Monday, March 28, 2022

Orbit 10: G Dozois, G A Effinger, and R A Lafferty

In a recent episode of MPorcius Fiction Log we read stories from 1972's Orbit 10 about the love affair of a telephone repairman and a Native American in post-nuclear war Colorado, the spread of Earth life to the moon and the disputed morality of its further spread, and psychic combat and infantry vs armor combat in Brooklyn.  Who knows to what horrors we will be exposed thanks to today's helping of Orbit 10 stories, one dish each cooked up by Gardner Dozois, George Alec Effinger, and R. A. Lafferty?

"A Kingdom by the Sea" by Gardner Dozois

Dateline: An industrial American town, the present (early '70s, I guess)

Mason is a working-class schlub, a veteran whose father worked in a meat packing plant and who, after a period of drifting and his Army service, now works in the same plant, killing multitudes of cows in quick succession with a hammer, a human killing machine.  Mason is 38 years old, and the job is starting to fatigue him.  Exacerbating his trouble is the fact that a few months ago his live-in girlfriend of three years left him.

Dozois kills a lot of pages doing what I guess a lot of writers think they are supposed to do, describing in detail fogged up windows and rain and riding the bus to work at a crummy, dangerous and perhaps morally suspect job and then back home to an empty apartment to eat a frozen pizza and drink beer and watch an old movie on TV.  Some of this is in past tense, some of it in present tense.  I guess Dozois is performing some topical social commentary on industrialism and capitalism and all that; the story is preceded by the epigraph "For the Democratic National Convention," there are vague references to Vietnam, and there is a longish sequence in which Mason becomes enraged while watching an old movie because the characters are middle-class people who have no problems.  (Unfortunately, Dozois doesn't name the movie; one wonders if he had a specific movie in mind.)  Perhaps more interesting than these class- or economics-based angles are gender-based ones; "A Kingdom by the Sea" may be some kind of feminist story, its ending a metaphor for how (as feminists might say) men lure women in with promises of comfort and then destroy them.

(Re: the title of the story, I didn't pick up on any other possible Poe references, though the phrase "hollow men" does appear.  The story could be replete with references to poetry in English that sailed right over my uneducated noggin.  There are plenty of direct religious references, and some references to "sci-fi" as well, with the suggestion that religion and SF are a poor guide to real life.)   

The actual SF content of "A Kingdom by the Sea" consists of the fact that Mason has sex dreams about the presence of a woman; he doesn't see her or hear her speak but he senses her, senses a shared love and a mutual exchange of comfort and sexual ecstasy--Mason ejaculates in his pants while asleep in front of the TV.  He comes to believe this woman, an angel or a spirit or something, is going to come to him, and that her arrival is imminent.  The twist ending of the story is, I believe, that she does come to him, but the spirit Mason has been communing with is that of a cow and just as he does with all the others he kills it by bashing in its head with his hammer.  (Maybe this is a pro-vegetarianism story.)

It doesn't feel right to call this story bad, because I suppose it is heartfelt and the product of some labor and all that, but it is not fun or enlightening or novel.  It is just kind of there, inoffensive but unimpressive.  Maybe it serves as a good example of the New Wave SF story which has lost almost all resemblance to traditional SF.

"A Kingdom by the Sea" would reappear in various Dozois collections and some foreign publications, and Ellen Datlow twice presented it to readers of her internet magazines.

Hubba hubba

"Live, from Brechtsgaden" by George Alec Effinger

Dateline: Germany, the second decade of the 20th century

Oy, Effinger's story is perhaps even more New Wavey than was Dozois's, and a little harder to understand.  I'm interpreting it as a meditation on guilt and forgiveness with its primary topic the crimes of Germany during the World Wars.

Much of the text of "Live, from Brechtsgaden" consists of what sounds like excerpts from travel guides, memoirs, and essays printed during the Cold War, all reflecting in some way on the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Holocaust.  The rest of the text suggests that those paragraphs are being spoken, mostly in English, by a young German woman who lies in a coma; it seems she fell into the coma before World War I and was taken to a sanitarium, and then when the war broke out was moved home because her caretakers had to join the war effort.  Later we are given the idea that this comatose woman is inhabited by the lost soul of a Jewish-American tourist from the post-World War II period; this second young woman has the same first name as the comatose woman and has taken a particular interest in the Holocaust, having been charged by a relative to remember the sufferings of her people.  Eventually the comatose woman simply vanishes, forgotten, and the lost soul has to drift on and start anew; I guess these fantastic events symbolize the way even the atrocities of the Hitler government will be forgotten, whether or not they are forgiven, and how Germany and the world will inevitably move on.

As with Dozois's story, one is reluctant to admit not liking "Live, from Brechtsgaden" because it is about a serious topic and presumably represents a cri de coeur and shows literary ambition (and if you say you don't like it maybe people will call you stupid or say you are insufficiently outraged by racism) but I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it or was moved by it or whatever.

Damon Knight and Robert Silverberg apparently enjoyed this story more than I did, or maybe thought it the serving of broccoli SF readers ought to add to their diet of sword-swinging barbarians, ray pistol-toting spacemen and lectures about radiation and gravity.  Just two years after its debut in Orbit 10, Silverberg included it in Alpha 5, and a year after that it showed up again in The Best from Orbit, Volumes 1-10.  You can also find it in the Effinger collection Dirty Tricks.   

"Dorg" by R. A. Lafferty

Dateline: Oklahoma in the overpopulated future

This is a fun little story that gently satirizes the dominance of postwar culture by youth and the hypocrisy and fraudulence of politicians and other elites, as well as vagaries of popular taste; the backbone of the tale is a farcical look at the question of to what extent art imitates life and vice versa.

Starvation threatens the world!  A new comic strip character has caught the imagination of the public--called the dorg, this creature matches the populace's hopes, fears and mood, as it can derive sustenance from eating rocks and is perennially worried.  A renegade psychologist publishes his theory that animals do not develop naturally over millions of years of evolution, but instead appear when needed by mankind, and that they are either summoned, or prophesized, by artistic representations--ignoring all evidence to the contrary, this head shrinker claims that there were no horses or deer or whatever until after cave men painted them on cave walls!  He asserts that a real dorg is due to appear at any moment.  And, true enough, people in Oklahoma start sighting the fictional beast!

Government officials, in their slapdash ramshackle way, have been trying to resolve the food crisis, and the y scramble to take advantage of the dorg.  A commission is convened, and among its members are the cartoonist and the psychologist.  The commission heads to OK, led, de facto if not de jure, by a representative of a sort of government-sponsored pressure group modelled after a guild or trade union, Amalgamated Youth--all entities must, by law, include an Amalgamated Youth representative in their ranks.  Illustrating how bogus such political activist groups are, the AY rep, who got this job because she is good-looking, is actually older than everybody else on the commission, but don't you think this stops her from calling her colleagues a bunch of old men and haranguing them about the need for fresh new ideas; she also is not above using violence to encourage her colleagues.

As the story ends we know that the dorgs are real, but cannot be sure how responsible the cartoonist is for their appearance or whether their appearance is going to free the world from hunger.

A charming, fun little thing, like a sweet dessert after the pretentious downers we have been ingesting.   I might add that if we suspect Dozois's story of promoting left-wing economic, class, gender, and interspecies politics, it might make sense to suspect Lafferty's story of just the opposite, or at least of mocking progressive politics, with its, however goofy, dismissal of the theory of evolution and vindication of the primacy of man over beast, as well as its portrayal of a woman political activist who is corrupt, violent, presumptuous and ineffectual.

"Dorg" reappeared in 1977 in a French anthology, and later in various English and translated Lafferty collections.


**********

The Dozois and Effinger stories succeed on their own terms, but I'm not really eager to buy what they are selling.  The Lafferty, on the other hand, is right up my alley--brisk, light and fun, with a crazy and fresh premise.  

More postwar SF stories from the MPorcius Library's anthology shelves in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Astounding May '35: J W Campbell, D Wandrei & R Z Gallun

Let's travel back in time to 1935, via the internet archive and the May issue of Astounding, edited by F. Orlin Tremaine and featuring long reader letters arguing about the Earth's magnetic field, foot pounds and Lenz's Law, ads dramatizing the agonies of women with asthma and men who don't have enough money to get married, and stories by John W. Campbell, Jr., Donald Wandrei, and Raymond Z. Gallun. 

"The Escape" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

"The Escape," written by the man who, in the words of Harry Harrison in the intro to Decade: The 1950s, "was to shape the course of the forties" as editor of Astounding, puts the lie to the idea that women in "old" science fiction were all damsels in distress.  The star of "The Escape," Aies Marlan, is a woman scientist who in her fight for her freedom shoots government employees with the ray gun she designed and hand-built herself!

"The Escape" is set in one of those tyrannical futures in which the government for eugenic reasons decides who you will have sex with.  In this story the government even lubricates the gears of its machinery of imposition on individual liberty by using advanced psychological techniques to make you fall in love with the person they have set you up with.  Independent-minded Aies is having none of this!  She is in love with an artist, Paul Treray, and when the cops come to drag her off to her wedding with fellow scientist Bruce Randall, whom she thinks is ugly, she shoots the fuzz with her paralyzer pistol and she and her sculptor beau steal the government aircar and make a break for it!

Treray gives a whole speech about how it is wrong to run your whole society based on science and efficiency because there are higher values like love and beauty and freedom, and I really thought Aies was going to escape with her true love and/or launch a coup or revolution or something that would liberate people to run their own sex lives.  But Bruce uses his own scientific abilities to invent a defense against Aies's paralyzer gun and helps the government catch Aies; she is brainwashed into loving him and the two live happily ever after within the confines of their authoritarian society.  Cripes!   

This is a decent traditional science fiction story in which the main characters are scientists and use their engineering skills and superior intelligence to overcome plot obstacles, and in which the author speculates on the effect science and technology will have on society--there are automatic aircraft, videophones, all that stuff, in addition to the tyrannical eugenics regime.  Besides the sex and gender stuff I've already mentioned (presumably the feminist interpretation of the story would be that it shows how the patriarchy clamps down on independent-minded women and makes women of ability complicit in their own oppression), the remarkable thing about the story is the question of whether Campbell is really advocating rule of society by scientists who have the authority to tell you who to have sex with, or just presenting a vision of such a society from the inside as a means of forcing us readers to confront our assumptions about science, art and the individual's relationship to society.  

After debuting here in Astounding under the Don A. Stuart pen name, "The Escape" would be reprinted in the Campbell collections Cloak of Aesir and A New Dawn.

"The Whisperers" by Donald Wandrei

This is one of those science fiction stories that reads like a history article in a popular magazine of the future.  The first three pages of the eleven-pages of "The Whisperers" are largely taken up by block quotes from Soviet newspapers, relating how, in the 21st century, a small metal meteor landed in Siberia and gave the villagers who discovered it and cracked it open a strange disease that leaves you dead in two days.  One of the strange things about the disease is that its victims emit a soft rustling sound, like whispering.  The Communist Party claims its ruthless measures have contained the disease (where have we heard that before?) but this claim is proven hollow within days as the plague spreads all over Asia and Europe, killing millions.  

Two American scientists, one an expert on diseases, the other the inventor of a supermicroscope, burn the midnight oil scrambling to figure out the true nature of the plague and how to stop it, offering us readers the opportunity to imbibe some mind-numbing science goop.  ("The various light values of the image will then be converted to electric values of micromillimetric intensity, whose current probably won't exceed .000000001 to .000001 of an ampere.")  It turns out that the disease is no mere virus or bacteria, but a civilization of intelligent beings of infinitesimal size.  The whispers that emanate from sufferers of the plague is the sound of these aliens in their teeming millions going about their lives.  Because they are so small, those lives proceed at an accelerated rate--in one day these microscopic nations experience over a century of history.  The scientists realize that the aliens inhabiting a man will die if he drinks alcohol to excess, and the world is saved when everybody on Earth gets blind drunk. 

Dry and boring, with a climax and a resolution that feel very half baked and are hard to take seriously.  Thumbs down.  

Super-editor Donald A. Wollheim would include "The Whisperers" in a 1951 issue of The Avon Science Fiction Reader and it would be included in later Wandrei collections.

"N'Goc" by Raymond Z. Gallun

Here's another story about tiny invaders from space, but it is a lot more fun that Wandrei's.  (Sorry, Don.)

When the planets were formed, among them was a tiny moon of quartz with gas trapped within it.  For millions of years it orbited the Earth; sunlight penetrated its translucent surface and within its cavity life and then a whole civilization developed.  Early in the rise of man, when our ancestors are ape-like savages who sleep in the trees for fear of saber-toothed cats, this moon's orbit begins to degrade and the little aliens scramble to figure out a way to save their civilization.  At the same time, the chieftain of a tribe of primitive humans has been watching the little moon, having noticed it has appeared larger every day.

Most of the text of the story follows the adventures of the leader of the aliens, who have a sort of ant- or bee-like hive matriarchy, and the headman of that human band.  The tiny aliens build a battery of cannons, load them with shells full of people and their specially bred slave races and domestic animals, and shoot themselves to Earth.  The shells arrive perfectly intact, but the human chief intuits that they are dangerous and he and his tribe, before most of the passengers have recovered from the shock of landing, throw them into a volcano!  At the last moment the matriarch of the aliens is able to open the hatch of her shell and escape with some of her servitor beasts; she is killed, but some of the low-intelligence servant creatures live on to become the ancestors of all the spiders that inhabit the world today.

"N'Goc" is fast-paced, has some cool images, its characters have briefly but sharply sketched personalities that actually drive the plot, and the accompanying science jazz is actually interesting.  Thumbs up!

I thought "N'Goc" was a lot of fun, but it has never been reprinted.  It is a mystery to me why Wollheim plucked the dull "The Whisperers" from this issue instead of "N'Goc." 

Certainly, there is a girl you want to marry!  Click to read how, in your spare time, 
you can lay the foundations of a career that will put marital bliss within your financial reach.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Orbit 10: E Bryant, A Panshin & J Dann

Let's take another volume off the SF anthology shelves of the MPorcius Library and sample its contents.  Today under our cruel eye lies the paperback copy of 1972's Orbit 10 I bought for 50¢ in 2019 at the Second Story Books location in DuPont Circle in that wretched hive of scum and villainy we call Washington, D.C.  While the hardcover edition of Orbit 10 elegantly and democratically listed all eleven authors represented within its pages, the paperback went right for the hard sell, unleashing the bold face and the exclamation points to proclaim that the book contained "The most exciting fiction of our time!" and highlight Gene Wolfe's "masterpiece" "The Fifth Head of Cerberus;" four other worthies are references by last name only, while six authors are relegated to mere "other" status.

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" does indeed merit celebration and promotion, but I won't be rereading it today.  Instead we'll talk about stories by one worthy, Alexei Panshin, author of the beloved Heinlein pastiche Rites of Passage, and by two "others," Edward Bryant and Jack Dann.  I've read a number of Bryant stories over the years, and a few Dann collaborations.  I've also read some Malzberg complaints about Dann the anthology editor rejecting Malzberg's work.  Don't pretend you don't love SF gossip.

"Jody After the War" by Ed Bryant   

"Jody After the War" has been reprinted numerous times, in multiple Bryant collections and in two different anthologies in which the ubiquitous Martin H. Greenberg had a hand.

It is the future (I guess the 1980s or 1990s) and America is still recovering from a terrible blow.  In the 1970s there was some political cataclysm in China and one product of the chaos was a nuclear attack which devastated the East Coast of the home of the free and the brave.  The capitol is now in Denver of all places!

Our narrator was in Nevada at the time of the attack.  He is some kind of creative type who aspires to work in the theatre or something, but he has been working for the telephone company, repairing public telephones in crime-ridden Denver; the machines are often the targets of vandals.  One day while working in a bad neighborhood a "Chicano gang" beat him unconscious.  The woman who called for help using the telephone he had just repaired, Jody the "half-Indian" with "high cheekbones," and he started dating.  Jody was in Pittsburgh at the time of the Chinese attack and has all kinds of nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety as a result, and the main subject of this quite short story (seven pages) is the fact that the narrator wants to have sex with Jody and have children with her but she is afraid to have sex because she fears her chromosomes or whatever were damaged by radiation and she will not have healthy children.

"Jody After the War" is a "literary" story and there are plenty of showy efforts to be poetic and set the mood, like descriptions of the landscape ("Light lay bloody across the mountain side") and Jody's eyes ("the color of dark smoke") and the repeated use of key phrases ("She loves me" and "She loves me not.")  It feels like Bryant is trying too hard, but the story is competent, I guess.

Barely acceptable.

"Now I'm Watching Roger" by Alexei Panshin

This is a deliberately mysterious story that plays with the idea that life is an element of disorder in an otherwise orderly universe, suggesting that life is likely to spread from Earth to dominate the entire universe and asking whether this growth can and should be limited; would the dominance of life over all the universe represent a positive or a regrettable development?

The narrator is one of three people (I guess men though there is a sort of hint they might be augmented or mutated chimps or something) on a moon base, conducting experiments which are never described.  The narrator holds a position of authority and tries to make sure all the rules are followed.  One of his colleagues is lazy and rebellious and refuses to sterilize his garbage and dispose of it properly; it seems he buries some of it under the lunar surface outside the base, and is doing this deliberately to further the inevitable spread of life throughout the entire universe.  In jocular reference to the opinion that life taking over the universe is an evil, he makes for himself and dons a black hat.  (Eventually the narrator fashions a white hat for himself.)

The twist of the quite short story (like four and a half pages) is that in its last lines we are given a clue suggesting the experiments involve cutting up people or animals and that the garbage that is the center of the dispute consists at least in part of severed limbs.

Acceptable.

"Now I'm Watching Roger" would go on to be reprinted in two Panshin collections and an anthology upon which Martin H. Greenberg collaborated with others and which has appeared under different titles in the U.S. and the UK.

"Whirl Cage" by Jack M. Dann

This is a somewhat opaque and quite brief (eight pages) story that has as its themes (I guess) a negative take on that perennial SF fixture, collective consciousness, and a conventional take on that perennial topic of all fiction, the unruly mob of common people.  Dann's tale takes place in the Brooklyn of the future during some kind of inexplicable war or revolution.  A guy wearing some kind of psychic helmet is trying to use the telepathic powers the helmet provides to control a crowd and learn from it and about it.  The crowd is described as a churning, boiling, blob of people; individuals rise to surf on the surface of the blob and briefly act as its spokesman only to be submerged again.

The protagonist's efforts to pacify the mob fail, and it chases him through the Brooklyn streets.  The guy is supported by a tank with powerful electric weaponry, and as he flees back to it (it wasn't clear to me why he left this vehicle so far behind in the first place) he thinks about his wife and kids, who were killed earlier, and for whose death he blames himself; "You killed them, you killed them" says a voice, maybe his guilty conscience, maybe the mind of the crowd or some psychic enemy?  To his surprise, the tank is knocked out--the crowd, or enemies allied to or controlling the mob, have acquired anti-tank weapons.  The protagonist is seized by the mob and integrated with it physically and mentally. 

Acceptable.      

"Whirl Cage" has only escaped the confines of Orbit 10 once, appearing in German translation in a 1977 anthology published in Munich.

**********

These stories are all ambitious--they are all about abnormal or extreme psychology, the Bryant and Dann try to be poetic, the Panshin tries to be philosophical, the Dann and especially the Panshin are mysterious and challenge the reader to figure out what is really going on.  I can't say these stories are failures, but they aren't terribly exciting or particularly memorable, either.  I'd have to say they are slight.

We'll read more from Orbit 10 in the near future; maybe the next batch of stories will be more substantial.  But first we'll make another foray into the 1930s.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Doctor is Sick by Anthony Burgess

How bloody stupid he had been to trust Dr Railton and everyone else.  To them he was already a thing, could not be less of a thing if he died under the anaesthetic: regrettable: Dr. Spindrift has changed into a mere chunk of morphology.

Back in 2016, as I chronicled on my thrilling Twitter account, I came upon an impressive collection of modern literary fiction in trade paperback at a Goodwill in Ohio.  One of the books I bought for 99 pennies was a late '90s W. W. Norton printing of Anthony Burgess's 1960 novel The Doctor is Sick, the story of Dr. Edwin Spindrift and the radical turn his life takes.   

Edwin Spindrift is an English linguistics professor with an American degree and a teaching job in Burma.  He has plenty of problems.  He has lost his libido.  His sense of smell is all mixed up.  He collapsed in the middle of class, and so he and his wife Sheila have returned to England, where he is undergoing tests in a London hospital while Sheila stays in a nearby hotel.  Long ago, Edwin and Sheila, who seems kind of vapid and is quite keen on drinking and fucking, agreed to have an open marriage, and Sheila has been spending a lot of time in pubs, hitting the sauce and picking up guys.  She is so busy with those other guys she doesn't avail herself of opportunities to come see Edwin in the hospital--some visiting hours he spends alone, while others he shares with the somewhat creepy working class and lower class guys Sheila has met in pubs and sent to the hospital in her place!

Burgess, a linguist himself, fills the novel with loads of "fun facts" philological and etymological that Edwin offers up to an uninterested audience.

'Ye Old Tea Shop is a solecism.  The "Ye" is a mistake for the Anglo-Saxon letter called thorn, which stood for "TH".'

Burgess also describes in some detail various medical procedures from the point of view of the patient--some of these are not for the squeamish!  These descriptions provide the author an opportunity to lay some interesting metaphors on us; for example, when a "negro" and his Italian assistant shave Edwin's head in preparation for brain surgery, the falling hair is compared to autumn leaves and then Arabic script and the strokes of Pitman shorthand.            

One of the noteworthy things about The Doctor is Sick is the diverse panorama of people living, working and making trouble in the London depicted, from the hospital where Edwin endures all manner of tests and interacts with various wacky fellow patients, to the drinking establishments Sheila frequents, and to the streets: not only are there people from different social strata and various geographic locations within the British Isles, but also Americans, "negros," Italians, Slavs, Germans, "Semites," etc.  Some quotes from T. S. Eliot that the learned Edwin throws out (all through the novel he is demonstrating his erudition to those who have no ability to appreciate it) made me wonder if the multitude of foreigners and minorities in the novel were meant to play one of the roles played by London-dwelling Jews and foreigners in Eliot's early poems like "The Waste Land" and "Gerontion," as a dramatization of the alienation and deracination characteristic of the modern globalized city.  (Spoiler alert: Maybe she should see The Doctor is Sick as the story of an Englishman who, after studying in America and working in Burma, gets back in touch with his British roots and settles down in England.)   There is considerable interethnic strife depicted in the novel, between Jews and German and between whites and blacks in particular.  (Here is where I warn you 21st-century kids that the book makes frequent use of the dreaded "N-word" that those of us with no balls are now too scared to type.)

(I also saw Edwin's sad sexual relationships as possibly echoing the sad sexual relationships in Eliot's early poems.)

Edwin is certainly alienated, a man apart from society, even apart from real life--as an intellectual, a man of words, he has no knowledge of, no feeling for, the world of flesh and blood people.  Midway through the book Edwin reflects that 

He had lived too much with words and not what the words stood for...Apart from its accidents of sound, etymology and lexical definition, did he really know the meaning of any one word?

Edwin has no ability to relate to the people around him; between him and most of those in the hospital lay barriers of race, ethnicity, sex and class, and even the British male doctors seem to be rejecting him from their club when they forget to call Edwin "Dr. Spindrift" and instead call him "Mr. Spindrift."  (Burgess makes much in the novel of homophones and words that have multiple meanings, and "doctor" is one of them.)

Remarking to himself that the hospital staff do not think of him as human, but as a mere thing, 75 pages into the 261 page novel Edwin decides to flee the hospital, right before he is to have his brain operated upon. 

Unfamiliar with London, his head shaved, clad in a weird assortment of pyjamas and street clothes, Edwin's alienation is even more stark.  Sheila has moved out of her hotel with all their money and without leaving any clue as to her whereabouts, and when Edwin visits the global HQ of The International Council for University Development, the institution that manages that school in Burma, he is refused any advance on his salary.  When Edwin finds himself in a dispute with an illiterate man who has stolen his watch, passersby take the side of the thief, Edwin's unusual attire making them think him a foreigner. 

Looking for Sheila, Edwin goes to the pub and illegal drinking club where Sheila has been hitting the sauce and meeting men and he gets mixed up in the sundry petty criminal schemes of the people who hang out there, many of whom try to take advantage of him one way or another.  He plays shove-ha'penny, something I've never heard about before, for high stakes.  He is kidnapped by a predatory homosexual masochist.  He is persuaded by the operators of the illegal drinking club, a pair of Jewish twins who constantly talk about money and the tragic history of their people and who have a long tragic history of disreputable and illicit money-making schemes of their own behind them, to give a linguistics lecture to their patrons in hopes it will deceive the police about the true nature of their club.  These same operators shanghai Edwin into participating in a televised contest for the best-looking bald man in town ("MAMMOTH CONTEST: BALD ADONIS OF GREATER LONDON").  Edwin, a relatively young and handsome man who of course is not really bald, merely shaved, wins the contest and becomes famous. 

Then he wakes up in the hospital after his operation and he and we must consider what proportion of his adventures were dreams induced by anesthesia and coma and what proportion really happened.  Regardless of whether they were mostly or entirely imaginary, his adventures have changed Edwin, and he has a future to look forward to in which he is free of Sheila and free of his connection with The International Council for University Development and any need to return to Burma, with a job outside of academia in prospect.  Edwin is also free of his inhibitions against breaking the law--on his way out of the hospital he loots the lockers of his fellow inmates.   

The theme of alienation may have jumped out at me, but another big theme of The Doctor is Sick is freedom and confinement.  Not only is Edwin confined in the hospital and then in the masochist's fortified top floor apartment, and both he and Sheila trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, but many secondary and minor characters talk about their personal histories of being imprisoned for crimes and held in thrall by criminals, and their ethnic groups' histories of suffering oppression and enslavement.

We might see the story of Edwin as a tale of liberation from the confines of sterile intellectualism and a sterile marriage, but Burgess may be doing more than celebrating freedom here; he also portrays the costs that one might suffer and might impose on others when flouting the social order in pursuit of independence and freedom of action.  Shelia refuses to be confined by the conventional rules of marriage, but can we admire a woman who doesn't even take time to visit her dangerously ill husband in the hospital?  And are we really to see it as a positive development when Edwin's desperation after busting out of the hospital and failing to find Sheila leads him to turn to thievery with gusto, and when his struggle with the gay masochist unleashes within Edwin a lust for violence?  

The Doctor is Sick is a good novel, but I'm not in love with it.  The jokes work, but they made me smile, not laugh out loud.  Burgess is of course some kind of genius with a vast storehouse of knowledge about language and literature and every page has some clever wordplay or exotic slang or double meaning or erudite reference (I caught the Eliot references and an obvious Shakespeare quote but presumably there are legions of references that sailed right over my uneducated cabeza) which of course is good.  But Burgess also puts his remarkable facility with dialects and accents to use doing something which is a pet peeve of mine, rendering long stretches of dialogue phonetically.

Can't 'ave you marchin' rahnd wiv all vat leg showin'.  Indecent, apart from anyfink else.  What a bleedin' evenin' vis is turnin' aht to be.

Perhaps I'm a lazy or impatient reader, but I find reading such passages laborious.  I'm also not exactly crazy about the equivocal "was it all a dream?" ending.  

All in all, though, The Doctor is Sick is a worthwhile read that is fertile ground for all kinds of interpretations and deconstructions. Ninety-nine cents well spent!

Friday, March 18, 2022

Stories of metamorphosis by R A Lafferty, B J Bayley & T M Disch

Let's check out another SF anthology I bought in some small town while I was living in the MidWest.  I believe I acquired Changes, a 1983 paperback edited by Michael Bishop and Ian Watson, at a library sale at some library I only ever went into once, maybe in some burg I only ever went to once; for business and personal reasons I used to end up driving all over Iowa and Ohio and one of the things I would do to kill time (and use the facilities) was drop in to public libraries, and I would always check out the book sale.  

Changes has as its theme metamorphosis, changes both physical and psychological, as it tells us on the title page, and contains reprints as well as brand new stories on the theme.  Today let's read two reprints from the 1970s, one by R. A. Lafferty and one by Barrington J. Bayley, and one fresh 1983 story by Thomas M. Disch.

"Once on Aranea" by R. A. Lafferty (1972) 

"Once on Aranea" was first printed in the hardcover collection Strange Doings; I own the 1973 paperback edition of Strange Doings, but I'll read "Once on Aranea" here in Changes.  

This is an entertaining little story with numerous classic SF elements like the risky exploration of alien worlds and an alien invasion of Earth based largely on subversion of Earth people; added to the mix is a truly disgusting horror scene, and it is all written in Lafferty's colloquial and folksy style.

In the spacefaring future, exploration parties will leave a man alone on an unexplored asteroid for a while, the idea being that an alien menace that would cower in hiding from a squad of men might reveal itself and attack a lone man.  These solo explorers are provided with a prodigious supply of booze, but many of them go insane anyway.  (One of the subtle jokes of the story seems to be that this system of exploration does not work--often the man left alone disappears without a trace or when picked up tells a horrible story of danger which nobody believes because they assume it is the product not of accurate observation but of insanity.)

The main character of the story is left with a dog otherwise alone on a planet of intelligent creatures the size of a man's hand who are much like spiders.  The life cycle of these spiders has two phases; to transition to the adult phase, a larval stage spider, which only has four limbs, is encased in a cocoon with a dead animal to eat during its period of confinement; eventually it emerges with a greater number of limbs.  The culture of these spider people is centered on a fanatical love for and devotion to their parents.

The spiders see the man as a parent and, due to his size, worship him as a god.  The arachnid folk also believe he is in his larval form, so they trap him in a cocoon with the body of his murdered dog, expecting him to eat the poor pooch and emerge in a mature multi-legged form.  He succumbs, and upon emergence embraces the role of Emperor of the Spiders and commits himself wholeheartedly to the spiders' conquest of Earth, where awaits a Fifth Column of native Earth spiders that will facilitate the human race's assimilation into his arachnid empire!     

Plenty of fun, thumbs up!

"Sporting With the Chid" by Barrington J. Bayley (1979)

The MPorcius Fiction Log staff is notorious for its aversion to joke stories.  In fact, I considered reading the Michael Bishop and Michael G. Coney stories that appear here in Changes, but there were just too many clues suggesting they were outrageously absurd meta satires of the SF field or some such thing, so I am giving them a wide berth.  "Sporting With the Chid" sounds like a joke story title, I admit, but it is not setting my spider sense tingling too severely, so I'm giving it a shot.

It is the future, and mankind has developed an interstellar civilization, and encountered many other interstellar civilizations.  A large proportion of these alien races are so different from humanity, with radically different values and biologies and so forth, that a stable and productive relationship with them is deemed impossible, and the Earth government forbids contact with them.  What you might call a modus vivendi has developed across the galaxy such that many advanced races simply ignore each other, both civilizations confident that they are so incompatible that any relationship whatsoever can only lead to trouble.  Members of such incompatible species take pains to avoid each other should they find themselves on the same planet.

Our protagonists are three humans on a hunting expedition on a planet with no native intelligent inhabitants.  Early in the story one of them announces his ancestors were Boers, making me wonder if this was perhaps a signal to readers that we should have no sympathy for him, and that Bayley's story should be seen not simply as a dramatization of the idea of cultural relativism, but also some kind of allegory of or comment on apartheid and racism.

The men hope to collect the hides of rare beasts which will sell for high prices back on civilized planets.  Such beasts are ferocious fighters, and one of the hunters is slain.  His comrades are able to preserve his body so he can be resuscitated, but the preservation method only works for a limited time, and they doubt they can get to the nearest modern hospital, which is on another planet, before their friend spoils.  

Also on the planet is a group of Chid; the Chid are one of those spacefaring alien races the Terran government has forbidden humans from contacting.  The Chid are famed as skilled surgeons, and the humans decide to risk approaching the Chid in hopes of saving their buddy.

The human's dealings with the Chid provide effective (body) horror scenes as well as a sort of spoof of religion.  One of the few things the Chid know about the human race, and this only in a garbled fashion, is that many Terrans believe the soul is distinct from the body and can leave the body.  So they patch up the dead hunter and bring him back to life, but give his brain the ability to leave his skull and move around on its own like a snail.  When the revived man's friends object, they are overpowered and subjected to the same treatment and forced to participate in a cruel and dangerous sport that may well rob them of their humanity.

Quite good; like Lafferty's "Once on Aranea," "Sporting With the Chid" has humorous elements but entertainingly employs traditional SF themes of dangerous aliens and loss of identity and offers successful and disgusting horror elements.         

"Sporting With the Chid" was first published in the Bayley collection The Seed of Evil and has been translated into Germ├ín and Japanese.  It was also selected by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for their huge 2016 anthology The Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection.  The Vandermeer's book seems to be designed to appeal to the leftist sensibilities of college professors and to represent an effort to create a new canon of SF which is more "diverse."  "Sporting With the Chid" is a good story so its inclusion in any SF anthology is justified, but one wonders how white Englishman Bayley made the cut for an inclusion in an "ultimate collection of SF" when writers more popular and/or more influential like H. P. Lovecraft, Jack Williamson, Henry Kuttner, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Poul Anderson, Thomas M. Disch, A. E. van Vogt and Barry Malzberg were left out.  Maybe Bayley's association with the New Wave, or that cultural relativism/spoof of religion angle? 


"The New Me"
by Thomas M. Disch (1983)

It seems this story was written specifically for Changes and has never appeared anywhere else--Disch completists take note!

"The New Me" is a pretty slight story.  Merely acceptable...maybe barely acceptable.  The narrator is a fat guy, a teacher of trigonometry, but his low IQ students don't like him because he actually tries to teach them--the other math teachers don't bother.  Stung by negative student evaluations, the people in the HR office send him to a head shrinker to get a new personality!  The doctor employs hypnotic methods, refers the narrator to Assertiveness Trainings and finally directs him to be baptized as a born-again Christian, and the narrator affects a whole new character and a whole new set of beliefs.  All these treatments and conversions are a scam--the narrator doesn't really like rodeos and doesn't really believe in the Bible--but by putting on the act of being a guy with a Southern drawl who loves Jesus and calls himself "Tex" he improves his life--he gets raises, he gets women, and he gets respect from others.  Disch darkly suggests that nobody really believes in any of this bunk, that the people who purport to do so are just affecting a pose, like the narrator, and that the narrator's success is the result of people not so much respecting him, but being scared of him, his commitment to his performance a sign he is dangerous.

The uncharitable reader might consider this story the sneer of an intelligent and educated man who is bitter over seeing people he is certain are not as smart as he is achieve greater happiness and greater financial success than he has, and/or an effort to appeal to such individuals--I assume SF fans typically think hypnosis, psychoanalysis and religion are scams and the people who profess to believe in them crooks or dopes.  Unfortunately, Disch here doesn't adduce any innovative new reasons to bolster this conclusion; he just makes fun of therapists, analysts and Christians, and his jokes aren't particularly fresh either, so this story is sort of forgettable.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Fifties SF stories by A Budrys, R Bradbury, & R Matheson

Years ago, in a thrift store in the Middle West if memory serves, I bought hardcover copies of those volumes of Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison's Decade series of anthologies that cover the 1940s and 1950s.  A stamp on the first pages of both books certifies that they were once in the library of one Gary E. Colburn.  Today I'm cracking open the volume covering the Fifties.  Mr. Colburn's copy is an American edition printed in 1978; the original edition of Decade: The 1950s was issued in Britain in 1976.  I guess the same plates were used to print both editions--the text of this copy uses British punctuation, with no period after "Mr" and single instead of double quote marks.  

Harry Harrison writes the introduction, presenting a sort of standard history of SF and offering conventional opinions, with some personal notes: the '30s pulps were crude and garish but Harrison and Aldiss and a legion of other SF fans and future pros devoured them; the '40s were dominated by John W. Campbell, Jr. and Astounding; in the '50s arose new editors and new magazines like Horace L. Gold with Galaxy and Anthony Boucher with F&SF, SF writers gave more attention to the soft sciences like sociology and psychology, and the focus of SF publishing began to shift from magazines to books.  The most remarkable thing about Harrison's intro is his praise for Robert Crane's Hero's Walk, a book which I found exasperating.

Now let's read a few of the stories which Aldiss and Harrison selected to represent the decade of the Korean War, the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising, and "We will bury you."  (Feel free to think of the 1950s as the decade of the plastic hula hoop, the rock 'n' roll sock hop, and I Love Lucy if you are trying to cultivate a good attitude about life or something.) 

"The Edge of the Sea" by Algis Budrys (1958) 

"The Edge of the Sea" first was published in Venture, where it was the cover story.  In his intro, Harrison tells us that Venture "was the first SF magazine consistently to use adult themes."  Alright, let's try some "adult themes" on for size.  

The recurring theme of Algis Budrys's work, and I guess it is an "adult" one, is the question of what it means to be a man.  (We've solved this issue nowadays by asserting that a man and manliness is whatever you say it is, but life wasn't so easy in the past as it is in the 21st century.)  The protagonist of "The Edge of the Sea" is a self-sufficient and independent man of great physical strength and indomitable will.  Budrys lets us know just what a hard ass this dude is with a line that may shock all you foodies out there who have considered opinions about when to harvest avocados or what single source dark chocolate is the best: "Dan Henry had never cared how his food tasted."

(I think Budrys chose his protagonist's name with the intention of reminding readers of John Henry and Paul Bunyan, the muscular heroes of American tall tales of feats of strength.)

This rugged individualist is driving down Route 1 down in Florida, the Atlantic on either side of him as he heads for Key West, when he spots a metal thing the size of a car covered in barnacles at the base of the road; we SF fans assume this must be an alien space ship that has been beached by the rough seas after being underwater for years.  Dan Henry is sure he can get rights to this piece of salvage and make a stack of cash.  So he climbs down to the water's edge, even though a hurricane is coming, to secure the thing to the shore by tying it up with a make shift rope and moving big rocks around it.  He pushes his muscles to the limit and risks his life battling the elements to make sure his treasure isn't carried away by tide or gale.

In his quest to secure his rights to this UFO, Dan Henry doesn't just challenge the power of nature--he resists the authority of government!  A cop comes by and, suspicious about what Dan Henry is up to in the middle of a god-damned hurricane, tries to arrest him, but Dan Henry outfights this agent of the state, fearing arrest will somehow jeopardize his salvage rights to the metal artifact.  

The UFO begins showing signs of life, shooting a ray up into the sky, and the cop drives off to get help.  He brings back a professor, another representative of authority for Dan Henry to triumph over--Dan Henry is sure the thing he found is an alien craft, and the academic is skeptical.  But not for long!  A larger space craft arrives to retrieve Dan Henry's discovery with tractor beams.  Rather than let his treasure slip through his grasp, Dan Henry jumps on the thing, which must be a robot probe or scout or something, and rides it up to the big space ship!  Nothing on Earth or in Heaven is going to keep Dan Henry from achieving his goals!  As the story ends we can't be sure if Dan Henry is about to enjoy the greatest adventure of all time--First Contact with space aliens!--or just get killed.

(Dan Henry's ride is reminiscent of the famous scene in Dr. Strangelove, released some seven years after this story was published.)

While we might interpret Budrys's story as romanticizing the manly man who sets himself goals and overcomes all efforts of nature, government and the intellectual elite to discourage him, the author doesn't sugarcoat the costs of living such a life--the crazy lengths Dan Henry goes to to assert his independence and triumph over the natural and the artificial environment put his health, liberty and very life at risk, and make of him something of an outcast from society.  And Dan Henry, like an addict or a man driven by irrational passions, is conflicted about his own risky decisions, not really knowing why he does the things he does. 

Not bad.  The themes and ideas are fine, but Budrys's descriptions of Dan Henry's struggles trying to move rocks and survive gale force winds are a little too long; his description of the ray that shoots out of the alien artifact is also too long.  While trying to craft powerful images and set a mood Budrys has a tendency to go a little overboard, to overexplain and overdescribe; I find myself getting bogged down in Budrys's paragraphs.  

"The Edge of the Sea" not only impressed Aldiss and Harrison, but other editors as well, including Judith Merrill, who included it in her third Year's Greatest SF anthology and Damon Knight who put it in his oft-reprinted Worlds To Come.  The story also was translated into French and Italian--you can see Dan Henry tied to a guard rail, his car precariously balanced over the Atlantic, and the alien probe transmitting its message to the mother ship in Karel Thole's cover for 1966's Urania #444

Karel Thole ignored all of Budrys's talk about barnacles

"The Pedestrian" by Ray Bradbury (1951)

If Budrys goes overboard and overwrites, Bradbury in this brief story is starkly succinct.  Addressing some of the same themes as Fahrenheit 451, "The Pedestrian" is a lament about the corrosive effect of television on our culture and our communities.  It is well done, but slight, more of an idea and a setting than a full story with plot and character.

Leonard Mead is a writer who hasn't written in years because books and magazines are no longer produced--everybody watches TV all the time.  Mead loves to take long walks at night.  For ten years he has taken these walks on the overgrown sidewalks, and he has never once encountered another walker, and he almost never sees an automobile--everybody spends the evening at home watching TV.  There is almost no crime, so the city has only one robot police car left.  When it by chance comes upon Mead, he is arrested and taken to the loony bin because it is assumed anybody who takes walks instead of staying home watching TV must be insane.
        
"The Pedestrian," isfdb is telling me, first appeared in The ReporterThe Decade: The 1950s lists a copyright of 1952 held by the publishers of F&SF, where it appeared in '52.  Bradbury edited a SF anthology himself in 1952, Timeless Stories of Today and Tomorrow, and "The Pedestrian" was the story of his own he included in it.  Since then the tale has been reprinted many times, including in the Bradbury collections Golden Apples of the Sun and S is for Space.

"The Last Day" by Richard Matheson (1953)

"The Last Day" is an affirmation of the value of religious faith and the family and a demonstration of the vacuity of hedonism and sensuality.  Like Bradbury's "The Pedestrian" it is an idea story in which the dystopian setting is sort of the point, but unlike Bradbury's tale it has a sort of inner core of hope and an actual plot in which a character makes decisions and grows.

The world is doomed as the sun expands!  The end is mere days away!  Society collapses, with people committing crimes of even the worst sort just for kicks, killing themselves or indulging in sexual license and inebriation.

On the Earth's last day the main character wakes up and looks back with some regret on a night of drunken debauchery and "animalistic" sex with women and friends.  He also regrets not having gotten married when he had the chance.  A skeptic, he doesn't get along with his religious mother, but decides to make the dangerous trip out of Manhattan to the suburbs to spend his final day--everybody's final day--with his mother, his sister, and his sister's husband and child.  He sees how his mother's faith in God comforts her and gives her the strength to act decently and face doom with equanimity, and they spend their last moments sitting on the porch together.

"The Last Day" succeeds in its goals, and I can't say there is anything wrong with it, but it is leaving me kind of cold.  I guess I have to admit that I am allergic to schmaltz about motherhood.   

After debuting in Amazing, "The Last Day" would be included in several Matheson collections, including The Shores of Space, and a few anthologies, Michael Ashley's The History of the Science Fiction Magazine: Part 3 among them.

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Three stories about the individual and his relationship to the community, about people who go their own way, diverging from the herd or bucking the establishment, and the costs such individualism may incur as well as the possible benefits of going maverick.  Bradbury and Matheson in their pieces also seem to be expressing fears about social changes they are witnessing in the 1950s, the influence of mass media in the form of television for Bradbury and a loosening of traditional morals and a weakening of religious belief on the part of Matheson.  

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Over the years, as this blog has skulked about the series of tubes we call the interweb, I have read four additional stories that Aldiss and Harrison included in Decade: The 1950s, some of them in other venues.  There's James H. Schmitz's "Grandpa," which Harrison here suggests is a work about ecology published years before the word was in common currency.  (One of the weird things about Decade: The 1950s is that, in his Introduction, Harrison says that the diminishing importance of Astounding in the Fifties is reflected in the fact that none of the stories in the volume was first printed in Astounding, but in reality "Grandpa" actually did first appear in Astounding.)  Also Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain," Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "Two-Handed Engine" (credited here solely to Kuttner) and Jerome Bixby's "The Holes Around Mars."  

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Tales of The Other Worlds by T Sturgeon, M W Wellman, and A Derleth (w/Mark Schorer)

In our last episode I read Murray Leinster's "The Fourth Dimension Demonstrator," an unfunny 1935 joke story I told you was a waste of time.  In 1941, "The Fourth Dimension Demonstrator" reappeared in the anthology edited by Phil Stong, The Other Worlds, a book some (including Robert Silverberg, according to wikipedia) consider the first ever science fiction anthology.  With a clickety click of our mice, let's navigate over to the internet archive and their scan of a 1942 edition of The Other Worlds and read five more stories selected by Stong that were penned by people we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log, in this case Theodore Sturgeon, Manly Wade Wellman, and August Derleth.

"A God in a Garden" by Theodore Sturgeon (1939)

The big theme of Sturgeon's body of work is the power of love, and "A God in a Garden" is a story about a loving marriage and the obstacles to happiness faced by a husband and his wife.  It is also a tiresome joke story.

Kenneth enjoys his job as a truck driver and his hobby of landscaping and gardening his yard.  He loves his wife, but his bad habit of lying about things (like telling her he is working late when in fact he is playing cards with the boys, or saying he is "swell" when she asks how he is, even though he is visibly upset) is threatening their relationship.    

The next addition to his elaborate garden will be a lily pond, and for weeks Ken has been seeking an ugly idol to set above the pond.  By an unbelievable coincidence, while digging the pond, he uncovers a hideous stone idol like five feet tall, right there where he wants to install such a thing.  Ken calls over a friend who has a hoist and a comedy accent ("Hokay Kan...I feex") and gets the idol into place.

The idol is a god, the last surviving relic of a race which strode the Earth millions of years ago.  The god can read Ken's mind and so knows all his problems and offers to help him.  After considering and discarding the idea of making it impossible for Ken to lie, the god hits upon the scheme of altering the universe so that everything Ken says becomes true.  This has obvious benefits; Ken can just say "I have twenty thousand in the bank," and voila, $20,000 appears in his account.  But careless talk on Ken's part also leads to the problems that constitute the story's jokes; for example, when Ken says that it is raining cats and dogs, canines and felines fall from the sky and Ken has to figure out a way to use his new powers to clean up the mess and make everybody who witnessed this unusual weather forget about it.

All the crazy stuff that happens puts a strain on his wife's sanity and their marriage, and she decides to leave Ken, but Ken resolves the crisis by using his powers to neutralize those powers and to turn the god into an inert hunk of stone.

Sturgeon is a good writer and the relationship between husband and wife rings true, but the plot devices are lame and gimmicky, and I rarely appreciate jokes that revolve around humorous accents or puns or taking cliched metaphors literally.  Let's call this one barely acceptable.

In 1988 "A God in the Garden" was dug up for inclusion in an anthology of stories from Unknown, and has also appeared in the first volume of the Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.     


"School for the Unspeakable" by Manly Wade Wellman (1937)

"School for the Unspeakable" first saw light of day in an issue of Weird Tales with lots of good Virgil Finlay illustrations; particularly memorable are some monsters' heads and some powerfully muscled male bodies.  Worth a look, illustration fans.

"School for the Unspeakable" is a competent filler story.  A fifteen-year-old boy gets off the train after sunset in some little town--he will be attending a boarding school nearby.  An eighteen-year-old boy addresses him, says he is a student at the school and has come to collect him.  This guy looks weird, has a cold handshake, and drives a horse drawn cart instead of an automobile.  A few miles away he stops and introduces the 15-year old to two more ugly guys, purportedly other students.

The hideous trio explain that they are Satanists, and tell of how the headmaster of the school, a serious Christian, tried to foil their worship of the Devil and failed because Ol' Scratch has rendered them indestructible.  When the protagonist refuses to join their cult, the three pounce on him and are about to slay him when a tall figure that casts no shadow arrives to rout the devil worshipers and save the boy.

The boy flees back to the train station.  There he meets somebody who really is from the school he is to attend.  Reading the last sentences of the story we recognize the alarming truth: thirty years ago, three rich boys at a now-defunct school on the other side of town, one catering to troublesome lads thrown out of other schools, were killed by their headmaster--presumably the three boys who harassed our hero are vampires or something similar.  The murderous headmaster was shut up in a lunatic asylum, and just tonight passed away.  It must have been the headmaster's ghost who saved the protagonist.

Acceptable.  "School for the Unspeakable" has been reprinted in many anthologies built around such enduringly popular themes as vampires, ghosts, devil worshippers, and magic.  

"Song of the Slaves" by Manly Wade Wellman (1940)

This is a story about the effort of a small businessman to achieve savings by cutting out the middleman.  Gender is the owner of a plantation in South Carolina in 1835, and instead of buying slaves at the slave market he gets a ship and sails to Africa and seizes a village and chains up forty-nine people himself!  The truth, of course, is that this doesn't really save Gender any money--he launched this expedition because he is the kind of guy who gets satisfaction out of dominating others.

For days, Gender marches with his forty-nine captives back to the ship, the whole time the Africans singing the same song, no matter how much Gender and his men beat them.  One of his subordinates tells Gender that the song is a magic spell, that the blacks are singing a song that they believe will bring about Gender's death!

Soon after setting sail, Gender's ship is spotted by a British warship engaged in the suppression of the slave trade.  The limeys give chase, and the Royal Navy vessel is the speedier--there is no escaping it.  So, under cover of dark, Gender attaches the empty fiftieth collar on the chain that shackles all the Africans together to an anchor and throws the anchor overboard, sending his forty-nine captives to a watery grave.  When the British captain catches up to Gender in the morning he declares that he knows what Gender has done and will write a letter to a friend in Charleston so that everybody knows of his crime.

Sure enough, back home, Gender is soon persona non grata; his erstwhile friends refuse to see him, the father of the woman he was courting forbids her to talk to him.  Then at night he hears that song again--his forty-nine victims climb out of the ocean, put that fiftieth collar around his neck, and return to the sea with him.    

Pretty good; the plot, ideas and themes are all good, and Wellman does a fine job with the images, characters, tone and pacing.  "Song of the Slaves," after first appearing in Weird Tales as a cover story, has been reprinted in quite a few anthologies and even some magazines, like a 1959 issue of Cavalier.  

"The Panelled Room" by August Derleth (1933)

This story here is pretty bad.  There are numerous distractingly clumsy and overly long sentences, plot developments come out of nowhere, and the characters and settings are poorly realized and uninteresting.

The basic plot of "The Panelled Room" is pedestrian and the way Derleth handles it is lame.  Childless Lydia and her sister Irma, who has a daughter, move into a house in which a man strangulated his wife and then hanged himself.  The neighbors keep coming over to warn them that the place is haunted and that they will soon be haunted by the ghostly vision of the dead bodies of the killer and his wife; in addition, the wall panels of the room in which the deaths took place will be seen to move.  They had better leave because other people have mysteriously died in the house since the murder-suicide, presumably slain by the ghost of the murderous husband.

As predicted, Lydia starts seeing the ghosts and, unsurprisingly, starts thinking they should leave.  But Irma tries to convince her they should stay, because she secretly hopes her sister will get killed by the ghost and Irma stands to inherit her sister's money.  An interfering neighbor who somehow intuits Irma's evil scheme tries to save Lydia by helping her write a will that specifies that in the event that Lydia dies in the haunted house, Irma will only inherit if she lives the rest of her life in the house.  As predicted, Lydia keels over in the panelled room and Irma's little daughter sees the panels moving.  Lydia goes insane and starts beating her daughter.

Derleth fails to make any of the characters' actions or motives believable or interesting--neither Irma's scheme to get her sister killed nor the nosy neighbor's legal stratagem to protect Lydia makes any sense, and neither has any real effect on the course of events.  Derleth also neglects to connect the phenomena of the moving panels to all the deaths.  Very shoddy. 

Thumbs down!  This piece of junk debuted in a magazine I've never heard of, The Westminster Magazine, and then was printed in a fanzine full of material by members of the Lovecraft circle, Leaves, in 1937; it first appeared in book form in 1941 in the Derleth collection Someone in the Dark.  Despite how terrible it is, people like Bill Pronzini and Peter Straub followed in Stong's footsteps, selecting "The Panelled Room" for inclusion in anthologies.  Go figure.

"The Return of Andrew Bentley" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer (1933)

After the exposing myself to the worthless rubbish that is "The Panelled Room," I wasn't exactly relishing the prospect of reading the eighteen pages taken up by "The Return of Andrew Bentley," which Derleth wrote in collaboration with his friend Mark Schorer, a Harvard and UC Berkeley prof and biographer of Sinclair Lewis.  But, as we just saw in our last blog post, Derleth is capable of good work, so it is not impossible that "The Return of Andrew Bentley" will be good, so I'm diving in.

It is with relief that I can report that "The Return of Andrew Bentley" is an entertaining yarn.  The narrator is summoned from his city life to the country by his irascible old Uncle Amos.  Amos tells the narrator that he will inherit his land and house and enough money to live comfortably on the condition that he promises to live in the house and every day check on his uncle's burial vault; should he find that the vault has been tampered with, he is to open a sealed letter and follow the instructions therein.

Uncle Amos dies just a few days later, presumably a suicide.  Amos is buried in the vault behind the house in which the narrator takes up residence.  Sure enough, weird things start happening, including the appearance of shadowy figures that seem to be trying to get into that vault wherein lies Uncle Amos's body!  The narrator has a dream that Uncle Amos is speaking to him, imploring him to get the local clergyman to bless the vault--it seems this punctilious cleric refused to bless Amos's grave because the man was a suicide.  

The narrator looks over his uncle's library, which like the libraries in many of the stories I read is well stocked with books of black magic, unseals that envelope, talks to various locals, and eventually we have the whole picture.  Uncle Amos made friends with an evil wizard, Andrew Bentley, and then murdered Bentley out of fear of the sorcerer's evil.  But Bentley had already summoned a familiar from Hell, and this familiar and Bentley's ghost tormented Amos.  Amos knew that to dispel ghost and familiar he had only to destroy Bentley's body, but the familiar has hidden the body.  Even worse, if the familiar, which currently is only able to operate at night and can't stray far from its master's bones, can get its mitts on a fresh dead body it can take over that body and greatly increase its sphere of operations.

The narrator has to find Bentley's bones and destroy them before the familiar can get into the vault and inhabit Amos's body, but it won't be easy!

I like the plot and the themes here, and Derleth and Schorer do a decent job with all the descriptions of the hellish familiar and the moonlit country landscape and all that, and with the horror scenes and so forth, so I enjoyed this one.  Thumbs up for "The Return of Andrew Bentley."

After first rising from the pages of Weird Tales--the same issue as stories by Robert E. Howard, Edmond Hamilton, Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long we have already read--"The Return of Andrew Bentley" would reappear in Derleth collections as well as several anthologies, including books edited by Bennett Cerf and Marvin Kaye.


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Students of the history of genre literature and speculative fiction might find Stong's long foreword to The Other Worlds of interest; in it he surveys and delivers strong opinions on the science fiction, fantasy and horror fields, even briefly offering harsh assessments of detective literature and of fantastic motion pictures.  (Stong and I are not necessarily on the same page; he dismisses King Kong, which I hold to be the greatest film of all time, as "very silly," and condemns all stories of interplanetary travel and adventure.  He also thinks the pulp magazines should have more joke stories, when I think there are way too many, waiting for me between the covers of almost every magazine and anthology like so many anti-personnel mines.)  The Other Worlds isn't just one of the first SF anthologies, but an early example of serious SF criticism.