Sunday, October 30, 2022

Murray Leinster: "Uneasy Home-coming," "Side Bet" and "Night Drive"

I was killing time in 2nd & Charles in lanternfly-infested Hagerstown, MD, while my wife was in another store.  I flipped through a used copy of J. A. Cuddon's 1984 The Penguin Book of Horror Stories and was surprised to see a story in there by "Will F. Jenkins," a name sometimes used by the man we SF fans generally think of as "Murray Leinster," titled "Uneasy Home-coming."  The Acknowledgments page of The Penguin Book of Horror Stories reported that "Uneasy Home-coming" was first printed in Weird Tales, in April 1935, but I've read multiple stories from that issue of the Unique Magazine and didn't recall seeing a Jenkins story in there, and a look through a scan of the issue at the internet archive confirmed my memory's accuracy.  isfdb, I found, has an entry for "Uneasy Home-coming" but the only appearances it lists are in the various printings of The Penguin Book of Horror Stories.  When I searched for "Will F. Jenkins" at the internet archive I found that a heavily revised and severely dumbed-down version of "Uneasy Homecoming" (no hyphen) was included in a 1997 school textbook ("Level C") with a Bob Eggleton cover called Chills: 12 Chilling Tales and Exciting Adventures with Exercises to Help You LEARN.  Frustratingly, the Acknowledgments page of Chills just thanks Leinster's estate and literary agent and does not indicate any original place of publication.  I tried to find evidence of a story called "Uneasy Home-coming" at, but came up empty.  When I put "Uneasy Homecoming Jenkins" in search engines I just got a long list of essays that were apparently uploaded for the benefit of students forced by the educational establishment to read Chills who had overcome their plagiarism aversion, perhaps in emulation of some of America's most respected writers and intellectuals.  Then I gave up. 

Anyway, let's read "Uneasy Home-coming" in that Penguin volume, and two other stories credited to Will F. Jenkins from horror collections I came upon at the world's greatest website, the internet archive.  And if you know anything about "Uneasy Home-coming"'s publication history, please let us know in the comments!

"Uneasy Homecoming" (1935(?))

This is a pretty conventional story, nothing weird about it.  I have to admit I was kind of disappointed to find "Uneasy Home-coming" to be such a bland piece of work, after the mystery of its origins had leant it a sort of glamour.  The text of the story here in Cuddon's Penguin volume employs British lingo like "torch" and "petrol" instead of "flashlight" and "gas;" maybe this is a clue that the story first saw publication in a British magazine that isn't covered by  (Or maybe Americans born in the 1890s like Leinster used that kind of vocabulary in the 1930s?)  "Uneasy Home-coming" also feels like the kind of story that might have been written to appeal to normie women, not the type of people who read Weird Tales or blood and guts crime magazines (we'll see later in this blogpost that Leinster published stories in mainstream magazines.)  The main character is a timid nervous woman who overcomes her fears and uses her wits to call for help; she is not injured, the villain is not injured, and the story doesn't end on a note of disgust or terror, like a typical horror story, or a note of cathartic vengeance or order-restoring justice, like you might expect of a pulp crime story, but instead on a note of pity, as the heroine's heart goes out to the mother of the man who tried to murder her.  

The plot:  Connie returns to her somewhat remote country house after a "two weeks' holiday" at sunset. Her husband is away on business but should be home around midnight.  She is very nervous, a victim of the fears which society drums into women's heads: 

She was in terror of...Them, the unknown men women are taught to fear as dangerous.
Leinster expends a lot of ink describing the house and the yard and the setting sun and the shadows and all that, and describing Connie's struggle to overcome her apparently groundless fears.  But he also indicates to us that her fears are not groundless, even though she doesn't consciously know it!  Before Connie has noticed any of these clues, the author points out to us readers all the clear evidence that somebody has broken into her home and is nearby; I find this to be a questionable artistic choice--if we are to share Connie's fear, shouldn't we share her ignorance and her surprise?

Connie calls up a friend, Mrs. Winston, an old woman, thinking this will calm her down.  But Mrs. Winston warns her that the area has been subjected to many burglaries, and the burglar even beat a man who witnessed his crimes, beat him into a coma and left him for dead!  The old lady offers to send her son Charles over to collect Connie, but Connie rejects this offer because Charles is a big hulking creep who gives her the willies--he committed petty crimes in his youth, was expelled from college, and generally acts creepy besides.  

Connie finds stolen goods in her house and the burglar, who Leinster has already told us is in the back yard, and of course is Mrs. Winston's incorrigible son Charles, stalks her, presumably intent on slaying her to cover his trail.  Connie figures out how to escape and to signal for help.  The story ends with Connie feeling sorry for, actually weeping for, poor Mrs. Winston, whose son is one of the capital-T "Them" who trespass against others.

Maybe I am a callous jerk, but growing up in New Jersey and living in New York, when I would see the mothers of criminals on the TV news boohooing, I never felt any sympathy for them--I felt angry at them for creating a monster that was preying on the rest of us.  This focus on Connie's sympathy for Mrs. Winston is a big reason I suspect this story was written for a mainstream female audience and not the pulp sex and violence crowd.             

Merely acceptable, a flat filler piece.  Why did this Cuddon dude include such a bland thing in his anthology?    

(The changes made to the story for inclusion in 1997's Chills might also be worthy of examination.  The whole idea that society has trained women to fear is jettisoned, all references to cigarettes and the beating of that guy into a coma are expunged, Connie's husband was with her on the "trip," and the whole idea that Charles has been a troublemaker for years is abandoned.  Chills includes an illustration for "Uneasy Homecoming;" undermining the ability of the story to inspire fear, the illo depicts Connie and Mrs. Winston broadly smiling as they talk on the phone; I guess in the interest of updating the story and furthering the cause of diversity, Connie appears in the illustration to be a middle-aged black woman wearing pants.)

"Side Bet" (1937) 

I found "Side Bet" in the 1981 anthology Mysterious, Menacing and Macabre, edited by Helen Hoke, who seems to have been responsible for a multitude of anthologies with repetitive and alliterative triple-barreled titles, Jokes, Jokes, Jokes, Monsters, Monsters, Monsters and Terrors, Torments and Traumas among them.  "Side Bet" was first published in Collier's, and would go on to be reprinted in multiple languages in one of those Alfred Hitchcock anthologies.

A guy gets shipwrecked on a tiny island, just a pile of naked rock jutting out of the sea with no soil or plants or anything.  A huge rat is also shipwrecked on the island, and the two weak and exhausted castaways fight a guerilla war over the bag of rations that washed up along with them.  The man, delusional from hunger, has the idea that he and the rat have a gentlemanly bet over who will die first, which leads to a strange twist ending.

This is a good story; Leinster does a good job describing the setting and the different tactics and strategies of the contestants, and with the physical and psychological stress the man is under.  Thumbs up!  

I'm afraid this blog post may have the lamest collection of cover images to be seen on 
MPorcius Fiction Log in a long time

"Night Drive" (1950)

I remarked that "Uneasy Home-coming" felt like something written to appeal to a mainstream female audience, and maybe I'll feel the same way about "Night Drive," which debuted in Today's Woman.  In the same year, the story was printed in the British magazine Argosy; I am reading it in Groff Conklin's 1951 In the Grip of Terror.    

Madge lives forty miles from Colchester, where her husband, a lawyer, will be getting off the train late in the evening.  The road to Colchester, most of it passing through a pine forest, the rest through sparsely populated farm land, has a sinister reputation because a year ago somebody somehow persuaded a woman driving on that road, a Mrs. Tabor, to stop, and then killed her.  A similar crime occurred a few months later to a woman whose body was found but never identified and whose car was never discovered.

Madge is just about to leave for Colchester when she gets a phone call from Mr. Tabor, the widower, whom she barely knows.  He has heard she is driving to Colchester tonight, and asks Madge to take his niece along.  Madge picks up the young woman, whom she finds alone by the street and who has an odd expressionless voice, wears an unfashionable hat and tinted spectacles, and seems subtly strange...she doesn't wear perfume, for instance.  Far from any habitation, on the dark road, Madge realizes this is no young woman riding beside her, but a man in disguise!  Is it the killer?  Or an avenger seeking to find the killer, a ruthless individual who has tricked Madge into helping him lay a trap for the foul fiend who slew Mrs. Tabor?

This is a solid crime story with SF vibes: the man in disguise suggests that the legend of the werewolf is a reflection of the fact that there are maniacs out there who feel the urge to kill every six months or so and under the force of their evil compulsion act almost like animals.  Leinster leaves open the possibility that the killer actually is a werewolf.  I like "Night Drive," even though Leinster does something I don't really like, resolving the plot without the protagonist, Madge, having to make any big decisions or incur any psychological or moral risk--it isn't Madge who kills or gets killed, she is just kind of there.  Maybe Leinster and/or the editors of Today's Woman thought the magazine's target audience wouldn't want to read about a woman getting murdered or getting another person's blood on her hands. 


"Side Bet" is the winner here, and Hoke made a good choice in including it in her anthology.  "Night Drive" is not bad, but "Uneasy Home-coming," in its British anthology form is mediocre, and in its American school text form quite lame.    

It's back to Thrilling Wonder Stories in our next episode, so see you then, space fans!

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Feb '51: F Brown, S Merwin and R Z Gallun

Some time ago we read Jack Vance's "Crusade to Maxus" in a 1986 hardcover Vance collection.  That tale was first published in the February 1951 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories under the title "Overlords of Maxus;" obviously, Vance was the big draw in that issue, but maybe there are other things in the ish worth reading--let's hop on over to the internet archive and find out!

The editorial, presumably by Sam Merwin, Jr., is about Charles Fort and the need to maintain a healthy skepticism of scientists' conclusions--scientists are human, after all.  Our friend Lin Carter contributes a jokey letter that looks like a modern poem, with no capitals and odd enjambments, an homage to the work of Don Marquis.  Carter considers who might portray Lazarus Long on the silver screen should a film of Methuselah's Children be made, describes some correspondence with Leigh Brackett, and says that he is a fan of  Edgar Rice Burroughs but ERB's' Synthetic Men of Mars and The Eternal Lover were "stinkeroos."  I haven't read The Eternal Lover, but I remember liking Synthetic Men, though that was decades ago.

Let's read the stories in the February '51 issue of Thrilling Wonder by the much beloved Fredric Brown, editor of the magazine Merwin (writing under the pen name Matt Lee) and Raymond Z. Gallun, many of whose 1930s Astounding stories we have read in the last year or so.

"Man of Distinction" by Fredric Brown
This is a joke story that finds humor in the antics of an alcoholic.  There are also lots of puns.  The jokes are obvious but not bad, and Brown's chatty folksy style is easy to read, and even though the story is a goof, Brown furnishes us readers some interesting aliens.  We'll mark this one "Acceptable."

Two scouts from a vast space empire that controls thousands of planets and has explored millions more have come to investigate Earth.  These guys are fifteen-foot long worms who can levitate and exhibit an unusual symmetry--both ends of the worm have sense organs and can manipulate objects.  The drunk sees them and assumes they are hallucinations, the product of the D. T.'s which he suffers almost perpetually and is basically accustomed to.  The aliens bring him back to their home planet for study--if he demonstrates intelligence or strength the aliens will raid Earth for a few billion slaves.  Studying his blood, they figure his diet consists entirely of alcohol, so they synthesize some for him.  As a result he is constantly drunk, and demonstrates neither cognitive ability nor physical stamina.  The aliens decide Earth is not worth raiding.  The drunk they put in a zoo with a pool of synthetic alcohol after rendering him essentially immortal with their advanced medical technology.  The drunk has found paradise.

"Man of Distinction" has been reprinted many times in several languages in Brown collections like Honeymoon in Hell and in anthologies.

"Final Haven" by Sam Merwin, Jr.

"Final Haven" has never been reprinted anywhere, and I didn't care for Merwin's novel The House of Many Worlds when I read it back when we were young, in 2017, but let's give this story a try anyway.

Three months ago Earth civilization was destroyed by nuclear war.  A brilliant banker had been expecting the war, and worked in concert with another millionaire as well as a genius M.I.T. scientist to construct a bunker fifty feet below the surface stocked with all the supplies and machinery necessary to survive down there indefinitely while monitoring the surface.  So on the day of the cataclysm seven people fled to the bunker--the two millionaires, the banker's wife (a sexy ballerina), the scientist, the banker's two servants--a married couple--and the servants' daughter.  Today, three months into their subterranean tenancy, something shows up on the radar!  What can it be?

The radar blip disappears behind a hill, and then a man in a strange space suit comes calling to pay the bunker a visit.  It turns out that long ago there was a big planet between Mars and Jupiter, and the people living there destroyed their world in a nuclear war--the asteroids are the wreckage of that planet.  The survivors colonized the asteroids, Mars and Earth.  The asteroid people developed a society based on cooperation that eschewed competition and have thus survived--this visitor is from that lovey dovey asteroid civilization.  The Martians maintained a competitive society and eventually started a war that wrecked their civilization, just like their ancestors did and just like the descendants of the people who colonized Earth just did three months ago.

This guy from the asteroids is here to test the seven bunker inhabitants to see who among them is suitable to join the asteroid society and who will have to be left to grow old and die in the bunker.  The asteroid man admits that the banker is very intelligent and industrious, but since he used his abilities to make money and to protect himself and not to help other people free of charge, he'll be living out his life in the bunker with the other millionaire.  The man from the asteroids even quotes that old Biblical saw about how a rich man won't be permitted to enter heaven.  The other five people are allowed to come to the asteroids.

This is like a Christian socialist propaganda story--ugh.  Merwin foreshadows the climax early on when he tells us that the banker has an "ingrained fear of Russia;" like my college professors back in the '80s and '90s, does Merwin think hostility to the Soviet Union is irrational and the West is to blame for the Cold War?  

Well, let's look on the bright side--"Final Haven" is not as bad as The House of Many Worlds.  Merwin offers up his bog-standard we've-seen-them-a-hundred-times-already SF plot elements (post-apocalyptic survival and pinko peacenik aliens judging us) and his lame anti-individualism message in a compact package, so we'll let him off with a "barely acceptable" rating, but it might be another five years before we read any fiction by him again.  (Don't worry, Sam, I still love Thrilling Wonder and Startling and will continue to read your editorials and your responses in the letters column.)

"Brother Worlds" by Raymond Z. Gallun 

Skip Hanlon is a hobo of the spacefaring future!  Apparently a happy-go-lucky slacker with no ambition, he takes odd jobs here and there on the moon, swabbing out taverns, washing dishes, unloading cargo, playing guide to tourists, or even panhandling if it comes to that.  But Skip is a poet at heart, and carries with him a sadness: one of a pair of twins, his brother died at age five, and Skip has always keenly felt this loss.  As a little kid he obsessively tried to sneak away from his parents' home in the remote reaches of Alaska to search the forest for his lost brother.  As a tour guide on Luna, he offers the tourists an analogy--the Earth and the Moon are like a tragic pair of twins, one vibrant and healthy, but the other inert and dead!

Skip and our narrator, Skip's friend Don, a credentialed mining engineer, are still on the moon when mankind's first ever interstellar expedition returns to Luna from its mission to Proxima Centauri.  When Skip learns that in the Proxima Centauri system are two planets that are a binary pair, kinda like Earth and Luna but both fertile and teeming with life, he becomes determined to finagle a way to get on the second mission to PC, leaving in a few months.  Don gets a spot on the ship thanks to his engineering degree and work experience, but Skip has no such credentials or references;  how is a nobody like him going to secure a berth on the human race's one and only star ship?  He tries to leverage his good looks and make time with the captain's niece, the mission's biologist, but that doesn't quite work.  So, just hours before lift off, he gets the ship's least skilled crewman (scullion in the galley) drunk and then punches his lights out; when said scullion doesn't show up during roll call, Skip is right there to volunteer, Don attesting to his buddy's extensive experience in kitchens.

Hyperspace is perilous, and the "recorder" dies en route to PC, and Skip is given the job because he has a way with words and an idiosyncratic point of view.  (Who is now going to clean the galley we never learn.)  The crew explores one of the binary planets, and it is one hazard after another, and many people are killed as they study the many ruined cities and the clever, aggressive native flora and fauna.  As the casualties mount, Skip acquires more and more authority.  (That biologist also falls in love with him.)  He pursues his theory that civilizations on a binary planet whose partner is vibrantly alive advance more quickly than those on a planet like Earth whose twin is dead.  He makes contact with the super advanced natives, beings of pure energy who transitioned to that form after making the transition from flesh and blood people to people with robot bodies.  Skip's relationship with these aliens saves the expedition when they help repair the hyperdrive, the mechanics and engineers who were responsible for the drive having been killed.  

Back in our solar system, Skip marries the biologist and becomes a famous hero with an honorary degree and plans to explore more alien worlds.

Gallun does a good job depicting the trip through hyperspace and with all the various artifacts and creatures on the alien planet, and Skip is an interesting sort of character.  Thumbs up!  

Our freunds over in Deutschland reprinted "Brother Worlds" in an original Gallun collection in the 1980s, and in our own wild and crazy 21st century the good folks at Ramble House included it in their collection of Gallun tales. 


Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more coverage of SF magazines from before I was born. 

Rotting Hill by Wyndham Lewis

I decided to take a little break from SF this week and focus on one of my other interests, the circle of writers associated with American ex-patriates Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.  I read T. E. Hulme's poems from Pound's 1912 Ripostes, H. D.'s 1916 collection of poems Sea Garden and the contributions of Richard Aldington to the 1917 anthology Some Imagist Poets.  Then I advanced the clock over thirty years forward to read a 1951 collection of stories by painter, novelist and all around interesting character Wyndham Lewis, Rotting Hill, who consciously built up a reputation, what today we might call a "brand," as "The Enemy." 

(You'll perhaps remember how much I enjoyed Lewis's 1954 novel based on the time he spent in Canada during World War II, Self Condemned.  I have also read Lewis's forgettable The Vulgar Streak and his difficult Tarr.)

Rotting Hill, its title a pun on the famous neighborhood where he resides, is a reflection of Lewis's feelings about postwar England, which he sees as a total wreck, populated by people who want to pretend the wreck has not in fact been total.  Here are some choice quotes from Lewis's Foreword:    

...all England seemed to have decided to forget that it had lost everything, and to live philosophically from day to day upon the Dole provided by the United States.

If an aristocratic society suddenly drops to pieces, after many centuries, and if a mercantile class of enormous power and wealth drops to pieces at the same time, there is inevitably a scene of universal wreckage and decay, as when demolition work is in progress.
This wreckage is the result of two World Wars and the socialist government which has taken over in their aftermath to levy ruinous taxes and provide handouts which sap the work ethic.  But Lewis doesn't in his Foreword necessarily blame the current government's politicians and supporters personally for the disaster; rather, the current state of the English people--"shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt"--is "the fault of everybody or of nobody...let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity."

Socialism is merely the name of something which is happening to us, something which could not otherwise than happen, in view of all historical factors present, above all the proliferation of mechanical techniques. 

Lewis argues that socialism is the inevitable development of nineteenth-century liberalism, which was itself an outgrowth of Christianity, and that religion is required for socialism to function at all--without some kind of "supernatural sanction," almost nobody would even consider willingly give up his goods to help his "less fortunate fellows."  

...a long process of religious conditioning...has led us to a point at which we empower the State to deprive us of practically everything.  This is the work of Jesus.
(Late in the book Lewis suggests that now that Christianity is dead, socialism is going to be totally dysfunctional, that state police terrorism is no substitute for the drug that is religion.) 

Lewis ends his lively and provocative foreword with a little piece of advice:

...look upon the politician as it is best to look upon a war, as a visitation of the Fiend.
The main text of Rotting Hill is over 300 pages long and consists of nine stories, followed by an "Envoi."  These stories illustrate and dramatize the ideas Lewis states in the Foreword, and related ideas, and largely consist of people arguing about socialism or suffering poor service, bad food, shoddy  consumer products and the like, though there are some human interest plots: in Chapter 1 a guy loses his job; in Chapter 5 a guy wants to marry a woman he's been in love with for 20 or 30 years and suddenly realizes they are incompatible; in Chapter 4 a guy who pursues fame gets out of the spotlight and decides to change his way of living (or maybe is just exchanging one artificial persona for another.)

Lewis is a good writer and his style here is smooth and easy to read, and of course I am sympathetic to his anti-government agenda, enjoy the fact that the cultural touchstones of the book are things I know about and love--such as Samuel Johnson and the Pre-Raphaelites--that people in my real life never talk about, and like that Lewis throws around a lot of words I almost never, or literally never, encounter and have to look up, like sizar, moujik, reredos and gossoon.  

So I liked Rotting Hill, but I don't know that I can recommend it to a general audience that doesn't share my particular interest in Lewis; this is essentially a collection of fiction about the current events of 73 years ago, and it isn't a literary masterpiece that is timeless because it is full of insight into the universal elements of the human condition or characters whose relationships pull your heartstrings, like Moby Dick or Of Human Bondage or In Search of Lost Time.  As a historical document it is useful, but it is just one guy's perspective, more a work of political philosophy than history or science--it doesn't have charts and graphs full of statistics about the British economy or anything like that.

If anybody is interested, below we have my little (but probably not little enough!) summaries of and comments about those nine stories and the final envoi.          


"1: The Bishop's Fool"

The narrator of this chapter, and most of the stories in the book, is a version of Lewis himself; an artist and writer who spends time in the Reading Room of the British Museum reading serious books, meets with ministers of Parliament, is the frequent recipient of letters from people who want to interview him, and sells his paintings and drawings.  This first chapter is a sort of character study of a guy whom Lewis meets for the first time in the B. M. Reading Room and who sort of forces his friendship upon an initially reluctant Lewis and buys one of Lewis's drawings ("a large, strongly coloured gouache of a number of nude horsemen") even though he cannot afford it.

This guy, Samuel Hartley Rymer, is a rural clergyman with a beautiful wife, and Lewis uses him to illustrate and dramatize the kinds of arguments he makes in the Foreword about the rot which has set in in England: English people have abandoned formal religion and the Church of England is in terminal decline; socialism is a descendent of Christianity that, while a development of 19th-century liberalism, can't make any improvements on that liberalism's material achievements and instead by imposing all kinds of taxes and regulations is diminishing people's freedoms.  

Rymer is an ambiguous character, a mix of positive and negative attributes, an irritating know-it-all full of dumb ideas based on ignorance, but also a sort of pathetic victim of social changes which keep him from making use of his admirable qualities--Lewis suggests he is at once both a clown and a man capable of heroism.  Relatively few of the story's page count is devoted to plot; Lewis describes Rymer and his milieu and then he and the clergyman have conversations in which Rymer expresses his unwavering support for the socialist government (he dismisses all complaints of shortages and rationing) and his sympathy for the Soviet Union (Rymer thinks Britain should stop trading with the United States and instead embrace a relationship with the USSR as well as save money by disbanding the, to him, unnecessary British military establishment.)   

The plot of this story, such as it is, concerns Rymer's position as head of the local church.  The most prominent local farmer fears Rymer threatens his livelihood by indoctrinating his workers with leftist ideas and so seeks to have Rymer sent off by the Church authorities, but the Bishop and Archdeacon don't see anything wrong with Rymer and he maintains his position for a decade.  But then the farmer starts a fight with Rymer in a pub, and, ironically, the workers whose rights Rymer was always championing side with their boss, corroborating his bogus allegations that Rymer was the aggressor and had been drinking, even though Rymer never threw a punch and doesn't drink.  The Church authorities have no choice but to transfer Rymer.

At 76 pages, this is the longest portion of Rotting Hill.     

"2: My Fellow Traveller to Oxford"  

Lewis on a train meets a 30-something university student whose class he is not initially able to determine: 

What a man wears is no longer, in England, any indication of his economic status.  It is not a classless society yet, but it is a uniformly shabby one.

Spurred by a Unesco book of essays on the topic of Human Rights, the travelers discuss the difference between the political rights the English tradition has always emphasized, like freedom of speech and freedom of movement, and the new economic and social rights which the Soviet government has emphasized, basically the right to various handouts.  A major theme of the discussion is fear of a war between the West and the Communist East; while Lewis suggests such a war would be imperialist and not ideological because Britain under the Labour government and America under the Democratic Party are moving in a collectivist direction and offering plenty of the novel economic and social rights and maybe the USSR will eventually develop political rights, the student scoffs at the idea of the development of political freedoms in the Soviet Union, saying that bourgeois liberalism is just a scam that affords capital the means of exploiting labor and that the people of the USSR have no interest whatsoever in so-called political rights.

"3: The Rot"

Lewis tells us that post-war London is plagued with dry rot due to so many buildings having been untenanted during the war; he also theorizes that the fungus that is the rot propagates in the ruins of houses hit by German bombs.  His apartment suffers the rot, and this chapter describes the months-long work of replacing the rotten wood in the Lewis apartment.  The operation takes a long time partly because of the rationing of wood, a problem exacerbated by the fact that, according to Lewis, the socialist government is hostile to London and prioritizes Northern industrial towns when distributing supplies.  Another reason for the slow progress of the repairs is that the workers, buoyed by the collapse of the upper and middle classes and the triumph of socialism at the elections, goof off most of the day instead of working and actively resent Lewis and other educated and/or wealthy people and intentionally try to annoy them by making noise and inconveniencing them.

"4: The Room Without a Telephone"

This is a story told in the third-person, Lewis not appearing.

Paul Eldred is a successful historian, one of the most prominent of his generation, a guy with many admirers among the educated who is always giving talks.  He is something of a phony who pretend to hate attention and to resent receiving mail, getting phone calls, and having visitors, when in fact just the opposite is the case--he relishes all such evidence of his fame and the admiration of others.  Eldred self-consciously has taken Samuel Johnson as his model, and is always sort of putting on an act, endeavouring to appear a great man.

Eldred needs some dental work done, and the first part of this story includes loads of dialogue in which Eldred and friends gripe about the recent government take over of the medical system, which they think has introduced inefficiencies and corruption ("jobs for the boys"); Eldred's primary physician tells how a hospital used to have a single clerk and all the paperwork got done on time, but now that the government is running the hospital it has fifteen clerks and the paperwork is always behind.  Eldred opines that this is a spoils system, designed to build an army of voters reliant on and loyal to the government, and asserts the same thing was done by the Roosevelt administration in America.

Eldred retires for a few days to a Catholic nursing home to have his dental work done, and finds that the isolation--he doesn't even read books or the newspaper!--does him good; not feeling the need to put on his great man act means he can relax.  There is a potentially dangerous complication in his procedure, and he ends up staying in the nursing home over two weeks; he becomes fascinated by the nuns, even considering writing a history of their order, even considering becoming a monk!  When he finally returns to his old life he is a changed man; he has replaced the statue of Buddha in his office with an engraving of a Madonna, and taken up the "abstractedness" and mannerisms of some of the nuns at the nursing home.  But is this a legitimate change of character, or just another bogus persona he has taken up in place of his earlier one?

"5: Time the Tiger"

This is another tale told in the third-person omniscient, and the most conventionally entertaining portion of Rotting Hill.  It has an actual plot, and, is strengthened by the fact that, in addition to banging away at the book's pervasive and particular theme of how terrible socialism is, it offers the reader the interesting and related subtheme of how intrusive politics damages friendships, as well as the unrelated but quite universal theme of how sexual relationships (or the pursuit thereof) can damage friendships.

Mark and Charles are middle-class men in their forties who have been friends for two decades or more.  Mark, son of a doctor, lives in London and is working at the Ministry of Education; Charles, son of a lawyer, is a country farmer who sells his goods on the black market.  Charles is staying with Mark for a few days because he has an appointment with an eye doctor in town.

Throughout the story the two men, sometimes together and sometimes individually, face a myriad of problems with services and goods--food is bad, the doctor's office is dirty, clothing is shoddy, bifocal spectacles are in short supply, etc.  Socialist Mark always blames the greed of capital and the toxicity of the profit motive, while Charles blames the socialist government's taxes and regulations.  There is quite a bit of business about which of the two men is the real rebel, why Mark became a socialist, how the postwar reforms have radically altered the life of gentry types like Charles' family, etc.  

Much of the story's text is taken up with their arguments about the government and socialism.  A change of pace, however, is provided by themes related to the passing of time.  The two friends see a French film called Time the Tiger and this phrase and the idea that time is a monster that devours people is a sort of recurring motif of the chapter.  The three main characters of the story are sort of living in the past, seeing themselves as people of the Twenties.  Mark and Charles speak at some length about the way the 20th century has seen radical change in just a short period of time, what with the airplane, automobile, telephone, radio, television and atomic weapons revolutionizing everybody's lives in just five decades.

As for the plot, it revolves around the fact that Mark has been in love with Charles's sister Ida forever, but never made a move on her, and has not seen her for ten years, since before the war.  She married some other guy, but he got killed in a horse riding accident; Lewis seems to imply that Ida is no prize, and one of the ways he does so is by suggesting she manipulated that poor bastard, who was no horseman, into taking up riding because it is what people of her class do.  The climax of "Time the Tiger" is the lunch where Mark meets Ida again.  For a while the three reminisce happily about their lives in the 1920s, and Mark thinks he will marry Ida, who has not yet lost her looks, but then Ida reveals herself to be a ferocious fire-breathing Conservative, calling Aneurin Bevan "a filthy little man" and declaring that the "ex-dock labourers, asiatics and corporation lawyers" who are running the country are "traitors" who should be hanged.  This lunch not only sees Mark's dreams of marriage to Ida dashed, but destroys his long friendship with Charles.

After Charles returns to the country, Mark decides to marry a woman he knows, "a good party-woman, with a pretty face."  (This guy has evolved into a pinko, but he isn't a feminist yet and so still judges women by their looks.)

"6: Mr. Patrick's Toy Shop"

Lewis returns as narrator for this story, which is a character study of Patrick, a Yorkshireman who, after service in the army as an engineer, has lived and run a store in London for seventeen years.  This guy has contempt for his adopted city, saying that Londoners are all "spivs" who produce nothing of value.  Patrick is a cunning businessman but also a stalwart supporter of the Labour Party and has a good-natured recognition of his own hypocrisy.

There is no plot to this one, but a lot of theories as to why the English manufactured goods of 1949 are so poor.

"7: The Talking Shop"

This 14-page section is more like an op-ed than a story, with neither plot nor character.  Lewis describes the inside of Parliament from the point of view of a visitor, and tells us that the Tories are not going to turn back the clock on socialism, that they are just stooges for the leftists and themselves recognize that the conditions of the world make absolutist power inevitable; Lewis also argues that if somebody blew up Parliament, massacring the ministers, it wouldn't matter because Parliament is no longer really running the country, it is just a rubber-stamp machine.

Mr. Churchill, landscape-painter and war-historian, too old for active leadership, is the very perfect symbol for this token-Opposition.
Rightists as much as leftists would acquire as much power as Stalin tomorrow if that were feasible--all were absolutists under their skins.... 
"8: My Disciple"  

Lewis tells us he receives many letters from people who want to meet him, but throws most away unread, and in this story relates how he made an exception, agreeing to meet a guy whose letter came from an address in an unfashionable neighborhood.  This guy turns out to be a former professional soldier (a serjeant) who served in India for seventeen years and then, upon returning to England, took advantage of a grant from the Labour government to become an art teacher in a school for poor kids.  He can't paint or sculpt himself, and isn't interested in actually teaching, and gives the kids no direction, encouraging them to paint on the walls of the classroom, and sculpt whatever they want in plasticine--given free rein, the kids sculpt penises and tell adults they are lighthouses.  Sarge insists that true art is "spontaneous" and "innocent" and tells Lewis that his calling is to encourage in people an enthusiasm for art.  

Sarge has come calling on Lewis because he has read Lewis's books and found them stimulating and wants some advice from the man himself.  Sarge has gotten a job at a new college as art-director, and seeks Lewis's advice on how to "make engineers art-conscious" and inspire enthusiasm in them.  Sarge doesn't want to make the students draw models or any old-fashioned thing like that.  Lewis doesn't have any advice.  

As he does with the other clownish figures in this book, Lewis expresses sympathy as well contempt for this guy--the art world is full of parasites and scammers, and Lewis prefers the hard-scrabbling Sarge to higher-class, better-educated charlatans.

"9: Parents and Horses"

This final numbered chapter comes across as a piece of journalism, with interviews and lots of quotes from documents.  I thought maybe Lewis had Ezra Pound in mind when he was writing this one, as usury, one of Pound's bugbears, and the Social Credit theory, one of Pound's hobby horses, appear prominently in this story.

Lewis goes to a country village and laments that farms nowadays lack horses, everything being done by machine.  He has left London to interview a clergyman who is illegally running a school for kids under ten--the government has decreed that rural schools be centralized and all rural kids be transported some miles from their villages to schools run by government experts, schools which are quite unaccountable to parents or teachers.  Many villagers see this as an attack on the traditional family structure and likely to cause the village to wither away, and when Lewis comes by to do his reporting the villagers are working together under the leadership of the vicar to resist and run their own "Parents' School."  Not long after, however, the exhausted volunteers abandon this quixotic effort and the Parents' School is dissolved.   

One of the themes of this chapter is how the socialists of 1949 fetishize industry, perhaps taking a cue from the USSR, where "industry was made into a power-god," and seek to turn everything, from farms to schools, into factories.  Lewis suggests that, the same way that horses are seen as an obsolete component of agriculture, that parents are seen in the new socialist Britain as an obsolete component of education, an actual obstacle to good pedagogical practice.

Lewis ends the chapter with his theories on why religion is in collapse in England, suggesting that the Church of England is too open-minded, that an institution which permits such diversity among its clergy that some clergymen are outspoken Marxists and others are actual papists lacks the rigidity needed to survive long term.   

"Envoi: The Rot Camp"

In this brief and somewhat surreal episode Lewis takes a walk in his neighborhood, going to pubs and the reading room and a shooting gallery, meeting silly characters everywhere he goes.  Lewis tells a conservative that the Tory party is no better than the Labour party, that the State is a monster that reflects the true nature of its citizens.  He visits a fortune teller, a shooting gallery, and gives change to an old beggar woman who represents the worn out and emaciated Britannia, her trident a crutch.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec 1948: L R Hubbard, G O Smith and R Bradbury

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading the December 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.  In our last episode we remarked upon its eye-catching cover and interior illos, a letter from Lin Carter (whose tale of Atlantean sorcery and political upheaval The Black Star we recently read) and the fiction by Murray Leinster, Frank Belknap Long and Charles L. Harness to be found within its pages.  But there is a lot more in the ish to talk about!

The December '48 editorial, presumably by editor Sam Merwin, discusses the fact that so much SF is "preoccupied" with "dictatorship" and "uncontrolled power" and "the conspiratorial struggle for power" and suggests that many SF writers identify with, or find attractive the idea of, "all-powerful demagogues" and laments that "The ideals of democracy and anarchism, thanks to their very decentralization of power, will never, we fear, offer visions as least, to any but the truly mature, of whom he have all too few."  The editorial also praises Ray Bradbury for writing SF that focuses on ordinary people instead of scientists and rulers.

There are also plenty of fun ads in the issue that threaten to offend some 21st-century readers.  Most noteworthy is perhaps the full-page ad for "hi-ball" glasses with George Petty pin-up girls printed on them--we are assured that these glasses will make your parties "the gayest and most hilarious in your crowd."  (As I write this, you can see a quite good color photo of the glasses at this link.)  For all you students of the history of the pet industry, there is an ad for a book on how to raise hamsters, "the new wonder animals from Syria" that are "often called Toy Bears."  Followers of fashion may find themselves intrigued by an offer for silver rings with the image of a wolf on them ("Girls!  Give this ring to the wolves you know!") and there is also an ad for Santa Claus masks "made by world's greatest mask artist" that will purportedly make people "gasp amazed" because it is "so real."  (If you are naughty rather than nice, the same company has "Satan," "Blackface" and "Idiot" masks available--I have a feeling it is one of these masks that would make the people of today "gasp amazed!")

Now, on to the fiction!

"240,000 Miles Straight Up" by L. Ron Hubbard

Lieutenant Cannon Gray is an officer in the U.S. Army Air Force, a soldier renowned for his ability to drink hard, party hard, and generally get into trouble--he has even earned the ironic nickname "Angel."  Angel has been selected to be the first human to fly to the moon, which you smarty smarts are probably already well aware is on average approximately 240,000 miles away from Earth, because he is the lightest topographer in the Army, and the lighter the one-man crew of the automatic rocket is, the more cargo it can carry.  

The surprise climax of the jocular first chapter of "240,000 Miles Straight Up" is that Angel's trip is cancelled at the last minute because the Soviet Union reveals it has a military base on the moon and the commies blackmail the Earth into submission!

In Chapter II, Angel and we readers learn that the Soviet general on the moon, Slavinsky, has rebelled against Moscow and has declared himself dictator of the world.  He has demanded that the USA send him needed supplies the Soviet government is withholding, and the President has decided to comply, as the Russian force on the moon can easily nuke US cities and is immune from retaliation.  Slavinsky, and two men he selects, are to take the American rocket to the moon to deliver the supplies and collect intelligence while doing so.

Chapters III to V describe how Angel and his two companions get to the moon, trick the rebels and defeat them with a bazooka, grenades, and poison gas.  And then comes the twist ending to the story--the Soviet conquest of the moon and Angel's commando seizure of the Slavinsky base were all a dream!  (This was foreshadowed by glaring incongruities in the narrative that I gullibly thought were just authorial and editorial errors.  Your humble blogger is a sucker!)  Angel wakes up after a night of partying and heads to the moon on schedule.

Hubbard of course gets a lot of guff for his crazy scam religion, but he isn't a bad writer, and this story is quite entertaining before the irritating let down of the it-was-all-a-dream ending.  The style is smooth and the little jokes are sort of funny and at least don't distract the reader from the plot or diminish the adventure-story atmosphere.  I enjoyed all the SF stuff, the descriptions of space travel and the surface of the moon and so forth.  (Presumably the science of what conditions are like on the moon--the deep layers of pumice dust and the rain of meteors and so on, is inaccurate, but it is a good setting for an adventure tale.)  This story also attacks the Soviet Union more directly and fiercely than SF stories generally do, which I guess might irritate unreconstructed pinkos but which of course I appreciate; the thing that irritates me is stories that try to push an equivalency between the West and the USSR or have Cold War plots but refer to a vague and undefined "enemy."  

While reading the chase scenes and fight scenes and descriptions of the lunar landscape I was expecting to give this one a thumbs up, but after that deflating ending I am just marking this one "acceptable."  Why oh why do authors use this frustrating it-was-all-a-dream device?  Exasperating!

"240,000 Miles Straight Up" would not be reprinted until 1993 in a hardcover Hubbard collection that seems to have had only a small press run, but would appear in a more conventionally produced collection in 2014, One Was Stubborn.       

"The Mobius Trail" by George O. Smith 

This story is about inventor Joseph Kingsley, who invents what the story calls a 'teleport" but which perhaps we of 2022 would call a "wormhole."  This is a 3-inch broad hole in the universe, one side of which is attached to Kingsley's apparatus; the other hangs in the air, and with his knobs and verniers Kingsley can move that other side of the hole around the world, looking through it and even reaching in to grab items and and pull them into his lab (provided they can fit through a 3-inch wide hole, of course.)  Once the test runs of the three-incher have succeeded, Kinglsey builds a teleport large enough for a person to climb through.

I kind of expected the portal to be used to meet aliens or something, but instead of being an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style story in which a guy goes to some foreign environment and meets a princess and fights the princess's enemies, "The Mobius Trail" is a mystery story with police procedural and hard-boiled elements.

When things go through the teleport they are reversed--for example, when Kingsley guides the other end of the hole into a store after hours and buys a pack of cancer sticks by pulling it through the hole and leaving a quarter in its place, the printing on the pack is now backwards.  When the store owner opens up in the morning he finds a quarter on which George Washington is facing the wrong direction.  Smith unleashes some serious chemistry on us when he explains how passing some sugar cubes through the teleport causes the sugar to taste less sweet.

The federal government very quickly gets a hold of the freak coin and starts an investigation into who is monkeying with the Uncle Sam's currency, and we get plenty of scenes of cops jawing about fingerprints and interviewing people and pursuing leads and all that.  Meanwhile, a dangerous criminal, currently incarcerated, and his sexy partner, who is still on the streets, find out about the teleport, and the girl pretends to be a journalist and uses her feminine wiles to get Kingsley to explain and demonstrate the secret device to her.  When Kingsley isn't looking, she uses the egghead's invention to help the convict escape the big house.  We get a scene of sexualized violence against women as the criminal mastermind smacks his girlfriend around as part of a ruse to keep Kingsley from suspecting the two are in cahoots.

The most science-fictiony, sensawunda thing about the story is how people who go through the portal see the world as reversed; after you go through the portal you have to hold books up to a mirror to comfortably read them, and if somebody tells you to turn right at an intersection you have to remember to take the fork that appears to you to be the left one.  This confusion leads to the capture of the criminals after a pretty lengthy series of scenes of pursuit, capture, escape, and fighting; the criminals have a fortified hideout and the government has to beak out the bazookas to penetrate its walls (lots of bazookas in this episode of MPorcius Fiction Log) and these dastardly fiends have even mined the hideout to explode and kill any investigators who might make their way inside, like its HMS Campbeltown or something.  After committing so many atrocities I expected the criminals, or at least the man, to be killed, but Smith refuses to give us this catharsis--the two crooks are merely captured, though I suppose in 1948 we can hope they get the death penalty. 

I personally don't care much about clues and all that, so the mechanics of how the cops figure out where the criminals are didn't do anything for me, though I recognize Smith did a competent job of this stuff, just like he does a decent job with the science lectures about sugar molecules and how the curvature of space makes the teleport possible.  What interests me in crime stories is the psychology of the characters--the fear of the victims, the evil or warped desires of the criminals, the righteous and perhaps unhealthy anger of the avengers.  Unfortunately Smith does very little to give his characters personality--we have little idea what exactly is driving Kingsley to invent the teleport, what drove the criminals to devote their lives to robbing and murdering people, and what drove the lead Fed to become a cop--and Smith doesn't do much with their emotions during the chases and fights, either.  So, we'll grade "The Mobius Trail" acceptable. 

"The Mobius Trail" has never been reprinted, it seems.

"The Off Season" by Ray Bradbury

(I still remember going to the Virgin Megastore on Union Square to get the Beth Gibbons CD Out of Season when it came out.  Good times, good times.)

"The Off Season" is one of the famous Martian Chronicles stories and so has been reprinted a million times in over a dozen languages.  As with all three of today's stories, I am reading it in the 1948 magazine via a scan at the internet archive; maybe the story was revised for book publication.

"The Off Season," like a high proportion of SF stories, portrays human beings as violent hotheaded jerks, contrasting us with some noble aliens with a more admirable psychology and sociology.  I guess this story is also a sort of allegory of European conquest of the Americas and maybe Western imperialism in general.

An aggressive and excitable New Yorker and his wife are among the first colonists of Mars.  This guy has opened the first hot dog stand on Mars, putting it at the intersection of two ancient Martian highways which he assumes will be used by thousands upon thousands of Earth colonists any moment now.  The hot dog stand was built of parts from a crashed rocket, and the sidewalk to it is decorated with broken glass taken from one of the many abandoned Martian cities--I guess we are supposed to see this hot dog guy as a scavenger and a looter.  (Ray seems to be taking swipes at New York and business people in this story--ouch!)

Mars is littered with many ancient highways and cities, but less than two hundred actual Martians are left, and Bradbury describes these survivors in a way that makes them seem as brittle and frail as their cities, which collapse at the slightest blow.  Some of these Martians try to talk to the hot dog man, but he is dismissive of them; when one produces an item from his robe the Earthman, thinking it a weapon, overreacts, whipping out his own gun and killing the innocent native.  The Earth couple flees in a stolen Martian sailboat that travels over the dry ocean basins, and Martians take up the pursuit in similar boats.  With his slug pistol the New Yorker destroys those fragile Martian cities they sail by and kills some of his pursuers but the Terrans are finally caught; the peace-loving Martians, however, do not harm them physically.  Instead they formally, and apparently sarcastically, award the hot dog man ownership of half of the planet; then they encourage him to get his restaurant ready, as it is going to be a big important night, which they know because with their telepathy they always know what is going on on Earth.  The eager beaver restauranteur assumes the big event is going to be the arrival of a fleet of rockets full of hungry customers, but that night, as the first page of the story foreshadowed (and Thrilling Wonder Stories' editorial spoiled), Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war--making a mistake or just exercising poetic license, Bradbury has his characters watch the Earth go to pieces from the surface of the red planet with their naked eyes.  



Today's stories are not bad, but they are not as good as the three stories from Thrilling Wonder December '48 that we read for our last blogpost; I feel like there was a lot more going on in those stories, and that they had more human feeling and that they concluded in a satisfying way.  Bradbury's story is well put together, but do I need another of these humans-are-jerks anti-imperialism stories?  Not really.  Hubbard's story follows the form of the commando adventure story, and Smith's that of the hard-boiled crime story, but then they fail to deliver on the promises of those conventional templates without actually subverting their conventions in a way that is interesting or exciting.

Still, this is a great issue of Thrilling Wonder and if I had a George Petty high ball glass I would raise it in honor of all the people who contributed to it.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec 1948: M Leinster, F B Long and C L Harness

Thrilling Wonder Stories was published under that title from 1936 to 1955; in our last episode we looked at an issue from the first year of that run, the December '36 issue.  Today we fast forward twelve years to the December 1948 issue to read stories by Murray Leinster, Frank Belknap Long and Charles L. Harness.  This issue is packed full of stories by people we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and in our next episode we'll read the stories by Ray Bradbury, George O. Smith and L. Ron Hubbard included in its pages.  There's also a tale by Frederic Brown in here, "Knock," which we've already read--I blogged about it in 2018--and one by John D. MacDonald, "A Child is Crying," that we covered in the blog's early days in 2014.    

The fiction in this issue is very attractive, but--wow!--look at that cover.  Irresistible, eh, wot?  Who could see such a thing on the newsstand and pass it by?  Looking beyond Earle Bergey's hypnotic cover, on the inside pages we find many interior illustrations by Virgil Finlay, including one of a bazooka team in space suits which is pretty awesome, so this issue is truly a feast for the eyes.  

In the letters column, we see a missive from Lin Carter weighing in on the August issue.  He attacks the cover (which I have to agree is below average) and praises Henry Kuttner's "Happy Ending."  (I blogged about "Happy Ending," which isfdb suggests was co-written with Kuttner's wife C. L. Moore, back in 2019.)  That August '48 issue also has stories by Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Murray Leinster, so I will probably be checking it out some day, lifespan permitting.

"The Ghost Planet" by Murray Leinster 

The background to "The Ghost Planet" is kind of a downer.  Earth is suffering overpopulation which is putting pressure on the food supply and enduring an economic depression that the world government and the monopolistic Guilds are incompetent to relieve.  Mankind has reached out to the inner planets and the moons of the gas giants, but found no place worth colonizing, and space exploratory expeditions are plagued by psychological problems!

Our hero, Tom Drake, is the youngest member of the expedition to Titan, and the most level-headed, and he and a real mental case are dispatched from the Titan expedition in the emergency craft to return to Earth to get the reading material and television recordings that will, hopefully, solve the morale problem on Titan.  His companion goes so bonkers he has to be sedated, so Tom is left in sole charge of the little space vessel and so he is the only person to see that strange spherical mist out by Mars, a mist which seems to move under its own power and to be trying to intercept Tom's ship!

The mist, which has the shape of a sphere a thousand feet across, envelops the little ship, and Tom feels like he is being watched.  Then the mist leaves.  When Tom tells his colleague and then peeps on Earth about the mist they think he is mentally ill and he loses his job!  

Months later a similar mist sphere drifts down to Earth and the entire world sees it on TV.  Tom's friend Lan Hardy is affianced (these old SF stories are full of engaged couples) to Kit McGuire, the daughter of former World President McGuire, and so Tom has a chance to compare notes with Prez. McGuire (who naturally has many connections and sources, and had a real job as an engineer before going into the filthy business of politics) and they realize that the thousand-foot spheres of mist are scouts sent by a huge globe of mist out there that they dub "the ghost planet."  Tom theorizes that the ghost planet is from another universe that intersects with our universe on only one dimension, like a cork floating on the surface of water.  The sphere scouts and ghost planet have no apparent mass or gravity and don't show up on radar because they are mostly in that other universe and only peeking into ours.  The people of the ghost planet have obviously solved the problem of interstellar travel, and Tom and Prez. McGuire roll up their sleeves and burn the midnight oil in McGuire's lab, seeking a way to communicate with the aliens so that we too can travel among the stars and discover planets which we can colonize and ease all that population pressure.

The scout spheres start kidnapping individuals, turning them into mist and then flying off with them.  A sphere that turns a man into mist itself becomes slightly less misty and more "real."  (Tom and McGuire give a lot of science lectures about these phenomena.)  Tom and the Prez figure out how to resist these raids and how to negotiate with the aliens without any help from the government, who are portrayed as a bunch of jerks who are going to escalate the situation into an all-out planet destroying war.  Lan is little better, taking credit for Tom and McGuire's discoveries and inventions and getting a sweet appointment with the tyrannical government as leader of the defense.  The world government seizes all private space craft to build a space fleet to attack the ghost planet, but Tom and McGuire, accompanied by Kit who has called off her engagement to Lan, avert a cataclysmic war by striking a deal with the ghost people, who only kidnapped those people to study them in search of a cure for cancer.  The Earth conquered cancer decades ago, and we trade that medical info for the aliens' interstellar drive so all our problems are solved.  Kit and Tom decide to get married and we are assured that in a few months the happy couple will be exploring the galaxy and finding new worlds on which to settle and build a better civilization.

This is a pretty good short novel, and there are a lot of little facets to it besides its fun depictions of space travel and engineers saving Earth from a devastating war and opening up the galaxy to colonization.  Leinster offers readers a satire of politics and of such phenomena of mass culture as televised sports, the news media and TV, and a depiction of an overpopulated world.  There are also little jokes, like how Lan is more interested in making out with Kit than helping McGuire and Tom work in the lab, and how the first man captured by the aliens is an absurd fat guy who runs an artificial flower factory and is seized by the Lincoln Monument in Cleveland, which Leinster tells us, more than once, is ugly. 

(Feminists may object to the character of Kit McGuire, who comes off as flighty, fickle and suggestible, a woman who needs the guidance of a strong man, and whose role in the plot seems to be to serve as a barometer of how admirable other characters are and as a reward for Tom's demonstrations of ability and moral strength.)  

Thumbs up for "The Ghost Planet."  My endorsement is perhaps a rare one, as it seems this story has never been reprinted.

"Fuzzy Head" by Frank Belknap Long

"Fuzzy Head" is a sad story about parenthood, and an example of Long going poetical on us with lots of similes and metaphors; it is also a "meta" story in which one of the characters is a reader of SF magazines and comments on how his life resembles the plot of so many science fiction stories.

Long tells the story out of order in flashbacks, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the second person, but I’ll just summarize the plot in linear fashion.

Stephen Ambler was on the crew of a U. S. Navy aircraft observing an atomic explosion at Bikini Atoll.  Soon after he got married and his wife Helen gave birth to their son a year later.  Little Johnny is somewhat odd, exceptionally intelligent and living in a fantasy world in which he is himself immortal and in which his doll, which looks like an old man and has been named by him Fuzzy Head, is alive.  At age 8 the boy starts calling out to the stars at night, saying he is sick of living on Earth and begging someone to come collect him, and Mom gets pretty upset. Dad, trying to lighten the mood, tells his wife that because he was irradiated at Bikini their son is a super mutant like in all the science fiction stories he has read.  Mom is not comforted by Stephen's comedy stylings.

We realize the extent of Johnny’s superpowers when we witness him playing with Fuzzy Head; the kid can turn Fuzzy Head inside out with his mind and his working of his powers on the doll have imbued its wood and metal with some of his own life force, so that Johnny thinks of himself as Fuzzy Head’s father.  When a mated couple of extra dimensional superhumans come in response to Johnny's cries to adopt the supertyke, the kid is at first thrilled, but when his new parents tell him he has to leave Fuzzy Head behind along with all other mundane human things—including his material body!—Johnny refuses to go without his "son."  The superwoman is pretty upset (in this story women are more emotional than men, something I guess we are today supposed to pretend we don’t believe) because she is desperate to have a child (in this story women really want to have children and don't just see them as obstacles to career and social life) but the superman, a level-headed and logical superguy, realizes that Johnny still hasn’t shed his cocoon of homo sapiens humanity, and has to stay in the mundane material world for a few more years before he can join his adoptive homo superior superparents.

The end of the story is a suspense sequence, as father Stephen resolves to throw Fuzzy Head in the furnace because he fears Johnny may be developing a sort of complex (this story also has a psychology angle.)  Will Johnny's father go through with what amounts to the murder of his grandson?

I found "Fuzzy Head" absorbing, a story much better than Long’s average.  I was legitimately curious to find out what was going to happen, and didn't know whether Johnny was going to leave our material world or remain in it or whether Dad was going to burn up Fuzzy Head or not.  "Fuzzy Head"'s style and themes made me feel like Long was trying to emulate Ray Bradbury, what with how he was waxing poetic and trying to get into the headspace of a precocious child, understand a kids' view of the world and its relation to fantasy, and depict adults' perhaps misguided beliefs about child psychology.
Modern, functional dolls are fearfully and wonderfully made, but old-fashioned dolls speak the language of childhood, of dark unexplored attics, hidden jam pots, and calico-draped dressmaking dummies as slim as mother used to be.

Some children prefer them.
I also thought it clever and literary of Long to portray three families, all in tragic crisis, all with Johnny at their centers—Johnny the human and his biological parents, Johnny the super human and his adoptive alien parents, and Johnny the father of a golem or homunculus or whatever we want to call Fuzzy Head.

Thumbs up!  In his letters, H. P. Lovecraft often credits Long with great erudition and sensitivity and poetic ability, something I can't say I have seen reflected in much of Long's fiction, but we get a glimpse of those qualities and some literary ambition here, and after panning so many of Long's productions, it was sort of thrilling to come upon something of his I can recommend without reservation.

"Fuzzy Head" would be reprinted in the 1948 Long collection The Rim of the Unknown, which our Italian friends reprinted in 1995.  (We've already read some other stories that appear in Rim of the Unknown, including stories about giant arthropods preying on people and one about a surprise invasion from another dimension.)  

"Fruits of the Agathon" by Charles L. Harness

This is the story which inspired the cover that won my heart.  I've never actually read anything by Charles L. Harness before, but his name appears on the cover of this issue of TWS above those of Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown and L. Ron Hubbard, so I guess he was a big draw and I should maybe know more about him.  [UPDATE Oct 21, 2022:  Commenter Lastyear throws some cold water on my "big draw" theory in the comments below; maybe Harness's name is on top because of typographical reasons, i. e., it is longer than the others' names?]  Jacques Sadoul included "Fruits of the Agathon" in his 1978 anthology Les meilleurs récits de Thrilling Wonder Stories so he must have thought this was an above average piece of work, and perhaps representative of what Thrilling Wonder was all about, so maybe it makes sense for me to make my first acquaintance with Harness here.

It is the future--the late 1970s!  One of the most powerful institutions in the world is the Lodge of Freudians, a priesthood of celibate robed psychoanalysts who never sleep--their fatigue is relieved by daily blood transfusions so these jokers can spend 24 hours a day hard at work maintaining peoples' sanity.  When one becomes a Freudian, one abandons all ties to friends and family and has plastic surgery to make his face look like that of all other Freudians.  But today Freudian Toring has been called upon by the Lodge leadership to interact with his father, Dr. Follansbee! 

A bizarre concatenation of events has lead the Lodge to make this request of Toring.  The Lodge has finally perfected the "biostat," a machine that can predict--to the very minute!--your death once it is within three days.  Coincidentally, Dr. Follansbee--the genius who came up with the blood rejuvenation technique that means Freudians never need sleep--has almost completed development of his technique to telepathically contact other minds across time; if his method proves workable, adepts will be able to communicate with anybody in the past and future, even their older or younger selves!  This will be a boon to the Freudians, allowing them to cure people of neuroses much more efficiently!  But the biostat indicates that Dr. Follansbee is about to keel over!  So, the Lodge wants Toring to use his own mind powers, his natural connection to and affinity with his father, and special equipment provided by the Lodge, to inspect and record the operation of Follansbee's mind as the genius performs a feat of cross-time telepathy so his technique will be preserved.

This story is dense and complicated, with lots of characters and lots of science fiction concepts.  Toring's brother Pickerel Follansbee hates their father and wants to kill him and Pickerel's wife Maillon is a famous composer and is dying of a mysterious cancer, which Toring's other brother, Blaine, is trying to cure; the source of Maillon's cancer and Dr. Follansbee's knowledge that he is going to be murdered by one of his own sons are the basis of two of the three or four murder mysteries presented by Harness to readers of "The Fruit of Agathon."  Maillon's father is a top chemist and a billionaire businessman; Maillon's sister Naida is suffering severe psychological trauma and the chemist is trying to get her priority treatment from the Lodge, which has a four-month waiting list for patients.  All this is mixed up with the Lodge's new covert policy, the "agathon" policy; as an epigraph explains to us, "agathon" means "good-death" and the Freudian Lodge's new policy is to secretly murder people whom the biostat tells them are about to die so that their inevitable deaths will provide some benefit to humanity.  Oh, yeah, over the course of the 16-page story the cast collaborates on the invention of artificial eyes and engages in a struggle over management of a major corporation and still has time for a love triangle.  Whew! 

The complicated plot comes to a finale when Toring achieves immortality of a sort by using the technique learned form his now-dead father to imprint his consciousness atop the consciousness of Naida and then commit suicide.  Nobody realizes he has done anything more than cure Naida's mental illness, so Follansbee's special methods remain Toring/Naida's monopoly for the time being.  Because Toring is still "alive" even though his body is dead, the biostat still registers him as alive, so the Lodge thinks the biostat is faulty and so ceases all use of biostats and suspends the agathon policy indefinitely.

I just told you that Frank Belknap Long's "Fuzzy Head" reminded me of Ray Bradbury, and Harness's "Fruits of the Agathon" reminds me of the work of Robert Heinlein, it being an interpersonal drama about the relationships of superior people set in a future world with strange new institutions and types of family relationships.  (And the biostat of course reminds us of Heinlein's famous 1939 tale "Life-Line.")  I'll also note that the rapid advance of mental powers, the paradigm shifts and the plot twists remind me of A. E. van Vogt. 

"Fruits of the Agathon" is a wild and ambitious story full of science lectures, psychic powers, speculation on free will, high technology, and lots of detective and soap opera jazz.  The human drama stuff fails to be moving, the characters being flat archetypes, but it is at least interesting, and all the SF stuff works, so I enjoyed "The Fruits of Agathon."  Thumbs up!


Wow, three good stories.  How often does that happen?  Can we hope that the next three stories we read from the December 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories are equally as successful?  Cross your fingers and be here for the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log to find out!

Monday, October 17, 2022

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Dec '36: E Hamilton, R Cummings and R Z Gallun

It's time to head back to the 1930s, spacefarers!  To sign on to this exploratory expedition you can spend $100 on ebay for a copy of the December 1936 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, or just do what I am going to do, click on over to the internet archive, world's greatest website, to read a scanned copy of "The Magazine of Prophetic Fiction" whose contents are "Stranger Than Truth." 

This issue has lots of great ads that will guide you to the solutions of your romantic problems.  Pimples?  Eat three cakes of Fleischman's Yeast a day.  (Mmmmm...cake.)  Too skinny to pick up chicks?  Start taking regular doses of Ironized Yeast tablets, made from "special cultured ale yeast imported from Europe."  (Better stock up, I have a feeling the supply chain from Europe is about to be seriously disrupted.)  Once you've cleared your skin and packed on the pounds, if you still aren't a hit at parties you can learn how to play the piano--"in just a few months"!--via the U. S. School of Music's special "short cut" method; once you know how to tickle those ivories, you'll be surrounded by "admiring throngs." 

Now that your social life is in order you probably need some alone time; all those parties and dates can tire a guy out!  Let's kick back and read some of the fiction in this ish of Thrilling Wonder, namely the stories contributed by Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings and Raymond Z. Gallun.  We've already read the John W. Campbell, Jr. story from this issue, "The Brain Stealers of Mars."  

"Mutiny on Europa" by Edmond Hamilton

Here's the story that is illustrated on the cover of the December '36 Thrilling Wonder and promoted as a "Complete Novelette of Earthmen in Bondage" on its title page.  (Sadly, whoever put together the cover text for the magazine thinks Europa is a mere asteroid.)  If isfdb is to be believed, "Mutiny on Europa" has only ever been reprinted in an Argentinian magazine that also reprinted the Raymond Z. Gallun story from this number of Thrilling Wonder.

The jungle moon of Europa is Earth's furthest-flung outpost, a penal colony where the solar system's worst criminals are forced to work in the mines!  Our narrator is one of those convicts, Captain John Allan, an officer of the colonial service who was wrongfully convicted of the crime of selling weapons to Venusians!  As our story begins, Allan is toiling away in the mines when a party on a tour of the colony comes by; among the tourists is an adorable young woman, Nura Cain, and her fiancé--Carse Lasser, the very officer who framed Allan!

Driven by an obsessive desire for vengeance on Lasser, Allan leads an escape which involves digging a tunnel under the deadly force screen that surrounds the prison barracks and then sneaking up on the guards and staff.  Once the mutineers are in total control of the colony, Allan challenges Lasser to a duel to the death, but seconds before the death match begins, the native Europans attack the colony en masse and all the humans have to fall back behind that force screen.  The convicts figure out how to escape to the rocket ship that brought Nura Cain and Carse Lasser, but the governor and the other colonial service personnel--and even the woman Nura Cain!--refuse to abandon Europa.  In the end, Allan uses his leadership ability and ingenuity to preserve the colony; luckily for Allan, as Lasser lays dying, a Europan spear in his side, he confesses his crime to the governor and Nura Cain and Allan's record is cleared.  Allan is going to return to the Colonial Service and it looks like he might start making time with Nura Cain himself!  

Hamilton does a good job of depicting the narrator's single-minded lust for revenge--he's like the protagonist of a hard-boiled detective story--and with the escape attempt and the fight with the flipper-handed, spear-throwing natives.  So this is an entertaining tale of violence.

Another thing to consider is that "Mutiny on Europa" is another of Hamilton's nuanced or skeptical takes on space exploration and space imperialism, like "What's It Like Out There?" and "A Conquest of Two Worlds."  Allan gives a whole speech about he devoted his life to the Colonial Service and Earth and he was betrayed by them, though in the end he does realize his duty lies with the service and the people of Earth and he returns to the fold.  In the "The Story Behind the Story" section of this issue Hamilton suggests "science fiction has made too light of the terrible difficulties such colonial expeditions will encounter" and goes on to enumerate the psychological and political obstacles he expects explorers and colonists will face when expanding Man's empire to the planets and interacting with alien civilizations. 

"Trapped in Eternity" by Ray Cummings 

Here's a story that, it appears, has never been reprinted.  Cummings had an interesting career and an interesting relationship with Frederik Pohl, as I talked about briefly back in 2018.  Let's see what Cummings, some of whose science fiction tales as well as salacious horror stories we have read, is serving up for Thrilling Wonder's audience here.

Our narrator is engaged to a beautiful blonde who is blind.  A time machine appears, and the guy from the future who steps out of it immediately takes a shine to blondie.  He takes our hero and heroine along with him back to his native time, where/when he gets a surgeon to fix her glazzies, which in the 26th century is trivially easy same-day surgery.  But when some of his colleagues suggest to our heroes' benefactor that bringing people from the 1930s to the 2530s is against the rules, said time traveller starts murdering them with a ray gun.  He forces the narrator and blondie into the time machine and sets it for the far distant future, saying he is going to sire a new human race with the latter in the period after the one we know and love has gone extinct--the former will make a nice servant.  Blondie turns out to be pretty resourceful, and she and the narrator work together to overpower the chronojaunting kidnapper--he turns out to be a cyborg who has gone haywire.  The three find themselves at the end of the universe, "a great soundless blurred chaos," where/when the cyborg falls out of the time machine into "the silent grey void of Eternity;" our heroes, we are to presume, will be able to travel back in time and live happily ever after.

The plot of "Trapped in Eternity" is pedestrian and Cummings' writing style doesn't elevate it; instead, the story feels like a draft that needed a little editing.  For example, Cummings uses "queer" and "queerly" again and again, like eight times total; he uses the word appropriately enough each time, but the whole story is less than eight pages long, so its overuse is distracting; somebody should have struck out some of those "queer"s with a red pencil and replaced them with "odd"s or "eerie"s or "unnerving"s or something, and it is queer that the editor didn't do it.

Barely acceptable.

"Saturn's Ringmaster" by Raymond Z. Gallun

This is one of those old-fashioned SF stories in which a scientist uses his engineering ability and access to high technology and/or a smart guy uses trickery to overcome plot obstacles and defeat the villain.  "Saturn's Ringmaster" also, to use our 21st-century parlance, demonstrates that "diversity is our strength!"

Raff Orethon is a space pilot in the period during which the human race is colonizing the solar system and interacting with the natives of the various planets and moons.  He is accompanied by Ruzza, a Uranian scientist, who is a creature like a fuzzy softball with tentacles and eye stalks; Orethon finds Ruzza's physique grotesque and his speech irritating, but the Uranian wants to see the solar system and is paying the Earthman good money to be his passenger, so he puts up with the little weirdo.

Orethon was hired by the government to use his fast space boat to carry a model of a brand new style of forcefield generator from Mars to the colony on Titan, which needs protection from a band of human and Martian space pirates lead by Korse Bradlow, who calls himself "The Ringmaster."  But as the story begins Bradlow has shot down Orethon's boat and the odd couple have crash landed on one of the many meteors which make up Saturn's rings.  Bradlow seizes the model from the wreckage while Orethon and Ruzza are still recovering, and flies off, leaving them to die.  Titan is in trouble, because if the pirates can start deploying that cutting edge force field they will be practically invincible!

Ruzza figures out a way to escape the Rings and catch up to Bradlow and Orethon figures out how to outfight the space pirates; our heroes are saved from death, the colonists on Titan are saved from slavery and Orethon's prejudices against and resentments of Ruzza disappear and a true friendship blossoms between Earther and Uranian.

Not bad.  Like Hamilton's "Mutiny on Europa," though, Gallun's "Saturn's Ringmaster" has only ever been reprinted in the first issue of the Argentinian magazine Hombres del Futuro.  


We've already remarked upon the ads in this issue of Thrilling Wonder, but there is still more noteworthy stuff in the magazine beyond the fiction.  For example, Henry Kuttner provides a film review, a pretty harsh assessment of Tod Browning's The Devil Doll starring Lionel Barrymore, a picture based upon A. Merrit's Burn, Witch, Burn!  And Robert A. Lowndes has a letter critiquing the August and October issues of Thrilling Wonder, and he doesn't pull any punches, for example, declaring the cover of the August issue "vile."  He does have plenty of praise, though, including for Stanley Weinbaum and M. Marchioni.


A decent issue from the entertainment standpoint, and I will point out more explicitly what I have already hinted above; all three of today's stories give us reason to question the caricature you sometimes hear of "old" science fiction that suggests women in SF stories printed before some date are always depicted as helpless and aliens are always depicted as murderous monsters and Earth imperialism is always celebrated.  Hamilton's essay in the issue about his story indicates debates about SF's depiction of space exploration were ongoing before World War II.  So we've got some diverting adventure material and perhaps some food for thought for the SF historian.  

This issue of Thrilling Wonder has been so rewarding that we're going to tackle another in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log, so stay tuned!