Thursday, May 25, 2023

Fantastic, Apr '75: B N Malzberg, R Rocklynne, D R Bunch, J Shirley

It came to my attention while reading stories from Denis Etchison's anthology Masters of Darkness II that the April 1975 issue of Fantastic is the only place (according to isfdb, at least) where you can read Barry Malzberg's story "Dance."  Today we check out that uncollected piece from the sage of Teaneck, and while we have the internet archive scan of that issue of Ted White's magazine open, let's also read the short stories included therein by Ross Rocklynne, David R. Bunch, and John Shirley.

After glancing at the editorial and the letters column, of course!  Ted in his editorial talks about how fantasy fiction (as a distinct category from science fiction) is growing in popularity, perhaps in response to The Lord of the Rings and recent Conan comics.  Seizing upon this market opportunity, Fantastic is adding "Sword & Sorcery" to its subtitle and publishing less science fiction.  Ted also reviews novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and Lolah Burford, and has nice things to say about Georgette Heyer.  

The letters column sees Ted in spirited dialogue with readers about Star Trek and about the homosexual community.  Ted has sword and sorcery on the brain and suggests a Conan-style show would be more suitable for broadcast on the boob tube than "sophisticated  stf has turned out to be."  A readers slings slur terms for gay men and Ted pushes back against these utterances, and it is not quite clear how serious and how jocular it all is.  On a more elevated level, there is some dispute over how responsible gay men are for the phenomenon of "camp."  A self-described gay man participates in these discussions, and we might consider this letters column a primary source in the history of LGBTQ+ members of the SF community that presents views from both gay and straight perspectives.  If the history of African-Americans in the SF and comics worlds is your beat, there is also disagreement about work done for Fantastic by artist Billy Graham. 

(Ted is opinionated and is far from averse to directly arguing with readers and so his editorials and the letter columns of his magazines are pretty lively.)   

"Dance" by Barry N. Malzberg

Malzberg in this rare story offers us a female first-person narrator, an eighteen-year-old woman living in a future world.  She is confident in her physical charms--in particular, she thinks her breasts have an irresistible effect on men.  She is horny, and full to bursting with love that she wants to give to others, but her fiancé is away at the wars, and so she throws herself at a robot and, when the robot rejects her, at an old man, who also rejects her.  Our narrator, it seems, is in some kind of medical institution, and the old geezer she brazenly tries to seduce indicates in somewhat vague terms that she is suffering some kind of mental and/or physical debility.  Earlier, in trying to calm the narrator down, he talked earnestly about the wars and the terrible effect the absence of the men is having upon women, but when this fails to pacify the narrator he admits that there is no war--the messages the narrator receives from her fiancé at the front are bogus, as are her very memories, counterfeits implanted into her brain.  All these deceptions are components of a program of therapy.  The narrator gets increasingly berserk, and succeeds in enflaming the old man's desire against his will, and even dismantling the robot with her bare hands.

Before succumbing to his lust for the narrator, the old man told her that "The truth of your condition would be so painful that the knowledge would destroy you," and Malzberg doesn't let us readers know what is wrong with the narrator, either--at least I couldn't figure it out.  After the narrator is pulled off the old man, the authorities seem to just resume the earlier program of therapy, and the narrator receives news about the war which we have been given reason to believe is not real, including communications from her fiancé.  I toyed with the idea that the narrator is in fact ugly and future societies are so shallow they consider ugly people to be cripples and go to extravagant lengths to "cure" them, with the possibility that the narrator is a robot, and with the idea that the story is a satire in which Malzberg is arguing that our society is sick in that it considers war normal and the desire to love an illness.  But I could come to no conclusions--the old man's claims are so contradictory that he offers both evidence and refutation of all of my theories.  Maybe the point of the story is that in matters of love and war it is normal for the authorities to lie to us and for us to lie to each other and ourselves, so that we can never learn the truth, not even of our own minds.


"Emptying the Plate" by Ross Rocklynne

It looks like this may be the last published story by Rocklynne, whose earliest work appeared in the 1930s in the pre-Campbell Astounding.  Back in 2017 I read four stories by Rocklynne, two late 1930s tales (one each from Astounding and Amazing,) a 1945 piece from Planet Stories, and the story Harlan Ellison got Rocklynne to write for 1972's Again, Dangerous Visions.  In 2018 I read a 1940 Rocklynne story endorsed by Raymond J. Healy, J. Francis McComas and Isaac Asimov.  In 2021 I read a Rocklynne story printed in Astounding in 1946.   

And today in 2023 I read "Emptying the Plate," a boring and repetitive story which I guess is supposed to be funny; the foundation of the story is a silly gimmick that kind of reminds me of something you might see on The Twilight Zone.  

"Emptying the Plate" is about sportscaster Joel Bravura Del Tona, who comes to realize that all his life his actions have resembled a liberal interpretation of a version of the nursery rhyme "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe," which his mother concocted to serve as a mnemonic device; Mom's version of the old standard ends "nine, ten, start again."  This morning he put on shoes with buckles, then the owner of the shop where he buys coffee every morning asks him to close the shop door, then he retrieves some boards left laying in the street.  We go through several pages of shenanigans because the boards' owners accidentally left them in the street and when Joel manhandles them they get angry and the police arrive, blah blah blah.  This is not very interesting or entertaining.  After this tedious adventure Joel recalls that all through his life, at pivotal moments, he has picked up things that might be defined as sticks and done other things reminiscent of this rhyme's lyrics.

A lawyer appears and gets Joel out of jail.  This diffident and ineffectual little worm of a man turns out to be an agent of extraterrestrials, and he introduces Joel to the mysterious aliens, who are somehow involved in Joel's life being so strongly influenced by the nursery rhyme.  Then follows a long goofy parody of a sense-of-wonder passage, a look at how the universe works that explains to us readers everything that is going on in the story.  You see, a god-like figure rules the universe, which is divided into many individual sectors, each of which is home to a multitude of intelligent races.  This god figure tests each sector periodically, and when a representative of a sector passes a test, the people of his sector graduate to a new, higher, state of being.  A test is underway in our sector, and our champion is Joel--if he passes, all of us humans and all the other intelligent species in our sector can achieve a higher level of being.

Back to Joel.  Our unwitting champion is experiencing again and again ("nine, ten, start again") the day featuring his arrest and his meeting with the aliens, but as he lives that day some fifty additional times he is aware it is a rerun--Joel "view[s] this situation as if he were a second person inside his own head," one who does not seem to be able to control his body, to make different decisions, and so the fifty duplicate iterations of the day are all pretty much the same as the first.  To pass the test (which Joel doesn't really know about), Joel has to figure out how to break out of this time loop.  Driven by desperation, he finally exerts his will and is able to change his actions on the 51st go around  He telephones his mother, from her learns the original text of "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" ("nine, ten, big fat hen") and uses this knowledge in a complicated and boring way to pass the test. 

Putting the sense of wonder passage in the middle of the story instead of the end was a mistake that makes Joel's Rube Goldberg solution to the test even more boring--if, like Joel, we didn't know why all this was happening we might have been spurred on to finish the story by a desire to learn the answer to the mystery--as "Emptying the Plate" is written, there is no reward for reading the third part of the story.

Too long (22 pages!), with no human feeling or interesting speculations, just anemic jokes, this is a tedious waste of time.  Unsurprisingly, "Emptying the Plate" has never been reprinted.  

"End of a Singer" by David R. Bunch 

The critics love David R. Bunch and so I expected to find that "End of a Singer" had been reprinted, but according to isfdb it has not been.

This is a short (like three pages of text) poetic and surreal story about Ironland, a future Earth (I guess) in which people have had most of their body parts replaced with machinery and in which even the birds and flowers are now mechanical.  It is a time of plenty and progress, in which people keep getting their body parts upgraded, and also a time of exploration of the galaxy and high-tech war.  The story seems to be a satire of the idea of progress, an expression of skepticism of technological and scientific advance, and a reminder that human beings are too belligerent.  These are complaints we have all heard a billion times and so Bunch is wise to keep his story short, as it offers nothing new in plot or theme.  

The main character is old and can recall when he had a 100% natural body and how his various body parts were replaced.  He cannot deny that his current robotic limbs work much better than did his old flesh and blood arthritic arms and legs, but he believes that perhaps the medical advances went too far, that replacing so much of his body, in particular his interior organs, with machinery has diminished his soul, his ability to experience authentic emotions.  This guy was a poet, and with the loss of his ability to feel he has also lost his ability to versify.  But he holds out hope that an upgrade to his "changer"--an emotion-regulating accessory attached to his artificial heart that allows him to manually induce various emotional states--might bring back his poetic ability.  After all, upgrades are always happening; this guy has gone through "ten different changers" already.  The poet waits eagerly for the nightly news, which is projected onto the sky in letters many miles high, hoping that among the announcements will be a notice that a new model of changer is available.  After various stories about new weapons and new discoveries by the galactic probes comes an announcement that has a profound effect on the poet--new machinery has been developed that can create artificial literature and music at a much faster rate than previously; this news causes the poet to drop dead.

This story is a little hard to read with its long flowery sentences, and the ironic plot twist is sort of what you might expect.  "End of a Singer" does enjoy the virtue of brevity, though.  I guess we can call this one acceptable.  Maybe people reading it today could claim it is sort of predicting stuff like Chat-GPT and those Japanese holographic singers or whatever they are.     

"Silent Crickets" by John Shirley 

I didn't really know who John Shirley was, but decided to read this because it is just three pages long.  Then I looked at Shirley's isfdb page and immediately recognized the title of a novel tarbandu reviewed in 2017 and Joachim Boaz reviewed three years later, City Come A-Walkin'.  Will Errickson has also written about Shirley.  Looks like I'm late to the party.  

"Silent Crickets" is a gimmick story, but the gimmick is pretty good and the story doesn't overstay its welcome.  Artists have been disappearing, and modern works of art are being destroyed.  It turns out that modern painters like Du Champ and Modigliani didn't really paint distorted and abstracted versions of Earth people, but accurate representations of what people from other worlds or universes look like!  Their stealing of images from those other universes has summoned aliens to Earth, and the aliens are inflicting a terror campaign on the art community!  The plot of this little story concerns a guy who has realized what is going on and tries to resist the alien invasion but is defeated and finds his own body becoming distorted so it resembles something in a modern painting.

It works; I have to call "Silent Crickets" the most successful and most satisfying story covered in today's post.  It would reappear in multiple Shirley collections and in one of those Martin H. Greenberg et al Barnes and Noble anthologies.


Here ends our little trip to 1975.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more such excursions into the nearly forgotten past.    

Monday, May 22, 2023

More Masterful Dark stories: F Leiber, D Knight, T Lee & G A Effinger

Here at the blog we are reading stories from Dennis Etchison's 1988 anthology Masters of Darkness II, our source being the scan at the internet archive of the 1991 omnibus edition of all three Masters of Darkness books.  The Masters of Darkness books reprint, in some cases in revised form, horror stories selected by authors from their own bodies of work.  Last time we read stories by Manly Wade Wellman (quite good), Charles L. Grant (lame), Frank Belknap Long (not good) and Thomas F. Monteleone (a pungent slice of NYC-flavored urban alienation), and today we have tales by Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight, Tanith Lee, and George Alec Effinger.

"Black Corridor" by Fritz Leiber (1967)

This is one of Leiber's Change War stories, and first appeared in Galaxy.  Even though it is part of that series, it seems to stand perfectly well on its own.

Remember how, in Dr. No, James Bond has to navigate his way through a sort of cramped gauntlet/maze?  (In the book he has to fight a giant squid at the end, but that was too complicated for the silver screen.)  "Black Corridor" is a little like that, but includes some logic puzzles and philosophical content.

A naked guy who has lost most of his memory finds himself in a corridor--a wall behind him is moving forward, compelling him to advance to a pair of doors labelled "AIR" and "WATER."  He has only a brief period of time in which to select which door to open.  The story describes the series of such choices he must make; it is implied that if he ever makes a wrong choice he will be killed by whatever fatal hazard lies behind the door which bears the "wrong" answer to the puzzle.  One of the doors is labelled "TIGERS," presumably a reference to the famous story "The Lady or the Tiger?"  

After surviving multiple such dilemmas, the protagonist comes to a choice between "PERPETUAL SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN HAPPY COMFORT" and "LIFE OR DEATH."  Of course he chooses the latter--it is pretty common for SF stories to tell you that an easy life in a utopia is actually bad for people, that to be satisfied and to reach their potential people need challenge and risk.  Anyway, behind the "LIFE OR DEATH" door the protagonist finds an office where sits a nurse with a robotic hand.  The end of the story seems to suggest that the corridors were a test to see if he was suitable to colonize this alien planet and/or therapy to cure some psychological issue from which he was suffering, but now cannot remember--the nurse gives him a file folder full of information about himself, and in it he will learn what neurosis he has been liberated from.

"Black Corridor" is well written, and the plot is acceptable, so I can give this one a mild recommendation.  It is followed (as all the stories in the Masters of Darkness books are) by an Author's Note; Leiber in his describes the circumstances in which he wrote the story, places it in context within the speculative fiction field, and dedicates it to Robert Heinlein, whom Leiber praises as an inspiration and an educator.  The themes of "Black Corridor" perhaps bear some resemblance to those of Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, in which students face a potentially lethal final exam that consists of surviving on an alien planet and have to make such basic decisions as what equipment and weapons to bring and whether to work in teams or individually.

"Black Corridor" seems to have been reprinted in French and Italian more often than in English; it appears in two different Urania anthologies with Karel Thole covers.

"Strangers on Paradise" by Damon Knight (1986)

This is another of those stories I was just alluding to that suggest the easy life in a utopia is not all it is cracked up to be; I guess we get so many of these stories because scientific and technological advances since the Industrial Revolution have made material life so much easier, and at the same time a wide range of political actors have promised to improve the lives of their clients via vigorous government intervention into the economy--these anti-utopian and utopian-skeptical stories remind us that changes that appear good on the surface or in the short term or for particular interest groups might have painful unintended consequences, impose serious long term costs, or entail trespassing on the rights of people outside a political actor's constituency or inflicting harm on society as a whole.

"Strangers on Paradise" is set in the 22nd century.  The human race has developed teleporter technology and is exploring the galaxy; for the teleporters to operate, both a transmitter and a receiver are required, so exploration is relatively slow, as it takes decades to fly to an unexplored star system and deploy there a teleporter receiver.

Thus far, the human race has discovered and colonized only one Earth-type planet, Paradise.  There is no disease on Paradise, nor any crime or pollution, and the colonists keep it that way by strictly controlling who can visit and who can immigrate.  Our hero, an Irish professor of English based at a Canadian university, is one of the lucky few allowed to land on Paradise after spending three months on a medical satellite having his body disinfected.  (Knight presumably affiliated him with bland anodyne nations so we wouldn't think the prof represents the Cold War West or Western imperialism or whatever.)   The prof has come to Paradise to conduct research on a female poet who was permitted to move to Paradise some 30-odd years ago; she died two or three years ago.

The prof finds Paradise as advertised--everybody is happy and friendly and good-looking, the air is clean and nobody ever gets sick.  But buried in the poet's papers he finds a secret message--she figured out that the original colonists massacred the entire population of intelligent natives!  Paradise is built on a foundation of genocide!

The prof keeps his knowledge to himself.  It is suggested that the Paradisans might permit him to immigrate to their peaceful Edenic world, and it is implied that a university job and relationships with attractive women will be available to him, but he decides to return to Earth, which is polluted and full of germs.  It appears that he is not going to reveal the horrible truth about Paradise--he cancels his plans to write a book about the poet.

All the science fiction business  in "Strangers on Paradise"--the means of travel and the alien species and the medical developments--is good, and the pacing and plot structure are as well, and the twist ending is actually surprising but not outlandish.  The story's themes have broad appeal; the story will resonate not only with anti-utopians like me, but also lefties who will see the story as an attack on religious people (the first colonists were members of a "Geneite sect" and one Paradisian flatly declares that the planet was given to humanity by God) and on the United States--one has to assume that we are supposed to see Paradise and its extinct natives as stand-ins for North America and American Indians.  At the same time I will note that there are clues that we are expected to see Paradise as being like Australia.  For one thing, the extinct natives are referred to as "aborigines."  Secondly, the prof, in an act of sabotage, frees a male and a female rabbit from a lab--these rabbits have been given an experimental treatment that is likely to have made them immortal, and Paradise lacks any predators large enough to take down even a rabbit. 

I am a Knight skeptic and have attacked many of the man's works of fiction at this here blog, so it always feels good to find a story by Knight that is easy to like, because it makes the respect he receives more intelligible, and because it reassures me that my low opinion of so many of his stories is a fair and rational response to individual stories and not the product of prejudice or a subconscious campaign of vengeance for Knight's infamous hostility to A. E. van Vogt.  

Thumbs up!

When it first appeared in F&SF, this story bore the title "Strangers in Paradise."  Gardner Dozois and Donald Wollheim both included the story in their annual "Best of" volumes in 1987, suggesting that this story was a big hit in the SF community.  In his Author's Note, however, Knight suggests he had trouble selling the story because it is such a misanthropic downer.  He doesn't name the editors who rejected the story, though if we look at the big magazines in 1985 and '86, Analog was being edited by Stanley Schmidt, Amazing by George H. Scithers, Asimov's by Shawna McCarthy ('85) and Dozois ('86), and Omni by shifting combinations of  Ellen Datlow, Gurney Williams III, and Patrice Adcroft.  

"Gemini" by Tanith Lee (1981)

On a recent trip to Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD, I spotted a copy of the ninth volume of Roy Torgeson's Chrysalis series, which purports to contain the "Best All-New Science Fiction Stories."  When I saw that it contained a Tanith Lee story I didn't recognize, I whipped out my smartphone to figure out if I could find that tale online someplace, an act which incepted this current Masters of Darkness-centric project.

Gemmina, our narrator, is a beautiful blonde who is pathologically shy.  She lives in some alternate universe or alien planet or far future or whatever where there is a socialistic government which provides a UBI and demands ten days of service four times a year.  This society still has private property, though, and Gemmina lives alone on her family's ancestral estate in a mansion which, via robotics or magic, cleans itself.

One of the mysteries of Lee's story is how Gemmina seems to anthropomorphize her insecurities about other people, talking to us as if she had living within her a jealous vampiric entity that wants her all to itself.  When women try to make friends with her or men try to seduce her this entity inflicts pain on her, makes her shun or fight those who would get close to her.  When she looks into a mirror this entity feeds on her beauty.  Is some creature living within Gemmina, or is she just nuts?

Another mystery has to do with Gemmina's identity, and her resemblance to some blonde deities of her people, an incestuous pair of androgynous twins, a slender girl with small breasts and a thin boy with no facial hair.  These deities are named Gemmina and Gemmini.  Outside her mansion, our narrator wears a brown wig so her blonde hair, "the hair of the golden Twins," won't attract attention.

As an intellectual and artist, for her quarterly ten-day service Gemmina is generally assigned to work in libraries or art galleries (this story has elements of a grad student's wish-fulfillment fantasies, what with the stigma-free dole and having to work only 40 days a year, and that at a solitary creative job.)  In the period covered by the story she is cataloging books and painting a mural in the Library of Inanimate Beauty.  The mural is of the golden Twins Gemmina and Gemmini holding hands.  

The plot of the story, once all the background is out of the way, concerns an attractive young man she meets in that Library during her service.  This ill-fated man endeavors to approach Gemmina, and, driven by the jealous entity within her that seeks to keep her all to itself, Gemmina pushes him off a balcony to his death.  As the story ends, the government begins investigating our narrator in connection with the disappearance of that young man, and it is hinted that a disaster in Gemmina's life is looming.

Pretty good.  Lee is a master of mood and image and all that, and "Gemini" delivers that stuff as well as the solid plot and setting I have described above.  In her Author's Note, Lee comes right out and tells us that there is no alien entity possessing the narrator, that Gemmina has a psychological problem, what Lee calls "a case of bad nerves," and has constructed an artificial male oppressor to justify her unhealthy fears and distance herself from the moral implications of her anti-social behavior.          

"Gemini" would resurface in the Lee collection put out by the Women's Press in 1989, Women as Demons.

"Glimmer, Glimmer" by George Alec Effinger (1987)

I think I have read nine stories by Effinger over the course of this blog's improbable life; here the long-suffering staff of MPorcius Fiction Log presents a list of them, complete with links to my blog posts about them and even representative quotes from those posts for the TLDR crowd:     

"New New York New Orleans" ("This sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea")

"Trouble Follows" ("too lame to bother figuring out")

"A Free Pass to the Carnival" ("Marginal thumbs up")

"The Westfield Heights Mall Monster" ("borderline negative vote")

"The City on the Sand" ("a literary mood piece...a good one")

"Ibid." ("a decent Twilight Zone-style story")

"Live, from Brechtsgaden" ("I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it or was moved by it or whatever")

It looks like I only liked three of those nine.  Will today's Effinger story, my tenth, improve my view of the man's oeuvre?  "Glimmer, Glimmer" debuted in an issue of Playboy the cover of which is dominated by the mug of Howard Stern Show habitue Jessica Hahn, about whom I have not thought in many years.  Besides in Masters of Darkness II, "Glimmer, Glimmer" would be reprinted in the Effinger collection Live! From Planet Earth. 

Rosa is a scientist, married to Joey, a man who inherited his father's dress shop and has built it into a business empire with outlets in hundreds of shopping malls.  Their marriage isn't working out so well--Joey can't take any time off of work to spend with Rosa, but somehow he finds time to cheat on her with a woman named Melinda.  As the story begins, this couple is taking their first vacation together in over a decade, biking cross country from one national forest or state park to another.  Joey planned this vacation without much of any input from Rosa, and it often leaves them alone, far from any other people, leading us readers to suspect Joey has brought Rosa deep into the wilderness with the idea of murdering her!

Whether or not Joey was capable of murder we will never know, but one thing is for sure--Rosa is willing and able to commit murder in the first degree!  Uninterested in settling for only half of the fortune Joey's hard work has accumulated, Rosa eschews the idea of divorcing her unfaithful husband and instead leverages her knowledge of biochemistry and insects to set a deadly trap for Joey.

This is a pretty good crime story that has a relationship drama at its core and employs a science gimmick, like we might expect of a science fiction writer.  Probably more interesting to social science and humanities types than the way Rosa uses her hard science knowledge of insects and chemistry to kill somebody is the matter of the story's gender and class politics: is "Glimmer, Glimmer" a feminist/leftist story in which a capable professional woman--a woman who fucking loves science!--wreaks a just punishment on a grasping nouveau riche bourgeois striver?  Or is it a misogynist/populist story about how women are cunning and manipulative and duplicitous and love money more than anything and will spread their legs or stab you in the back in order to get it from you, and how the credentialed elite of the non-profit sector have contempt for real work and will use their diabolical cleverness and esoteric knowledge to steal the fruits of your honest labor from you!    

I like it.


Four good stories in a row, from four different authors?  How often does that happen?  When an English professor of the future studies this blog, he, she or they will recognize this as a black swan event!

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Masterful Dark stories: M W Wellman, C L Grant, F B Long & T F Monteleone

Let's surf on over to the internet archive, world's finest website, and check out Dennis Etchison's 1988 anthology Masters of Darkness II  (in its appearance in the 1991 omnibus edition The Complete Masters of Darkness.)  This is one of those anthologies that consists of stories selected by the authors themselves, stories with which they are particularly pleased.  Etchison invited contributions from a bunch of authors in whom we are interested, and let's today read four of them, stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Charles L. Grant, Frank Belknap Long and Thomas F. Monteleone.

In his intro to Masters of Darkness II, Etchison tells us that some of the stories in his anthology have been revised since their original publication, so I'll make clear here that for all these stories I am reading the versions that appear in this 1991 book.

"Up Under the Roof" by Manly Wade Wellman (1938)

We start with a story printed in Weird Tales prior to World War II.  "Up Under the Roof," after its debut, was reprinted in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine in 1967 and then in multiple Wellman collections and horror anthologies.

A bookish young boy is growing up in an old house with a family who treats his shabbily, always criticizing him and not lifting a finger to aid him when a bully thrashes him within their sight.  His family are such jerks that he can't tell them about the scary sounds he hears in the attic above his bedroom every night.  One day he feels that his doom is approaching, that tonight the creature is going to descend and work its malignant will upon him, so before sunset he screws up his courage, arms himself, and explores the attic.

This is a very good story, full of vivid images, totally believable psychology, effective metaphors, heart-rending sadness and a cathartic ending.  The author's note (first published in 1973) that follows "Up Under the Roof" reveals that this is an autobiographical story, being closely based on Wellman's own experience.  


"A Garden of Blackred Roses" by Charles L. Grant (1980)

This one first saw print in the anthology Dark Forces, which was published in Dutch in multiple editions as Macaber Carnaval, and would later be included in Grant collections.

"A Garden of Blackred Roses" feels long and slow.  For one thing, it groans under the weight of long detailed descriptions of boring quotidian stuff, like snow and wind and the way a guy holds his cigarette or puts his gloves in his pockets.  I guess these passages are supposed to create a mood, but instead they made my eyes glaze over.  (Maybe that is a mood, but not a mood I am seeking when I read fiction.)  There are also extravagant and sometimes clumsy metaphors which, instead of increasing our understanding of what the author is trying to say, bring us out of the story as we wonder why the author would commit to paper something so goofy.  Grant also presents to us ungrammatical sentence fragments which I guess are supposed to mimic poetry.  And then there is the fact that "A Garden of Blackred Roses" is an homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I am not familiar enough with Hawthorne to really grok all the references.  (Maybe Hawthorne junkies would love this thing.)

"A Garden of Blackred Roses" comes to us in the form of four vignettes about life on Hawthorne Street.  In the first three, people acquire flowers from the garden of a Mr. Dimmesdale, and then supernatural events occur to them--it seems the flowers can make wishes come true.  The fourth, shorter, chapter, portrays Dimmesdale, who has a letter written on his chest, tending to his blood-drinking flowers.

The star of Chapter 1 has a wife and four daughters and a cat he is crazy about.  He sneaks into the yard of the creepy Mr. Dimmesdale to steal some flowers from the man's rosebush.  His cat dies and he lays one of the flowers on kitty's grave; at night he thinks he can hear the cat--presumably the flower made his wish that his beloved cat was still alive come true.

In Chapter 2 we meet the owner of the only luncheonette on Hawthorne Street, a guy who is always irritating people with his cynical comments and unwelcome criticisms.  His wife has stolen some flowers from the Dimmesdale yard.  Some kids who hang out at the luncheonette have a tape recorder and are laughing at what appears to be a surreptitiously made recording of young lovers in a long-abandoned house down by the river.  The luncheonette owner and his wife, when they were young, themselves had sex in that abandoned house; after their tryst he hurt her feelings by critiquing her lovemaking.  Luncheonette guy goes to the abandoned house, I guess to investigate the nature of the recording or something, and gets killed by a ghost or something, I guess because he has with him some of the flowers his wife, who hates him, stole.  This chapter is the hardest to understand, and seems to drag in supernatural and mysterious elements that have nothing to do with the flowers; did the wife wish her husband would get killed?  Is the house on the river haunted?  Who were the kids recording?  

Chapter 3 features a sad highschooler who is in love with a girl who is uninterested in him.  This chapter has the most outrageous of the metaphors I was complaining about above.
...Ginny seemed so cold not even the equator could warm her.
Another girl in class is attracted to the boy, but he isn't interested in her.  Her role in the story seems to be to add additional sadness, and also to offer more examples of wishes coming true--she claims that her father stole a flower and wished for a car and got one, while her brother's wish for a glove came true.  

(Maybe things that seem to come out of nowhere, like the reference to the equator and the glove, are allusions to Hawthorne?) 

The boy's father is often away on business and it is hinted that his lonely mother is sexually attracted to him.  For example, when sonny boy groans that he doesn't want pea soup for dinner, Mom says "You know you love it" and smacks him playfully on the ass.  Then she pours him a glass of soda and the ginger ale foams up and drips down the side of the glass.  When she is particularly sad, she embraces her son and pulls his face to her breasts.  (Some of these hints are pretty broad.)  Actual incestuous intercourse is averted by the magic of the flowers--the boy's wish that his father not have to travel so much is granted (Dad gets transferred to the nearby home office) and the girl he has a crush on surrenders to his desires. 

Every page of this story radiates the feeling that Grant is trying very hard to be poetic and deep, but his strenuous efforts give birth to a story that is difficult to read because so much of it is tedious or oblique; as for the parts that aren't challenging to decipher, well, those are just lame.  Thumbs down!

"Cottage Tenant" by Frank Belknap Long (1975)

I have developed an affection for Frank Belknap Long over the years I have been toiling in the forge that produces this blog, but it cannot be denied that he has written a large quantity of clunkers, and here is another one.  The plot of  "Cottage Tenant" is acceptable, but the story is poorly written, and I don't just mean the typos and grammatical errors, for which the publisher deserves a large share of the blame.  Long's text lacks clarity, so there are times one has to puzzle out what Long's narration means to convey, and what the characters are trying to convey in their dialogue (which does not in the least resemble the speech of real people.)  Long's pacing and development of tone and atmosphere are also faulty, as he spends an inordinate amount of time describing absolutely extraneous phenomena.  The most egregious example comes up when a guy walking on the beach hears screams from a moored boat, and hurries over to investigate.  Instead of quickening the pace to inspire some excitement in the reader, or express the fear and urgency felt by the character, Long spends numerous sentences describing the guy's calculations regarding his method of approaching and climbing aboard the boat.  First, he decides that running across the beach will present an unacceptable risk of slipping and falling, and so instead he will employ "a swift stride."  Long informs us that the man has considered this issue before:
Crewson had always believed that it was a mistake to break into a run unless someone in need of help was in immediate critical danger.
Similarly, we are privy to the man's thought processes as he decides how far to wade into the water before he begins swimming, and then what stroke he will use, and finally, having clambered aboard the boat, whether he will crawl across the deck or stand up and walk across it.

Anyway, the plot:  Crewson has a wife and two kids.  He disagrees with his wife on what books their nine-year-old boy should read--the kid wants to read Greek mythology, but Crewson fears this fuels the kid's psychological problems, and it is strongly hinted the kid is somehow (Jung is mentioned) in touch with the ancient past, that he knows things about the Trojan War (for example) that are not recorded in literature.  Crewson takes a walk on the beach, discovers two of his neighbors are in distress on their moored boat; the man has been clawed by some animal which he describes as a beaked monster, and the woman is in a state of shock after grappling with the creature.  Crewson takes them to the hospital, and then back home is confronted by evidence that his son, somehow, by reading about the Trojan War, had summoned the monster who assaulted his neighbors.  The next day Crewson goes to see his son's psychiatrist, who, as a Jungian, takes all this talk of summoning monsters seriously, and advises Crewson to send his son to summer camp.  Crewson gets home just in time to find the monster clutching his two kids; he tells his son to empty his mind, and this causes the monster to vanish.  Then it is off to summer camp for the dangerous son.

Thumbs down, I'm afraid.  

Etchison specifically names "Cottage Tenant" as a story that was revised for its appearance in Masters of Darkness II.  It first was printed in an issue of Ted White's Fantastic that also includes a Barry N. Malzberg story I have never read; Gerald Page inexplicably selected "Cottage Tenant" for DAW's Year's Best Horror Stories: Series IV, and Centipede Press included it in the thousand-plus page $450.00 Long collection they published in 2010 and the 800-page $60.00 Long collection they put out in 2022.  

"Taking the Night Train" by Thomas F. Monteleone (1981)

In 1981 "Taking the Night Train" was published in the magazine Night Voyages and the hardcover Monteleone collection Dark Stars and Other Illuminations.  More recently, Eugene Johnson included it in his 2021 anthology Attack From the '80s.  In his afterword in Masters of Darkness II, Monteleone tells us it was the basis for his 1984 novel Night Train; back in 2020, Will Errickson of Paperbacks from Hell fame wrote a little about Night Train at his great blog Too Much Horror Fiction. 

Errickson wasn't crazy about Night Train, but I think this short story is quite good.  I suppose I am biased in its favor, because it covers a bunch of my favorite themes--New York City, alienation, and loneliness--but beyond that all the descriptions of people and people's emotions ring true, and the images are also vivid; critically, unlike Grant and Long in today's selections, Monteleone achieves his effects economically.

Ralphie is a short cripple in his early thirties who loves books and identifies with characters from Gogol, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne and Poe.  On work nights he emerges from his one-bedroom basement apartment near Houston Street to hobble on his mismatched legs to the subway to get to his job standing in front of a strip club drumming up business with a shouted spiel.  On the train one evening, he is not only confronted by homeless people and black muggers, as per usual, but spots what appears to be a secret abandoned station which the train rolls past, but slowly, almost as if the platform with its single light bulb is trying to stop the train but hasn't quite got the strength to do so.

There are a bunch of effective scenes that illustrate how the world has rejected Ralphie and how his ability to face people and his drive to make something of his life are ebbing.  At the same time, his obsession with the secret train stop grows, until he takes the radical step of lowering himself down onto the tracks and searching for the mysterious station.  He finds it, and a corridor that leads from it to a hellish allegorical landscape, where a tremendous monster representing loneliness cries out thunderously from where it is chained as a hideous skeletal bird picks at its entrails.  Ralphie frees the monster, which, presumably, goes on to terrorize the city in some fashion, and then Ralphie finds himself a tortured prisoner in the monster's place.

I can see how some people might find the allegorical ending a little over the top, but its echoes of Prometheus (who in some interpretations created mankind and in others gave mankind technology and civilization) are appropriate for a story that highlights horrible things about New York and about how people treat each other, and the realistic scenes illustrating city life in a period of high crime and how lonely life in the city can be are very good.  I also like the scenes in which Ralphie first sees the mysterious subway platform--I used to ride the New York City subway all the time, and one of the little thrills of such rides was the fleeting impressions of vague things in the dark beyond the windows.

Thumbs up!


Wellman and Monteleone's offerings are commendable and easy to recommend, and the afterwards that accompany them in Masters of Darkness II are actually pretty interesting.  Unfortunately, Grant's story is pretentious and boring, and while Long's story has the makings of an acceptable horror piece, it is rendered ridiculous and ponderous by some bewildering authorial choices.  

I've got my eye on some more stories in Masters of Darkness II, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Through the Reality Warp by Donald J. Pfeil

"A virtually unlimited power source.  The high command gave the project top priority some time ago, because they believed that only with this unlimited power could you--that is the revolution--be stopped."

Back in October, I found myself in Davenport, Iowa and visited The Book Rack, where I purchased a copy of Donald J. Pfeil's 1976 Ballantine paperback Through the Reality Warp because I liked the Boris Vallejo cover.  It doesn't appear that Through the Reality Warp set the world on fire--isfdb doesn't list any editions beyond this one--but let's see what it's all about anyway.

It is the spacefaring future!  Humanity has encountered many intelligent species, among them the lizard men of planet Quithia, and the slug-like Dervlians.  The Dervlians are emotionless social scientists who have earned the enmity of all other peoples by using humans and other intelligent races as guinea pigs in experiments on a planetary scale, killing them by the millions in their tireless quest for data. Nowadays the Dervlians realize we aren't mere animals and have learned to play nice with others, but many humans and Quithians still hold a grudge.   

Planet Quithia is currently wracked by war, as rival factions of lizard people fight for supremacy, and sexy human newscaster Natasha wants to do some reporting from the battlefield.  So she hires retired mercenary Billiard, who is working as owner/operator of a charter starship, to get her to Quithia.  When they arrive above Quithia, Billiard's computer spots a derelict ship orbiting the planet; aboard it is a dying mercenary.  Before this guy expires he explains to Billiard that he was on a mission to rescue some Dervlian slug-people who are stuck on the surface--because everybody hates the slugs, some lizards will doubtlessly take the opportunity presented by the confusion of the war to murder them, so they hired this merc to extract them.  As members of the same guild, Billiard and this guy share a bond, so Billiard decides to complete his mission, and he and Natasha land on the planet and shoot it out with some lizard people and save the slug people.  Natasha is right in there shooting, saving Billiard's life and the life of some slugs.

Back in space Billiard suddenly gets an emergency message from Mercenary Guild HQ on Earth.  Even though Billiard is retired, he is still obligated by his oath or whatever to answer special emergency summonses, such as this one, so he heads to Earth.  There he is met by various scientists and politicians, who explain to him the novel's main plot, which is like something out of an Edmond Hamilton space opera.  Another universe is sucking away our universe's energy through black holes, and this energy piracy must be stopped, for it puts the very existence of our universe and the alien universe in jeopardy--in a decade or two our entire universe could explode, destroying both universes!  According to the galaxy's best computer, the man with the highest chance of resolving this crisis is Billiard; all he has to do is cross into the other universe, find the machinery the people of the alien universe are using to create the artificial black holes, and destroy it.  Of course, this means he won't be coming home.   

So far, so good.  But then comes my first disappointment.  I had been expecting Natasha and the Dervlian slug people from the first chapter of the book to be accompanying Billiard on this mission, and was surprised to find that our hero was being sent through the black hole in a one-man ship.  Why did we even meet Natasha and the slugs and learn their back stories if they were to play no role in the main plot?  

Anyway, in the other universe the computer on Billiard's one-man vessel picks up native transmissions and compiles an elaborate database on the local space empire; then, over the course of a few months, it teaches Billiard how to speak the local language and familiarizes him with the local culture and politics so Billiard can infiltrate local society with ease.  I was disappointed when Pfeil threw away an opportunity to develop interesting relationships between his hero and Natasha and the slugs, people whose different life experiences and values could serve as a contrast to Billiard's own, and now I was disappointed that Pfeil threw away an opportunity to depict an alien universe that was truly alien and instead sent Billiard to a universe which shared with our own every significant physical, biological and political attribute.  The inhabitants of the local space empire, centered on planet Lori, whose scientists are responsible for the machine that is stealing energy from our universe, are humans exactly like Earth humans, so Billiard fits right in!  There is no reason for the menace in this novel to be based in another universe--it could just as well have been in another galaxy or just another star system--and Pfeil does nothing to generate fish-out-of-water tension, speculate about alternative political or social arrangements, or paint vivid pictures of strange new cultures.

The Lorian Empire is in the middle of a civil war, the current emperor beset by revolutionaries who seek to overthrow him.  (Pfeil and his characters always refer to this conflict as a "revolution," but there is no discussion of ideology, so it all just feels like a power struggle between two men who both want to be emperor.)  Billiard's abilities as a leader of men and his military skills (all of which apply just as well in this universe as back home) enable his rapid rise to head of the revolutionary space navy.  The middle section of Through the Reality Warp chronicles this rise.  Billiard trains the revolutionary navy personnel to a high state of expertise and also forges with them an unbreakable bond by leading them into many dangerous battles.  On one such raid his two-man craft is shot down over a jungle planet, and he and his comrade, a beautiful woman gunnery officer with whom he is having a love affair, cross wild terrain, overcoming many obstacles on their way to a settlement of non-human aliens.  I expected some interesting interactions with these aliens, but was again met with disappointment, as Billiard and the gunner never reach the alien settlement, instead being rescued in a deus ex machine scene by a squadron of revolutionary spacecraft.  I felt that Pfeil had again blown an opportunity to offer the reader something interesting, and that the trek through the jungle, like the rescue of the Dervlian slug people, was a pretty good adventure sequence that did nothing to advance the plot.

Pfeil fails to give personality to any of the individuals or demographic groups in this alien universe, and doesn't do much to develop Billiard as a character, either.  Our hero is an absolutely ruthless man, willing to do anything in pursuit of his mission of saving our universe.  After leading the revolutionary navy to victory in a decisive battle over the loyalist navy, he convinces the current emperor to surrender.  Then he murders the emperor, and frames the leader of the revolutionaries for the murder, giving him an excuse to publicly arrest his own commander and fill the job opening of emperor with himself.  

The final third of the book wraps up the story.  A few months after taking the throne, Billiard's intelligence apparatus discovers the location of the hidden laboratory that houses the device that is drawing energy out of our universe.  It is protected by a forcefield, but brutal interrogation of the head of the previous government's research program yields the key to the field.  Our universe, which is a four-foot sphere in this universe, is being held in the lab, so Billiard can't just blast the lab to smithereens from a space warship; instead he has to lead a combined arms attack on the fortified lab, first driving a tank and then leading an assault on foot, firing small arms and throwing grenades and so forth.  After the gory fight, in which Pfeil describes people's brains being blown out of their skulls and a man's severed head bouncing away, leaving a trail of blood, our hero secures our universe and hides it in an uncharted area of space.  The story then ends with Billiard determined to marry that gunner, bring good government to the Lorian Empire, and expand its reach to the entire galaxy.

Through the Reality Warp is mediocre.  While competent on a scene by scene basis, it lacks character, theme and atmosphere, and the plot is just an excuse to string together some action/adventure scenes.  Unable to challenge the reader intellectually, or elicit any emotion from the reader, we'll call this one merely acceptable.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Fredric Brown: "Death is a Noise," "Handbook for Homicide" and "The Freak Show Murders"

Let's read three more stories from 2012's Miss Darkness, a collection of crime stories by Fredric Brown.  Our last batch of three tales from Miss Darkness included two stories from the early 1960s as well as a 1942 piece, but all three of today's stories first appeared in magazines in 1943.  All three of today's stories are scheduled to be included in the forthcoming third volume of Haffner Press's Fredric Brown Mystery Library, Market for Murder.  

"Death is a Noise"

This story is founded on two plot elements which really aren't connected to each other, but it is still entertaining because of its action/suspense elements.

As "Death is a Noise" begins, the war is on and a 35-year-old guy who was rejected by the Army, our narrator, is travelling hobo-style--sneaking onto a freight train--to get to a town where he can get a job driving trucks full of explosives bound for the front lines.  While running beside a moving train he hits his head on a pole and knocks himself out; fortunately he wakes up in time to hop the train.  In a boxcar he meets a beautiful 25-year-old hobo woman.  

The narrator picks up on clues that suggest to him that the train and/or the railway are the target of saboteurs; our hero recognizes that the perfect place to detonate a bomb would be inside a tunnel through which the railway passes. The train and our narrator make it to his destination, and he gets a gig driving a truck full of nitro that very night.  Two thugs hijack the truck and these agents of the Axis powers try to put it in a tunnel where a train will hit it and cause a big kaboom but the narrator outfights them; after saving the truck and the train our hero falls unconscious.  When he wakes up, he is in the hospital and we get the twist ending--the narrator has amnesia and that gorgeous 25-year-old he was wishing he could marry is actually his wife already!  They met like two weeks ago and were married very quickly, and when the narrator hit his head the memory of those two weeks was lost.  

The sabotage plot and the amnesia plot feel unconnected from each other, which weakens the story, but most of the individual scenes are good and I like the style, the way Brown focuses on the narrator's fear and anxiety, so this story merits an OK rating.  

"Death is a Noise" debuted in Popular Detective, was reprinted a few months later in a Canadian edition of Popular Detective, and eleven years later in an issue of Triple Detective.

"Handbook for Homicide"

Diversity boosters may be excited to hear that "Handbook for Homicide" features a woman and a Native American who are smarter and better educated than the male Caucasian narrator, though their ardor may cool when they realize these representatives of marginalized communities revert to stereotypical behavior pretty quickly.  

In the opening scene of this longish (over 35 pages here in Miss Darkness) story, narrator Bill Wunderly is driving on treacherous mountain roads in a fierce rainstorm, headed to a remote astronomical observatory where his girlfriend, math whiz and assistant astronomer Annabel Burke, has secured him an office job.  The dangerous driving conditions lead to Bill killing the donkey of Charlie Lightfoot, an Indian whose rich father (oil money) sent Charlie to Oxford; Charlie is an alcoholic and Dad stopped sending him money after his son's third arrest, and now, to make money to buy booze, Charlie catches rattlesnakes by the dozen and sells them.  Now that the donkey that was carrying them is dead, the boxes of snakes are put in Bill's car.      

At the observatory we meet the rest of the victims and suspects, over a dozen people who live in and around the observatory: the scientists, the menials who serve them, and Charlie, who is an architect or engineer or something.  Almost immediately, Elsie the pretty maid--and love interest of assistant astronomer Paul Bailey--is found dead, her skull bashed in; after hearing her collapse in Bailey's room, the cast has to bash open the door to get to her, the door being locked; here we have one of those gimmicky locked room mysteries--who could have tolchocked her and then left the room when it was locked from the inside?

The cops can't be called because the rain has put the bridge and the phonelines out of commission, so Elsie is put into a makeshift fridge the scientists rig up.  Elsie soon has company as some of Charlie Lightfoot's snakes escape from the garage, presumably freed by the murderer, and kill Otto the janitor.  Now people are afraid to enter or leave the observatory because the high grass that surrounds it is presumably full of killer serpents.  

Bill talks a lot with Charlie and with the scientists, in particular an obese astronomer named Darius Hill.  Hill is obsessed with death and murder, to the point that he has penned an as yet unpublished study of murder and has pressured all his colleagues into reading the manuscript; Bill is the latest person to be badgered into the reading the suddenly apropos document.

As we expect in these kinds of stories, Bill gathers clues and at one point gets hit from behind and knocked out.  When word comes that a scientist who was not in the observatory, but at home a short distance away, has been murdered, Bill cracks the case!  He figures that the killer must be wearing protective gear under his clothes if he braved the rattler-infested countryside to kill that guy. and so they can find out who the killer is by demanding all the suspects lift up their trousers.  Selflessly, Bill shares his analysis with Darius Hill this and lets him take credit for figuring out who the killer is--this is to buoy Hill's spirits and salvage his reputation, as it does kind of seem like the killer has been getting ideas from his manuscript.  If you have met any Ph.D.s in real life, as I have, you won't surprised that Hill jumps at the chance to take credit and realize profit from some other guy's insight.

The killer, one of the astronomers, commits suicide when his identity is uncovered; luckily he has a long confession letter in his pocket that explains why and how he killed all those people; most significantly, this letter ups the story's grue quotient by exposing the bizarre macabre element of "Handbook for Homicide"'s locked room component.

MPorcius Fiction Log veterans may recall the 1942 Brown locked room mystery with a macabre element that we read in 2014, "The Spherical Ghoul," the outlandish and disgusting feature of which was a face-eating armadillo.  (Amusingly, one of the components of the collage illustration on the back cover of Miss Darkness is an armadillo.  I'll spare you my petulant theory that the prevalence of such collage illustrations is a sign our culture is in a period of decadence and rarely produces anything new of value and instead consists largely of recycling the worthwhile products of more fertile ages in the form of pathetic imitation and envious parody.)  The bizarre twist to the locked room puzzle in "Handbook for Homicide" is that the killer used a "deWar flask" full of "liquified air" to freeze the dead Elise's joints so she could be leaned against a wall like a rigid hunk of wood; the sound of her falling over when her dead joints thawed would make people who heard it think she had died later than she truly had, at a time for which the killer would have an alibi.

I question the strategy of putting the grotesque twist after the climax (the revelation and suicide of the villain) and before a happy ending; shouldn't the most remarkable thing in a story be part of the climax, or, if it is meant to be shocking, be the last line?  Oh, well.

"Handbook for Homicide" ends with a little half-page epilogue or denouement in which we learn Annabel and Bill get married and Darius Hill becomes director of the observatory.  Congrats to everybody!  Too bad about the maid and the janitor!

I don't care for the types of mysteries that revolve around having an army of suspects and a pile of clues, many of which are red herrings.  I can tolerate such dross if it merely serves as a vehicle for human drama--relationships between compelling characters or thrilling or fear-inducing sex and violence--like in those Italian giallo movies, the main attraction of which is not their convoluted and unbelievable plots but the nudity and death, the 1960s-70s fashion, interior decor, automobiles and music, the European scenery and the charming actors like Edwige Fenech, Luigi Pistilli, Ida Galli, George Hilton, Anita Strindberg, et al.  But "Handbook for Homicide" consists almost entirely of the clues and suspects, with almost no blood and guts or tension or human relationships, and its two big gimmicks--the fat astronomer's book about murder and the killer astronomer's use of "liquified air" to construct himself an alibi--are not particularly interesting.  Gotta give "Handbook for Homicide" one a thumbs down.

"Handbook for Homicide" appeared in American and Canadian editions of Detective Tales that have very similar but distinct cover illustrations.  Why did they do this?  Are magazines published in Canada required to have a set percentage of content by Canadian artists?  If you search around online a little, you'll find that an Italian designer and art director in 2010 composed a draft of a graphic novel based on "Handbook for Homicide;" check it out at the links.

"The Freak Show Murders"

Here we have a cover story from Street and Smith's Mystery Magazine that in 1985 was the title story of a Brown collection, the fifth in a series of nineteen books put out by Dennis McMillan Publications, Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps.  "The Freak Show Murders"'s text is preceded by a three-page glossary of carney slang, thirty-eight terms that include words I think are nowadays in common usage like "mark" and "spiel" as well as words that have evolved in meaning since the 1940s like "geek" and some which I haven't encountered before, like "mad ball" (synonym for "crystal ball.")  

This is a long (like 70 pages here in Miss Darkness) boring story full of victims, suspects and clues.  Unlike with "Handbook for Homicide," however, the setting, a travelling carnival, adds some  interest.  Brown builds up a sad, oppressive, somewhat disgusting, atmosphere with talk of how the carney people constitute a separate world with its own lingo and mores that is in conflict with the rest of the world as well as constant reminders that the carnival is in financial trouble and that a current series of rainstorms is driving away customers, forcing everybody to walk through mud all the time, and even threatening to blow over the tents.  Brown pushes these themes with scenes in the carnival's wax museum--its dummies are reproductions of famous acts of murder, and we are told that it is people's "subconscious desire to see a man die" that brings then to the carnival to see these blood-drenched dummies, the creepy snakes and the life-risking stunts, and that the carneys are a reflection of the larger society to which they must appeal to secure their livelihood:
It was because the marks were what they were that the carneys had to be that way.  It was larceny in their hearts that made them mob the gambling concessions, trying to get something for nothing; lust that led them into the girl shows; morbid curiosity that made them like to see a man stick pins into his skin....
When I read this kind of social commentary in genre fiction whose appeal rests in part on depictions of sex and violence (and we've seen this sort of commentary in the work of Robert Bloch and Ray Cummings) I always suspect it reflects a level of unease or shame on the part of the writer--he wants to write for a living, and what sells is sex and violence, so that is what he writes, when perhaps he would like to write something more "elevated."  The narrator of "The Freak Show Murders," in discussing the waxworks, suggests the waxwork's talented sculptor would "starve" if he constructed not a "Chamber of Horrors" but a hall of heroes like Galileo with his telescope and Lincoln solving math problems on the back of his shovel. 

Our narrator, Pete Gaynor, is the barker whose job is to attract people into the freak show tent.  He has a crush on one of the performers, snake handler Stella Alleman, but she isn't sure they should hook up.  A carney--a laborer ("canvasman")--turns up dead, his head bashed in.  The guy who discovered the body, the pin cushion (a performer whose act is to pass needles through his skin), gets murdered not long after.  Stella's favorite snake disappears and it is also found dead.  Between discoveries of dead bodies both human and ophidian, Brown describes boring little incidents like interviews with the police and conversations that consist of speculations on who might be killing the carnival employees and why.  Members of the freak show staff get spooked and start quitting after some of them receive threatening "messages": a toy snake left in the bed roll of a guy renowned for his pathological fear of snakes, for example.  The narrator, who is a hemophiliac, finds a blade in his bedroll.

(One of the problems with the story is the character of the narrator; on the one hand he has a real temper and is quick to get violently angry--he actually punches a cop in the face for accusing him of being the killer--but on the other hand he is a hemophiliac who has to be careful because even "a slight scratch can be dangerous" to him.  Would a guy for whom a "slight scratch" is life-threatening really have such a short fuse that he would punch police officers in the face?)

In the final third of the story a new character appears, a blonde with a good body but whose face, behind its thick layer of cosmetics, is hard; she claims to be the wife of the first murder victim, and her mysterious actions offer Pete the clues he needs to figure out the whole mystery of who committed the murders and is trying to scare off the freaks and why.

"The Freak Show Murders" is pretty boring to read because the characters are lacking personality and their relationships are totally uninteresting, and because there is no action or suspense to speak of.  However, when you finish it, you can see that the plot works well on a mechanical level--how the various criminals and victims behave makes sense (even if how the narrator acts perhaps doesn't.)  Also, Brown's effort to portray a world within a world that is in conflict with that larger world but is also a reflection of its vices, is successful; he even portrays people from the outside world struggling to join (or at least infiltrate) the clannish world of the carneys, and our narrator's realization that it is possible to build salutary relationships between his own society and the larger society.  We'll call this one acceptable.


I've been pretty critical of these stories, and we'll finish with some more criticism, though not of Brown.  "The Freak Show Murders" as it appears in my 2012 copy of Miss Darkness is full of irritating and distracting typos, most of them concerning punctuation.  I'm guessing these are scanning errors, based on my own experiences of scanning print outs snail-mailed to me by college professors who refused to give me electronic files of the impenetrable pseudo-scholarly articles which would be printed under their names in publications published under my boss's name.  I applaud the work of small publishers who print decades-old material by genre writers, but at the same time must report with sadness that these publications are often plagued by errors.  Maybe scanning has gotten better since I was doing it over ten years ago; making sure sentences have periods at their ends and not in their middles sounds like something AI could do.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Lani People by J. F. Bone

Legally and biologically the Lani weren't human.  But they were intelligent, upright, bipedal mammals whose morphology was so close to man's that it had taken the ultimate test to settle their status.  And being a Betan, Kennon was suspicious of the accuracy of that ultimate test.
Some time ago I spotted a 1962 Bantam paperback copy of J. F. Bone's The Lani People and bought it for the princely sum of four dollars.  The text on the book's back cover had me wondering if this was a feminist novel about how men treat women like crap, or a misogynist novel about how women are so impossible to deal with that men would jump at the chance to embrace some alternative means of satisfying their...needs...should such an alternative come on the scene.  I read a story by Bone back in 2015 that Judith Merril, widely acclaimed anthologist, judged worth republishing, and MPorcius, unknown goofball, judged "a weak joke," but let's give The Lani People a chance anyway.  At the very least, the red cover illo of nude girls with tails, and an extravagant ad inside (see below), are compelling. 

It is about 6,000 years in the future, and the human race dominates the galaxy, having defeated many other intelligent species and colonized over 6,000 planets.  These 6,000 worlds are pretty independent and have distinct cultures.  

Our protagonist is recent veterinary school graduate Jac Kennon.  Kennon is from planet Beta, one of the most technologically advanced of the human planets, whose people are known for their honesty, moral fortitude and punctiliousness.  He is presently on planet Kardon, which has only been inhabited by humans for 500 years, and has less technology and a more free-spirited, entrepreneurial, frontier attitude.  Most Betans would avoid such a planet, but Kennon's father was a space ship captain, and young Jac spent many years on space ships and among non-Betans, and is thus more adventurous than most of his countrymen.

Answering a want ad, he takes a job as chief vet at Outworld Enterprises Incorporated, a big agricultural concern owned by the Alexander family, whose ancestors were leaders of the conquest of Kardon.  President Alexander X. M. Alexander owns the largest share of the business, but not a controlling interest; however he is currently able to run the place because he has temporary control of the shares of one of his cousins, a fat jerk named Douglas.  I didn't really understand this business with Douglas's shares, because Douglas is an adult who is in charge of a department of Outworld, flies aircraft and carries a gun, but humans in the future of the novel live to be four or five hundred years old, so maybe that has something to do with it.  Anyway, when Douglas comes of age, Alexander X. M. will be in trouble because he doesn't get along with Douglas or any other of his relatives.

Outworld's primary business is raising and selling cattle and swine--even after thousands of years, people still think real meat tastes better than vat-grown "meat."  But our story is concerned with Outworld's breeding and selling of Lani, a species of humanoid native to an isolated island on Kardon named Flora.  Lani can talk and read, and are employed by Outworld as agricultural laborers and office clerks, and except for their tails they look identical to human women--but legally they are animals, and so can be bought and sold.  Much of the tension in the novel is based on the fact that the Lani are practically human, but are treated as beasts by Outworld's employees and customers--bred eugenically, worked as slaves, sold to customers.  

Kennon's response to proximity to and responsibility for Lani causes him considerable anxiety.  Lani don't wear clothes, and are eager to have sex with human men, and Kennon is distracted by their naked bodies and sexual availability.  He can't bring himself to dissect dead Lani--he decided to become a vet and not an MD in the first place because he couldn't bear to work on human bodies.  Luckily, as head vet, he doesn't have to carve up Lani cadavers himself--he has Lani assistants who can handle the actual cutting while he instructs and observes.  The legal status of the Lani also has particular resonance for him as a Betan.  The genetic differences between Lani and humans are slight, but enough that the interstellar courts have ruled that the Lani are animals, not people, so can be treated as property like cows and goats.  Well, Beta has a sun that produces a high level of radiation, meaning that the humans on Beta are evolving more quickly than most human populations--thus far in ways that are mostly invisible to the naked eye, but over time the Betan population might become distinct enough that the interstellar courts could conceivably classify them as nonhuman, which would rob them of their legal rights.

This set up sounds like a decent vehicle for Bone to discuss things like imperialism and eugenics and racism and sexism and slavery and so forth, and the back cover of the book makes it sound like the novel is going to be full of weird sex and radical speculations on how technology is going to change the relationships between the sexes.  Unfortunately, there is very little of any of that potentially engaging material, and the book is quite slow-paced and quite boring besides, especially the first third of the text, so it took me a long time to read as I found myself distracted by books of anecdotes about WWII RAF personnel (such as J. Alwyn Phillips' Valley of the Shadow of Death, Peter Rees' Lancaster Men and Mel Rolfe's Looking Into Hell) and various disreputable giallos and mangas (although maybe I'm supposed to say gialli and maaaahhhhnga.)

The first 50 of The Lani People's 152 pages cover a period of two or three days and introduce us to the whole situation and our principal human characters and a subplot about a parasitic infestation the Lani on Flora are suffering.  Bone spends a lot of time, much of it via dialogue between Jac Kennon and other characters, explaining in detail Outworld's operations and the way the parasites propagate and how Kennon hopes to defeat them.  None of this is very emotionally involving--the characters are not very compelling and we don't get a sense that the stakes are high--people don't seem scared or angry or anything.

Things get a little more interesting as the second third of the novel begins and we flash forward ten months to find Keenon has put an end to the Lani parasite infestation (like the matter of Douglas's shares, the business with the parasites seems important but is soon forgotten) and at the same time rationalized and rendered far more efficient all Outworld's operations, setting up a vaccination program for the beef and pork departments, for example.  Then we get a smidgen of human feeling, as we learn one of Keenon's Lani assistants, Copper, is in love with him, and he admits to himself he is in love with her!  Many human men on Kardon have sexual relationships with Lani, but Keenon's upbringing as a Betan makes it extremely difficult to admit his love for a nonhuman to himself, much less act on it.  You see, the genetic drift experienced by the Betan population has fostered a powerful miscegenation taboo on Beta--Betans find the idea of sex with non-Betan humans repulsive, and sex with nonhumans unthinkable.  

Another revelation occurs before the novel's halfway mark.  Keenon has been told, and the Lani on Flora believe, that there are no male Lani and all the new Lani are the product of artificial high tech genetic engineering.  This is not true--on a fortified island, Otpen, is penned up a population of stud Lani, big muscular males bred for strength.  In what is apparently Bone satirizing or commenting on individualism and competition (which he seems to be equating with "Social Darwinism"*), overweight jerk Douglas Alexander, who is in charge of Otpen, describes to Keenon (who has traveled to Otpen to deal with an outbreak of food poisoning) how the male Lani are trained to be ruthlessly selfish, to fight amongst themselves for dominance and the right to breed. 

*Bone doesn't use the words "Darwinism" or "Social," but Douglas claims the system of training the breeding the male Lani was devised by an ancestor of his who based it on "an old book--something about the noble savage, natural selection and survival of the fittest."  The inclusion of the phrase "noble savage" is a little odd, I guess a reflection of the muddled thinking of the Alexanders.

A bigger revelation follows.  Serendipitously, Keenon discovers a radioactive crater on Flora, and then Copper chants to him some of the secret oral tradition literature of the Lani, and Keenon figures out that the Lani are the (mutant) descendants of human pioneers who crash landed on Flora four thousand years ago.  So, he can have sex with Copper with a clear conscience and if he can get evidence of the Lanis' true ancestry off of planet Kardon, the interstellar government will declare the Lani human and liberate them from slavery.    

As I guess we expect in a SF story, Keenon isn't just a trained veterinarian who is also an expert at hand to hand combat (Douglas contrives a situation in which Keenon has to fight for his life against a male Lani and the Betan handles the powerful creature with ease)--he also knows how to repair a 4,000-year-old star ship.  But it will take him six months or so to do so if he only has Copper's help, and, in the final third of the novel, plot developments pile up that put him under some time pressure.  For one thing, Copper becomes pregnant with his child.  This is the first time in forty generations that a Lani has been impregnated by a human, and is undeniable proof that Lani are human.  This has to be kept secret--if the Alexanders find out they might kill Keenon and Copper in order to keep the Lanis' legitimate claim to human rights from being recognized.  The idea of aborting the child to keep the secret is raised but Cooper and Keenon reject this expedient out of hand--they are confident that abortion is murder. 

President Alexander X. M. Alexander then calls a big meeting at which Keenon realizes that the Prez is a telepath who can read minds, so our hero has to struggle to keep his secrets away from the forefront of his consciousness.  In this he succeeds.  By more conventional methods of snooping, Douglas finds out about Keenon's plan to escape with Cooper in the ancient ship just before our heroes are going to lift off.  Cooper shows her resourcefulness by tricking Douglas and then knocking him unconscious.  The old ship takes off, and Douglas, trying to shoot it down, accidentally kills himself.

Unlike newer vessels, the old space ship is subject to Einsteinian time dilation, so a trip to Beta that feels like a few months to Keenon and Copper takes ten years.  We readers get a glimpse of Beta, which seems like a technocratic welfare state where a submissive populace carefully follows all the rules and customs and reveres scientists, engineers and doctors as a kind of aristocracy or secular priesthood.  Alexander X. M. Alexander arrives on Beta, having spent a decade hunting Keenon, whom he considers murdered Douglas, stole Copper and broke his contract as Outworld's top vet.  (When you live to be 450 or so years old, spending a decade on a legal dispute isn't as big a deal for you as it would be for you and me.)  When President Alexander learns that the Lani are legally human he agrees to free them, and Bone ends his book on a hopeful redemptive note--Keenon and Copper return to planet Kardon to work for Outworld helping the Lani assimilate into a new way of life on a new planet that can be their homeland, Bone suggesting people are flawed but reformable.

The Lani People is pretty cold, flat, slow and boring--nothing in it inspires excitement or reflection on the part of the reader.  The sex and violence is scant, the characters are bland, the arguments and speculations lukewarm.  The text, with its veiled attacks on free enterprise and business competition, suggest Bone is some kind of pinko, but he doesn't promote socialism or technocracy with any kind of passion or reasoned arguments, so these attacks don't offer the reader any emotional or intellectual stimulation.  Lacking the "oomph" required of a successful adventure story, or human drama, or speculative exercise, I've gotta give The Lani People a (marginal) thumbs down. 

I think it is a dud, but The Lani People has been reprinted repeatedly and translated into Dutch, German and Italian.  My copy, Bantam J2363, includes not only totally fallacious back cover text but also an ad for Bantam's line of science fiction paperbacks that features absurdly over-the-top prose promoting the idea that SF is scary and funny ("It can be so nightmarishly, ghoulishly humorous that your laughter seems like a cry in hell") and an illustration of some sort of creepy birdman.