Thursday, September 29, 2022
Howard Wandrei: "Guns of Maiden Hill," "The Eerie Mr. Murphy," "Danger: Quicksand" and "The African Trick"
Tuesday, September 27, 2022
"Man of Cimmeria! You are a son of Crom, and he will not let you suffer eternal damnation! You have always been true to him in your heart, and the black arts of the East shall not have your soul!"
Having spent so much time looking at this picture, I was inspired to read from the paperback upon which it appears. Conan the Avenger prints two documents; part of Conan creator Robert E. Howard's 1930s history of Conan's world, "The Hyborian Age," and a 1957 novel by Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp, The Return of Conan. So let's read that 1957 novel; there are three different printings of Conan the Avenger available at the internet archive, so the text from the paperback is not hard to find. (The 1957 hardcover from Gnome Press is a little harder to come by, and goes for over $150 on ebay.)
Saturday, September 24, 2022
Sure, like the hammy preacher said, it was tragic to see someone ruthlessly trample a white rose. But it's always a tragedy, even when someone tramples a weed. No one has that right. And who is even fit to sit in judgment, to separate the weeds from the roses?
Weeds. Marijuana was a weed. A weed that made some people high, made them feel that they did have the right to judge, made them feel like trampling.
Demon Dreams or other titles.) We liked Bloch's 1972 Night-World, so let's give 1958's Shooting Star, which first appeared as an Ace Double with another Bloch title, a shot.
Our narrator is Mark Clayburn, a Los Angeles literary agent who writes "true detective" stories on the side. As an agent he is paid to sell other writers' stories to magazines (Anthony Boucher, editor of F&SF when this novel was published, is one of the peeps Mark sends stories to) and movie studios. As an author of true detective "yarns" he more or less acts as a journalist, investigating crimes and producing stories about them to sell to magazines. To facilitate this journalism, he has a private investigator's license.
Mark is at a low point in his career. He was in the hospital for a while after an accident, and while he was gone his business collapsed, his clients and employees abandoning him (Bloch is always ready to run down Hollywood, and Mark suggests that leaving your friends and colleagues high and dry when they are in a jam is an "old Hollywood custom"); after emerging from the hospital with an eye patch he had to start his business fresh, practically from square one.
As our story begins, one of the friends who abandoned him, Harry Bannock, comes back into his life. This guy has a crazy story, and an opportunity for Mark. You see, while Mark was in the hospital, actor Dick Ryan, star of 39 cowboy films in the role of Lucky Larry, was murdered, and the cops never did find out who did it. Rumor has it that at the scene of his death were found lots of "reefer butts," and that Ryan may have been connected to a drug ring. Nowadays people may think smoking pot is some kind of cure-all therapy, but things were different in the early Fifties, and the possibility that Ryan was a pothead is more damaging to his reputation than the fact that he was a serial adulterer. The owner of the Lucky Larry films feared they had become worthless, and sold them to Bannock.
Bannock knew Ryan, and is confident Ryan didn't smoke dope. Bannock thinks he can sell the rights to show the Lucky Larry films on the boob tube at a substantial profit if he can clear Ryan's name of the stain of being associated with weed. And he is willing to pay Mark a lot of money to solve the murder and get the facts that will clear Ryan's name.
I thought this an entertaining set up for the story, a little convoluted but easily comprehensible, fun and amusing but believable, not absurdist farce silliness.
What follows is the expected detective stuff. Mark goes to the library, reads lots of old newspapers. Mark and Bannock receive threatening phone calls and threatening notes, and Mark gets beat up by thugs. Mark talks to a legion of secondary and minor characters, including several attractive women whom he thinks might have clues about who killed Ryan and left those "reefer butts" at the scene of the crime; these people's motives and allegiances are a puzzle he tries to solve, and their status as suspects or victims is always in flux. When one of the attractive women, a movie star, expresses willingness to give Mark a clue, she gets murdered. (Detective fiction is full of people who say "I will tell you what you want to know, but not right now, I'll tell you later" and then get killed before "later" arrives.) Mark attends the movie star's funeral, and one of Bloch's extended jokes is comparing the elaborate service to a major motion picture with a cast of thousands; a fun touch is naming the funeral director, whom he likens to John Ford and Daryl F. Zanuck, "Hamilton Brackett."
Three-quarters of the way through Shooting Star we learn the terrible truth about that accident Mark was in that kept him from his desk--Mark himself is a recovering marijuana addict! While high, he drove off the road to Vegas, where he was taking his girlfriend so they could get hitched! In the crash he lost that eye, and she lost her life! Mark didn't just agree to take this case to get the money he needs to jump start his business, but in hopes of striking a blow against the dealers who are flooding Hollyweird with the insidious weed that these creatives can't seem to resist!
More people get murdered, the cops start chasing Mark when he ruffles the feathers of an important individual, Mark gets beaten up a second time, and finally figures out who the killer is--one of the attractive women--Bannock's faithless recovering pot-addict of a wife! Mark confronts her, and we get several pages of explanation of how and why she did it and how Mark figured it out. Mrs. Bannock gets the jump on him and is about to kill him, but then the cops arrive and save Mark by shooting her dead.
Bloch does a good job, as far as I could tell, with the intricacies of the mystery plot; I didn't notice any plot holes and people all seem to behave in a believable way. I'm sort of indifferent to the mechanics of the clues and detection, however; being more interested in human drama, in character and suspense, I enjoyed Night-World, the meat of which is portrayal of a psychopathic personality and depiction of fear and violence rather than figuring out who done it, an bit more than Shooting Star, though Shooting Star has the later novel beat in at least one category.
The final conformation of Shooting Star is better than that in Night-World, but they both have something noteworthy in common--it is the police who destroy the villain, not the main protagonist. I guess this adds to the fear element with its suggestion that we mere mortals are unable to foil evil or even preserve our own lives without the aid of big powerful collective institutions, but I think it also is a way for the hero to evade the moral responsibility that comes with killing another human being--in the case of Shooting Star, an attractive woman. I'm skeptical this is a good literary strategy; don't we want characters who are active, who fail or succeed based on their own decisions and personalities? And if we agree it is acceptable to kill malefactors to protect society and/or kill attackers to preserve our individual lives, shouldn't we squarely face the moral and psychological cost of doing so by having the major characters whom we are invited to identify with do the killing, and not be content with having this responsibility fobbed off on minor characters who represent vast collective institutions that dilute responsibility?
Bloch's social criticism in Shooting Star is more focused than it is in Night-World, with its pervasive theme of the dangers of drug addiction. I enjoy Bloch's portrayal here of Hollywood as a cesspool of amoral and out of control jerk-offs who degrade themselves and each other (the women are almost all victims of sexual abuse and/or using their bodies to get what they want out of men), and was a little disappointed to see Bloch soften the blow by having narrator Mark multiple times and at some length tell other characters and us readers that many people in the film industry are good and the unflattering picture we get of Tinseltown is distorted because the press focuses on the bad eggs, and that all industries have bad apples. I suppose this is a respectable and maybe even believable argument, but a character who makes respectable rational arguments is not as exciting or entertaining as one who is driven by passions, and don't we kind of want to read (in our genre fiction, at least) about settings that are extreme, that are remarkable? When Mark says stuff like "Not that Hollywood is any different than any other city, or the motion pictures different than any other industry" after a description of sunny California depravity, it is sort of an emotional letdown, defuses the tension he has generated, and not in a satisfying way.
(I'm no expert on the mystery genre and its subgenres, but when Mark doesn't shoot the female murderer himself the way Mike Hammer does in I, the Jury, and when he says Hollywood is no worse than any other town, I thought that Bloch was maybe drifting out of the hard-boiled or noirish territory I thought this book was located in and taking on some of the characteristics of what I guess people call "cozy" mysteries.)
I'm not sure if I want to say Shooting Star is on the high end of acceptable or actually good, but let's be nice and call this a positive review.
Next time, more 1950s genre literature and paperback cover criticism!
Thursday, September 22, 2022
There was a period when the raison d'etre of this blog was to read story after story after story from 1930s magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding, and we could see a reversion to that mania at any time. In our last episode we read three Ray Bradbury stories printed in Weird Tales during the early-Forties editorship of Dorothy Stevens McIlwraith, which I guess is mania-adjacent, and today we fully take the plunge, mining three issues of Astounding published during the mid-Thirties editorship of F. Orlin Tremaine for tales penned by Raymond Z. Gallun!
"Space Flotsam" (1934)second Peter Gabriel album for the first time in years--wow, so good.)
I am a sucker for stories in which guys climb into space suits and enter the vacuum of outer space. I guess this is a reflection of my own psychological problems; I fear the world and other people and so the idea of putting a thin barrier between myself and an implacably menacing universe resonates with me. (I am also fascinated on a gut level by the idea of crusaders piling on layer after layer of armor--gambeson after habergeon after aketon, arming cap then coif then helmet--insulating themselves from the shafts, blades and bludgeons of the alien world into which they have thrust themselves.)
"Space Flotsam" is just such a story. Teenager Hal Trilbey is put in a space suit and thrown out of the Venusian space battleship Torool by ambitious radical leader Corad of Mekalla--Trilbey has only ten hours of oxygen in which to live!
In flashbacks we learn how Trilbey was always a rebellious and adventurous troublemaker who would stow aboard merchant ships so he could see the cities of Mars, the mines of the Moon, the seas of Ganymede. He joined the space navy of the united planets of Earth, Venus and Mars, but, chafing at authority, he deserted to the revolutionary army of would-be System dictator Corad whose scientists were developing germ warfare agents in the swamps of Venus! But as a member of the crew of Corad's flagship, Torool, he pissed off Corad and got himself thrown out of the airlock; Corad afforded him enough oxygen so he could live in terror for ten hours.
Trilbey figures out how to get back to the battleship and sabotage it, saving the Solar System by blowing up the vessel and all its inhabitants, including himself. One of Gallun's purposes in the story seems to be to teach you about zero gee, but on a more literary and philosophical level we see his ambiguous depiction of rebellion against authority ("Resentment toward authority, which is and must be one of the pivots of civilization, had been their undoing") and of relations between different civilizational or racial groups--on the one hand we have Terrans, "wizened" Martians and "goblin-faced" Venusians living and working together, but on the other hand it is hinted that Corad's rebellion is a response to Terran high-handedness.
I like it, but "Space Flotsam" has never been reprinted.
"The World Wrecker" (1934)
"The World Wrecker" tells the story of genius scientist Fred Anderson. Anderson has figured out how to turn matter into energy waves, and back again--he can thus transmit items from one place to another at the speed of light. By chance, with this device, he makes contact with the people living on a little planet beyond the orbit of Pluto and becomes friendly with them. The temperature on this little planet, which Anderson calls "Cerberus," is so low that its inhabitants' circulatory systems aren't based on pumping water, but liquid hydrogen, while their exoskeletons are ice; ice has never melted on Cerberus, and fire is a phenomenon totally unknown. Anderson and his counterparts on Cerberus transmit to each other artifact and notes, and the Cerberans even send to Anderson a plant, which he keeps alive in a powerful refrigerator.
"The World Wrecker" lives up to its name when Anderson figures his alien buddies are probably curious about fire and he sends then a lighted candle. Oops--the atmosphere of Cerberus is hydrogen, and most of its earth is frozen oxygen, and Anderson's candle causes the whole planet to explode, killing everybody on it. Anderson has wiped out a civilization as culturally and technologically sophisticated as our own!
This is a competent filler piece, not bad, but no big deal; it lacks the interesting philosophical and human character elements of "Space Flotsam," though I guess Gallun is sort of suggesting that scientists are risk takers who put society in danger in their reckless pursuit of knowledge.
Jan Van Tyren is one of those hardy souls who is doing the hard work of colonizing the Solar System. In fact, until a few days ago he was master of an outpost on Ganymede. Why did he leave such a position of responsibility? Because the bat-like native Ganymedeans murdered his wife and baby! (Everywhere you go--Transylvania, Hubei Province, Ganymede--those damn bats are stirring up trouble!) Today Jan is flying in a one-man ship back home to Earth--a 60-day trip--to retire, to focus on his painting. Unexpectedly, he has spotted a spherical space ship, perhaps of alien origin, drifting, apparently lifeless, not far from his course. He investigates.
The serpentine aliens who crewed this ship thousands, maybe millions, of years ago are long dead, just ashes, a hole in the ship suggesting they lost a battle. But Jan by chance activates a sort of caretaker robot which gets the ship's life support systems going again and who begins caring for Jan, using a ray to heal his tragedy-shaken psyche and serving him food and so forth.
The sphere is a more advanced vessel than any human ship, and the robot patches it up so it can carry Jan across the universe, to other galaxies, far from the painful scenes of his life here in our solar system. But at the last minute the robot shows him surveillance video from Ganymede--the rebel bat-people are threatening to destroy the colony! Now that the ray has gotten Jan over the worst of his grief, he knows his duty is to help the human colonists and the Terran-friendly bat-people (your college professor would call them collaborators), so he abandons his selfish scheme of leaving the solar system and takes up his responsibility to society and hurries back to Ganymede to lead the defense and the rebuilding of the colony.
This is a good story; Gallun handles the technology elements and the emotional stuff well, painting visual and emotional landscapes with economy. Thumbs up for "Derelict!"
Wednesday, September 21, 2022
"There Was an Old Woman" (1944)
We learn all that background in flashbacks--the story begins with Aunt Tildy, now old, being visited by the Grim Reaper! He tries to convince her to accept her own death, saying stuff like "Aren't you tired?" and "It would be so nice for you to rest," but Aunt Tildy is adamant. The Reaper leaves, but when Emily, Tildy's niece, returns home and is shocked to see her Aunt there, Tildy realizes she is a ghost, that her body has been taken to the funeral home! She rushes to the funeral home and refuses to leave until the mortician and staff sew her body back up and put her blood back in it and carry the corpse back to her home, where she exerts all the considerable force of her will and reenters her body and gets it walking and talking again. Aunt Tilly has foiled death and will live for the foreseeable future, always on guard against another visit from the Reaper.
This is kind of silly joke story with macabre elements; I guess maybe people who like this sort of thing would use the word "whimsical" to describe it. To me, "There Was an Old Woman" seems merely tolerable. One of my issues with it is that Aunt Tildy speaks in a sort of rural dialect, for example, making extensive use of variations on the phrase "Lands of Ghosen!" and I tend to find that kind of thing annoying.
"There Was an Old Woman" has not been anthologized much, though it has of course been reprinted a billion times in various Bradbury collections. It was presented in a 1949 issue of the British magazine Argosy, however.
|The 1961 British printing of The October Country on the right, isfdb is |
telling me, omits seven stories from the Ballantine edition; "There Was an Old
Woman" and "The Wind" were among the survivors
"The Wind" (1943)
Colt, aged 30, is one of these adventurer guys who has been all over Africa and Asia; he is an expert on storms who has written books on tornadoes and hurricanes and that sort of thing, written them based on direct experience of extreme weather phenomena from every corner of the globe! In Tibet he climbed some mountain the locals warned him it was blasphemy to touch, climbed this "vast evil mountain, gray and jutting" and looked into a valley that was full of winds, "not one wind but millions, small and large, light and smoke-hued." The evil winds of the world who kill thousands of people via typhoon and twister, offended that their secret lair had been discovered, followed Colt back home to the USA. Colt has had his house reinforced, and the wind batters it for several nights. At first Colt thinks the wind wants to destroy him, but he realizes it is trying to take him alive--it wants to integrate his mind or soul or whatever into its own, as he is the world expert on wind and countermeasures mankind can use to defend itself from the wind, knowledge of value to this weird being! As his house begins to fall apart, Colt rushes to the cellar to hang himself, but he is too slow--the last scene of the story makes clear his consciousness is now one with that of the evil winds.
I found this story a little more entertaining than "There Was an Old Woman," but "The Wind" is obviously less original than that tale and lacks the distinctive Bradbury voice which is so evident in "There Was an Old Woman." Quite a few editors have reprinted "The Wind" in their anthologies, and the story was even included in a 1977 issue of the fanzine The Diversifier.
Tuesday, September 20, 2022
"I can feel his eyes. Like knives stabbing. He's crazy, you know. The rest of them, they're just sick, but he's really crazy. He can look at people and make them do whatever he wants. That's why Tony helped him. He even had Dr. Griswold fooled. He can look at you and tell just what you're thinking. He burned everything up in the fireplace, but first he found out where all of us lived, so if we got away he could come after us."
This discovery reminded me that I had purchased a Bloch novel on the road trip my wife and I took up to Niagara Falls, across Upstate New York, and then down through Vermont and Massachusetts, paying one dollar for a 1986 Tor paperback printing of 1972's Night-World at the same Oneota, NY antique store where I saw a copy of Anatole France's The Well of St. Clare and bought a little edition of A. E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad and a big European Man Ray book. This edition of Night-World has an abysmal cover illo, just a mass of black hair, a pair of hands and the bare hint of a face crammed into just a third of the cover's acreage. I guess the good people at Tor were counting on Bloch's name selling this one. While Tor marketed Bloch's novel under its "Horror" imprint as a "chiller," the first edition was part of Simon and Schuster's Inner Sanctum Mystery series, and its cover suggests the killer commits his foul deeds with a German pistol, not his bare hands. Well, let's read this short novel (don't let the page count fool you; the print is quite big and there is lots of blank space between the twenty-five chapters--so much blank space you could use this paperback as a diary or journal!) and see precisely what kind of carnage Bloch is serving up this time.
Bloch was born in Chicago but he is sort of a creature of Hollywood, and much of his work I have read is set in La La Land and/or stuffed with references to old movies and old pop culture in general, and Night-World follows this pattern. Real life comedian Jimmy Savo is mentioned in Chapter 1, and in Chapter 2 we meet Karen, who works at an L.A. ad agency, giving Bloch a chance to depict Tinseltown as the home of smog, loose sexual mores and drug use; later in the novel there is reference to ghettos, crime, the constant threat of riot. The shock ending of Chapter 2 comes when Karen gets a phone call and it is revealed that her husband Bruce has been in the private sanitarium of a Dr. Griswold for six months and Griswold is considering releasing him!
Karen calls the cops, and she being the closest thing they have to a witness, they interrogate her with vigor and even want to confine her to the station for her own protection. She insists on sleeping at home and going to work, but the police only let her go after she agrees to letting a detective accompany her everywhere as her bodyguard. Afraid of implicating her husband, Karen is pretty cagey with the fuzz, telling them as little as possible about the condition that lead to Bruce admitting himself to the loony bin and even hiding from them evidence that Bruce--or somebody--has broken into their apartment in her absence. Bloch offers us no clarity on whether or not Bruce is the killer, and whether or not he is the guy in Chapter 1, keeping us in the dark almost as deeply as Karen is keeping the boys in blue.
In Chapter 7 the scene switches to the home of one of the surviving sanitarium staff, a nurse who wasn't scheduled to work at the time of the massacre. She laments how expensive things are nowadays, how the government is always up in your business, how the sexual revolution has led to men taking advantage of women like her, how all the TV shows suck. (Add Night-World to your Seventies Malaise Reading List.) Then the murderer shows up and all her problems are over.
We meet three of the patients who have escaped the sanitarium, one by one. First, a crooked real estate guy who admitted himself to the booby hatch to deal with his alcoholism. Second, a young woman who suffers neuroses because her parents were overly protective. And third, the rock musician Tony; Bloch shows the moral vacuity--or moral depravity--of the counter culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll by having Tony (as we can see in the quote from neuroses girl with which I opened this blog post) act as the murderer's assistant--the other patients were browbeaten by the murderer into obedience, but Tony went along with his monstrous crimes. The killer catches up to and kills all three of these people in the middle section of the novel. (He employs a variety of methods, and scenes of strangulation legitimize the cover of my copy, but there is no specific reference to a Luger or Walther P-38, so that first edition cover is pretty questionable.)
I recall having lots of elaborate complaints about Bloch's novels Lori and The Scarf, but I have to say Night-World is pretty good and lacks any glaring deficiencies that I might expound upon. My biggest complaint is that I didn't find the way the murderer was killed in the end very convincing; my second biggest complaint is that Bloch spends too much time describing the real estate guy's scam. Otherwise Bloch maintains good proportions, not overdoing the wordplay or the social criticism or the psychobabble aspects as I feel he often does. The style and pacing here in Night-World are also well handled. Better than average for Bloch--I can confidently give Night-World a thumbs up!
Monday, September 19, 2022
...several thousand plain Englishmen of indefinable colour and temperament; short rather than tall, thin rather than fat, passionately devoted to football and accustomed to living on an average thirty-two shillings a week; men who are here because everyone else is here; men who hate nobody much, love nobody much, believe in nothing much--ordinary English wartime soldiers who get their martial spirit as they get their furniture, in greater quantities than they feel they need, for the sake of self-respect. The Desert is a vast suburban street full of watching neighbors...fearlessness is an oaken dining-room suite--you can't very well be without it; everybody has it; people would talk.
In the first line of Faces in a Dusty Picture, Kersh reminds us of a truth we'd like to forget: that if you are reading books you aren't really living, that reading books is like masturbating.
Mr. Mann stands outside the Hotel Bristol, gently ruminant, a man of books, mature yet virginal, heavy with the fruits of other mens' experience; mildly astonished like an artificially-inseminated cow.
(You can see how a sentence like this--semi-vulgar, daring the reader to be insulted--would appeal to Harlan Ellison.)
Lieutenant Mann is in a town in Egypt, serving with the fictional regiment "The Royal Archers," whom we are told are "a common regiment of foot-sloggers, a rough-house mob...recruited from the hard, dour men of the Midlands...." Mann himself is a man of independent means who has a science degree and a vast mental storehouse of knowledge, making some of his comrades wonder why he is in North Africa and not doing some kind of scientific war work.
The town is in an uproar, choked with crowds of refugees because the Germans are approaching, and we meet a bunch of other British soldiers and witness how each is dealing with the knowledge that they are about to be involved in a perilous fight with Rommel's Afrika Korps; a third of the way through the short novel (my copy is less than 130 pages of text) the British troops march out into the desert to take a position held by the enemy, and we see how they react to aerial bombardment, a sandstorm, and the danger of getting lost in the featureless waste where there is no water to be had. In the final few pages the Tommies assault the Italians (and yes, just as those of you with delicate ears have feared, the British call their foes "dagos" and "wops") and take the position and all the little subplots--e.g., will this guy overcome his fear? will those sergeants who are feuding over a woman make up?--are resolved. Of course, everybody knows that this is only the smallest of steps in the long march to win the war, and tomorrow's test, when the Germans, a far more formidable force than their Italian allies, arrive, will be a far more challenging one.
Faces in a Dusty Picture is a series of bold and brief character studies; we get to know like a dozen different guys, a handful of them as intimately as we do Mann. There is the general with the cold and selfish wife, the officer who just inherited a pile of money, the guy who is thinking of getting out of the fighting by shooting himself in the foot or hand, the private who is worried about his wife's pregnancy, those sergeants who are at daggers drawn over a woman the privates call "a gingerish tart," and several more. Faces in a Dusty Picture is also a meditation on what an army--and I guess in particular, a British army--is like; for one illustrative example see the epigraph I have chosen for this blog post, and here is another sample:
Looking about him and seeing a mass of moving men, he [Mann] begins to think of their individual differences and their common similarities, and he wonders at the miraculous regimentation of an assembled Army....it seems to him that comrades in battle are comparable to people in love--they lose a little as separate personalities but, in the end, regain as parts of a united force, much more than they have lost.
Kersh's narrative includes a number of striking incidents, including sappers clearing mines, another sapper sacrificing his own life to make sure a supply column can get around an obstacle, a pair of men lost in the desert who are miraculously preserved when a plane crashes nearby and they can scavenge the water and food carried by the now dead pilot, and more.As we might expect of a book published while the war was still raging, Faces in a Dusty Picture (while showing the terrible cost of war, with many characters killed) is a very sympathetic portrait of the British soldier and the British Army as an institution, and presumably the kinds of people who find military life abhorrent or took to twitter to broadcast their passionate hopes that Queen Elizabeth II had died a painful death would scoff, but Kersh's tribute is temperate and convincing, and presented with real literary skill, and I found it compelling and entertaining. Faces in a Dusty Picture is more about human psychology than equipment and tactics, but I think people interested in the British experience of the Second World War will find it rewarding; thumbs up.