Tuesday, October 31, 2023

In My Parents' Bedroom by Barry N. Malzberg

The idea of fucking in the bedroom of my parents has seized me with such tenacity that I can barely keep my tread straight, although at the same time I know now that Joanne is evil and that she is out to destroy me.

Here we have a novel written in 1969 by the great Barry N. Malzberg, the sage of Teaneck, in its 2021 Stark House paperback edition, in which it appears with Malzberg's 1968 Oracle of the Thousand Hands.  (We read an excerpt of Oracle of the Thousand Hands back in 2020, when we discussed--at times with shock and dismay--erotica by major speculative fiction writers including Samuel R. Delany, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Silverberg.)  My Stark House edition includes afterwords by Malzberg that may be of interest to students of Malzberg's work and genre literature in general, with their revelation that In My Parents' Bedroom has autobiographical elements and Malzberg's offhand remarks about other components of his large corpus and about other SF writers like Robert Heinlein and Laurence Janifer.

Both In My Parents' Bedroom and Oracle of the Thousand Hands were first published by Olympia Press, In My Parents' Bedroom in 1971, and are ostensibly sex novels, marketed to people looking for erotica.  There are some sex scenes in In My Parents' Bedroom, and one of the novel's themes is the difficulty and disappointment attendant on sexual relationships, but the book is not particularly titillating or stimulating--it has bigger fish to fry, being a satire of mid-century middle-class family life, but (to my mind, at least) more importantly a satire of academics, their view of the past, and their self-important and ultimately sterile "work," as well as a rumination on the impossibility of anybody truly understanding the past or other people.  The scholars in the novel are obsessed with inconsequential minutiae and argue passionately about unknowable details, including the states of mind of people they have never met, basing their assertions on the flimsiest of evidence; their claims and questionable insights expose more about themselves than about their purported subjects.  In My Parents' Bedroom also has some science fictional elements; near its end we get a "meta" passage about science fiction, and the entire novel paints a faint and oblique portrait of an "enlightened" and "liberated" future society through the expedient of revealing the future people's own prejudices and attitudes in how they talk about the middle of the 20th century, as well as allusive but mysterious references to "ruins."   

"At this time, however, she was a virgin which added, as you can imagine, not only to her guilt, but to that uneasy feeling of excitement which she interpreted as a distant warmth working through her thighs and toes and even parching the nipples of her invisible breasts, which were well concealed under several layers of the dress of that period."

Malzberg fans will not be surprised to learn that this novel is told in the present tense by an unreliable narrator.  Our narrator this time around is Michael Westfield, and he is on a guided tour of a meticulously preserved/rebuilt American one-family house of the middle of the 20th century.  Michael is suffering some severe memory loss--for example, he is accompanied on the tour by his girlfriend, but as the novel begins he can't remember her name, how they met, or the contours of their relationship.  One thing he does know, something that he strives to keep from his girlfriend, the other tourists in the group, and especially the tour guide--the house they are touring is his own childhood home, where he grew up with his parents and sister, and which he hasn't seen in twenty years or so.  As the novel progresses Michael regains some of his memory (his girlfriend's name, Joanne; he and his sister's incestuous sex play) but we also are offered reasons to doubt Michael is who he says he is and that the narrative describes anything beyond the hallucinations or dreams of an unhappily married man.

"Oh, why did we take this tour Michael?  It's so depressing!  These people lived so horribly.  How could people live like this and not kill themselves?"

In My Parents' Bedroom is meant to be funny, and on the tour are some wacky characters.  There is a screaming albino child who is painfully bored by the tour, to which his fat mother and skinny father have dragged him.

"I don't understand this," the albino child says suddenly in a high, whining, rather dreadful voice.  "I don't understand any of this and I don't like it; it has nothing to do with me, why did we come here?  I'm bored, it's all too terrible, let's go somewhere and get an ice cream cone or something else."

(One wonders if this albino child represents the rational response of the ordinary person to being subjected to government-approved history lessons from arrogant and absurd taxpayer-subsidized intellectuals, lessons which do not enrich your life or understanding but just waste your time and make you feel bad.) 

"The tenants in this 'living' room were not so much 'living' as merely 'existing,'" the guide says, running a small hand over the gate, "and indeed some of the eminent philosophers and writers of their time took this one step further to say that actually this was not the case either but that they were in all likelihood 'dying.'"

There is a homosexual couple ("two teenagers in Edwardian dress,") one of whom is a grad student ("the scholar" or "the Ph.D candidate") whose area of study is the sex life of Michael's father and who gets in totally pointless but quite heated arguments with the tour guide, an old man who is repeatedly described as a "civil servant," an opportunity for Malzberg--former employee of the New York welfare department--to poke fun at one of his conventional targets: government workers.  

"Come now," the scholar is saying, "there is absolutely no question of anal fixation whatsoever.  I find it crude, base and completely uninformed of you to make those suggestions.  People of that generation had a far less restricted attitude toward the bathroom function than do you or I, that is all.  They performed their needs simply."

There is not much plot to In My Parents' Bedroom.  The tour proceeds through the house.  Joanne and Michael twice sneak off to have sex in Michael's parents' bed; Joanne initiates these couplings, but is not satisfied by them.  Joanne goes off with an employee of the museum, and in the climax of the novel it is suggested she may have had sex with this other guy.  In this climax Michael's true identity is revealed to the other people on the tour, but then we are given the idea that the whole thing is moot.

I'm a Malzberg fan, but I am going to have to call In My Parents' Bedroom one of his lesser works.  I started it with the hope that it would be as fun and funny as Underlay or The Horizontal Woman or Everything Happened to Susan (AKA Cinema), but found it somewhat tedious and quickly got bogged down and kept putting it aside to focus on my other hobbies, like working on my model trains or reading NSFW comics about the challenging emotional lives of Japanese high school girls.  The jokes are not bad, but they aren't great, there is almost no plot and almost no dramatic tension, and, word-for-word, quite little ideological or philosophical content.  (Compare to a novel like Herovit's World, which had a surfeit of literary criticism and human relationship stuff for me to sink my teeth into.)   

To be fair to Malzberg, it does seem like after 1000 blog posts (!) that my interest in reading fiction and blogging about it has waned a bit.  ("It's not you, Barry--it's me.")  Also, looking back on the novel having read it, trying to process what it was all about and flipping through its 110 or so pages looking for quotes to buttress my claims, is proving to be more fun and intriguing than was actually reading it front to back.  

I'm going to grade this novel "acceptable" and warn prospective readers that In My Parents' Bedroom is real modern-type literature, consisting of dirty jokes, long descriptions of psychological states and bootless philosophical argumentation, all of it unreliable, contradictory and ambiguous--a big theme of the novel is human inability to really know anything--and very little plot development or action.  It really threatens to become the kind of boring and depressing experience it seems to be satirizing.  Not bad, but there are over a dozen superior Malzberg novels out there, running the gamut from SF to horror to mainstream so I would steer readers to them and only recommend In My Parents' Bedroom to grizzled Malzberg veterans interested in exploring every nook and cranny of our hero's vast body of work.          

"I don't think your question makes any sense," the Ph.D. candidate says, flicking some imagined dust off a sleeve.  "Of course she enjoyed it.  In those unfortunate times women were objects and those responses which were expected were elicited.  Rather we should concern ourselves--"

"Some Coke with ice," the albino says, "and let's go for a walk.  It's so boring!  It doesn't have anything to do with anyone!"

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Fantastic Story, Fall 1951: Hamilton, Gallun, Oliver, & Reynolds

A few days ago, a knowledgeable SF fan, in a comment to one of my blog posts about Edmond Hamilton, pointed out a bunch of SF stories by important writers which share plot elements with Hamilton's "Fassenden's Worlds," a story we read in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen.  One of these stories was another Hamilton, 1935's "The Cosmic Pantograph."  Sam Merwin, Jr. reprinted "The Cosmic Pantograph" in 1951 in Fantastic Story, alongside new stories by three men we sometimes read here at MPorcius Fiction Log, Raymond Z. Gallun, Chad Oliver, and Mack Reynolds.  So, let's take a little trip to 1951 and read these four stories.  This is a suspenseful blog post, as I often--but not always!--find Oliver and Reynolds' work to be offensive as ideology and/or deplorable as literature.

"The Cosmic Pantograph" by Edmond Hamilton (1935)

"The Cosmic Pantograph" was the cover story for an issue of Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories, and it is a fun sense-of-wonder speculative piece conceived on the grandest of scales.

A few years ago Felton was a college student; one of his professors, Robine, had a habit of lecturing on the nature of the universe, reminding his students that one day the sun would grow cold, that eventually the entire universe will grow cold as all the stars die, and that mankind would thus be doomed.  Felton, the optimist, insisted that ever-innovative mankind would figure out a way to endure any such challenge.

Today, Robine has summoned Felton to his mansion with the promise that his former will pupil will be able to see the end of the human race!  Robine's huge basement contains a tremendous and complex machine--a machine which can detect the vibrations of every single atom in the universe, catalog them, and then reproduce them in tiny size inside a big metal sphere.  In this sphere, the machine can create another universe identical to the real universe, but much smaller!  Endorsing the determinist philosophies of such men as Spinoza and d'Holbach, Robine says that since the duplicate universe is identical to the real universe, its history will follow exactly the same course as the real universe.  Critically, because it is so much smaller, time moves more quickly in the duplicate universe, millions of years passing in one minute.  This means that Felton and Robine can observe the duplicate universe through electromicroscopes and watch the inevitable future unfold!  Will the natural decay of the stars lead to the extinction of mankind, or will Man triumph over this cosmic adversity and endure? 

Thumbs up for this effort to blow your mind and teach you various philosophical and astronomical principles.  "The Cosmic Pantograph" doesn't seem to have been printed a third time in the language of William Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, but our friends over in Germany recognized its merit and republished it in a magazine in 1959 and in an anthology with a Frank Frazetta cover in 1974.

"Trail Blazer" by Raymond Z. Gallun (1951)   

We've been reading Raymond Z. Gallun since late 2013, and looking at the archives I see ten blog posts with the tag "Gallun" that cover 14 (or 15, I guess*) stories:

*Yes, without realizing it I read two slightly different versions of "Dav(e)y Jones' Ambassador," in 2013 the original 1935 magazine version and in 2022 a 1999 anthology version, a testimony to my poor memory.

I liked almost all of these stories, and Andre Norton chose to include "Trail Blazer" in her anthology Space Pioneers, so we have every reason to expect I will like "Trail Blazer."

"Trail Blazer" is a good adventure story, and also provides grist for the mills of all you people out there interested in identity politics, decolonization, subaltern studies, and all that, because at the center of the story Gallun places a sympathetic Native American character.  Joe Whiteskunk is more or less the hero of the story, but his halting English and subordinate status may rankle the sensibilities of the more  advanced 21st-century readers, and I cannot deny that Joe is portrayed as a strange and inscrutable "other" who has access to knowledge and abilities out of reach of white people.

Our narrator is Dave the engineer, a recent college graduate; his twin brother Frank has also recently secured an engineering degree.  Their father has recently died, leaving the twins the family's southwestern ranch, from which they can see the rockets taking off that are carrying adventurous young men to the new lunar colony.  Frank and the narrator are eager to join the space colonization effort, but what to do about Joe Whiteskunk, the beloved farmhand who taught them how to shoot and to ride, but is sixty-five years old and maybe a little dimwitted, or at least perplexed by modern life?  Joe wants to come with the boys into space, but of course that is impossible--or is it?

Like something in a kid's adventure story, or on the news when the United States abandons its friends in Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban, Joe takes the dangerous expedient of stowing away in the unheated cargo hold of the rocket that carries Dave and Frank to the Moon.  Somehow the Indian survives this ordeal--it is implied that, as a primitive man in touch with the natural world, he has instinctual wisdom that saved him.  Anyway, Joe Whiteskunk, unlettered senior-citizen Indian, is on the moon among all the college grads, scientists and soldiers.  At first the brass wants to send him back home, but when they realize Joe is an expert tracker, they enlist him in the effort to investigate some mysterious marks on the lunar surface that Joe calls "devil tracks."  

Joe leads the brothers and a military officer around the lunar surface, following the tracks, and they discover physical evidence that thousands of years ago the Moon was a battleground fought over by Martians and the natives of the asteroid belt, then an intact planet.  Gallun presents this ancient war which lead to the destruction of the planet between Mars and Jupiter as a cautionary tale for readers living through tensions between the Western democracies and the communist tyrannies of the East.*  

Joe recovers all manner of technological and cultural treasures left on Luna by the Martians and Asteroidians, and then, on a solo mission, disappears.  Months later Dave and Frank are selected for the crew of a joint US-Soviet mission to Mars; there is an accident and it looks like they will die on Mars.  But then Joe Whiteskunk shows up to save them!  The cause of Joe's disappearance was his discovery, and then accidental activation, of a Martian spaceship!  The ship's automatic systems brought him from the Moon to the Red Planet where his fieldcraft, and use of ancient Martian technology, enabled him to survive, and proves to be the salvation of the twins and their comrades.

The story ends on a positive note as the West and the Reds work together to colonize Mars and Dave has hopes Earthmen will succeed in exploring the galaxy peacefully and avoiding the catastrophic fate of the warring Martians and Asteroidians.

Thumbs up! 

*Gallun never uses words like "communism" or "the Soviet Union" but makes it clear who he means.  

"The Reporter" by Chad Oliver

I've read quite a few stories by Oliver over this blog's life, and many times Oliver has made me groan with his denunciations of modern life and romanticizing of life as a stone age savage.  (Links to sample groans: "Rite of Passage;" "The Marginal Man.")  Well, Oliver is making me groan again, this time because "The Reporter" is a lame "meta," "recursive" joke story.  Thumbs down!

George Hartley is a journalist on Mars.  When Terrans first explored and colonized Mars, there were plenty of stories for Hartley to write about, but it turned out that the native Martian civilization was extinct and there is now no excitement, so Hartley hates his job, wishes he was on Venus where there are lots of monsters and intelligent natives to write about, and spends his time in a booze hall smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.

Another journalist, a photographer, introduces himself to Hartley and they drink and smoke together and moan about how hard it is to be a journalist.  Hartley tells a long story, paraphrasing another reporter's final dispatch before losing his job.  Oliver makes it explicit that the story this third journalist filed and which ruined his career is a parody of a traditional SF adventure story; Hartley suggests the disgraced reporter made up the story, basing it on old SF magazines.  The story was about how the reporter discovered that the Martians were not in fact extinct at all, but, because they are peaceful types unable to kill, were hiding from the human colonizers in an underground city; the reporter was shown around their subterranean metropolis and in his story wrote at length about their technology.

The obvious central joke of "The Reporter" is that the disgraced reporter's story was all true, and the man who introduced himself to Hartley as a photographer is in fact a Martian reporter who has come to the surface to collect material for an article of his own.  

A waste of time--at least Oliver's stories about how we would be happier with no books and no industry push some kind of controversial ethos that readers can engage with; this story is just a feeble in-joke for SF fans.  "The Reporter," understandably, has never been reprinted.    

"Displaced Person" by Mack Reynolds (1951)

Reynolds is a leftist among whose claims to fame are the facts that he based much of his science fiction on speculations about political economy and that he was very widely travelled and wrote travel articles for men's magazines.  To me, his writing generally seems pretty lame, but he was a success, often appearing in Astounding and even coming in first in some kind of survey of readers of Galaxy and If.  (Sample my attacks on Reynolds' work and my jocular commentary on his wild and crazy career at these links: Commune 2000 A.D., "Revolution," "Freedom," "Subversive," and "Pacifist," "Compounded Interest," "The Business, As Usual," "Your Soul Comes C.O.D.," and "Fad.")  Like Oliver's "The Reporter," it seems that "Displaced Person" has never escaped the confines of the Fall 1951 issue of Fantastic Story, so again we find ourselves at MPorcius Fiction Log sampling the deep cuts!

"Displaced Person" doesn't have anything to do with utopias or socialism or economic systems, so is perhaps a rarity in Reynolds' body of work.  Instead, it is a competent filler story with a predictable twist ending.

Four veterans of wartime service in the space navy, pilots, are sitting around drinking.  There are actually only a small number of pilots in the space navy, so it is noteworthy that three of the men have never met the fourth.  The fourth explains why, telling what amounts to a little bit of military fiction.  

Flying a one-man patrol ship, he detected and was pursued into deep space, far from Earth, by the enemy.  He used up all his conventional fuel and all his food in the long chase, so he was basically doomed when the enemy gave up the chase--he had no safe way of getting back to a Terran base before he starved.  The only thing he could do was push the ship's warp drive to forbidden limits, so that he would exceed the speed of light, an act that is practically suicidal.

As was foreshadowed in discussions of this warp drive and the speed of light earlier in the story, the final twist is that this pilot, by exceeding the speed of light, propelled himself into another space-time continuum, the universe of the three other pilots, which is quite similar to his home universe.

Acceptable filler; better than a lot of Reynolds' work!


Hamilton and Gallun deliver good stories that speculate about the nature of human history and are full of science; Oliver and Reynolds just try to produce entertaining stories, and Reynolds at least doesn't embarrass himself.  

I think this is our sixth blog post in a row to focus on SF short stories.  Our next blog post will mix things up a bit, as we read a novel which I suspect will lack such conventional SF elements as space travel, black magic, the living dead, aliens and speculations on what the future will be like.  Stay tuned!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Weird Tales, Feb '38: Lovecraft & Lumley, Kuttner, Ball, Moretti

Back in January of 2021 I set myself the sacred duty of reading and blogging about at least one story from each of the 115 or so issues of Weird Tales published in the 1930s.  Great strides have been made in this quest; in fact, I have covered at least one story from each issue published from January 1930 to January 1938!  And I can prove it at the links below!

1930  1931  1932  1933  1934  1935  1936  1937  JAN 1938

Today we wrangle some stories from the February 1938 issue, including works by the premier Weird Tales writer, New England's Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and one of our favorite scribblers, Henry Kuttner, the young man from California.  And in the spirit of exploration which I like to think characterizes this journey, we'll read two stories by individuals we've never read before, one by Clifford Ball and one by M. G. Moretti.  I chose these two stories because I liked their titles, a perfectly legitimate means of discriminating, I'm sure you will agree.

"The Diary of Alonzo Typer" by H. P. Lovecraft and William Lumley 

"The Diary of Alonzo Typer" appears under William Lumley's name in Weird Tales, but it is one of the many stories which H. P. Lovecraft revised for others.  In the introductory matter to my copy of Arkham House's The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions, scholar S. T. Joshi tells us he has seen Lumley's draft for this story as well as Lovecraft's revision, and HPL "preserved only the nucleus of the story...all the prose is his."  I am reading "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" in my hardcover edition of that collection, unlike the Kuttner, Ball and Moretti stories, which I am reading in the internet archive scan of the original 1938 magazine.

The title character of "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" is a specimen of the type of person we meet all the time here at MPorcius Fiction Log, the student of the occult who travels the world investigating weird phenomena.  Typer's diary takes up the lion's share of the story (like 16 pages in the edition I am reading), which the preceding frame (like three pages) tells us was discovered in the 1930s in a ruined 18th-century house near a mysterious circle of stones (a "cromlech" of "menhirs"); this long-abandoned house was home back in the 18th and 19th centuries to a family reputed to be deeply involved in witchcraft, the van der Heyls.

Typer's diary chronicles his 1908 exploration of the van der Heyl house, from which he finds that, once having entered, he cannot escape.  Lovecraft rehearses many of the themes and elements characteristic of his work, like degeneracy and miscegenation, the horror of learning one's own identity, and the reading of a pile of documents that reveal forbidden lore and esoteric history.  The portraits on the walls in the house indicate the van der Heyls had ophidian and swine-like features, suggesting they interbred with aliens, and the local villagers who supply Typer with food are described as "degraded idiots" of "singular hereditary strains."  In the house, Typer discovers such books as The Necronomicon as well as an elaborate drawing of a statue of Cthulhu or some similar monster, plus plenty of alien hieroglyphs.  Among other amazing tidbits, Typer learns about how millions of years ago the Earth was colonized by spacefaring Venusians.

What stands out to me as distinctive about "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" is how Typer sees many ghosts of long dead van der Heyls as well as visions or hallucinations of clawed alien monsters--I feel like this is a device Lovecraft doesn't regularly employ.    

Finally, on Walpurgis night, Typer, having put together all the many clues in the house and prepared his protective spells, unlocks the vault in the cellar behind which he has been hearing the slitherings of a titanic monster.  He also realizes that he is himself a van der Heyl, and has been fated to open the vault whether he wants to or not.

"The Diary of Alonzo Typer" is a decent slice of Yog-Sothery, though not as good as, say, "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which deals with much the same themes and elements.  Besides a multitude of Lovecraft collections, the story has been anthologized by Peter Haining, Robert M. Price and Franklyn Searight. 

Way back in 2014 I read a sequel to "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" penned by Brian Lumley, and I didn't like it; at the link I say it had a good plot but was full of extraneous material.

"World's End" by Henry Kuttner

"World's End" is a time travel story that doesn't really hold together--in particular, the plot resolution didn't satisfy this reader.

Young Blake and his senior citizen colleague Norwood have spent seven years building a time machine, and today Blake is strapping on his vacuum suit and gathering together his books, binoculars, rifles and other essential equipment for his maiden voyage to the future!  He throws the bakelite switch and finds himself in the first of a series of bizarre locations tens of thousands of years in the future.  One such setting is a snowy plain from which he sees on the horizon a vast black form, like a wall or glacier or something, rushing towards him.

Blake is then transported to the lab of a man of the future, a dwarf with a huge head!  Future brainiac explains that centuries ago a meteor landed on Earth from which sprang an alien life form, a sort of black void, that has slowly been devouring the Earth.  By the time the people of Earth had developed a disintegrator ray effective against the monster it had reduced most of the Earth to an uninhabitable waste, and today there are only a few hundred human beings left alive.  With their disintegrator ray artillery they can hold off the black void, but the survivors are running out of fuel to power the ray projectors and so will soon succumb to extinction.

The big-brained dwarf is excited to learn of Blake's time machine; his people have teleporters (that is how he brought Blake here to the last little bit of inhabitable Earth) but have never developed time travel.  Future man says that if Blake can carry him and a pistol-sized disintegrator ray projector back in time to the moment the meteor carrying the black void first arrived on Earth, he can neutralize the menace and save the human race!

Future man boards the time machine and he and Blake try to go back in time, and we get our disappointing twist ending.  Blake reappears in his 20th-century lab, having totally forgotten his future adventures.  Norwood doesn't even realize Blake ever left--Blake reappeared the same moment he departed, as if throwing the bakelite lever did nothing.  It seems that the universe forbids that you travel backwards in time to a moment before your birth, and also prohibits retention of memories of events yet to happen, so Blake's trip has been fruitless--he has no recall of anything that occurred in the future, and we readers must assume the future man's effort to save the world of the far future was a failure.

I don't like the way time travel works in the story, but putting that aside, "World's End" suffers a bigger, literary, failing.  The fact that the scientists' seven years of work on the machine, and Blake's and the dwarf's adventures, yield absolutely zero result is pretty annoying--it makes reading the story feel like a waste of time.  We expect something to happen in a story, that the characters or their environment will change, and when that doesn't happen, it is frustrating.  I suppose that some will appreciate how Kuttner "subverts reader expectations" of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style ending in which the hero who visits an alien milieu proves to be the savior of the sympathetic natives and the undoing of their enemies, but I have to say I found this subversion more irritating than refreshing.  

I'm going to grade "World's End" barely acceptable; I like the menace in the story, the future brainiac and the vacuum suit, and can forgive the problems with the time travel; my real gripe is with the resolution (or, perhaps I should say, lack thereof.)

"World's End" would not be reprinted until our 21st century, when the good people at both Haffner Press and Centipede Press put out huge Henry Kuttner collections within a year of each other.

"The Goddess Awakes" by Clifford Ball  

"The Goddess Awakes" is a sort of long (26 pages here in WT) and pedestrian Conan-style story.  Two thieves who have taken up careers as mercenary soldiers flee the battlefield upon which the army of which they were members has been routed and climb a mountain only to be captured by the women soldiers of a remote kingdom whose citizens are all women.  These women have a queen but she is dominated by a centuries-old wizard and his giant black panther; this creep has decreed, for generations, that the nation's men toil out of view, slaves whose minds are dulled to insensibility by drugs.  Our heroes get thrown unarmed into the arena with the panther, but the queen and one of the soldiers have fallen in love with them and toss them the weapons they need to defeat the Brobdingnagian feline.  Then the queen kills the wizard, the kingdom's men are freed and our heroes are acclaimed the new leaders of the country.    

Ball's basic plot outline (two hunks arrive in a nation of women under the thumb of an evil wizard and his monster and trigger a reassertion of the women's natural heterosexuality and the overthrow of the wiz and monster) is good but his execution is poor.  The text of a good Conan story focuses on heroic feats, creepy magic and scary monsters, building up a weird and/or horrible atmosphere and advancing a plot in which there are high stakes.  Unfortunately, Ball here in "The Goddess Awakes" expends a lot of ink on mildly humorous dialogue between the two main characters, so his story feels more like a light-hearted buddy movie than a tale of uncanny horror or thrilling sword-and-sorcery; his bargain-basement efforts to produce witty banter are distracting and undermine any possibility of fear or excitement.

(It is hard to successfully integrate sword-and-sorcery thrills and humor in an adventure story; the biggest success I can think of is Jack Vance's two Cugel books.)   

We are generously grading "The Goddess Awakes" barely tolerable.

"The Goddess Awakes" would see print again in 1976 in Lin Carter's anthology Realms of Wizardry (in his intro to the tale, Carter calls "The Goddess Awakes" "superbly rousing;" I beg to differ.)  The Weird Tales devotees at DMR books in 2018 published a volume containing all of Ball's stories under the title The Thief of Forthe.

"The Strangling Hands" by M. G. Moretti

Moretti only has one story listed at isfdb, and this story has never been reprinted--we are really peering into the dim corners today at MPorcius Fiction Log.

In our last episode we read a story by David H. Keller in which black Africans unleash a supernatural vengeance on a white man who mistreated them, and "The Strangling Hands," which is adorned with a good drawing of a witch doctor by fan favorite Virgil Finlay, has a similar theme.  

Our narrator is a professional writer who got scooped by an amateur writer!  You see, our guy was one of five men on a dangerous expedition in Africa, and everybody sorta kinda agreed he would chronicle the adventure and publish a book on it.  But narrator's best friend, also on the trip, published his own account as soon as they got back to New York, rendering narrator's book unsalable!  Hilarious!

The narrator hasn't spoken to his frenemy since, and some years have gone by, but out of the blue he hears from the guy, and grudgingly goes to see him.  It turns out that the other three men who accompanied them on the African expedition have died under mysterious circumstances.  One of the capers the five adventurers indulged in while on the Dark Continent was stealing the eye from a statue in a temple of Death, an institution whose regularly scheduled festivities include human sacrifice by strangulation.  The three men who have all turned up dead these last few months all had this eye in their possession (each having inherited it from the previous victim.)  Now the amateur writer has custody of the eye, and he tells our narrator that every night he sees the horrifying image of black hands creeping closer and closer to his white throat!  Obviously the priest of Death is performing decolonization activities via long distance magic!  The narrator of course thinks the deaths are just a coincidence and his backstabbing buddy is just lying, or maybe the target of an elaborate prank.

Still, he is persuaded to spend the night with his friend, a night of terror in which he learns the astonishing truth!

This is a good black magic story.  I groused that Clifford Ball rendered "The Goddess Awakes" a drag with his emphasis on totally lame jocular dialogue between his two main characters, but M. G. Moretti here does caustic dialogue between two buddies right--via their speech Moretti develops an interesting relationship between the two men, and the stuff they say, instead of seeming incongruous and distracting from the horror/adventure aspects of the story, actually helps build an atmosphere of tension and uncanny wonder.  

Thumbs up!  It is too bad there is only one Moretti story out there!  

"From Beyond" by H. P. Lovecraft (1934)

This February 1938 issue of Weird Tales reprints "From Beyond," one of H. P. Lovecraft's Dream Cycle stories, a piece which made its debut in 1934 in the fanzine The Fantasy Fan.  I am reading it in my copy of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.

Short and to the point, this is an effective story.  Lovecraft adds interest to the tale by doing more than he usually does to develop his character's personalities and human relationships.

Our narrator has a fat and emotional friend who is conducting some crazy research leveraging his knowledge of both electronics and metaphysics.  The narrator warned him that this might be dangerous, and the researcher, a real sensitive sort, threw a fit and broke off their friendship.

Over two months later, fatso summons the narrator to his lab in his big attic.  Shockingly, this dude is now skinny and haggard, his hands trembling, his formerly clean shaven face covered in whiskers.  Even more shockingly, the mad scientist has plotted an elaborate revenge on the narrator, whom he says "discouraged me when I needed every drop of encouragement I could get...."  The complicated electrical machine he has finally completed generates radiation which revivifies vestigial and atrophied senses that we humans don't even realize we have; under the influence of the machine, people can "see" into and "listen" in on parallel worlds that coexist with our own--when the vengeful inventor turns the machine on, the narrator can sense all kinds of extradimensional monsters floating through the attic walls and even his own body.

The horrifying twist is that the radiation from the machine also enables some of the alien monsters to sense and interact with our own world!  In fact, the researcher's own servants have all vanished without trace, carried off or devoured by alien entities!  And the mad scientist gloats that the narrator is next!  Can the narrator escape?

Thumbs up!  Lovecraft can be long-winded and repetitive, and his stories often lack human feeling, so it is fun to see him producing in "From Beyond" a brisk and economical tale with a human relationship and an exciting personality at its center.  

Like most of Lovecraft's work, "From Beyond" has been reprinted a billion times, including in anthologies like Jack C. Wolf and Barbara H. Wolf's Ghosts, Castles and Victims: Tales of Gothic Horror and Xavier Aldana Reyes' Promethean Horrors: Classic Tales of Mad Science.


A mixed bag, but the Lovecraft stories go to show that the man from Providence deserves his high reputation, and I really liked one-hit-wonder M. G. Moretti's "The Strangling Hands."  So, a satisfying step in our long march through the pages of the unique magazine.  We may return to this issue one day, as it contains (under a pen name) part of a werewolf serial by Manly Wade Wellman that has been reprinted multiple times and so perhaps is worth checking out.  Time will tell.     

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Weird Tales, Jan '38: Quick, Hamilton and Keller

In our last episode, we read a story from the 1937 December issue of Weird Tales by a woman we'd never read before, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, and it was pretty good.  So let's read another story by a female weirdie with whom we are unfamiliar, Dorothy Quick's "The Witch's Mark" from the 1938 January issue.  This January issue is something all you Virgil Finlay fans should definitely check out, as it features a hearty helping of handsome men, curvaceous ladies, and ferocious quadrupeds rendered in Finlay's classic style.  This issue also offers stories by Edmond Hamilton and David H. Keller which we'll read today as part of our tireless exploration of the magazine of the bizarre and unusual.

"The Witch's Mark" by Dorothy Quick

"The Witch's Mark" is the story of a love triangle.  We've got Shamus O'Brien, who has a nice Manhattan apartment and a healthy inheritance.  And we've got slender Trudy Rose of the piquant rounded face.  Shamus was planning to propose to Trudy at a house party up at the Rose family's Connecticut estate, but among the guests is Cecily Maltby, she of the red-gold hair, pale white skin and disturbingly red lips, and Cecily's melodious voice and beguiling perfume threaten to blast all thought of marrying Trudy right out of Shamus' mind!

Most of the text of "The Witch's Mark" follows Cecily's efforts to seduce Shamus, and he spends a lot of time in her arms, resisting her requests that he kiss her.  Cecily relates a story from ancient Ireland, the tale of a princess and a "farmer's lad" who fell in love; Cecily implies that Shamus is the reincarnation of that farm boy, and she is the princess, cursed by the Little People to search the Earth for Shamus for many centuries.  Suspecting Cecily is really a witch or vampire from Eastern Europe, Shamus wracks his big Irish noggin, struggling to access the ancestral memories that will tell him if Cecily's tale is the real deal or just a load of malarkey.  In the end, it is Trudy's love that saves Shamus from Cecily; we also learn everyone's true identity and the truth of the story of the princess, the farmer's lad, and the witch.

Acceptable.  It looks like "The Witch's Mark" has never been reprinted.  

"The House of Living Music" by Edmond Hamilton 

Hamilton is known for reusing plots, producing a somewhat repetitive series of stories about space battles early in his career and later many tales following a sort of Edgar Rice Burroughs template.  Hamilton also published many mad scientist stories, and "The House of Living Music" is in that vein.  It has a good gimmick, though, and feels fresh and I quite like it.

The narrator is a New York music critic.  He makes friends with a leading modern composer who is always experimenting, always striving to produce new music that describes real life, that captures the essence of reality and the world.  This genius, Harriman, has a sweet and beautiful daughter, Lina, and the narrator falls in love with her, and thinks she might return his feelings.  

As a youth, Harriman was a student of physics, and a promising one, and he starts haunting the university again, spending time in the physics lab.  Then he and Lina vanish.  The narrator's efforts to find them are fruitless, but a year later he receives a message from the radical composer, a summons to a remote house in rural Massachusetts.

Up in Mass, the narrator is introduced to Harriman's triumph--the composer has constructed a huge apparatus into which he can place an object, where powerful energies dissolve the object and transmute it into wonderful evocative music, music of clarity and beauty no man has ever before heard!  Harriman has recorded music that reflects the characteristic beauty of many flowers, trees, and small animals, works of unparalleled beauty and power!  This is the greatest artistic achievement of all time!  Hey, wait, where is Lina?

Hamilton ends the story effectively with a ferocious fight between two men driven to insanity, and a sad denouement as the narrator cherishes all that remains of Harriman's work of mad genius and of the beautiful Lina.

Thumbs up!  I like it, but it seems "The House of Living Music" has only ever been reprinted in Italian in a theme anthology of weird stories about music.  Thank Yog-Sothoth the internet archive is here to make this story accessible to us Hamilton fans for whom English is a first and only language.         

"Valley of Bones" by David H. Keller

This is a trifling little story, but not bad.

The narrator, a sensitive American who believes that animals have souls and deserve rights, is travelling in southern Africa.  He meets a Zulu who recognizes him--when both were students at Oxford, the narrator, of all the white men at Oxford, treated the black man most kindly.  Strangely, though they met decades ago and the narrator is in his late 50s, the Zulu appears quite young.

The Zulu tells the narrator the story of his youth.  He was a prince of a small remote tribe wealthy in gold.  A white hunter murdered the entire tribe to acquire their gold--the narrator's Oxford colleague was the sole survivor.

Today the white hunter has returned to the location of his genocidal crime to look for more treasure, he having spent all he stole so many years ago.  As the narrator and his Zulu friend watch, the bones of the tribe come to life to kill the hunter.

We have to wonder why two observers of the drama occupy almost all of the text of the story, why Keller developed their relationship and personalities instead of making the evil hunter the main character and developing his personality and depicting his horror.  Maybe Keller wanted a white character to serve as a foil for the hunter, as an example of a good white person who gets along with black people?

Acceptable.  "Valley of Bones" has reappeared in two small press Keller collections, 1978's pamphlet The Last Magician and 2010's Keller Memento from Ramble House.


These three stories are not as good as the last batch we read, but they are entertaining.  We've got another slate of 1930s stories from Weird Tales coming up in our next blog post, so cross your fingers in hopes they will be the best yet!     

Weird Tales Project: 1937

Exciting news from MPorcius Fiction Log's rural hideout!  We have now blogged about at least one story from all twelve issues of Weird Tales that bear a 1937 date!  Find below a list of all these stories, and convenient links to my typo-ridden and ideologically suspect examinations of each!  

If, in the future, another story from a 1937 issue of WT should come under our pitiless microscope, I will add it with a parenthetical note.

Lastly, before the actual list, here are links to blog posts much like this one, that commemorate our glorious mission to digest stories from every issue of Weird Tales printed in the years 1930 to 1939.

1930  1931 1932 1933  1934  1935  1936  ----  1938  1939  


H. P. Lovecraft:                                   "The Thing on the Doorstep"
Thorp McClusky:                                "The Woman in Room 607"
Duane W. Rimel and H. P. Lovecraft: "The Disinterment"
Henry Kuttner:                                    "The Eater of Souls"


Robert E. Howard:        "Dig Me No Grave"
Henry Kuttner:              "I, The Vampire"


Manly Wade Wellman: "The Werewolf Snarls"
Edmond Hamilton:       "The Seeds From Outside"
Robert Bloch:                "The Brood of Bubastis"    


Edmond Hamilton:                "Fessenden's Worlds"
Henry Kuttner:                      "We Are The Dead"
Robert Bloch:                        "The Mannikin"
Robert Bloch:                        "Fangs of Vengeance"
Thorp McClusky:                  "Black Gold" (added 6/12/2024)


Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft: "The Horror in the Burying-Ground"
Jack Wiliamson:                        "The Mark of the Monster"
Henry Kuttner:                          "The Salem Horror"
August Derleth:                         "The Wind from the River"


Henry Kuttner & Robert Bloch: "The Black Kiss"
Frank Belknap Long:                  "The Ocean Leech"


Robert Bloch:   "The Creeper in the Crypt"


Henry Kuttner:              "The Jest of Droom-Avista"
Edmond Hamilton:        "World of the Dark Dwellers"
Manly Wade Wellman:  "The Terrible Parchment"
H. P. Lovecraft:             "The Statement of Randolph Carter"


Manly Wade Wellman:  "School for the Unspeakable" 
Clark Ashton Smith:      "The Death of Ilalotha"
August Derleth:              "McGovern's Obsession"
Edmond Hamilton:        "The Lake of Life"


David H. Keller:             "Tiger Cat"
H. P. Lovecraft:               "The Shunned House"
Manly Wade Wellman:    "Golgotha Dancers"
Howard Wandrei:            "Here Lies"


Robert Bloch:                               "The Secret of Sebek"
C. L. Moore & Henry Kuttner:     "Quest of the Starstone"
Henry Kuttner:                             "The Case of Herbert Thorp"
H. P. Lovecraft:                            "Hypnos"


Robert Bloch:                                "Fane of the Black Pharaoh"
Mary Elizabeth Counselman:        "The Black Stone Statue"
Edmond Hamilton:                        "Child of Atlantis"
Donald Wandrei:                            "Uneasy Lie the Drowned"   

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Weird Tales, Dec' '37: Counselman, Hamilton, and D Wandrei

Let's check out the December 1937 issue of beloved and influential speculative fiction magazine Weird Tales.  We've already read the story by Robert Bloch in this number of the magazine of the bizarre and unusual, "Fane of the Black Pharoah," but there are still stories by our pal Edmond Hamilton and cofounder of Arkham House Donald Wandrei to read.  Two stories seems a little light for a blog post, so let's read a story by an author new to us, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, a woman whose work was well-received by Weird Tales readers--her story "Three Marked Pennies" was the reader favorite from the August 1934 issue.  I do this with some trepidation because the wikipedia page on Counselman suggests her horror stories were meant to be funny instead of actually scary, but we'll give her a chance anyway.

"The Black Stone Statue" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman 

This is one of those stories in which the meat of the tale lies beneath layers of frame story.  The text of "The Black Stone Statue" comes to us in the form of a letter from an artist to the staff of a Boston art museum.  If you have ever met any artists, you will not be surprised to hear that the letter starts off with a lot of histrionic blather about being unappreciated, living in poverty, and contemplating suicide.  This guy even has what the kids call "imposter syndrome!"  Then the artist, a sculptor, tells the story of how he met an explorer in a New York flop house; the explorer then takes over the role of narrator.  

In a Brazilian jungle the explorer discovered an alien monster, a blob like a foot across, the touch of which turns anything to black stone.  Counselman describes the explorer's adventures in the jungle and return to America with the monster, and then the sculptor takes back the narrative, and we learn the crimes he has committed in pursuit of fame, the guilt he suffers, and his plans to destroy himself.

"The Black Stone Statue" is well-written and I like the plot, and if it is meant to be funny, the humor is subtle enough to not ruin the horror/adventure aspects of the tale.  Thumbs up!  Counselman has dozens of stories listed at isfdb; maybe I should read more of her work.

Donald Wollheim in 1952 reprinted "The Black Stone Statue" in his Avon Science Fiction Reader, and in 1964 it was included in the Counselman collection Half in Shadow.  In our own 21st century "The Black Stone Statue" has been included in anthologies of weird stories by women.

"Child of Atlantis" by Edmond Hamilton 

David and Christa Russell are newlyweds, on their honeymoon voyage aboard their yacht out of Bermuda.  As if by magic, the treacherous rocky coast of a forested island suddenly appears before them and they are shipwrecked!  The lovebirds are separated, and David meets a bunch of men who tell him that the island is rendered invisible by the immortal "Master" who inhabits the clifftop castle in the center of the island, and they and several score other castaways eke out a parlous existence in a makeshift village.  Periodically, the Master's hypnotic power draws a man into the castle, never to be seen again.  Also, any woman cast ashore on the cursed island becomes the property of the man strong enough to keep her!

David has to fight the "simian Irishman" Red O'Reilly, a gun runner, for Christa; beating O'Reilly earns David the redhead's respect.  David rallies the castaways and leads abortive efforts to escape the island and then to assault the castle, and he and Christa end up in the Master's throne room, where we learn what we already knew from the story's title and illustration--the Master is a robot built by the people of lost Atlantis thousands of years ago.  This renegade AI destroyed the civilization of its creators, but is no match for David--as the arrogant droid expires it sets in motion the sinking of its island, and David, Christa and a few castaways barely escape.

An entertaining little caper.  According to isfdb, "Child of Atlantis" would have to wait until 2021 to see print again, when the people at DMR books put out their Hamilton collection, The Avenger from Atlantis.

"Uneasy Lie the Drowned" by Donald Wandrei

This tale has reappeared in 1965 and 1997 Wandrei collections, as well as the 1997 anthology 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares.

"Uneasy Lie the Drowned" is a short piece, just four pages, consisting of well-rendered descriptions of the weather, the water, and an animated corpse that rises from a lake to attack a man in a canoe.  Morse was fated to fight to the death with LeRoy, but LeRoy died in an accident, drowning in a lake, before they even met.  But when Morse, alone in a canoe, paddles over LeRoy's final resting place, destiny asserts itself and as a storm breaks over the Minnesota lake, LeRoy and Morse have their fated deadly meeting.  

A good little horror story; I like it.  


Three fun stories full of uncanny beings, violence, and death, each worth the time of the horror fan.

Stay tuned for more Weird Tales here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and, until then, keep away from the water!