Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria by Lin Carter

"We must reach the Mountain of Thunder before dawn, for the old year has ended and the new year begins--and in a few days the Dragon Kings will summon the Lords of Chaos from their dark abode beyond the Universe, to trample all Lemuria down into the slime from which it rose!" 

Back in July, I bought a stack of Lin Carter paperbacks in West Virginia, animated by low prices and Jeff Jones and Frank Frazetta covers.  (I've already read one of these, The Black Star, and blogged about it in September.)  Five of these books have "Thongor" in their titles, but I didn't actually buy the first Thongor novel on that day.  Technically, the very first Thongor book is 1965's The Wizard of Lemuria, which has a cover by Gray Morrow featuring two of our favorite things, a dragon-like monster and a space ship-like flying machine.  But Carter revised the novel a few years later and it reappeared in 1969 as Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria with a cover by Jeff Jones featuring two other of our favorite things, a bound woman and some kind of reptile man.  I have been hoping to come across one of these Jones printings of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria in a used book store or flea market or someplace, but the gods have not so favored me, so I eventually purchased a 1976 copy of the novel with a cover by Vincent DiFate which has the same subject matter as Morrow's cover of a decade before, though a mountain town and the moon have been added.  (Thongor's debut was apparently popular and has gone through numerous editions, including Japanese and Polish printings.)

There is lots of Thongor material out there, I think six novels and a number of stories by Carter, plus additional stories by Robert M. Price, Biblical scholar and executor of Lin Carter's literary estate.  Let's see what we think of this first Thongor volume, and get an idea of how much of the rest of our lifetimes we want to devote to consuming further Thongor capers.

Thongor lives like half a million years ago, a muscular barbarian from the North of Lemuria, a continent in the Pacific where Mesozoic reptiles were still to be found.  Over his youth Thongor has been a hired killer, a thief and a soldier, and been in and out of the prisons of most of the towns of Southern Lemuria.  When we meet our title character at the start of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria he is a mercenary in the army of the ambitious ruler of Thurdis, Phal Thurid, but a few pages later he is in Phal Thurid's dungeon, having killed his captain in a tavern brawl after said officer, an arrogant noble, welched on a bet.   

A pal frees Thongor, who escapes the town by stealing Phal Thurid's prototype flying machine, a boat that has almost no weight because it is made of "urlium."  (Phal Thurid had plans to conquer Lemuria with a navy of such aircraft.)  An attack from flying reptiles damages Thongor's conveyance and there is a crash landing in a jungle teeming with giant carnivorous reptiles and blood-sucking plants.  Thongor is rescued by the greatest wizard in Lemuria, Sharajsha, who has been watching the barbarian in his magic mirror.  Sharajsha has an underground fortress, complete with dinosaur stables, a well-appointed laboratory and a world-class library, under a mountain that borders the jungle. 

Sharajsha tells Thongor the story of how reptile people who worship the Gods of Darkness AKA The Lords of Chaos ruled the world seven thousand years ago, and then the human race was created by the Gods of Light.  After a war of a thousand years, the snake men were defeated.  But some of these "Dragon Lords" slunk away to their secret island in an inland sea surrounded by impassable mountains to plot their revenge on humankind.  These scaly creepos endeavor to summon the Dark Gods to our Earth and return our world to primal Chaos.  This summoning can only take place when the stars are perfectly aligned, and after five thousand years, that alignment is nigh!  Sharajsha asks Thongor to join him on the quest to acquire the necessary magic weapon and then foil the summoning.  Thongor signs on with Team Sharajsha without even negotiating pay and benefits.  

Sharajsha repairs the flying boat and our heroes travel to the city of Tsargol, to steal the sacred meteorite of the Red Duids, which rests in a tower that turns out to be guarded by huge snakes with the heads of women.  These feminine constrictors capture Thongor, who is thrown into the arena along with a dissident Tsargolian noble.  Thongor and the noble, Karm Karvus, kill the venomous monster set against them and then king of the town, leading to a civil war between the Red Druids and the supporters of the temporal establishment.  (One of the few thoughtful recurring motifs in the very stripped-down narrative of Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria is how each city is riven by competing factions--different noble families contend for power and the religious establishment and the royal establishment also compete for authority.)  Thongor and Karm Karvus are rescued by Sharajsha, who swoops over the arena in the flying machine.

The heroes proceed to the city of Patanga; Karm Karvus mans their getaway flying boat while Thongor and Sharajsha sneak into the crypts under the Temple of Fire of the Yellow Druids; at a volcanic vent where burns a super hot fire, the wizard forges a piece of the meteorite into a sword--the Star Sword.  Then Thongor and Sharajsha get captured.

Carter introduces a new character, Princess Sumia, a beautiful young woman who has refused to marry the top Yellow Druid and thus been condemned to be sacrificed to the Fire God.  She is the rightful ruler of the town, but the power of the Druids is waxing and they are abolishing the monarchy and setting up a theocracy.  Demonstrating an au currant contempt for the gender binary, the Druids throw Thongor and Sahrajsha into the very dungeon where Princess Sumia is spending her last hours; they are to be sacrificed along with the young beauty.

Such is Thongor's tremendous strength that, as the ceremony of sacrifice begins, he breaks free of his bonds and in turn liberates Sumia and Sahrajsha; with his magic the wizard holds off the attack of the guards until Karn Karvus can bring the flying machine into the temple to carry off the three as well as the Star Sword.

Next stop, the Mountain of Thunder, to the peak of which Sahrajsha must go alone to summon the lightning bolts which will energize the Star Sword.  There is a brief love-triangle thing, Thongor lamenting that he, a barbarian, cannot talk to Sumia as an equal as can Karn Karvus, a fellow noble; Thongor doesn't realize that his courage and his broad chest already have Sumia swooning for him.  Then, while the wizard is busy, a flying reptile attacks, seizing Thongor and carrying him out of sight. 

Assuming Thongor has had it, his comrades proceed to the island of the Dragon Kings, only to  immediately fall into the nine-foot-tall reptile men's seven-fingered hands and find themselves on the top of the local human sacrifice schedule.  Fortunately, the flying reptile nest from which Thongor extricates himself after killing the three hungry baby monsters whose meal he was to be, is right here on this island!  The barbarian finds the Star Sword (the people who capture our heroes never think to lock up the magic sword they are carrying around), sneaks into the castle of the Dragon Kings, and appears in the temple moments before his friends are to be sacrificed.  Lightning bolts from the Star Sword make quick work of the villains, saving the world.  The Epilog gives us the idea that Thongor and Sumia are now an item.

Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria is a simple and straightforward pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs  and Robert E. Howard elements and themes (the flying boat in a world where kings are called "sarks," distances are measured in "vorns" instead of miles and the dinosaurs have names like "grakk" and "zamph;" the Northern barbarian with a black mane), with a pinch of Lovecraftian spice tossed in (e. g., the castle of the Dragon Kings is said to have been "designed according to the geometry of another world.")  There is very little personality or atmosphere, though Carter tries to provide a sense of history by including lots of childish poetry; each of the fifteen chapters has an epigraph from a fictional primary source, like Thongor's Saga or Diombar's Song of The Last Battle or The Rituals of Yamath:

The naked virgins on thine altars plead
As scarlet flame on pallid flesh doth feed!
Lord of the Fire, drink down young lives like wine.
Hearts, limbs and breasts--their very souls--are thine!

and Thongor sings from the war songs of his people as he fights. 

Carter doesn't seem to be offering any commentary on politics or society or anything like that in the novel, attacking or defending the bourgeoisie or Christianity or feminism or socialism or whatever, as these adventure stories sometimes do.  When Carter tells us that, because he is a barbarian, Thongor can pull off some feat like climbing down the face of a glass-smooth mountain, the attempting of which would mean instant death to a city-bred man, you don't feel like Carter is making some comment about civilization, you feel he's saying this kind of thing because Burroughs says this stuff about Tarzan and Howard says this stuff about Conan on the regular.

It is easy to see Carter's influences and he doesn't do anything innovative or original; this is a mediocre thing.  Yet Thongor and the Wizard of Lemuria has a spirit of fun, and I never found it boring or annoying--it isn't slow and it isn't overwritten.  I smiled indulgently at its silly bits rather than groaned in irritation.  I can't deny I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the second Thongor book, Thongor and the Dragon City, so I am judging it worthy of a mild recommendation to those interested in such a thing.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more Lemurian hijinks.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Four mid-'50s stories from worlds beyond selected by T E Dikty: R F Young, F M Robinson, T Godwin & T N Scortia

For some reason it is hard to tear your eyes away from the cover of 1958's Six From Worlds Beyond.  Is it the representation of an atom in the upper right corner?  No, I don't think it is that.  Is it the crudely imagined laboratory apparatus and the poorly realized veiny brain behind it over  there in the right center?  Naw, can't be that.  Could it be the sexalicious nude blonde reclining there in the lower third of the cover?  Oh yeah, I bet that is it.

The arresting cover of Six From Worlds Beyond came to my attention recently when I read Robert Bloch's "I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell," a story that is included in the anthology.  The pages behind that dreamy young lady and the accompanying collage of cliched science-related images are devoted to six stories extracted from T. E. Dikty's hardcover The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956.  We've already read two of the six, the aforementioned piece from Psycho-scribe Bloch just a few days ago, and critical darling Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" back in 2014.  Those stories are pretty good, so let's read the remaining four.  The internet archive, world's finest website, has a scan of The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 that one can borrow, so we'll be reading them there. 

"Jungle Doctor" by Robert F. Young (1955)

It looks like I have blogged about six stories by Young over the years, "The Ogress," "Thirty Days Had September," "The Dandelion Girl," "Ape's Eye View," "Starscape With Frieze of Dreams," and "When Time Was New" and I liked a majority of them.  

Lindsey is guy who works at a mechanic's, washing cars, and who loves poetry, often quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Milton to himself.  He is also a drunk who drinks all day.

One cold snowy night Lindsey is walking home when he finds a beautiful blonde teenager just laying there unconscious in the snow-filled ditch!  This girl, as we know from the little prologue, is Sarith, a medical professional from a super high-tech galaxy-spanning civilization who has ended up on our little low-tech Earth because she fed the wrong coordinates into the interstellar teleporter device that hangs from her belt.  Oops!*

Lindsey carries Sarith to his home and lays her out on the couch.  (I guess that is Sarith on the cover of Six From Worlds Beyond.)  The drunk falls asleep before she revives; when Sarith comes to, she uses the psychic powers so many aliens in these old SF stories have to learn English from Lindsey's mind, and also become familiar with his biography--Lindsey is drinking himself to death because his significant other died.  Sad!  How exactly she died is buried deep.  Mysterious!

Lindsey figures he has to report this lost teenaged girl to the police, but said girl, name of Sarith, invades his mind and deploys a mental block that will keep him from doing so--she needs some time to figure out where Earth is so she can get back to the Galactic Federation and she doesn't want the native law enforcers interrupting her.  But after she has figured out how to teleport to the nearest Federation system she delves into Lindsey's mind again and gets a better grasp of his tragic fate.  Perhaps inspired by a book by Albert Schweitzer she found in Lindsey's house (with her alien brain she can read an entire book in a few minutes), Sarith decides to stay on Earth and heal Lindsey's mind and the minds of other Earth people.

Young does a good job of describing Sarith's powers and Lindsey's psychology; his descriptions are clear and compelling and he doles out the details, like in a mystery story, in a way that keeps you curious.  And of course, Young's story is a wish fulfillment fantasy which gives form to your impossible but oh so comforting dream that a gorgeous blonde teenager might just fall into your lap from out of nowhere and use her super powers to patch up this life of yours that you have totally FUBARed.  Either way you look at it, thumbs up for "Jungle Doctor."  

"Jungle Doctor" debuted in Startling, in the same issue as James Gunn's "The Naked Sky," which we read in May. "The Naked Sky" was illustrated by Virgil Finlay, and Ed Emshwiller provides illustrations for "Jungle Doctor," as well as for other pieces in the issue, making the issue one all you lovers of SF illustration will want to check out--Medusa, futuristic fishing gear, a winged woman, a nude woman whose brain is attached to a machine via wires, a woman opening a coffin to find within it a body just like her own, a woman running through a ruined city; all these visions are there for you to feast your eyes on.

*Stifle those jokes about woman drivers!

"Dream Street" by Frank M. Robinson (1955)

Back in September I read six stories by Robinson and liked a bunch of them.  "Dream Street" debuted in an issue of Imaginative Tales that has a cheeky cover that illustrates a story by Robert Bloch that is probably supposed to be funny (and probably isn't funny--I am firmly of the belief that in a better world Bloch would have ditched the comedy schtick and focused all his energies on tales of tragedy and blood and guts.)  Robinson actually has two stories in this issue of Imaginative Tales, one under a pen name.  Maybe I'll tackle that pseudonymous one someday, but today we attack "Dream Street," which would be reprinted in a hardcover anthology in 1971, The Days After Tomorrow.

This is a well-written story about a kid of the future, when there are colonies on Mars and Venus and scientific expeditions going to Saturn and so forth.  The kid is an orphan who is obsessed with becoming a spaceman.  He runs away from the orphanage to make his way to the biggest spaceport on Earth with the idea of stowing away on a rocket ship.  As the kid meets all kinds of disgusting characters on his journey, like thieves and prostitutes, and lots of people who tell him that being in space and being on alien planets is either boring or dangerous, Robinson seems to be suggesting that conquering space is some kind of mistake, but in the end it is suggested that, for some people at least, like our main character, the romance of space is justification enough for incurring all those risks and enduring all those hardships--some men are just called to the stars, the way so many men throughout history have been called to the sea.

A solid and smoothly presented story; there isn't a twist ending or an explosive climax or any of that, but "Dream Street" is still a good read, one in which all the emotions and all the decisions of the characters feel authentic.

"You Created Us" by Tom Godwin (1955)

Here we have a story by Tom Godwin, author of the famous "Cold Equations."  We read a novel by Godwin back in 2014, Space Prison, and I gave it a mildly negative review.  But we won't hold that against him.  "You Created Us," which first was printed in Fantastic Universe, doesn't seem to have been printed after it appeared in Six From Worlds Beyond, but we won't hold that against Godwin, either.

The main character of "You Created Us" suffered a head injury while serving in Korea; as the story begins he works as an executive for a firm with a factory in San Francisco and is driving through the deserts of the Southwest, near nuclear weapons testing sites, en route to the plant.  Suddenly, he spots bipedal reptiles taller than a man!  They must be mutants, created by the radiation of the weapons tests!

Over the next few years our protagonist, while still maintaining his job and not saying anything to anybody to make them think he is brain damaged or insane, conducts a low key investigation of the truth behind what he saw on that desert drive.  It turns out that the mutants are more intelligent than us humans and have psychic powers that allow them to hypnotize those humans who see them into forgetting them.  The main character's head injury and the steel plate in his skull offer him some protection from these hypnotic powers, which is why he remembers them.  He learns that the reptile people are using their mutant abilities on the leaders of the Soviet Union and of the United States to make war inevitable and make sure the commies defeat us!  Once the land of the free and the home of the brave is a cratered wasteland, the reptile race--immune to radiation--will inherit the Western Hemisphere and proceed to use similar tactics to bamboozle the human race in the Eastern Hemisphere to exterminate itself; then the scaley psykers will rule the world.  The small number of humans who survive the nuclear wars will be their cattle!     

Can the protagonist warn the human race of its peril, or will the reptile people focus their psychic powers and overwhelm his ability to remember the horrible truth he has learned?  Can he maybe figure out a way to warn himself even if his memory is erased?

This is acceptable filler; not bad, but no big deal.  I guess students of SF stories reflective of Cold War fears of nuclear war and communist domination, and stories about radiation and evolution, may find it has historical value.  "You Created Us" is perhaps noteworthy because it is pessimistic--the main character's efforts to save human civilization fail and the human race is doomed to be conquered by the reptiles, just like, the story says, the dinosaurs were overthrown by the mammals.  (I guess this story also has historical value in its illustration of 1950s theories about the extinction of the dinosaurs.)  Man's science is not going to save him--in fact, as the title of the story, a phrase used by the mutants, indicates, man's own scientific "progress," and his propensity for violence, are what is going to destroy or subjugate him.   

"The Shores of Night" by Thomas N. Scortia (1956)

It looks like I haven't read anything by Thomas N. Scortia since 2019, when I jawed at length (over the course of three blog posts) about nine stories by him: "Alien Night," "Caution!  Inflammable!," "Sea Change," "The Bomb in the Bathtub," "John Robert and the Dragon's Egg," "The Icebox Blonde," "Though a Sparrow Fall," "Morality," and "Judas Fish."  According to notes in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 and at isfdb, "Sea Change," which I liked and which debuted in Astounding, is a small portion of "The Shores of Night."  So I guess I can expect to appreciate this full novella, which is over 50 pages in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 and would be reprinted in a French anthology in 1977 and in English in 1981's The Best of Thomas N. Scortia.

"The Shores of Night" is full of learned references: we find indirect references to T. S. Eliot, direct references to Greek literature (the story opens with a reference to Argus of the thousand eyes and one of its chapters is called "Bellerophon" and features a spaceship called Pegasus) and to the Bible, as well as a remark that the landscape of Pluto looks like a "block print...struck in the severest style...."  This is sort of an ambitious story, and I think Scortia pulls it off.

It is also a fundamentally optimistic story; like Robinson's "Dream Street," "The Shores of Night" has as its theme the question of whether conquering space is worth the risk and sacrifice involved, and while admitting that the cost is high, argues that mastering the stars is worth it.

Mankind has spent a century working on a star drive, spending a bazillion dollars and losing many brave spacemen.  The star drive currently under development won't work near a strong gravity field, and so, to escape the reach of the sun, a huge expense has been incurred constructing and maintaining a star-drive construction and testing facility way out on Pluto.  The cost is not merely financial and material, of course--military men and scientists and technicians have devoted their lives to the project for decades, and many have suffered collapsed marriages, been millions of miles away while their kids grew up, etc.  

The boffins and service personnel out on Pluto are just months away from a final test of the Bechtoldt Drive, named after its designer, the top physicist on Pluto, Beth Bechtoldt, when the Earth government pulls the plug on funding for the project--the tax payers and voters have had it with all the expense, especially after colonizing Mars and exploring the gas giants and all that has not yielded anything by way of profits: the whole space program is a drain, nothing actually useful has been found beyond Earth's atmosphere.  Of course, the space program boosters tell them that the real profit will come when we reach other solar systems, but those starry-eyed idealists have been saying that for decades and the stars don't seem any closer than they did fifty years ago.

Beth Bechtoldt is willing to follow orders, but the head of the Pluto base, Major General Matthew Freck, decides they are going rogue, testing the star drive anyway in the next few weeks, before the ship arrives from Earth to bring them home!  Of course, rushing the test will make that perilous enterprise even more risky for the test pilot, Art Sommers.  A lot of the story's drama is in the relationships Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommers have with each other and with the program to conquer the stars, to what extent they are selfish, brave, scared, etc.  Scortia does a pretty good job with all this emotional stuff--for example, the three aren't just archetypes who butt up against each other, but evolve over the course of the story--and of course readers can see it all as an allegory of their own lives.  What gives your life meaning, and what have you sacrificed in pursuit of that meaningful project?  Have you played it too safe?  Have you sacrificed family to your career or some passion in a way you regret?  Should you have done more in service to humanity, or have you been presumptuous in thinking you knew what was best for others and arrogantly telling them what to do?

The test fails and Sommers is blinded.  When the relief ship arrives it has new technology developed on Earth while the Pluto team was away, which is used to integrate Sommers's brain into the controls of the next test craft; more closely attuned to the drive, Sommers is able to make it work!  But the government on Earth, which is determined to stifle the star program, suppresses the details of the test!  Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommers get frozen up there on Pluto in an accident, but their brains are saved; the government, wanting to get rid of Freck but also wanting to keep his valuable knowledge accessible, integrates the general's brain with the semi-organic super computer that runs the Earth's most advanced city.  

This super computer is made up of human brains thought to be dead; in fact, the consciousnesses of the brains' owners still endure, though weakly.  Freck is a man of powerful will, and his consciousness is still strong, and he is able to wrangle the other souls in the machine and take over the whole apparatus!  There is also a series of scenes in which Freck despairs and considers suicide, but his eight-year-old granddaughter, inspiring him with an act of self-sacrifice within hours of him first setting his electronic eyes on her, gives Freck the kick in the pants he needs to get off his duff and foil the government efforts to scotch the star program.           
In the final section of the story we are assured that the effort to conquer the stars will succeed, and that Freck, Bechtoldt and Sommer's consciousnesses, operating star ships and in total rapport with each other, will never be lonely and are part of the human race's glorious history.

Thumbs up for this endorsement of mankind's quest to bend the natural universe to its will and its romanticization of mankind as a collective, a sort of immortal being of which we are all components.


Six From Worlds Beyond turns out to be a quite good anthology, with no bad stories; the mesmerizing picture of Sirath on the cover is not the only reason to pick one up!

Friday, January 27, 2023

Anthony Burgess: "A Meeting in Valladolid," "The Most Beautified" and "The Cavalier of the Rose"

According to my records, back on December 26 the wife and I went to antique stores in York, Pennsylvania and at one of them I bought a water damaged copy of a 1991 printing of 1989's The Devil's Mode, a collection of stories by Anthony Burgess.  Burgess is of course one of the Twentieth Century's great writers, and this little paperback is covered in extravagant praise from a multitude of magazines and newspapers.  Let's check out the first three pieces in the book, which take up like 80 pages, and see what all the fuss is about.

"A Meeting in Valladolid" 

According to an "Author's Note," this story first appeared in Spanish.  "A Meeting in Valladolid" is about an English theatre company that travels to Spain to celebrate the new Anglo-Spanish peace--among the visitors is William Shakespeare.  The playwright is disgusted by Spanish cruelty towards animals; the Spaniards are in turn sickened by the violence in the abridged version of Titus Andronicus which the Englishmen perform.

Shakespeare meets Cervantes and has explained to him that new literary form, the novel.  Cervantes denounces the English for abandoning the Catholic Church and for their failure to contribute to the European war effort against imperialistic Islam.  (As my well-educated readers know, Cervantes sacrificed much of his own life and health to this struggle.)  Cervantes says the English will produce no great literature because life in England is too easy.  I guess we readers are to get the idea that Shakespeare was going to abandon the theatre and become a farmer but a rivalry with Cervantes's words sparked a sense of rivalry that spurred him to continue his literary career and produce his greatest work.

"The Most Beautified"

More Shakespeare.  Hamlet is not named, but he is one of the characters in this story, which is set in Wittenberg, where Hamlet is a student.  In the middle of a lecture on the nature of beauty, which lecture has a focus on the nature of female beauty, Hamlet is called away because his father has died.  Over the course of the rest of the story we learn that the lecturer discoursing on beauty, and his assistant, are wizards who have sold their souls to the devil.  They exercise various esoteric powers, striking dead a Rector who thinks to (as we say nowadays) cancel them over their erotic lectures, for example.  In a private session for two favored students, the sorcerers conjure up the shade of Helen of Troy in the interest of presenting an example of maximum beauty.  Burgess finishes his tale in classic shaggy dog fashion--the ten-page story's last line is the remark of one of the students: "I don't think she was all that beautiful." 

"The Cavalier of the Rose"

I'm no Shakespeare expert, and I'm not fluent in any language, so lots of references in "A Meeting in Valladolid" (in which people sling lots of Spanish and Arabic) and "The Most Beautified" undoubtedly went over my head.  Facing this fifty-page story I am in even deeper and more treacherous waters--"The Cavalier of the Rose," a note tells us, is "based on the opera libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal;" the opera in question is Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, apiece of work I have never even heard of.  If you have three hours to spare you can watch Der Rosenkavalier on youtube, and I considered doing this, but lacked the drive to listen to 180 minutes of (to me) incomprehensible German.  This leaves me singularly unequipped to judge if Burgess here is offering us a faithful adaptation of the libretto, or a parody, or an update for modern audiences, or whatever.

Vienna in the first half of the 18th-century.  While her husband is away, a beautiful thirty-something princess is having an affair with an 18-year old soldier, a count.  The count is very pretty, thin and with smooth skin and so on.  When the princess's cousin, a big fat slob of a baron, bursts into the bedchamber, the count pretends to be a chambermaid, and the Baron flirts with him and tries to arrange an assignation with him, even though he is betrothed to some rich bourgeois teenager.    

The count is given the job of presenting to the fifteen-year-old merchant's daughter an engagement gift--the silver rose of the title.  When the two beautiful teens meet they naturally fall in love.  The count then plots a series of events involving disguises that put an end to the fat Baron's marriage to the fifteen-year-old so he can marry her himself.   

This is a traditional story with traditional gags--cuckolding, cross dressing, mistaken identities, fat jokes, the distinct vices of the middle class and the nobility, and so on.  Burgess and/or von Hofmannsthal fully recognize this; in the middle of the story the princess talks about the cliched and banal observations one hears when at the theatre, how they are repeated because they convey truths, and even admits to the count that their love affair is banal.  In the end of the story the omniscient third-person narrator remarks on the simple unrealistic charms of the narrative he has just related, saying it is suitable for comic opera and darkly hinting that in real life the count would probably be maimed in a war, his wife die in childbirth, and the cowardly obese Baron live to a ripe old age.

(I guess I'll note that Burgess contrives to include a bunch of Shakespeare references in this story as well.) 


Burgess is a genius with a vast wealth of knowledge and tremendous skill with a host of languages, and I can't find any faults with these stories, but they aren't actually thrilling or moving or funny; they are like clever exercises from a virtuoso that lack surprise and passion.  I feel like Burgess is holding them at arm's length, that there is too much distance between the reader and the characters for the reader to actually care what happens to anybody, to get emotionally involved.  Maybe if I was an opera fan or a Shakespeare obsessive I would get more out of them; I have to report that I can tell the stories are good, but that I am not the best possible audience for them, and enjoyed them less than most of the novels of Burgess's I have read.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Robert Bloch: "The Pin," "I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell," "The Big Kick" and "Sock Finish"

Let's finish up the green 1963 paperback edition of Robert Bloch's 1961 Inner Sanctum Mystery collection, Blood Runs Cold, that I recently purchased for five bucks at an antique mall in Hagerstown, Maryland that is full of genre fiction bargains.  Only four stories remain for us to praise, denounce, or shrug at.  At the end of this blog post we'll count up the shrugs, curses and encomiums and provide a Blood Runs Cold Scorecard for all you TLDR and "Don't Spoil Me!" types out there.

"The Pin" (1953)

I feel like I have seen all the central gimmicks in this story before in other fiction (like Ray Bradbury's "The Scythe" and the various filmed versions of Death Takes a Holiday, as well as additional stories whose titles I can't recall) and I was able to predict what would happen, and thus reading "The Pin" felt like a waste of my time and really rubbed me the wrong way.

A starving artist looking for studio space in New York City is directed by a rental agent to a cheap room in a building which he suggests is essentially abandoned.  When the artist gets to the top floor room he sees, without himself being seen, a man surrounded by big piles of books and scrolls and sheets of paper wielding a large silver pin, stabbing these books and other documents apparently at random, his movements characterized by a sort of anguish.

The artist over several pages figures out the thing we readers realized immediately--this guy is "selecting" who must die every day.  The artist steals the pin and people stop dying, to the amazement of the authorities.  But the pin drives the artist to return to the abandoned building, where he is compelled to take up the task of picking out who will die each day.

The gimmicks are not fresh, and the thing is vulnerable to endless nitpicking to the point that it makes no sense (how do the lists of people get there?; the lists are phone books and government records, so don't include infants or people in primitive tribes, but we know such people die; do the real estate agent and building owner know that the grim reaper is in their building?; people don't really die at random-- old people and people who take risks are more likely to die; and on and on) and because it is set in the realistic here and now of New York City in which people pay rent and the guy pricking the lists has to leave the building to eat lunch, it doesn't feel like an allegory, like if an explorer in a desert found a skeleton doing this via crystal ball in a castle.  As for the style, while Bloch spares us puns, we do have to endure one of his other characteristic crutches, the list, here lists of cities, lists of record books, and lists of people who have been mortally wounded but can't die.

Thumbs down.

After debuting in Amazing, "The Pin" was reprinted thirteen years later in an issue of Fantastic that appears to consist entirely of reprints, in 1995's Amazing: The Anthology, and in a bunch of other places.  I guess people like it.

"I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell"

Anthony Boucher, who took to the pages of the New York Times to recommend Blood Runs Cold, again makes his presence felt here at MPorcius Fiction Log--as editor he printed this tale in F&SF.  T. E. Dikty included "I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell" in the 1956 edition of The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels, and in 1989 David Hartwell selected it for his World Treasury of Science Fiction.  Here we have a tale that has been embraced by the SF community!  Can we here at MPorcius Fiction Log do the same?

Bromley is a PR man working in show biz.  But he has a problem--he is losing his identity, his individuality, he not only speaks in cliches and old song lyrics and slang, he thinks in them, and only them, unable to come up with anything original, anything of substance.  He goes to see a shrink, Dr. Fell (my educated readers will of course know that "I Do Not Love Thee, Dr. Fell" is the first line of a famous loose translation of one of Martial's epigrams), and after several visits comes to an astonishing conclusion--there is no Dr. Fell, he is merely a hallucination Bromley has involuntarily concocted himself after studying psychiatry books at the library!  Bromley struggles to resurrect his native personality, but instead the Dr. Fell personality takes over and Bromley comes to think of himself as this fictional character devised by his subconcious!

This story has a level of social commentary to it, Bloch attacking show biz for being fundamentally artificial and full of conformist phonies, and suggesting that the problem of conformism and minds full of pop culture mush is spreading throughout society--the Fell persona tells Bromley that he is only the first of a new form of maniac whose ranks will soon outnumber those of the paranoids and schizoids.  I think we might also see in this story a reflection of Bloch's own anxieties as a professional writer who had to churn out copy to make ends meet--maybe Bloch feared his own works--and his own thoughts!--lacked originality, were just a rehash of old concepts, and if we look at Bloch's body of work we do see that he often bases stories on real life figures like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden or on other works of literature like Alice in Wonderland.  

Moderately good.   

"The Big Kick" (1959)

This is a decent crime story that made its debut in Rogue and expresses Bloch's distaste for beatniks and other counterculture types who loudly reject society's norms ("the same old jazz about morality, right and wrong, good and evil") and live like parasites.  

Judy is a shallow girl who uses her beauty to get men to give her nice things, but she doesn't want to marry and have kids and she finds most men's "pawing" and "slobbering" disgusting.  Then she meets Mitch the beatnik musician who almost never gets any gigs and spends most of his time hanging around with his equally unemployed friends, getting drunk or "blowing" pot.  Mitch takes Judy "with casual brutality," which she appreciates, and she joins the beatnik crew.

The beatnik gang's lifestyle is more or less financed by a square named Kenny, a rich guy who abandoned his job as a college professor and now hangs around with the beatniks, but is held in contempt by them--they only let him spend time with them because he buys their booze and pays to have their cars repaired and so on.  Mitch is a sort of amateur psychology expert, and tells Judy that Kenny is a masochist and she can squeeze money out of the guy by teasing him, going on dates with him and never putting out.  

The twist ending is that Kenny is not a sappy loser masochist but a clever sadist who has been playing the long game, knowing that the beatniks, who travel hither and yon and have no real friends or connections, are easy prey.  He tricks Mitch into getting arrested and then has Judy under his power--at first Judy thinks Kenny wants to have sex with her, but Kenny explains that he isn't interested in that sort of thing and whips out his knife.  What Kenny actually does to Judy--does he just kill her or torture her over some brief or lengthy period before finishing her off?--is left to our imaginations.

Bloch's analysis of the beats and similar counterculture groups (Kenny says "Thirty years ago people like your friend Mitch called themselves The Lost Generation....Twenty years ago they pretended to be communists, ten years ago existentialists") as talentless phonies who profess to be downtrodden artists "as an excuse to justify freeloading as a way of life" is sort of interesting.  Kenny, I suppose speaking for Bloch, claims that the "real creative talents" associated with such groups don't stay with them long, but move on and develop the discipline required to produce worthwhile art.

As I recently learned, EQMM came out with two covers for each issue,
a sex and violence cover for the newsstand, and a staid cover that 
subscribers would find in their mailboxes

"Sock Finish" (1957)

More Hollywood, more cultural criticism, this time Bloch arguing that silent films were more sophisticated than the current talkies, that audiences today are stupid and Hollyweird panders to them.  Whether you sympathize with this critique or not, "Sock Finish" is a good story which actually has a character and his tragedy at its center, a character whose black fate pulls the heart strings a little.  Thumbs up!

Our narrator is a Hollywood agent.  One of the big studios is putting out a period picture, one set in the late Twenties, a romance about two silent film stars; it is to be a vehicle for a beautiful blonde with a 39-inch bust.  Because of the film's period and setting, the studio wants a silent film star, Artie Ames, a talented performer who is still in good health and actually performing to plaudits in small fora in Southern Europe, to have a bit part in the film.  Our narrator represents Ames and we get to see what a talent, what a hard worker, what a great guy Ames is.  Bloch does a good job making Ames sympathetic and likable.

To garner attention, the studio's PR fills the press with stories suggesting Artie Ames has a big part in the film and Ames starts thinking he is going to make a big comeback.  The sexalicious blonde even dates Ames and hints that she may marry the man even though he is like thirty years her senior!

But when the film is almost over comes the crushing truth.  (Lots of these Bloch stories highlight the duplicitous work of PR guys, and we have also seen quite a few conniving manipulative women.)  The studio is using almost none of the footage Ames so skillfully developed and performed in for them, because today's audiences can't appreciate the sophisticated comedy of the silent screen of which Ames is the only living master.  Instead, they are using tiny tidbits and in post production have made Ames look absurd, because the people of the late Fifties think the cinema of the late Twenties is ridiculous and don't want to laugh with it, but laugh at it.  Ames will look like a jackass on screen--there will be no comeback, and no marriage to the hottest chick in the free world.

Bloch does a good job in the suspense department; in the final pages of the story we wonder what is going to happen, what Ames is going to do in response to having all his hopes dashed, to being led on by these Hollywood slime and the gorgeous sex symbol.  The final scene, a spectacular murder-suicide, is legitimately surprising and disturbing, and a fitting ending to this collection, which has featured so much violence against women and so much anti-Hollywood sentiment.

"Sock Finish" debuted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  I think it is better than most of Bloch's output--no dumb jokes, a dissident point of view that is interesting and sustained, and characters that are legitimately sad and disturbing--but isfdb suggests it has never been anthologized, just been reprinted in Bloch collections.  Maybe the denigration of a Marilyn Monroe-like figure, and her brutal murder, turns people off?  Well, we here at MPorcius Fiction Log are recommending "Sock Finish" to you as an overlooked gem!  


It is time to present The Blood Runs Cold Scorecard!  Each story can receive one of three scores: good (+1), acceptable (0) or bad (-1).  This methodology is suspect, as many of the stories in Blood Runs Cold are borderline cases (I've wasted more time than I care to admit trying to decide if "The Big Kick," is simply "OK" or actually "marginally good," for example) but I am sticking with it, being totally uninterested in doing the math required if I should start handing out "0.25"s and the like.

If we add up the scores, we can award Blood Runs Cold a net score of three, there being seven good stories and only four bad stories (along with six acceptable stories.)  So, rush over to ebay to buy a copy; it looks like a paperback today will set you back like $24.00 and a hardcover between $40.00 and $1,000.00.  


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Spread by Barry N. Malzberg

I founded the newspaper because I wanted to do my part to tear open the windows and let the cold breath of sanity into the room of America.  I realized that often the publication was perverse and offensive, but this was the way it had to be if it were to have any vitality at all because the price of freedom was pain, the price of liberty was the blasting of cultural cant, and I was willing to do this because through centuries it had been men like me who had restored human culture, periodically, to sanity through upheaval.  I listen to myself with astonished interest; I appear to have a social conscience.

I guess I have pointed out a number of times here at the old blog that there is a close relationship between the SF world and the world of men's magazines, with many major SF writers like Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl and Robert Silverberg selling stories to Playboy and its imitators and many SF writers like Harlan Ellison, Mack Reynolds and Frank M. Robinson actually working as editors or columnists at magazines the main draw of which was pictures of topless young ladies.  Another member of the SF community who found himself on the editorial staff of a men's magazine was MPorcius fave Barry N. Malzberg, who edited Escapade for a period in 1968.

In 1971 Malzberg published a novel whose narrator is the founder and editor of a weekly pornographic newspaper, The Spread, and this week I read it in its recent Stark House printing in an omnibus volume in which it appears with The Horizontal Woman, a novel the electronic version of which I read back in 2016 and thought was terrific.

The narrator of The Spread is Walter; Walter, after abandoning his ambitions to become a novelist, worked as an editor at men's magazines for a while and then took the risky step of starting his own pornographic periodical, a weekly newspaper based in New York City with a four-member full-time office staff--besides Walter there are sexy secretary Virginia and two homosexuals ("faggarts"), Jim and Donald, the circulation director and the accountant.  When interviewed by the media Walter claims he started The Spread to fight for liberation from the values foisted on the world since the industrial revolution and for a new and better American culture; sometimes he tells us readers that he thinks that he is performing the worthwhile service of helping lonely men to masturbate.  But mostly it seems he is in it for the money, and sometimes he expresses contempt for his paper's readers.  Walter's paper has some of the characteristics of a scam--it has an advice column that responds to questions, but Walter himself and the magazine staff write the questions for a laugh, ignoring submitted queries, and we see Walter writing an angry letter to the editor.  One of the newspaper's biggest advertising clients is a maker of sex toys and accessories whose products include a poisonous cream meant to be applied to the male genitals to diminish sensation and thus treat premature ejaculation, and Walter only makes half-hearted, self-interested efforts to stop running the ads when the cream's toxicity becomes apparent.

Malzberg's main characters are often pathetic and ineffectual losers driven by forces beyond their control, and there is plenty of this in The Spread.  The local District Attorney, for example, going against Supreme Court rulings regarding the First Amendment, has severely restricted what The Spread can publish and seriously damaged circulation through various strategies.  Walter's efforts to contact the makers of the toxic penis desensitizer application to coordinate proactive (and then when the lawsuits start, reactive) legal measures come to nothing because it is impossible to find an address or phone number for the California manufacturer of the dangerous cream.  And there is Tony, the head of the firm that distributes The Spread in the Bronx, who blackmails Walter into placing bets for him at Belmont and the Aqueduct--these bets have to be placed in person, necessitating long drives for Walter.  (Malzberg loves to write about the racetrack, he seeing betting on the horses as a metaphor for our lives, in which we make decisions based on our calculations of odds and the advice of experts, only to find that in fact the universe operates at random and our own efforts to plan are futile and the alleged experts' ability to predict illusory.)

(Another parenthetical note.  We sometimes hear supporters of the market stress how relationships between buyers and sellers are voluntary human relationships based on trust and mutual benefit, a contrast to relationships between individuals and the inhuman institution of the government, which are based on coercion, violence, and fear and have the characteristics of the relationship between parasites and hosts.  In a way that commies will relish, Malzberg portrays Walter's relationships with his customers and with his suppliers as anonymous and monstrous--Walter never meets Tony, only talks to him on the phone, and can only communicate with the cream manufacturers via letters and through a brusque go-between who refuses to answer any questions.  When Walter interacts with readers of his paper face-to-face he tries to conceal his identity and usually succeeds--when he fails disaster results.)

One of the noteworthy elements of The Spread, remarkable because it feels a little uncharacteristic of our pal Barry's pessimistic body of work, is that in the first half or two-thirds of the book, along with the scenes of Walter being stymied and bewildered by the universe and other people, are scenes suggesting he is a man who often can achieve his goals.  Despite the DA's campaign to destroy the paper, it is still quite profitable.  And Walter is a real success with the ladies: he has no trouble performing in bed with his wife, and easily overcomes her objections to having sex; after she has delivered a feminist speech ("You went into business to degrade women") he just starts touching her and she gets so excited she succumbs to his will and even has an orgasm.  Walter has sex regularly in the office and at a hotel with Virginia, sometimes looking at pictures from the newspaper as he is thrusting into her, thinking about the men who masturbate looking at these same photographs (one of the novel's themes is Walter's homosexual tendencies.)  Virginia takes her affair with her boss seriously, at times comforting him, performing sex acts his wife is incompetent to perform, and expressing hopes Walter will marry her.  Walter also with ease seduces a young woman journalist who comes to the office to interview him for a mainstream publication--as with his wife, she says "no" repeatedly but he overcomes her resistance and brings her to satisfaction.  

Walter is sometimes portrayed as a bold master at manipulating people, and not just when he is trying to get between some woman's legs.  Several times in the novel, the narrator assumes the role of a villain, for no rational reason playing quite cruel practical jokes on readers of his publication.  These jokes consist of him humiliating men he sees on the street who have bought The Spread, ("Pervert....Fool.  Idiot.  What are you buying that stuff for?"), as well as people who advertise in The Spread's classifieds, like a woman who is offering her services as a prostitute and a gay man looking for a partner with which to engage in "water sports."  After humiliating these people he then terrifies them by claiming he is a government spy who is keeping track of individuals' immoral and/or illegal activities--"We see everything, you know.  We've got our eye on you people, every single one of you, and we have for a long time.  There's a special branch which does nothing but keep up files on you people."

I guess these cruel jokes are an expression of self-loathing, Walter venting his own skepticism about the morality of his own publication and his anxiety over his own inclinations to participate in homosexual sex.  As for his success in bedding young ladies, Malzberg often writes in the voice of people suffering hallucinations, so maybe these scenes of sexual prowess are delusions, or just lies Walter is telling us readers (and perhaps himself.) 

The Spread doesn't have a strong central narrative in which we see Walter make specific decisions related to specific goals and obstacles and then see the consequences of Walter's efforts; rather the novel is a series of quite independent episodes that illustrate facets of Walter's life and career.  In the final third or quarter of the book these episodes demonstrate how everything has gone south for Walter after two years of running The Spread.  He visits one of the people who has placed an ad in the paper's classified section--a homosexual foot fetishist--and instead of humiliating this character, Walter is himself manipulated.  Both Virginia and Walter's wife leave him, and he develops a relationship with a blow up doll.  The DA abandons his campaign against The Spread, but instead of welcoming this development, Walter sees it as a sign his importance and the importance of the paper is diminishing.  Jim and Donald quit, and Walter's last conversation with them is a desperate interrogation in which his demands that they describe to him how it feels to perform fellatio fall on deaf ears.  The paper's relationships with Tony and with the makers of the toxic cream collapses, and the paper's circulation shrinks.  In the novel's surreal last two pages, Walter is locked out of the office because he has not paid the rent, so he can't put together a new issue, but a new issue appears on the newsstands anyway--The Spread is apparently a machine that can run under its own steam, maybe suggesting Walter is a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, or maybe just that people's sexual lust and/or Americans' collapsing morals, desire for freedom, or commitment to commerce, constitute an unstoppable force wholly independent from human agency.

The Spread is interesting, in particular the high degree of ambiguity with which it treats the sexual revolution and the contemporaneous and somewhat related feminist and gay liberation movements.  I'm afraid I didn't find it as amusing and entertaining as many other Malzberg outings, however.  The jokes aren't as funny, and Walter's personality is sort of all over the place, not as driven or extreme as other more compelling characters in Malzberg's oeuvre.  As for the sex, depending on your proclivities, maybe you'll find it titillating, maybe you'll find it disturbing or disgusting.  I have to admit that the way Walter terrorizes the sad lonely people who resort to looking for sexual satisfaction and human contact through his periodical disturbed me; I guess the last few pages of the novel, in which Walter himself has to resort to plastic dolls and to the classifieds in The Spread, constitute poetic justice.  We'll say we're giving this one a mild recommendation.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Robert Bloch: "Where the Buffalo Roam," "Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?," "Final Performance," "All on a Golden Afternoon," and "The Gloating Place"

British editions of Blood Runs Cold

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading Robert Bloch's 1961 collection Blood Runs Cold, which Anthony Boucher, important writer and editor of SF and detective fiction, called "Outstanding" in The New York Times--that's the paper of record, so you know it has got to be true!  I own the 1963 Popular Library paperback with a green photographic cover and a goofy joke biography of Bloch facing the title page.

In the first installment of our journey through Blood Runs Cold we read five tales, and we've got five more today in round two, five stories which first appeared in magazines in the period 1955-1960.

"Where the Buffalo Roam" (1955)

"Where the Buffalo Roam" was a cover story for Other Worlds Science Stories, a magazine edited by Raymond Palmer and Bea Mahaffey.  (Remember when we read Palmer's fanciful 1945 satire King of the Dinosaurs?  Now there was a painful experience!)  The editorial introduction to "Where the Buffalo Roam" in Other Worlds warns us that Bloch's tale is a specimen of two sub-genres that have been subject to widespread critical disparagement, the "transplanted western" and the "after the atomic war story," but Palmer and/or Mahaffey assures us that Bloch will make editors and readers sick of such stories reconsider their "harsh words."  Let's hope so!  

The narrator of "Where the Buffalo Roam" is an illiterate ignoramus, a white man who lives in a teepee and hunts buffalo with rifles and ammo he gets from nomadic traders who explore ruined cities.  Sometimes he shacks up with a "squaw;" the fact that he uses the term "squaw" for a white woman is one of multiple indications that the narrator is living an idealized version of the lifestyle supposedly enjoyed by the people of the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans.

He has two friends smarter than he, an "Indian" ("Native American" to you!) and a white man named "Doc."  The dialogue of the Indian and Doc, who read books found in the cities, makes clear that two or three generations ago an atomic war destroyed the cities and killed most of the human race worldwide; in the succeeding decades, while the animal population has exploded, the human population has remained low.  Today's humans are the descendants of people who lived way out in the country when the nukes hit, people who readily adapted to a sort of pre-civilized lifestyle (though they seem to rely very heavily on the use of firearms retrieved from the ruins.)  Our three heroes enjoy their lives as hunters; the Native American celebrates the current lack of racism, war, taxes, and greed and even damns any suggestion that they might try to revive agriculture; Bloch even has Doc use the hackneyed phrase "living in harmony with nature."  

The plot of "Where the Buffalo Roam" involves the arrival of a rocket from the moon.  Right before the atomic war, the moon was colonized, and today there are 40,000 people up there with all kinds of high technology.  The men from the rocket make clear that, if they return to Luna with a report that Earth is habitable, the moon people will colonize the Earth and recreate 20th-century civilization; should people like the narrator and his friends try to stop them, the lunar people will use their superior weapons to compel acquiescence.  Essentially, the loonies will do to America what Europeans did to America after the arrival of Columbus.  The narrator and his friends outfight the rocket ship crew, slay them, and then direct a herd of buffalo to stampede over the rocket, causing it to explode.  America has been saved from civilization!  

I hate the idea of living like a savage or a barbarian with no art or literature or technology, and of course reject the idea that war and greed and crime are the product of technology and civilization and that people lived in perfect peace before being corrupted by agriculture or money or the city or whatever.  (Bloch here is plowing the furrow so often worked by Chad Oliver that I find so annoying.)  Beyond its ideology, there isn't much to "Where the Buffalo Roam," though the style isn't offensively bad.  I guess we can call it competent filler and thus grade it barely acceptable.  (The critics can go right on bitching about post-apocalyptic tales and pseudo-Westerns as far as I am concerned!)

"Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?" (1958)

Bloch spent a lot of time in the town we call Hollyweird, and he wrote many stories about how Tinseltown and its inhabitants were corrupt and perverted trash.  And here's another one, the story of the relationship of two men who are both trying to make it in Hollywood.

Both Steve and Jimmy have cottages by a cliff overlooking the Pacific.  Steve has made no progress trying to be a writer in Hollywood, but Jimmy has become rich working in publicity.  The story makes it clear that Jimmy owes his success to his willingness to be unscrupulous.  Steve, who has scruples, resorts to writing a novel.

One day Jimmy comes by with an offer for Steve (or as Jimmy calls him, "Stevie-boy") and a complicated story.  America's attention has been glued to the shocking news of the death of Betsey Blake, an actress known as "The Blonde Baby" and "Miss Mystery" because she was a private person and little was known about her pre-Hollywood life or even her current private life.  For some days she and her boat were considered merely lost, but then a body assumed to be hers washed up on the beach.

Jimmy makes his money doing PR for the film studio for which Blake worked, much of it connected to Blake, so her death--just after she finished shooting a big picture--was a problem for his bosses and especially for him.  So Jimmy had the idea of ginning up public interest in Blake and her last film by planting all kinds of wild stories in the press speculating on her early life and private affairs, exaggerating her beauty and talent, promoting wacky theories that she had faked her death, etc.  Jimmy wants Steve the wordsmith to help him concoct all these lies, and Steve refuses.

Some months later, just before that final film of Blake's is about to debut, Steve and Jimmy are hanging out when a drunken fat woman appears--it is Betsey Blake!  That body that washed up was some other woman!  Blake was rescued by a Mexican ship and has spent the last few months having an affair with its Mexican captain and chowing down and hitting the sauce, ruining her figure and having the time of her life!  Jimmy's PR campaign of lies and innuendo has been a success, and the appearance of Blake threatens to ruin his career!  So he pushes the poor woman off the cliff and tries to bribe Steve (or as Jimmy calls him, "Stevie-burger") to help him conceal the murder.

Adequate filler.  Bloch limits his wordplay to "Stevie-burger" and Jimmy accidentally calling Anastasia Nikolayevna "Anesthesia," which I actually found funny.  Old Hollywood buffs may enjoy how Jimmy (apparently) bases his big PR campaign on that devised to promote Rudolph Valentino's last picture after the Latin Lover croaked.  "Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?" is a little better than "Where the Buffalo Roam," but maybe I just think that because I don't mind when people attack Hollywood. 

This baby made its debut in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; Bloch's name appears on the magazine's dignified tongue-in-cheek subscription cover but not the sensational woman-in-peril newsstand cover.  On the cover of EQMM and on the contents page of my copy of Blood Runs Cold the title of the story appears as "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" but at isfdb and on the page the story begins in my paperback the title appears as "Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?"  Within the story itself, the woman's name is spelled "Betsey."  To add to the confusion, isfdb says that in 1987 and 1990 printings of Bloch collections, the story appears under the title "Betsy Blake Will Live Forever."      

"Final Performance" (1960) 

This is actually a pretty good story with a pretty disgusting ending and some pretty gross sexual content, though I suppose it is sort of unbelievable in spots.

The narrator of "Final Performance" is a writer and he tells us of the horrible experience he had while driving across the desert on his way to settle in Hollywood.  His car broke down and he ended up staying at the shuttered motel of a retired old vaudevillian who was still running the establishment as a restaurant with a sexy twenty-something waitress.  A drunk, the restaurateur formerly known as Randolph the Great falls asleep after bragging about how he knew lots of famous vaudeville people back in the day, which gives Bloch a chance to unleash on us a list of people famous in the '20s and '30s and largely forgotten today.

(Many Bloch stories include lists of pop culture people and phenomena.)  

After Randolph is asleep, the sexalicious blonde waitress with the freckles and the "fine breasts," Rosie, tells our narrator the score.  Her parents were vaudevillians and left her with Randolph when she was a kid.  They disappeared and Randolph raised her.  When she turned sixteen he began using her sexually and after she tried to escape he closed the motel and kept her prisoner.  She begs the narrator to rescue her, has sex with him, even suggests she is in love with him.   

They plan their getaway but things don't work out for them.  The climactic horror scene has Randolph, who we learn at the end of the story was a ventriloquist, using the corpse of Rosie, whom he has murdered, as a dummy, operating her head by reaching up through a wound in her back.  Somewhat unbelievably, the narrator is initially fooled by Randolph's performance; when the writer gets wise, Randolph commits suicide.

The whole idea of using a freshly dead body as a ventriloquist's dummy is sort of incredible, but also a good bit of horror gore.  Unfortunately, Bloch compounds the obstacles to the reader's ability to suspend disbelief by describing the murder weapon--a "big broad-bladed butcher knife"--and then telling us, after a character drops it, that it "rolled across the floor."  How would such a heavy and asymmetrical tool roll on a floor?  This is what people who watch sports on TV call an "unforced error;" there is no reason the knife has to roll anywhere.       

Despite its problems, I like this one, as the gore is pretty way out and the characters' motivations and relationships all make sense and are all compelling and disturbing; it helps that disastrous sexual relationships and suicide are among my favorite topics.

"Final Performance"'s initial appearance was in Shock, whose editors considered it the top draw of the issue.  This issue also includes a rare story by R. A. Lafferty that I hopefully will have an opportunity to read someday.  Marvin Allen Karp and Irving Settel included "Final Performance" in 1965's Suddenly, an anthology of "great stories of suspense and the unexpected," and Richard Matheson and Ricia Mainhardt included it in a 1990s tribute volume that featured Bloch stories as well as contributions from such Bloch fans as two of the most widely beloved members of the speculative fiction community, Ray Bradbury and Christopher Lee.

"All on a Golden Afternoon" (1956)

"All on a Golden Afternoon" debuted in F&SF; editor: the aforementioned Anthony Boucher.  The story was later included in The Best of Robert Bloch, and Poul and Karen Anderson selected it for their 1997 anthology The Night Fantastic.  

Another show biz story, this one with lots of irritating puns and other species of weak distracting jokes.  "Dr. Prager's glance swept the shelves, which were badly in need of dusting anyway."  Ouch.

Medical man Prager has been summoned to the vast and heavily guarded estate of Hollywood actress Eve Eden, who is known as "The First Woman of the Ten Box-Office Leaders."  Eden has Prager on retainer; he is her therapist, and numerous times in the past has resolved problems resulting from her various bad decisions--drug use, suicide attempts, sexual promiscuity.  But today Eden's agent has called Prager in hopes he can get the actress to reverse what he considers Eden's worst possible decision: a resolution to quit show biz! 

When Prager gets to Eden's room she relates to him her recent dream; this dream is a beat for beat retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and we readers have to endure several pages of Lewis Carroll synopsis with added psychoanalysis jargon from Prager/Bloch.  Reading this is a chore, but I guess it is supposed to be funny, a goof on Freudianism and its adherents.  Bloch often writes about psychology and psychological theories, and in his body of work as a whole there is a tension--does Bloch think the modern discipline and practice of psychology is a load of crap, or does he take it seriously as providing insight into how people behave, a valuable tool in the struggle to heal people and solve and prevent crime?  

It turns out that a guy who knew Lewis Caroll, a fellow mathematician, has figured out the formulae that permit people to enter dream worlds and he has come to 20th-century California to help sad Hollywood denizens leave our world and start happier lives in dream worlds.  Eden had a sad childhood and an erratic adulthood and has never been happy, and so this time traveler is helping her transition from the left coast to Wonderland where she will live happily as Alice.  Prager tries to stop Eden and makes some bad decisions himself and suffers; Eden has a happy ending.

"All on a Golden Afternoon" is like a Platonic ideal of a Robert Bloch story: set in Hollywood, it features lots of lame wordplay and pop psychology content and integrates into its own plot a famous plot with which you are already familiar.  When I was reading the distracting puns and the tedious synopsis of Alice in Wonderland I was certain I was going to give this one a thumbs down, but Eden and Prager's motivations and actions are actually well done and held my interest.  So this one is tough to grade.  Guess we'll average it out to acceptable.      

"The Gloating Place" (1959)

"The Gloating Place" made its debut in the men's magazine Rogue, in the same issue as Harlan Ellison's story about the threat posed to the world of jazz by a femme fatale, "Have Coolth," which we read back in August.  Besides Bloch collections, "The Gloating Place" would reappear in a German anthology, 22 Horror Stories.

As in "All on a Golden Afternoon," in "The Gloating Place" Bloch, a man, explores the psychology of a sad female.  Our sad sack here is pimply and dumpy Susan Harper, who in this story does something I guess nowadays we are supposed to think women never actually do--make up a false claim of attempted rape!

High school girl Susan is lonely, has a crush on a guy in her class, Tom, who is in love with a pretty girl in class, Marjorie, and has parents that nag her to do chores all the time.  So, to get sympathy and attention, she claimed a strange guy in a mask assaulted her and she fought him off before he could rape her.  The police and the journalists and some of the other kids gave her lots of attention in response, and her folks stopped nagging her, but as she sits in her "gloating place," an abandoned corner of a park to which she goes to be alone, Susan realizes her life is not really going to change--in particular, her crush Tom is not going to abandon class beauty Marjorie and finally notice Susan.  So Susan concocts a radical scheme to take care of the Marjorie problem and really shake things up!

This is a pretty good crime story that delivers the creepy sex and violence against women that the cover image and the first page of my paperback edition promise readers.  One of the interesting things about the story, and a much more thought-provoking use of psychology than Bloch's barrage of Freudian catch-phrases in "All of a Golden Afternoon," is Bloch's presentation of the theory that descriptions of crime in the newspapers inspire unstable people to commit crime.  A cop tells Susan this theory while urging her to refrain from talking to reporters, and in a self aware moment Susan realizes that reading her own fake account of being attacked sort of inspired her to murder Marjorie.  Then, in the story's final scene, a local mental case, presumably inspired by media reports of Susan's own lie and her own atrocity, murders Susan.

(Here we have another example of the tension pervasive in Bloch's work--he seems to be blaming the media and its printing of stories about violence for causing violence, but his whole career is based upon printing tales of violence.)

I like it, and I'm certainly glad I could end today's batch of stories on a high note.


Two good stories that go light on the jokes and provide the evil sex and women-in-peril thrills that are the reason you would buy this book, an OK Hollywood-centric crime tale, and two science fiction stories with severe problems that I convinced myself are not, in the final equation, actually bad.  A respectable batch of stories, I guess we have to say.  Hopefully the next time we crack open Blood Runs Cold this streak will continue.