Saturday, June 24, 2023

Weird Tales May '37: Jack Williamson, Henry Kuttner and August Derleth

Back in 2017 I read H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald's "The Horror in the Burying-Ground," which I panned as a "clunker" overburdened by a surfeit of characters.  This disappointment debuted in the May 1937 issue of Weird Tales, alongside stories by science fiction Grandmaster Jack Williamson, Barry Malzberg's hero Henry Kuttner, and founder of Arkham House August Derleth.  Let's read those three tales today in hopes of temporarily slaking our unquenchable thirst for thrills, mystery and excitement.

"The Mark of the Monster" by Jack Williamson

This is a somewhat exploitative piece full of extravagant prose, Williamson describing at length but with verve everything from people's scary eyes and hideous skin to the aura of fear that hangs over every building and every tree in the little town of Creston.  Our narrator, Claiborne Coe, has spent seven years in the Far East making enough money to marry the violet-eyed girl he's had his heart set on for ages, Valyne Kirk, and today he returns to Creston, where they grew up and where she awaits him.  Clay finds Creston and its inhabitants very sinister and forbidding, and perhaps he shouldn't be surprised, because the letter in his pocket from his adoptive father discourages him from returning, even hinting there is something wrong with the narrator and he should keep away from Valyne for her own good!

"Heed this warning--you must sense its truth, like a cold serpent coiled around your heart!"

Our narrator, orphaned at an early age and then raised by a doctor and his wife, had an odd and unnerving childhood.  Take the local bully, Jud Geer, the butcher's son--this low-IQ creep would pull gags like tying up smaller kids with pig entrails.  And then there was that time six-year-old Clay felt an irresistible urge to go to a certain place in the woods--his compulsion lead him to a ring of megaliths, at the center of which was a blood-stained altar!  Clay's personality is a little strange, at least in one particular: he has a ferocious, uncontrollable temper, and if provoked he will throw horrible fits which he can't remember after they have passed; during his long sojourn in the Orient he was once attacked by knife-wielding "Mecanese," and in a red frenzy, out of his mind, he slew them--when he came out of this violent fit, Clay was astonished to see what he had done to his assailants.  

When Clay lays eyes on Valyne for the first time in seven yeas she is being sexually harassed by that bully, the butcher's son, and our guy Clay goes into his frenzy and knocks Jud's teeth out.  Then the two lovebirds head to the Doc's house, where Valyne has been staying since her mother died.  There the Doc expounds upon his dark hints about Clay's heritage and emphatic pleas that his adoptive son never marry--Doc tells Clay that the Coes for generations were Satan-worshipping wizards, and Clay's grandfather tied Clay's mother--naked!--to that altar where she was raped by a demon Gramps summoned!  Clay is a product of that hellish union, a half-demon!  What's more, Clay has a noseless twin brother, a monster who subsists on blood; this monster is locked up in the basement and is brought a bucket of blood on the regular by Jud Geer!

Williamson's story approaches a climax when Clay's demonic twin busts out of his prison, grabs Valyne, and carries her off to the altar to rape her.  Clay outfights the would-be rapist, and then we get our precipitous let-down of a twist ending let-down--it is all a hoax!  Clay has no twin brother--the demon is Jud in disguise!  This elaborate masquerade is a component of a plot to drive Clay to commit suicide masterminded by his adoptive father who is angling to inherit the money Clay made in Asia.

The Lovecraftian business about Clay being the descendent of a demon said to have been "summoned out of space," as well as the heavy horror atmospherics about Creston and all the edgy references to rape, were so sincere and so effective that I was surprised and disappointed by the mundane and deflating ending.  Many old pulp stories end in this lame Scooby-Doo fashion, but often I don't see it coming and find myself bitterly let down, even though I suppose I am sympathetic to the "lesson" of such narratives (that the supernatural is not real and people who claim it is are fools or shysters.)  One of the particular problems with the "it was all a hoax!" ending here in "The Mark of the Monster" is that it renders Clay's violent frenzies and his youthful discovery of the altar somewhat incongruous.  I'm also not a fan of the "let's drive this person crazy" plot device which we see so often. 

So, what kind of grade can I give a nineteen-page story I was enjoying for seventeen pages until it totally let me down?  I guess we're going with "acceptable."

"The Mark of the Monster" was not reprinted in English until the 21st century, when it appeared in Haffner Press's 2002 Spider Island, the fourth volume of their series The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson.  Three years later, Richard M. Price included it in his anthology Tales Out of Dunwich.   

"The Salem Horror"
by Henry Kuttner

isfdb informs us that this is the first of the two Michael Leigh stories; we read the second Leigh tale, "The Black Kiss," which Kuttner co-authored with Psycho-scribe Robert Bloch, back in 2019.  (In my blog post at the link I say that Leigh is only a minor character in the story and in fact superfluous.)  As for today's topic, "The Salem Horror," I am pretty sure I read this story in the Nineties in some anthology or other, but I don't remember anything about it.

Having reread it, I can tell you that "The Salem Horror" is a prime slice of Yog-Sothery and recommend it to fans of horror and the weird with some enthusiasm.  Kuttner does a good job with the images of the monsters, the secret rooms and sorcerous paraphernalia, and with the construction of an atmosphere.  The plot is sort of typical, but Kuttner builds an entertaining story around it.

Carson is a successful writer of light popular novels, but he needs quiet to write, and so rents a house in Salem--a house he learns was once the home of a witch who was seized by the local people and buried with a stake in her heart because her body resisted burning.  In this creepy house he follows a rat to the basement--the rodent leads him to a secret door that opens into a room with elaborate markings on the floor and queer writing on the walls.  This subterranean chamber is very quiet, so Carson furnishes it with a desk and starts writing down there.  Strange, horrible, things start happening in Salem, and when occultist Michael Leigh appears he explains that the secret room is one of those few spots on the Earth that acts as a sort of bridge to other universes, and via this otherworldly channel the witch is manipulating Carson, working him like a puppet without his knowledge--at night he is fulfilling the requirements to raise the undead sorcerous from her grave so she can pursue a campaign of revenge against Salem and summon to Earth a horrible monster god that takes the form of a huge black amoeba that can move at astonishing speed.  Should Carson believe this goop?  If Leigh's claims are true, will Carson survive, and can Leigh neutralize this diabolical threat to the people of Salem?

Kuttner sent an early version of "The Salem Horror" to H. P. Lovecraft, who responded with a long letter to Kuttner describing Salem, which the young Californian Kuttner had never seen.  This March 12, 1936 letter, complete with Lovecraft's drawings of three typical examples of Salem architecture and six representative types of Salem gravestones, can be found in Volume 10 of Hippocampus Press's Letters of H. P. Lovecraft, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others, edited by David E. Schulz and S. T. Joshi.  Kuttner seems to have integrated lots of Lovecraft's info into the version of the story that was printed in Weird Tales, including his reference to the "slum inhabited by Polish immigrants--mill workers."  Weird stories set in the mysterious East or the Third World or some such locale often feature natives whom the Northern European protagonist considers to be superstitious goofballs, but who it turns out actually have insight into supernatural phenomena at which the explorers from Western civilization scoff at their peril.  Weird stories set in the First World often feature some minority demographic community in this same role, and in "The Salem Horror" it is working-class Polish immigrants who occupy this slot.

"The Salem Horror" is quite good, and was a big success, seeing print in quite a number of anthologies.  

"The Wind from the River" by August Derleth

My scattershot reading about Derleth and of Derleth's correspondence with Lovecraft has left me with a good impression of him as a person who worked hard and had a lot of energy and was helpful to people and so forth, but lots of his writing is just plain shoddy, and "The Wind from the River" is one example of this lamentable fact.  This story feels like a draft that needs to be tightened up, that would benefit greatly from some editing and polishing to make sure all the sentences actually add value--and not just length--to the story.  Williamson and Kuttner in their stories discussed above use lots of adjectives and offer long descriptions, but these flights always serve the purpose of the story, creating a mood of fear or painting a disturbing image.  But Derleth in "The Wind from the River" just throws all kinds of metaphorical phrases and boring descriptions at you that don't seem to further the story's goals:
The district attorney was shown into the long hall just as Leocadie came down the stairs, her presence engulfing him.
It is never made clear what this "engulfing" means--it is not like the DA is psychologically dominated by Leocadie or is consumed with a fascination with her--just the opposite, for the sentence that ends the paragraph that starts with the sentence above is:
And there he immediately began, speaking rapidly, for he was obviously in a hurry, as Leocadie saw by his frequent glances at his wrist watch.
In fact, this entire scene with the district attorney--who never reappears--is a waste of time and should have been excised entirely.

The plot.  Three rich people--sisters Leocadie and Lavinia and their nephew Walter, the son of their dearly departed sister--live in a big house by a river; until recently Walter's stepbrother Arthur resided with them, but he was found drowned in the river, apparently a suicide.  The main thread of the story concerns Leocadie discovering evidence that Arthur was murdered, why, and by whom; at the same time both of the sisters--and their servant--independently sight Arthur's ghost.  We also get a lot of talk about the weather--wind off the river, fog rising from the river, a lightning storm--and the ghost's appearances are correlated with these meteorological phenomena.  In the end the ghost of Arthur draws the killer--Lavinia, who had terminated short their love affair against Arthur's wishes--to the river where she is destroyed.

The basic plot outline and its main elements--a young man has an affair with his dead stepmother's sister and when she tires of him he gets aggressive so she drowns him and then his ghost gets revenge on her--are good.  But Derleth's technique in relating this plot is quite poor.  Also, Derleth employs two reasonably good gimmicks when he should have just stuck with one instead of trying to cram them together into one story, as they work at cross purposes with each other.  I have already hinted at the first gimmick--the ghost of Arthur has taken on aspects of the water in which he was slain, and rides the fog up to the house, leaves a trail of dampness wherever he goes, and brings his murderer to the river to kill her.  Derleth's other gimmick is that Arthur is proud of his long yellow hair and his ghost strangles his step-aunt with strands of this hair.  Arthur's pride in his hair is underdeveloped so the use of the hair to kill Lavinia comes as sort of a surprise at the end, not having been foreshadowed sufficiently, and the hair theme serves to undermine the water theme--shouldn't the ghost drown Lavinia the way Lavinia drowned Arthur?, and if he can strangle people with his hair, couldn't he do have done that up at the house? 

(Yet another problem is that Leocadie somehow sees some of the ghost's activities in her dreams--this third gimmick is also totally unnecessary and diminishes the power of the main gimmick.)
Gotta give this one a thumbs down, though I can easily imagine giving it a thumbs up if Derleth and Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright had put in some hours revising it, cutting superfluous passages and concepts.
"The Wind from the River" can be found in such Derleth collections as Someone in the Dark (first edition 1941) and L'amulette tibetaine (1985). 


It feels good to get back to the weird, so, more weird material in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Monday, June 19, 2023

Merril-Approved 1956 Stories: Galouye, Garrett, Grimm & Gunn

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are exploring critically-acclaimed SF stories from 1956, and the critic doing the acclaiming is none other than Judith Merril.  In the back of her 1957 anthology SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume, Merril included an alphabetical list of honorable mentions; we have been going through this list, picking out stories to read, and today is G-Day, so we've got stories by Daniel Galouye, Randall Garrett, "Christopher Grimm" and James Gunn.

(For the curious, I'll put links to the earlier installments of this series at the bottom of this post.)

"The Pliable" by Daniel Galouye 

"The Pliable" debuted in an issue of F&SF edited by Anthony Boucher and containing stories by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, Poul Anderson, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury--wow, a big issue.  We'll have to bookmark this one!  There's nothing wrong with that Emsh cover, either.  Looking at isfdb, it seems foreigners liked "The Pliable" more than Americans did; at least there are no reprints in publications in English listed among the nine European reprints.  Well, let's see what this Yankee thinks of this "short novelet" of over twenty pages.

In his intro, Boucher likens "The Pliable" to Agatha Christie's famous Ten Little Don't Use That Word, and it is also reminiscent of those 1930s classics by (respectively) John W. Campbell and A.  E van Vogt, "Who Goes There?" and "Black Destroyer" in that it is about a small isolated group who introduce an alien into their company and must resolve the deadly challenge it unexpectedly poses.  

The space ship in "The Pliable" has a multi-species crew made up of humans, a Centauran and a Vegan, and they have by chance discovered a primitive life form, a kind of blob or giant amoeba (like a foot across when a sphere) that responds to their brain transmissions--the members of the space crew can sculpt it like clay with their minds, and make it move around like a puppet with their thoughts.  This discovery will make them all rich if they can stake a claim to it and then market the beasts across the galaxy.

The Vegan fashions a biped out of the blob, puts a knife in its hand, and makes it perform a traditional Vegan saber dance.  The little marionette stabs another crew member in the chest, slaying him, and the crew and we readers strive to figure out which crewman directed the blob to commit the foul deed, or consider the alternative explanation that the blob has more intelligence than they bargained for and killed the spaceman of its own free will.  More murders follow and the dwindling number of survivors try all kinds of logical schemes and indulge in all manner of prejudices in their frantic efforts to stop the killings and figure out who is responsible.  The twist ending is that the monster isn't susceptible only to conscious control, but can also be influenced by the subconscious!  A spaceman who subconsciously is animated by greed or fear could be unknowingly directing the blob to destroy his shipmates even if he isn't really so unscrupulous as too intentionally seek his comrades' deaths.

This story is pretty entertaining--I even found the dream sequence compelling and appropriate, which is noteworthy because usually I find dream sequences irritating and gratuitous--and it does raise questions of moral culpability, so I enjoyed it.  At the same time, it is a little annoying that we were all expected to strain our brains keeping track of clues and following all the Rube Goldberg logic puzzles when they all turned out to be moot because the killer wasn't consciously committing his crimes.

"Stroke of Genius" by Randall Garrett    

I have been avoiding Garrett for years because I somehow got the idea he writes joke stories or leftist satires or absurdist farces or something--I can't recall how I took this belief on board, but it has been strong enough to keep me giving his work a serious look.  (I guess it didn't help when in 2018 I read two filler stories from a 1956 magazine that Garrett cowrote with Robert Silverberg and thought them weak.)  Well, let's try on for size the two 1956 Garrett stories Merril thought were praiseworthy and see if I have been harboring an irrational prejudice against Garrett all these years.

Waldos figure in this story, and editor Larry T. Shaw includes a note that reminds us that Robert Heinlein conceived of and named the waldo in his 1942 story of that name.  I get the impression it is fashionable nowadays to claim science fiction never predicts anything, but if you read old magazines you find actual science fiction writers and editors are aways going on about how science fiction is predictive, and Shaw in his note says the waldo "proves yet again that science fiction can make accurate predictions."  If you learn about the past from secondary sources you are likely to get a very different picture of what was going on and what people thought than if you learn about the past from primary sources.            

Like Galouye's "The Pliable," "Stroke of Genius" is something of a murder mystery.  Our tale is set in the space-faring future; Earth has founded colonies on quite a few extrasolar planets, but can only check in on them every five years or so, and a bunch of them in one area have been found to have failed.  The fact that the failures are clustered geographically (spatially?) suggests that hostile aliens are at work, that the human race is in an interstellar war!  The Space Force quickly develops a new energy weapon with which to arm their space warships, and sends Major Stratford over to a high tech manufacturer to talk about having them mass produce this ordnance, and Stratford unwittingly steps into the middle of a tense human drama!

You see, this engineer Crayley is in his thirties and is the number two executive at the manufacturer.  He had hopes of soon taking over from the boss, famous genius Klythe, when the sixty-year-old retired.  But Klythe is so valuable that the government authorized him to undergo The Big Gamble, a rejuvenation treatment that might wreck your body but also has a significant chance of restoring your corpus to its condition when you were twenty-five!  The rarely-administered treatment worked like a charm on the K-man, and now Crayley will likely never succeed Klythe to become head of the factory because Klythe is effectively younger than Crayley while having thirty years more experience under his belt than our boy Craycray!

After all the introductions and the scene setting and the lecture on waldos, the plot kicks into gear as Crayley plots to murder Klythe.  Garrett does a good job of making the working of the factory and the waldos interesting, and of giving us insight into both Klythe and Crayley's psychology--the psychologies of the two engineers is firmly integrated into the commission of the crime and its detection by the authorities.  Crayley sabotages the production of the first of the new weapons, causing an explosion that kills five people, including Klythe.  Crayley is immediately anointed Acting Director.  Will the government investigation team discover his atrocious crime?  

An entertaining crime story.  Thumbs up!  "Stroke of Genius" debuted in an issue of Infinity with another fun Emsh cover and stories by Damon Knight and Harlan Ellison I will probably read some day, plus Knight's laudatory reviews of novels by Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Gordon R. Dickson.  Merril and I both enjoyed "Stroke of Genius," but it doesn't look like it ever reappeared in an anthology or collection.  

"Suite Mentale" by Randall Garrett

Here's another story that was ignored after it was printed; "Suite Mentale" would not reappear until our own 21st century, and even then only by small outfits dedicated to e-publishing.

Well, having read it, I can see why "Suite Mentale" never spread beyond the pages of Robert W. Lowndes' Future; it is sort of boring, its structure lacking a build up and climax, its characters and their actions lacking in drama, personality, and excitement.  One of the problems is that we don't witness the protagonist as he performs the actions that make up the bulk of the story's plot, nor do we hear him narrate the plot--instead we learn the story in out of chronological order fragments through the dialogue of other characters.  This limits immediacy and undercuts any possible suspense and also impedes the reader's ability to identify with or care about the protagonist.  Another problem is the way the speculative lectures about psychology and time travel with which Garrett lards his tale weigh it down. 

Even though I am considering the structure of Garret's story a failure, Garrett seems to have organized his tale with care and deliberation--each of the five chapters of this twelve-page story is named after one of the components (I guess educated people call these "movements") of a long piece of classical music like a symphony or suite--the first chapter is "Overture--Adagio Mistirioso" and another is "Scherzo--Presto," to provide some examples.  "Suite Mentale" is an ambitious story, it seems, but I'm an uncultured slob who knows almost nothing about classical music so this is all lost on me.    

The plot concerns a guy, Paul Wendell, who has developed telepathic powers.  We all have latent psychic powers, Wendell realizes, and he is confident that he can teach most anybody how to unlock their own psychic abilities.  He teaches eight men how to read minds and the like, and gets a meeting with the President of the United States and lets the big guy know all about his work.

The Prez is not thrilled by the news Wendell brings him.  On a philosophical, long term level, he fears that if everybody can read everybody else's mind that society will collapse, and uses a game-playing metaphor to express his worry.  Today we are all playing poker--we all keep a lot about ourselves and our thoughts secret from other people.  If we all are aware of what everybody else is thinking, enjoy access to each other's memories, we will all be playing chess, which the President thinks is a disaster for some reason; I'm not sure the President/Garrett employed this metaphor or explained the Prez's worries particularly well.  On a short term, practical, level, the President is worried that the nine psykers must have all sorts of knowledge that would compromise the security of the United States if our enemies were to capture any one of them and beat the info out of him.  So the President strives to keep an eye on these nine telepaths and come up with some excuse to lock them up.

The President is relieved when the eight disciples all go insane and one of them, in his insanity, shoots Wendell in the head.  Now they can all be locked away--for their own good even!--in various medical institutions.  Surgery preserves Wendell's life, but to those around him the genius appears to be little more than a vegetable--he can't move much, or talk, and is only barely capable of swallowing the food nurses hand feed him.  (I think maybe intravenous feeding hadn't been introduced yet when the story was written.)  The reality is that Wendell is fully alive in his brain, but is suffering total sensory deprivation and can only maintain his sanity by replaying all of his memories over and over again and intricately studying every moment of his past life.  He does this for many years.

The plot is resolved when Wendell dies after figuring out why his disciples went insane and telepathically curing them and injecting into their brains all his own memories, so that, in a sense, he is still alive as a copy in the brains of eight other dudes.  Released from the funny farm, one of these eight goes to visit the President, who is now retired.  He convinces the President, whom Wendell considers a great man, to join the group of psykers and use his status and ability as an elder statesman to help engineer a smooth transition to the now inevitable psychic civilization.

I want to like this story because it is ambitious and unconventional and has big ideas, but it just isn't well told and lacks entertainment value.  Thumbs down, I'm afraid.

"Bodyguard" by "Christopher Grimm" (H. L. Gold, probably)

I read this story in the 1990s when I bought a hardcover copy of the 1960 anthology Bodyguard and Four Other Short Novels From Galaxy at a used book store, but I don't remember much of anything about it.  According to isfdb, there is some controversy over whether Gold actually wrote the story, with some claiming that Evelyn E. Smith is the real author.  For this blog post I will read "Bodyguard" in the scan of the magazine in which it made its debut rather than dig my book out from my shelves.

It is the spacefaring future: extraterrestrials are a common sight on Earth, there are rejuvenation treatments so most people look and feel young, and people fly around in aircars.  But there is one technology that hasn't really panned out--plastic surgery.  So, people who were born good-looking still have an advantage over those of us who are plain and those of us who are ugly.  

Gabriel Lockard is one of best-looking men on Earth. He is also a fool and a jerk: we witness him hitting his wife when she is annoying, starting a ruckus in a bar by getting in some innocent guy's face, as well as flying an aircar while drunk.  When Gabe's recklessness gets into a dangerous jam, a guy suddenly appears to save him; the rescuer looks totally different each time, but Gabe's wife realizes that its the same man pulling her careless brute of a hubby's fat out of the firer each time, he is just inhabiting a different body each time!

The Earth Gold is depicting in this noirish story is old and worn out, its culture decadent, the vital industrious adventurous types all having moved to frontier planets.  Those who remain pursue relief from their boredom in extreme, dangerous, addictive pastimes.  One such thrilling recreation is administered by some aliens with psychic powers; these E.T.s operate a technically illegal "game" which consists of players swapping bodies, often with random strangers; participants go to sleep and wake up in a different body, running a very real risk of finding themselves in a body that is sick or otherwise deficient.  

"Bodyguard" is like 38 pages long, and a quarter of the way in we are told that the guy who keeps saving Gabriel from harm is the original occupant of that gorgeous Gabriel Lockard body, which he lost to the jerk when said jerk, who was ugly, tricked him into one of those body swapping games.  Original Gabriel is endeavoring to keep his beautiful birth body intact in the hope he will figure out a way to get back into it; the current occupant of the Gabe body is always trying to put distance between himself and this delectable frame's original owner, so the original Gabe keeps switching to a new body so he can continue sneaking up on the body thief.  

There follows a pretty good suspense/crime story as the thief tries to escape and then tries to murder his pursuer.  Additional characters are added to the drama: the thief blackmails a sleazy lawyer into acting as a go-between so he can hire a hitman to kill the real Gabe; equally significant is the thief's wife, who can always spot the real Gabe no matter what body he is in, and who becomes the female corner of a love triangle involving her evil husband and the original owner of her husband's breathtakingly hot bod.  Everybody tries to double cross everybody else, and when the assassin changes his body as a means of eluding the authorities--wouldn't you know it--the original Gabe ends up in the professional killer's body!  The legal system doesn't recognize all this body switching business, so in the view of the law whoever is in the body of a criminal is culpable for the body's crimes, so Gabe now runs the risk of being shot down by the apparently less than conscientious cops of this decadent future Earth!

I like this caper--thumbs up!  One fun skein wound into Gold's tapestry is all the future slang and catchphrases he introduces and which the characters use quite a bit.  This is a typical thing SF writers do, but Gold's neologisms felt more authentic than usual.  I will warn 21st-century readers that "Bodyguard" seems to push ideas that we are nowadays expected to abjure--that one's moral character is reflected in one's looks (I just had to sit through a multi-hour performance of Shrek: The Musical put on by ten-year-olds so this at "top of mind," as we say) and that women will fall in love with a guy just because of his looks and his money.

After its debut in Galaxy, "Bodyguard" has only ever been reprinted on paper in the foreign editions of Galaxy and in the aforementioned anthology edited by Gold himself, who apparently had no compunctions about selling his own work in such a morally suspect manner.   

"Witches Must Burn" by James Gunn

"Witches Must Burn" is one of those stories that indulges the contempt and fear the cognitive elite have for the common people; it seems to take much of its inspiration from Luddism and McCarthyism, and we might say it also prefigures the anti-intellectualism of the Cambodian Genocide.  At the same time, it critiques those elitist attitudes and offers something of a twist ending that suggests the anti-intellectuals might have a point.  A year ago I read three linked stories by Gunn that were also more or less about whether or not elites should run our lives for us, and they also took the both-sides-are-too-extreme, what-we-need-is-to-combine-the-thesis-and-antithesis-and-create-a-moderate-synthesis line.  I will also note that the story debuted in John W. Campbell's Astounding, and Campbell is famous for writing and printing stories in which he challenges you by coming up with a scenario in which something undeniably horrible, like being enslaved or thrown out of a spaceship to your death or, as here, murdered by a superstitious mob, is in the long run necessary or even somehow beneficial.   

It is the future--the 1970s--and America is a surveillance state; there are bugs everywhere, the phones are tapped, if you check into a hotel you have to write your political party affiliation on the form.  Everything seems old and rundown, and there are lots of high tech devices but many of them seem to be on the fritz.  Among the common people there is widespread resentment over technological advances that are alleged to have put people out of jobs and end up being unreliable anyway.  People's ire focuses on the scientists who are responsible for all this problematic technology, and they have representatives in the federal legislature egging them on and willing to protect them if they mete out a little mob justice!      

Our protagonist is Wilson, a physicist who specialized in electronics and then changed course in mid-career to become a psychologist.  As the story begins he is returning to his Midwestern university, where he was close to completing a major project, one with potentially world-changing applications, to find an anti-egghead mob is burning down the entire campus and massacring the faculty and their families!  We then get reasonably entertaining sequences depicting Wilson as a hunted man, using various strategies and compromising his morals in order to survive--we also get a glimpse of how other members of the educated classes similarly do morally questionable things to survive in anti-intellectual America.  

Gunn provides a longish passage that describes history from the point of view of Wilson: science has made life vastly better by making Man master of the natural world, but instead of embracing this miracle, in the middle of the 20th century the populace has been seized by a mass psychosis and became hostile to science and technology.  Wilson's expertise put him in the forefront of those seeking to solve this problem by developing a technological means to read and control people's minds.  All Wilson's work--just when he was on the brink of success!--was destroyed in the fire that opened the story, but while on the run he does manage to build a crude miniature version of the device that can detect theta waves and help him intuit the attitudes of those around him.

Europe and the Soviet Union are apparently even more oppressive and anti-technology than the USA, so Wilson heads for Latin America--Brazil, Venezuela and Peru may be authoritarian countries, but their governments welcome scientists who can provide aid in their quest to exploit South America's natural resources and achieve economic growth.  Wilson hooks up with a Brazilian government egghead-recruiter, but right before he can get on a Brazilian nuclear sub, he is captured by the American government!

And then swiftly rescued by the pro-science underground, the most prominent representative of which in the text is a beautiful blue-eyed blonde.  This babe explains the common man's skepticism of rapid technological change, even excuses it a little bit, whipping out a metaphor--the scientists are like the driver of the automobile of civilization, but lately they have been putting the pedal to the metal, speeding recklessly, and they don't even know where the road is headed!  The common man is like a passenger who gets so scared he wants to grab the wheel from the driver, but of course that will likely introduce even greater danger.  Blondie's solution to the problem is not for the eggheads to wield ever greater power over the lowbrows, but for the scientists to leave their ivory towers and reintegrate into society--she and her comrades blame the scientists for the burnings of universities and the massacres of intellectuals, arguing that the cognitive elite made such a backlash inevitable by divorcing themselves from society and getting up on their high horses.  The massacre of the smarty smarts is the first step in a regression of society to a sort of medieval level that will be good in the long run because the cognitive elite will again be joined with the people and work alongside them instead of above them.  The story ends when Wilson comes to accept this painful truth.

One of the elements of the story which I sort of rolled my eyes at but is perhaps interesting is the use of the witch as a metaphor.  Gunn of course employs the very common use of "witch hunt" as a metaphor for unfair persecution, but that hot blonde and her comrades also suggest that in the new society that scientists should play the role performed (so they say) by witches in the past, that of "the wise man of the village who wields mysterious control over the forces of nature--for the benefit of the village."

Acceptable.  It looks like John Wilson would return in two stories published in 1969, and "Witches Must Burn" appears with these sequels in the collection The Burning.


Another step in our 1956 journey lies behind us.  This leg of the trek was long but not that painful, with three good stories, and only one poor one, so, props to Merril.  I don't always see eye to eye with Merril, as you'll perhaps remember if you've been accompanying me on this exploration; if you haven't, you can check out our travel diary at the links below:

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis

"She's a decent wee girl, Standish, and that's her attraction for me.  She's the steady kind, not flighty or featherbrained like so many of them today."

It feels like it's been a while since I've issued one of these dispatches; besides additional remunerative work and family goings-on, my free time has been taken up by the ramifications of my purchase at an antique mall of a forty-dollar box of dusty old HO railroad models and rusty brass track, including the fact that, when my father learned that I was trying to get fifty-year old trains running, he sent me multiple boxes of his own model railroad equipment and supplies from the 1970s and I have been striving to get that stuff in working order.  But another reason I haven't blogged in a while is that the book I have been reading, Kinglsey Amis's 1960 novel Take a Girl Like You, a Signet paperback printing of which I picked up at Wonder Book last year, has taken me a bit of time to get through.  But I have finally finished what Saturday Review proclaimed to be Amis's "biggest, most ambitious (and best) novel," a work which the susceptible people at the London Observer found "awe-inspiring," and can write this blog post and move on with my fiction reading life.

Take a Girl Like You is a well-written realistic novel about real life, its theme being, as the excitable crew at the London Observer tells us in the back cover text, sex.  The characters in the book all have believable personalities and behave in easily understandable ways--all the actions and relationships ring true, and little if any suspension of disbelief is required of the reader.  Amis's novel is full of understated, even subtle, humor that is based on people's thoughts and feelings, not wacky coincidences or hyperbolic parody.  Amis explores what life is like for a beautiful na├»ve young woman from the "industrial north of England" who moves to the south, a manipulative and lecherous young man who pursues sex with gusto and has deflowered many a virgin, and his friend and roommate, an unattractive man whose pursuit of women has been a history of frustration and failure.  Amis compares old-fashioned mores, typified by the working class of the north, with the modern licentiousness practiced by the educated middle-class professionals and aristocracy in London and its environs, suggesting that the new sexual freedoms are bound to conquer traditional restraint, though without suggesting this will make people any happier.  And he provides amusing anecdotes about academic life, all three of the principal characters being educators--the young lady from the north a teacher of primary school age children, the young men "school masters" who apparently instruct the equivalent of American high school students (one of the cohorts in receipt of instruction is described as "the Junior Sixth.") 

The plot follows northerner Jennifer Bunn as she takes up a job at a school an hour or so from London and moves in to one of those private houses whose owners take in multiple boarders which old fiction is full of and meets a bunch of people from different parts of Britain and even a woman who claims to be from France but (as we learn at the very end of the novel) is an Englishwoman putting on an act because "Playing a part's the only thing left these days, it shows you won't deal with society in the way it wants you to."  Jenny is a dark exotic-looking beauty, often mistaken for a Frenchwoman, and every man she meets--plus the faux-Frenchwoman--endeavours to get into her knickers, but Jenny has old-fashioned values and wants to retain her virginity, and resists all their advances.  Chief among the men pursuing Jenny is Patrick Standish, a good-looking half-Irish teacher of Latin who embraces all things modern, music and culture and ways of thinking--"I haven't got my ideas from anyone else, I've thought them out for myself."  One of Patrick's ideas is that marriage is a lot of bunk, and his primary interest in life is having sex with lots of different women, a field in which he has achieved considerable success.  In contrast we have Patrick's virginal comrade, Scotsman Graham McClintoch, a fellow Labour Party activist and schoolmaster.  Graham is himself consumed with sexual desire, but has old-fashioned values and looks down on Patrick's seductions; perhaps this is one reason he has never had any success with the ladies.

Patrick is not only a charming, smart, handsome and outgoing man, but a selfish and callous deceiver and manipulator, and throughout the book's course he manages the other characters like some kind of puppet master.  One of the elements of the novel that makes it feel so much like real life is its pervasive moral ambiguity; I was not at all clear how much we were expected to admire Patrick for his successful pursuit of all those women and achievement of vengeance on minor characters or to share his contempt for traditional morals, how much we were supposed to sympathize with Jenny in her defense of her virginity and Graham in his apparently doomed efforts to divest himself of his own virginity, and to pity or commend both Jenny and Graham as they try to do the right thing, only to find their generosity and efforts to help people fall flat and go unrewarded.  

Anyway, Jenny is the most beautiful woman Patrick has ever seen and by the novel's halfway point he has gotten her to fall deeply in love with him.  The two seriously date for months; Jenny is deeply happy and Jenny's working class parents are charmed when they meet Patrick; Jenny's mother expects them to soon be married and Jenny hopes this will be the case.  However, Patrick is accustomed to regularly enjoying sexual intercourse, and finds Jenny's limiting him to "heavy necking" to be very frustrating, and in any case marriage does not interest him.  

In a long sequence, Patrick and one of the novel's many secondary characters go to London where, among other capers, Patrick is introduced to a beautiful, self-absorbed and air-headed young actress whom he seduces by telling her he is some kind of businessman.  Soon after bedding this woman, Patrick issues Jenny an ultimatum--she must have sex with him or they will be through.  Jenny initially agrees, but when the day upon which she is to surrender her virginity to Patrick comes, she stands him up.  By a coincidence, that very day the headmaster's 17-year-old daughter, who has been pursuing Patrick for ages, comes to his place, where he is alone awaiting Jenny (he has tricked Graham into being out all day) and throws herself at him.  After they have sex, the 17-year-old admits the real reason she has just given herself to Patrick--she is pregnant by some other guy and needs help getting an abortion, and of course womanizer Patrick can introduce her to a discrete and reliable abortionist.      

Amis does a good job in the last third or quarter or so of the novel keeping readers in suspense as to what is going to happen.  Many eventualities seem possible, and at various times I expected Patrick to dump Jenny and break her heart, Jenny to dump Patrick and thus force him to see the error of his ways, Patrick to reform and propose to Jenny, and/or for Jenny to suddenly realize she should build a relationship with good-guy loser Graham.  None of that stuff happens, at least not in a way that sticks.  

At a wild party at a Lord's house, Patrick tells Jenny they are through, Jenny gets drunk and Graham saves her from being raped by some minor character, and then Patrick takes Jenny's virginity while she is so inebriated that she can't even remember it happening.  Jenny tells Patrick they are through, but a few days later is back in his arms, and we are lead to believe they are going to spend the rest of their lives together, more on Patrick's terms than Jenny's.  The novel's ending leaves an impression that the world and life are chaos, with little justice and no peace of mind--cunning and amoral Patrick has triumphed over decent Jenny and Graham, practically coercing Jenny into becoming a person she didn't want to be, and at the same time a sort of shadow lies over Patrick, Amis suggesting in a number of ways that a number of ways Patrick has wasted his potential (to be some kind of literary scholar, it seems) and may even soon be coming to a bad end (indications of advancing age and intimations of an impending medical crisis.)  Wikipedia may describe this book as a "comic novel," but it is kind of a downer.

Take a Girl Like You is a book that is easy to admire, but it is not exactly thrilling.  Maybe I have grown too accustomed to reading short stories and short novels that speculate on the future or the supernatural and involve people fighting in wars or getting involved in horrible crimes; this 270-page book (the print of which is pretty small) about young smart people's love lives and teaching careers wasn't quite up to the task of drawing me away from the task of cleaning and lubricating my trains while I watched giallo movies on YouTube.  

Still, we'll probably be hearing from Kingsley Amis again; looking back on Take a Girl Like You, I like it more than I did when I was actually reading it, and of course I already own other books by Amis.  It even appears that there is a sequel to Take a Girl Like You that continues the story of Patrick and Jenny's relationship.  But expect to see some posts about horror fiction and 1950s SF here at MPorcius Fiction Log before we make our next foray into 20th-century British literary fiction.