Monday, July 31, 2023

Astounding July 1940: L R Hubbard, R A Heinlein, L del Rey and R M Williams

After four weird fiction blog posts in a row featuring ghosts, witches, voodoo and demons, let's shift gears and read stories from a magazine in whose pages we expect to see stories about science that speculate on what life will be like in the future, John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding.  The July 1940 issue prints the first story in L. Ron Hubbard's Kilkenny Cats series, and we'll take a gander at that, as well as stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Lester del Rey and Robert Moore Williams.  Nota bene: I am reading these stories in a scan of the World War II-era magazine, so my comments will not reflect any revisions to be found in later reprints.

"The Idealist" by L. Ron Hubbard

"The Idealist," which appears under the pen name Kurt von Rachen, begins with a long epigraph, an historical essay about the fall of Earth's aristocratic government in 2893 to a workers' revolution and the character of the succeeding government.  This epigraph, and the story that follows, illustrates the wisdom you will find in conservative magazines, that government is generally terrible but violently overthrowing the government will cause tremendous hardship and probably just open the door to an even worse government.  

The first third or so of the story proper, which is like twelve pages of text in total, is set in a crowded courtroom scarred by gunfire, where the judges of the new Communist government are passing sentence on their former allies in the workers' revolution, now their defeated rivals, the leaders of the different components of the Anarchist party.  The obese cigar-smoking head judge banters with the captive anarchists, physicist Jean Mauchard, labor leader Dave Blacker, and soldier Colonel Steve Gailbraith, Hubbard demonstrating how the commies are bloodthirsty monsters and the anarchists are brave idealists who made the error of underestimating the evil of their socialist allies and the gullibility of the masses.  These heroes of the revolution are too popular to execute out of hand, so the commies who have control of the government decide to exile them to planet Sereon in the Sirius system; they can sell this punishment to the mob as assigning them the noble task of colonizing another solar system.

The rest of "The Idealist" takes place on the star ship that is taking the captive anarchists to Sirius.  Our main character is Colonel Steve, and we get flashbacks to his military career before and after he joined the revolution.  He meets the beautiful Fredericka Stalton, a former communist propaganda minister who has also been sentenced to the Sereon expedition.  Heartbroken over the failure of the revolution to usher in a better world, Steve has lost his will to live, but Fredericka, who is one tough cookie with a passionate determination to survive this new ordeal, tries to snap him out of his funk. 

Fredericka alerts Steve to the fact that Dave Blacker and his working class followers have a plan to seize the ship from the commies and then murder the Anarchist Party's bourgeois and aristocratic elements, among whom are numbered Steve, Mauchard and herself.  Just as Blacker is about to commit his foul deed of murder, Steve uses his knowledge (gleaned from his service in the space navy before the revolution) of how the ship works to foil the mutiny and save himself and his fellow middle- and upper-class anarchists.  The story ends with a little speech from Steve about his regret at having supported the revolution that destroyed the good as well as bad elements of the old regime and his realization that the common people are incapable of self-rule and need strong government.  There is also the implication that Steve is going to take up the task of overthrowing the communist government and presumably become himself the strong ruler that he feels the common people need; maybe we'll see Steve perform this feat in the later Kilkenny Cats stories.

Acceptable.  We saw Hubbard pursue the argument that people need a strong leader when, nine years ago, we read his novel Final Blackout, which debuted in Astounding in early 1940.  I'm curious to see where Hubbard goes with this theme and these characters, so plan to read more of the Kilkenny Cats stories soon.

"The Idealist" doesn't seem to have been widely reprinted.  According to isfdb, the first book to reprint the Kilkenny Cats series as a whole was an Italian volume in 1980, I rebelli dell'universo; this was followed in 1992 by a small-run special edition from Author Services, Inc., a publisher associated with the Scientology organization. In 2019 "The Idealist" appeared independently of the other Kilkenny Cats tales in the 35th volume of the anthology series L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future.

"Coventry" by Robert A. Heinlein

"Coventry," one of the stories that make up Heinlein's Future History, collected in the thick 1967 volume The Past Through Tomorrow, bears some similarities to Hubbard's story in its structure and concerns.  "Coventry" begins in a court room in a future post-revolution world, where the hero, Dave MacKinnon, faces sentencing from a judge.  But the revolution is far in the past, and the future United States depicted in the story is a technocratic authoritarian utopia with synthetic food, scientific control of the weather where there is practically no poverty or crime--order is maintained by using advanced psychological techniques to alter the personalities of anybody who gets out of line.  Dave is just such a person, a literature professor (he's an expert on Zane Grey) who punched a guy in the face for insulting him.  Having been convicted of this trespass, Dave is given a choice--psychological adjustment, or, exile to the "reservation known as Coventry," which lies within the borders of the United States behind a forcefield.  Denouncing the utopian USA as a bore lacking any risk or excitement and inhabited by "weaklings with water in their veins," Dave chooses Coventry.

Reminding us readers of the themes of Heinlein's 1955 novel Tunnel in the Sky, Dave brings a lot of high-tech equipment and supplies with him beyond the forcefield but his fancy kit avails him little and is quickly lost to thieves so Dave has to rely on help from other people to survive and thrive in Coventry.

Dave had expected to find in Coventry an anarchistic utopia of rugged individualists living on independent homesteads, but instead Coventry consists of cities with even more tyrannical rulers than the USA he just left.  One of the two principal polities in Coventry is New America, a democratic republic with a corrupt and overweening government that levies crushing taxes and ruthlessly conscripts the menfolk into its periodic wars with the other major polity in Coventry, a monstrously totalitarian revolutionary surveillance state known as the Free State that is devoted to conquering New America, breaking out of Coventry and then conquering the world.  I guess these are like satiric versions of the USA and the Soviet Union.

Dave arrives in New America and has all his stuff seized by the government and then is thrown in jail.  He and a man who is apparently a career criminal, Fader Magee, break out of jail and Dave is welcomed into the criminal underground of New America.  When news filters down to the underworld that New America and the Free State may be aligning to bust through the forcefield and conquer the outer world (somebody in Coventry having apparently developed a new superweapon), Magee tries to sneak through the forcefield to warn the world, but is severely injured in the attempt.  Dave saves Magee's life by getting him to the best doctor in Coventry.  Doc has a well-read and attractive 15-year-old daughter, and it is suggested that Dave falls in love with her and it is his love for her that inspires him to sneak out of Coventry himself to warn the USA of the threat from Coventry.

In the end, we realize that Magee is a spy for the United States government and the whole super weapon-New America/Free State alliance threat is no big deal.  The "real" plot of "Coventry" isn't the adventure narrative in which Dave risks his life to save the world and impress a girl--though Heinlein does a good job presenting entertaining chase scenes and descriptions of perilous journeys--but Dave's psychological growth, as he builds human relationships, joins a community, and realizes that the technocratic and psychologically intrusive government of the USA is maybe not so bad as the alternatives and that life under it may actually provide opportunities to face challenges and experience risk, at least for special people like Magee and, it turns out, himself.

This is a pretty good story with effective adventure elements as well as speculative/satiric elements that are somewhat more subtle than we often see.  Heinlein presents both the pros and cons of the awesomely powerful government and of being a rebel, and unlike so many SF stories about rebel undergrounds in authoritarian states "Coventry" presents a paradigm shift that takes place not on the scale of nations or planets but on the scale of one man's mind.  I was also surprised by how much psychology was in the story; for example, Dave's psychological issues are blamed on his rigid father.  Heinlein often writes about liberty and authority and the tension between them, and it was interesting to see him depicting not just governmental and religious institutions as the locus of this tension, but the family, something I would be more likely to expect of his friend Theodore Sturgeon.

Besides in the many editions of The Past Through Tomorrow, you can find "Coventry" in the shorter Heinlein collection Revolt in 2100 and anthologies edited by Damon Knight--Beyond Tomorrow--and Groff Conklin--6 Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, which has an uncharacteristically triumphant (rather than moody or creepy) Richard Powers cover.

"Dark Mission" by Lester del Rey

In 2014 I read Del Rey's famous story about a runaway atomic reactor, "Nerves;" I recall finding the story to be a drag, but looking at my blogpost about it, I see I was sort of generous.  A few months later I read del Rey's violent time travel story "I Am Tomorrow" and liked it better.  Better still was the del Rey piece I read in 2017, "Day is Done," the tragic tale of a Neanderthal victimized by gentrification.  In 2021 I read Del Rey's "Natural Advantage;" I don't actually remember anything about "Natural Advantage," but the documentary evidence indicates I found it "acceptable" and was reminded by it of Edmond Hamilton's space operas.

Let's see if "Dark Mission" can dethrone "Day is Done" and become my favorite del Rey story.  "Dark Mission" has been anthologized quite a lot, so there is reason to hope it is a good one.

"Dark Mission" is one of those stories in which the protagonist is suffering amnesia and doesn't know who he is so a major component of the plot is his quest to learn his own identity.  Our hero wakes up with a head injury in the woods near a dead body and a wrecked house, among the wreckage of which is a crashed rocket.  Was he in the rocket when it crashed?  Or was he in the house when the rocket hit it?  And who is the dead guy?  He can't remember anything! 

Our guy travels around, driven to do various things by obscure, but powerful, subconscious urges; he is able to accomplish these tasks thanks to some remarkable powers--when in proximity to other people his mind can absorb information from their brains, and they are none the wiser!  It becomes clear that he is an alien, a Martian, who has come to Earth to sabotage the human race's efforts to send a rocket to Mars, which are being spearheaded by a private man of means.  As the story ends we find that his mission is one of noble self-sacrifice--the people of Mars are being wiped out by an incurable plague, and he has come to Earth to prevent the human race from being infected by this disease and exterminated in turn.  Dying of plague himself, the hero not only has a limited amount of time in which to stop Earth's first space rocket from lifting off, but at the same time must take care not to infect any of the people he meets.

An entertaining story--it may actually be my favorite del Rey production!

"The Red Death of Mars" by Robert Moore Williams

In February of last year I read three of Robert Moore Williams' adventure novels, Jongor of Lost Land, The Return of Jongor, and Zanthar at Trip's End, and told my readers that two were bad and one was acceptable. I did, however, like his short stories "The Counterfeiter," and "Robots Return," so there's no need to write off this story before we read it.

"The Red Death of Mars" is a conventional adventure story, told with competence; I am judging it merely acceptable.

Eleven years ago Earthers first landed on Mars and discovered ancient cities bearing signs they were abandoned by the natives in desperate haste.  Just recently, an expedition led by the foremost of Earth's astronauts, Avery, left for an as yet unexplored Martian metropolis; HQ has lost contact with the Avery expedition and has sent a rescue ship to search for it, among the crew of which is Avery's son.

The rescuers discover that this city is different than the others--while also abandoned, it seems to be in good order, as if its inhabitants left with deliberation and expected to return.  Also, scattered all over the place are fragile red crystals that look like fist-sized rubies but shatter if roughly handled.

The astronauts find the men they have been sent to rescue--dead, with not a mark on their bodies.  Even more mysteriously, the nuclear reactor of their ship is not working, though it has suffered no visible damage.  After additional searching, the Earthers discover an underground chamber full of Martians, each of them in a pod in a state of suspended animation.

"The Red Death of Mars" has five chapters, and in chapter III it becomes obvious that the red crystals are the dormant cocoon-like form of monsters whose active form is as a cloud of gas.  These monsters feed on radioactivity, and killed the astronauts of the first expedition and crippled their vessel's nuclear reactor by sucking the radioactivity out of them.  (It is explained, not terribly convincingly, that the human heart requires radioactive potassium to beat and eliminating this radioactivity killed the men.)  The rest of the story describes the monsters' attack on the second expedition; the captain is incapacitated in the fighting and promotes the young Avery to command, who risks his life to revive a Martian who can offer advice on how to fight off the monsters.  

Though not actually bad, "The Red Death of Mars" is pretty pedestrian in plot and style.  A truly skilled writer, like Tanith Lee or Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, could have taken the obvious monster and horror material and made it legitimately disturbing, and Lee or Wolfe could also probably move you emotionally with all the business about young Avery's relationship with his hero father and his efforts to emulate dear old Dad when responsibility is thrust upon him, but Williams' treatment here is no more than adequate.  

Martin Greenberg (a different guy than the more famous anthologist Martin H. Greenberg) included "The Red Death of Mars" in his anthology Men Against the Stars, Donald Wollheim reprinted it in More Adventures on Other Planets, and it also appears in the anthology The Year After Tomorrow, edited by Lester del Rey, Cecile Matschat, and Carl Carmer.  Matschat and Carmer were successful mainstream writers with little other intercourse with the SF world, Matschat a geographer and botanist and Carmer a folklorist; both Carmer and Matschat wrote volumes of the Rivers of America series, which wikipedia is telling me was a big deal.


The Heinlein and del Rey stories are actually good, the Hubbard is sort of interesting and the Williams is an acceptable bit of filler, so, a respectable batch of Golden Age SF about guys on dangerous journeys that throws some political theory and speculative science at you.

More Astounding next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Strange Stories Feb' 1939: H Kuttner, M W Wellman, and A Derleth & M Schorer

The very first issue of Strange Stories, the February 1939 issue, includes many stories by people we know from Weird TalesBack in 2017 we read one of Henry Kuttner's included stories, "The Frog," and just days ago we read both of Robert Bloch's two contributions.  Today let's examine Kuttner's other story in the issue, as well as Manly Wade Wellman's piece and the "Complete Novelet" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer.

"The Invaders" by Henry Kuttner

"The Invaders" appears under the pen name Keith Hammond, who is touted as the author of "The Seventh Coffin" and "The Hand of Ahrimam," two stories I can't find records of at isfdb or  Did the editors of Strange Stories just make up names for non-existent stories in order to give the impression that the fictitious Mr. Hammond had a long successful career behind him?  Tsk, tsk.

"The Invaders" is an OK horror story that Kuttner seeks to firmly embed in the Lovecraftian mythos, integrating lots of common weird themes and including direct references to Cthulhu and to The Mysteries of the Worm, the forbidden book conceived by Robert Bloch (Bloch and Kuttner were buddies who collaborated on stories and whom you can see together in a photo taken at the Weird Tales offices with editor Farnsworth Wright, Kuttner looking like a movie star and comedian Bloch striking a self-consciously ludicrous pose.) 

The narrator, newspaperman Gene, and his buddy Bill Mason have received an urgent telegram from their pal Michael Hayward, one of the world's most innovative and exciting horror writers.  When they arrive at Hayward's cottage on the California coast they realize that their buddy--and now they--are under siege by flying tentacled monsters from another world!

Hayward reveals to them the astonishing secret behind both his stellar career as an author and his devilish current predicament.  You see, Hayward got himself some photostatic copies of a few choice pages from The Mysteries of the Worm, including a recipe for a special drug, a drug that when ingested allows you to access memories from your past lives!  The libertarians will tell you that the past before the Industrial Revolution was a nightmare of poverty and drudgery, and maybe that is true, but what they won't tell you is what Hayward discovered: that in the ancient past the Earth was a battleground between different factions of alien monster gods!  It is this sort of esoteric knowledge, gleaned from his ancestors' memories, that has been the raw material of Hayward's acclaimed stories!

That recipe page in Mysteries of the Worm included warnings about the drug and also prescribed various protective measures to ensure the user of the drug didn't summon to his own time any dangerous beings.  Hayward didn't take those warnings much more seriously than nicotine addicts take those warnings from the Surgeon General on their packs of cancer sticks, and that is why those monsters from another dimension are floating around his cottage on the Pacific.

The monsters capture Mason and sacrifice him to their alien god.  Kuttner tries to shock us with some physical horror, describing how the dying Mason crawls on the sand, leaving a trail of blood, looking as if he has been "flayed alive," his eyes torn out and the white of his skull showing through his wounds.  Then, as our narrator Gene watches, Mason's body passes backwards through evolutionary history until his friend is just a blob of black goo.

The sacrifice of Mason is the essential component of the ritual that will open a bridge to another universe through which an invincible horde of malevolent beings can travel to Earth and reduce the entire human race their play thing.  Luckily, one of Hayward's other ancestral memories surfaces, one from a predecessor of his who was a high priest in forgotten Mu; Hayward chants a spell that summons the aid of one of the friendly gods who in the ancient past protected mankind, and it drives off the invaders. 

This story isn't terrible, but it isn't great; it sort of feels like the various conventional weird elements--knowledge of past lives,* evolution in reverse, human sacrifice, invasion from another dimension--are just sort cobbled together instead of being smoothly integrated into a coherent whole.  For instance, Kuttner doesn't do a great job of explaining how using a drug that allows you to access ancestral or racial or past life memories might open a portal to another hostile universe unless you paint a pentagram on the floor or something.  The way Mason's body suffers radical devolution as he dies is even less explicable.

Below average for the justly admired Kuttner.  "The Invaders" has been reprinted a number of times in fanzines like Fantasy Crossroads and Kuttner collections, as well as Robert M. Price's anthology Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos

*See Robert E. Howard's 1931 "The Children of the Night" and 1932 "People of the Dark,"  Clark Ashton Smith's 1931 "A Necromantic Tale," and Donald Wandrei's 1932 "The Lives of Alfred Kramer"

"Changeling" by Manly Wade Wellman

This is a trifling little thing, its plot simple, its style somewhat clumsy and overblown.  Wellman writes the story in the third person omniscient, but all the information in the story seems to come from one of the characters, as if the narrator interviewed him; the narrative is burdened with unnecessary phrases such as "today he remembers with clarity only..." and "He does not today pretend to know...."  Wellman also, in my opinion, uses too many metaphors and fancy descriptions that fail to add to the atmosphere or furnish powerful images.

David, thirty-six today, is the only surviving individual who was any sort of witness to a strange series of deaths in a little midwestern town twenty-eight years ago, when he was eight years old.  David accompanied his father, a college professor, to the stricken town to meet the couple suspected by the locals of poisoning their neighbors.  It is a dry and hot summer, and all the yards in the town are brown, save the yard of the suspects, whose grass is green and whose garden boasts a rich variety of brilliantly-colored exotic flowers.  

The couple turns out to be a fat Englishman and his skinny American wife.  This dude hails from Devonshire, and Wellman seems to imply that stories of changelings are associated with Devon.  Wellman also writes the Englishman's dialogue phonetically in an effort to represent his accent, a literary technique I generally find annoying, and it is annoying here.  The couple has a skinny eight or nine-year old daughter, Sarah; all of the numerous people who have died unexpectedly in the town of late expired after receiving a bouquet from Sarah, whom her parents proudly report tends their garden assiduously every day.

While the adults talk, Sarah takes David to her little play house and tries to get him to accept a gift of flowers.  Wellman's story briefly flickers into life in these scenes of temptation, which of course have disturbing erotic overtones.  David wisely rejects Sarah's offerings; he also witnesses Sarah conducting a conversation with a voice that emanates from a hole in the ground; Wellman leaves no doubt to what is going on, the monster voice actually explaining for the benefit of the audience stuff that Sarah must already know, that she is a monster sent out into the world to kill people so the unseen monsters can absorb their life force.  

The climax of the story takes place at tea time; the professor pours boiling water on Sarah, and the evil skinny little girl vanishes and an innocent fat little girl, who resembles the Englishman, appears in her place.  The prof explains that back in England when Sarah was a baby an evil changeling must have been substituted for her--luckily the prof knew that boiling water would banish the monster and summon the couple's true child.  

I'm calling this one barely acceptable, but it has reappeared in Wellman collections like Worse Things Waiting and Sin's Doorway.

Left: 1982 edition by Carcosa; Right: 2018 edition by Shadowridge Press

"Eyes of the Serpent" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer

At like 14 pages, "Eyes of the Serpent" is about twice the length of Wellman's "Changeling" and like 50% longer than Kuttner's "The Invaders."  Sadly, I can't say it is any better than those two tales; this is a filler story that could have used some additional work.

Our narrator is a resident of the Windy City.  His girlfriend is Monica Crittendon, secretary to the police commissioner.  One night she bursts into the narrator's house via the (unlocked?!) French doors to gasp that she is being pursued, and that the commish has been found dead, only hours after a sort of death token ("ouanga") was found on his desk!  The government has been keeping it secret from the people, but Monica knows all too well a truth she reveals to the narrator--the Chi-town PD is locked in a struggle with a voodoo cult that worships Damballah, the voodoo serpent god!  

Monica has brought with her a file on the cult which provides evidence supporting her belief that the Damballah-worshipers are led by a woman who was shot down by a Haitian cop 25 years ago but survived because she is an adept at astral projection and her soul was outside her body when she was hit and the establishment refused to follow the instructions of those in-the-know that they should burn her body!  Monica is sure that it is this voodoo priestess ("mamloi"), Ulrika Bayne, who is responsible for the death of the commish--only someone in astral form could have gotten into the commish's seventh floor office, after all.

Sure enough, a tall "singularly beautiful" woman--Ulrika Bayne herself--appears in the house.  She tosses an ouanga on the narrator's desk and then flees when another figure appears--the cop who shot Bayne 25 years ago, Gabriel Lantora!  Lantora explains that he has made it his life's work to battle Bayne, who murdered his father, a clergyman down in his and Bayne's homeland of Haiti.  We are led to believe that both Bayne and Lantora have appeared in the narrator's home in their astral forms, and both exercise some kind of power over electricity.

I didn't like how astral projection was handled in this story--Lantora and Bayne pass through walls, fly, appear and disappear, but they also can touch people and carry around objects.  People, like the police  commissioner, whom Bayne murders are found with their throats torn out.    

After Lantora leaves, some cops come to arrest Monica, as she is the lead suspect in the murder of the commissioner (even many members of the poli e force don't seem to know about the twilight struggle against the voodoo cult.)  The narrator consults a bishop whom Lantora knows and who is familiar with voodoo.  Monica is released from jail, and then captured by Bayne and two "Negroes."  The narrator and Lantora head to the voodoo temple in a "squalid Negro district" on Chicago's south side.  The temple is in the basement of an abandoned building; our heroes spy a gruesome ceremony through a curtain--Ulrika Bayne, before a horde of chanting blacks, sacrifices a goat and collects the blood so her flock of Damballah worshippers can drink it in an orgiastic frenzy.  I guess this exploitation scene, with the detailed description of the death of the goat and what happens with its blood, are the story's "money shot," its most carefully composed and memorable element. 

But the goat is just an appetizer!  A hypnotized Monica is brought to Bayne to be sacrificed!  Lantora interrupts the ceremony, scaring off the blacks and releasing Monica from the spell of the mamaloi with a word.  Then the narrator and Monica watch as the two astrals engage in a final showdown.  Ulrika Bayne suggests to Lantora that the two of them unite and jointly rule, but he is having none of it.  We also learn that long ago they were lovers.  Employing his superior psychic power, Lantora compels Bayne to reveal the secret location of her body.  Then the cast proceeds to its hiding place, where the body is burned, destroying Bayne.  Lantora, his work on this Earth complete, also vanishes.   

"Eyes of the Serpent," like Kuttner's "The Invaders," feels like a bunch of standard genre fiction tropes just jammed together, whether they actually go together or not.  For example, the way Monica is arrested and jailed has no effect on the plot--she just gets right out of jail.  Other superfluous material includes three unnecessary characters who contribute nothing to the plot and have zero interest or appeal: the bishop, whom I have mentioned, and two people who live in the narrator's house, his sister and his Japanese servant.

If Wellman indulges in one of my pet peeves--phonetic rendering of dialogue--Derleth and Schorer more seriously offend my sensibilities by committing another of my pet peeves: presenting main characters are more spectators to than prime movers of the plot.  "The Eyes of the Serpent" is about the climax of the decades-long feud between sorcerous adepts Gabriel Lantora and Ulrika Bayne, both of whom hail from exotic Haiti, and these two figures make all the big decisions and engage in all the fighting, so the story should have had one or both of them as viewpoint characters.  Instead our protagonists are two boring Chicagoans with little at stake emotionally and very little influence on the course of the conflict.  A story the same length narrated by Lantora, expressing his guilt and ambivalence over using black magic to achieve justice, or narrated by Bayne, full of ranting and raging that reflect her ambition and bloodlust, would have been far more interesting and exciting.
I guess I am feeling generous because I am going to call this one barely acceptable.

After reappearing in the Arkham House volume Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People in 1966, "Eyes of the Serpent" would be included in the 2009 Derleth collection That is Not Dead.


These stories aren't so hot.  Maybe these are pieces Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected, or ones their authors didn't feel comfortable sending to Wright but sent off to the new magazine on the block, fingers crossed.  Whatever the case, these stories aren't so bad as to invoke my rage, just my disappointment.    

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Robert Bloch: "The Creeper in the Crypt," "The Sorcerer's Jewel" and "The Curse of the House"

Let's read three late 1930s stories by correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, prolific screenwriter, and author of American classic Psycho, Robert Bloch.  We've got one from seminal speculative fiction magazine Weird Tales, and two from the very first issue of WT competitor Strange Stories, a bi-monthly put out by the same people who produced Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories.  These stories are available in a number of books, but I am reading them in scans of the original FDR-era magazines. 

"The Creeper in the Crypt" (1937)

Forty-odd years after its debut in Weird Tales, Robert M. Price included "The Creeper in the Crypt" in the sixteenth issue of Crypt of Cthulhu, and a decade after that he put it in a second (1993) edition of the Bloch collection Mysteries of the Worm.  We here at MPorcius Fiction Log have actually read most of the stories from Mysteries of the Worm; below find the links to my blog posts about them. 

It is not surprising that "The Creeper in the Crypt" was not included by Lin Carter in the first (1981) edition of Mysteries of the Worm; it is a mediocre filler story.  Set in the fictional New England town of Arkham, famous from Lovecraft's body of work, Bloch writes "The Creeper in the Crypt" in a sort of hard-boiled detective style, straightforward and simple, with little jokes and sarcastic dialogue.

Our narrator is a painter, descendent of a long line of Arkham denizens back to the town's founding.  Two New York gangsters, a swarthy Italian and a superstitious Pole, kidnap him; he wakes up from being knocked out to find himself in a cellar with two doors in it, one leading to a little fruit cellar, the other a sturdy metal affair.  The narrator recognizes the cellar from stories he heard from old geezers during his childhood years--he is being held below a long-abandoned house reputed to be the lair of an 18th-century wizard and a 19th-century smuggler and graverobber.  The metal door is said to be locked from the outside, and lead to a labyrinth of passages under the local cemetery, the home of monsters with whom the colonial era sorcerer had some kind of relationship.  As if the narrator's memories aren't foreshadowing enough, Bloch also has the superstitious Pole fret that the last gangster to use this cellar as a hide out was found mutilated, his scanty remains covered in bite marks.  The Italian thinks the hints that a monster ate that guy are a load of hogwash, insisting that some rival gang killed him and left the body in that state to scare off the competition.

The Italian has the Pole secure the painter in that fruit cellar and then sends the superstitious immigrant off to deliver a ransom note to the narrator's people.  Through the fruit cellar's closed door the narrator hears the metal door in the main cellar open while the Italian dozes, and then the Italian's last horrible moments as a monster slays and devours him.  After the narrator hears the metal door close, he escapes, having cut his bonds with glass from broken fruit jars.  

There is nothing really wrong with "The Creeper in the Crypt," but it is quite minor; we grade this one merely acceptable.

"The Sorcerer's Jewel" (1939)

Here's another story that Robert M. Price added to the second edition of Mysteries of the Worm, but this one debuted not in Weird Tales but in Strange Stories, Number 1 of Volume 1.  Bloch had two stories in that inaugural issue; "The Sorcerer's Jewel" appeared under the pen name Tarleton Fiske.  In the 1970s and '80s, "The Sorcerer's Jewel" appeared in multiple periodicals, including fanzines From Beyond the Dark Gateway and Fantasy Tales.

"The Creeper in the Crypt" started off by telling us that a guy had died under mysterious circumstances, and then described those circumstances, and "The Sorcerer's Jewel" has a somewhat similar structure; on page one the narrator tells us that his friend David is either dead, or has disappeared in some appalling fashion and is suffering a fate perhaps worse than death.

The narrator is one of those guys who studies the occult--we meet these guys all the time in our reading here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  His pal David was a talented photographer who got sick of shooting portraits of rich people for money--he wanted to create innovative art photos, to photograph the fantastic!  David tries various mundane techniques, like putting models into make up so they look like mythological monsters, and making little dioramas of Hell populated by sculpted demons.  These do not satisfy.  The narrator then comes up with something really novel--he visits a friend who has an antique shop and acquires a big jewel that is purported to have been used by wizards to communicate with horrific beings from other dimensions.  He even has this friend cut the jewel so it can be fitted as a lens to David's camera!

Sure enough, when they look through the viewfinder of the camera equipped with the jewel lens, the narrator and David see monsters in a hellish landscape.  The narrator gets the willies, suspecting that the demons can look back through the jewel at them, and may even be able to reach through the weird lens to drag them to their own horrific plane of existence.  But David is committed to his art, ignoring the narrator's warnings and forging on without the narrator's aid.  The narrator pays a visit to that antiques dealer and finds him dead, presumably punished by the demons of the other dimension for tampering with the jewel, their precious bridge to our dimension.  When the narrator checks on David, he finds the photographer's mutilated body.

This story is a little heavy on the speculative lectures and on perhaps superfluous exposition that comes to us in the form of dialogue between characters.  For example, the narrator expounds at length on a theory based on individual psychology in an effort to explain why he and David see totally different monsters when they look through the jewel, and the antique dealer describes at length the provenance of the particular jewel in the story as well as a history of the use of jewels in divination.  

I'm not finding "The Sorcerer's Jewel" lovable, but it is tolerable.

"The Curse of the House" (1939)

Here's the story from the February 1939 Strange Stories that appeared under Bloch's real name.  Of the three stories we are reading today, "The Curse of the House" is the best, because of the three it best conveys human emotion and has the most original and interesting ideas--that a house inhabited by wizards for many generations can take on a life and personality--  
Here was the real wizard, the true viewer of all secrets.  This house had seen it all.  It lived, it leered down from the hill.
--and that a house itself can be a sort of ghost or undead monster that haunts the man who destroyed it.

Our narrator is a psychiatrist, but the main storyteller is one of his patients, Will Banks, yet another of these guys who travels the world studying the occult.  Banks is especially interested in the way witches use geometric patterns in their efforts to see into or contact other dimensions, also one of the themes of "The Sorcerer's Jewel."  The lion's share of the text of "The Curse of the House" consists of Banks relating to the shrink the story of his visit to a 16th-century house in Edinburgh that has always been owned by and occupied by the Droome family, a family of sorcerers, and the horrible aftermath of his cataclysmic visit.  Bloch does a good job describing the house and Banks' adventure there, putting a lot of flesh on the bones of the idea that the house is somehow alive and malignant and entertainingly depicting the way his experience affects Banks psychologically.

Banks sought out the Droome house because he wanted to investigate its cellars, to see if there were any geometric patterns inscribed on the cellar walls.  The last living Droome welcomed Banks, but refused permission to access the cellars.  However, perhaps intentionally laying a trap for the investigator, Droome left open an opportunity for Banks to sneak down into the cellars, where he descried a horrible scene!  Droome came after him with a knife, but Banks won the ensuing fight, killing Droome and then setting the house ablaze and narrowly escaping the inferno. 

That was ten years ago.  Since, Banks has been haunted by visions of the Droome house.  Two or three times a year, if he should be outside near a hill at the same time of day he first saw the Droome house, Banks will see upon that hill, beckoning to him, the Scottish house where he fought for his life.  Banks has been moving hither and thither, all over the world, and striving to stay inside at the dreaded time of day, but sometimes circumstances lead to him being unable to avoid the horrifying vision, and each time he has the vision, the house is closer!

Our narrator, the shrink, thinks to cure Banks by forcing him to confront what the narrator assumes to be a delusion brought on by an unhealthy obsession based on guilt.  So the psychiatrist contrives a situation ideally suited to trigger Banks' vision while he, the shrink, is there at his side.  The story climaxes with the doctor's witnessing the final of Banks' Droome house-related episodes.

I can give this one a thumbs up; "The Curse of the House" is a better than average component of Robert Bloch's huge body of work.  "The Curse of the House" would be reprinted in 1989 in Robert M. Price's Pulp Magazine and the 2008 Bloch collection Skeleton in the Closet.  In 1949 "The Curse of the House" appeared alongside a story by Jack Williamson and one by E. Hoffman Price in an unusual British publication, a little magazine apparently called American Fiction whose true selling point was perhaps the artistic female nude photo on its cover.


One of these stories is quite good, and the other two are not noisome, so a pretty smooth road this blog post.  Taken as a group, we might see these three tales as useful as illustrations of Bloch's influences and interests early in his career, among them Lovecraft's work and psychological theory.

The next transmission across the aether from MPorcius Fiction Log will concern itself with still more strange material.  Stay tuned.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Lake of Life by Edmond Hamilton

"Ages on ages have we of Dordona faithfully obeyed the commandments given us long ago by the Guardians below.  Never have we permitted one blasphemer to descend to the lake.  To allow you to do so would be supreme sacrilege.  I reject your proposal.  I would rather die!"
Via the magic of the internet archive, world's greatest website, we at MPorcius Fiction Log are reading 1937 issues of one of the most important and influential of speculative fiction magazines, Weird TalesIn our last episode we read from the September ish poems by towering icons of the weird H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, additional verse by acclaimed science fiction writer Henry Kuttner, and fiction by top fantasy and horror scribe Clark Ashton Smith and prolific writer and editor of both mainstream and fantastic literature August Derleth.  Today we are exploring a three-part serial that began in that same September '37 number of WT, The Lake of Life by Edmond Hamilton, science fiction pioneer, author of a huge pile of space operas and horror tales, and husband of screenwriter and master of the mystery novel and the planetary romance, Leigh Brackett.  

The work of Edgar Rice Burroughs was a major influence on many SF writers, not just the drudges who churned out adventure stories to make their livings, but also the Grandmaster level SF writers whom SF critics and historians are always writing about, like Robert A. Heinlein and Michael Moorcock, both of whose bodies of work include homages to and/or pastiches of Burroughs.  Hamilton and Brackett are among those who found inspiration in the oeuvre of the immortal ERB, and we've already read some of Hamilton's Burroughs-formula work in which an adventurer guy takes an unlikely trip to another world and there hooks up with a princess and gets mixed up in the local wars, joining the side of the princess and playing a pivotal role in making sure her faction comes out on top, and today we read another one.  As in his 1935 Weird Tales cover story "The Six Sleepers" and his 1939 Weird Tales novelette "The Comrades of Time," Hamilton tries to liven up the narrative by providing the hero with a squad of companions, each of whom has a sort of stereotyped comic relief personality reflective of his origin.  Among these secondary characters in The Lake of Life are a gangster who fights with a tommy gun which he calls a "typewriter" and a Texas cowboy whose dialogue is peppered with Spanish words.    

I love Burroughs and I like this kind of thing and The Lake of Life is a decent example of its subgenre that has only a few annoying bits and some cool scenes (I like the journey through the African jungle and the fight with the black warriors as well as the descent into the bowels of the Earth on hundreds of slimy moss-covered steps) so I can mildly recommend it to fans of this sort of material.  If you need your SF to directly address the relationship of the individual to the state or the role of technology in society or to challenge Western sexual mores or 20th-century conceptions of gender roles then this story is perhaps not for you, though like some of Burroughs' own work it does address the issue of religious skepticism, and there is plenty of stuff in here for you identity politics types to chew on, as the white adventurers shoot down and blow up scores of African tribesmen and the princess is a sword-swinging military leader.  

The Lake of Life was reprinted in book form in 1978 by Robert Weisberg as the eighth of his Lost Fantasies series; apparently this publication was just a facsimile of the appropriate pages of the September, October and November 1937 issues of Weird Tales

If you are looking for a summary of the plot of The Lake of Life and some comments on the way the story is structured and some representative samples of Hamilton's text and techniques, read on. 


The Lake of Life is divvied up into 15 chapters, five chapters per issue of Weird Tales.  In Chapter 1 we meet our main cast, six desperate dudes on a schooner headed to the French Congo.  Their leader is Clark Stannard.  Captain of the schooner is disgraced sailor Ephraim Quell, who lost his legal right to captain ships when he was master of a passenger ship that burned with great loss of life.  Then we've got Texas cowboy Link Wilson, who shot down two men in a "border saloon."  Hulking Mike Shin (Hamilton compares him to a gorilla) is a former prize fighter who threw a fight.  Lieutenant John Morrow was disgracefully discharged from the Army for assaulting a superior officer in a dispute over a woman.  Desperate dude number six is Blacky Cain, a murderous gangster.  These questionable characters have been assembled by one Asa Brand to pursue a perilous mission--journeying hundreds of miles up an African river into the territory of the savage Kiridu people, reputed to be the site of the Lake of Life!

Chapter 1 not only introduces our heroes (?) but covers the wreck of their schooner on a sand bar in the mouth of the Bembu river as they flees a French gunboat that is attempting to enforce the laws forbidding anybody from entering this part of the French Congo and stirring up the volatile natives.

In Chapter 2 we learn about the background of Stannard, a penniless adventurer who has a laid up brother and needs cash to pay for bro's operation, and of Brand, a skinny and sickly old millionaire whose business operations reach into every corner of the nation (Hamilton compares his body to that of a vulture and his finances to the many-tentacled octopus.)  Brand has learned that the tribes of the Kiridu region believe that deep in their territory, beyond the Mountains of Death, lies a lake of shining waters that confer immortality to all who drink of them, and this elderly moneybags, who is at death's door, recruited the six desperadoes to find this Lake, financing the expedition and promising a huge reward to any who survive a successful effort to bring back to him a dose of its miraculous water.

Chapter 3 starts with a description of the drums the adventurers hear on the seventh and eighth days of their grueling (they have to paddle--no motor boats for these guys!) trip up the Bembu.

Black heart of Africa, throbbing in hate and menace!  Its malign whisper was a sinister promise.  Boom!  Boom!  Boom!  

The becomes no more than a swamp, and the six pith-helmeted questors have to schlep the final leg of their journey to the mountains.  The Kiridu people regard the Mountains of Death as sacred and inviolable, and an army of warriors, their black skin painted white with the likenesses of skeletons, burst out of the dense jungle to attack the expedition, but their spears are no match for the invaders' rifles, grenades and tommy gun.

The Mountains of Death live up to their name, proving absolutely unscalable--all who touch them are instantly killed by some mysterious, perhaps electric, force.  In Chapter 4 our heroes find a raging river that passes through a chasm into the valley beyond the mountains and navigate it on a hastily built raft.  In Chapter 5 they spot a city of red domes and towers, but before they can reach it they are attacked by a small squadron of white cavalrymen clad in black mail.  These horsemen's swords are no match for the Americans' pistols, and they are routed, leaving behind their leader--a beautiful blue-eyed brunette princess!  A much larger unit of cavalry shows up; these pale faces are clad in red armor, and they take our cast into the red city.  Both the Red and Black factions of valley dwellers speak a language much like Arabic, so world traveler Stannard can communicate with them.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Stannard, in the red walled town, learns from the Reds and from the princess of the Blacks, Princess Lurain, all about local politics and religion and the Lake of Life.  Long ago, when it was still possible to climb the mountains, some migrating white people discovered this valley, as well as a subterranean lake said to offer immortality to those who drink from it.  But some nonhuman beings were guarding the lake, and forbid any to partake of its waters, and rendered the mountains impassable in order to keep any more outsiders from arriving in the valley.  Lurain's ancestors built a temple and a black city over the entrance to the cavern of the Lake, and in obedience to the strange Guardians, barred all entry to the cavern of the Lake.  Over the centuries people began to doubt the existence of the Guardians, but less so that of the life-giving Lake.  A civil war erupted between those conservatives who maintained the old religion and continued to forbid any entrance into the cavern, and those who wanted to go see if they really could win immortality.  The religious skeptics were defeated and departed, founding their own, red, city.  In the generations since the civil war, defectors from the black city have swelled the population of the red city, and the king of the Reds has been plotting an assault on the city of the now-outnumbered superstitious Blacks so he can try his hand at gaining immortality at the subterranean Lake.

The Red king, making liberal use of wine and his sexy sister, tries to get Stannard and the Americans to ally with him and participate in the attack on the city of the Blacks.  But Stannard soon learns that the king plans to stab him and his comrades in the back as soon as the Black city falls, so Stannard instead allies with Lurain and the Blacks.  Initially, Lurain doesn't want to meet his terms--that he be allowed to take some water from the Lake--but she figures the alien Guardians will just kill him if he goes down to the Lake anyway, so agrees.  The princess and the outsiders escape the Red city in Chapter 8 and by Chapter 9 are at Lurain's crumbling old depopulated Black city.  Lurain's pious countrymen of course refuse to give the outsiders permission to go down to the Lake, but Lurain keeps her word and in Chapter 10 guides Stannard through a secret passage to the top of the slippery staircase which no man or woman has descended for many centuries.

American and princess descend the stairs and reach the glowing Lake in Chapter 11.  No alien Guardians are in evidence, just a statue of one, an ogre-sized biped with flippers instead of hands (Hamilton compares it to a seal.)

In Chapter 12 Stannard has the opportunity to drink from the Lake of Life and achieve immortality, but the statue of the Guardian is so cunningly carved, its inhuman features so evocative of weariness and despair, that it conveys the horrible truth about immortality--that to live forever is a horror.

Night is good after day, and death is good after life.  Who would live in an endless day, without ever attaining the rest of night?

Lurain's father the Black king and his soldiers capture Stannard and the princess and are about to put them to death for blasphemy and sacrilege when the Red army arrives.  In a surprise storm, the Reds take the town, overwhelming the defenders, killing the entire population, man, woman and child, and seizing the temple.  Only Stannard and princess Lurain survive, the other Americans sacrificing themselves in the fighting to preserve them.  At the end of Chapter 13 the Red king and his soldiers drink from the Lake and become immortal and vow to conquer the Earth--the Lake's waters confer not only immortality, but invulnerability.

In Chapter 14 we have our somewhat disappointing Raiders of the Lost Ark-style deus ex machina climax.  (I prefer stories to be resolved in a way that reflects the characters' choices or personalities, not some outside force, so to my mind the real climax of the story is Stannard's spiritual crisis in which he must choose whether or not to seize immortality.)  The seal-like Guardians emerge from the Lake, and explain they ruled the Earth before the rise of Man, and the Lake is the product of a meteor strike way back when.  They attained immortality from the water infused by the meteor's life-giving radiation, but regretted it because living forever becomes boring and exhausting.

The Guardians denounce the Reds, allow Stannard and Lurain to escape, and then trigger an earthquake which buries the Lake and everyone in the valley, killing the women and children back in the Red city and burying alive, forever, the Red soldiers and themselves.

Chapter 14 is an "epilog" in which we learn that Lurain, the only survivor of her people, and Stannard make it back to civilization.  When Stannard's expedition was reported lost Brand bequeathed a million bucks to Stannard's family and then died of a broken heart.  Hamilton leaves us with the idea that the five reckless and violent men Stannard led into the jungle, to their deaths, had redeemed themselves by saving our male and female leads.  Stannard and Lurain, who of course have fallen in love, can live happily ever after.


Look for more Weird Tales--and Weird Tales adjacent--material in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Weird Tales, Sep '37: Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth

Back in March of 2022, we read some stories from a 1941 book that some people consider the first ever science fiction anthology.  One of those stories was Manly Wade Wellman's "School for the Unspeakable," which first appeared in a 1937 issue of Weird Tales.  Let's crack open that September '37 issue of the magazine of the bizarre and unusual, as it includes three more pieces of fiction from people we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Weird Tales regulars Edmond Hamilton, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth.  Hamilton's contribution is the first part of a three-part serial, which we'll read next time; today let's focus on the stories by Californian Smith and Wisconian Derleth.   

But first--weird poetry!  This issue of Weird Tales has lots of verse in it by some of the greatest writers to ever appear in the pages of the No. 1 Magazine of Strange and Unusual Stories.  There's Robert E. Howard's 14-line poem about a guy who has a nightmare in which he is killed by a giant animate statue, "The Dream and the Shadow."  Henry Kuttner contributes "H. P. L.," sixteen lines about the dreams only a few men can ever experience, dreams of strange alien worlds.  And from Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, the seven-page "tale in rime" "Psychopompus," which is about a creepy medieval nobleman--apparently a werewolf--and his creepy wife--a witch who can change into a serpent--and the gruesome end they meet when they seek to work their evil on a Christian couple who are good at swinging an axe.  God helps those who can chop the head off a monster themselves!

Of these poems, the Kuttner is the hardest to get, as it is just a bunch of vague images and mythological references.  Howard's is better, as it tells a little story, and the images are better, too.  Lovecraft's is the least ambitious poetically, and the easiest to read--as its subtitle suggests, it is just a horror story in simple rhyming verse.  "Psychopompus" is actually a pretty effective horror tale, and I recommend it to all fans of the weird, even those who have little interest in poetry. 

"The Death of Ilalotha" by Clark Ashton Smith

"The Death of Ilalotha" is set in the decadent court of Queen Xantlicha, where days-long drunken sex orgies are the norm.  Queen Xantlicha murdered her husband and since has taken a series of lovers; these lovers also end up murdered when the Queen tires of them.  Her current lover, the nobleman Thulos, returns from a week away at his estate to find one of the wild parties winding down after three days.  This shindig was held to commemorate the death of the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Ilalotha--the deceased lies in the middle of the site of the festivities.  Ilalotha was one of notorious womanizer Thulos' favorite lovers before he took up with the Queen, and seeing her lying there dead reminds him of one of his and Ilalotha's little sex games--she would pretend to be asleep or dead while he made love to her.

Is Thulos hallucinating, or has he just heard Ilalotha's voice, requesting that he meet her at midnight in her tomb?  Could it be that via infernal sorceries she has faked her death--or that she might in fact be one of the undead?  The Queen, burning with jealousy, sees Thulos leaning over the corpse of Ilalotha, and requests that the nobleman meet her at midnight in the garden.  

Which rendezvous will Thulos keep?  Of our three cruel, selfish, and passionate characters, which if any will live to see the morning?  

Thumbs up for this great little story of murder, sex and sorcery.  Smith offers not only a solid eerie suspense plot but striking images, effective metaphors, and generally skillful wordsmithery.  

One of Smith's tales of the far future continent of Zothique, "The Death of Ilalotha" can be found in many languages in a stack of Smith collections as well as horror and science fiction anthologies.  

"McGovern's Obsession" by August Derleth  

Derleth has laid some clunkers on us over the years of this blog's existence, but here we have a successful little piece I can sincerely recommend.

One of these middle-class British guys who has a manservant and spends time at a club, name of McGovern, moves into a new house; it is a comfortable place, but has a strange, disturbing, atmosphere.  One day Mac is doing some mundane paperwork and his hand suddenly writes out, automatically, indifferent to his will, a long passage in a woman's handwriting, a sort of fragment of a wife's account of a disastrous marriage full of adultery and abuse.  

Some investigations and another episode of automatic writing follow.  Big revelations as the story draws to a close include Mac's arm seizing a hammer and bashing a hole in the wall to reveal a gruesome clue, and in the climax Mac's arm is again possessed by the abused wife as he fights the abusive husband, her spirit pursuing justice and revenge.

Much better than Derleth's average; "McGovern's Obsession" is not nearly as well-written as Smith's "The Death of Ilalotha," but the style doesn't get in the way of the plot or waste your time (remember how Derleth hamstrung himself with unnecessary scenes and plot complications in "The Wind from the River"?--he doesn't commit those blunders this time, thank the Elder Gods), and that plot is actually pretty good.  Finding yourself writing something in someone else's voice, totally unbidden, is a pretty cool horror story idea.  So, kudos to Derleth.

"McGovern's Obsession" would be reprinted in a few Derleth collections and a 1970 French anthology.


One very good and one quite good story today, both with a little something something for you sex fetishists and gorehounds out there.  Let's hope when we read Hamilton's contribution to this issue next time we find it lives up to the standard set by Smith and Derleth!    

Monday, July 10, 2023

Merril-approved 1956 SF stories by R A Hart, F Herbert & R F Jones

The Sage of Teaneck, the great Barry N. Malzberg, tells us* that Judith Merril "irreversibly damaged" science fiction in  the course of her "campaign to destroy science fiction" by "tearing down the walls" between SF and mainstream literature.  If we take seriously this charge from our emotional pal Barry, we must see the 1957 book SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume as an early salvo in Merril's disruptive campaign.  We here at MPoricus Fiction Log have been using the long alphabetical list of Honorable Mentions at the end of SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume as a sort of guide to the SF of 1956, cherry-picking from it stories that pique our interest and hunting them down online. 

*In a 2016 essay that appeared in Galaxy's Edge.

The last leg of our journey through 1956 with Merril as our pathfinder saw us reading stories by authors whose names begin with a "G," so today we reach the "H"s.  This batch is fertile ground for exploring Merril's propensity to look beyond the category SF magazines like Astounding and Galaxy for "great" SF, seeing as two of the stories, those by Richard Harper and Robert A. Hart, appeared in men's magazines.  Alas, I can't find the text of Harper's "The Pugilist," which debuted in Nugget, anywhere online.  The issue of Dude that first brought Hart's "The Automatic Gentleman" before the eyes of the world is thankfully available at the internet archive.  Rounding out Merril's three "H"s is Frank Herbert's "The Nothing" which we will also tackle.

Two stories is a little slim for a blog post (not that I haven't done that), so let's also take a look at the two "J"s (there are no "I"s.)  One of these is "A Little Magic" by one of those authors people are always telling you you have to like, Shirley Jackson, but I can't seem to find a text of this story, which first appeared in Woman's Home Companion, online.  (Maybe I just don't know how to use the internet properly.)  We'll just assume "A Little Magic" is a work of genius that heartbreakingly illuminates the manifold contradictions of the life of women under the patriarchy and move on with our lives.  The other "J" who won Merril's approval is Raymond F. Jones, whose story "The Non-Statistical Man" appears on the Honorable Mentions list and is easily available even to us internet neophytes.

"The Automatic Gentleman" by Robert A. Hart

This is a sort of obvious story, a forgettable trifle, but competently written.  The narrator is a successful  businessman (he owns a Chevrolet dealership) married to a woman thirteen years his junior.  He keeps her content by buying appliances that makes her housework easier--washing machine, electric mixer, etc.  Of course, she is never satisfied for long, so when mechanical servants go on the market, he buys her one of those.  The robot looks just like a handsome young man, a college student, in fact, and flawlessly performs all the work from mowing the lawn to cooking the dinner.

The robot doesn't just look like an educated person--it has educated tastes!  It hates game shows and Ed Sullivan and likes modern drama!  It beats the narrator at Scrabble, quadrupling his score!  Soon his wife is more attracted to the robot than to her husband, and both husband and wife begin to wonder if there is another "job" around the house it can perform flawlessly, if you know what I mean!  But their marriage is saved when the high class robot rejects the vulgar wife's advances.

This feels like a filler story, and, seeing as in Dude it is nestled among fiction by big name writers like Michael Shaara, Erskine Caldwell and Tennessee Williams and photos of topless ladies, I guess it sort of is filler.  Merril's choice of it is thus a little odd; maybe the sex joke element of the story lent "The Automatic Gentleman" value in Merril's eyes (one of the standard complaints of New Wave boosters--and Merril is perhaps New Wave Booster Numero Uno--is that SF didn't deal enough with sex.)  And maybe she liked the story's suggestion, however jocular, that technology might pose problems to human relationships.  

"The Nothing" by Frank Herbert

"The Nothing," by Frank "Dune" Herbert, is reminding me of Robert Heinlein's 1957 "The Menace From Earth."  Both are written in the voice of an intelligent and independent-minded young woman, both are full of little jokes, and both have plots centered around the start of a committed love relationship but serve as vehicles for the description of a strange future society (in Heinlein's case, a society located on the Moon.) 

(After drafting this blog post I reread "The Menace From Earth" and it is as good as I remember it being.  Thumbs up!)

Due to the effects of radiation almost everybody in Herbert's future world has some kind of psychic power.  Some people can teleport, some can read minds, others can see the future, etc.  Our narrator is an attractive young woman who can start fires with her mind.  She meets a man in a bar and is led to believe that they are destined to marry--it turns out that she has been selected by a sort of political activist (the man's father) to produce children with his son as part of his effort to preserve society.  You see, the human race is reverting to the mean (as people who know about math say), and fewer and fewer people are being born who have psychic powers--in fact, the man our narrator is to marry is one of the "nothings" who lacks a psychic ability.  Society is under threat of collapse because the ubiquity of psykers has lead to civilization abandoning technology, and now the entire societal infrastructure is reliant on mental powers--for example, almost nobody knows how to maintain automobiles or aircraft because there are so many people who can teleport you.  The narrator's soon-to-be-father-in-law is a leader in the secret movement to revive technological facility and--to buy time for sufficient technological education--prolong the prevalence of psykers through eugenic breeding; this guy has studied the narrator's genetic code and determined she is the perfect match for her son.

Perhaps too light-hearted at times, this story feels a little slight, almost like a joke story, but it is not bad; I suppose I can mildly recommend it.  I haven't actually read Dune, but it is my understanding that the milieu of the famous novel is one in which computers are outlawed, so maybe we should see "The Nothing" as addressing a theme that would later appear in Herbert's blockbuster, that of people getting by without technology.

"The Nothing" would be reprinted in a few anthologies and Herbert collections following its debut in Fantastic Universe.

"The Non-Statistical Man" by Raymond F. Jones

"The Non-Statistical Man," which would go on to be the title story of a 1968 Jones collection, debuted in the same issue of Science Fiction Stories that includes another Merril pick, Algis Budrys' "With a Dime on Top of It," of which I opined in my blog post about it that "it is not conventionally satisfying."  

Jones' "The Non-Statistical Man" is promoted in the pages of Science Fiction Stories as a novel, and isfdb categorizes it as a novella; either way, that means it is long, around 80 pages in its magazine appearance.  And it feels long, as the pace is sort of slow, sex and violence are largely absent, and much of the text consists of dialogue and lectures on speculative history and science.

Like Herbert's "The Nothing," Jones' story is about paradigm shifts and the way different attitudes towards science and technology can radically change society, and about a small cadre of superior people who are trying to guide society to a better place.  These are common fixtures of classic SF we have seen many times.

The main character of "The Non-Statistical Man" is the head statistician at an insurance company on the East coast, Charles Bascomb.  Bascomb loves numbers and math (one of Jones' little jokes is to say Bascomb is fascinated by figures--in particular the Arabic kind, not just the kind most men find fascinating) and believes that it is through statistics that we can understand the universe and improve our position within it.  His wife Sarah kind of gets on his nerves with her reliance on hunches and "feelings" that reflect intuition.

One day some unusual anomalies in the records come to his attention--in a few towns, many people who just recently took out insurance have made totally legitimate claims and received the payments to which they are entitled; the volume of these short term payouts far exceeds that of other towns and of these towns in the past.  Bascomb investigates, and makes little progress until he takes advantage of one of his wife's hunches.  And then what he finds astonishes him and shakes his view of mankind and the universe!

All the people who bought insurance and then profited from that decision almost immediately made their purchasing decision based on a hunch, on intuition!  And one other thing connects these insurance customers--they all attended public New Age self-help lectures by a retired college professor, Magruder.  Bascomb meets Magruder, who explains to our hero his wild and crazy theory.  Human beings have innate powers of intuition that could potentially make our lives far more safe and comfortable if we unleashed them--currently these powers are suppressed by fears of being ridiculed by conventional logical men like Bascomb. 

Magruder makes a complex argument that perhaps is meant to appeal to the libertarians who are disproportionately represented among the ranks of SF fans.  All the apparatus of modern civilization, like government and the insurance industry and theories of logic, are meant to collectivize risk, to even out risk among the population and over time; this obviously limits our individual freedom, but at the same time provides a measure of safety, at least in the aggregate.  (Limiting everybody to a slow speed on the highway costs all drivers some liberty and some time, but in return a small number of people who would otherwise suffer in accidents benefit greatly.)  Magruder claims that if we unleash our intuition we can all look after ourselves and throw off all this stifling collectivism.  (We could all drive at whatever speed we felt like most of the time, only slowing down when our intuition warned us an accident was likely.)  And Magruder knows how to unleash everybodies' intuition--by easing their fears of ridicule from society through the administration of drugs!  Engaging in a practice that probably wouldn't have passed muster with the people who monitor the ethics of research on human subjects at his university, Magruder has been prescribing these anti-anxiety drugs to people who attend his lectures, saying they are merely vitamins; it is those who have taken these drugs who have been purchasing insurance from Bascomb's firm based on hunches, hunches that have proven to be quite prescient.

To me, Magruder's revelation felt like a climax, but unfortunately this lecture comes only half way through the story and Jones has like forty more pages of less interesting stuff for us to wade through, the saga of Chuck Bascomb's evolution from intuition skeptic to leader in the intuition movement.  First, Bascomb refuses to accept Magruder's ideas and with the help of a newspaper man works to undermine the professor's campaign, Bascomb seeing Magruder as a threat to our very civilization.  Then we witness Chuck's own experience of gaining super intuition himself--after taking Magruder's pills (his wife plays a role in getting him to take them) he can tell just by looking at strangers on the street the risks they are facing (a woman with a small as-yet-undiagnosed tumor; a man considering a risky business deal) and how to mitigate them (go to the doctor right away; don't sign that contract.)

Bascomb now knows Magruder's ideas are true, but thinks that Magruder is spreading the gospel in the wrong way, in a way that is underhanded and threatens society, and decides to explain to people the good news in an honest way that won't put our civilization at risk.  This is a disaster--here at this blog I have regularly pointed out how elitist so many SF stories are, how they portray the common people as a mob of dolts whom the cognitive elite are perfectly justified in manipulating for their own good, and Jones takes that tack here in "The Non-Statistical Man."  When Bascomb tries to explain intuition logically to people (instead of wrapping the idea up in a lot of goofy pseudo-Oriental mysticism as Magruder has been) and demonstrate its use, he is branded a commie and a child molester and he and his family are run out of town by a violent mob.  Using intuition to guide them, the Bascombs escape to a town where Magruder and his earliest disciples are in charge, a town of people wholly committed to intuition whose citizens have destroyed all their TV sets, intuitively understanding how bad TV is for you.  After another lecture from the professor, Bascomb becomes Magruder's right hand man in the long term campaign to rework our society so we have more safety and more liberty, and are less beholden to technology, logic, one-size-fits-all rules, and hierarchy.

"The Non-Statistical Man" is certainly noteworthy as a 1956 science fiction story which is essentially attacking science, math, logic and technology that at the same time appeals to the various demographics of the SF community (above, I highlighted the story's appeal to libertarians, but Jones also tries to push the buttons of left-liberals by having Bascomb use his intuition to figure out that some immigrant convicted of a heinous crime is in fact innocent and by having Bascomb's enemies be over-the-top McCarthyite Red-baiters and sex-hating prudes.)  Besides all this stuff, Merril may also have liked how a woman is proven right in the end and is instrumental to the salutary resolution of the plot.  Jones' style is OK--not great, but not bad; my main criticism is that the story is too long and nothing is surprising or strange after the middle section.    

We'll call this one acceptable.

The collection The Non-Statistical Man has been published in various forms in 
multiple languages; it looks like the Romanian edition has a cover by H. R. Giger.


None of these stories is bad, so I guess we can't fault Merril for promoting them, even though I am not in love with them.  By coincidence, they seem to share a theme, a theme embraced by one of the few people willing to express skepticism about the universally-praised Judith Merril, Barry N. Malzberg himself--the human race's uneasy relationship with technology.


Stay tuned for more SF from 1956--but first, more weird stories from the 1930s here at MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Abernathy and Aldiss
Anderson, Allen and Banks
Barrow, Beaumont and Blish
Bradbury, Bretnor, Budrys and Butler  
Carter, Clarke and Clifton 
Clingerman, Cogswell and Cohen
de Camp, deFord, Dickson and Doyle