Thursday, September 29, 2022

Howard Wandrei: "Guns of Maiden Hill," "The Eerie Mr. Murphy," "Danger: Quicksand" and "The African Trick"

Like a year ago I purchased 2003's collection of fantasy stories by Howard Wandrei The Eerie Mr. Murphy, largely so I could become more intimately acquainted with Wandrei's intricate, clever and disturbing drawings.  We've already read five stories from The Eerie Mr. Murphy and recorded the experience here and here.  Let's read four more today.

"Guns of Maiden Hill" (1934)

The publication page of The Eerie Mr. Murphy says that this story appeared "in a much different form" in the July 1934 Astounding under the title "Guns of Eternal Day."  It was printed in F. Orlin Tremaine's magazine under the pen name Howard W. Graham, Ph.D, apparently because Howard's brother Donald also published stories in Astounding.  If Wandrei didn't actually earn a doctorate this pseudonym is all the more amusing, and perhaps a sign that Tremaine or whoever felt that Astounding's slide rule-cradling readers really wanted their fiction to be produced by people with noggins full of book-learnin'--even if the stories didn't necessarily present eggheads and their knowledge as an unalloyed good!

"Guns of Maiden Hill" is a case in point.  It is one of those SF disaster stories for which the author has come up with a wild science idea of how the Earth might get totally wrecked and the human race threatened with destruction, and then tries to construct some human drama to add to his speculative cataclysm in an effort to produce a full-fledged story and not just a list of horror scenes of buildings falling over on screaming crowds and oceans boiling fish alive or whatever.  Marrying the human story to the science idea can be difficult, however, and I think Wandrei doesn't quite hit the mark this time around.

A doctor has been practicing in Philly for three years since the death of his father.  Tonight, finally, Doc and his adult daughter drive up to the Minnesota farm he inherited from Dad, planning to move in now that Doc has retired.  The moon looks very strange, very red, and when they get out of the car Doc and daughter feel that the moon is actually emitting heat!

They notice something else--someone has built some massive structures on the stony hill on their property!  Doc and daughter drive over there, confront the men there, and are eventually directed to the boss of the project, a college professor of independent means.  This brainiac explains that he has figured out how to turn the moon into a second sun by projecting rays from powerful ray guns (the structures on the hill) at Earth's beloved satellite for a few hours.  These particle projector cannons requires a stable platform, and this farm was chosen because of the exceptionally stolid granite deposit that forms the hill.  The college prof claims that he tried to figure out who owned the farm, so he could buy it, but was unable to and just went ahead and set up his huge apparatus on the hill anyway.  He asserts that he now legally owns the property because of "squatter rights."  (As if a go-it-alone college professor wasn't scary enough already, this guy also thinks he's a god damn lawyer!)  This guy has deep pockets to match his big ego and bog brain, and hands the Doc a big check right there, in hopes this will placate the physician.  An overly large portion of this story has to do with the psychological and legal ramifications of just taking over apparently abandoned property; not only is this stuff disconnected form the science idea that is the raison d'etre of Wandrei's story, but it doesn't make any sense, as Doc has continued to pay property taxes on the land, so the local government is well aware of who owns the farm and figuring out who would have been trivially easy.

As for the science idea, the scientist says he is turning the moon into a second sun because it will diminish crime and increase agricultural yields.  He thinks he is presenting mankind with a terrific boon!  But the last page of the story describes how wrong this college professor was.  The increase in heat drives people bonkers.  The polar ice caps start to melt.  Changes in the environment lead to plagues, and the prof is one of the first to die from the new pathogens.  Giant gila monsters and giant scorpions appear in the desert states and cause even more havoc than the lanternflies I keep seeing in Hagerstown.  And so on.

Then comes the deus ex machina ending.  By coincidence, a huge comet passes by the Earth three years after the moon has been transformed, and it carries the moon away, liberating us from its terrible light and heat.

Mediocre, and I am being generous with that assessment, perhaps--the legal property rights stuff is boring and has little bearing on the SF elements, and the comet business is even more out of left field and equally unnecessary--the story would be better if the college professor had killed us all.  

"The Eerie Mr. Murphy" (1937)              

Editor D. H. Olson tells us "The Eerie Mr. Murphy" represents the high point of Wandrei's career as it was printed in the prestigious and high-paying Esquire.  (Most of the previously published stories in The Eerie Mr. Murphy saw print initially in the low class and poorly paying Spicy Mystery and Speed Mystery.)  This is the only story we are reading today to have originally appeared in print under Wandrei's real name, and you can see his moniker right there on the cover, next to the cartoon about how a guy will waste his money on a fancy car in order to impress a blonde.  "The Eerie Mr. Murphy" has been reprinted in a number of places, including August Derleth's The Night Side and John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction.  

In the title story of this collection we have a gimmicky sort of thing, basically a series of gags.  Murphy is an unattractive little guy who I guess you could call a jinx, though Wandrei doesn't use that word.  Sporadically, tools and machines inexplicably fail around Murphy, and natural laws temporarily cease to operate; Murphy does not really cause or will these failures, and in fact wishes they wouldn't happen; Wandrei suggests this "power" is like a hungry monster inside of Murphy.  Though he has little if any control over what failures will occur, Murphy is able to predict them, and feels guilt over them.

After his presence triggers an airplane crash that kills a bunch of people, Murphy gives himself up to the police, but they can't confine him.  They experiment on him, shooting pistols at him--the bullets lose velocity after leaving the barrel and harmlessly fall to the floor--and nail him up in a crate--he disappears.  

This is another underwhelming piece that consists of an idea and is lacking in plot and human feeling, and the idea is actually less compelling than the idea in "Guns of Maiden Hill."  Barely acceptable. 

"Danger: Quicksand" (1939)  

When I was a kid, quicksand was a menace you would often see on the idiot box, but, in the same way that today everybody knows that "Every Breath You Take" is not a sweet love song but is in fact about a creepy stalker, the once-esoteric knowledge that quicksand is not real or is not dangerous is now widespread.  

Fortunately, "Danger: Quicksand" is about more than the debunked danger that gives it its name; it is a decent monster story.  It isn't as original as "The Eerie Mr. Murphy," I guess, but it has more tension and excitement and has a beginning, a middle and an end instead of just being a gimmick and a catalog of gags.  (I don't actually read Stephen King, but from hearing people talk about Stephen King, I feel like "Danger: Quicksand" is the kind of story Stephen King writes.)

A new dam has just been completed, and a swamp in a depression is going to be flooded by tomorrow morning, creating an artificial lake.  Four rich kids in their twenties, after midnight, after they have had a few drinks, decide to drive on the treacherously narrow and winding road that goes through the swamp one more time.  (Remember Deliverance?)  Their car gets stuck, and it turns out they have driven onto a huge monster, a big flat thing like a skate or ray that has orifices on its upper surface that can generate enough suction to hold the car fast and suck the flesh right off a wealthy young lady's bones!  This monster is, apparently, the product of chemical reactions in the swamp's abandoned garbage dump that were activated by a lightning bolt.  (Remember Donald Wollheim's "The Rag Thing?")  Will the rich kids be eaten and their bones lost forever under the artificial lake, or will they escape with their lives?

The rich kids are portrayed in a less than sympathetic fashion, which helps to make you wonder if they are going to make it out of the swamp alive or not.  

"Danger: Quicksand" first appeared in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Unknown, but was not reprinted until the 21st century here in The Eerie Mr. Murphy.      

"The African Trick" (1940)

Here's another piece from Unknown.  Wandrei's "The African Trick" appears alongside stories by an entire roster of famous and important writers, from L. Ron Hubbard to Theodore Sturgeon, Henry Kuttner and Jack Williamson.  I will have to read more from this magazine some day.  (Every week I read X pages of material and discover 2X pages of material I want to read.)  

"The African Trick" is far and away the best story we are reading today, and I strongly recommend it to fans of the weird and of horror stories in general.  A really good story of sex, violence, exotic climes and black magic!

Vladimir Kirov lives in a fine Manhattan apartment and lives a fun lifestyle, going to nightclubs at all hours.  How does he finance this lifestyle?  By blackmailing his employer, Dr. Junius Leyden, world explorer and crack shot with a revolver!  As the story begins, Kirov receives a strange package from the perennially out-of-town Leyden, postmarked Africa, containing a bizarre seed or bulb and detailed instructions in how to plant it.  Kirov, you see, is an expert gardener.  The seed, suspended in a jar full of special fluid, is a beautiful brunette white woman, comatose and six inches tall!  

As the story progresses we learn how Leyden acquired this outrĂ© seed (from a lost tribe of blue-eyed white people in a remote village in an almost inaccessible region of Africa whom he befriended by saving their leader from a monster snake) and all about the Leyden-Kirov relationship, particularly the foul deed which Kirov witnessed, thereby securing for the Russian green thumb both Leyden's enduring financial support and eternal enmity.  And we witness the occult purposes Leyden has for sending the seed to Kirov, and Kirov's reaction to returning from the clubs long after midnight to find a beautiful woman in his apartment clad in his clothes.

The structure, pacing, writing style and characters of this story are better than those of the other three we have read today, and I love the subject matter--I am of course crazy about mad scientists, black magic, exploring weird places, and disastrous sexual relationships.  Wandrei does a great job describing everything and everybody, really bringing them to life.  

An enthusiastic thumbs up for "The African Trick."  It is odd that it was never reprinted until the publication of The Eerie Mr. Murphy--a reminder that gems can lie uncollected in the rich veins of the old pulps for decade upon decade!  


I am thrilled by Howard Wandrei's art and so I am very glad to own The Eerie Mr. Murphy, but I cannot deny that the fiction in the book has been a little disappointing.  Happily, "The African Trick" goes some distance towards easing that disappointment.  We'll be reading more Howard Wandrei in the future, and I am hoping we'll find more stories as good as "The African Trick" or at least "Danger: Quicksand."


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Return of Conan by Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp

"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!"

Recently I spent quite a bit of my limited time on this Earth looking at many different images online of the Frank Frazetta painting that appears on the oft-reprinted paperback Conan the Avenger, which first appeared in 1968.  There are serious differences in color tone and cropping among different reproductions of the 1968 painting, and in 1980 Frazetta revised the work, making radical changes to the hero figure and the female figure (the revised painting was used as the cover of the 1981 Italian translation of Conan the Liberator.)  I have to admit I have always been skeptical of this particular Frazetta painting.  I love the wizard, and the crocodile and the octopus and the overturned bowl, and either version of the young woman is good (though I think I prefer the earlier one, as you can see the woman's face and her color fits in better with the rest of the colors in the painting.)  My gripe is with the hero--what is he standing on?  Why does he look so large?--his size is such that he looks like he should be closer to the viewer than the wizard and the woman, but he is obviously further away than they are.  I'm compelled to consider that the painting would be better without the hero.

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.)  

The Return of Conan takes place not long after the events of The Hour of the Dragon, and refers many times to earlier Conan adventures, and includes many secondary characters from Howard's stories.  Conan is king of Aquilonia, the leading Western nation, and his policies have brought it peace and prosperity.  In the first chapter of the novel he is holding a big party in the palace, and, when his wife (Conan almost always refers to her as his "mate" or "woman") Zenobia goes out on the balcony to get some fresh air after a dance, a flying demon snatches her and flies off with her.  (Conan met Zenobia in The Hour of the Dragon: a brave slave girl familiar with horses and weapons, she helped Conan escape captivity and at the end of that novel he freed her from a rival monarch's seraglio and declared his intention to marry her.)

Conan puts some other guy in charge of the kingdom and rides off at a furious pace, exhausting multiple horses.  His destination is the golden tower of Pelias, a wizard he met in "The Scarlet Citadel" when both men were captives in a dungeon full of wells leading to hell and worked together to escape.  Conan hopes Pelias can use his magical abilities to divine Zenobia's whereabouts and the identity of her kidnapper.  Pelias's tower is in a city, and in the city a disguised Conan is quickly distracted from his mission by a hot chick.

A spy in his palace has alerted some of Conan's innumerable enemies of the Cimmerian's solo departure, and some of them have laid an ambush for our hero, using a gorgeous woman as bait.  She comes to Conan for help, saying some brutes in a tavern tried to take advantage of her.  Conan may be a pirate and a bandit and a thief and a torturer, but he won't stand for mistreatment of women; at least that is what we hear at this juncture in the plot.  So he goes into the tavern, where the trap is sprung  but without success, Conan killing all his attackers.  The woman has disappeared, to the disappointment of Conan, who "had meant to take a kiss at the very least as a reward for helping her" even though he is married and actually on a mission to rescue his wife.  

At the tower of Pelias, Conan gets plenty of intelligence from the friendly wizard, and the novel takes on some of the aspects of a "Yellow Peril" story.  The wizards of the East, Pelias tells the Cimmerian, are more powerful than the wizards of the West, and the most powerful of all, Yah Chieng of the city of Paikang in the land of Khitai, has the ambition of ruling the world.  Conan is an obstacle to Yah Chieng's conquest of the world, even though the Cimmerian doesn't know it!  You see, the world is evolving away from magic and towards "enlightenment and reason," and magic spells are becoming less powerful all the time.  Conan and his rule of Aquilonia are, somehow, one of the main drivers of this evolution.  If Yah Chieng wants to cast the spell that will give him power over the world, he will first have to kill Conan, and so he has abducted Zenobia in hopes of luring the barbaric Cimmerian king of civilized Aquilonia into undertaking a perilous journey that will lead to his death.

Pelias gives Conan a magic ring that he says should protect him from summoned monsters, and Conan hurries off, bound for the purple tower of Yah Chieng in far Paikang.

In Chapter 3 Conan gets distracted again when he learns that the civilized Turanians have wiped out a band of nomadic Zuagirs and captured their chief.  Conan in "A Witch Shall Be Born" led a band of Zuagirs against the Turanians and he still has a soft spot for the Zuagirs and so he decides he will rescue this chief.  He disguises a party of Zuagirs as merchants and they enter the walled city where this chief is held, and at night open the gates and allow in the rest of a big Zuagir war party.  Despite all that goop about Conan's "barbaric code of chivalry" in Chapter 2, he doesn't seem to mind how the Zuagirs round up all the town's women while sacking the place.

In the quarters of the governor of the town (after killing the governor, naturally), Conan runs into that woman again, the one who lured him into the ambush in the tavern back west.  In Chapter 3 we get to know this woman pretty well in scenes in which Conan does not directly appear; she is Thanara, a spy working for Yah Chieng but ostensibly in the employ of King Yezdigerd of Turan (a figure from "The People of the Black Circle.")  She has been given some special equipment by a shaman who is acting as an intermediary between her and Yah Chieng ("He who is not to be named") and when Conan, instead of just killing her or avoiding her, lowers his guard because she is so sexalicious ("Conan felt the hot urge of his racing blood"), Thanara tosses into his face "pollen of the yellow lotus of Khitai" and Conan is rendered unconscious.

Conan wakes up in Chapter 4 in chains in a dungeon under King Yezdigerd's palace, which overlooks the sea from high atop a cliff.  Soon he is dragged before Yezdigerd's court; with the help of another Western barbarian who is present at court, Rolf, Conan escapes, jumping out a window to the sea below after first humiliating Yezdigerd and Thanara.

Again and again in The Return of Conan, Conan meets an old enemy like Yezdigerd or an old friend like Rolf, and in Chapter 5 he and Rolf climb aboard a pirate ship among the crew of which number many of Conan's comrades from his pirate days and whose captain is an old rival of Conan's.  Conan makes himself captain lickety-split and then leads the pirates to victory over two Turanian vessels, including one commanded by Yezdigerd, who is killed.  

Chapter 6 sees Conan in Vendhya, which is ruled by Queen Yasmina, whom we met when we read "The People of the Black Circle."  Yasmina summons Conan to her bedroom and they have sex.  Between bouts of lovemaking, some assassins sneak into the queen's bed chamber and Conan and Yasmina kill them; they then have sex again while Conan still has their blood on him.

Chapter 7 has a little introductory prologue like those we often see in horror literature in which a minor character is killed by a mysterious monster.  The main portion of this brief chapter has Conan hanging out with some hill tribesmen, then climbing the snowy Himelias, where he is attacked by a snow demon; the ring Pelias gave Conan (and which Yezdigerd's subordinates apparently neglected to seize from him when they stripped him naked) protects Conan from this alien creature.

In Chapter 8 Conan has crossed the Himelias and is in Khitai, where he climbs over the Great Wall of Khitai and meets "saffron-skinned" people, including a beautiful girl whose "slant-eyed face was of startling oriental beauty."  We are reminded that Khitai is an old civilization, that the people of Khitai had vast rich cities when the men of the West had yet to invent fire.  Conan rescues the woman from two of Yah Chieng's top soldiers who are tying her to a tree as a sacrifice to a dragon.  Moments after he kills the two guys the dragon shows up and Conan kills it as well with a lance he makes out of bamboo.

The "oriental beauty" has sex with Conan and then leads him to her hidden village, a colony of dissidents.  In Chapter 9 the girl's father describes to Conan how Yah Chieng took over Paikang twenty years ago, driving him and his surviving relatives and friends into the jungle.  His wife, a sort of seer, died during the Yah Chieng takeover, but her dying words were a prophecy, that a white king from the West would overthrow Yah Chieng within twenty years.  Conan has shown up just in time to make the prophecy come true!

Conan and these counter revolutionaries hatch a scheme to get into the palace during the big annual celebration that is taking place next week--Conan, who is of course taller than all these people, hides under one of those big dancing dragon costumes we've all seen on TV during Chinese New Year.  Once inside the town he sneaks off in the confusion if the drunken celebration. Down in the dungeons Yah Chieng has imprisoned an entire company of white mercenary soldiers; Conan frees them, and, as luck would have it, one of them is an old friend, Lyco of Khorshemish.  These mercenaries join the anti-Yah Chieng locals in attacking Yah Chieng's troops.

Yah Chieng is not participating in the celebration.  In Chapter 10 Conan makes his way to the chamber in which Yah Chieng has Zenobia chained to an altar and is about to sacrifice her, on the way overcoming the flying demon who abducted Zenobia back in Chapter 1 and rescued Thanara from Conan in Chapter 5.  After a trip of some months, the King of Aquilonia has arrived on the very day, at the very hour, when Yah Chieng has decided to murder Zenobia.  If this sacrifice is part of the spell that will allow Yah Chieng to take over the world, Nyberg and de Camp didn't make it clear to me, and, anyway, I thought the Khitan wizard couldn't cast that spell while Conan was stull alive.  Anyway, the magic ring and direct intervention by Crom, Conan's god, save Conan from the wizard's magic, and then he kills Yah Chieng with his bare hands a second before the sorcerer kills Zenobia.

(The text makes clear that Frazetta's painting means to depict Conan leaping over the altar to tackle Yah Chieng.  I would never have guessed that the central male figure was airborne; he looks like he is running, not jumping.  Also, and I know I am not supposed to say stuff like this, the facial features of the wizard in the painting do not in the least look like those of an East Asian.)    

In an Epilogue Conan and Zenobia are almost home when they are attacked by an army lead by Thanara; just in time an Aquilonian army arrives to save the day.  Zenobia, a skilled archer, shoots down Thanara just as she is about to shoot down Conan.  (This is the one time Conan uses the word "wife" to describe Zenobia, as he praises her after she saves his life.)

I don't want to say The Return of Conan is bad, but I can't say it is good, because it has a lot of problems.  A big issue is its lack of direction and unity of theme and a related flagging of narrative drive.  Nyberg and de Camp start off the novel with two big ideas that serve as the foundation for the story and which should supply Conan and the other characters with their motivations--Conan's queen has been kidnapped and Yah Chieng is trying to take over the world.  But Zenobia's liberation and Yah Chieng's campaign for world conquest, instead of being the source of everything that goes on, are almost forgotten for six or seven chapters as Conan flits from one self-contained episode to the next.  In those chapters--the bulk of the book!--Conan almost never thinks of Zenobia or Yah Chieng, and he is always getting distracted from what should be his unwavering goal, getting to Paikang.  The King of Aquilonia never pines for his queen or worries she is dead or has been tortured or raped or whatever, and the fact that he is the one thing standing between the world and an Eastern tyranny never seems to cross his mind; as a result, the novel lacks tension--why should I care about Zenobia and Yah Chieng if Conan doesn't?  Conan is far more passionate about helping friends from his past like the Zuagirs or getting vengeance on enemies from his past like Yezdigerd than he is about the here and now problems of saving his queen and saving the world.  Now, maybe you could argue that this jives with Conan's personality, that Conan is a womanizer and a selfish sort of individualist, but if Nyberg and de Camp are choosing to portray Conan in this way, why did they build the structure of the novel around two quests that Conan is going to be indifferent to?

Some of the early self-contained episodes work reasonably well, and Chapters 9 and 10 are not bad, though the excitement of sneaking a disguised army into a walled town at the end of the novel is somewhat undermined by the fact that Conan has already sneaked a disguised army into a walled town in this book, just 75 pages ago.  Some of the fight scenes are good.  But too many of the capers in the middle of the novel are weak and/or needlessly encumber the narrative, and a few--the episodes of Yasmina and the snow demon are good examples--are pretty perfunctory.  Some of the secondary characters from Conan's past contribute nothing to the narrative; Rolf and Yasmina, for example, appear and disappear without adding anything to the story.  It would have been better if the authors had spent those pages developing Yah Chieng and Thanara, giving them more screen time.  I even think shortening the novel--say, eliminating the Yasmina and snow demon chapters altogether--would have been an improvement.

I have my own vision of what Conan should be, and a lot of the things Nyberg and de Camp do here are contrary to my conception of Conan and thus I found they detracted from my enjoyment of the story.  I like to think of Conan as the embodiment of the individual who triumphs over adversity in pursuit of his own chosen goals, a man who bends the universe to his will.  But all that jazz in Pelias's tower about Conan (in some vague and abstract and involuntary or autonomic way) personifying the rise of reason and actually causing the decline of magic, and then the prophecy business among the Khitans, turn Conan into an instrument of fate or just a man blown by the winds of fate.  Maybe this would be fine in a Michael Moorcock story in which the protagonist is a tragic figure, but to my mind, Conan should represent the man who is master of his own destiny and the master of his environment.   

Curious about Pelias, I reread "The Scarlet Citadel" and its virtues cast into sharp relief the shortcomings of The Return of Conan.  The characters, even the minor ones, all have powerful emotions and strong motivations that bring them to life--Howard transmits to the reader the genuine anger and fear of Conan and the various wizards and kings, and the actions of everybody in the story stem from their emotions and their personalities.  The magic and monsters are strange and scary and feel fresh and original.  Howard describes the settings vividly, offering not only a picture you can see in your mind but also an atmosphere you can feel.  "The Scarlet Citadel" is engrossing.  Nyberg and de Camp in The Return of Conan don't achieve any of this--the characters lack personality and seem to do what they do not out of inner drives but because it is what the plot demands of them, and the magic (e.g., magic ring) and monsters (e.g., dragon) and settings are pedestrian, banal, and vague.  

We're grading The Return of Conan barely acceptable.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Shooting Star by Robert Bloch

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.

If you search for "Robert Bloch" at the internet archive one of the things that comes up is a 2008 Hard Case Crime paperback of two 1950s novels, Shooting Star and Spiderweb.  (Shooting Star's cover is by comics creator Arthur Suydam; it is OK, but generic and obvious and flat, totally unlike his idiosyncratic and sometimes astonishing work in Heavy Metal or 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.  

The novel ends tragically, with nobody better off.  Bannock has lost his wife, whom he never suspected of any of the indiscretions and crimes it turned out she was guilty of, and he and Mark never speak again--he doesn't pay Mark for finding out it was his wife who was the murderer, so growing Mark's business is going to be a long slow process of grinding away.  The pot selling ring which Mrs. Bannock and so many of the characters were mixed up in was disrupted, but on the last page of the story Mark looks out the window at La La Land and knows it is still full of drug dealers and drug addicts, murderers and murder victims, just like every other town in the world.

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, a 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

Raymond Z. Gallun: "Space Flotsam," "The World Wrecker," and "Derelict"

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)

(I just recently listened to the 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)

Here's another science- and mass death-heavy story that has never been reprinted.

"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.

"Derelict" (1935)

This one has been reprinted a few times, including in Sam Moskowitz's The Coming of the Robots and The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun.

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!"


I like these traditional SF stories about scientists and spacemen dealing with robot and aliens, and found this a quite entertaining trip back to the Thirties.  Bravo to Gallun and to Tremaine.  Gallun in these three stories, I think, strikes a good balance between optimism about man's ability to overcome problems and conquer the universe, and a tragic acceptance that such conquests can come at a terrible price.  

It's back to the Fifties in our next episode; see you then!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Ray Bradbury in Weird Tales: "There Was an Old Woman," "The Wind," and "The Lake"

While working on my Frank Frazetta Vampirella jigsaw puzzle last weekend, finishing up the bottom brown section, I watched the Olivia de Havilland TV movie The Screaming Woman, which is based loosely on a Ray Bradbury story.  Bradbury having been pushed to the forefront of my mind, I decided to read a few stories by the creator of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles chosen more or less at random, and hit upon three that first appeared in Weird Tales and would later be reprinted in the 1947 collection Dark Carnival and the 1955 collection The October Country.  I am reading the Weird Tales versions of the stories, straight from scans of the World War II-era issues in which they appeared that are available at the world's finest website, the internet archive.  

"There Was an Old Woman" (1944)

When she was a child, Tildy's mother died, and Tildy's response was to boycott death, to pretend death doesn't exist, to refuse to believe in death.  She neglected to attend her father's funeral.  She doesn't listen to the radio or read the paper because of all the talk of death in the news.  She didn't get married because she could never find a man who refused to believe in death, a man who could promise her he'd never die.  

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)

This is a traditional Weird Tales-type story about an educated Westerner who goes to the mysterious East and when he gets back home to England or America or wherever is haunted by something that he encountered in "the Orient," as we used to say.

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.   

"The Lake" (1944) 

I suggested earlier that "There Was an Old Woman" was characteristic of Bradbury's work, and the same is true of "The Lake," but whereas I wasn't crazy about the silliness and whimsicality of "There Was an Old Woman," the evocation of childhood and both the beauty and sadness of life, and the poetic touches, that make "The Lake" a very Bradburian story are striking a chord with me, and I am giving this one an enthusiastic thumbs up!

Our narrator relates how, as a twelve-year-old, he visited the beach one last time with his mother--it was the end of summer, and they were moving West; Bradbury successfully evokes all the feelings of being at some kind of sad endpoint, and turns it up to maximum when he reveals that at this very beach the narrator's friend, a girl his age with whom he had fallen in love even though he hadn't really reached puberty, drowned and her body was not recovered.  

In the brief section on the narrator's journey to his new home out West, Bradbury, in a way I found very clever and satisfying (this is one of the poetic parts), constructs a parallel between the way sandcastles are crumbled by water and our memories crumble when we move, reinforcing one of the story's main themes, that everything crumbles.

The narrator grows up, attends university, gets married.  On their honeymoon he and his new wife go to that beach; it is his first trip back East and he was last here almost precisely ten years ago--again it is the end of summer.  Bewildering events, perhaps supernatural, both grisly and touching, occur that bring back all of the narrator's feelings for the girl he loved as a twelve-year-old, and we know his marriage is going to be an unhappy one because he can never love his wife the way he loved--still loves--that little girl.

I of course like stories that tell you life is a tragedy as well as stories about disastrous sexual relationships, so "The Lake"'s themes and plot are right up my alley, and Bradbury's style and pacing are very fine.  Five out of five waterlogged corpses! 

"The Lake" has been reprinted in several venues beyond the innumerable times it has reappeared in Bradbury collections, including anthologies by serial anthologizers August Derleth, Leo Margulies and Martin H. Greenberg, and even The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine (which was published by the Leo Margulies Corporation and edited by Margulies' wife Cylvia Kleinman.)  Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh's 1982 volume The Arbor House Celebrity Book of Horror Stories has as its gimmick the fact that famous people with some connection to the world of horror fiction from Vincent Price and Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King and Robert Bloch selected the stories, the editors having asked them to identify and write intros to "the most frightening story they had ever read."  John Jakes' selection is "The Lake," and in his intro he talks about his early writing career and his relationships with Bradbury and with editor of Amazing and Fantastic Howard Browne.  (Lawrence Block, Robert Silverberg and Ira Levin all chose stories I can recommend myself, Fredric Brown's "Don't Look Behind You," H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time," and Richard Matheson's "Prey.")  


Next time, three more short stories from magazines published before my parents were born.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Night-World by Robert Bloch

"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."

Sometimes when I am doing the housework out here in the country, I watch genre movies from the '50s, '60s and '70s on my trusty iphone.  Recently I watched one directed by Freddie Francis called The Psychopath, the story of a young man's unhealthy relationship with his mother and a strange series of murders--alongside each of the dead bodies the bobbies discover a doll with features modelled on the victim's!  Maybe I should have guessed it based on the plot, but it was only later when I looked up the movie online that I realized that the screenplay of The Psychopath was yet another product of the prolific pen of Robert Bloch.  

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.

Chapter 1 finds us in a mental institution where we become familiar with the twisted thinking of a patient who has been subjected to shock treatments.  This guy is clever and cunning; he is tricking the medical staff into thinking he is getting better by saying the things they want to hear, doing the things they hope he will do.  He keeps his true feelings, his true character, hidden--he is eager to get out there and kill people, as killing people at close range is, he feels, proof of one's bravery, evidence that one is a member of a natural aristocracy.  In portraying this guy's perversion of ordinary (even banal) talk about freedom and independence, about the need to question authority and the duty to fight injustice, Bloch not only creates a character who is compelling but also satirizes our society.  This sick freak wants to murder people, and says he is doing it in the interest of freedom, in the name of the oppressed--is this not a hint that people who aren't obviously deranged, say politicians and political activists, who declare they are working to preserve freedom or to liberate the marginalized are perhaps saying so merely as a strategy in their pursuit of selfish goals like power, fame or fortune, as a cover and rationalization of their own selfish quest to satisfy their psychological needs?  Anyway, this chapter, though not unmarred by Bloch's distracting jokes and wordplay, is a good start to the novel with its driven protagonist/antagonist and its broad-based but not overly obtrusive social criticism.

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 is eager to be with her husband again, and rushes to the remote location of Griswold's establishment to discuss the possibility of finally seeing Bruce for the first time in half a year.  But when she gets there five of the six patients have vanished, and the sixth, as well as the medical staff, have been massacred!  Griswold has been electrocuted with his own shock therapy set up! 

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.)  

But who is this killer who loves freedom, denounces authority, considers ordinary Americans to be obedient sheep, has read Clausewitz and Freud and the Bible?  Is it Bruce or the other surviving patient?  Bloch keeps us wondering until quite near the end with all kinds of hints that Bruce is a strange and dangerous character.

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

Faces in a Dusty Picture by Gerald Kersh

...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.

We recently read a book of stories by Gerald Kersh, and today we continue our exploration of the work of the man reputed to be Harlan Ellison's favorite author.  You know I like to read World War II fiction written by men who actually served in the war; well, Kersh spent the early war years in the Coldstream Guards and the later part of the war as a war correspondent and had several war novels published while hostilities were underway.  Through the modern magic of e-commerce I have acquired one of these novels, a small and slender hardcover copy of Kersh's short 1944 novel Faces in a Dusty Picture.  My copy was printed in England, apparently while the war was still ongoing; on the publication page it is asserted that it was "produced in complete conformity with the authorised economy standards."  The novel is dedicated to Carl Olsson, a writer whom I am afraid is mostly forgotten, and bears a Biblical epigraph.  The other interesting thing about my copy of this book is that it was evidently used to kill a silverfish, and the back endpapers remain the final resting place of the noxious, now mummified, beast.

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 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.