Sunday, December 4, 2022

Playboy 1956: Robert Bloch and Charles Beaumont

When I was a kid in the Seventies I heard mention of Playboy on the TV news, and asked my mother what they were talking about.  "That is a magazine for men who are sick!" was my mother's angry reply.  So, in honor of Mom, let's take a look at more of the SF stories printed in Playboy in the 1950s, this time focusing on the year 1956.  (We recently did '55.)

We've already blogged about some stories by SF figures that appeared in Hugh Hefner's "sick" periodical in 1956, like Richard Matheson's "The Splendid Source" (I called it a waste of time), Charles Beaumont's "The Monster Show" (I asked, "Did a child write this?") and Anthony Boucher's "Nellthu" (I also considered this one a waste of time.)  Hmm, three stories I didn't like.  Well, let's try to balance out the 1956 ledger today, reading three stories that first appeared in 1956 issues of Playboy with our fingers crossed in hope they will be worthwhile.  Be aware that I am reading these stories in scans of the original magazines, so later printings may offer revised texts.   

"I Like Blondes" by Robert Bloch

Our first tale is from the January issue, a story by the creator of Norman Bates, Robert Bloch, published three years before the appearance of Psycho.  "I Like Blondes" would go on to be reprinted in Blood Runs Cold, a Bloch collection published as part of Simon and Schuster's Inner Sanctum Mystery series, Del Rey's The Best of Robert Bloch and some European SF anthologies.  

"I Like Blondes" is a silly twist ending story.  The narrator talks to us about how he likes blondes more than brunettes or redheads, and describes an evening during which he tries to pick up blondes.  Bloch sort of draws out the whole thing, and we get lots of bland dialogue and description as the narrator looks for and finally meets a young woman with blonde hair and then employs his charm and his big wad of cash to get her to go to a bar and get drunk with him and then accompany him to an apartment building.  In these passages Bloch provides us with clues as to what is going on; for example, the narrator doesn't seem sexually aroused by the young lady.  I thought the narrator was a serial killer who was going to kill the blonde, and I wasn't wrong, but there is more to it than that, as we learn in the final scenes.

The big reveal that is maybe supposed to be funny (it isn't) and maybe is supposed to be scary (it is not) is that the narrator is a space alien who has arrived in town in a saucer small enough to land on the roof of the apartment building.  He is one of many alien collectors who come to Earth to capture human beings for their collections.  One of these E.T.s captures only redheads and stuffs them for display.  Another alien captures people whose names start with a "B" and preserves their bodies for use as disguises--in fact, our narrator is wearing the preserved body of none other than famous writer Ambrose Bierce!  What does our narrator do with the humans he catches?  He eats them!  And he has found that blonde women are the tastiest of human beings.

(Remember when we read Emil Petaja's The Nets of Space and learned that alien space crabs think Africans are tastier than Asians or Europeans?)

I wasn't grokking some of Bloch's choices in this story.  The narrator says he is a "collector," but do we call a guy who likes a particular kind of food a collector?  Even if he goes out and collects the food himself?  Shouldn't we call him a hunter or a gourmet or something?  And what was the significance of having the body the alien is wearing be that of Ambrose Bierce?  Just so Bloch could make one of his crap puns, having the alien introduce himself as "Mr. Beers?"  

As I have often lamented, I am not very well-educated, and I know next to nothing about Ambrose Bierce.  But 21st-century life is all about using technology to paper over one's shortcomings, and I was able to turn to the wikipedia page on Bierce and collect some clues that maybe help explain Bloch's creative choices in "I Like Blondes."  Bierce disappeared in 1914, and in 1919 another famous guy, Ambrose Small, disappeared.  As I noted in a recent blog post, SF fans active in the 1930s, and Bloch was one such individual, seem to have been very familiar with Charles Fort.  Well, in response to the disappearance of Bierce and then Small, Fort, in a 1932 book, remarked "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?"  (Also, it makes sense for Bloch to bring up Bierce, as a way of expressing his admiration for and perhaps debt to a man who, according to wikipedia, was a pioneer of the psychological horror story with a penchant for trick endings.)

As with some other Bloch stories I have read, the humor (which isn't even funny) in "I Like Blondes" undermines any atmosphere of fear the plot might generate.  I'm judging this one barely acceptable.  How did it get into the "Best of" collection?  Maybe the puns and the literary references make it a characteristic Bloch story and thus worthy as representative of the body of Bloch's work?    


"You Can't Have Them All" by Charles Beaumont

"You Can't Have Them All" was selected by Brian Aldiss and other editors for inclusion in anthologies, and would appear in Best of Beaumont, so maybe we can expect this one to be good.

Expectations are dashed--this story is long and lame, one of those shaggy dog stories full of superfluous details and repetition and leading to a deflating punchline.  A total waste of your time--thumbs down!    

A doctor is called to a hotel, where he finds a wealthy young man suffering extreme exhaustion.  How did this guy get so screwed up?  He tells the doctor a long tedious story about how as a kid he was fascinated to distraction by girls, and as a youth had sex with a few women, but was never satisfied--he'd have sex with one woman, hoping he would achieve satisfaction and be able to get back to his scientific studies, but almost immediately spot another sexy girl and become obsessed with this new girl.  The only way to appease his lust, he decided, was to have sex with all the women in the world to whom he was powerfully attracted, all the women of his "type."  He more or less built a computer (this dumb story is full of totally unnecessary complications and digressions, so he doesn't actually build a computer, but builds a module to fit into an already existing computer that he has to surreptitiously integrate into the computer, blah blah blah) that identified the 300-odd beautiful women in the world who are his type.  Then, with the help of private detectives, he started tracking down all these women and seducing them all.  He needed to conquer them all quickly, before a new crop of girls of his type would be reaching their eighteenth birthdays and he would have to seduce them as well in order to achieve his goal of having sex with every beauty in the world of his type.  Fortunately this guy isn't just a master of 1950s computer technology, but of chemistry, and devised a love potion that will can get women to succumb to his will in mere moments.

Travelling the world and having sex with over 300 women in less than a year destroyed this guy's health.  Today he has only one more woman to seduce; he has already met her and convinced her to have sex with him, but she couldn't have sex at once because her husband was at home--she promised to meet him at the hotel.  He is so weak, the man fears he cannot perform--can the doctor give him a stimulant so he can have sex with this last woman when she shows up and thereby fulfill his destiny?  The twist ending is that this doctor is that last woman's husband, and he gives the man a drug that will prevent him from performing for some weeks.          


"The Dark Music" by Charles Beaumont

This is like a caricature of exactly the kind of story you would expect to find in Playboy, vanguard of the sexual revolution, an enterprise which sought profit by appealing to male sexual desire and which was dedicated to the proposition that women should be more sexually available.

Miss Maple is a high school biology teacher in the South with breasts that are like "rounded hills," "shapely legs," a "slender waist and full hips."  She is hot!  But she is also a prude!  The public school administration, with vocal support from local journalists, are all eager to start a sex education program at the high school, but, as head of the biology department and a good teacher devoted to her job, Miss Maple is able to block all their efforts!  She is also aware of sexual shenanigans among the faculty and among students and so has blackmail material to back herself up!

Singlehanded, Miss Maple stands between the government and the media and their goals.  Goals the publishers and readers of Playboy know to be not only just, but necessary!  How will people learn about sex without the public schools to teach them?  Who can overcome Miss Maple's resistance?  Who can punish this opponent of progress?  Will no one rid the high school of this troublesome prude?

Readers of Playboy can relax in the knowledge that the very gods are on the side of public school sex education programs!  And that Miss Maple will be severely punished for her resistance to the sexual revolution!

At night, Miss Maple hears beautiful pipes!  She cannot resist their call!  She jumps in her car and drives to a fairy tale forest, the luxurious grass and trees of which Beaumont describes with care.  There a muscular and furry figure who smells like a goat ravishes her!  "Yes!  Yes!" Miss Maple cries.  Miss Maple becomes an after-hours secret sex maniac!  Every night she goes to the fairy tale forest to be taken sexually by this god!  But by day she continues to stymie the efforts to start the sex education program.  So, the god eventually stops having sex with her!  Miss Maple, a broken woman, leaves town and everybody is happy to see her go!     

This story is lazy and malicious.  Instead of making any kind of intellectual argument in favor of government schools teaching the students about sex, and in favor of a loosening of social strictures around sex, the story just assumes the reader is already on board with all those things and appeals to readers' desires to see those with opposing beliefs punished and humiliated.  The story depicts a sexually attractive woman who resists sexual advances, and we readers are supposed to enjoy seeing her resistance overcome not by persuasion or, gadzooks, love, but via irresistible magic!  (As in the other Beaumont story we read today, the male conquers the female not by industry or cleverness or, ugh, earning a woman's love, but through sorcery that gets her to spread her legs in minutes.)  "The Dark Music" also appeals to a mob mentality--it depicts one person, all alone, opposed by the state, the press, and the very universe itself, and readers are supposed to side not with this lone figure, but against her.

Not good.

"The Dark Music" would be reprinted in many Beaumont collections, as well as a music-themed Italian anthology of horror stories. 


Bloch's "I Like Blondes" and Beaumont's "The Dark Music" are too long and are pretty lame, while Beaumont's "You Can't Have Them All" is even worse.  When we read three stories from 1955 issues of Playboy I acknowledged that they were vulnerable to the charge that they were misogynistic, but quipped that one had to admire the craftsmanship of the patriarchy's wordsmiths, as the stories were quite well-written.  But it looks like in 1956 the patriarchy was not sending its best!  

One weak story, one bad story, and one terrible story.  I hate to admit it, but for the first time in 45 years I am taking seriously Mom's instinctive reaction to Hugh Hefner's magazine.

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