from Duane W. Rimel, friend of H. P. Lovecraft (he praises the magazine's art and fiction) and the famous space opera scribe Edward E. Smith (he engages in a mind-numbing debate with another reader about the possibility that "thought waves" might exist--Smith is not sure they exist, but feels there is not yet sufficient data to rule out their existence.)

"Jongor of Lost Land" by Robert Moore Williams

In 1970, Popular Library published Jongor of Lost Land as a paperback novel with a cover by Frank Frazetta.  I'd like to see this, and satisfy my curiosity about whether Williams might have revised his text for book publication, but I have not spotted it in any stores and I am too cheap to get it on ebay.  So our first exposure to Jongor will be in his 1940 magazine form.

Ann Hunter is a wealthy young New Yorker whose parents are dead.  But something has occurred that has impelled her to leave this enviable situation and risk her life in a wilderness thousands of miles from the bright lights of the Big Apple.  You see, some time ago her twin brother Alan decided to take a break from college and explore some remote part of Australia with this joker Richard Varsey, and then Varsey came back to Manhattan without Alan, with a story that the natives had taken Ann's brother captive!  So, as the story begins, Ann, Varsey, and their guide Hofer, who doesn't seem to have a first name, are at the edge of a forbidding Australian mountain range, in the middle of a dispute with their "carriers," aborigines whom they call "blackfellows," which I guess you aren't supposed to say anymore but which apparently in 1940 was still on the lips of every paleface down under.  

The aborigines refuse to advance any further, and then a mysterious disembodied voice calls to them, tells them in their own tongue to attack the white people!  Ann, Varsey and Hofer's rifles take a heavy toll on their now murderous hired men, who only have spears, bows and knives, but there were forty of them at the start of the fight and they threaten to overwhelm the trio.  They are saved by Jongor, a brown-skinned giant whose leopard-skin clad body (do they have leopards in Australia, mate?), the product of a youth spent evading death, is like that of a Greek statue.  He adds his archery to the gunfire of the three white interlopers and the aborigines are repelled.

The few surviving aborigines have barely had a chance to flee when Varsey, an emotional man whom we have been primed to suspect (e. g., Ann doesn't have a good feeling about him and he almost panicked during the fight) shoots Jongor, the man who just saved their bacon!  Jongor falls behind some rocks and disappears.  The three adventurers, despite the shaken Varsey's misgivings, continue their search for Alan, marching through the only pass through the mountains into Lost Land, a valley of swamps and jungles teeming with prehistoric reptiles.

Jongor (birthname: John Gordon), whom we learn is the son of an American pilot and his wife who crashed in Lost Land, watches the three white people from concealment.  Ann reminds him of his mother, and so he not only forgoes avenging himself on Varsey for winging him, but also rescues the hapless trio a second time, this time from a pterosaur attack.  And then a third time, from an attack by some kind of tornado or vortex that is directed by some unseen enemy.  Ann wants to make friends with the jungle hunk and get his help in finding Alan, but the three male characters are all deeply suspicious of each other and just can't get along--Jongor can tell that Hofer and Varsey are not Ann's friends, but have come to the Lost Land to pursue their own agendas, and Varsey won't shut up about his conspiracy theory that Jongor is colluding with the aborigines, pterosaurs and vortex operators.  So Jongor leaves them, and, lickety-split, Ann and company have been captured by monkey people who drop on them from a dirigible equipped with searchlights.

In the ruined city of the monkey-people they are brought before the monkey king by his majesty's  lieutenant, a young monkey-man who openly lusts after Ann's "lithe body."  Ann is made to parade before the throne "as though she were a model displaying clothes before a group of prospective purchasers," and she fears that she will be added to the king's harem.  Hubba hubba.  These furry tailed weirdos speak a language much like that of the aboriginal Australians, and Hofer learns from their chatter that, in fact, they are going to sacrifice her to their sun god.  Hofer also realizes that these degenerate monkey-people and their once beautiful, now decrepit, city are the sad remnants of a colony founded by people from Mu.  (These Murians are thus much like the Oparians of the Tarzan stories, who are the degenerate descendants of a colony of people from Atlantis.)

While Ann is being prepared for sacrifice--a days-long process--the lieutenant conspires with the sneaky sneaky Varsey.  Varsey is given his rifle back, and uses it to murder the monkey king--now the lieutenant can be elevated to the throne and get his paws all over Ann!  But when he tries it Ann punches the monkey masher in the face and makes a break for it.  The monkey-men--and traitorous Varsey!--are hot on her trail.  Ann climbs a cliff and decides to jump to her death rather than let the newly crowned king of the monkey-folk defile her body.  Jongor suddenly appears, arresting her suicide attempt and fighting off the horny monkey man, Varsey, and over a dozen rank and file simian sun-worshipers.

Jongor and Ann fall in love and head out of the jungle.  On the way they meet an emaciated Alan, who was in the dungeons of the monkey-people but made it out during the chaos following the murder of the king.  He explains how months ago Varsey betrayed him and left him for dead; Varsey was determined to get back to Lost Land only because he knew that, like Burroughs's Opar, this monkey town has a huge treasure vault stuffed to the gills with gold and jewels.  

Reunited with her brother, and with a world-class muscle man for a boyfriend, Ann thinks she is out of the woods.  But she isn't!  Among the Mu technology the monkey-men have at their disposal is a remote viewer and two-way communications system much like a crystal ball; those long-tailed bastards used this thing to turn the carriers against the expedition on the first page of the story, and it is also how they aim their tornado weapon.  (Fu Cong, the villain in Williams's Zanthar at Trip's End, also has a disembodied voice system and a remote controlled tornado weapon--I guess these are some of Williams's go-to ideas.)  Now that the monkey people have dispersed, Hofer, Ann's erstwhile guide, has control of all these high-tech Mu instruments.  He speaks to our three heroes, suggesting they return to the monkey city.  But Alan knows the terrible (or amazing--you know, opinions may differ on some points) truth about Hofer--he is a madman who is able to hide his insanity from others and he is also an anarchist who has dedicated his life to overthrowing all government!  Like Varsey, he was using Ann to finance an expedition to the Mu city, but while Varsey was doing it in hopes of getting some treasure, Hofer's aim was to get a hold of the super weapons of ancient Mu, which he hopes to use to destroy all government the world over!  (Here in Fantastic Adventures there is actually a footnote explaining what anarchism is and assessing to what extent Hofer's actions are the result of his mental illness and to what extent his political convictions.)

Before Ann and Alan can even consider freezing Hofer's bank account as punishment for his heretical political beliefs, Hofer aims that tornado weapon at them.  In perhaps my favorite paragraph of the story, Hofer makes snide comments about how rich the twins are ("that will fix you, too, you snooty society girl!") as the vortex gets to work on them.  Jongor, who you would think would have learned skepticism of government over his lifetime of fending for himself and evading the super weapons of the tyrannical and ultimately unstable monkey regime, nonetheless saves Ann and Alan and foils Hofer's ambitions.  When Hofer sets a vortex in the one pass out of the valley, trapping his foes within it, Jongor stampedes a herd of dinosaurs into Hofer's control room, driving him to flee in that airship.  Before he can gain an altitude from which he can snipe our heroes from safety, Jongor throws a spear at Hofer with deadly accuracy.

The story ends with Jongor and the twins riding a dinosaur back towards civilization.

"Jongor of Lost Land" is an acceptable Tarzan pastiche with some half-baked science fiction ideas thrown in there; besides the stuff I've mentioned, there are the crystals Jongor uses to command the dinosaurs and that the monkey men use to control the pterosaurs.  Williams tries to give the characters motivations and relationships that make sense, and he more or less succeeds.  One odd note is that while he describes the pterosaurs in some detail, the author never names the species or type of dinosaurs Jongor commands, or describes them very clearly.  References to an "incredibly horned snout," "hoofs" and "horny head plates" lead me to suspect these beasts are ceratopsians, even if cover artist J. Allen St. John depicts Jongor riding some kind of therapod (maybe Ceratosaurus?) and interior artist Robert Fuqua portrays Alan and Ann mounted atop a therapod weho lacks horns (Allosaurus, I guess.) 

There are two more Jongor stories and it seems quite likely I will be reading them as I continue to explore 1940s and 1950s issues of Fantastic Adventures

"The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt" by Henry Kuttner

"The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt" appeared under the pseudonym Noel Gardner.  It is a gimmicky filler story that is a total waste of time and to which I am assigning a failing grade.

The narrator of the five-page tale, is a lawyer living with his wife in Manhattan.  He is a skeptic, a doubter.  This story chronicles his shocking discovery that, when he doubts something, it ceases to exist--more than that, the entire universe changes so that the thing he doubted never existed.  His wife hangs an ugly picture on their wall; the narrator "started to wonder if the picture was real.  That travesty should never have been painted.  I felt myself doubting its existence."  The picture vanishes, and so does all evidence of its existence, except the narrator's memory of it.

This sort of thing happens again and again, the incidents escalating in scale and importance--buildings disappear, people disappear, finally, the narrator himself disappears.  This story doesn't make much sense, as there is no reason for an ordinary person to doubt the existence of a skyscraper he has worked in for years or of his wife, and Kuttner barely even tries to come up with reasons why the narrator might doubt the existence of such familiar quotidian things.  Kuttner, I guess, tries to make the narrator's less than credible doubts a little more believable by having the narrator drink a lot, and by suggesting it is possible he is insane.  There is also no consideration of how the narrator got this power, or why it began operating all of a sudden.

Thumbs down.

"The Uncanny Power of Edwin Cobalt" would reappear in book form in 2016 in Haffner Press's Kuttner collection The Watcher at the Door.

"The Elixir of Invisibility" by Henry Kuttner                 

"The Elixir of Invisibility" appeared under Kuttner's real name.  This is a filler joke/mystery story.  Ugh.    

Richard Raleigh works as the assistant and errand boy of a ruthless, perhaps sadistic, scientist, Meek, whose beautiful but dim-witted daughter, Binnie, Raleigh hopes to marry.  Meek has invented a drink that makes you (and your clothes, somehow) invisible.  Journalists who have scoffed at his efforts receive packages which contain invisible frogs--Meek stole the frogs from Raleigh, who was breeding them to supplement his meager income.  When the pressmen burst into the lab after opening their packages, Meek announces he will demonstrate his invention, and instructs the journalos to go back outside and wait on the street--invisible, Meek will pick their pockets and leave in them his calling card, proving his invention works.  Meek, who is fat, isn't actually going to perform this feat--he orders Raleigh to drink the elixir and perform it.  

Raleigh's demonstration is complicated by the antics of Binnie's big affectionate dog.  Even worse, while Raleigh is picking the pockets of the reporters, some other invisible man is robbing a bank.  Meek is arrested by the police, but he accuses Raleigh of the crime and Binnie insists Raleigh try to find the real thief.  With the help of the dog, Raleigh finds the invisible crook, is held captive by the thug, escapes, enlists the help of a safe cracker he meets while visiting Meek in the big house, traps and captures the crook, clears Meek and convinces Binnie to marry him over the objections of her father.  

The slapsticky action scenes are neither exciting nor funny, much of the plot is contrived, the characters and their motivations and relationships are uninteresting, and the story feels very long ("The Elixir of Invisibility" is like 16 pages.) 

Totally lame.  Thumbs down. 

I say it is lame, but "The Elixir of Invisibility" was reprinted in a 1970 issue of Fantastic that has a beautiful Jeff Jones cover.  (There was a whole lot of drama about the reprints that appeared in Fantastic and Amazing in the 1960s and '70s, a cost saving measure for the not-exactly-profitable magazines that caused considerable unhappiness among editors, writers and readers.) 

**********

Thanks for taking this little trip to 1940 (and fantasy versions of Australia and Manhattan) with me; there will be more fantasy and insanity in our next episode--see you then.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Zanthar at Trip's End by Robert Moore Williams

At the Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, I recently purchased a discolored Penguin printing of Celine's North and a torn copy of Anthony Burgess's The Pianoplayers.  At Wonder Book, if you buy two mass market paperbacks, you get a third free, so I decided to round out my purchases with a copy of Robert Moore Williams's 1969 Zanthar at Trip's End, largely because I found intriguing the Jeff Jones illustration on the cover; said cover had become totally detached from the rest of the book, the glue having entirely dried.  I recognize that this is the final of the four Zanthar novels, but I am going to read it first anyway; in the event I really like it, I guess I'll buy the three preceding Zanthar books.

Zanthar at Trip's End takes up 185 pages and is split into eighteen chapters.  Chapter One describes how several people and animals in the Los Angeles of the future, 1985, have their souls detached from their bodies by an electromagnetic field; the experience of being invaded by this field feels to its victims like "a wind blowing in my brain!"  The souls of the victims hover above their limp bodies, and they can watch their friends and the authorities responding to their apparent paralysis before they are whisked away.

Chapters Two through Five take place in the heavily fortified private laboratory of Professor John Zanthar, one of those geniuses we meet in old SF stories who is expert in many fields of science.  His greatest triumph has been to invent a matter transmitter.  The prof leads some pretty lame discussion with his two top grad students on stuff like alchemy, psi powers, how "every particle of matter in the Universe is aware of every other particle of matter in the Universe," the possibility of the afterlife, and so forth.  Then the force field attacks.  This "wind" that can wrest your soul from your physical form is accompanied and directed by the disembodied soul of Zanthar's archenemy, Fu Cong, a tall blue-eyed Asian who wants to emulate Genghis Khan and seeks to rule the world.  Somehow the soul body of Fu Cong can talk and be heard here in the physical realm, and Zanthar and Fu Cong have a debate about whether people are able to rule themselves or need to be ruled by superior individuals like Fu Cong.  Fu Cong separates the souls of the grad students from their bodies; their souls join him in a netherworld where they are manhandled by Fu Cong's underlings; their bodies collapse and are taken to the hospital to join the dozens of other people Fu Cong has attacked.  A few days later Fu Cong tries to murder Zanthar by a different but equally esoteric means and our hero flees via his matter transmitter.  

U. S. Government intelligence officers with whom Zanthar is in contact suspect Fu Cong's base of operations is in Tibet, so Zanthar transmits himself to the land known as the rooftop of the world.  In Chapter Six he calls on his mentor, an Englishman who left wealth and a woman in Britain to live in a cliffside cave in Tibet and devote his life to discovering the Philosopher's Stone.  After a philosophical discussion, the Englishman summons a salamander, a creature of fire from a dimension of fire, to guide Zanthar to Fu Cong.      

In Chapter Seven we visit the grad students, whose souls are in a hellish landscape full of monsters along with Fu Cong's other victims.  At first I thought this was some world of spirits, but later, especially after the monsters made their way to Earth, I began to think it must be an alien planet.  I was never quite clear on the issue of how the soul bodies of Terrans could not interact with the physical bodies of humans on Terra, but could interact with the physical bodies of monsters on this hell world, nor how Fu Cong's soldiers on this world, whom I thought were soul bodies just like the Los Angelenos, could bring their rifles to this monster world and shoot monsters with them--do rifles have soul bodies?  Anyway, the Los Angelenos stuck on this monster world by Fu Cong have limited, in and out, access to their memories, even periodically forgetting their own names.  When some Earthers are slain by the monsters, their bodies back on Earth in the L. A. hospital expire.

In Chapter Eight we visit Fu Cong's subterranean laboratory.  Williams does not do a very good job with Fu Cong's personality or motivation or dialogue.  For one thing, Williams gives him an accent (e. g., "Take all the men oo vant," "Profezzor Zanzar"), which is annoying to read, and he doesn't just use the accent when Fu Cong is speaking to Americans, but also when he is speaking to other Asians.  Isn't he speaking Chinese or Mongolian with his underlings?  

Fu Cong has his henchmen bring the souls of some of the Los Angelenos from that monster planet to his lab, where he tortures and destroys them, causing their bodies back in the Golden State to die.  One of the victims prays before being destroyed, and Fu Cong asks his top assistant, Kef, what she is doing.  

"I believe in their world they call it praying," Kef answered.

"Vhat is she praying to?"

"To something that she calls Almighty God."

"Vhat is this Almighty God?"

"I do not know, master.  It is some great being worshipped by these strange humans."

"Ah!" Fu Cong said.  "Someday they vill worship me!"

This sounds like dialogue you'd give space aliens, not two educated 20th-century Mongolian or Chinese dudes.  We've witnessed Fu Cong speaking English, been told some of his underlings are from India and Pakistan, and yet we are supposed to believe he has had no exposure to Christianity or Islam?  Dumb!

In Chapter Nine we observe the grad students taking refuge from monsters up a tree in a jungle.  Their memories come and go, but at one point they consider jumping to another tree and recall Tarzan; I guess this is Williams paying homage to one of his influences, the great Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The grad students witness the start of a war between the native intelligent race of this alien world--swine people--and Fu Cong's soldiers.

In Chapter Ten professor Zanthar is guided through the alchemist's fire by the salamander into a world of fire, then through this alien dimension to a fire burning in Fu Cong's lab.  We rejoin the grad students in Chapter Eleven; they have been captured by the hog people.  The hog people have limited technology, and demand the grad students help them make or acquire the firearms Fu Cong's soldiers have been using against them.  Chapter Twelve sees us back in Fu Cong's lab, where Williams again describes at length his use of the force field to attack people in the United States.  Much of this stuff reproduces things we saw in Chapter One and is thus annoying, but I guess Williams thought the episodes worth relating because Fu Cong has updated his soul-stealing field, and no longer has to accompany it with his spirit body--he can now control it remotely via TV. 

In Chapter Thirteen, Zanthar, having stepped into Fu Cong's lab from a fireplace, has a conversation with the would-be world ruler.  Fu Cong does not just kill Zanthar out of hand, because he wants the American genius to act as his assistant.  To secure Zanthar's cooperation, he threatens to kill the female grad student--somehow, her soul is in his custody.

Chapter Fourteen has us back at the cave of the English alchemist.  We learn about his life and a lot about alchemy--the end goal of alchemy is not to get rich by transforming lead to gold, but to transform a man into a superman with superpowers who can direct human history into more beneficial channels.  As we watch he suddenly achieves his goal--he creates the philosopher's stone at exactly the right moment, and the radiation released by the stone strikes his body at the same instant that cosmic rays from outer space strike him, working synergistically, these complementary rays change his body, giving him super powers!

In Chapter Fifteen, Zanthar kills his guards and frees the female grad student's invisible soul body from confinement--he can't see her or touch her, but he can talk to her.  She explains how Fu Cong's soldiers took her from the hog people.  In Chapter Sixteen the male grad student arrives with an army of swine men whom he has taught to use rifles and guided here via the matter transmitter of Fu Cong's on the monster world.  The hogs inflict heavy casualties on Fu Cong's men but are in the end defeated; the fracas allows the two grad students to float away, back to their bodies in Los Angeles.

Captured by Fu Cong again, in Chapter Seventeen Zanthar is rescued by the alchemist, whose super powers make him invulnerable and make it easy for him to destroy the machinery that powers Fu Cong's soul-stealing electromagnetic fields.  In Chapter Eighteen Zanthar is reunited with his two students in his lab in L.A., and we get some final discussion of alchemy.

Back in 2020 I read Williams's 1946 story "The Counterfeiter" and in 2018 I read his 1938 tale "Robot's Return" and I thought them pretty good.  But Zanthar at Trip's End is bad in almost every way.  The style is like that of a kid's book or a superhero comic, earnest and simple, overexplaining, with sappy and sentimental hero characters whose dialogue does not sound at all natural and villain characters whose actions don't make much sense.  There are also some bad metaphors.  The pacing and structure are bad, with many passages that are superfluous or redundant, and many that are too long.  There are internal contradictions; we are clearly told something specific about the soul-stealing force field or the hog people at one point and then later in the novel these essential elements of Williams's story perform in a way that is totally incompatible with what we were earlier told about them.  It is as if Williams wrote Zanthar at Trip's End as he went along and never went back to revise or copy edit it.  

Thumbs down!

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Dark Light-Years by Brian Aldiss

You went because life on Earth was such hell, because, to be quite precise, living with other human beings was such a messy job....Perhaps that was the secret of the exploring spirit.  Yes, perhaps that had always been the knowledge in the hearts of the other great explorers!  Taxing though the unknown realms were they held no dangers like those that lurked in the breasts of friends and family. 

Exercising our Reality Privilege back in August of 2021, the wife and I were enjoying the cultural experience of driving across the country when we stopped at an antique mall in Ohio, home state of Edmond Hamilton and Harlan Ellison.  At this treasure trove for cheapos I purchased for one dollar Signet D2497, a paperback edition of Englishman Brian Aldiss's novel The Dark Light-Years.  A very short version of The Dark Light-Years appeared in the magazine Worlds of Tomorrow in the same year this American paperback of mine and the first edition British hardcover from Faber and Faber were published, 1964.  That Faber and Faber hardcover is a good piece of modern design, but my Signet paperback has a pretty damn awesome cover of its own that features a powerful shade of red and a striking image of a human (?) face in some manner of distress.

For a while now I have been exploring with great interest Aldiss's varied body of work, which ranges from stories full of classic SF tropes like a guy who has to fight a dinosaur or who finds himself on a generation ship, to experimental New Wave SF like a "story" that consists of a phrase book of alien words, a body of work that encompasses autobiographical novels about masturbating or serving in Asia in the Second World War, a satire of modern technology set in Africa and a perplexing literary novel about almost nothing.  So I am curious to see what The Dark Light-Years is all about.    

Despite the horror movie cover on my copy, The Dark Light-Years is written in a tone of understated ironic humor and is a satire of stuff we've already seen satirized many times before.  The covers of some later editions showcase a blurb that lauds the book as "sardonic;" if I had seen one of those editions that makes it clear this is a joke story I probably would not have bought it and would not have read it and right now I'd by writing a blog post about "tales of sex and horror" or some Conan or Tarzan pastiche.  (Don't worry, those blog posts will be coming up soon.)

In the first chapter of The Dark Light-Years we meet Aylmer Ainson, a Terran living among the fat natives on planet Dapdrof, where the gravity is triple that of Earth's.  These three-hundred pound (on Earth, 900 on Dapdrof) natives, the utod, have two heads, six limbs with hands that are retractable like a turtle's head, and eight orifices--one mouth, one anus, six breathing holes; they speak their complex language by using all six orifices.  While they have little technology, the utod are a culturally sophisticated space-faring race with a religion whose theology and practice is centered on shit--for example, they consider their own excrement sacred and not only wallow in it but use it in religious rituals, and think of their star's life-giving rays as excrement.

After introducing us to Aylmer we flashback for most of the novel, which takes place forty years earlier.  We start with the first meeting of human and utod, an adventure in which Aylmer's father, Bruce Ainson, played a central role.  Aldiss also fills us in on the background of the milieu of his novel.  In 1999, the Earth was overcrowded, Mars and Mercury had been colonized, Africa was unified under one government, Great Britain was at war with Brazil, and an Australian invented a warp drive that would allow easy travel throughout the galaxy. 

Around 2035, an utod ship, a thing handcrafted out of wood, has to make an emergency landing on a planet that the crew of a private Earth exploration ship is already investigating.  (Aldiss and his characters make a big deal of the distinction between a private commercial space ship and a government space navy ship, the latter very disciplined, the former subject to all kinds of management vs labor strife.)  Not realizing the naked mud-wallowing utod are the first intelligent species mankind has encountered after exploring 300 Earth-like planets, the trigger-happy humans blast most of the aliens.  They take the corpses and the two surviving ETs back to Earth, to a zoo of alien creatures in London.  The peace-like utod don't consider all this a big deal, as war is unknown among them, their biology is such that they feel no pain, and they regard death a blessing, just another of the many changes an utod goes through over the course of its many centuries of life.  The utod do, however, ignore all human efforts to communicate.

On Earth, scientists and philosophers argue about the nature of intelligence (could it be there is no such thing as intelligence, that impressive things humans do are just the product of instincts like the instincts that precisely guide migratory birds and marine mammals on trips of thousands of mikes?) and the definition of civilization and try to figure out how to communicate with the aliens.  There is plenty of family and relationship drama, like unhappy marriages and parents who don't get on with their kids, and political machinations, one famous scientist or politico or artist doing a favor or refusing to do a favor or publicly humiliating another.  Aldiss inflicts upon us readers many scenes of people just talking, blah blah blah, and I am afraid I must say that these relationship struggles are all kinda boring, despite Aldiss's efforts to liven them up by having people dramatically say they need a drink or dramatically smoke cigarettes or dramatically tap their fingers on a table.  

Slightly more interesting are the paragraphs of exposition about the dystopian London of 2035, the pollution, the blackouts, the synthetic food (rich people can buy natural foods, but the government discourages the eating of it as unhealthy and lefties worry it is immoral to kill animals and feel it is distasteful to put people--farmers and shippers and the like--to work producing and delivering natural food.)  It is not all dystopian, though, at least not on the surface.  Characters talk about how there is little crime because "we have recognized crimes as a symptom of sickness or unhappiness...in practice as well as theory...and we don't have prisons, but rehabilitation centers."  As for the war between Britain and Brazil, it is wrecking the British economy but the actual fighting is ritualized and highly regulated and confined to Charon, so civilians and infrastructure on Terra are physically safe.   

Having told us all about Earth, halfway through the shortish novel (which has like 120 pages of text total in my copy) we learn all about the history of the utod.  Producing a parody or satire of Earth history, Aldiss describes, in the voice of the utods in the London Zoo, a revolution among the utods over 300,000 years ago.  The utods love to wallow in mud and their own excrement, believe in the soul, and have little interest in technology, but a group of innovators developed automobiles, aircraft, electric lights, etc.  These revolutionaries also preached cleanliness and denied the validity of traditional utod beliefs, coming up with new moral codes.  This revolution lasted only 500 years, collapsing when corruption was alleged among its leaders and fighting, something almost entirely unknown in the utods' millions-year-long history, erupted, and its ideas have never been revived because technology and the new moral codes didn't make the utod people any happier.  The exception is that the utod continued to make space ships that are not capable of FTL travel, but allowed then to colonize some nearby systems. 

In the final third of the novel the boffins at the zoo in London have made zero progress in communicating with the aloof utod and another vessel is sent out to the region of space in which the utod were discovered in hopes of finding their home world.  Aboard this ship, under the assumed name of Samuel Melmoth, is Aylmer Ainson, whose father wanted to be on this expedition but was not recruited because his performance during First Contact with the utod has been deemed inadequate.  On this expedition a sensitive woman comes to see the "humanity" of the utod, how they live in harmony with nature ("this was a race without pain...without fear") and she weeps over the fact that Earth people have not been blessed as have these aliens.  (Later evidence suggests that, in fact, the utod evolved into pacifists not because they cannot feel pain but because they never had to face any natural predators, and they can quickly become fierce fighters when confronted by enemies.)  Meanwhile, the men of the expedition shoot the utod for sport.  When the expedition departs, Aylmer Ainson is left behind, the idea being that he will be retrieved in a year or so, during which time he is expected to have learned how to communicate with the utod. 

The twist ending is that the romantic actions of Aylmer's disgraced father inadvertently and in a circuitous manner trigger a world war on Earth that not only destroys England but spreads throughout space and prevents Aylmer from being rescued from Dapdrof for forty years.  It is also suggested somewhat obliquely that contact with humans is going to corrupt the utod and they will become violent like we are.  

The Dark Light-Years is merely acceptable.  The aliens are sort of interesting (they have little symbiotic companion lizards who clean them of parasites, for example) but the human characters and their relationships are boring.  Many of Aldiss's themes and arguments and devices--humans are violent and technological progress doesn't make people happier and look here are some hippy peacenik aliens who live in harmony with nature and dramatize these points--are banal and are not presented in a particularly compelling or fun way.

More interesting is the theme referred to by the title: beyond Earth, in the "dark light-years," where there are fewer rules and fewer people, people can indulge in their base desires, like the killing of animals, and misanthropes can find the solitude they crave.  One of Aldiss's characters explicitly equates extrasolar space to "east of Suez" as described in Kipling's "Mandalay," a place where the Ten Commandments do not apply and "the best is like the worst."  Aldiss also illustrates the theme of how people are perhaps happier beyond the law and beyond conventional morality when we learn in some brief passages that many of Britain's criminals, almost all men, of course, upon release from custody, take up residence in a walled off section of London known variously as "the Gay Ghetto," "Queer Street" and "Bum's Berg."  As the people at Reason magazine and the Cato Institute would have predicted, in this lawless enclave where spontaneous order reigns and there are no taboos about homosexual sex, people are pretty satisfied with their lives.  

I'm not crazy about it, but The Dark Light-Years has been reprinted many times in several languages, so I guess people like it.  It is probably better than a lot of the novels and stories out there that contrast violent humans with space hippies that live in harmony with nature, so if that is your bag, check it out.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Shudder Again: R. Bradbury, H. Ellison, J. G. Ballard and R. Aickman

Let's read about sex!  (Everybody's doing it!

A few months ago, at an antique mall in, I think, Brunswick, MD, I picked up for a dollar a copy of Shudder Again, an anthology of "22 Tales of Sex and Horror" praised by the "Democracy Dies in Darkness" broadsheet as "chilling and imaginative" and by Publisher's Weekly as "freewheeling."  Shudder Again, published first in hardcover in 1993, is editor Michele Slung's sequel to her successful 1991 anthology I Shudder at Your Touch and has a pretty mesmerizing and somewhat disturbing cover illustration by Mel Odom.  Are those oversized black monster hands clutching that pale sleepy-looking woman's breasts, or just a wacky piece of couture designed to look like oversized black monster hands?  I'm finding it hard to look away.

(Check out the original painting from which this image is adapted, The Chartreuse Bow, at Odom's website.  The woman in her original form is not quite so pale and wears a crown, so seems less vulnerable.)

Slung has had a successful career as an anthologist putting together things aimed at the women's market, like collections of folk wisdom uttered by mothers and anthologies of genre fiction (detective stuff, erotica) by women and memoirs of women explorers and adventurers.  Slung is very opinionated, and the author's bios at the end of Shudder Again include all kinds of odd asides and idiosyncratic criticisms, which is an interesting editorial choice; usually these author's bios are cold, like encyclopedia entries, or single-mindedly rave about the authors because the editor wants to sell the book and to keep on the good side of all the authors and their reps.  I like Slung's outspokenness, but I question it is a career strategy.   

Lest you think I bought this thing only because I was hypnotized by the cover, I inform you that quite a few of the stories in Shudder Again are by people in whose work we here at MPorcius Fiction Log are interested.  Today we'll read four of these tales of sex and horror; a day may come when we read four more of them--who can say?  I will note that I am skipping Thomas Ligotti's "Eye of the Lynx" because it is a component of a sequence of stories which I will someday read all in one fell swoop, and that I have already read and blogged about Charles Beaumont's 1955 "The Crooked Man," a switcheroo story about a totalitarian society in which heterosexuality is prohibited, and Robert Bloch's 1975 "The Model," which I bitterly denounced as "lackluster," "anemic," and "feeble."

"Heavy Set" by Ray Bradbury (1964)  

This tale first appeared in Playboy, our most prestigious skin rag, and Ray's name was right on the top of the cover, higher than Cassius Clay's.  I guess you could call it a character study.  On the California coast, a thirty-year-old guy who works out all the time still lives with his mother.  He has an adult job, working on the powerlines, but in some ways he acts like a kid, which Bradbury dramatizes by having him dress up as a little kid on Halloween.  Women chase him, I guess because of his Herculean physique ("Hercules" is one of his nicknames, along with "Heavy Set," "Samson," and "Sammy"), but he seems to have no interest in them.  The sad second half of the story and its creepy climax suggest Sammy's obsessive weight-lifting and strength training are the result of his sublimating his sexual desire for his mother, and that his mother's emotional neediness is the root cause of his Oedipal complex and arrested development.

A solid, essentially mainstream (non-SF) piece of work by Bradbury.  He doesn't push that Freudian stuff, doesn't use the terms "sublimated" or "arrested development" or "Oedipal complex;" that is my interpretation, and it is possible he would reject all of it--this is a story about human unhappiness that shows rather than tells and is open to reader interpretation, not some lame psychology lecture.  Worth your time.

"Heavy Set" would be included in the collection I Sing the Body Electric and some later Bradbury collections as well as several anthologies, including one presumably published to capitalize on the success of that David Lynch movie that makes my wife cry and another celebrating post-Christian America's favorite holiday. 


"The Face of Helene Bournouw" by Harlan Ellison (1960)

Apparently, this story was first published in a magazine called Collage.  While hunting, in vain, for any references online to Collage that were not about "The Face of Helene Bournouw," I learned that this story was the basis for a 1998 TV presentation.  After appearing in a magazine that is lost to history, and before being immortalized on the boob tube, "The Face of Helene Bournouw" was collected in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled in 1968 and then, in 1975, in the oft-reprinted Deathbird Stories

After the understated, down-to-earth prose and believable true-to-life characters in Bradbury's "Heavy Set," Ellison's turn-everything-up-to-eleven style ("In the perfect minds of Gods too perfect even to have been conjured by mortals, there never existed a love as drenched in empathy as the love between Helene Bournouw and the man she accepted gratefully"), his try-hard "literary" slosh ("These are the sounds in the night: First, the sound of darkness, lapping at the edges of a sea of movement, itself called silence...second, the fingertip-sensed sound of the cyclical movement of the universe as it gnaws its way through the dust-film called Time...last, the animal sounds of two people making love") and his bewildering metaphors ("there was never a passion such as this: straight as steel ties to an indecipherable horizon") made me groan at how much time they wasted and how little information they conveyed, and then laugh at their ridiculousness.  Maybe these lines, from the first page of the story, are supposed to be bad?  Like, as a joke?  They certainly fail to conjure images, set a mood, make a point, or add to the plot. 

Anyway, this chick Helene Bournouw is an advertising model and the hottest babe in New York City.  Even hotter, we are told, than Suzy Parker or Elizabeth Taylor, who, as google image search will tell you, were pretty damn hot in 1960 when this story appeared in a magazine nobody ever heard of.  We see her dump her boyfriend, the head of a shipping company.  He commits suicide and this snarls up the supply chain and damages the US economy.  Then she drops in on her other boyfriend, the greatest artist in America, a guy who lives in a loft, subsisting on day-old bread because he has yet to be discovered. She tells him his work sucks and so he abandons art and moves back to the Middle West.  Then Bournouw visits the priest she has seduced and after they have sex he writes a theological treatise that "would serve to sever the jugular of the Judeo-Christian ethic."  We also learn that she has left some commie diplomat with blue balls so that when he attends a UN conference he will refuse to make any accommodations.

Finally, we see Bournouw meet nine dwarfish monsters in a shabby old building in the Bowery.  I thought she must be a robot employed by aliens to disrupt Earth's economy and society in preparation for an invasion.  But no, Ellison's ending is even lamer than that--she is a robot employed by the Devil to cause strife up here on Earth.  I guess as a satire of mid-century business practices, one of the demons complains that he prefers "the old ways," but is upbraided by one of his infernal comrades: "In a time of public relations, automation, advertising, the only way we can hope to carry on our work is to use the tools of the era."

The only remotely sexy, horrible, or interesting part of the story is the last line, which indicates that the nine demons are going to gang bang the robot that is Bournouw.

When I finished reading this story I planned to tell you it was "barely acceptable," but rereading those sentences I am quoting or referring to above has led me to realize the story is even worse than I at first believed: the first time I read them, those sentences numbed my mind so I didn't suffer their full impact, the way a drunk is protected in a car crash by his limpness; reading them carefully enough to type them out myself for your benefit, dear reader, has brought home to me how empty and stupid they are. 

Another thing.  Through most of the story, I thought it was about how women can be evil and use their sexual wiles to destroy men, who when dazzled by sexual desire can foolishly betray their fellows and themselves.  I recognize that you aren't supposed to think that way anymore, but at least the story would have been about real life, about real people, about human emotion.  The gimmicky reveal that the woman is a droid operated by demons from Hell undercuts any human feeling the story had.  Dumb! 

Thumbs down!

On the right is the cover, by Tom Kidd, of a 2011 expanded edition of Deathbird Stories
published by Subterranean Press

"A Host of Furious Fancies" by J. G. Ballard (1980)

Oh no, here's another chance for me to out myself as ineligible for membership in the in crowd by attacking a story by a New Wave icon.  Well, maybe this story is a good one...I liked "Bilennium," after all, and "The Garden of Time"...Ballard's stories aren't all gimmicky scams like those famous Kennedycentric squibs...maybe I won't have to attack this one.  At least "A Host of Furious Fancies" first appeared in a magazine I've heard of, Time Out, though I'll be damned if I can find a cover image of the issue that included this story along with the theatre and cinema listings.

"A Host of Furious Fancies" is a crazy detective story, sort of based on the story of Cinderella, with an unreliable narrator and a twist ending; the story is full of Freudian concepts, and is presumably a satire of Freudianism. 

In the opening frame portion of the story, the narrator points out to us readers an unusual married couple in a fancy restaurant in Monte Carlo, a beautiful young woman accompanied by a feeble-minded old man.  The narrator is a doctor and the main text of the story is his retailing of the story of how he cured the young woman of an acute case of mental illness.  

Basically, she was a teenaged orphan, her mother killed in a plane crash and her father, a wealthy businessman, a suicide.  She went bonkers, acting out, for years, the story of Cinderella, cleaning her father's now vacant mansion obsessively, perhaps because her father raped her.  The narrator claims to have cured the girl of her insanity by helping her act out the happy ending of the Cinderella story, casting himself as Prince Charming.  The narrator's story is full of discordant, hard to believe, paradoxical elements; for example, the narrator is a dermatologist who thinks Christianity and psychoanalysis are scams, but has nice things to say about the nuns he meets and makes extensive use of psychoanalytic ideas in his curing of the young woman.

In the last paragraphs of the story, the closing frame section, it becomes apparent that the narrator is the old man, not a character distinct from the old man, as we were initially permitted to believe.  Also, that the narrator is insane, and that his whole story is made up; in fact, he is the beautiful woman's father, not her husband, and she is working with doctors and the nuns of a sanitarium to cure him, not the other way around, as in the story.  The main text of "A Host of Furious Fancies" is merely a fantasy that the narrator indulges in that reflects his incestuous lust for his daughter.

On page 21 of his 1976 collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter, Barry Malzberg likens himself to Ballard, and I vaguely recall, in an interview or something, Malzberg expressing something like envy of Ballard, suggesting that Ballard has accomplished what Malzberg has tried, and perhaps failed, to accomplish.  (Not that you or I or anybody should trust my memory.)  "A Host of Furious Fancies" brought this to mind because it is much like a Malzberg story, with its unreliable narrator who is insane, but, unlike Malzberg's typically slapdash productions, Ballard's story here is carefully polished and thoughtfully constructed and draws deeply from multiple sources (Cinderella and Freudianism.)

This story is pretty good.  "A Host of Furious Fancies" first was printed in book form in 1982 in the collection Myths of the Near Future, which has appeared in numerous editions in several languages.  


"Ravissante" by Robert Aickman (1968)

In the fall of 2019 I read World Fantasy Award winner Robert Aickman's story "Compulsory Games" and said that I would "definitely be exploring more" of Aickman's work in the future and then promptly forgot all about my pledge and even Aickman's very  existence. As my wife would tell you, it is not unusual for me to say I am going to do something and then totally forget all about it, and even for me to do something and then totally forget I did it.  A couple of months ago Abe Greenwald on the Commentary Magazine Podcast recommended Aickman's work, so, when I saw Aickman's name on the contents page of Shudder Again while I was mapping out what to read for this blog post, it rang a bell, and I decided to give this guy whom I had thought I had never read a try; I only just now, when typing "Aickman" into the "Labels" field and seeing it be autocompleted, realized this will be my second Aickman story, not my first.

"Ravissante" is like three times as long as the other stories I've been talking about today.  It begins with a longish frame story, in which our narrator, meets and has a brief acquaintance with an odd married couple, a painter who gave up painting to become an art book editor and his quiet wife.  Harlan Ellison's reference to Suzy Parker perhaps sent you to google image search to feast your eyes, and it would similarly be just that Aickman's comparison of his character's canvases to the late work of Charles Sims inspire you to investigate Sims, a painter about whom I had never heard, or had forgotten about.

The narrator's relationship with the couple was not very intimate, and years after having seen them for the last time, the narrator receives word that the painter has died and he has been appointed one of the executors of his will.  The quiet wife does not seem very upset, and in fact is determined to burn her husband's many canvases, and his papers.  The narrator keeps one of the scores of paintings for himself, as well as a suitcase of documents.  Inside the suitcase, along with the heavily marked up drafts of the texts of those art books, is a sort of memoir of a strange event in the painter's life; this document takes up like two-thirds of the text of  "Ravissante."

The unnamed painter, writing at the age of twenty-six, tells us he is not very interested in women and sex; he would only want to have a relationship with a truly beautiful woman, and doubts he has the capacity to attract such a beauty, and refuses to settle.  Also, he fears a woman would restrict his freedom, take over his life, stifle him the way his mother dominated his father.  (Woah, these are some of our favorite themes here at MPorcius Fiction Log!)

A devotee of the Symbolist School, the painter went to Belgian to see the works of some of his favorite artists, like Fernand Khnopff and Felicien Rops, with whom I was familiar, and a bunch of guys I'd never heard of, like Antoine Wiertz, a guy who painted suicides, decapitated heads, atrocities, and a portrait of Bonaparte burning in Hell, where he is upbraided by his victims.  Nice!  The memoirist has an appointment to meet the ancient widow of one of his favorite artists, who is also unnamed.  This is a squat "almost gnomelike" creature with a voice like a "croak."      

Most of the memoir describes the painter's bizarre and surreal interview with the widow, during which various unlikely and even impossible things happen.  The ugly old woman throws the painter off balance in a multitude of ways, flirting with him, for example, and offering dismissive and insulting assessments of the painter's artistic heroes, men she knew and about whom she shares unwelcome truths.  He would like to look at her collection of paintings, but she has managed things so that it is too dark for him to get a good look at them; she reveals that she owns a vast collection of rare prewar art journals, periodicals full of information and inspiration that would likely be very valuable to the painter, but offers him no opportunity to look at them.  

Things grow progressively more weird.  The painter catches glimpses of strange animals--one might be a black poodle, or perhaps it is a monstrous spider the size of a poodle.  The domineering woman begins bragging that her adopted daughter, who is away on some trip, is the most beautiful woman in Europe, that if the painter could see her naked it would be a revelation to him.  She orders her visitor to come to the adoptive daughter's room to admire the beauty's clothes--soon she is commanding him to caress and kiss the clothes, and he complies, and finds the smell of the absent woman intoxicating.  The climax of the story, the most impossible thing, is that hanging in the adoptive daughter's room is a painting that must be by the painter himself, but one he does not remember painting, one that evidences a change in his customary tone and subject matter.  The widow dismissively denounces the painting, as she has all the paintings she has spoken of, and then, as the painter makes to leave, whips out some scissors, and requests a souvenir, apparently a lock of his hair.  The painter flees, escaping without surrendering any of his hair.

"Ravissante" is very well-written--all that stuff I sometimes talk about like stye and pacing and narrative structure are flawless.  The story is full of vivid images and weird events and Aickman develops moods effectively.  And of course I like that it is about domineering women and men's fear of sexual relationships, and that it draws so much upon, and actually taught me something about, Art Nouveau and Symbolism, art movements I find exciting.  (I still need a lot of education; I didn't develop any interest in the fine arts until I was in college, because the painters my parents talked about, like Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell, and the painters my public school teachers talked about, like Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh, are so god-damned lame.)

At the same time I really enjoyed "Ravissante" and of course am recommending it, I can see how it might be seen as frustrating because Aickman doesn't tie up the loose ends or tell us what is really going on. Is there any connection between the two widows in the story, both of whom are dismissive of their husbands' paintings? Could they be the same woman somehow, a time traveler or a vampire or a witch or something? And how could one of the painter's works, apparently a product of a later, more cynical and bitter period in his life, have gotten into that room in Belgium? (Another time travel clue.) Aickman's story, in part, is about how life is full of inexplicable things, a point both the narrator of the frame story and the painter make explicitly,* and so mirrors life by leaving lots of stuff unexplained.

*E. g., "Human relationships are so fantastically oblique that one can never be sure" and "I have learned that what one remembers is always far from what took place."

"Ravissante" apparently first appeared in the collection Sub Rosa, and has since appeared in several anthologies and collections.

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The Bradbury is good, as we sort of expect, and the Ballard and Aickman are better than I expected, good enough that they have me thinking I should really take the time to read more of their stories, though whether I will make good on this resolution remains to be seen.  As for the Ellison...well, like Barry Malzberg, who I also sort of slagged today, our pal Harlan wrote for money and produced a huge volume of work, at high speed, in which there are bound to be some clunkers; I won't hold it against him.  

Next time, at MPorcius Fiction Log: we read a 1964 SF novel by a major British author.