Monday, November 28, 2022

Sibyl Sue Blue by Rosel George Brown

She led Scaley Moe over to the sofa and sat down next to him.  Odd how Centaurians smelled like stale cigar butts, when what they smoked was benzale.  Still, Sibyl liked the smell of old cigar butts. 
The hardy rogues who follow my twitter account and actually see my tweets are perhaps well aware that I purchased a stack of SF paperbacks on my Thanksgiving week road trip through Virginia and the Carolinas.  One of these finds was a 1972 copy of The Waters of Centaurus, a 1970 novel by Rosel George Brown with a fun cover by Gene Szafran.  I mostly bought it for the cover, but back at MPorcius HQ I decided it should be the first of the stack I would read, seeing as it was by an author new to me and might offer a change of pace.  It quickly came to my attention that the book was a sequel to Brown's 1966 Sibyl Sue Blue AKA Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, which of course I do not own; luckily the internet archive stepped into the breach.  So I'll read the scan of the 1968 paperback edition of the first Sibyl Sue Blue book, and, if I like it, read The Waters of Centaurus.  If I don't like it, I at least have the lush wraparound Szafran cover.

Brown quickly gives the reader the idea that Sibyl Sue Blue is supposed to be a sort of hip avatar of the youth culture and/or a feminist icon, as well as a satire of such figures and the attitudes or subcultures from which they spring.  On the first page of Sibyl Sue Blue the title character beats up a thug and then smokes a cigar and on the second page she elbows and kicks a middle-aged woman who is taking up too much room on the public slidewalk.  Also on page two Sibyl expresses disgust over old people, and categorizes "thirty-five" as old.  But on the fifth page we learn Sue is almost forty herself, and is in a youthful disguise as she works on a case, investigating murders and drug dealing among an immigrant community.

It is the spacefaring 1990s and the immigrants that are raising the hackles of Earth people are scaly people from Centaurus who have been emigrating to Earth and turning formerly nice neighborhoods into crime-filled slums and hooking human kids on the Centaurian drug benzale, which you smoke in a cigarette.  (Lots of smoking in this book.)  Sibyl is a classical scholar who hasn't got her doctorate yet, her area of interest the Battle of Plateaa, and a single mother of a sixteen-year-old girl, her husband Kenneth having disappeared ten years ago with an exploratory expedition to the jungle planet Radix.  To make ends meet she is working as a police sergeant, donning disguises that allow her to circulate among the human teenagers and Centaurians at Centaurian civil rights activist meetings, which are less about civil rights activism than they are about selling benzale cigarettes and seducing human girls.  (Sibyl Sue Blue is an anti-racist story that doesn't sanctify minorities and isn't afraid to satirize anti-racist activists, so it doesn't come off as preachy or hectoring.  And, yes, these reptile people and humans can have sex, and Sibyl is among the Earth women who eagerly participates in inter-species intercourse.  I personally would not be sexually attracted to anybody with "long pointed teeth," "reptilian eyes" and scales, but hey, to each his or her own.)  

The plot of Sibyl Blue Sue's early chapters is that of a violent detective story, with a car chase and a closed-room murder puzzle and Sibyl fighting off attacks from green Centaurians and collecting clues by questioning lots of people and by smoking benzale cigarettes herself.  Sibyl figures out the modus operandi behind the recent spate of unsolvable murders: some special benzale cigarettes are laced with a poison or virus or whatever from Radix that provides smokers crazy dreams, apparently messages from Radix vegetable people, and hypnotizes the smoker into cutting out his or her own liver!  When Sibyl herself smokes the dangerous benzele cigarettes she doesn't cut out her own liver, apparently because her husband has somehow integrated into the virus a message of his own directed at her!  During a booty call with Scaley Moe the Centaurian importer Sibyl pumps him for information and gets some clues about why some Centaurians are green--a mild ailment most of them don't even recognize because Centaurians are color blind.

One super rich businessman, Stuart Grant, owns all the ships that travel from Earth to Centaurus and Radix, so he must somehow be mixed up in the benzale smuggling and the introduction to Centaurus and Earth of the Radix viruses that are leading to suicide among humans and the green scales among Centaurians.  Sibyl becomes determined to join the next expedition to Radix, the third, to solve the mystery and to see if her husband is still alive.  She meets Stuart Grant and falls in love with him and he agrees to take her with him to Radix, perhaps because he is attracted to her, perhaps because of her connection to Radix via her husband and/or because her blood is now usable as a serum that can cure people of the Radix virus.

Halfway through the book they blast off for Radix on a ship with a crew of almost forty men.  In the chapters covering the voyage to Radix, Brown deliberately reminds us of the conventions of a Gothic romance--Sibyl is in love with a perfect super sexy rich guy who is also mysterious and vaguely sinister, and there is a hold of the star ship which she is forbidden to enter.  Just as quickly as she fell in love with Grant, she falls out of love.  Then she gets an idea of why Grant is going to Radix.

As a rich guy with looks and smarts, Grant's life has been easy.  He wants new experiences and new challenges, and Radix and Centaurus provide him an opportunity to become something like a god.  The jungles of planet Radix are one big collective consciousness organism, and Grant has the idea of importing a virus from Radix to Centaurus to turn Centaurus into a collective consciousness world into which he will be subsumed as its ruler.  Sibyl later realizes that he has plans to integrate Earth life into this single-soul multi-planet organism as well.  

The crew of the ship aren't in on this insane plan and are in fact spooked by the weird goings on aboard, so when Sibyl frees the four Centaurians chained up in cargo hold the scaly aliens are able to inspire a mutiny among the crew.  But too late!  The ship lands on Radix and almost the entire crew gets absorbed by the intelligent collective consciousness plant monster.  On the bridge the four survivors-- Sibyl, the space pilot, a medical man and Grant--struggle as Grant tries to integrate everybody into the plant and Sibyl and the other two, finally realizing the horrible fate their boss has in store for them and for everybody, try to stop him.

They succeed, and most of the final third of the novel is about the trip back to Earth.  Sibyl and the doctor don't know how to operate the ship, and the pilot is severely injured and could die any minute, so they can't just kill expert pilot Grant, who is connected to a piece of Radix plant which carries with it a fragment of the hive mind--including portions of Kenneth's consciousness!  The journey home is a long suspenseful trial as Sibyl and the doctor strive to keep the plant and Grant alive but also keep them from getting strong enough to take over the ship and return them to integration into the Radix plant complex.

After getting back to Earth we have a sort of overly long denouement that I guess is setting up the sequel.  It has been discovered that Grant had children with a Centaurian woman on a remote island of Centaurus, and one of them has got to Earth.  The Feds want Sibyl to be this 23-year-old half breed's  chaperone as he returns to Centaurus and to act as a sort of ambassador on Centaurus for some months.

I have some reservations about Sibyl Sue Blue, but I can give it a moderate recommendation.  My reservations are about some of the goofy jokes and some of the silly scenes on Earth.  But the novel is a brisk easy read, the car chase is good, the scenes on Earth related to the Radix virus and how it drives people to kill themselves are good, and the tense chapters on the ship after it arrives on Radix and then during the perilous trip home are effective SF thriller stuff.  I wish Brown had stuck to the serious tone of Chapters VIII and IX throughout the novel's ten chapters.

Sibyl is a pretty well constructed character.  Beyond having her constantly smoking cigars, Brown challenges gender stereotypes in the way we see all the time now and which readers saw C. L. Moore do decades earlier in her Jirel stories--by having Sibyl best many big powerful men in hand-to-hand fighting, even though she is like 40 years old and weighs 105 pounds.  But, more convincingly, Brown also has Sibyl embracing or embodying stereotypes about women: Sibyl cries a lot, such as when she blasts off from Earth, leaving behind her daughter; Sibyl instantly falls head over heels in love with Stuart Grant and just as quickly falls out of love*; Sibyl uses her looks and her body to manipulate men; and Sibyl just loves loves loves cosmetics and fashion, and Brown spends plenty of time describing her make up regimen and her clothes.  (One of Brown's little jokes that gets repeated nine or ten times--an attempt to depict the future of 1990 as alien to that of late-Sixties readers--is that women in Sibyl's time rouge their knees.)  

*I thought there were hints that Sibyl's love for Stuart Grant was hypnotically induced, but Brown does not conclusively indicate this.

Sibyl's love for her daughter and for her lost husband humanizes her, and the scenes in which what remains of the consciousness of Kenneth communicates with Sibyl are successful, even moving.  We often find SF writers talking about collective consciousness as if it would be some great thing, so I was pleased to see it depicted by Brown here as seductive but ultimately fatal to the individual and all we hold dear about human life.  As part of the plant collective, Kenneth is losing all his memories, everything about himself that is himself:

"Kenneth, even if I can't find you, isn't there something you can say to me after ten years?"

"Only that I love you and that I am lost.  So lost.  Everything is gone but memory of memory and even that grows cool and dim."   

Some of the secondary and minor characters are well done, the doomed pilot and the doctor in particular.

The way Sibyl Sue Blue was marketed ("the way-out adventures of a mad mod heroine") made me suspect it might be a ridiculous load of over-the-top psychedelic/feminist/youth culture silliness, a real slice of Sixties counterculture cheese, but there is only a little of that--for the most part it is a competent detective story and a good science fiction adventure with some real human sentiment.  So, next time we'll be reading my paperback copy of the sequel, The Waters of Centaurus.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Henry Kuttner: "The Mask of Circe," "The Time Axis," and "Extrapolation"

I wrote about "Valley of the Flame" on November 12

Henry Kuttner's "The Mask of Circe" and "The Time Axis," novels which first appeared in Sam Merwin's Startling Stories in the late 1940s, have been on my mind sporadically this year.  In February, at Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, I saw copies of their Ace paperback printings in a stack of Kuttner books I, being inveterately cheap, refrained from purchasing, and in October Joachim Boaz tweeted one of Virgil Finlay's illustrations to "The Time Axis," one of Finlay's many heroic depictions of the human body.  (I know there are people out there who will tell you the most beautiful thing in the universe is a flower or a tree or an automobile, but for my money the most beautiful thing in the universe is the human form.)  Lately I have been reading from Merwin's fun magazines, Thrilling Wonder as well as Startling, and so the time has come to explore the magazine versions of "The Mask of Circe" and "The Time Axis."  We'll round out the blog post with a look at "Extrapolation," a less famous Kuttner story of the same period which saw publication in a less prominent periodical.

"The Mask of Circe" (1948)

The scans of the May 1948 issue of Startling Stories at the internet archive are of the Canadian edition, and so that is what I will be reading; the contents seem to be the same as the U.S. edition (there is even a recruiting ad for the United States Army and Air Force with an illustration of a combined arms assault.)  This looks like a great issue--many Virgil Finlay illos, a good illustration by Astarita featuring a heavy machine gun and a horde of creepy aliens, and stories I want to read by Frank Belknap Long, Ray Cummings, George O. Smith and Robert Moore Williams.  We'll be visiting this issue again.

But first, "The Mask of Circe"!  Two men are camping on the Pacific coast in the Canadian Northwest.  Seward is a psychiatrist, and describes to his new friend Talbot the groundbreaking research he conducted with his colleague, Ostrend, developing drugs and techniques that would help people uncover lost memories and thereby solve their neuroses and psychoses.  (Remember that Kuttner studied psychology in college.)  Three years ago the Ostrend-Seward team pushed their techniques to the limit,  uncovering memories buried in Seward's genetic code-- Seward's mind was flooded with memories of adventures aboard the Argo and amid the heroes of ancient Greece, because one of Seward's ancestors was Jason of the Argonauts!

That is a crazy enough story, but it is is just the background for tale Seward has to tell to Talbot!  A year ago, Seward heard something while near an ocean cliff, and upon investigation discovered the Argo!  He jumped aboard, but the heroes crewing the vessel couldn't see him, and when he tried to touch them, his hand passed right through them!  The deck, however, was solid under Seward's feet, and he rode along as the ship was oared to a brilliant white fortified city, and then pursued by a glittering gold ship.  Close to an island the ships collided, tossing the psychiatrist into the drink; Seward found himself washed ashore, where he was beckoned by a beguiling, compelling female voice calling him by the name of "Jason." 

Seward meets high priestess Circe, one of Jason's lovers, at the temple of Hecate, the dark goddess of witchcraft.  Seward's mind is full of Jason's memories, and sometimes Jason's psyche exercises dominance over his actions--this provides dramatic tension to the story, as while Jay Seward is a decent and honest guy, Jason is a duplicitous womanizer who loves the Argo and the sea more than any person or cause, an unscrupulous master of deceit who has betrayed many women.  When it becomes clear that this priestess is not the original Circe, but one of Circe's successors, an old woman wearing a magical mask, the Jason facet of Seward's personality panics and impels Seward to flee.

A satyr catches up with Seward and offers insight into what is going on.  Hecate and Apollo are at war, and have been for many centuries.  A prophecy insists that the war will be a stalemate until Jason has returned, so Hecate and a long succession of Circe imitators have been summoning Jason, fruitlessly, over many generations.  It seems the summoning has finally succeeded with the appearance of Seward, in whose noggin Jason's psyche coexists with his own 20th century mind.  The goat-footed trickster hints that the real Circe is not truly dead, or could be brought back to life, and that Seward/Jason will have to hook up with her to resolve his current predicament.

(This satyr, like Jason a womanizing jerk with shifting allegiances, pops up multiple times in the story to provide advice.  Maybe the behavior of Jason and the satyr is Kuttner's commentary on Greek ethics and morality before Stoicism and Christianity.)

Seward is captured by worshippers of Apollo and taken to that white walled coastal town he saw earlier, Helios, a city pledged to Apollo.  Soldiers escort him to the golden temple of the sun god, and within two slaves girls, one black ("Nubian") and one Asian ("golden-skinned and slant-eyed") escort him to the chamber of the high priest's right hand man, Phrontis.  In the temple complex Seward gets mixed up in the intrigue among Phronits, high priest Ophion, and the young woman who is scheduled to replace the current elderly Circe, Cynae; the Apollo clergy had Cynae locked up, but somehow she got away.  In his time in the temple Seward collects some additional news that he can use: item: he has not in fact travelled back in time to ancient Greece, but to another dimension that occasionally intersects with ours; item: the Greek gods are not in fact divine but mutants born in our world who left Earth for this dimension; item: magic items like the Golden Fleece and the Mask of Circe are actually high tech devices constructed by the mutants.

The priests of Apollo think that Hecate can only win the war on Apollo if she has the aid of both Seward/Jason and Cyane/Circe, the former armed with the Fleece and the latter with the Mask.  The Apollo partisans want Seward's help in finding Cyane, and he enters into an uneasy short-term alliance with them.  Seward finds Cynae in short order--that black slave girl is actually Cynae in blackface!  It turns out that a priest who hid his identity from Cynae freed her and hid her among the temple slaves.  The mind of Jason asserts itself and Seward surrenders Cyane to the priests--is the devious betrayer Jason just abandoning the girl or setting up a long term plot to double cross Phrontis and Ophion?

We get a long flashback as Seward recalls a significant and humiliating in the life of Jason 3,000 years ago.  Way back then, the original Circe fell in love with the admirable Seward, whom she could sense within the womanizing playah Jason--Seward is more than a mere descendent of Jason: his soul and Jason's have been always been linked across the gulfs of time!  Back in those days, Jason was aware of Seward's consciousness living within his brain quite as Seward is now aware of Jason's lurking within his skull.  Hecate enlisted Jason and Circe's aid in her war on Apollo, promising Circe she could (sort of) live forever by having her personality electronically recorded in the computerized Mask: anybody who wears the Mask becomes host to Circe's mind, so that in 3,000 years, after her beloved Seward had been born, Circe could (sort of, while living in the skull of another girl's body, along with the host's original soul) be with Seward.  Jason and Circe go along with the plan, but when Jason was confronted by Apollo he fled in fear.    

Seward proceeds to the isle of Circe.  There he negotiates with Hecate, the current Circe, and the personality of the original Circe who fell in love with him 30 centuries ago and is "alive" as a recording in the Mask.  They organize Hecate's army of centaurs and travel through a teleporter/portal thing to the plain before Helios, where the elderly Circe sacrifices herself, using the Mask's powers to knock down the city walls.  (A minor character sacrificed himself to save the heroes and resolve the plot in Kuttner's "Valley of the Flame," you will remember.)  The centaurs bust into the town and a horrible battle with many fatalities ensues.  Seward channels Jason's fighting prowess in the hand-to-hand combat, and leverages Jason's memories to figure out how to retrieve the Golden Fleece from its reptilian guardian.  The Fleece offers Seward excellent protection, which he definitely needs, because, after he rescues Cyane from being sacrificed on an altar and gives her the Mask so she can merge personalities with the original Circe, Hecate appears in Helios, and Apollo blasts the entire city and all its ordinary citizens to oblivion in his effort to destroy Hecate.     

Before the the final showdown between the last two gods, Hecate helpfully gives Seward and readers some exposition.  As we have already learned, the gods of ancient Greece were mutants capable of developing high technology.  The centaurs and satyrs are the product of the gods' genetic engineering experiments--the gods wanted to create a long-lived race to succeed them.  The surprise revelation at the climax of "The Mask of Circe" is that Apollo was not one of the original mutants but is in fact a robot!  The gods were not satisfied with their genetic engineering experiments and so decided to try to build a race of machine people.  Their prototype, Apollo, turned against them and started killing the gods, who in response created the Golden Fleece, an anti-Apollo weapon that could only be wielded by a human.  As we saw, their champion Jason got cold feet and screwed up the first attempt to destroy Apollo.  All the original gods are now dead save Hecate, who implores Seward, Jason's successor, to have a go at the Apollo-killing mission.  

Unlike Jason, Seward is up to the task.  Apollo and the Fleece are both destroyed, and after the explosion Seward wakes up back in our world, washed up on the coast of Oregon.  He has no idea if Hecate and Cyane/Circe survived the explosion.

The happy ending denouement sees Talbot waking up the morning after hearing Seward's crazy story to find the psychiatrist gone, and we are invited to believe the Argo came to collect him and bring him to Cyane/Circe.    

Kuttner, his wife C. L. Moore and their friend Edmond Hamilton love to write these stories that provide science fiction explanations for ancient myths and legends.  It is interesting that Kuttner casts the witch Circe and the sometimes sinister Hecate as the good guys and the sun god Apollo as the villain, and Jason as a cad who is always running away from confrontations.  I think we can also see in "The Mask of Circe" the common science fiction theme that religion is a scam; the gods just turn out to be ambitious and menacing homos superior, a recurring theme in Kuttner's work.  When somebody remarks on how Seward is more courageous than was Jason, Seward says that his advantage over Jason is his knowledge and his refusal to believe in gods.  Kuttner's depiction of reason and science is ambiguous, however, with some proponents of science being portrayed as villains and technological products often failing to satisfy or actually causing trouble--sometimes apocalyptic trouble!

Looking back on "The Mask of Circe," I appreciate it more than I did while I was reading it.  Kuttner kind of overdoes it with the descriptions of settings and the fights, piling on more and more words that actually don't add more useful information or elicit additional emotion from the reader.  The different components of the plot hold together better here than in "Valley of the Flame," but the love/sex elements here, and all the character relationships, are weaker.  I guess we'll say "The Mask of Circe" is OK or deserves a mild recommendation.

"The Mask of Circe" has appeared in book form several times; I didn't actually look inside the Ace edition I spotted at Wonder Book, which I now regret, as isfdb is telling me it is full of illustrations by Alicia Austin.  I'll have to see if it is still at Wonder Book next time I go.  

"The Time Axis" (1949)

The narrator of "The Time Axis" is Jerry Cortland, a 35-year-old freelance journalist who loves to hit the sauce!  After a sort of preamble about time and space and the structure of the universe ("as this world spins on an axis through space, so the sphere of time spins on its own axis") the story proper begins.  Jerry is down in Rio, and has just won a huge amount of money gambling.  (Nowadays reporters may spend all day crying on twitter, but back in the golden age of journalism they made time to get blotto and gamble away fortunes!)  Wandering around in a dark alley after midnight, a buzzed Jerry has the impression that somebody moving at super duper impossible speed has flashed up to him, stolen his newly acquired wad of mullah, and flashed away, all in the blink of an eye!  And just when he had been planning to use those winnings to start a new life and a new stage in his career!

The next morning Jerry is jolted by a bizarre sensation, a brief feeling of energy exploding within his body; afterwards he senses, impossibly, where a murder has taken place.  The body is just where he expected to find it, and it is clear the victim has died as have quite a few others recently, of a mysterious burning.  Jerry spends a few more days in Rio, reporting on more of these strange murders, each of which is heralded by that "sunburst of violent energy deep inside of me," and wondering if these inexplicable crimes are connected with the ineffable robbery he suffered in that alley.

Back in New York a fellow journalist has set up a meeting for Jerry with a top female physicist, grey-haired Dr. Letta Essen, and a famous scientist who is sort of a renegade with no university affiliation, Ira De Kalb--these two brainiacs want to meet Jerry for some reason.  Kuttner shows off his art history knowledge, telling us De Kalb's face is like that of the Buddha or the Apollo Belvedere, "placid" and "handsome in a vacant way."  The two geniuses show Jerry a puzzle box the size of a typewriter that is made out of an indestructible metal; they call this thing "the Record."  It must be hundreds or thousands of years old, and was unearthed in Crete fourteen years ago, and it took De Kalb all of those fourteen years to figure out how to open it.  He demonstrates the box's functioning to Jerry--it unfolds like a blossoming flower and implants information directly into Jerry's mind, most prominently the vision of a huge face carved into stone under a red sky and above a desolate landscape; Jerry senses that behind the giant sculpture is a city of the distant future, the very last city on Earth!

De Kalb invokes Spengler and Toynbee in his description of that City with a capital "C" that lies behind the Face with a capital "F" whose inhabitants are Gods with a capital "G" but still threatened with destruction because the Earth of their time is almost completely covered in deadly "nekronic matter" which for some reason is spelled with a "k."

When De Kalb finally opened the Record a super fast almost invisible monster came out; this monster of the future, made of nekronic energy, is obviously responsible for the strange killings and for robbing Jerry.  The Gods of the City of the Face put the monster in the Record when they cast their S.O.S. adrift on the currents of time as a ruthless means of ensuring a past civilization smart enough to open the Record would have no choice but to help them--you see, the nekronic monster, if left unchecked, will eventually turn our Earth into a sea of nekronic matter just like the Earth of a million years in the future, and the only hope of stopping it is for geniuses like De Kalb and Essen to go to the future to collaborate with the Gods in the development of an anti-nekron solution.  

But the two eggheads know they can't succeed in the mission to the world of a million years in the future on their own.  They need two men to accompany them, Jerry the journalist and a West Point graduate and Pacific War veteran, Col. Harrison Murray.  Jerry actually knows Murray, having written a story about him during the war, and doesn't like him.  Murray is even more resistant than Jerry to the whole idea of abandoning his regular schedule to travel through time, and even tries to get Jerry arrested for the murders the nekron monster is committing as a way of scotching the mission, but then the nekron monster attacks, incapacitating the colonel.  The mission goes forward, De Kalb and Jerry carrying the comatose soldier to the one place on Earth where you can safely travel through time, a sort of cave in some Canadian mountains.  (Canada turns out to be an unexpected theme of this blogpost.)  There is a lot of talk about how time works and how the 20th century team is going to get to the future and back, and a bunch of paradoxes and mysteries--I won't get into all that here, but suffice to say it is entertaining enough.   

The mission does not in the least way go according to the plans of De Kalb and Essen; instead we get a series of bewildering and bizarre events that reminded me of the elements of a typical story by Canada's Number One export to Henry Kuttner's native Los Angeles, A. E. van Vogt--we get questions of identity, expanding mental powers, secret weirdos struggling for control of the polity, and the siege of a position defended by a force field.  

Jerry awakes from the time travel jaunt not in the era of the City of the Face, but a mere thousand years in the future (Jerry calls this "the middle future" for convenience) in a super-high tech milieu in which matter transmitters empower trivially simple commerce and travel among the planets of a galaxy-spanning civilization.  Jerry soon meets three enigmatic and oddly familiar figures: first, a woman of great beauty who wears stars in her hair and looks like a younger and prettier Dr. Essen; second, a taciturn man who turns out to be an artificial being with the ability to inhabit Jerry's mind and who looks like De Kalb; and, third, a powerful government official who looks just like Murray.  

The guy who looks like Murray uses a device to connect his mind to Jerry's, and to a sort of computer encyclopedia, and thusly Jerry learns the history of the human race after World War II--the poisoning of Earth during the Second Atomic War, the invention of the matter transmitters and the artificial men ("Mechandroids"), the colonization of the galaxy, the discovery of nekronic matter.  The human race relies on the Mechandroids because only their emotionless and flawless intelligence can keep the galactic civilization running smoothly, but also fears them, so a few years ago when a bunch of Mechandroids were caught trying to construct a super-Mechandroid the human government treated it as an uprising and blew the inventors and their whole facility to kingdom come.  The androids are having another go at building UltraMegaMechandroid Two-Point-Oh Plus, and the very De Kalb android who is spying from within Jerry's mind is the leader of the project, while the man in charge of stopping the forbidden genesis is the very Murray doppelgänger who is interrogating Jerry!  And this Murray will have every reason to kill Jerry when he learns that the nekronic monster is abroad, murdering innocent people, and that Jerry is somehow responsible for its arrival in this time period!

The Mechandroid De Kalb, using the public system of matter transmitters, pilots hapless Jerry across the galaxy to an important government facility which no Mechandroid could enter under ordinary circumstances in hopes of sabotaging a government superweapon; Murray is in hot pursuit.  From there Jerry and the passenger in his mind flee to MechaHQ, where the Mechandroids are rushing to put the finishing touches on their new leader--outside the authorities are blasting away at the forcefield shielding the facility.  The De Kalb android continues to exploit Jerry's body in support of the Mechandroid cause, extracting from Jerry's subconscious mind forgotten but propitiously valuable scientific theories of the 20th century and then summoning the nekron monster through Jerry to kill the privates and noncoms of Murray's assault platoon after Murray's siege engines bust open MechaHQ force field.  (Murray himself is taken captive.)

The De Kalb android leads our cast back to that Canadian cave; Murray and Dr. Essen resist but are overwhelmed by De Kalb and Jerry and then everybody's original 20th-century identities reassert themselves.  The characters proceed forward in time, to the City of the Face, where they realize the Face is in fact the super-Mechandroid, which has adapted and grown in power over thousands of years; a benevolent being, it has protected the remnants of the human race from the nekronic matter, but been unable to destroy it, so it summoned the four 20th-century champions to aid it in its struggle.  The four characters' psyches are combined to fight the nekron monster in a surreal cosmic battle that reminded me of the psychic combat we see in so many stories by Kuttner's wife, C. L. Moore, and the famous caper in the first part of Michael Moorcock's Sailor on the Seas of Fate.

All nekronic matter having been exiled to some other dimension, the Face sends our four heroes back to the 20th century; however, they have changed history, so the 20th century they arrive in is not the same one they left.  Jerry finds the changes unnerving, and plots to return to that fascinating middle future of the galactic civilization.  The shock sense-of-wonder ending of "The Time Axis" is the revelation that this altered universe is our own, that the world of the start of the story, which we readers assumed was ours, was in fact radically different from ours.     

"The Time Axis" is a good story, better than a lot of these Kuttner guy-goes-to-another-world-and-gets-mixed-up-in-their-politics stories.  One of the big advantages "The Time Axis" has over "The Mask of Circe" and "The Valley of the Flame" is that Jerry, De Kalb and Murray have actual personalities and motivations more complex than "I wanna be ruler" or "I gotta win this war."  This, and the fact that the plot is more fresh and surprising, keeps you curious and holds your attention.  Kuttner also does a good job with the numerous high-tech devices in the story, and the descriptions and the science lectures are not too long.    

As I mentioned earlier, the plot reminded me of van Vogt stories from Astounding like 1942's "Recruiting Station" and 1946's "The Chronicler."  Several things in "The Time Axis" reminded me of Gene Wolfe's 1980s series The Book of the New Sun (a mountain carved into a human likeness, a record sent back in time, a far future society built on the ruins of many earlier civilizations, including one that was the center of an interstellar empire) making me wonder if Wolfe read the story.  The concourses where crowds of people go to use the matter transmitters reminded me of Heinlein's 1955 Tunnel in the Sky and J. T. McIntosh's "One Into Two."        

An interesting aspect of "The Time Axis" is its hostility to government and the military in particular.  The two Murrays come in for a lot of criticism and derision, and are portrayed as corrupt.  This reminded me of one of the very first Kuttner stories I read, "We Are the Dead."  (I blogged about "We Are the Dead" in the forgotten world of 2013, when I didn't feel the need to do three stories in each post nor to fill my posts with images.)  I think it is also interesting that Kuttner here is yet again portraying conflict between homo sapiens and a homo superior of sorts, though this time the beings who are going to succeed us are pretty benign, and resistance to them from the mundanes is misguided.

"Extrapolation" (1948)

The Fanscient was a fanzine that published thirteen issues between 1947 and 1951; the fifth features "Extrapolation," a story that was never reprinted on paper.  

"Extrapolation" is a meta inside-joke type of story full of puns and gags about death that is aimed at the sort of people who might read a fanzine.  I guess as a gentle spoof of Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, Kuttner reports sadly that he has extrapolated from trend lines and learned that in ten years time there will be no SF magazines; he knows this because he has been investigating the future of his own career and has learned that he will publish no stories in 1958; the macabre unreliable-narrator joke is that he has unwittingly uncovered evidence of his own death.

Kuttner envisions scenes that dramatize the cause of the cessation of publication of all science fiction and weird magazines--the incessant complaints from readers of science fiction mags that there is too much fantasy in their magazines and from readers of weird magazines that there is too much science in theirs.  Crushed under all these complaints, the last science fiction magazine and the last weird magazine both publish issues that are completely blank; the resulting decline in sales drives the magazines' editors to commit suicide.

"Extrapolation" is an interesting historical document for the student of SF history, offering insight into what was on the mind of SF fandom in the late '40s, but as a story it is just barely acceptable.  


Three worthwhile reads full of red meat for us fans of Golden Age SF, courtesy of the internet archive, world's greatest website.


Seeing as how I use this blog to record my fiction reading, I will note that on the significant date of November 22, before I embarked on the journey into the work of Henry Kuttner of which the profusion of text above is the product, I reread Barry Malzberg's novel Underlay, which I first read in 2016.  I again found it laugh out loud funny, so thanks to Malzberg for penning this fine piece of work and thanks to Stark House for making it and so many other of Malzberg's fascinating productions readily available--I reread Underlay in my copy of Stark House's omnibus edition of Malzberg's horse betting books.   

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Fiendishness from R Bradbury, C Beaumont, W F Nolan, F Leiber & R Matheson

Just a few days ago we read Richard Matheson's "Mute," a story which debuted in Charles Beaumont's 1962 anthology The Fiend in You.  "Mute" was about Germans running a ruthless experiment to foster children's psychic powers by isolating them from society and making sure they never learned to read or talk.  Despite the fact that psychic powers are the center of that story, The Fiend in You is advertised as containing sixteen stories "that could really happen."  (Obviously nobody would question the "merciless German who fucking loves science" component of the story.)  In his brief intro to the book, Beaumont says that vampires and werewolves have lost their ability to scare, and the most terrifying monster of all is called "The Mind," and that that monster is what The Fiend in You is all about.

We've already read two stories from The Fiend in You, the aforementioned "Mute" and Robert Bloch's "Lucy Comes to Stay."  Now let's read five (count 'em--five!) more stories that (supposedly) are about the monster that is your mind and which might actually happen, stories by people whose work we have already written about here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  For this purpose I will be using a PDF of the book readily available online for free.

"The Women" by Ray Bradbury (1948)

We start with a story from a man who by some measures is probably America's most successful writer of speculative fiction.  "The Women" debuted in an issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries full of full-page illos by Virgil Finlay and including a tribute to the 73-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs and a story by Theodore Sturgeon.  Wow, looks like a good issue.  There are so many awesome SF magazines out there, I will die before I can read them all.

Woah, this is a story for you to read for your gender studies class!  You know how in Howard Wandrei's "Danger: Quicksand" and in Donald Wollheim's "The Rag Thing" a blob monster sort of spontaneously appeared via chemical reaction among just the right randomly assembled ingredients?  Well, this is Bradbury's take on this theme, but with a difference: 

It was of the sea.  And being of the sea it was--feminine.

It in no way resembled man or woman.  But it had a woman's ways, the silken, sly, and hidden ways.  It moved with a woman's grace.  It was all the evil things of vain women.  

An evil phosphorescence comes to life in the ocean, drifts close to a beach where are reclining a married couple, a handsome man and his wife, who wears a black swimsuit.  The wife subconsciously perceives that the ocean wants to take her husband, and, as the phosphorescence uses its psychic powers to draw the man into the water, she comes up with all kinds of stratagems to keep her husband from going for a swim, like asking him to go buy her hot dogs, then making him eat the hot dogs, and then telling him he can't swim because he has just eaten.  Who will win custody of the hunk, the wife or the blob monster?

This is a good monster story, with some real suspense and with heavy doses of Ray Bradbury's poetic style that tries to give you a strong sense of place with loads of images and metaphors as well as Bradbury's typical focus on ordinary folks suddenly confronted by inexplicable weirdness.  This is also a story about women and how jealous they are and how they ruthlessly compete with each other; "The Women" would be a good specimen if you were writing your dissertation on how popular literature penned by men exposes men's fear of women.

Thumbs up!  There is a reason Bradbury was such a success!

(Like "Mute," however, there is no way this crazy story about a blob monster "could really happen."  Is it about "The Mind?"  Well, there are psychic powers, so, maybe a wee bit?)

"The Women" is one of the stories included in the collection I Sing the Body Electric!, which has been reprinted a million times.

"Perchance to Dream" by Charles Beaumont (1958)       

In the afterword to his story "A Flourish of Strumpets" in Collected Stories: Volume 2, Richard Matheson mentions Charles Beaumont, how Beaumont was selling stories to Playboy long before Matheson himself would, and says Playboy would pay over ten times as much for a story as would a fantasy or science fiction magazine.  Here is a story Beaumont sold to our most prestigious skin rag two years after Matheson sold them "A Flourish of Strumpets."  (I guess the Playboy people liked the stories they printed to have Shakespearean titles.) 

Beaumont's intro to the Bradbury story here in The Fiend in You was a pointless joke.  His intro to his own story explains how the images in "Perchance to Dream" are autobiographical and, in the process, spoils the images.  (I may write a blog full of spoilers, but I hate spoilers myself and found this a little irritating.)

The main character of "Perchance to Dream" has a weak heart and had a wacky mother.  (Good grief, is this turning into "MPorcius Misogyny Blog?")  Mom died of a psychosomatic illness, and had encouraged her son to push his imagination to the limit by telling him if he concentrated as he stared at a tapestry depicting cavalrymen that he could make them move.  He achieved this feat, though the mounted soldiers returned to their original position when he looked away.  He used this ability on all kinds of books and magazines, until one day the picture of a knight and a dragon in a coloring book didn't change back!  

The weak heart guy explains this to a shrink, and other episodes of extreme imagination.  These include recent dreams of going to an amusement park where an attractive woman tempts him to get on a rollercoaster.  In real life this guy can't ride roller coasters, as the excitement will give him a heart attack.  Every night, the dream continues, our narrator riding the first car on the roller coaster, the woman sitting next to him, flirting and kissing him, each night the coaster getting closer to the top of the first peak.  (I think maybe we are supposed to think this woman is a version of his mother.)  He knows that if the roller coaster starts its descent he will die of a heart attack, so he has striven to stay awake, using drugs and now finally coming to the psychiatrist to seek help.  

The twist ending is that his conversation with the psychiatrist is part of the dream; he has actually fallen asleep in the head shrinker's office before even beginning to describe his problems to the man.  He dies in his sleep from a heart attack when the dream comes to its horrifying climax.

Acceptable.  "Perchance to Dream" has been a success, serving as the title story for a Beaumont collection and being turned into another Twilight Zone episode I don't remember.  The Twilight Zone is like Monty Python, something I was into as a kid that I revisited as an adult and found was not nearly as impressive as a young MPorcius thought.  (I still liked "Scott of the Sahara" and the one in which William Shatner becomes obsessed with a cheesy fortune-telling device, but in general watching these TV shows felt like a waste of time.) 

"One of Those Days" by William F. Nolan (1962)
(Meddle is so good, isn't it?)

"One of Those Days" is another success featured in The Fiend in You; first published in F&SF it would go on to reappear in one of  Judith Merril's critically revered Year's Best series of anthologies.  Editor Avram Davidson's odd and jokey intro to "One of Those Days" in F&SF gushes over Nolan, informing us that the man is  prominent in the world of automotive journalism.  Beaumont's intro in The Fiend in You warns you the story is confusing and you will have to reread it--luckily it is only like four pages of text.

"One of Those Days" is just a list of surreal images.  The narrator is doing some gardening when a butterfly floats by singing a song from a famous opera so he decides to make an unannounced visit to his psychoanalyst.  While walking there he sees a bipedal cat, witnesses a friend transforming into a camel, is accosted by a cop and tricks a bystander into murdering the officer, and finally meets the shrink who transforms into a dog.  

Total junk, just random goop vomited onto the page--rereading it would be like putting your finger back in the light socket.  Why did Davidson, Beaumont and Merril inflict this emperor-has-no-clothes chicanery on the SF community?  Wikipedia reminds us that Nolan was close friends with Beaumont, Bradbury, Bloch and Matheson, so I guess this story's success is all about connections and you-scratch-my-back networking.  Very annoying; this affront has diminished my opinions of Nolan, Davidson, Beaumont, and Merril, Merril least painfully because you expect her to promote this sort of thing as part of her project to expand the limits of SF to include everything and Davidson most painfully because I was so impressed recently by "Revolver."  Et tu Brute?

"The Thirteenth Step" by Fritz Leiber (1962)

This looks like a rare, lost or minor Leiber story; it wouldn't be reprinted in English until 2000, though our amis over in Gaul seem to have liked it--it was in a 1980s French anthology that went through at least two editions.

When we read Leiber's "The Wolf Pair" AKA "Night of the Long Knives" back in June I noted that Leiber is purported to have had a close relationship with Alcoholics Anonymous and that that story, which was about murderers in a post-apocalyptic world, felt like an endorsement of AA.  Well, "The Thirteenth Step," as perhaps I should have guessed from the title, is all about an AA meeting.  (I feel dumb now for having expected the story to be about an unlucky staircase or something.)

A twenty-year-old woman gets up to give her "My name is Sue and I am an alcoholic" speech at an AA meeting.  She describes how since she was a kid she has been a drunk and been obsessed with murder.  Again and again she uses the image of a big black car, ridden by the Fifth Horseman, as a metaphor for her desire to murder--this car has often waited outside her home, beckoning her, and Sue has had to resist going to it, because, if she does, it will lead to the murder of her family and who knows who else.

A woman with hennaed hair in the audience finds Sue's story self-aggrandizing and her car metaphor tiresome and heckles the young woman.  Sue hurries out to the street in response to this criticism.  The twist ending is that (apparently) the big black car and the Fifth Horseman are not metaphors, but real phenomena and they are going to kill everyone at the AA meeting.

Like Bradbury's "The Women," "The Thirteenth Step" is about how women are vain and always in conflict with each other and includes a monster that is absolutely incredible.*  But whereas Bradbury's poetical stylings work, and he generates real suspense, and offers readers lots of clever machinations on the parts of the contesting women, Leiber's metaphors are lame, the story is tedious, and the women are fighting over nothing and do nothing interesting, much less clever, in the course of the fight.  "The Thirteenth Step" is mercifully short, however, which saves it from a thumbs down.

Barely acceptable.        

*By "is absolutely incredible" I mean "simply cannot be believed," of course.

"Finger Prints" by Richard Matheson (1962)

Matheson has two stories in this book.  "Mute" was good; let's hope "Finger Prints" is as well.

We are in luck.  "Finger Prints" is quite good, and carries on the unexpected theme of this blog post (and apparently the unannounced theme of The Fiend in You) that women are scary and dangerous!  It is short, Matheson employs very evocative, very effective descriptions, and the whole story is a powerful depiction of human relationships that are all too terrible and sad, but all too believable.  "Finger Prints" actually fulfills the anthology's mandate that its stories be "horror that could really happen" and about "The Mind."

The narrator is on a long bus trip.  He sits near two ugly women, one a deaf mute who incessantly speaks to the other via sign language.  Our narrator learns all about the women's crushing co-dependent relationship in the most intimate way possible!  After most everybody on the bus is asleep, the deaf mute, a domineering figure, bullies the narrator awake and out of his seat, which she takes.  The narrator has to sit with the deaf mute's paid companion, and she relates to him her sorry state.  This hideous wretch of a woman is trapped by a need for money as well as psychological tricks into staying in the employ of the deaf woman's father--the deaf woman threatens to kill herself if she should leave her, for example.  So she can't leave the deaf woman even though she never gets a quiet moment to herself and is at the same time losing contact with normal society.  This gaunt woman with a mouth like a "dark gaping wound" and "dark-rimmed eyes" has normal desires--and she uses her own bullying and psychological tricks to get the narrator to temporarily satisfy those desires, right there on the moving bus as the deaf mute watches!  

Besides being about how men can find women's sexuality fearsome and disgusting, "Finger Prints" is about how those who are strong and healthy can be dominated and manipulated by those who are weak and sick.  One could even see it as an allegory of our woke welfare state society, in which "marginalized" demographics--women, the poor, ethnic and sexual minorities--seek concessions from the rest of the population by arousing guilt and pity.     

Thumbs up!  "Finger Prints" was never again anthologized in English, but appeared in some European anthologies, and various Matheson collections, among them the fourth entry in the Shock series, Shock Waves AKA Shock 4.


The Bradbury and Matheson stories we've read today are first rank horror tales that feature good writing and derive their power from how they depict fears we can all recognize from our lives, the fears that arise from the human relationships that give our lives meaning, the good relationships we seek and strive to preserve should we be fortunate enough to secure them, and the exploitative or combative relationships we endeavor to avoid, escape, or endure.  The Beaumont and Leiber stories feel like filler, but their autobiographical content perhaps provides value to the student of the history of the speculative fiction genre.  As for the Nolan, it is an insult, but maybe it also provides insight into the publishing world, exposing something we maybe do not want to know.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Frank Belknap Long: "The Thought Materializer," "In the Lair of the Space Monsters," and "The Dark Beasts"

I recently spent some time looking up references to Frank Belknap Long in the correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft in my copies of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. Lovecraft Volume 7, Letters to Robert Bloch and Others and Volume 9, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome, as well as Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth: 1932-1937.  I came upon mentions of Long stories I hadn't yet read, and decided today to read three that have evocative titles, "The Thought Materializer," "In the Lair of the Space Monsters" and "The Dark Beasts."

"The Thought Materializer" (1930) 

In an April 24, 1935 letter to William F. Anger, Lovecraft writes about Hugo Gernsback's reputation for failing to pay writers for their stories, saying that "Hugo the Rat" never paid Frank Belknap Long for his story in the Spring 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly, "The Thought Materializer."  Let's see what Gernsback got for free.

A scientist invites his friend over to test his latest invention on him.  Of course he does!  The inventor has developed a device that you strap around your head and chest and which amplifies the "vibrations" that are your thoughts.  The idea is that this device will amplify psychosomatic effects.  The example the scientist gives to his remarkably accommodating pal is that, if he thinks about hanging around on a sunny beach, he will get a sunburn, even though he is here in an apartment.  The scientist straps the thing to his friend and warns him multiple times to not think of anything really dangerous, like knives or tigers or car crashes or airplane crashes.  Then he directs his biddy to imagine he has burned his finger.  Ouch!  The man's finger is truly damaged, the skin blackened!  The device works!

The phone rings--the scientist is expecting a call from a potential investor, so he leaves the room to take this perhaps career-making call.  He doesn't turn off the machine or unstrap his friend because that would waste electricity--he's only going to be gone three minutes, he says.  While he is gone his hapless subject falls asleep and dreams he is attacked by a monster--in response to his buddy's screams the scientist rushes back to find his friend's clothes torn and his flesh mauled!  

America's most gullible man is patched up and after two weeks or so is good as new.  Meanwhile, America's worst friend has destroyed the device he invented.  When these two pals get back together the inventor laments that he will always wonder what would have happened if he had strapped the device on some animal--for some reason he is fascinated by the idea of strapping the thing on a snake and thereby inferring what a snake dreams about.

This is an amateurish sort of story with odd word choices and plot holes (how would a psychosomatic effect damage your clothes?)  The title doesn't even match the content--I expected the device to make physical matter appear.  Barely acceptable.  I am not giving it a thumbs down because it made me smile--it is entertaining, with its crazy sitcom plot, like if Lucy Ricardo was a mad scientist and got Ethel Mertz to be her guinea pig.  "The Thought Materializer" is accompanied by a drawing of a mustachioed young Long, and a little editor's intro that briefly describes (with no dates or locations or names or citations of sources) how some young girl suffered oozing stigmata, I guess in order to make this wacky story more convincing and bring it more in line with the Gernsbackian mission of teaching people science (it is alleged that stigmata are a phenomenon "recognized by science" and that medical records abound with testimony to the reality of such cases.)

"The Thought Materializer" has never been reprinted, as far as I can tell.  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are into unearthing the "deep cuts!"    

"In the Lair of the Space Monsters" (1932)

In a late August 1932 letter to August Derleth, Lovecraft talks about how Long resented Strange Tales editor Harry Bates' cuts to his story "In the Lair of the Space Monsters," contrasting Long with Hugh B. Cave, who apparently had a more business-like tolerance of editorial alterations to his work.  A major theme of Lovecraft's correspondence is that he is an artist and doesn't write for money or to please anybody, and he is always lamenting that other writers, from Edmond Hamilton to C. L. Moore to Long and many others, are at risk of squandering their talent and becoming hacks.   

Jim Harvey and Frank Taylor are buddies serving on a submarine.  The boat collides with something and takes on water and sinks deep, much of the hull collapsing in on itself.  Long describes in detail Harvey's experiences and his psychological state as he struggles to survive in the wrecked vessel and finds many of his comrades dead, and Taylor unconscious.

The boat comes to rest, and tentacles like those of an octopus, but 15 or 20 feet long and ending in claws, reach through a hole in the sub's hull and pull out the dead bodies as well as the still living Harvey and Taylor.  The sub has apparently travelled through a vent or hole and been cast ashore in a subterranean world that lies under the Pacific, and the crew, dead and living, collected by hairy brutish men with flat noses whose lower extremities are eight tentacles!

The octopus-men carry the corpses and the captives across a desolate cratered landscape to a forest of soft flexible trees inhabited by big drooling reptiles.  Throughout the story, paragraph after paragraph, Long endeavors to horrify and disgust the reader., and one memorable volley in the long barrage of gross stuff is when foul-smelling reptile drool lands on Harvey.  Beyond the forest is a cavern, and when the octopus-men carry their captives through a low-ceilinged tunnel a stalactite cuts open Harvey's forehead and blood runs down his face and into his mouth.  Inside the cavern are many chambers full of human bones, among them remains of clothing identifiable as those of sailors.  

Harvey and Taylor are glued to a wall with a substance much like spider webbing that the octopus-men vomit up onto them.  Then the same webbing is used to seal the chamber they are in.  There is a big egg case in the chamber with them, and it bursts open and hundreds of larval octopus men, each just eight inches long, crawl over to the sailors and start eating them alive!  Harvey goes insane and his maniacal laughter, somehow, scares the larva and they flee precipitously, chewing a hole through the sealed doorway.  The larva having chewed away most of the webbing holding Harvey and Taylor captive, they manage to break free and escape the cavern.

Then, somehow, the pair and the submarine end up on the beach of an island.  They theorize that the sub didn't sink down into a subterranean world after all, but was in fact pushed by a tidal wave into and through a point where our dimension impinges upon another dimension.  This must happen to Earth ships periodically--not only were there all those human bones, but the "Oriental" sailor who rescues them says that many strange events have been related about this island.

This is a sort of shaggy dog story in which the characters don't do anything, just observe a list of weird sights and suffer a series of horrible torments.  Why Long chose to include both the subterranean world idea and the alien dimension idea, I don't know; it is almost like he was making up the story as he went and realized that he didn't know how to get Harvey and Taylor back to the surface, so changed gears.  We'll call this one barely acceptable, as all the disgusting mishaps the sailors are subjected to are sort of fun.          

"In the Lair of the Space Monsters" was reprinted by Robert A. Lowndes in his Magazine of Horror in 1971.  The story also reappears in an 800-page volume of Long's work published this very year edited by S. T. Joshi which has a handsome photo of Long on its cover.  (People used to wear nice clothes around!)

"The Dark Beasts" (1934)

In a number of letters, Lovecraft praises "The Dark Beasts," a good example being a letter to F. Lee Baldwin dated May 16, 1934, in which Lovecraft calls the story "among his [Long's] very best."  Dare we hope this piece, which debuted in the magazine Marvel Tales, which isfdb tells us was "saddle-stapled" and included a major printing error, will be better than "The Thought Materializer" and "In the Lair of the Space Monsters?"

Well, "The Dark Beasts" is certainly better than the other two stories we are talking about today, but I wouldn't call it "good"--I'll call it "OK."  The style is better, like maybe Long revised it and somebody edited it; the dialogue, for example, feels more like real human speech and conveys personality, and the plot feels like it was outlined before hand and not just made up as the author was going along.

"The Dark Beasts" is the weird tale of a small family living off in the wilderness, near a dark sinister wood.  We first meet the youngest member of the family, eighteen-year-old Peter, who "has the mind of a child."  He is near the scary wood, by a creek, and has found a dead frog with a wire noose around its neck.

The middle section of the story, which takes up most of the page count, consists largely of dialogue between Ma and Pa, and some background that comes to us in the form of Peter's musings.  We learn the tragic history of this dysfunctional family out of chronological order, you know, for dramatic effect, but I'll just list it in order here.  Peter's grandfather made some kind of deal with the monsters who live in the wood.  (The nature of the deal is hard for me to understand--it is explained in the words of the developmentally disabled Peter, so maybe he doesn't understand it either.  It sounds like the dark things gave Grandpa immortality, and, in return, they were to be permitted to rest in Grandpa's grave with him when he died, which of course makes zero sense.)  Grandpa left the area and has never come back to fulfill his half of the deal, and so the monsters ("the dark things") cursed the family.  (When he was eight Peter saw one of the "things" talking to grandpa--it was a short bipedal monster with a body like a bear's and a head like a giant snake's!)  Peter's father Jim also had dealings with the things.  Jim died and Ma remarried; Pa is Peter's stepfather.

The dark things have, apparently, got ordinary animals to side with them against the cursed family, and worked magic against their farm, making the crops fail and the cows "dry up."  Ma and Pa disagree about the frogs--Peter's stepfather is certain the frogs are the front rank of the enemy offensive, that their croaking is black magic, but Ma thinks the frogs are their only allies, that their croakings are warnings.  She is dismayed to hear that today Pa killed all the frogs by tying wires around their necks.  As with the bargain, the role of the frogs in the story is hard to really understand; why would they protect the family, and why would Pa kill them by tying a wire noose round them instead of just clubbing them or shooting them?  Why doesn't Long explain this stuff better?  Is Long alluding to traditional folklore about frogs that I have never heard before? 

That night the things use their mental powers to convince Peter to open his window; a swarm of frogs and a snake-bear climb in.  When the authorities arrive in response to reports of a fire they find the house burned down, Ma and Peter's bodies torn to pieces, and Pa's body intact, a wire noose around its neck.  Also significant is a report from a witness who saw an odd short figure running from the house, carrying a lit torch.    

I read "The Dark Beasts" in the internet archive scan of 1975's The Early Long.  The story has been reprinted in several other Long collections, and one of those Barnes and Noble anthologies, 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares.  


These stories aren't that great, which is no surprise, as I often find Long's work underwhelming.  My interest in the weird keeps me coming back, though.  

More horror stories in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.


It has been a long time since I have recommended a transgressive and politically incorrect manga about the challenging emotional lives of Japanese schoolgirls.  (And I have to say with sorrow that some of the ones I have recommended in the past have since lost steam as they shifted their focus from characters and plot threads that were hilarious and adorable and even heart-moving to figures and situations that are just plain boring.)  But today I am recommending Henjo by Yoshiru Konogi, which is laugh-out-loud funny and always surprising (at least up to chapter 45, which is where I am.)  Check it out but maybe don't let anybody see you doing so--it can be our little secret.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Richard Matheson's Shock II: Part Three

Just three stories to go in Shock II, the Richard Matheson collection we are reading here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  With ten stories behind us, our grading sheet records eight stories that deserve passing grades (two or three of which pass with distinction) and two failures.  Maybe these last three tales "from the dark side of the imagination," which take up like 75 pages, will raise Matheson's average for this semester.

"Crickets" (1960)

"Crickets" first hopped into view in the pages of Shock, a magazine that produced three issues.  This is my chance to tell you I always find Jack Davis's work uninteresting and uninspiring.  Davis' productions generate no emotion because they are so obviously a joke--the representations of monsters or gore elicit no fear or disgust, the depictions of men or women arouse no affection, admiration or desire, because every single Jack Davis image is like a caricature, a goof or a mockery that lacks a single shred of genuine feeling and puts distance between the viewer and the topic or theme presented, a distance that neuters any energy inherent in the subject so depicted.  Davis' style perhaps makes sense for broad satire and juvenile jokes based on puns about current events, but is totally inappropriate for any kind of adventure or horror story, so I find him an odd choice to do the covers of Shock, if we assume the stories in the magazine are sincere efforts to thrill or unnerve readers.     

Back to "Crickets."  A couple are on vacation by a lake.  They meet a fellow guest, a man who tells them that the crickets' songs are messages, something akin to Morse Code.  This weirdo has cracked the code, and explains that the crickets are calling out the names of the dead, that the crickets are controlled by the dead.  Why the dead find it worthwhile to transmit their names to the living in a form totally incomprehensible is not explained. 

Anyway, this guy, the next day, accosts the couple again, saying that the crickets have started singing his name, and he is scared.  The couple think he is a nut, but, of course, late at night they hear him scream and hurry to his room to find him dying, covered in hundreds of bloody cricket-bites.  His last words are an indication that the crickets are now chirping out one letter at a time the names of the couple.  Time to stock up on Deep Woods Off.

Like several of the stories in Shock II, "Crickets" is just an idea that is not deeply explored and does not make a lot of sense.  It is not even internally consistent--are the dead broadcasting their own names or the names of those they are going to slay?  Why would they do both?  Why do they feel the need to kill the people who know what they are doing?  The idea of cricket song as a means of communication is not bad, but it would work better in a sword and sorcery setting where a vampire or wizard was using the crickets to command his legions or something like that.

Acceptable filler.  "Crickets" has appeared in a few anthologies including Michael Sissons' In the Dead of Night, where you can also find Ray Bradbury's famous "Small Assassin." 

"Mute" (1962)     

Insidious evil lurks within every one of us!  Well, at least that is what is alleged by the text on the cover of The Fiend in You, the paperback anthology edited by Charles Beaumont in which "Mute" first saw print.  The Fiend in You also features Robert Bloch's "Lucy Comes to Stay," which I have already read, and stories by Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury and Beaumont himself I would be interested in reading, all behind a solid Richard Powers cover.

"Mute" starts with brief mysterious scenes of a German (uh oh) professor (uh oh again) arriving in small town America to look for some people, immigrants to the land of the free and the home of the brave who are involved in some kind of unspecified experiment.

The main body of the longish story begins with a remote house burning down, killing two of the people that professor is looking for, the parents of a seven-year-old boy; the boy survives.  The boy's name is Paal, but he can't even say his own name--his parents refused to send him to school, he cannot say a single word nor understand a word of English or any other language.  We readers learn that Paal is some kind of psyker who can read minds, but that this ability is jammed if people around him talk.  His parents never spoke to him, but transmitted info and carried on conversations with him via telepathy--telepathy, Matheson suggests, is a rich and evocative method of communication, besides which mere words are dead husks, sterile and inert.  (It is always remarkable to see a professional writer attacking language and the written word, his very stock in trade--we saw this with John Wyndham in Re-Birth AKA The Chrysalids, you will recall.)

The sheriff of the small town decides Paal will stay with him and his wife until they figure out who should get custody of the boy.  From the post office he acquires some letters sent to Paal's parents by correspondents of theirs in Europe; he writes out letters about the tragedy that has orphaned Paal to the return addresses on the envelopes, hoping to get in touch with Paal's relatives.  But the sheriff's wife is already crazy about Paal and wants to keep him--you see, she and the sheriff lost their own son, who was drowned, and Paal  is an attractive replacement!  So, she intercepts the letters and destroys them. 

They send Paal to school, which is a living hell for him, as all the chatter of the kids oppresses his brain, and the mind of the school teacher, a miserable old maiden lady whose status as a virgin Matheson reminds us of again and again, is a vision of horror for Paal.  (The kind of people who administer the famous Bertholt test are going to want to throw "Mute" into the fire after those letters because the happiness of women in the story is totally reliant on their relationships with men.)  The virgin teacher senses that Paal has some kind of psychic powers, because she herself has psychic powers, and considers them a terrible burden, and tries various--ruthless!--strategies to cripple Paal's psychic powers and turn him into a normal boy.

On the very day that German professor arrives at the sheriff's house, Paal's defenses crumble and he starts talking--his comprehension of and now participation in language puts an end to his telepathic powers.  The German prof's project exploring the theory that humans are all naturally telepathic but this ability was short circuited by the invention of language is ruined.  The professor admits to himself that perhaps this is for the best--Paal's birth parents didn't really love him, just thought of him as a particularly sympathetic guinea pig, while the sheriff's wife truly loves Paal and maybe love and human happiness are more important than expanding the reach of science.

Pretty good--the tale excites real human feeling and Matheson does a good job of trying to convey to the reader the experience of being a telepath and of being one or another type of unhappy woman.  The characters, like the plot, exhibit a realistic moral ambiguity--they do things that are clearly wrong but which they think are justifiable because they serve what they consider (perhaps selfishly) to be higher goals, and we readers may be persuaded to agree.  Thumbs up for "Mute." 

Besides in numerous Matheson collections, "Mute" has been reprinted in a few anthologies, including a Twilight Zone anthology on which Matheson actually gets credit as one of three editors--it turns out "Mute" was turned into an episode of the TV show, one which I have totally forgotten.

"From Shadowed Places" (1960)

Dr. Jennings' daughter Patricia is engaged to a rich guy with a beautiful Manhattan apartment.  This dude, Peter Lang, is a big game hunter who goes on safaris.  The doctor gets a desperate phone call from Patricia--Lang is terribly ill!  Jennings finds the apartment a shambles, Lang naked, Patricia desperately preventing him from killing himself.  For months Lang has had seizures and pains, and they are now so severe he wants to die.  Several specialists have examined the man, could find nothing medically wrong with him--of course they couldn't, because his agony is the product of black magic!

At Columbia, Patricia had a friend, Lurice Howell, a black woman who did field work in Africa.  Patricia calls up Dr. Howell, now an anthropology professor, and she comes over to save the day.  When she was abroad she became close with a woman witch doctor and this adept taught Howell all her secrets--in fact, Howell got so integrated into the magic-using community over there that she herself suffered the same kind of curse Lang is now going through--she feels his pain!  Howell performs a ritual to free Lang of the curse inflicted on him by a Zulu sorcerer, and Matheson pushes the lengthy magic scene to the limit.  Howell performs the ritual naked, and we hear all about how her "voluptuous" breasts move as she dances.  As part of the ritual Lang has to give Howell payment--he gives her a ring Patricia gifted to him!  The climax of the spell is when Howell straddles Lang and he ejaculates the curse into her!  All while Lang's fiancĂ© and future father-in-law watch!  Howell, somehow, shrugs off the curse after writhing around a bit.  (This is the weak part of the story.)

After Matheson has spent the entire story exploiting white people's fears of and fascinations with black people's sexuality and their supposed closer relationship with nature (as well as titillating us with depictions of womanly jealousy and scenes of voyeuristic and BDSM fetishism) on the final pages he administers the medicine that goes with our heaping spoonful of (brown) sugar--Howell quotes a poem by Countee Cullen and suggests she took on this arduous task in hopes of building a bridge between the races.

This is a pretty good black magic story and there is obviously a lot of race/sexuality/gender stuff to chew on.  I'm glad I could finish up Shock II on a story that is provocative and full of human emotion and feels like it was rigorously crafted and not just a half-baked throwaway based on a kooky idea.

"From Shadowed Places" debuted in the all-star 11th anniversary issue of F&SF, and would be reprinted in anthologies on the theme of black magic as well as many Matheson collections.


Alright, thirteen stories, four or five that are good and only two that are actually bad.  I found that it got off to a slow start, but Shock II is definitely worth checking out.