Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Gerald Kersh: "The Brighton Monster," "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy," "Fantasy of a Hunted Man," "The Gentleman All in Black" and "The Eye"

Let's finish up my copy of the 1958 collection of Gerald Kersh stories On an Odd Note by reading the last five of its 13 offerings.

"The Brighton Monster" (1948)

Looks like this one was first printed in The Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Monster" and has since been reprinted in various Kersh collections and some SF anthologies. 

Our narrator, during the war, stumbled upon an 18th-century pamphlet in a basket of paper to be recycled and stuck it in his pocket, forgetting about it until two years after the war was over, when he was inspired to rush to the closet to retrieve it from his old uniform.

Kersh doesn't try to imitate 18th-century prose; the narrator mostly paraphrases the pamphlet.  It relates how a Brighton fisherman in financial and marital difficulties (he is alleged to have cheated on his wife and impregnated a girl) discovered in the sea an unusual man, a man covered in tattoos of various animals--snakes, lizards, birds, insects, etc.  Unable to speak any European languages, and extremely strong, the people of Brighton are divided over whether he is a human being or some kind of monster.  After all, how could a human man have survived underwater for as long as this creature apparently had?  The presence of the strange man causes some strife, as the fisherman who found him doesn't get the price he thinks he deserves from the pamphlet-writer, a vicar and natural philosopher, to whom he sells this unfortunate individual, and then the fisherman's companion demands a cut of the payout, etc.  The strange man escapes back into the sea after being held in captivity and studied for some months by the vicar.  

In 1947 the narrator is talking to a friend, an Army Intelligence officer who has been all over the world and knows all about unarmed combat--jujitsu, wrestling, etc.  He tells the story of a Japanese wrestler of his acquaintance who was apparently killed during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the description of whom sends the narrator racing to get the half-forgotten pamphlet.  It turns out that that wrestler was transported through time and space by the atomic blast, to Georgian England, where the natives drove him to suicide!

Acceptable...maybe mildly good.  Kersh includes lots of asides describing life in England during the Second World War, the appearance, personality and opinions of that Intelligence officer, and so on, but this ancillary stuff is entertaining, so I won't bitch about it the way I groused about Frank Belknap Long's digressions in Journey into Darkness.  One of the interesting things about the story is how the narrator and the Intelligence officer deplore the atomic bomb and science in general; the story ends by highlighting the idea that the Japanese wrestler was the victim of scientists both in the 20th century and the Eighteenth.

"The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy" (1939)

Resist the temptation to make the obvious joke about that politician you don't like or your ex!

"The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy" first appeared in Penguin Parade 6, and would reappear in several magazines, anthologies, and Kersh collections.  It is a brief and effective tale.  The narrator is living in a crappy London hotel for impecunious losers.  He meets his next door neighbor, Ecco the ventriloquist, a nervous and high strung guy who has a particularly ugly dummy.  The narrator thinks this guy is a genius ventriloquist, but Ecco explains that he is actually a mediocre ventriloquist--his father was the genius ventriloquist.  Dad ruthlessly browbeat his son, trying to teach him the family trade, but was never satisfied with Ecco's performance.  When Ecco was 20, Dad died (it is hinted Ecco murdered him) and Dad's ghost took up residence in the dummy and has continued to berate his son mercilessly ever since.

It is sort of basic, but I like it.  

"Fantasy of a Hunted Man" (1942)

An issue of John Bull with an ad for cocoa on its cover appears to be the venue in which "Fantasy of a Hunted Man" first appeared under the pseudonym "Waldo Kellar."  Not the hit "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy" was, the tale has only been reprinted here in On an Odd Note, in Neither Man Nor Dog, and in a Swiss collection.

In "Fantasy of a Hunted Man" Englishman Kersh writes about racism in the American South.  "Fantasy of a Hunted Man" is also one of those switcheroo stories, like that Twilight Zone in which a U-boat captain magically finds himself aboard a defenseless ship about to be torpedoed, or all those stories in which a guy who hunts is then hunted, or a guy who kills bugs is then killed by a giant bug, or whatever.

The Major is a tough old character, brave, resourceful, determined to do his duty.  He is also a racist who hates blacks and foreigners.  One day a black guy, Prosper, innocently approaches a white woman who lives nearby, and the hysterical female flees, screaming bloody murder.  A lynch mob forms, and the Major is its leader!  Prosper runs for his life, leaving the mob far behind--except for the Major, who refuses to give up!  Finally, exhausted, the sixty-year old Major stops to rest and falls asleep.  While he is asleep his soul and that of Prosper are switched!  The Major, for a few hours, knows the fear felt by Prosper!  Prosper, in the Major's body, begs the mob for mercy; the mob thinks the Major has gone insane and this distracts them and they abandon the search for Prosper.  When their souls are switched back, the Major has become a kindly guy who no longer hates black people.      

Acceptable--the story is short and sharp and direct, not too long, not overwritten.  I generally find these switcheroo (Joanna Russ calls them "role reversal") stories tiresome, but "Fantasy of a Hunted Man" is better than many switcheroo stories; often such stories feel like self-indulgent revenge fantasies, and/or have boring flat one-dimensional characters.  Fortunately, the Major is a sort of interesting character with admirable as well as deplorable personality traits, and the story, as it depicts a man growing and changing, has a beginning, middle and end and is not just a horror anecdote about some bastard the reader has been primed to hate getting punished ha ha ha.  

"The Gentleman All in Black" (1942)

Another kind of story I generally find lame is the make-a-deal-with-the-Devil story.  And here is Kersh's make-a-deal-with-the-Devil story, "The Gentleman All in Black," which I am giving a thumbs down--it is lame filler.

The narrator knows a beggar in Paris, a beggar who has an apartment and who is reputed to have a secret stash of money.  The beggar tells the narrator the story of his last day working as the sole clerk to Mahler, the great financier.  

Mahler made a bad investment, and was so deep in debt he would have to go out of business.  But then a man in fine black clothes and fine black jewelry arrived unexpectedly at the office.  Mahler doesn't realize it, but of course this is the Devil.  Mahler doesn't believe in the soul, so Satan doesn't offer to buy his soul; instead he offers to buy Mahler's time.  "I will give you twenty million francs for one year of your life--one year in which you must devote yourself utterly to me."  Mahler is a hard bargainer, and gets what looks like a good deal--fifty million francs for just one second of his time.  The Devil puts the money on the table and moments later uses that one second of mastery over Mahler to order the financer to jump out the window to his death.  The beggar, it is implied, seizes the money after Lucifer leaves but is reluctant to spend it.

Another Waldo Kellar story from John Bull that would reappear in Neither Man Nor Dog and that Swiss collection.       

"The Eye" (1957)

"The Eye"'s debut appearance was in the Saturday Evening Post under the title "The Murderer's Eye."  It would go on to be included in The Ugly Face of Love and in a 1965 anthology titled Great Detective Stories About Doctors. 

The narrator is friends with a millionaire, the owner of a paint manufacturing company.  The millionaire and his wife have a son, and, alas, the boy was born blind.  But then a famous doctor transplants a recently deceased man's eye into one of the child's sockets, and he can see.  Where did the doc get that eye?  From a notorious murderer and bank robber fresh from the electric chair, where else?

The little kid starts talking in his sleep, using words he's never heard and demonstrating familiarity with things he never could have seen, having been blind his whole short life, after all.  His speech represents one half of heated discussions, planning sessions for robberies  other crimes, crimes that took place years ago, crimes masterminded by the crook who donated his eyes!  Dad and a police lieutenant listen in on the kid every night, in hopes he will reveal the location of two and a half million dollars the bank robber hid in the wilderness and which has yet to be found.  But he ceases talking in his sleep before divulging this valuable secret.  Have the memories of the killer that were carried into the kid's brain via the electro-activated optic nerve begun to fade?  Or has the kid learned to keep precious info like the location of 2.5 million bucks all to himself?

Acceptable.  Kersh enlivens the story with long sections describing the life of the killer and on how wacky a character the famous doctor is--for example, this sawbones keeps salamanders and it is hinted uses extracts from his pets in his surgery; as you probably already know, salamanders have a remarkable ability to regenerate damaged nervous tissue.  "The Eye" is meant to be amusing, and there are plenty of jokes, e. g., a vapid female reporter, sarcastic references to people who praised the killer for donating his eyes, and some puns about how some foreign words sound like English swear words.


Harlan Ellison's gushing had lead me to expect Gerald Kersh's stories to be special, to be hard to understand and/or to have some kind of distinct, unique style--I guess I was expecting something comparable to Robert Aickman, R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance or Tanith Lee.  But the stories in On an Odd Note are just ordinary; Kersh is a capable writer, but these stories aren't at all far out of the mainstream in content or style.  Maybe it is his novels, which I understand are largely about the lives of desperate people in London and largely based on Kersh's own experiences, that led Ellison to sit up and take notice of Kersh.  (Or maybe Ellison liked Kersh because Kersh was another rambunctious Jewish guy who was always getting into fights and other scrapes.)  Well, when we read one of Kersh's World War II novels we'll see what we think.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Harlan Ellison: "Gentleman Junkie," "Free with This Box!", "At the Mountains of Blindness," "The Time of the Eye" and "RFD#2"

The front cover of my copy of Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation has a list of the controversial topics addressed by the stories from men's magazines and detective magazines that are reproduced between its pages.  We've read a dozen stories from GJ, and I kind of think we've been served up helpings of all these topics already.

Anti-Semitism: "Final Shtick"

Juvenile Delinquency: "No Game for Children"

Negro Prejudice: I'm not 100% sure if this refers to racism suffered by black people, or prejudices held by black people, but if it means the former, "Daniel White For the Greater Good" and "May We Also Speak?" has it covered

Jazz Musicians: "Have Coolth," "May We Also Speak?"

Beatniks: "Memory of a Muted Trumpet," "Lady Bug, Lady Bug"  

Narcotics Addiction: Oh, right, we haven't really seen much of this yet.  Let's get on the case!

"Gentleman Junkie" (1960)

"Gentleman Junkie" first appeared in Rogue under the title "Night Fix," something isfdb and the Harlan Ellison webpage don't know but which philsp knows.  You gotta doublecheck everything!

(As I read more widely of genre fiction outside the SF realm, I find increasingly valuable.)

This is actually a good story, and "Night Fix" is a better title for it than "Gentleman Junkie."  The cover of the 1983 edition of the collection shows a guy with a cane and lace cuffs and gives a totally wrong impression about the story and its main character.  This guy is no sophisticate, hipster, man of leisure or aristocrat, just a short middle-class college-educated guy with a responsible job who made some mistakes and is now living a total and absolute disaster, wrecking his own life and letting down all the people around him.

Walter Caulder is a psychiatrist...and a drug addict!  He has been trying to quit cold turkey since his girlfriend--his assistant--found out he was abusing his license to prescribe narcotics, but today the withdrawal symptoms are getting bad and his girlfriend is out of town and can't comfort him.  After his increasingly severe pains cause him to insult one of his patients (a rich woman who has sexual problems) he crisscrosses the city looking for a fix, one humiliating and dangerous thing happening to him after another.  

Ellison does a good job economically describing Caulder's agony and his humiliations; the story has no fat or filler, succeeding because it is direct.  I really felt bad for this guy as he rejected a jealous female junkie's sexual advances after ransacking her apartment and finding no drugs, as blacks urinated on him after beating him up because, due to his excruciating symptoms (as with the wealthy white woman) he stupidly insulted them (perhaps those pains are causing him to let down his guard and allow his normally hidden misogyny and racism peek out!)  

"Gentleman Junkie" is ripe for some kind of sex/race/class analysis, as it shows the complex web of relationships among the protagonist (a college-educated professional), his female patient (a representative of the idle rich!), the domineering law-abiding girlfriend and the lower-class junkie girlfriend, and the violent working-class blacks, a network characterized by desire and need, but also contempt, pity, envy, and jealousy, and which serves as an avenue for all kinds of exploitation and abuse.  

Thumbs up for "Gentleman Junkie!"  Economy and sincerity are what we like here at MPorcius Fiction Log!

"Free with This Box!" (1958)

This one debuted in The Saint Detective Magazine alongside a Solar Pons story by August Derleth.  After being reprinted here in GJ, it would go on to reappear in The Essential Ellison and in a 21st century collection entitled Troublemakers.

This is a well-written piece, evocative of childhood experiences.  An eight-year-old kid is collecting premiums that come from boxes of Kellogg's Pep cereal, little buttons with pictures of comic strip characters.  (These things are totally real; I have seen them in antique stores and you can find many photos of them online and there is no doubting how fun they are--Flash Gordon is my favorite, of course, but I can't deny that that Brenda Starr is looking pretty hubba hubba on her button.)  This cunning little kid has become so obsessed with getting the whole set that he starts stealing them from the grocery store by surreptitiously tearing open the cereal boxes to hunt for the buttons he needs, leaving behind a pile of damaged and looted boxes.  

A store employee finally catches the kid in the act, and he is taken to the police station to be scared straight--a cop yells at him, he is shown a wretched creep who has vomited in one cell, and a violent brute in another.  At the end of the brief story the kid has resolved not to steal from the cereal boxes again, but has also developed an antipathy to the police.

We can enjoy this story as an effective little slice of life thing, but it also could be seen as an indictment of our bourgeois society, a depiction of an America in which: parents lie to their children and neglect them; businesses seduce children (and everybody else!) with gaudy inexpensive goods, not only turning them into consumers but also tempting them to become thieves; and the government uses terror to maintain order.    

Effective, maybe doubly effective if you are some kind of commie.  Thumbs up!

"At the Mountains of Blindness" (1961)

Another story that first saw print alongside an August Derleth Solar Pons story in a The Saint property, this time a British edition of The Saint Mystery Magazine (a few months later it would be included in an American issue of the magazine.)  "At the Mountains of Blindness" is actually listed on the cover.  Very exciting.

"At the Mountains of Blindness" starts out well, but its central gimmick and its climax are eye-rollingly silly and quite boring.

Porky is a drug dealer.  He sees himself as a businessman, supplying the demands of others who have decided of their own free will to use drugs.  He has a comfortable apartment where he has nice books and listens to classical music, and he doesn't strongarm people or get involved in fights with other dealers.  But Ellison reminds us of the sordidness and violence of the drug using and drug dealing life by, among other things, having Porky start off the story waiting in an alley, watching a rat and biting his nails.

Many of Porky's customers are jazz musicians, and one today, Tomas, a Puerto Rican, is going through agonizing withdrawal symptoms but doesn't have the money to pay for the heroin he needs to get himself in good enough shape to play his bass fiddle.  When Porky refuses to offer him credit he attacks Porky, but another member of the band, another addict, saves Porky.  

Tomas goes on to try to rob a store to get the cash he needs to get high, and ends up getting killed by the police.  

All this is pretty good crime drama/life among the low lifes stuff, but then comes the extravagant and romantic and dumb resolution to the story.  The rest of the jazz band kidnaps Porky and they tie him to a chair.  They want him to know the sad kinds of lives drug addicts live, to bring him down from among the "mountains of blindness" to see the reality of the business he is in.  But the jazzmen don't just tell him in words that they have trouble sleeping nights, can't maintain a good relationship with a woman, feel lonely and deracinated and all that.  No, they play jazz for him, and Porky learns all this stuff from the sounds of the sax and the trumpet.  Porky realizes that they, and he as well, are victims of "circumstance," "life" and "need," and they are not to be blamed for their victimhood; another lesson: there is nothing anybody can do to improve their lot.

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  

"The Time of the Eye" (1957)

This story is a big deal, apparently, and has been reprinted many times and is the title story of a 1981 collection.  In fact, "The Time of the Eye" appears in three books I own: GJ, From the Land of Fear from our friends at Belmont (I wrote about some of the stories in From the Land of Fear back in 2016) and Alone Against Tomorrow (my paperback copy of Alone Against Tomorrow was signed by Ellison himself, and I presented the proof on twitter back in 2016.)  "The Time of the Eye" debuted in The Saint Mystery Magazine.

"The Time of the Eye" is a good horror story, so thumbs up!  Like "Gentleman Junkie" and "Free with This Box!" is is pretty direct, deals with real human desires, shortcomings and tragedies, and if it addresses social or political issues it does so in a natural way that is connected to the lives and decisions of the characters, to the plot, and you can appreciate the story on a human level without delving into those deeper issues.

Our narrator was hit by a mortar round in Korea, and while he has recovered physically, he is deeply depressed or suffering from PTSD or whatever.  For over two years he has been in a mental institution, and has not spoken to anyone since he was wounded.  He thinks of himself as a dead man, denoting the period of his silence since he was hit as death.

Today in a corridor he unexpectedly meets another inmate, a blind woman with a beautiful face.  She is so beautiful that he suddenly addresses her, and realizes the period of his death has ended, that he is alive again.  She explains she is escaping from her minder, who never lets her down on this floor.  The narrator helps her hide in a closet, and when the coast is clear, he guides her out to the garden.  Our narrator falls in love with her, she reveals her identity--she was a famous model and celebrity--and he makes plans to marry her and move with her to the country.  She seems to return his affection and sexual desire, but then comes our shocking twist ending.  The model is blind because she grew jaded with the high life, with the adventures of climbing mountains and being in films and hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, and joined a crazy cult, a cult which regularly demands a terrible sacrifice from one of its members.  She was chosen to offer the sacrifice, and while doing so ended up putting her in this booby hatch, she is still a loyal adherent to the cult, and she exerts all her cunning and strength to exact that same sacrifice from our narrator!

I like it! 

Shown is the 1974 printing of From the Land of Fear; I own the 1973 printing

"RFD#2" (with Henry Slesar) (1957)

I don't think I've ever read anything by Slesar before.  New territory!  This story first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

This is an epistolary story, a bunch of letters between a woman and a detective agency.  The plot is sort of standard; through transparent innuendo, the woman hires the private dicks to murder a book expert.  We learn that the letter writer and the bibliophile were both employed by a rich old lady, she as her nurse and he as her librarian.  They conspired together to murder their aged employer, but the nurse outmaneuvered the librarian, getting all the inheritance to herself instead of sharing and then moving away.  The librarian is searching America for her, and there is a sort of race--will the detective agency kill the librarian before he can find her and kill her?

Competent filler.  Short stories about evil people fighting each other have a problem--because both people are reprehensible, you don't care who wins.  In a longer form the author can make one or both of the antagonists somehow likable, so you have a stake in who lives and who dies, but in a short story, especially one consisting of letters, there isn't really room for that.


"Gentleman Junkie," "Free with This Box!", and "The Time of the Eye" are among the best stories we have read from Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, and are leaving me with a better attitude about Ellison's work than I had 24 hours ago.  Who knows, maybe when I'm done with GJ here, I'll take another crack at my copy of From the Land of Fear or start on my copy of Alone Against Tomorrow.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Journey into Darkness by Frank Belknap Long

But perhaps it was not a color at all, but a shape--some mathematical figure or symbol that a man could not gaze upon for long without going mad. 

Left: isfdb image.  Right: My copy, showing post-eye surgery bat monster.

How many times have I praised Belmont Books for their terrific coversMany, many times!  Well, more praise is forthcoming, as on the same trip to Wonder Book in Frederick, MD that saw me purchasing Lin Carter's Time War, an A. E. van Vogt pastiche with a Frank Frazetta cover, I purchased a copy of Belmont's 1967 paperback edition of Frank Belknap Long's Journey into Darkness which has an unattributed cover of genius!  The colors, the pose of the doomed man, the sinister house, and the awesome bat monster all speak to me!  Another Belmont triumph!

(A previous owner, perhaps a child with ambitions of going into ophthalmology, provided the bat monster on my copy with the irises the creature originally lacked, not neglecting the back cover.)

Well, now we turn to the text.  Journey into Darkness only appeared in this one edition, which suggests readers and editors were not exactly crazy about it, but we're not going to take their word for it, are we?  To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, right kids?  My purpose holds to look beyond the cover and read all the way to the last page! 

An old house, perched high on a cliff, overlooking the churning coastal waters of New England!  Thirty-something college professor Ralph Kilmer arrived here last night in a ferocious storm, invited by his friends John and Helen Howland to stay for two months.  This morning another visitor arrived, famous folk singer Joan Wilderman, and as she was walking up the beach to the treacherous stairs that climb the 100-foot cliff to the house, she was horrified to find a dead body, a horribly mangled and scorched form!  Those cooked bits and pieces there on the sand turn out to be another person invited by the Howlands.  Hey, why are the Howlands inviting a bunch of people who have never met each other to spend the summer with them at their house?  To conduct a psychology experiment, of course!

Innovative head-shrinker Howland has invited six peeps--Kilmer, Wilderman, the dead guy, successful artist Andrew Barkham, watercolorist Barbara Freemont, and shy Robert Cleary--to spend the summer having their consciousness raised via a variety of techniques--drugs, Yoga, voodoo, etc.  Each of these middle-class creatives has some kind of minor psychological issue--Barkham feels life is pointless even though he is a genius, Kilmer doubts he really is qualified to teach kids, etc.--and Howland wants to try a lot of different unconventional treatments on them.

The surviving guinea pigs--I mean patients--all experience weird phenomena once they get to the Howland house.  In separate episodes, each of the women, while on the beach, suddenly feels light as a feather and indulges a compulsion to waltz among the sand, seaweed and waves (Long, whose writing exhibits a lot of weird idiosyncrasies, insists on using the word "waltz" again and again instead of mixing things up by saying "dancing" a few times.)  Kilmer repeatedly has scary hallucinations of huge flying monsters in the sky.  And so on.  As we approach Journey into Darkness's halfway mark, Cleary turns up dead, his body damaged in a way somewhat similar to that first victim.

In the first half of the novel, Kilmer has mostly been the viewpoint character (we have learned about other people's crazy experiences when they describe them to the college prof.)  But then we get a chapter in the local sheriff's office, and learn that people in the town have also been seeing weird things, and, via a phone call, that a local resident has just been killed in the same way as those two mutilated guests of the Howlands!  Then the sheriff experiences one of the phenomena that Kilmer has, an unnatural darkness descending on his office, but unlike Kilmer, his noticing the strange dimness climaxes with his sudden and mysterious death!

The novel in its first half had too many digressions and non sequiturs, and lots of inauthentic dialogue, but seemed to be progressing reasonably smoothly, the mysterious deaths piling up and Kilmer learning more and more about what was going on.  But in the second half the narrative goes right off the rails, Long abandoning the psychology experiment theme and all the murder mystery components (the dwindling cast of victims/suspects and the detective interrogating people and collecting clues) that gave structure to the first half of his book.  Journey into Darkness now becomes a series of barely connected episodes featuring new characters we don't care about, new locations we never heard about before and new ideas that don't necessarily jive with the ideas that have come before.

Kilmer gives Wilderman a lecture on Jung and racial memory and puts forward the theory that our subconscious minds, when we see something very scary, substitute something less scary in order to preserve our sanity.  Kilmer believes that the thing killing people in this seaside town is an intelligent gas, color (the prof gets this idea from H. P. Lovecraft stories and Wilhelm Reich's theories about the color blue--I told you this novel was full of digressions!) or non-Euclidian shape from another universe, and the reason he and others are seeing it as bat-faced figures, a giant spider, or other crazy things, is that the subconscious is substituting these merely horrifying images for the super-horrifying sight of this alien entity's true color and shape because seeing it would drive them totally bonkers.  

In the last quarter of the novel, Kilmer and we readers suddenly learn that near the Howland house is a castle built by a rich guy twenty years ago and then abandoned.  Kilmer and Wilderman decide to take cover there from the monsters.  When they get to it they realize the rich guy also built his family a fallout shelter over a hundred feet deep, and they decide to hide down there.  This doesn't make a lot of sense, especially since they don't close the door to the shelter, because they need the sunlight to see their way, they not having a flashlight.

Down there they meet the alien monster, and Howland, who has some kind of store room or something down there.  The alien kills Howland, but as he dies he tells them the secret of where to hide in his store room, behind some cubes made of stone and metal.  Kilmer theorizes that the non-Euclidian monster can't stand cubes, the cube being a very stable Euclidian shape, and sure enough the monster fades away when it approaches.  (Why didn't Howland hide behind these cubes, which he must have built for this very purpose?)

In the last little chapter Barkham has Howland's diary and Long drops a bombshell on us: Howland's experiments were not really, or not wholly, about expanding consciousness--he was trying to solve people's neuroses by copying a healthy aspect of one person's personality and pasting that piece over the unhealthy part of some other person's character.  Somehow, this explains the waltzing.  Also somehow, these experiments opened the door to the invasion from another dimension.  Now that Howland is dead, the invasion is over, because it was Howland's brain that was the portal to the other dimension, and not that of any people he experimented on.  Also, Barkham and Kilmer conspire to make sure the cops don't find out how all those people got killed, in order to protect Howland's reputation.  This is all very annoying, because all these elements have the potential to provide exciting SF speculations and horror scenes and human drama scenes, but Long didn't do any of that; it feels like he didn't have any of these ideas when he started writing the novel, that they occurred to him after he had written the bulk of the book and then tacked them on in the last chapter and didn't trouble himself to go back to revise the novel to bring these ideas to life.  Frustrating! 

Journey into Darkness, then, is a total disjointed mess, a mish mosh of unconnected elements.  Why doesn't Long focus the story on either how the aliens are going to drive you insane, or, how they are going to tear you limb from limb?  Having them just flat out kill people with ease means we don't really care about the whole driving-us-insane part, and, in fact, there are no characters who actually suffer being driven insane, but plenty of people who get burned and torn to pieces.  Why does Long have a chapter about a little kid, a chapter about some fishermen, and a chapter about a dog, instead of more chapters with Howland and his patients?  Why aren't there scenes exploring the potentially compelling issues of whether Howland attracted the monsters by mistake or on purpose, whether or not he feels the monster attacks are an acceptable risk considering the potential of his experiments to add to our scientific knowledge, or stuff like that, and why are there so many scenes with totally boring TV folk singer Wilderman?

Gotta give this baby a thumbs down.  I go into these things with an open heart, looking to love, but Frank, buddy, you gotta meet me halfway!


I love ads!  The Belmont people understood the power of advertising, and included an ad right up front opposite the title page of my copy of Journey into Darkness, an ad for a book on UFOs!  If you are looking for the latest info on UFOs from 50 years ago, packaged in a volume that promises to not be sensational, it seems to be available on ebay and elsewhere for reasonable prices. 

In the back of Journey into Darkness are two more pages of ads, one full page dedicated to hawking nineteen SF books, and a page of four crime books and three books about paranormal phenomena.  Among the SF titles, there is Edmond Hamilton's Doomstar, which we read back in 2017.  Also, Space Tug and Space Platform by Murray Leinster; I read one of these online like 12 or 15 years ago and thought it pleasant enough tale about the space race; in a blow for diversity, one of the characters is a Native American.  There are novels by James Schmitz and Ted White which I would be willing to read, having had good experiences reading those gentlemen's work, and multiple books by Frank Belknap Long which I will likely end up reading some day despite my better judgement.  I can't quit you, Frank!

Squint or click to see what fine wares Belmont was promoting in 1967

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Gerald Kersh: "The Sympathetic Souse," "The Queen of Pig Island," "Prophet Without Honor" and "The Beggar's Stone"

Let's read four more stories by British-born Jewish writer, Edgar Award winner, British Army veteran, and naturalized American citizen Gerald Kersh from the 1958 collection On an Odd Note.  I have the old paperback edition of the collection, published by Ballantine with a Richard Powers cover; the book has been reprinted in trade paperback size in our own 21st century by Valancourt as part of their 20th Century Classics series.

(We read the first four stories in the book, in which feature plenty of scoundrels, mysterious deaths and strange artifacts, earlier this month.)

"The Sympathetic Souse" (1954)

After first appearing in Lilliput, "The Sympathetic Souse" has been in multiple collections, including Men Without Bones and The Best of Gerald Kersh.

Dr. Almuna thinks the human mind is too complicated to really understand, rendering psychoanalysis bunk, and in conversation to the narrator likens Freud and the psychoanalysts to witch doctors, joking that Dracula, werewolves, and psychoanalysts all come form the same region of the world, the Carpathians.  

At a party, a medical guy tells a story of sympathetic pains--a young woman in 1944 suddenly got a pain under her collar bone and cried out--it was later learned that at that very moment her brother had been shot on the battlefield under the collar bone.  Then Dr. Almuna tells his story of "physical sympathy."

The brothers John and William came to see Almuna, John complaining that while William constantly drank booze and smoked, it was he, John, who never drank or smoked, who suffered the ill effects: a red nose, coughing fits, sickness in the stomach, etc.  Kersh goes on in this vein for some pages, how William's vulgar and indulgent behavior inconveniences and discomforts the sober and abstemious John.  Then at the end of the story comes the lame punchline which doesn't really make any sense--John and William were Siamese twins.

Besides the fact that the ending is an annoying trick, Almuna having conveniently forgotten to mention that John and William were conjoined twins, the three segments of the story barely go together--the first part is about how psychoanalysis is a scam, the second part has nothing to do with psychology but describes a psychic or supernatural phenomena, and the third describes a (quite dubious) purely physical phenomena.

Thumbs down.  

"The Queen of Pig Island" (1949)

Here's another piece that was given the nod by Simon Raven for inclusion in The Best of Gerald Kersh.  It first appeared in The Strand and later in Playboy under a different title ("Mistress of Porcosito") and in Nightshade and Damnations, the 1968 edition of which not only had an intro by Kersh superfan Harlan Ellison, but a cover by Ellison's favorite illustrators, the Dillons.

"The Queen of Pig Island" is the history of a circus freak, based in part on the memoir she wrote that was found in a bag near her skeleton on a small island; Lalouette, born with no arms or legs, died on that island after the ship her circus was sailing to Mexico upon sank.

Lalouette was a cultured genius, born to an aristocratic family, well-read, fluent in five languages, able to paint and write and clothe herself just with her mouth.  When she was shipwrecked along with the circus strongman--a gentle giant--and two midgets--recalcitrant jerks--Lalouette became their leader, more or less, directing them to build a shelter and hunt for eggs and make a spear and hunt pigs and so on.  At night she tells them the story of the Odyssey, unwittingly giving the jealous midgets inspiration of a method of murdering the generous and decent strong man, and their little colony of freaks is wiped out in a spasm of violent death.

A successful little tragedy, understated and sad rather than shocking, as we know from the start that a disaster will befall Lalouette. 

"Prophet Without Honor" (1958)

It looks like this one was first published here in On an Odd Note and would be reprinted in 1960 in The Ugly Face of Love.

Bohemund Raymond was a hard-drinking London newspaper editor in the first decades of the 20th century.  He claimed descent from a leader of the First Crusade who married a Saracen prophetess.  (Kersh in this story repurposes the famous story of the Holy Lance at the siege of Antioch, Raymond attributing the dream that revealed the Lance to the Crusaders to his Arab ancestor instead of French priest Peter Bartholomew.)  After his death in 1939, our narrator (named Gerald) and his fellow journalists relate anecdotes about their old boss Raymond, in particular his propensity to make predictions.  Their talk leads them to reexamine a sheet typewritten by Raymond in the Thirties, a document long thought to be gibberish, but which today they realize is in fact Arabic typed phonetically in the Roman alphabet; it seems that Raymond's ancestor, the Arab prophetess, contacted him from the beyond, because the translated text, by way of cryptic metaphors, predicted the course of World War II and of the Cold War, which, the prophecy contends, will end in 1995.  It is unclear, but I guess the prediction is that the world will be destroyed.

Acceptable; the jokes about newspaper people being yelled at by their bosses, hired and fired on a whim, and playing practical jokes on each other are tired and obvious, but not bad--people going to bat for Kersh could convincingly claim the jokes are not tired, but "time-honored classics."  

"The Beggar's Stone" (1941)

This one was first published in John O' London's Weekly as "The Stone," and would reappear in three Kersh collections before the Second World War was over; in 1945 it was published in Esquire under its new name, "The Beggar's Stone," accompanied by a dashing photo of Kersh in his uniform in front of a Union Jack. 

Somewhere on the plains of Eastern Europe sits a big old stone, I guess a sort of pillar or monolith fallen on its side.  The thing has been there forever, and is covered in carved graffiti from Greeks, Romans, Russians, Georgians, an Arab, etc.  It is a customary resting place for travelers, in particular penniless vagabonds and other people living a parlous or tragic existence on the brink of death.

Two impoverished wanderers by chance meet at the stone and exchange complaints about the cold and anecdotes about major events in their lives, like that time when one found a chicken in a hotel's garbage.  The men strive to one-up each other (the other guy says he once found a goose in the hotel garbage.)  Then some soldiers come by, drive them off.  The soldiers have brought a crane; they shift the stone, dig under it, find a treasure trove left by Attila.  How ironic that for hundreds of years desperately poor people have been sitting above this hoard worth millions of rubles.

An acceptable, conventional story.


On an Odd Note prints thirteen stories, and we've put eight behind us.  I guess next time we'll wrestle down five tales to finish up the collection.  

I have to admit I am a little disappointed in these stories, after all the hooplah about Kersh from Ellison and on the back of the book.  The plots of the stories are pretty conventional and straightforward, and, comparing Kersh to another British-born writer of generally conventional but sometimes genre adjacent stories, Kersh's stories don't seem to pack the emotional wallop or offer the sense of place that we see in W. Somerset Maugham's stories.  And Kersh doesn't seem to have some unique style that elevates his material.  So far, this book is just OK; well, maybe the last five stories will really impress me.  Or maybe when I read one of Kersh's World War II novels, which I plan to do pretty soon, I'll find that Kersh does something with the greater length afforded by the novel form or the inherently exciting subject matter that appeals to me more than do these brief stories.

The last page of my copy of On an Odd Note is an ad for the Lester Del Rey collection Robots and Changelings.  Across from this ad, on the inside back cover, is a stamp indicating that this book was once in the library of Andersen Air Force Base.  The APO listed is San Francisco, but a look online indicates that Andersen Air Force Base is on Guam, like 8,000 miles from where I purchased it.  This book has had quite a journey!

Fellow SF fans who have served in the USAF, we salute you! 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Time War by Lin Carter

His mind was filled with a vast, dawning astonishment.  For now he knew beyond all question what the flying mountain of red metal must be.

The Weapon Machine.

And the smooth, mile-high dome of non-reflecting darkness?

The Living City of Arthex, shielded by the Null Sphere.

I continue to purchase books at a faster clip than I can possibly read them.  A recent purchase: Lin Carter's Time War, a 1974 Dell paperback with a terrific Frank Frazetta cover.  If you have fallen in love with this vision of heroic masculinity, lush femininity and crimson lunarity--and who could blame you?--run down to the Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland where I got mine, because they had a second copy.

Lin Carter's fiction doesn't have a stellar reputation, even here at MPorcius Fiction Log, but we're giving this novel a try anyway.  Chalk it up to the power of good cover art!  Most of Carter's fiction seems to be imitative of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard, but the dedication to Time War promises that this is something a little different--an homage to or a pastiche of the mind-boggling body of work of our favorite Canadian, A. E. van Vogt!  Sure enough, Time War seems to owe a lot to "The Chronicler," AKA "Siege of the Unseen," AKA "Three Eyes of Evil."  In that 1946 serial from Astounding (which I reread in the 1971 Paperback Library collection M33 in Andromeda after finishing Time War and drafting this blog post), a guy discovers he has strange mental powers and then a woman from the future enlists his aid in a stalemated siege between her faction's flying warship and a decadent city that is a barrier to human progress and is protected by a force field.  The same kind of stuff happens here in Time War, and Carter actually lifts significant pieces of dialogue, odd phrases, and memorable images from "Siege of the Unseen" for use in this book.*

John Lux is a genius!  An "electronic scientist," he not only designs the guidance systems of ICBMs, but he owns and manages the company that manufactures them!  He's also a sterling physical specimen, big and strong!  But wait, there's more!  He doesn't know it yet, but Lux is a "neuro-radionic superman," a mutant of a unique kind!

As the story begins, Lux is in his office and is almost killed in an unbelievable way--his own pistol floats into the air and shoots at him!  Equally unbelievably, before the round can hit him, he has teleported out of its path into a corner of the room!  When he goes out to get a drink, an automobile with no driver tries to run him down, and again he is teleported out of the danger zone just in time.  These teleportations are a subconscious, autonomic response to imminent death--Lux tries, but cannot, teleport at will when or where he wishes to.

isfdb lists nine entries for Joe Schaumburger, letters to periodicals like Locus and 
Startling and reviews in the fanzine Luna Monthly--at the link Schaumburger
reviews some off-the-wall books we've actually written about here at MPoricus Fiction Log

Lux goes to visit an old professor of his, Havering, to talk out these bizarre events with a man whose wisdom he repsects.  He stays the night, and in the middle of the night an attractive woman who calls herself Lady Lis appears in his room.  She explains that she is from the future--a million years hence!  She can only stay a brief time, and has to give the novel's exposition quickly.

Time War is one of those SF stories in which there are crisis points in history and different time lines branch out from each crisis point, depending upon whether the Wellington or Bonaparte triumphs at Waterloo or whatever.  Lady Lis is from a wonderful Edenic future, the product of the collapse of Arthex, renowned as The Living City, 800,000 years before Lady Lis's birth.  You see, approximately 200,000 years after your birth and mine, the human race was reduced to only one city after a series of terrible wars.  Arthex was that city, and it was run by a computer whose robots did all the work.  With no challenges or responsibilities, the human race began a decline into decadence; all courage and ambition and genius, even the desire to reproduce was being bred out of the race--this easy life was going to lead to the extinction of the humanity!  (Like that time line-crisis points business, this is another idea we've seen many times her in our reading at MPorcius Fiction Log.)  A faction recognized this problem and destroyed the city before it was too late, forcing everybody out into the wilderness.  Out there, humanity had to quickly reacquire its old virtues, virtues that eventually led to the building of the brilliant civilization that Lady Lis lives in.

But Lady Lis's time line is under threat from the villain Malaire.  Malaire, living approx. 200,000 years from now, wants to preserve Arthex.  So, Lady Lis's people sent a huge unmanned robotic flying battleship, a thing shaped like a top or a Christmas ornament and bristling with weapons called The Weapon Machine, back in time to attack the city.  The computer running Arthex threw up an impenetrable force field, The Null Sphere, rendering the city invulnerable and setting the stage for a stalemate that has endured for many centuries.

Malaire, Lady Liz warns Lux, knows about Lux, the 20th-century neuro-radionic superman, and fears Lux is the one thing that can get through the Null Sphere, so he has sent agents back in time to murder him.  Lady Lis warns Lux to be careful and before she vanishes gives him a device to use if he finds himself in real serious trouble.

Lux goes into hiding, and the agents of Malaire, seven silver men who can fly, hunt for him; soon the police join the hunt, because the Silver Men frame Lux for the murder of Havering.  In trying to escape, the desperate Lux recklessly drives a stolen car into a river and seconds before he drowns uses the device Lady Lis gave him, which transports him 2000 centuries to the future, to the ravaged Earth where the Weapon Machine hovers over the city Arthex, which lies behind the matte black dome of the Null Sphere, its impenetrable force field.  When the Silver Men appear and fire their rays at him, Lux's automatic teleportation ability kicks in and he finds himself inside the decadent city of Arthex! 

The first third of the novel has moved at a pretty quick pace, and interesting stuff has been happening, but in the middle third of the book we get a little bogged down as Carter describes the extravagant architecture of Arthex and the outlandish costumes and depraved behavior of its inhabitants.  These descriptions are too long and had my eyes glazing over, though I will note that Carter does try to spice things up with some gross-out exploitation material, namely a description of two prepubescent children having sex.  Anyway, Carter very explicitly makes the point that a coddled existence has reduced the human race to a bunch of children with no initiative, no responsibility, no ability to overcome obstacles, etc.; robots solve all problems and do any work that might be necessary, so Arthex is like a giant playground--the streets and floors are even paved with a pliable material so people who trip and fall won't be injured.

Lux meets a member of the underground that wants to help the Weapon Machine destroy Arthex in order to preserve the human race from extinction--this guy actually seems like the only current member of this faction.  He is in touch with Lady Lis and so has been expecting Lux.  This guy--who it eventually becomes clear is in fact Lux's friend form the 20th century, Havering--trains Lux in how to use his nucleo-radionic powers by the expedient of forcing our hero into a chamber in which he is successively subjected to lethal doses of heat, electricity, gamma rays, etc.  Each time Lux is on the brink of death, his subconscious unlocks knowledge of how to control his mental powers so he can preserve his life.  (The theme of Time War is that adversity makes you strong, and comfort makes you weak, a theory that is easy for me to endorse as I sit in my air conditioned house, drinking tea and listening to Procul Harum on my headphones.)  When the training is over, Lux has control of his powers, and is immune from most attacks, can launch his own deadly energy attacks, and can even fly around with ease like our beloved Lum!  But he still has to breathe, and while exploring the city a woman captures him by shooting him with a sleep gas gun.  Doh!

In the final third of the novel Lux escapes captivity and gains a full understanding of his unique powers and of the true identities and agendas of Havering, Lady Lis and Malaire.  It turns out those attacks in the 20th century and the pursuit by the Silver Men were all illusions generated by Havering and Lis and designed to guide Lux into learning how to wield his powers and into helping Havering and Lis destroy Arthex.  Malaire was actually just a robot figurehead run by the Arthex computer, not a real person; to the amazement of Lis as well as Lux, Havering turns out to also be a robot, one built seconds before the erection of the Null Sphere by the Weapon Machine to infiltrate Arthex!  No longewr needed, the Weapon Machine and Havering self destruct, Lux destroys the computer that runs Arthex, and the human race is liberated, the citizens of city cast out into the wilderness to suffer and grow.  As the story ends we are given the idea that Lux and Lis will become lovers, perhaps marry, in the world of a million years from now.

Carter not only wrote fiction, but SF history and criticism, and in a two-page Author's Note talks a little about A. E. van Vogt and his decision to write a pastiche of van Vogt's work.  He notes two other such pastiches, Charles L. Harness's Flight Into Yesterday, and Damon Knight's Beyond the Barrier--we here at MPorcius Fiction Log wrote about Beyond the Barrier way back in 2014--and, interestingly, compares van Vogt's "intellectual puzzle-yarns," as Carter calls them, to "the sort of locked-room mystery John Dickson Carr specializes in." 

As Carter admits, his text imitates van Vogt in style as well as plot.  For example, in "The Chronicler"/"Siege of the Unseen," Van devotes quite a bit of time to the fringe theories on eyesight of William Horatio Bates, and to a related theory on how the path to health--and immortality--is to consciously relax.  In Time War, Carter discusses theories of the brain that claim there are large parts of the brain that have no apparent use and perhaps are responsible for powers we haven't learned to use yet, and Havering refers repeatedly to Charles Fort.  In the footnote I point out some direct textual similarities between Time War and The Chronicler"/"Siege of the Unseen," and Carter also emulates, or perhaps just shares, an idiosyncrasy of van Vogt's that is a pet peeve of mine; van Vogt was in the habit (see The Weapon Shops of Isher) of describing every hand gun, even a ray gun, as a "revolver," and Carter does the same thing, calling Lux's Colt .45 automatic, issued to him during his service in the Korean War, a revolver.

Comparing "Siege of the Unseen" to Time War, I have to say Time War is much less puzzling than van Vogt's text; for one thing, Carter's book is told in chronological order, while "Siege of the Unseen" is told somewhat out of chronological order, the main narrative having interpolated within it undated primary documents from a variety of time periods that provide hints about various events.  Van Vogt also does a more vigorous job making us unsure which characters are helping the hero and which are his enemies, and a better job of portraying the protagonist's ambiguous and evolving feelings about the aliens manipulating him.

Time War isn't spectacular, and could have used another revision, or maybe just another round of copy-editing, as different sections of the novel don't quite jive; examples: the Weapon Machine is described twice, the second time totally redundantly, and a couple of times earlier conversations are paraphrased, but the paraphrases don't really match the original dialogue.  I've already mentioned the superfluous descriptions of the city of Arthex that slow down the story.

Despite these flaws, I thought Time War was fun and enjoyed it.  Part of its appeal to me is that it is like a love letter to van Vogt and an excuse to think about van Vogt again; obviously this doesn't apply to everybody!  Maybe I should give some of the Carter Burroughs and Howard pastiches I own a try (I just bought a pile of them) even though I was disappointed in the Callisto and Green Star books by Carter I read before I started this blog, and see how I feel.

*Cf. "The important for you to stay alive for twenty-four hours" on page 23 and "bearding Geean in his great central tower" on page 57 of M33 in Andromeda with "keep hidden--at all costs, you must survive the next twenty-four hours!" on page 25 and "bearded Malaire in his den" on page 116 of Time War.  As for images, both feature flying men clad in silver who pursue the hero. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Harlan Ellison: "The Silence of Infidelity," "Sally in Our Alley," "Daniel White for the Greater Good" and "Lady Bug, Lady Bug"

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading Harlan Ellison's 1961 collection of non-SF stories, Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, one little chunk at a time.  (Chunk 1, Chunk 2.)  Four more stories today that first appeared in men's magazines in the period 1957-1961. 

"The Silence of Infidelity" (1957)

This one made its debut in Caper, and would be reprinted in Sex Gang, a 1959 collection published under a pseudonym, as well as here in Gentleman Junkie.  

A husband and father living in a New York apartment runs out to get ketchup at a bodega, expecting to be back home in five minutes.  But he sees a beautiful woman in fashionable clothes at the bus stop.  Their eyes meet, and she leads him to her apartment where they have sex.  Ellison describes her disrobing in detail, but says nothing about the actual sex.  These two never speak a word to each other.  Then the guy just returns home with the ketchup, telling his wife he ran into an old friend.

Ellison in the jazz stories we've already read from Gentleman Junkie describes great jazz and its effect on listeners in abstract terms, and he does the same kind of thing here in describing how it is awesome and not at all wrong to cheat on your wife with a total stranger.

He knew this was the way it was, because it was.

He did not consider the idea of sin, and he did not consider the idea of adultery.  This was real, it was true, it was the way he must live.

This is just empty profundity that means nothing, a fig leaf effort to elevate a male wish fulfillment fantasy that blithely dismisses the risks, and the moral dimensions, associated with a man's betrayal of his wife and children; hell, this guy has sex without even the hassle of talking to a woman--"The Silence of Infidelity" is practically a SF story! 

"Sally in Our Alley" (1959)

"Sally in Our Alley" first saw print alongside stories by SF writers Algis Budrys and Henry Slesar in Knave ("Adult Fun for Men.")  The cover of this issue of Knave is more clever and interesting than the covers of most skin rags--thumbs up to the art director!  

"Sally in Our Alley" is a light-hearted and humorous detective story and a sort of a goof on beatniks.  The narrator is a poet working as a janitor at an apartment building run by a hard-hearted "Polack."  This neighborhood is inhabited by aspiring artists and writers who love to party and get drunk and have promiscuous sex.  One day a woman who lives in the area, Sally, turns up dead--the cops find surgical equipment in her apartment and it is theorized she was a prostitute who was murdered by an abortionist she had hired when the operation went wrong.  The cops have trouble finding any clues, and enlist the narrator to help them in their investigations; they secure his reluctant aid by threatening to charge him with statutory rape--the narrator has been banging a "nympho" who is underage.

The mystery is solved when at a party later that week a poet who calls himself "The Hooded One" gives a performance, and the nympho, in a paroxysm of desire, unmasks this guy.  The complicated truth behind the death of Sally is that Sally was a plastic surgeon operating without a license, and The Hooded One was one of her patients.  This poet hated the fact that he was handsome and women threw themselves at him because of his looks--he wanted to be appreciated for his verse.  So he asked Sally to make him ugly, and when she failed in this counterintuitive task, in a rage, he slew her.

Like "Memory of a Muted Trumpet," this story features wacky artistic characters with wacky nicknames attending wacky parties, but I feel Ellison's treatment of this sort of material is more successful here in "Sally in Our Alley" than it was there.  For one thing, the characters, and Ellison's depiction of them, are more interesting and more "edgy"--e.g., the narrator is something of a creep himself, there is a scene that makes a joke out of the violence characteristic of lesbian relationships, and a scene in which some union thugs beat up the narrator because he hasn't been paying his dues to the janitorial union.   

One thing I found interesting: in "May We Also Speak?" and "The Silence of Infidelity," Ellison, in describing something as excellent and proper--I guess transcendent--applies to it the word "true" or "truth," and in this story he had beatniks using "truth" in the same way, but apparently in an effort to make the beatniks look silly.  

I enjoyed this one; there is some moral ambiguity that creates tension that maintains the reader's interest, and Ellison's little jokes land.
"Daniel White for the Greater Good" (1961)

Many websites report that this story was praised by Dorothy Parker, one of those famous important writers whose work I have never read, though I have often heard people say "What fresh hell is this?" and "You might as well live," so I guess I can say I am familiar with Parker's greatest hits.   "Daniel White for the Greater Good" first appeared in Rogue, and Parker, like me, read it in Gentleman Junkie, apparently the only paperback she ever reviewed for Esquire.

Daniel White is an African-American thief, a ne'er-do-well who is always making trouble for the people in his Georgia town.  When he rapes a teenaged white girl, the white townspeople are enraged and the social fabric is torn asunder; white people fire their black employees, and there is a wave of anti-black racist violence, including the bombing of a black church.   A mob forms that threatens to lynch White.  White, safe in prison, is confident that the politicians and the NAACP will protect him.  But when the NAACP representative, a college-educated black man from New Jersey, arrives, in his meeting with the local black community he makes a startling suggestion: that they permit the white mob to lynch Daniel White!  His reasoning: if Daniel White isn't punished for his crime, it will set back the civil rights movement fifty years; allowing the mob to murder White will defuse their anger and prevent further attacks on innocent black people; and create in White a martyr for the black community that will galvanize further support for the civil rights movement around the nation.  

The local black leaders are pretty skeptical of this crazy plan, but then the white mob attacks them and the NAACP man, severely beating them.  The local black leaders become incensed at Daniel White for bringing this upon them, and decide to put the NAACP rep's plan into action, though he laments that "they are doing it for the wrong reasons," out of hate instead of calculation that sacrificing the odious White will benefit their cause and spare many innocent people.    

This story works because it is so surprising and because it presents a moral dilemma instead of just telling you what to think about some controversial issue.  I'm more skeptical of Ellison's artistic touches; a few passages of the story detail how, if "Daniel White for the Greater Good" was a motion picture and not "a story of some truth" (there's that word "truth" again), the film would be shot, the camera angles and all that.  

"Lady Bug, Lady Bug" (1961)

Another piece from Rogue.  And another story about hipsters and their blasted parties.  Maybe I should have spread my reading of Gentleman Junkie out over a longer period, because I am losing interest in these beatniks and their parties.

Ivor Balmi is a bad painter who lives in a loft and who manages to pay his rent by letting people throw parties in his place.  Ivor maintains a distance between himself and other people--we learn at the end of the story that he does this because his father was a communist who was called before Joseph McCarthy and lost his job as a teacher; impoverished and ostracized by the community, little Ivor's mind was warped.  Because he is militantly aloof, women find him attractive, and so Ivor bangs lots of girls, and they fall in love with him, and he breaks their hearts because he couldn't care less about other people.

The plot of "Lady Bug, Lady Bug" concerns how the rich mother of a sixteen-year-old who has fallen in love with Ivor comes to one of the parties to talk to him.  She threatens to get him in trouble with the law for having sex with a minor but when he acts like he doesn't care and just stalks off to work on one of his crappy paintings, she falls in love with him.  Their love affair is tempestuous and he is always trying to get rid of her, but she persists and somehow their relationship starts making his paintings better.  But he doesn't want to paint good paintings, because if he has the ability to make good art then he has a responsibility, just like if he builds a relationship with a woman it becomes a responsibility.  Ivor wants the easy life of being a lonely failure of whom nothing is expected.  So he finally gets rid of the woman and cuts his paintings to ribbons with a knife as he cries.

Excepting the mind-numbing italicized descriptions of Ivor's paintings, this story isn't bad.  


None of these stories is bad.  "The Silence of Infidelity" and "Lady Bug, Lady Bug" are competent filler, the former a male sex fantasy and the latter a literary psychological study (now that I think of it, "Lady Bug, Lady Bug" is kind of like "Final Shtick": both end with some guy crying because his life has been warped by the bullying he suffered as a kid, either because he was a Jew or because his Dad was a commie.)  "Sally in Our Alley" and "Daniel White for the Greater Good" succeed because they have some kind of moral ambiguity that is thought-provoking and characters with personality. 

Having absorbed a dozen stories from Gentleman Junkie we are past the half way mark; only ten stories to go!  I guess our next sallies into its pages will each cover five stories.