Thursday, July 28, 2022

Dagger of the Mind by Bob Shaw

Leila!  I killed Leila!  I'm not the person I always believed myself to be.  I'm a murderer!

Today on MPorcius Fiction Log, we take my copy of Ace's 1982 paperback printing of Bob Shaw's 1979 novel Dagger of the Mind off the shelf and embark on an adventure which, if the covers of the book are any indication, involves a guy fighting a blob with Molotovs.  Sounds good!

Dagger of the Mind is a story about a telepath; we seem to read about telepaths a lot here at MPorcius Fiction Log--we even ended up reading about telepaths when the plan was to read grim crime fiction.  But let's just run with it.

John Redpath is an Englishman, an epileptic who lives in an apartment building on a busy road above a row of shops.  He works at the nearby Institute, where they are experimenting on him, studying the effect of drugs on his slight telepathic abilities.  The story begins on a morning on which he feels quite odd, and when he looks out the spyhole in his apartment door he sees a hideous visage, the bloody face of a man who has apparently been skinned alive!  (The cover of the Pan edition of the novel seems to be trying to illustrate this.)  When he opens the door there is nobody there!  Are the drugs driving him insane?  

As the day proceeds, more reasons to believe Redpath is going bonkers crop up.  He is having a casual relationship with a promiscuous scientist who works in a different department of the Institute, Leila Mostyn, and he begins having irrepressible feelings of jealousy and possessiveness about her which quickly escalate into a violent rage.  Is Redpath's personality changing?  He continues to have hallucinations, and abruptly decides to make major life changes, quitting his job and finding a new place to live.  Could his horrifying visions and changes in character be a reaction to the experimental drugs, or is his psychic ability picking up thoughts from other people, as one of the researchers at the Institute suggests?  The climax of the first third of the novel sees Redpath murder Mostyn just after deciding he was truly in love with her.  After fleeing the scene of the crime, Redpath falls asleep in his new apartment in a disreputable house full of questionable characters who are extremely friendly to him; when he wakes up he finds himself in a similar house in the United States!

Dagger of the Mind is kind of dull and flat.  Redpath is not a very interesting character--Shaw actually takes pains to remind you he is ordinary and unremarkable, outside his epilepsy and his (quite weak) telepathy--and none of the other people in the book are interesting, either.  There are many pages devoted to descriptions of the visions that could be dreams or hallucinations or others' thoughts, and Shaw also describes at great length quotidian details of architecture, interior design, and the natural world--the pebbled glass of a window, the sunlight reflecting off this or casting shadows of that, etc.--and these details don't add up to a mood or paint fascinating images, they just bog the reader down.

Because the text wasn't doing much to hold my interest, I was disappointed when Shaw decisively undermined the most exciting thing that happened in the beginning of the book--Redpath's murder of the female lead--by returning the scene to suburban England and revealing that Mostyn had not been killed; Redpath had just cut up her apartment in her absence.  If Shaw had got me to like Redpath or Mostyn, or at least excited some curiosity about them, maybe this would have been a cause for relief, but instead I was disappointed that the most dramatic and compelling thing in the book had not actually happened.  

Redpath wakes up back in Britain, and there is some detective stuff as he talks to the police and Institute staff and everybody tries to figure out what is going on.  In the final third of the book, Redpath has a telepathic epiphany and suddenly realizes exactly what is up.  Decades ago, an alien criminal or revolutionary fled to Earth.  This renegade's species are big blobs with psychic powers that eat keratin, which is what your skin and hair are made of.  (That is why in his visions--some of which are not visions at all but real life--our boy Redpath has been seeing people and animals denuded of their skin.)  The alien fugitive was afraid to use his psychic powers very much because that might expose him to detection by the forces of the establishment pursuing him, so, from his hiding place in an English basement, he has been giving humans psychic powers and hypnotizing them into serving him.  Redpath is one of the people the alien gave psi powers years ago, when as a kid he was in the alien's neighborhood, and this novel's bizarre events are related to the monster using its powers to summon Redpath to join his team of human slaves.  You see, the overly friendly weirdos in the house he has moved to are that team, one a guy who can teleport, one a guy who can see the future, and so on; their telepath recently died, and they need Redpath to round out the roster.

This is bad enough, but Redpath realizes, via telepathic insight, that even worse developments are in store.  The conservative forces vengefully pursuing the alien rebel have finally caught up to him, and in a day or so are going to bomb England into oblivion.  Redpath has to slay the monster in the basement fast to prevent the destruction of his home country and an interruption of the world's supply of authentic Marmite.  Redpath tries to get Mostyn to help him, but this book was written before the current feminist era and her half-hearted efforts to aid him come to nothing, though Shaw tries to add suspense to his book by having us follow her for many pages on her abortive trip to America before, in the face of some mundane obstacles, she abandons her assigned task of being the New World prong of Redpath's planned Molotov pincer movement.  Luckily, one of the alien's slaves--the teleporter guy--resists the monster's control and he and Redpath together destroy the beast and the forces of justice in orbit above call off their attack.  As the story ends Redpath decides that he will pretend all this never happened and it looks like Mostyn is going to settle down and marry him, confident that his crazy ideas about aliens and teleporting human slaves--which she never believed--were drug induced.

Dagger of the Mind works on a mechanical level as a detective story; when in the end all the crazy stuff that has happened are explained, we see that all the plot elements mesh and make internal sense.  Shaw also comes up with clever little schemes and ploys for the alien and Redpath and the teleporting slave to put into operation.  For example, reminding us of Fredric Brown's "Arena," in which a guy knocked himself unconscious as a means of getting through a forcefield, Redpath has the idea of triggering one of his epileptic seizures as a means of breaking free of the psychic influence of the alien.  The actual SF elements of Dagger of the Mind are OK.  

But Dagger of the Mind does not work as entertainment or literature; the cool SF stuff takes up very little of the word count, and Shaw fails to captivate or move the reader via style or characters.  Leila Mostyn has no personality, doesn't really contribute to the plot (the alien makes Redpath hallucinate killing her in order to drive him away from the Institute and his apartment and into the arms of the team of slaves, but some other hallucination would have worked just as well) and Shaw fails to offer any plausible reason why Redpath is in love with her and why she might want to marry him.  The rebel alien, the pursuing alien, and the human slave who can teleport and who resists the alien could all have been compelling characters with interesting personalities and motivations if Shaw had gone to the trouble of fleshing them out, but they get very little screen time, so they are just gears rotating in Shaw's mechanical plot.  I didn't care who lived or died and I didn't care who had sex with who or who was going to marry who. 

I have enjoyed Shaw's work in the past, but this one didn't hold my interest, and often when I would sat down to read it I would find myself instead rereading randomly selected installments of Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura.  I'm afraid I have to give Dagger of the Mind a marginal thumbs down.  You hate to see it.       

Some interesting (maybe?) notes.  Shaw fills Dagger of the Mind with cultural references both high-falutin', like those to Shakespeare and Van Gogh, and popular, including nods to the TV show The Tomorrow People and the 1945 film Scared Stiff.  Redpath likes old movies, apparently, and in his italicized thoughts refers to a dozen or more actors, many of whom I didn't recognize.     

A scan of the Pan edition of Dagger of the Mind is available at the internet archive, and a brief look indicates that at least one change (beyond the typical spelling and punctuation changes) was made to the text in the production of the American edition I own.  What appears as "World War II" in my 1982 Ace printing is "Second World War" in the 1981 Pan.  Why the publisher felt the need to change this easily understood phrase, but left unmolested "saloon car" (we Yanks say "sedan") and "kitchen tissue" (US: "paper towels") is a mystery.

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Behold, links to coverage of Bob Shaw here at MPorcius Fiction Log that is more sympathetic than is today's:

"Light of Other Days"

"A Full Member of the Club"

Tomorrow Lies in Ambush

Orbitsville

Night Walk

Fire Pattern

One Million Tomorrows 

Who Goes Here?

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Solarians by Norman Spinrad

What were the Solarians up to?  Was their goal really the same as the Confederation--to win The War--or were they somehow out merely to save Fortress Sol at the expense of the rest of the human race?

I wasn't exactly champing at the bit to read more Norman Spinrad.  In the half-forgotten age before this blog burst onto the scene, I had varied reactions to the Spinrad novels I picked up.  The Void Captain's Tale I enjoyed while I was reading it, but today I can't remember much about it--a guy shifts his spaceship into hyperspace by having sex with it, right?  Child of Fortune I started but quickly gave up on--a middle-class hippie plays gypsy, travelling from place to place with her magical pet cat, right?  The Men in the Jungle I both finished and actually retain memories of--I found it a ridiculously overblown parody of adventure fiction, page after page of gore meant to argue the point that people who read genre literature are sadists.  All three of these books were laborious--they felt quite long and repetitive, seeming to hit the same notes and make the same points again and again, points I didn't necessarily find particularly interesting or convincing. 

So, a month ago, I thought I was going to go to my grave without ever having read another Norman Spinrad novel.   But then Fate intervened when I sort of fell in love with Jeff Jones's painting Whirl, which I saw in a stack of those 1990s collector's cards and in my copy of Jeffrey Jones: The Definitive ReferenceWhirl was used as the cover of a 1973 Belmont Tower paperback edition of Spinrad's The Solarians, and, eager to scrutinize a third print version of the image, I went to Wonder Book in Hagerstown, Maryland and purchased a copy of this volume.  Once I had become a The Solarians owner, I started thinking about reading it.  Key to my decision to take the plunge was the fact that the novel was first published in 1966, and that in 2017 I had read three Norman Spinrad stories from the 1960s and thought one good and one OK; seeing as it was from the same period in his career as these unobjectionable stories, maybe I would actually like The Solarians.  And even if I didn't like it, maybe it would be interesting to compare it to my, admittedly largely fragmentary, memories of those later novels of his I had looked into.

For three hundred years the human race has been at war with the Duglaari Empire, and for three hundred years we have been losing!  Our space empire, always smaller than that of the aliens, has dwindled from 258 systems to 220, and it looks like we are doomed to extinction.  But extinction is a long time coming, as this is not a war of bold strokes and brilliant maneuvers, but a war of attrition in which most strategic and tactical decisions are made by computers--a big reason why we are losing is that the Doogs have slightly better computers than we do.

Two hundred and seventy years ago the birth system of mankind, Sol, cut itself off from all intercourse with the rest of the human race.  The Solarians claimed they were building a superweapon in secret, but the cynics in the colonial worlds, known as the Confederation, wondered if maybe the people of the mother planet were just trying to make a separate peace with the rapacious Doogs.  Early in Spinrad's story, a starship from Sol arrives in the Olympia system, the administrative capitol of the Confederation, and the three men and three people capable of pregnancy aboard the little ship claim they have finally brought with them the means of winning the war once and for all!

The first chapter of The Solarians introduces us to Jay Palmer, commander of a human space fleet of sixty warships; his mission: to defend a human star system from attack by a larger Duglaari fleet.  One of the weaknesses of The Solarians is that, even though he commands this armada, Palmer is repeatedly called a "junior officer" and Spinrad writes him as a somewhat nervous and emotional young man instead of as a seasoned veteran with a long career of managing scores of people in stressful situations behind him.  On the positive side of the ledger, Spinrad's depiction of space naval combat is interesting and somewhat original--he doesn't just recreate World War II aviation or the Age of Nelson in outer space, as is so common in SF.  Palmer's fleet is defeated and flees the system, leaving it to be despoiled by the Doogs.

Palmer is back in the Olympia system when the six Solarians arrive, and is present at the first meeting between humans born on Earth and colonials in over two centuries at the military HQ of the Confederation, the building known as The Pentagon.  (Spinrad and his characters often refer to the 19th and 20th century directly or indirectly, the characters calling 19th- and 20th-century people "the ancients"; besides The Pentagon, the most memorable of such references is a passage on Brer Rabbit.) The Solarians immediately show an interest in Palmer, and when they explain that they have all kinds of psychic powers and are going to go directly to the Doog homeworld, Duglaar, and end the war, they request that Palmer come with them.  

On the flight to Duglaar, Palmer and we readers learn that the six Solarians are in a group marriage and practice free love; when a Solarian woman comes on to Palmer even though her husband is sitting right there our hero gets flustered and embarrassed--colonial society still has monogamy as its norm.  It is explained to him that while Confederation society is still based on the family--is organized into groups that are united by genetic similarity and built up by chance--the building block of Solarian society is groups of people who come together voluntarily based on their differences.  The creation of this new social order was the product of a revolution on Earth which caused mass death and destruction before it was accomplished; one of the radical policies of the revolution's leader was to outlaw all computers--this forced people to fall back on their latent psychic powers, which, under pressure, blossomed.  (Two of the members of the group here in the novel are telepaths who can not only read your mind but control your body against your will, making you their puppet; another has a perfect memory; one has a talent for leadership; the ship's pilot can instinctively judge trajectories and velocities and physical relationships better than a computer could, etc.)  Skepticism of computers is a major theme of The Solarians, and the Solarian characters assert that one of the sterling qualities of humans is that we are "alogical," unlike the impeccably logical Duglaari; one of the reasons we are losing the war against the Doogs is that we are using computers to manage our strategy and tactics--we are trying to beat the computer-loving aliens at their own game, which will never work.

Spinrad's primary method of trying to hold the interest of readers of The Solarians is maintaining ambiguity about who the real "bad guys" are.  Are the Solarians really here to help the colonials, or are they just selfish tricksters?  Is their communal promiscuous lifestyle worth the bloody revolution that made it possible?  Should we be more angry at the Doogs for attacking us, or at the brass for responding incompetently to the attack?  Are the Doogs really so bad, or are they just responding to Earth imperialism?  There is a long tradition of SF tales that sympathize with aliens against humans, suggesting mankind is degenerate or using space aliens as metaphors for non-white races to metaphorically attack European imperialism (see my blog posts about some of Edmond Hamilton's 1930s stories in these veins at the links); there is also a tradition of SF stories that posit that the human race is so foul that we would be better off if aliens just took over and taught us how to live in harmony with nature or forced socialism on us, maybe via collective consciousness, and as I read The Solarians, I suspected the novel might have been written in either or both of those traditions.  When Palmer and the Solarians got to Duglaari, was Spinrad going to pull a switcheroo on us, tell us the Duglaari were the good guys, that they were not really killing everybody on the human planets they conquered, or that maybe we deserved to be exterminated? 

The Solarian ship gets to Dulgaari halfway through the novel; by this time, Palmer is warming to the group marriage, having sex with one of the women and playing an integral role in running the operation, even at one point using his military expertise to save everybody's bacon from getting fried.  In the Duglaari imperial HQ, before the skyscraper-sized computer that runs the entire Doog society, Palmer observes the Solarians and the Doogs negotiate, the Solarians making extensive use of their psychic powers and other trickery.  By turns Palmer is enraged or horrified as the Solarians seem to be putting their lives in dire jeopardy, inviting the Doogs to summarily execute some or all of the seven adventurers, or using the lives of the billions of citizens of the Confederation as a bargaining chip in a bid to preserve the hermit system of Sol.  At times Palmer isn't sure he shouldn't sympathize with the computer-loving aliens over the slippery and arrogant Solarians!         

The final third of the novel consists of the journey of the ship back to Sol.  It becomes clear that the Solarians have not betrayed Palmer and the Confederation, just deceived them for their own good as part of their scheme to draw the Duglaari into a trap that will give the humans a decisive edge in the war.  Palmer is fully integrated into the Solarian family, and we are assured that he will become a major figure in human history, as he has the ability to act as a bridge between the old human race represented by the colonials and the future of the race represented by the Solarians, a form of society that will awaken the psychic powers natural to humans but currently retarded by our reliance on computers and stodgy family structures.

The first two thirds of The Solarians hold our attention because we don't know what is going to happen and we don't know which of the factions are villains and which heroes.  The final third is slow going because what is going to happen and how we should feel about the Solarians and Doogs has become obvious to us readers, even if it is not obvious to Palmer, and Spinrad drags things out as if we can still be surprised.  The Solarians have tricked the Doogs into attacking Sol with a large proportion of their space navy, and, as Spinrad has heavily foreshadowed, the Solarians are going to make Sol to go nova so this invasion fleet, along with all the planets of the Solar System, is wiped out; after this the colonial navy will outnumber the Doog navy and the humans are bound to win the war of attrition over the next several decades.  As if we might still be surprised Spinrad describes in melodramatic detail, page after page, how the Doogs destroy every planet in the system one after the other until finally they approach Mercury, springing the trap that detonates the Sun.  Spinrad also makes a big deal on the final pages of the novel of Palmer's realization that the five billion souls inhabiting the solar system haven't been killed, but were evacuated--this was obvious to use readers, so the surprise falls flat.

The Solarians is a competent SF novel of a traditional kind, with lots of classic elements: space war, homo superior with psychic powers, a protagonist who learns the true nature of the universe and isn't sure if he should support the secret geniuses who are pulling the strings behind the scenes, a paradigm shift in social relations that facilitates having more sex partners, and a sense of wonder ending in which we know mankind is going to grow mentally and socially and take over the entire galaxy.  Spinrad's style is simple and straightforward, so that The Solarians almost reads like a juvenile, especially with its naïve hero who spends most of the story not driving the plot but being variously educated, kept in the dark, or told what to do.  The characters are weak; I've already pointed out the incongruity of how Palmer is portrayed (Spinrad should have made him a lieutenant who had only ever commanded a boat or a sloop or something, not a Fleet Commander) and the Solarian characters are totally lacking in personality and absolutely forgettable.  The Doogs who have speaking parts are actually the most entertaining characters in the book--their dialogue is actually kind of amusing.  Spinrad's fresh take on space naval combat and the Doog interpretation of the English language and attitude towards humans (whom they consider vermin) are the highlights of the book.    

I'm calling The Solarians acceptable.  

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My Belmont Tower printing of The Solarians has six pages of ads in the back.  None of the ten books advertised is a SF book--instead, the people at Belmont Tower thought to entice purchasers of The Solarians to part with still more of their precious cash with books about sex, drugs, and rock and roll!  

(For fun, I found what I believe are the covers of some of these books so our bibliophilic glazzies can can take a little trip to the Me Decade.  You can click on the images to get a closer look.)

NO MORE RIPOFFS!

"Absorbing reading"--Baton Rouge Advocate

Very much in tune to the new Rock revival.

Ideal for the amateur guitarist or family folk singer.

Illustrated.

Beautiful and bawdy, she knew what she wanted--and how to get it.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Death's Master by Tanith Lee

Perhaps the gods had made Death.  Perhaps men had made him, the shadow of their terror thrown on a wall, a name that had taken on a shape.  How long had he existed?  Long enough to come, in however strange and opaque a manner, to an awareness of himself.  Or to an awareness of what himself must be.  And, as he was capable of dispassionate tears, as he was capable of emotionless grief, now he unfeelingly felt the pangs of a hollow disquiet.  Not at the notion of life, for life was susceptible to him...but at the notion of a life which was no longer susceptible, life which could negate death.  For even Death did not wish to die. 

Back in April we read Tanith Lee's 1978 novel Night's Master, and thought it was great.  Today we express our love for Night's Master's first sequel, 1979's Death's MasterNight's Master and Death's Master are only the first two of the five volumes of Lee's Tales of the Flat Earth, all of which first appeared as DAW paperbacks.  As with the first volume, I am reading book number two of the series in my 1987 hardcover omnibus edition of the first three titles, Tales of the Flat Earth: The Lords of Darkness.  I am certainly happy to have this hardcover edition, but I see that the original DAW edition of Death's Master has a frontispiece by Jack Gaughan, which I would like to see, and a recent printing of the novel actually has a drawing by Lee herself on the cover, a drawing which is quite accomplished, both creepy and charming--Lee was a multi-talented lady!

Death's Master is long, taking up like 340 pages of my omnibus edition, and is split into two books, each of which has five named parts; at the end is an epilogue.  While the novel does have an overarching plot, following the adventures and interactions of four main characters and the many secondary and minor characters whom they tend to leave worse for wear, each of the ten named parts is sort of like an individual short story, with its own plot and climax as well as developments that lay the groundwork for later parts.   

These ten "stories" are somewhat reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith's or Jack Vance's fantasy tales; like those worthies, Lee has a distinctive writing style, and like Smith's Zothique and Hyperborea stories, and Vance's Dying Earth and Lyonesse tales, they take place in a strange ancient/medievalish milieu and feature amoral or morally compromised characters doing reprehensible things and suffering horrible fates.  There are lots of wizards and witches and demons and priests and kings, plenty of ruins and castles and palaces and fortifications and temples, lots of magical spells and a whole bestiary of creepy monsters and conventional animals rendered strange.

Lee is a very skilled writer at the level of the individual sentence, and the book is full of beautiful and horrible bits of poetic prose and striking and disturbing images--a unicorn stamping on a hare and tearing it with its teeth; an ancient witch who bears the form of a fourteen-year-old girl clad only in a girdle of finger bones on a gold chain, each finger the payment she has received for acting as an intermediary between a supplicant and the Lord of Death; a cruel wizard who marches across the countryside, accompanied by a brass cage which walks on its own legs and carries within it the rotting corpse of the king the wizard slew with his sorcery.        

Lee's excellent style is matched (here in Death's Master, at least) by her plotting and pacing.  All the crazy characters and all the crazy situations they set in motion or find themselves embroiled in are compelling and entertaining.  Things that happen early in the book foreshadow or trigger events that occur later in a way that is clever and satisfying.

Death's Master is, as the cover of the first edition warns us, an "adult" fantasy and it is full of horror and full of transgressive and fetishistic sex--sex that is transactional, or based on trickery, or exploitative, as well as incest, bestiality, and necrophilia.  

Lee's focus on sex has an element of salaciousness or lasciviousness, but there is a lot more to it than that: Lee deals with issues like gender roles, sexual identity, sexual orientation, and the place of women in society; having set her tale in a cruel and decadent fantasy world where not only social norms but the very laws of physics are different than those of our own, Lee is free to offer up outré characters and situations that challenge all our preconceptions and brush aside all our taboos about sex and gender in a matter of fact fashion.  Lee presents us with a series of female characters who both embody and radically defy models of the feminine, women who rebel against social and political establishments--but Death's Master is not triumphant celebration of girl-bossery.  The women of Death's Master are ruthless and cruel, and their acts of rebellion are selfish and bring destruction and tragedy to themselves and those around them.

We've got Queen Nerasen, a woman who lives like a man, hunting great cats with a spear, defeating her enemies with her sword, enjoying sex with a succession of concubines.  But fate, her ambition to rule and her responsibility as a monarch force her to go against her nature and embody what we might call vulgar and maximalist versions of traditional conceptions of the essence of womanhood--she is compelled to have sex with many men and produce a child, and later seizes the opportunity to become the nagging, domineering, wife of a ruler more powerful than she.  As she lies in the agony of childbirth, she stifles her screams and vows to take revenge upon all men, to kill her own child if it be a boy!  

There's the witch Lylas, a 14-year-old who permitted men to use her body in exchange for sorcerous knowledge; taking up the position of Death's chief handmaiden, she manipulates the politics, culture and history of a town, but two centuries later she is defeated and the social order she built overthrown by perhaps the most central character of the novel, Simmu.

Simmu is the product of Nerasen's union with an animated corpse.  Simmu is a hermaphrodite able to voluntarily change sex on the fly; as a child he/she is raised by female demons, as an adolescent by hypocritical priests; Simmu escapes murder at the hands of his/her own mother when Nerasen's corpse walks the Flat Earth in search of vengeance, and as a young man pursues a quest that challenges the Lord of Death.

Among the secondary and minor characters, there is a wonton, aggressive prostitute who accosts a good-hearted priest; he asks her "What devil drove you to this life?" and she replies "A devil called man."  She later tries to blackmail a hypocritical priest and in desperation he kills her.  The princess of an undersea kingdom betrays her people out of love for a wizard--this wizard enjoys her body, loots her kingdom, kills her father and abandons her; another woman falls in love with a hero and helps him steal the treasure from her people's sanctum sanctorum, but with the treasure in his grasp, the hero's ardor for her cools.

The women of Death's Master challenge established orders and as a result their lives are destroyed; many of them are in positions of authority and their rebellion is an act of betrayal of those to whom--by the rules of the established order, at least--they bear some level of responsibility.

Lee's book is bleak, with everybody misbehaving, everybody getting defeated, everybody at the mercy of others or of Fate.  The Lord of Death himself is a slave to Fate!

"Death is like the night.  He comes when he must, but he does not choose the moment of his coming.  He is a slave, too."  

Death is of course a central theme of the book, as are efforts to cheat death and stave off death--most of the witches and wizards in the book seem to have taken up sorcery as a profession with the objective of extending their life spans any way they can--including by stealing the life force of others--and there are plenty of animated corpses walking around and people making contact with "the other side."  But in the same way the women of the novel who rebel come to grief and bring grief upon others, efforts to defeat Death fail, or succeed only to show that a life without death is no better, and perhaps worse, than a life lived within death's shadow.  (Death's Master is yet another piece of speculative fiction that tells you that what you think will be a utopia is not going to make you happy.  We've read a lot of these at this blog!)

Death's Master is a great dark fantasy novel that focuses on horror and sex and black magic and which has as a sort of backbone that central theme of women challenging established orders, including norms around the role of women.  Lee's writing is brilliant, and her book is chockablock with some of my favorite themes, like suicide, the quest for immortality, and disastrous sexual relationships, and so I loved it.  

Five out of five blood-stained unicorn horns!

Highly recommended to fans of weird fiction and those interested in portrayals of women and alternative forms of sexuality in speculative fiction who are willing to accept depictions of feminist and LGBT themes that are ambiguous rather than earnestly affirming.  

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If you are interested in spoilers and more examples of how Lee treats Death's Master's various themes, find below my overly long plot summaries of each of the novel's eleven parts, each with a fun representative quote.   

BOOK ONE

Part One: Narasen and Death

"I am king of an empty kingdom.  But I will show you as much.  This you shall learn immediately: That you must remain with me a thousand mortal years.  I ask no more, and no less."

Narasen paled, and she was pale already.  But she said grimly:

"That is indeed some little while.  And what is it that you want me for, that a thousand years are required to satisfy you?"

Nerasen is queen of the city of Merh, a redheaded lesbian, a skilled fighter with a sword and a bold hunter of leopards, which she dispatches with a spear.  One day she meets the wizard Issak; Issak declares his intention to have sex with Nerasen, his determination to use his magic to rape her.  Issak may have not been such a bad guy as a youth, but the tuition he had to pay to the wizard who trained him in the sorcerous arts ruined him.  You see, the fee his master demanded was that the teen-aged Isaak serve as his catamite.  The master wizard, through pederastic intercourse, stole Issak's life force, extending his own longevity, and in return ejaculated into Issak his own evil, corrupting the youth, so that Issak today is driven by monstrous lusts.

Nerasen is resourceful and strong, and outwits and defeats Isaak.  As the would-be rapist lays dying, Nerasen's spear pinning him to the floor, Issak curses Nerasen.  The curses blight her kingdom of Merh--no crops grow, babies are born dead, a plague starts killing everybody, etc.  The court magicians read the signs and tell Nerasen that her own fertility represents that of her kingdom--the kingdom will be sterile until she herself brings forth a child.  Though she has no interest in having sex with men, she surrenders her body to the desires of hundreds of men of all social classes, but to no avail--the curse prevents her from conceiving.

Nerasen thinks she has found a loophole in the curse--if she has sex with a dead man, perhaps she will conceive.  Through the intermediary of Lylas, a 200-year old witch who appears as a fourteen year-old girl, Nerasen meets Death, whose secret name is Uhlume, and they strike a deal.  An effeminate teen-aged boy rises from his tomb to have sex with Nerasen; in return, after she dies, Nerasen's soul will not immediately proceed to the afterlife but be trapped in her dead body; her animated corpse will reside in the limbo that is the home of Death for 1,000 years to keep the lonely Lord of Death company.

Part Two: The Crying Child 

"Bless the gods, lady, for it is a son," a girl's voice cried.

Narasen whispered: "If it is a man, take it and throttle the thing."

"Tut," said the chief physician, "the girl is a dolt, majesty.  It is a female child."

Merh recovers from the blight.  Nerasen gives birth to a hermaphroditic child and is murdered moments later by the captain of the guard, Jornadesh, who makes himself king.  The unusual baby is interred in the tomb with Nerasen, from which Death snatches her.  Two demonesses with snakey hair hear the wailing of the baby and adopt it, naming it Simmu.  They raise it for a while, flying around the world with it, feeding it by placing it at the dugs of leopards and other beasts, but then their duties to superior demons call them away, so they leave the baby at a temple, where the child is taken in.  Lee ironically dwells on the hypocrisy of the priests, who take vows of poverty, modesty and humility but demand payment for their healing services, collect exorbitant tithes, devour magnificent feasts, and are treated like royalty wherever they go.  The temple only takes in healthy and handsome foundlings, and luckily Nerasen's child appears to qualify.  The child can conceal one if its sexes so as to appear to conform to the gender binary, and as all women are barred from entering the temple, whose priests have taken a vow of celibacy, so Nerasen's child, named Shell by the priests, takes on a masculine aspect, hiding its female genitalia.

Part Three: The Master of Night 

"You have sold out my life, you have killed what is good in me or might have been.  You foul and filthy one, you have dragged me into the slime.  I did not grieve that you deserted me after the act.  I did not grieve at the lies of men, neither at death.  But you, accursed and crawling thing, I do not know how you deceived me, but I know this--I will not have you near me."
In the desert, a nomad king's favorite wife gives birth to a child with skin and hair of different hue than anyone else in the band, leading to suspicion, envy, and hatred.  Fearing her son will be murdered, when the child is five, his mother consults a witch, who uses her magic to make the oddly complected child, named Zherim, almost invulnerable to physical harm and immune to aging.  The witch's fee: Zherim's mother's beautiful white teeth are magicked out of her mouth to replace the ancient witch's own brown and rotten choppers.  It is worth every molar, though, as when his envious half-brothers try to feed Zherim to the lions some years later, the great cats' claws and fangs are unable to penetrate the boy's skin.  Thinking Zherim possessed by a demon, his father the king hands him over to the priests where he becomes friends with Shell.  Shell, who is both man and woman, though his female side is hidden, falls in love with Zherim, and is jealous when Zherim, who turns out to be a skilled and generous healer, becomes popular with the common people and later when he is approached by a beautiful harlot.   

This part of the novel hits a lot of fetishes.  Shell voyeuristically observes a particularly corrupt and hypocritical priest (we know he is a villain because he is fat!) having sex with the prostitute, and then changes to female form to seduce Zherim.  The fat priest, the next day, frames Shell and Zherim for the murder of the harlot, whom fatso himself slew when she threatened to blackmail him for money.    

Shaken by his coupling with his friend, Zherim despairs of life and is willing to be executed, but Simmu/Shell uses her/his magical powers to rescue Zherim and achieve revenge on the fat priest.  (Simmu's powers involve being able to talk to and direct animals, and Lee does a creepy and fun job of portraying the animals' thought and personality.)  Zherim, still psychologically broken, and essentially invulnerable to death, flees Simmu and wanders the land, determined to enter the service of Azhrarn, prince of Demons.  Finally Simmu catches up to him in a secluded demon-haunted wood by a salt lake where cruel unicorns dance and duel; Zherim succumbs to Simmu's sexual desire again, and they try to summon Azhrarn--a figure arrives who may or may not be the Prince of Demons, but who certainly tells Zherim that Azhrarn has no need of a mortal servant.  In a meteor's crater Zherim's feverish efforts to kill himself summon Death, who cannot kill Zherim but can put him into a deep sleep.  Thinking her lover is dead, Simmu returns to male form and leaves this grim region.

Part Four: She Who Lingers

"Black cat," said Narasen, "go back and prowl in your crockery city, black cat.  You and your cousin Uhlume, you two Lords of Darkness, I spit on both of you."  And then, in her fury, Narasen smote Azhrarn across the mouth.

"Daughter," said Azhrarn, in the kindest of tones, "you have not been wise."

And indeed, she had not been.  For from her right hand with which she had smote him, the flesh scattered like blue petals, leaving only the bare skeleton behind. 

For sixteen years Jornadesh has been king of Merh.  He has become fat!  Below in the grey world of Death, the queen Jornadesh deposed, Narasen, mother of Shell, figures out how to get back to the surface to wreak her revenge.  She stalks Merh in her dead body, which, away from the plane of Death, starts to decay.  She summons the spirit of Issak (which arises in the form of a big worm from out of his bones) and with its help inflicts a plague on Merh.  The poison that slew Narasen was blue, and the flesh of her walking corpse is blue, and the plague Narasen inflicts on the plants, animals and people of Merh turns them blue as they die.

Meanwhile, Azhrarn toys with Simmu, helping the hermaphrodite forget Zherim and goading Simmu to go to Merh, of which he/she is rightful monarch.  When Nerasen encounters Simmu (he is safe from the plague thanks to the demon jewel he wears and the help of Azhrarn) she tries to murder her offspring, but Azhrarn neutralizes her, sends her back to the world of Death.

Part Five: Pomegranate 

Outside the mansion, the wild pomegranate trees whispered to each other nastily, and dropped their malignant fruit on the ground for their witch mistress to tread on in the morning.  If the trees remembered Narasen, they did not say.  But they discussed the moon and wished they could drag it down in their branches, for, being slaves trapped in soil, they resented the freedom of others.

In this brief chapter, Azhrarn takes Simmu to the mansion of Lylas, which sits among pomegranate trees, and we learn how Lylas became the Lord of Death Uhlume's chief handmaiden, as well as a secret Death wished to keep from Azhrarn--somewhere on the Flat Earth lies a well directly beneath a pool of immortality high above, where reside the gods.  Should elixir leak from the gods' pool to the well below, humans may have access to immortality, so knowledge of the well, has the potential to render Death obsolete! 

BOOK TWO

Part One: The Garden of Golden Daughters

Out of her fourteen-year-old mind burst fourteen-year-old fantasies and she made them real.

This part chronicles the history of Veshum, the desert town near the well of immortality.  Lylas, 200 years ago, an exuberant and imaginative 14-year-old, working in the service of Death, created monsters to guard the well, and forced the people of Veshum to build a wall around the valley of the well and to garrison it.  Indulging in the childish fantasies of a teenaged girl who never had a real childhood and has had so much transactional sex that her idea of paradise is to live in seclusion as a virgin among friendly animals and fellow virgin girls, Lylas used her magic to create an Eden in the monster-guarded valley and ordered the people of Veshum to send their nine prettiest thirteen-year-old virgins to the valley to serve the well for nine years; at the end of nine years a new crop of virgins would relieve the original.

This tradition endured for over 200 years, but today one of the new crop of virgins, Kassafeh, has an independent spirit and great perceptive power, her mother having kissed one of the angelic elementals who occupy the sky between the Flat Earth and the overworld of the gods before conceiving Kassafeh with her husband.  Again disrupting all our preconceptions about sex, Lee offers us in Kassafeh a character who has three biological parents and who bears genetic traits from all three of them.  Kassafeh's eyes can see through illusions, and she can tell that much of Lylas's paradise is a fraud, and so she is not thrilled to be imprisoned in the Eden of the valley of the well for nine years, unlike her eight companions, who are totally snookered.  (So wondrous is life in the valley for the gullible that many virgins commit suicide when their nine years of easy luxurious service are up, and the rest live in sadness, some marrying and being so dissatisfied with heterosexual life that they murder their husbands and any children they have given birth to.)

Simmu has conceived a hatred for Death, and at the urging of Azhrarn, who stole the location of the well from Lylas's mind and puts the hermaphrodite on the right path, Simmu makes the one-year journey to Veshum.  Committing fully to his male form, Simmu becomes a sterling specimen of masculinity--a hero on a quest who is an unbeatable fighting man (he may have no combat training, but he lived as a child among demonesses and animals and has amazing speed and reflexes.)  There is a very good magic/action sequence in which Lylas summons a monster from another world (an "afreet") and Simmu must fight it hand to hand and then resort to summoning Azhrarn to aid him--Lylas is hoist by her own petard and joins Nerasen and Uhlumme in the grey limbo world of Death.  Equally effective is the tale of how Simmu uses his arcane abilities--including the ability to change sex--to overcome the guardians of the valley and seduce the virgins.  Kassafeh falls in love with  Simmu and they destroy Lylas's paradise and drink from the Well of Immortality.

Part Two: Death's Enemies

And if he loved Kassafeh, and possibly it was not love he felt for her, it was because she too had something of his animalness, and certainly the beauty of an animal....Tanned, limpid-limbed in slumber, her hair a polish of sunlight raying from her exquisite, not-quite-human face, and he would see in her the gazelle, the lynx, the serpent--his own psychic menagerie.  More sister than wife.  But he was always eager to couple with her.  

Simmu and Kassafeh cross the desert, hundreds of miles, able to survive because they are immortal.  On the other side they meet the charlatan and rogue Yolsippa, a sort of comic relief character (he has a peculiar fetish--any woman or girl, or man or boy, who is cross-eyed excites in him a irrepressible lust); Yolsippa steals a drink from Simmu's jar and becomes the third immortal human.  Azhrarn enlists the cunning and unscrupulous Yolsippa to be the overseer of a strange project--the construction of a magnificent city of which Simmu will be king.  Through the use of sorcery and with the help of demons, Yolsippa kidnaps architects, craftsmen and slave laborers--and horny women to act as the builders' comfort girls--and they carve out of a remote stony region a beautiful city and it is named Simmurad.  Rumors of the city spread throughout the Flat Earth, and elite individuals come from far and wide to face tests--the few who pass the tests are given a drop of Immortality elixir and permitted to take up residence in the city.  Lord Death attacks Simmurad with plague and famine, but its inhabitants brush off these afflictions.  But can they so easily withstand the boredom, the sterility, of a life without risk?  Is immortality, as Uhlume tells Simmu, a "trap" that "crystallizes" not only "ambition" but a man's "very soul"?

Part Three: Zhirek, the Dark Magician

"I will not weep...because the sea people, whose eyes are ever full of the salt sea, have no tears of their own to shed."

"Zhirek" is the name taken by Zhirem after he wakes up in the valley of the crater and has a series of wild and crazy adventures on land and under the sea, during which adventures he, who was once generous and kind, becomes aloof and cruel.  In a city far beneath the waves, the princess of a callous and cruel race falls in love with Zhirem, and teaches him the sorcery of her people--Zhirem learns not only puissant magic, but to be even crueler than his teachers.  Lee's depiction of the perverse and decadent undersea civilization, and the relationship of Zhirem and the princess, is first rate tragic dark fantasy, the vivid images, sad reflections, and powerful poetic passages coming one after another.  A highpoint of the novel.    

Part Four: In Simmurad

"It is this man, this Zhirek, who has put such doubt, such horror in my heart that I could not any longer blind myself.  Our lives are worthless.  We are like birds that cannot fly, like roads that lead nowhere, save into some desert."

Zhirek, now a lieutenant of the Lord Death Uhlume, makes his way to Simmurad for a reunion with Simmu.  Zhirek has powerful memories of Simmu and seeks a terrible revenge on him/her, but Simmu's memories of Zhirem have all been erased by Azhrarn.  Kassafeh and Simmu's relationship has cooled, immortality having sapped their passion, and Kassafeh aggressively pursues Zhirek, generating a sort of love triangle based not on lust or affection, but instead resentment.  Zhirek's presence opens Simmu's eyes to the terrible reality that immortality is a curse, and he destroys the elixir so no additional immortals may be created.  Zhirek, employing the ocean magic he learned under the sea, then engineers the destruction of Simmurad: the immortals are paralyzed, the ocean rises to cover the city, and the immortals are encased in coral, forced to endure sensory deprivation for eternity.  (This was all foreshadowed in Book Two, Part Three.)  Zhirek carries the paralyzed Simmu off to torture him; Kassafeh, thanks to her partly angelic blood, is rescued by the sky elementals, and the wily Yolsippa is as well, even though the beautiful elementals are disgusted by his fat body.

Part Five: Burning

"Your terror and your agony will dwell with me through all the years which are to come.  I shall run form this spot.  I will seal my ears against the memory of your cries, I will writhe and sweat in horror at what I have done to you.  So I shall live."

Zhirek inflicts upon Simmu a terrible revenge which cleverly recalls Zhirem's ordeal back in Book One, Part Three.  Simmu burns in an eldritch fire for nine years and is reduced to mere cinders, but those cinders live!  Azhrarn has lesser demons smith a sort of mechanical body, and the cinders are put into the humanoid machine; Azharn brings this mechanical Simmu to true life by having sex with it!  His memory of his life as a hermaphroditic mortal totally expunged, Simmu lives on as a demon, forever, doing the things demons do, namely, going up to the Flat Earth at night to torment people.

Zhirek, also more or less immortal, becomes a hermit who sits still in a desert cave for many decades, sometimes weeping when his memories of Simmu are triggered.

Epilogue: The Traveling House

"Lord Death had taken a wife--a fright, she was, poison-blue with yellow sparks for eyes, and her right hand was a bone.  The denizens of Innerearth cast themselves flat in squeamish homage before this horror, and she, proud over-bearing bitch, trampled on their backs."

In the Epilogue we learn the fate of a bunch of secondary and minor characters.  The sky elementals tired of Kassafeh and Yolsippa and dropped them back on the Flat Earth.  Nerasen has made herself Queen Death, a nagging wife to Lord Uhlume, interfering with his business and setting about refurbishing the grey limbo that is the world of death, building herself a huge palace, planting flowers, etc.  (Here we see Nerasen, initially a rebel against all stereotypes of the female, now embodying one of them, that of the domineering wife.)  Lylas, once Death's representative on Earth, is now Queen Nerasen's handmaiden.

To escape this irritating domestic situation, Uhlume stalks the Flat Earth.  Kassafeh and Uhlume, the last two immortal humans, convince Death to take then on as his intermediaries; Kassafeh fills the role Lylas once played, and Yolsippa is her assistant, driving the black elephants that pull Kassafeh the witch's weird mansion on wheels, a house which travels from town to town and in which she deals with those petitioners bold and desperate enough to seek a boon from the Lord of Death, as Nerasen did so long ago. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Kaiju Log May-July 2022

My brother and I attended the Godzilla convention known as G-Fest in Chicago earlier this month.  After I had paid for my registration in mid-May, I decided to rewatch some old kaiju movies I hadn't seen for a while and even watch some kaiju material I had yet to experience.  I kept notes and figured I might as well type them up and share them with the universe here.

Invasion of Astro-Monster AKA Monster Zero (1965)

For decades this has been my favorite Godzilla movie, and I decided to start with it; happily I still found it to be quite fun.  I watched a version on youtube, and afterwards listened to Stuart Galbraith IV's commentary.  I like all the actors in Invasion of Astro-Monster--Nick Adams is fun and the female leads are attractive--and I love the rocket ships, flying saucers, space special effects and sets depicting alien interiors.  The human plots--the tragic relationship of Nick Adams and the alien spy and the happier love affair between the Terran female lead and the comedy relief inventor--are better than average for these kinds of movies.

Ghidorah the Three Headed-Monster (1964)

I watched a version on youtube in Japanese version with English subtitles, which was not ideal, because my general practice is to do housework or look at comic books and play video games and read magazine articles on my phone while I watch TV, and this is a hard habit to break, so I missed a lot of the dialogue of this one.  Luckily I'd seen (English dubbed) versions of this before.  Like everybody I love Ghidorah, and the idea that a soul from ancient Venus possesses an Earthwoman and tries to warn us about Ghidorah is fun, plus the assassins all have fascinating faces; this is a good one.     

Diagoro vs Goliath (1972)

This was on youtube, in Japanese with English subtitles, so I missed almost all of the dialogue because I watched it while washing dishes and folding laundry and cooking lunch.  This is a kid's movie, full of schoolchildren, singalongs, and slapstick involving hapless adults as well as a maudlin environmentalist message.  The hero monster is meant to be cute, and a main plot point is that he is hungry and kids have to solicit donations to buy food for him.  Even though the film is directed at kids, there is a brief scene with a burning city and jet fighters launching missiles and a memorable gag involves a fat construction worker almost falling off a skyscraper because he is daydreaming about beer and a bikini girl. 

The 6 Ultra Brothers vs The Monster Army (1974)

This youtube presentation, billed as a "reconstruction of the Japanese version," doesn't even have subtitles so the only words I could understand were "arigato" and "sayonara."  There are many scenes of little boys dancing among ruins I took to be Angkor Wat or someplace similar.  These children find themselves in a fight against relic thieves, and some of the kids actually get shot or otherwise seriously injured.  There is more bloodshed and death in this film than I might have expected, and it is presented cheek by jowl with goofy undercranked slapstick.  The Ultra people reach down from heaven to aid the kids.  Many of the images and plot elements in this film seem to have been inspired by Eastern religion/mythology about which I know nothing; a white monkey is quite prominent.  I found the first half of the picture to be kind of a drag, but the second half picks up a little with rocket ships and fighter planes and lots of monster suits, inferior to those you see in a Godzilla or Gamera movie, but better than those in Diagoro vs Goliath, though I am not crazy about all the king fu-style fighting, to be honest. 

Attack of the Super Monsters (1982)

We are scraping the bottom of the barrel here; apparently this is four TV episodes of a kid's show cobbled together, four adventures in which intelligent oversized dinosaurs try to exterminate mankind and are opposed by a four-person human team who have two fancy vehicles.  This was the worst thing I had yet watched as part of my kaiju marathon, though it had the virtue of being dubbed in English.  The interesting thing about Attack of the Super Monsters is that the dinosaurs and pterosaurs and vehicles are all depicted via photographic means--some are men in suits and some are models, sometimes depicted via stop-motion animation techniques--but the human beings and conventional animals, like dogs, are depicted via cartoon-style animation and the cartoon people and model monsters sometimes appear in the same frame.     

Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967)

Gyaos is a very fun monster, what with his beam that cuts things in half, his fire fighting ability, and his vampire characteristics.  And you know I have an abiding love of pterosaurs.  The pervasive bloodshed and constant threat of dismemberment add to the excitement.  I thought the human subplots about guys trying to get photos of the monsters was OK, but the main human plot about villagers protesting highway construction was a snooze.  

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

This one is a real mixed bag.  I like the design of Mechagodzilla, but I think King Caesar is pretty lame.  The photography of this one, which I guess was influenced by spy and crime films, is better than average, both among the humans and the monsters: I thought the opening shots of Anguirus and the first fight between Godzilla and Mechagodzilla, in which Mechagodzilla starts off still clad in his Godzilla disguise, were really very good.  Unfortunately the aliens are terribly lame, far inferior to those in Monster Zero or the Gamera films.     

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

As a kid I had to turn the channel while watching this one; seeing innocent people killed and reduced to skeletons was just too upsetting.  Like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, this one is a mixed bag.  I think Hedorah and its various forms are all great, and the special effects that bring the thing to life are very cool.  The drawings and animated sequences depicting the smog monster's life cycle are surprising and compelling, and the photography of symbolic garbage (e.g., a broken clock, a dismembered mannequin) floating on the water is really good, and the psychedelic images at the dance club are also fun.  The horror elements that distressed me as a kid are quite effective.  So, much of the film looks great.  But the film's pacing is bad--the fact that one of the heroes spends the movie on his sick bed drags things down, and the final battle between Godzilla and Hedorah is too long and too repetitive--it takes an eternity to get Hedorah into the trap, and then they spring the trap again and again and again.  Also, Godzilla acts too goofy, with weird little mannerisms like wiping his face and swinging his fist like a cheerleader or something that might be OK if he did them once but which he does again and again. 

Gamera vs. Guiron (1969)

I was amazed when I looked this movie up on wikipedia and found that it, apparently, has a bad reputation, because I love Gamera vs. Guiron and have since I saw it as a kid.  I like the models and sets depicting the alien city; Space Gyaos and Guiron are great monsters; and the gruesome monster fights are terrific.  The science fiction and horror elements are brilliant, and the two evil alien women are sexy.  Central to the film's appeal is the fact that the boys aren't just spectators or victims, but actual adventurers, struggling for their lives and making decisions that matter to the plot.  This may be my favorite kaiju movie of all time.  

Gamera vs. Viras (1968)

Viras the tentacled space monster and his yellow and black sphere spaceship are great, and this film has many of the virtues of my beloved Gamera vs. Guiron, namely the many horror and SF elements and the special effects that bring them to life.  However, Gamera vs. Viras is inferior to the '69 film because it has fewer monsters, no alien city and no sexy alien space villainesses.  Still, candidate for my top five.     

War of the God-Monsters (1984)

According to wikipedia, this is a Korean movie, all of the monster and military action of which is lifted from Japanese TV shows.  I saw a version with English subtitles at G-Fest.  The Japanese parts have fun monster designs (including a giant chicken with elephantine legs, a thing like a starfish with a bat's head, and a bipedal triceratops), cool aircraft, and good explosion and gunfire effects and so are worth the viewer's time.  The human plot and characters may be totally divorced from the war with the monsters, but are pretty crazed and so not totally boring.  A woman reporter impersonates a maid to sneak into the house of a scientist who is a single parent--this ambitious journalo is seeking the scoop on the academic's theory that dinosaurs are being revived by global warming and these revivified reptilians threaten to kill us all.  An odd subplot concerns the efforts of a masher to grope the journalist.  Another odd subplot is about a medical doctor who believes all the people who are seeing dinosaurs are hallucinating because they have caught a virus from handling dinosaur bones.  Yet another odd subplot concerns how the scientist hasn't told his daughter that her mother is dead--instead, he tells her Mom is just on a trip to America.  Anyway, after a lot of character stuff about the scientist's psychological problems and the little girl's relationship with her father and the journalist, many different monsters rise from the ocean and cause mass destruction.  Military aircraft defeat the monsters, and the scientist and the journalist, we are led to believe, will soon get married.      

Gamera vs Jiger (1970)

Another I saw with my brother at G-Fest.  People perhaps remember this one as the one into which is integrated what amounts to a long commercial for the 1970 World Expo in Osaka; the Soviet pavilion appears prominently, and whenever I see the film I hope Gamera will "accidentally" burn it to the ground, but these hopes are never realized.  Gamera vs Jiger has most of the virtues of Gamera vs Viras and Gamera vs Guiron, and I really like the X-ray of Gamera and the boys' Fantastic Voyage-style adventure inside Gamera, and the female lead is also charming; however, Jiger isn't nearly as "outside the box" as Viras, and there are no aliens or space ships, so it's a runner up behind Viras, though maybe better than Gyaos, which is dragged down by all that business about building a highway.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Best American Noir of the Century: M Spillane, C Beaumont, C Woolrich & H Ellison

In 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published The Best American Noir of the Century, an anthology edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler.  We've been reading hard-boiled detective stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log lately, and for our fourth and final blog post featuring crime fiction before our return to our regular schedule of the fantastic, the weird and science fiction, let's sample the wares offered up in Ellroy and Penzler's thick volume via the high tech magic that is the internet archive.  The best detective stories I have read in this recent excursion into the mystery world have been by Gil Brewer and Fredric Brown, and I am a little bummed (the kids still say that, right?) that there is no Brown story in The Best American Noir of the Century and that the included Brewer story is the one we just read.  Still, today we've got material from Mickey Spillane, Charles Beaumont, Cornell Woolrich and Harlan Ellison.  

(Besides the four stories, I took a look at Otto Penzler's Foreword, in which he draws a sharp distinction between two subgenres which I have basically been conflating in my mind, noir and the private eye story.  Penzler argues that the noir, as its name suggests, is utterly dark, pessimistic and nihilistic, while the private detective tale on the other hand has a moral center and its protagonist pursues justice and often succeeds in righting or avenging wrongs.  Interesting!  I also glanced at James Ellroy's Introduction; I guess that is just a bootless joke.)

"The Lady Says Die!" by Mickey Spillane (1953)

This is the fifth Mickey Spillane story we have read in a week, and it is the best one, being about a human relationship and being pretty tightly written, not just a series of beatings and threatenings and episodes of clue collecting.  It has a frame story in which a police inspector meets a wizard of Wall Street at a club and listens to him describe how, without laying a hand on him, he achieved revenge on his life-long frenemy.  Most of the text is narrated by this finance guy.

So, these two richie riches grew up together, went to college together, had competing firms on Wall Street.  Our narrator is a basically decent guy, but the other guy, the villain of the piece, was lazy and ruthless and was always screwing people over to smooth his way, or just to prove his superiority.  He was also good-looking and charismatic, so much so that not only did every woman throw herself at him, but all the people he exploited laughed off his depredations--they enjoyed writing his school papers for him and didn't take it personal when he made their businesses collapse.

The villain stole the narrator's fiancé and then, after they were married, her treated her so callously that she died of a broken heart!  This was going too far, and the narrator conceived a scheme of revenge!

The villain is always chasing a new woman, unable to settle down because he is unable to believe any woman wants him for himself and not his money.  The narrator has a house on Long Island, and living in the house next door is an angelically beautiful woman; he sees her over the hedge at the same times every day because she follows a very set schedule.  He invites the creep over and simply by making sure he lays eyes on this goddess, ensures he falls stupidly, obsessively in love with her.  The beauty waves to them, and they wave back, but the narrator never introduces them, making excuses, and the jerk becomes more and more desperate--his whole happiness, his entire hopes for a satisfactory life rest on meeting and marrying this girl!

The woman returns to Manhattan and the villain uses all his resources to try to find her, but only succeeds when his desire is at a manic, feverish pitch, after the narrator, who knows her New York address, gives it to him.  Finally, on the high floor of a fancy hotel where she is staying, the besotted swine meets her--and immediately jumps out a window to his death.  You see, the woman is "a hopeless imbecile" with "the mentality of a two-year-old."

I like it; it is more like a Somerset Maugham story than a detective thing and has more believable human feeling than the Spillane stuff we have been reading recently.

"The Lady Says Die!" first appeared in Manhunt under the much more appropriate title "The Girl Behind the Hedge."

"The Hunger" by Charles Beaumont (1955)

I believe I have read eight Charles Beaumont stories during this blog's life, "The Vanishing American," "Black Country," "Elegy," "Blood Brother," "The Crooked Man,"     "The Monster Show," "Keeper of the Dream," and "Mass for Mixed Voices."  Here comes number nine.  "The Hunger" first appeared in Playboy

This is a well-written story about human evil, about how people selfishly, mercilessly, feed off each other, and about human frailty and loneliness.  It is also a story about female psychology which a man might be discouraged from writing today in our current feminist age...but maybe as we progress into a trans-affirming age we could protect this story from cancellation by saying it is evidence Beaumont was "born in the wrong body" or "gender non-conforming" and thus "The Hunger" is not a retrograde work, but a pioneering one!  (Bolstering our defense is the fact that "The Crooked Man" is a story that expresses sympathy for homosexuals.)

Julia is a skinny virgin in her late thirties who lives with her older curvaceous sisters, widows, in a town of 3,000.  Julia is quiet, bookish, unhealthy, her sisters robust and meticulous about their housework and great lovers of gossip and chat, and they have a lot to gossip about nowadays, because their little town is being haunted by a serial killer!  The killer is, apparently, an escaped mental patient who raped and murdered a girl before he was involuntarily committed, and has raped and strangled three women in the town so far and is still on the loose.

Beaumont's story is pretty misanthropic, portraying the older sisters and the town in general as enjoying the drama that comes from being under siege by a rapist strangler.  The women love to talk about the crimes, speculate on the killer's next victim, use the killer as evidence in their arguments that all men are sex mad.  The men in the town enjoy going out every night with torches and firearms to hunt the murderous fugitive.  The story includes passages in italics that depict the killer's furtive movements and feverish thoughts; his desire to rape and slay is described as a hunger, and I think that we are supposed to consider the similarity of his hunger, which he appeases by violating and destroying people, to the hunger of most of the townspeople for both excitement, which is also appeased by the killer's atrocities, and for a bloody revenge on the killer.

Julia, lonely and horny, begins to identify with the killer, to think his outrageous behavior is the result of his loneliness.  Late one night she puts on her best dress and sneaks out the window, telling herself she needs a breath of fresh air but actually hoping, though she only half admits it to herself, that she will meet the rapist and he will have sex with her.  Maybe she can reform him by giving him her body willingly?

Pretty good, whether or not you take Beaumont's theories about human psychology seriously.  "The Hunger" is the title story of a Beaumont collection printed in 1958 and would go on to appear in several horror and mystery anthologies.


"For the Rest of Her Life" by Cornell Woolrich (1968)

Woolrich is a big deal.  His novels and stories have been the basis for Alfred Hitchcock and Barbara Stanwyck movies.  In the intro to "For the Rest of Her Life" here in The Best American Noir of the Century we are told Woolrich's early work, consisting of "romantic novels," was "favorably compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald."  In a 1980 essay available in The Engines of the Night, our fallible and pessimistic, but still revered and beloved, guru Barry N. Malzberg describes Woolrich's life as a horrible tragedy--he was a loser with women!  He was stuck in a hotel room with his mother for year after year!  He took refuge in the bottle!  Gangrene led to the amputation of his leg!  And Alfred Hitchcock was ungrateful!

"For the Rest of Her Life," in style, feels like an old-fashioned novel; I guess that is the "romantic" and "Fitzgerald" stuff from the intro.  There are long somewhat abstract descriptions of what people look like ("There was something of youth hovering over and about him, and yet refusing to land in any one particular place"), extravagant poetic dialogue ("I only know one thing...I want to see the stars again at night, and not just the blackness and the shadows"), obvious symbolism (a woman's wedding ring is removed, it falls on the floor and rolls away, and a guy accidentally steps on it, warping it, just like her marriage was warped) and elaborate theories about relationships (Woolrich expends lots of ink distinguishing an "attachment" from a true love affair.)  I can't quite decide whether this style, which one could easily call "overwriting," weakens the story or not...it is not exactly bad--it is not irritating or boring--but it feels a little much, makes the story longer without perhaps adding any real content or atmosphere, though perhaps some readers consider this stuff "good writing" and enjoy it for its own sake.  The car chase scene is legitimately good, and not at all overwritten, so I guess Woolrich knew when the time had come to tone that stuff down.

The plot of "For the Rest of Her Life" is not bad and I am giving this story a thumbs up.  A young American woman meets a youngish American man in Italy and they develop a pleasant friendship ("attachment") and then lose track of each other when they return to the U.S.  When they meet again they realize how much they have missed each other and decide to get married, which begins a life of pain and horror for the woman--her new husband is a sadist who pulls capers like murdering strangers' pets and tortures her to get his rocks off!

Wife stays in the house on Long Island all week while hubby stays in Manhattan, where he runs an art gallery, and comes  home to torture her on weekends.  (She is too embarrassed to tell the cops or anybody else about her nightmare of a life--this is the perfect story for feminists who want an illustration from fiction of how social mores and the indifference of the authorities enable violence against women and trap women in dreadful situations.)  She becomes friends with a guy and this guy figures out she is married to a sadist.  Oddly enough for a middle-class woman who travels to Europe, she has never even heard of sadism, so her new buddy lends her a book called The Marquis de Sade: The Complete Writings.  They fall in love, and he tries to help her escape the sadist, leading to a good fear sequence and then a good car chase.  The car chase ends with a crash; her new love is killed, and she is paralyzed from the waist down and after a long stay n the hospital is surrendered to the care of her husband, who will, we must assume, torture her to achieve sexual satisfaction for the next 40 or 50 years.

A good horror story, and another of today's stories that reminded me of Somerset Maugham.  "For the Rest of Her Life" first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was reprinted in a 1978 collection with an introduction by Harlan Ellison.  

"Mefisto in Onyx" by Harlan Ellison (1993)

Speak of the Devil!  Harlan Ellison's "Mefisto in Onyx" first appeared in Omni, heralded on the cover as his first novella in 15 years.  (Ellison had good PR.)  It won a Stoker and a Locus award, and a few years later a revised version was published as a chap book.  We are told the version here in The Best American Noir of the Century is the revised one, not the Omni one.   

I thought today's audience might find Charles Beaumont's story "problematic" because he was a man and portrayed the psychology of the female in a light far from the most favorable, well, this Ellison story here threatens to be in deeper doo doo still--in "Mefisto in Onyx," Ellison writes in the voice of an African-American Rhodes scholar!

Rudy is no ordinary Rhodes scholar, but one who has psychic powers!  Our narrator can read minds and even edit the contents of others' brains, an ability he uses to control them like puppets.  Rudy is also a long-suffering martyr; he refuses to use his powers for financial gain, and has trouble keeping a job or making friends because people--white people, essentially--are all such jerks that knowing what is in their minds is so depressing he can hardly deal with people, and when he does build relationships and people find out he has psychic powers they try to exploit him, to use his powers to further their careers.  

As we perhaps expect from Ellison, the entire story is written as if he is sneering, whining, or yelling.  Upon the reader is unleashed a tsunami of breathless run-on sentences as well as staccato bursts of monotonous repetition, all of it characterized by self-importance and self-pity and peppered with mundane conventional jokes, brand names, and cultural references both vintage and up-to-date, both middle-brow and high-brow.  Oh yeah, and many variations of the n-word, that word we of 2022 are afraid to say, that word we of 2022 are afraid to type!  Ellison's text is like the "rants" of a stand-up comedian--long-winded, repetitive, exhausting.

Every character in "Mephisto in Onyx" is extreme, is the ne plus ultra of his type.  Rudy is a martyr genius with psychic powers.  The violet-eyed female lead, Ally, is the world's greatest lawyer as well as a divorcee and a rape victim who is estranged from her parents.  And then we have our third character, the world's most horrifying serial killer, a charismatic blue-eyed blonde who claims that, at the orphanage where he grew up, he was bullied for being fat and saddled with the nickname Spanky.  

The plot.  The narrator's best friend, Ally the white woman super-lawyer, is a DA in Alabama and has just shocked the world with her legal maneuvering in prosecuting Spanky, the world's killingest and most perverted serial murderer.  But Ally has fallen in love with this monster, and come to believe he is innocent.  She wants Rudy the psyker to read the convict's mind to see if he really is innocent.  The conversation in which she makes this request and Rudy agrees to it as they sit in a burger joint is page after page of tedious dialogue and description, with all kinds of tangents and asides.  She spills ketchup...they move seats...some other customers come in...blah blah blah.  Ellison spends an entire page describing Ally's attaché case because it exemplifies her character.  Reading this thing was taking forever, and my heart sank when I finished the mind-numbing page on the Irish leather bag that was understated and thus proved that Ally had nothing to prove because it wasn't as fancy as the bag a person who had something to prove would carry and saw I had only hacked through like a dozen pages of this boring story and had like 30 more to go.

Representative sample of prose in the winner of the 1993 Stoker Award for
Superior Achievement in a Novella and the 1994 Locus Award for
Best Novella

We escape the burger joint halfway through "Mephisto in Onyx."  In keeping with the story's extreme nature, the rainstorm that Rudy has to drive through to get to the prison is so ferocious he drives off the road into the ditch six times.  But good things happen on the drive as well--during a lull in the rainfall he smells flowers and they smell so beautiful he cries.

Rudy gets into the prison to meet with the serial killer by claiming he is a lawyer and a friend of the President of the United States.  As readers may have predicted, this guy is also a psyker!  (How else could he have gotten the lawyer who was intimately familiar with his dozens of murders to fall in love with him?)  Spanky the mass murderer uses his powers to convince Rudy that he is the real serial killer, and Spanky is freed and our hero is put on death row!  During the year that passes before he is to be executed, however, Rudy figures out what is going on, expands and perfects his mental powers, and at the last moment, as he sits on the electric chair, shifts his consciousness from his black body to the white body occupied by the killer (who has been moving from body to body for centuries) and traps Spanky in his (Rudy's) cisbody--when the lethal voltage courses through Rudy's old residence, the new inhabitant, Spanky the killer, is destroyed.  Now that Rudy inhabits the handsome white body that diabolical psychic powers have already hypnotized Ally into loving, he can live happily ever after.

The bare outline of the plot (there are two psykers in the world, a good one who sees his gift as a curse and an evil one who exploits people with his powers, and when they meet it is a fight to the death!) is not bad, but the style, pacing, atmosphere and tone of "Mephisto in Onyx" are all annoying and enervating--reading this thing was an exasperating chore.  This is a ten-page story stretched out to over 40 pages by turning every last aspect of it up to 11, by hammering away at the same points again and again, and then adding in a lot of extraneous passages on top of that.

So, how did "Mefisto in Onyx" win those awards?  Was it name recognition?  Did its anti-racist and woe-is-me themes appeal to SF fans' sense of moral and intellectual superiority and feelings of grievance (consider the popularity of Slan in its day, more recently of the X-Men, and (I have to go by hearsay here because I haven't read it or seen its movie version) Harry Potter more recently still--SF fans think they are better than everybody else and that everybody is mean to them.)  Or do people actually enjoy Ellison's feverish and sanctimonious stand-up comic style?

I have to diverge from the wisdom of the Locus crowd and give "Mefisto in Onyx" a thumbs down.   

Another question we might perhaps ask is why is this story with its happy ending in this book of noir stories?  Didn't Penzler tell us in the Foreword that noir stories end badly?  Well, my theories about name recognition and devotion to anti-racism apply here as well, but a more sophisticated take may be that Penzler and Ellroy don't consider "Mefisto in Onyx"'s ending to be a happy one--Rudy's experiences have not only proven that America is irredeemably racist, but have corrupted him, and he and Ally are going to spend the rest of their lives together in a relationship based on coercion and deception.   


**********

Serendipitously, today's stories share the theme of how women--to their peril!--are sexually attracted to charismatic bad boys.  I'll leave to you the decision of whether this theme represents ancient wisdom or merely the story the patriarchy wants you to hear.

There have been some rough spots, of course, but I have enjoyed this recent series of blog posts about  stories in which people get tortured, get beaten up, get murdered or just cut out the middle man and commit suicide, if only because it satisfied some of my curiosity about what was going on behind the striking covers of all those detective magazines and paperbacks.  If I live long enough, I'll read all of these authors again, but first we'll be exploring a book of fantasy by one of our favorites which just might be even more twisted and perverse than all these detective stories!