Sunday, March 31, 2024

Leigh Brackett: "The Tapestry Gate," "Design for Dying" and "So Pale, So Cold, So Fair"

It's been a while since we've read anything by Leigh Brackett, who, besides writing all those science fiction adventure stories we've read, worked on screenplays for films directed by people like Howard Hawks and Robert Altman and starring people like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne and penned well-respected detective fiction--Bill Pronzini, in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, says Brackett has the "most impressive body of work" of a woman in "hard-boiled and noir fiction," compares her stories to those of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Paul Cain, and judges that Brackett's "achievements rank her as one of the top hard-boiled fiction writers of all time...."

Let's read two crime tales by Brackett, including one selected by Pronzini for Hard-Boiled, and round this blog post out to three pieces with a story of weird horror story by Brackett. 

"The Tapestry Gate" (1940)

This looks like one of Brackett's earliest published works.  "The Tapestry Gate" debuted in an issue of Strange Stories, where it appeared alongside stories by Henry Kuttner and August Derleth that we are quite likely to read some day and was illustrated by Hannes Bok. 

Brackett has a reputation as a book-loving tomboy, and this story starts off by introducing us to a woman who wears too much make up and a hat Brackett calls "a monstrosity" who is badgering her husband and issuing complaints like "You always have your nose poked into some silly book...."  The unhappy couple is at an auction, and while Mr. Stratton just wants to keep up the "sporting print" that hangs in his den, Mrs. Stratton, who redecorates the house multiple times a year to follow trends, insists they bid on a "patternless" tapestry she declares "as modern as Dali" she wants to hang in the print's place.  They win the auction, and carry the tapestry to the car.  On the sidewalk a "Negro bootblack" sees the tapestry and cries out "De Good Lawd have mussy!"  He tells the rich couple that the tapestry reminds him of something he saw in a Louisiana conjure woman's swamp hut and warns then it is a work of black magic the purpose of which is to steal people's souls!  

Even after the Strattons realize the tapestry is made of real human hair, Mrs. Stratton goes ahead with her plan to hang in her husband's den.  The "Negro" told them that the thing was activated by "hate," and, sure enough, when Mr. Stratton's hate for his wife, who runs his life for him, fills his house with decor he detests, and wastes all his money, boils over he begins to dream of the tapestry sucking out the missus's soul, and even see images of satanic rituals in the tapestry's apparently random patterns. 

"I wish it were true!" he whispered savagely.  "I wish the damned thing were a trap.  I wish Jane were dead and in hell!"

Can Startton take advantage of the tapestry's eldritch powers to liberate himself from the old ball and chain, or will he be hoist by his own petard?

This is a pretty good black magic story wedded to a tale of a disastrous marriage.  Two great tastes that taste great together!  "The Tapestry Gate" would be selected by Robert Weinberg, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz and Martin H. Greenberg for their 1996 anthology 100 Tiny Tales of Terror and you can also find it in 2002's Martian Quest: The Early Brackett.

"Design for Dying" (1944)

I'm reading this caper in a scan of a 1951 issue of New Detective, which presents itself as "The NEWest in Crime Fiction."  Despite this braggadocio, "Design for Dying" premiered in 1944 in Flynn's Detective Fiction, appearing in the US edition in June and the Canadian edition in August.

One of the things that is memorable about Brackett's work is the sexualized violence (see "Murder in the Family," "Enchantress of Venus" and "The Citadel of Lost Ages") and Brackett starts "Design for Dying" off with a scene in which a man puts his hands around his wife's neck, as if to strangle her, but they end up kissing for the first time in 14 years.

You see, the male component of this tumultuous relationship, our narrator Chris, is, or was, a prominent member of the New York mob world, and he recently escaped prison and has finally caught up with his wife, Jo, who has been living on the West Coast with her brother Sligh.  ("Sligh?"  Here's a name I haven't heard before.)  Jo and Sligh were accomplices to Chris's crimes, but The Man was never able to pin anything on them.  Chris suspects the brother and sister team set him up, and after fourteen years in stir has come west to exact revenge on them, but his murderous plans are quickly shelved when Jo convinces Chris she had nothing to do with his arrest and conviction and when news arrives that Sligh has been killed in a car accident--or was he rubbed out by the Molino gang?

George Molino is a West Coast mob boss who is getting on in years and wants Chris, a man renowned for his criminal brain, to run his operations for him.  Molino's people, it appears, took care of Sligh and made it look like an accident so Chris wouldn't draw attention to himself by killing Sligh on his own.  Chris takes up Molino on his offer and Molino's organization employs elaborate measures, including plastic surgery, to make sure Chris and Jo are not recognized and Chris can safely begin his new career managing Molino's organization.

The second part of "Design for Dying" covers the struggle for power within the organization between new boy Chris and members of Molino's staff who had been hoping Molino was going to promote from within.  There are fights, people get tied up, people get shot, people who have been shot stagger around bleeding and using their last breathes to cryptically divulging valuable information.  These men aren't just fighting over power, they are fighting over Jo, and you can believe that Jo is struck, is kissed against her will, and has her clothes torn so her skin--"white as new milk"--is exposed.  While enduring this harsh treatment Jo is pursuing her own goal, striving to convince Chris she isn't conspiring against him with any of these other hoods.  One of Brackett's themes in this story is how people change--Chris's appearance has been changed physically, and he has a different name, different clothes and even a different gait, but when Jo sadly laments that "You're not Chris're somebody I don't know, and I'm afraid of you," she is referring to deeper changes still.

The third part of the story reveals the secret Chris and we readers have been suspecting, that Sligh is still alive and he is the real power behind the George Molino mob.  Sligh wants Chris to be his partner in an ambitious criminal project with the potential to reap tremendous rewards, but Chris is still bitter over Sligh's setting him up 14 years ago.  Who will get shot in the final struggle, and who will survive?  Is Jo in cahoots with Sligh or did she really think he had died in a car crash?  Is there any chance that Chris and Jo can make a change for the better, get out of the crime game and live an ordinary straight life together?

"Design for Dying" is an acceptable little bit of violent entertainment in which men and women get the crap beat out of them but which also leaves open the possibility of redemption, cherishing the hope that people who have done terrible things can make good and earn forgiveness. 

"So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" (1957)

"So Pale, So Cold, So Fair" appeared in a 1957 issue of Argosy, a magazine that endured from 1882 to 1978.  This is the Brackett story Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian reprinted in their 1995 anthology Hard-Boiled; three years later Rosemary Herbert included it in her 1998 anthology Twelve American Crime Stories

Greg Carver, our narrator, is a journalist in an Ohio town not far from the Pennsylvania border.  Greg has made enemies in the local government and the organized crime syndicate that has that government in its pocket by reporting on their shenanigans.  Greg's face still bears the scars from a beating he received that put him in the hospital for weeks, and he bears further scars on his soul--some eight years ago he was dating a beautiful woman, Marjorie, hoping to marry her, but she decided to marry Brian Ingraham--the top lawyer for the syndicate!  

As the story begins, Greg is on a vacation with a bunch of friends, out by a lake where they fish and play cards.  Greg returns to his cabin to hit the hay and finds Marjorie's dead body laid out on doorstep to his cabin!  One of his friends is a doctor and suggests she died in the last three or four hours of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The cops judge Marjorie's death a suicide, and don't seem too interested in figuring out who transported the beautiful corpse twenty miles to deliver it to Greg's vacation spot.  Both Greg and Brian the widower seem inclined to put the whole nightmare out of their minds, but then an attractive girl comes to visit the drunk and grieving Greg and gets the plot rolling.  Sheila Harding says she was a close friend of Marjorie's and she is pretty sure Marjorie was murdered by the syndicate because Marjorie was investigating the murder of Sheila's brother Bill!  Bill was a junior executive at a factory and died in an "accident" because he was going to expose the men behind the "numbers racket--the bug he called it--that was taking thousands of dollars out of the men's paychecks every month."  Sheila thinks the person who moved Marjorie's body to Greg's doorstep did so in hopes of inspiring Greg to restart his journalistic crusade against the criminals.

Greg starts investigating, you know, going hither and yon, talking to people and looking for clues, and the criminals who run the town beat him up, repeatedly, and then finally hold him captive.  Greg takes advantage of the internecine conflict within the gang (it was one of the organization's top guys who brought the body of Marjorie to Greg, hoping Greg would bring down the big crime boss) and there are scenes of guys shooting each other and wrestling on the floor, grappling for possession of a pistol; in the end, Greg has liberated the town from the gangsters and avenged Marjorie.


The two detective stories are competent and entertaining, but I have to admit that I prefer Brackett's horror tale, "The Tapestry Gate."  Maybe this is because I am just addicted to speculative--science fiction or supernatural--elements and so stories that lack futuristic or weird elements feel empty to me, but I also think the disastrous relationship between the Strattons--the wife's domineering, the husband's desperation and murderous rage--make them more interesting, or at least more relatable, characters than the hoods in the crime stories.  

(I feel like there are plenty of people who are more interested in the covers of SF books and magazines than in the contents, find all the paintings of monsters and sexy girls and musclemen and space craft and surreal imagery compelling or fun, but are totally uninterested in the actual stories.  I kind of feel that way about crime fiction--often the covers of detective magazines and paperbacks are terrific, the paintings of guys like Norman Saunders and Robert McGinnis or just the abstracted representations of skulls, daggers, and twisted dead bodies, but the actual stories are often just an account of some guy doing research, figuring out a puzzle, and occasionally getting beaten up.) 

Our previous blog post was about a Henry Kuttner detective novel, The Murder of Eleanor Pope, and with today's two Brackett crime stories I think that's enough "realistic" mystery fiction for a while; we'll be back to our regular stomping grounds of science fiction and sword and sorcery during the next few posts.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Murder of Eleanor Pope by Henry Kuttner

"I'm no detective.  I'm a psychoanalyst.  But this whole case depends on psychological patterns.  If they can be figured out we may know the right answer."  
In the last thrilling episode of MPorcius Fiction Log, I read a sword and sorcery novella by Henry Kuttner and pointed out a lot of things about it that I didn't like.  After like 20 posts in a row about SF from magazines, I'm going to mix things up today and read a detective novel by Kuttner and point out a lot of things about it that I don't like.

The Murder of Eleanor Pope was published in 1956, and is the first of four detective novels starring San Francisco habitue Michael Gray.  You can get a copy for like 15 bucks online, or if you are a cheapo like me you can read an electronic copy via the hoopla system available through many public libraries.  I am still signed up to hoopla through a library I patronized in Columbus, Ohio some years ago.    

I've told you a hundred times that Kuttner was very interested in psychology, so you won't be too surprised to learn that Michael Gray is a psychoanalyst and this novel is practically a pro-psychoanalysis propaganda piece.  Kuttner in this novel teaches us all about the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, presenting this material as if it is all undisputed fact.  Sentences like "only in the psychoanalyst's office could Dunne find strength enough to find and understand his own deepest terrors" and descriptions of the selflessness and generosity of psychoanalysts promote the message that psychoanalysis is not only awesome but essential to our society.  Allied to this is the idea, presented directly and indirectly, that we shouldn't be so quick to punish criminals--the people we consider criminals are just ill, and psychoanalysts can cure them, and throwing them in the clink so they can't get their mitts on decent people and decent people's property will just make them worse.  Alas, despite how self-evidently wonderful psychoanalysis is, "there still weren't enough therapists to go around."  Did Kuttner hope to inspire readers to study psychoanalysis?  (One of the odd little wrinkles of The Murder of Eleanor Pope is that Gray is not a doctor, but a "lay analyst."  Wikipedia is telling me Freud wrote a whole book defending the idea of people practicing psychoanalysis without any kind of medical degree.)      

It is normal for fiction to advance some agenda, or to depict characters who are spokesmen for some philosophy or theory, but satisfying arguments require evidence, and compelling fiction requires conflict, and instead of coming up with evidence for the value of psychoanalysis, or examining psychoanalysis from various angles by having different characters offer conflicting opinions, Kuttner just takes it for granted that psychoanalysis works and its foundational concepts are the truth and  presents the topic to the reader in a simplistic, credulous way that is sort of annoying; at times reading The Murder of Eleanor Pope feels like reading a textbook for children or a pamphlet given out by a therapist to a new patient.  Now, maybe I should cut Kuttner some slack, because by 2024 we've all experienced a mountain of genre fiction and popular nonfiction that exploits or explains psychological concepts, and perhaps in 1956 ordinary people who read paperback detective novels with a pretty girl's face on the cover hadn't been exposed to much of this stuff yet. 

The Murder of Eleanor Pope consists of 28 short chapters.  The first depicts the title character getting murdered on a foggy street near a park by an unidentified assailant.  Then we meet Michael Gray, self-sacrificing shrink, and his latest patient, Howard Dunne, and over the course of like a dozen chapters follow the progress of Dunne's treatment.  We get all the scenes we expect--Gray asking about Dunne's feelings, lots of talk about Dunne's dreams, Dunne having a tearful breakthrough after digging up the suppressed memory of the thing he did in the past he feels guilty over, repeated assertions that psychotherapy is just like real medicine like setting a broken bone or sterilizing a wound.

Dunne is a womanizing advertising guy, an Army Air Force veteran of World War II.  He's a passionate man who needs to "blow off steam" regularly, a man for whom one woman isn't enough.  In the service Dunne met a dude older than himself, Sam Pope, and they became fast friends.  Dunne doesn't have much family, and his mother died while he was off fighting the Hun, so Dunne moved to Pope's home town of San Fransicko when he got out of the Air Force; Pope owns a chain of restaurants and became one of Dunne's biggest clients when he went into the advertising game.  Pope married some chick much younger than himself, Eleanor, and Eleanor made it her practice to cheat on Sam.  Dunne married Sam Pope's sister, Mary, who is Dunne's age.  Mary and Howard Dunne are also always cheating on each other, Mary currently with some slacker guy Arnold Farragut.  

All this soap opera jazz is connected to the crime at the center of the story, the murder of Eleanor Pope five months ago.  Gray has a buddy who is a cop, Captain Zucker, and in his role as psychoanalyst he summons to his office or visits the homes and offices of people like Mary Dunne, Sam Pope, Arnold Farragut, and Pope's business manager Maurice Hoyle to ask them to help him with Dunne's therapy--it takes a village to cure a neurotic, I guess.  Talking to all these people allows Gray to learn all sorts of details about the murder of Mrs. Pope and those suspected of bashing her cabeza in with that rock.

The police consider Farragut a suspect, as well as casino owner Carol Webster and the organized crime thug who hangs out at her casino all the time, either working for her or manipulating her, Bruce Oliver; Eleanor Pope was killed right after she left the casino, and Farragut, Webster and Oliver were all at the casino that night.  We readers of course consider Pope and Dunne suspects as well, and Dunne does feel guilty over Eleanor Pope's death--he was supposed to take her out that fateful night (he was banging her, of course) but he had had to work, so she went to the casino alone and was walking the mean streets of SF all by herself after she left.

It is with some relief that halfway through the novel we find Captain Zucker calling Gray up to tell the shrink that Dunne is dead.  No more chapters detailing Dunne's therapy!  Dunne died of cyanide poisoning, and the question is who put the poison in his drink--did he commit suicide, or was he murdered?  Maybe Sam Pope is the killer?  But three days later Pope dies of cyanide poisoning himself, and the cops begin to think the killer of all three was Mary Dunne.  But Michael Gray begs to differ!  He figures Mary Dunne is innocent, and becomes determined to get her out of jail--to do that he has to find the killer himself!

So in Chapters 19 and most of those following, Gray does the stuff we expect the main character in a detective story to do, going from place to place in the town, talking to people, looking for clues, being threatened by people (in Gray's case Carol Webster and Bruce Oliver) who want him to stop pursuing the case, and so forth.  Gray psychoanalyzes people, including dead people based on others' descriptions of them, figuring out why they did everything they did--it was subconscious reasons, of course, often guilt that generated a desire to be punished.  For example, Sam Hope treated people the way he did because he felt a subconscious need to excel and then actually "become" his father, and Eleanor Hope was a rule-breaking slut and a compulsive gambler because she was raised by strict religious parents.  Kuttner gives us the idea that the human mind is so well-understood that a shrink can figure out the behavior of a person he never met by just consulting one or two secondary sources.

Feelings of responsibility and guilt are a major theme of The Murder of Eleanor Pope.  Howard Dunne feels responsible for the death of his sister-in-law Eleanor Pope and for that of others--he even calls himself "a proximity fuse," his metaphor for how everyone he gets close to finds themselves in trouble.  Mary Dunne feels responsible for her husband's and her brother's deaths.  These feelings of guilt are generally portrayed as irrational and unhealthy, something to be cured by the psychoanalyst.  Gray himself is far from exempt from these feelings--he feels responsible for the death of his wife during the war, even though she was in the European theatre and he was in the Pacific, and this is what makes him  feel a heavy responsibility for his patients and even his patients' relatives and associates, what is driving him to work to get the innocent Mary Dunne out of jail.  And when she is released because the cops now think Maurice Hoyle is the killer, Gray works to get him sprung because his analysis of Hoyle indicates to him that Hoyle too is innocent.

Gray's greatest feat of posthumous psychoanalysis is when he discovers that Howard Dunne was a homosexual who didn't realize he was a homosexual!  Dunne was banging all those chicks in an effort to prove to himself the masculinity that he subconsciously doubted!  Gray knows that it must have been Dunne who murdered Eleanor, Sam Pope, and himself, but he doesn't have the kind of hard evidence the DA likes, just the evidence of psychoanalysis!  Gray puts on his thinking cap, psychoanalyses himself and then does his damnedest to get into the head of Howard Dunne, and realizes where Dunne must have hidden his confession letter.  With the letter the cops are convinced, and Maurice Hoyle is off the hook.

(Nothing comes of the spectres of Carol Webster and Bruce Oliver.)  

When Dunne died I thought we might get some suspense scenes and I'd be able to grade this novel "acceptable," but instead we got even more outlandish psychoanalysis--second hand psychoanalysis of people already dead.  So I'm going to have to give The Murder of Eleanor Pope a thumbs down.

One of the problems of The Murder of Eleanor Pope is the pervasive idea that people do things because of subconscious forces that they themselves are not even aware of, and pursue things they, consciously, seek to avoid, like punishment and even death.  Now, maybe this is actually the way real life works, maybe we are all like pinballs or billiard balls, bounced around by the flippers and cues that are our subconscious fears and desires.  But characters who act this way don't make for good fiction--in compelling fiction the characters pursue goals with determination and try to overcome obstacles by making decisions and taking advantage of their resources and abilities.  And a world in which nobody has any real responsibility for what they do and in which punishment is pointless is a world in which morality makes no sense and there is no opportunity for the reader to enjoy any sense of relief or triumph when the killer is revealed, foiled or punished, and Kuttner in this novel stays true to this theory, short circuiting any chance for the authorities or the protagonist to rescue a potential murder victim or punish a malefactor by having the murderer commit suicide before he is even a suspect.  Gray's successful efforts to clear adulterous wife Mary Dunne and bland milquetoast Maurice Hoyle are weak sauce and do not offer the reader the catharsis he seeks in genre fiction because these characters have had little screen time and are not particularly likable or interesting.

In theory, a novel with a weak plot and boring characters and a poorly handled theme might be saved by fancy writing or laugh-out-loud jokes, like if maybe Jack Vance or P. G. Wodehouse or Tanith Lee was writing it, but Kuttner's style is merely adequate and there are no jokes.  

I didn't enjoy it, but if you have an interest in the career and thought of Henry Kuttner and his wife C. L. Moore, or in depictions of psychoanalysis and/or homosexuality in post-war American popular fiction, maybe reading The Murder of Eleanor Pope will be worth your time.

Monday, March 25, 2024

"Thunder in the Dawn" by Henry Kuttner

Henry Kuttner, often writing in collaboration with his wife, C. L. Moore, produced a large body of work in many different sub genres, from gruesome horror tales to murder mystery novels, from joke science fiction stories about wacky robots and drunken inventors to serious science fiction stories that speculate about the effects of technology on society.  Today, as part of our sacred quest to explore 1930s issues of Farnsworth Wright's influential magazine of the bizarre and unusual, Weird Tales, we are reading one of Kuttner's sword and sorcery tales, the first Elak story, "Thunder in the Dawn," a novella serialized over the May and June 1938 issues of WT.  "Thunder in the Dawn" has been reprinted in numerous anthologies of sword and sorcery tales and in a bunch of Kuttner collections, but we will be reading it in scans of the original 1938 issues of Weird Tales in which it debuted. 

(We've already read Robert E. Howard's contribution to the May ish, the classic "Pigeons from Hell," and Edmond Hamilton's, the well received "Isle of the Sleeper."  As for the June '38 number, we didn't just spend all our time staring at the cover, one of Margaret Brundage's finest productions--we also read a story from it, "Slave of the Flames" by Robert Bloch.)  

Anthologies featuring translations of "Thunder in the Dawn"
Left: German, 1984   Right: Finnish, 1993

Atlantis is a large continent of multiple kingdoms, and in the first two chapters of "Thunder in the Dawn" we learn that its northernmost kingdom, Cyrena, is in turmoil.  Some years ago, the ruler of Cyrena was killed in a fight with the elder of his two step-sons; this older son, Zeulas, left the kingdom to wander Atlantis, while his younger brother, Orander, ascended to the throne of Cyrena.  Recently, Vikings have been raiding Cyrena from the sea, and an evil warlock named Elf, whose diabolical practices Orander has been inhibiting, has joined forces with these Northmen to overthrow Orander.

In Chapter 1, Lycon, short and overweight comedy sidekick, and Elak, tall master swordsman, end up in a fight in a bar in southern Atlantis with a Viking in disguise, and when the Viking unleashes some magic supplied to him by Elf, a Druid leaps to the boys' aid.  In Chapter 2, the Druid explains that he is on a mission from Cyrena, to get the help of Zeulas, and reveals to Lycon that his friend "Elak" is in actual fact Zeulas, legitimate king of Cyrena.  The brother he abdicated to give the crown to, Orander, is held captive by Elf, and in the absence of a leader the Cyrenan aristocracy can't work together to resist the Viking invasion.  Elak agrees to come north to Cyrena to save the day, but first he has to visit the married noblewoman he is having an affair with.  What about "bros before hos," Elak?

In Chapter 3, Elak is caught making time with beautiful Velia by her ugly husband, Duke Granicor, whom Kuttner repeatedly describes as "ape-like," and a fight ensues.  Elak and Velia escape Granicor's palace after injuring the Duke (Velia biting him, Elak throwing him off a balcony) and join Lycon and the Druid.  The four evade pursuit in a forest and march to the big southern lake of Atlantis, where they board the Druid's galley and head north on the river that will take them to Cyrena.   

Duke Granicor has a galley of his own, and Elf's wizardry slows Dalan's vessel and speeds the Duke's, so that the Duke catches up in an inland sea and a battle results.  Chapter 4 relates the fight, featuring a boarding action, the Druid's fire magic and wind magic from afar cast by Elf.  Elak is thrown overboard, and wakes up in Chapter 5 the captive of the Pikhts, the short, hairless, dark-skinned aboriginal inhabitants of Atlantis who thousands of years ago were driven off mainland Atlantis by white-skinned invaders (the ancestors of Elak, Lycon, Granicor, Velia and the rest) and have long been relegated to this little island in this inland sea.  In the Pikht's dungeon Elak meets other white captives, and learns that the Pikhts are in league with Elf.  The Pikhts plan to sacrifice Elak to their alien god, but luckily the Druid's galley has been separated from Duke Granicor's by a storm and washed up on this very island, and through adroit use of his crystal ball the Druid has figured out where Elak is.  Lycon and Velia lead a party into the dungeon, exploiting their height privilege to overwhelm the dwarfish marginalized community of Pihkts, but they find Elak's cell empty.

In Chapter 6 we learn that Elak has done the kind of thing C. L. Moore's character Jirel of Joiry does on the regular--travelled through a tunnel to a surreal alien dimension.  In this "land in which men had not been intended to exist" of "vague shadow-patterns" and "colorless shadows" and "obscure color-patterns," Elak is menaced by a life-force-devouring Shadow, but in Chapter 7 he is rescued by a girl somewhat like a satyr or faun--she is beautifully human from the waist up, but like a deer below the waist.  This creature is the native of another dimension, an immortal being exiled to this shadow world inhabited by dead gods by Elf when Elf invaded her world.  The Druid can see Elak's predicament through his crystal ball, and summons the eight-fingered hand of his god, "Mider," to pull Elak out of the world of death.  Elf's sorcery inhibits the hand and it looks like the Shadow will get our guy, but after kissing Elak the satyr-girl sacrifices her eternal soul to rescue the Elak, throwing herself into the  Shadow, allowing it to absorb her life force and distract it long enough for Elak to escape.

Chapter 8 is the first chapter in the second of "Thunder in the Dawn"'s two installments.  The Druid's galley leaves the island of the (now extinct) Pikhts and proceeds north to Cyrena, where Elak and company disembark and march through the forest towards a rendezvous with the Cyrenan aristocracy.  Duke Granicor catches up to them again, and while his and Elak's forces are fighting an army of Vikings arrives on the scene and both Elak and Granicor are captured.  In Chapter 9 the Northmen crucify Granicor, but before they can do the same spike and mallet work on Elak, the Druid returns and wipes out the Vikings with a lightning bolt.  In an act of mercy, Elak lowers the dying Granicor from the tree to which he has been spiked, then he, the Druid, Lycon and Velia, the only survivors of those who sailed here on the Druid's galley, head off to meet the Cyrenan high nobility.

Chapter 9 covers negotiations between Elak and the nobles of Cyrena, many of whom are skeptical of Elak and the wisdom of fighting against the Vikings and Elf.  The Druid handles these negotiations the way he seems to handle every obstacle on this mission, with his Druidical sorcery.  When the most recalcitrant noble storms off, the Druid animates a tree and it kills this guy, which inspires all the other local chiefs to swear allegiance to Elak.

Chapter 10 covers a field battle between the Vikings and Elak's Cyrenan army.  The Vikings are defeated and Elak and the Druid rush to Elf's fortress.  In Chapter 11 we learn that Granicor, kept alive by his hatred of the Vikings who crucified him, has also made his way to the castle of Elf.  As Elak and the Druid explore the castle, encountering magic phenomena and the Druid himself using magic to overcome roadblocks, Granicor creeps after them.  The leader of the Vikings and a group of his men, survivors of the battle, arrive at the castle.  They are ambushed by Granicor, who kills all the soldiers and then carries their leader with him over a cliff to death far below.

In Chapter 12, Elak and the Druid find Orander, acting king of Cyrena and Elak's younger brother.  Orander is staring, hypnotized, into a yellow jewel, his face slack and empty.  The Druid explains that this jewel is a portal to another world, and to rescue the king, Elak and the Druid have to enter the jewel and join Orander in that other world.  So, for the second time this story, Elak enters a surreal alien world, and we are subjected to more surreal descriptions.  "Great vistas of flashing light, orange, scarlet, yellow, glittering with amazing beauty, down which fled cyclopean shadows."  I find dream sequences and surreal sequences tiresome, and wish Kuttner had spent more time on Elak's relationship with his brother and father or his girlfriend or something like that.

Anyway, Elf is also in this dream dimension.  Elf in this dimension created virtual worlds over which Orander rules as a god, distracting him from doing his duty as king; perhaps this is Kuttner's allegory of wasting your life on booze or drugs or reading escapist fiction instead of working a serious job and creating a family (these kind of allegories pop up in Kuttner and Moore's science fiction, like Fury and "Two-Handed Engine" in which people get distracted from real life excessive leisure time and by dream machines.)  Elf tries to convince Elak to take the throne himself, but the Druid is there to help Elak instead conduct an intervention and get Orander to snap out of his stupor.  Elf attacks Elak, but Elak has a sacrificial dagger given him by the Druid, the one weapon that can slay Elf, and he uses it to great effect.  Orander shatters the yellow jewel, and the fantasy worlds collapse and Elak and the Druid are back in the real world of Atlantis. 

The last half page of the story makes clear that Orander and the Druid now have Cyrena under control, so Elak, Velia and comic relief side kick Lycon are free to wander around Atlantis and have more adventures.

"Thunder in the Dawn" is an OK filler piece.  The fights and monsters and wizards aren't bad, but they aren't as good as similar elements you find in Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber sword and sorcery stories, and Kuttner doesn't develop the sort of tone or atmosphere or spirit that Howard and Leiber do in their better work.  Howard and Leiber also offer memorable characters, while Elak, ostensibly the lead, is underdeveloped, and seems to leave most of the decisions and opportunities to resolve plot obstacles to the Druid.  The Druid and the satyr-girl, and even Lycon, are more interesting than bland Elak is, while the most interesting character is Duke Granicor, who exhibits more passion and drive and performs more amazing feats than the main villain or any of the good guys.  Love interest Velia is like a macguffin--Kuttner tries to make her interesting by having her fight alongside Elak and Lycon in various battles, but she only figures in the plot as a reason for Granicor to chase Elak north to Cyrena and his doom.  Most remarkable about the story are the overuse of surreal alien worlds, and the high volume of blood and gore.

Kuttner published two more Elak stories in 1938, and a final one in 1941; Adrian Cole took up the saga of Elak in our own 21st century.  Expect to hear about the second and third Elak stories, and other Henry Kuttner material, here at MPorcius Fiction Log soon.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Venture, March 1958: R Silverberg, A Budrys, & D Berry

Recently we read a 1958 story by Don Berry, "Man Alone," about the first man to travel in a FTL vessel, and how seeing hyperspace drove him insane.  A reader commented that another 1958 Berry story, "The Intruder" had a similar premise, which piqued my interest.  When I saw that "The Intruder" appeared in an issue of Venture featuring stories by Robert Silverberg and Algis Budrys which I haven't read yet, I decided to fire up the internet archive, world's greatest website, and crack open that issue of Venture.  This is an issue that includes two stories we have already looked at, Poul Anderson's Flandry adventure "The Game of Glory" and Budrys' "The Edge of the Sea" (Budrys has two stories in the issue; the one we will read today appears under a pseudonym.)

This issue of Venture also offers readers an essay by Theodore Sturgeon in which he takes to task Time magazine--and mainstream publications in general--for their hostility to SF and in particular for subjecting to criticism Judith Merril.  (Merril has many vociferous supporters, and I guess Ted is one of them.)  Ol' Ted is also a pioneer recycler; he fills up half a page quoting from Bob Leman's fanzine, and another quarter page restating and discussing his famous "Revelation" that "Ninety percent of everything is crud."  Gotta meet those word counts, gotta fill those column inches.

"Eve and the Twenty-Three Adams" by Robert Silverberg

This is a story about sex that goes against everything current elite culture tells us to think about sex roles and sex differences.  The first person narrator says stuff like "They talk about the soothing touch of the female, and it's all true" to us readers and, to a woman, "'you're the only member of the crew whose job can't be done by someone else.'"  Wow!  Well, I guess in science fiction we can imagine any kind of  world, even one in which men can't get pregnant and women don't have penises!

It is the year 2240, and the space destroyer of which our narrator, 40-something Lieutenant Harper, is Psych Officer is about to ship out to the new war between the Terran and Sirian space empires.  Harper tells us the war is the result of the inability of the two empires to agree on "who was to sell what to which planets of the galaxy" and, further, that "A trade collision is a common cause of wars.  It probably destroyed ancient Troy."  Is this really true?  

Anyway, getting to Sirius system will take the Donnybrook many months and require over a hundred carefully calibrated jumps into and out of hyperspace.  A ship on such a stressful voyage, which even the slightest error caused by fatigue or anxiety can bring to total disaster, is required by law to include a "Crew Girl" to serve as "mother, wife and mistress" to the men, to relieve their stress and allow them to focus.  It is generally the job of the Psych Officer to hire the Crew Girl, so Harper interviews a few dozen women and selects Eve Tyler, who is bright and pretty and has never served as a Crew Girl before.

A few days into the eight-month trip it is clear that Tyler is a absolutely unsuitable as a Crew Girl.  She refuses to have sex with the men, and is so sweet and cute that they are all falling in love with her.  Instead of relieving tension she is causing it, and the astrogators are starting to make mistakes, putting the ship's mission and its very survival at grave risk.  When the officers confront Tyler she admits she is a virgin who never intended to have sex with the men and hired a forger to prepare her papers--her fiancé is in the Sirius system and she got herself mustered into the crew fraudulently in order to join him and marry him out in the battle zone, and she is determined that he will be her first lover.

The solution to the problem faced by Harper and the Donnybrook is pretty monstrous, turning Silverberg's story into a sort of horror tale or fetishistic soft core porn.  Tyler is drugged so that she has the mentality of a baby or imbecile.  She can't feed herself or dress herself, much less read a book or talk.  The point of this is that she can't refuse sexual advances.  On the long voyage to Sirius, every single one of the twenty-three crewmembers of the Donnybrook uses her sexually multiple times, and this keeps their morale on an even keel.  To think that twenty-three educated men could all enjoy sex with a woman who can't consent or offer any kind of emotional or intellectual response is pretty disturbing--is Silverberg offering a brutal critique of men's attitude towards women here or depicting a dystopian future?  

(We might also consider the similarity of Silverberg's story to Tom Godwin's famous "Cold Equations," a 1954 story the plot of which is largely the product of Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr.; "Cold Equations" is another story in which a woman puts many lives at risk by stowing away on a ship and who thereby renders null her basic rights.)    

When the destroyer arrives in the war zone, Harper hypnotizes Tyler so she will think the trip was uneventful and nobody had sex with her.  She is left at a base to get some kind of desk job or something.  The twist ending of the story is that Tyler's fiancé turns out to be Harper's son from a long dissolved marriage--as the story ends Harper is about to attend his son's wedding to a woman who thinks she is a virgin but whom Harper knows has been sexually violated by himself and twenty-two of his colleagues.

"Eve and the Twenty-Three Adams" is a pretty wild story, and even if you think it is full of bogus psychology, physics, and history and find the behavior it depicts appalling it is compelling and thought-provoking.  Silverberg creates an alien world and we see it through the eyes of an insider, and his writing style is smooth, ensuring the story is an easy read and rendering the wild stuff that takes place all the more jarring.  (And perhaps reminding us of H. P. Lovecraft's suggestion in a letter printed in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales that horror stories should be written from the point of view of the villain.)

Quite effective--thumbs up!  "Eve and the Twenty-Three Adams" would see print again in a number of European publications, and the 1969 Silverberg collection Dimension Thirteen.    

"There Ain't No Other Roads" by Algis Budrys (as by Robert Marner)

This is something of a rare Budrys, only reappearing (as far as isfdb knows) in the British edition of Venture and the French version of F&SF (Venture, which produced only 16 issues, was put out by the same people who produced the more successful F&SF.) 

Latin American migrant Ernesto Garcia, our narrator, got off a ship in Florida and is hitchhiking up Route 1 to meet his folks in New York.  In some Southern state, three country boys, one with greenish teeth and the other two with rat-faces, beat him up, but before they can inflict permanent damage they are driven off by another drifter.  This guy was waylaid by miscreants himself a few days ago, and has a head wound; apparently he was saved from death by a metal plate installed in his skull, presumably after a war injury.  This Good Samaritan suffers amnesia and doesn't even recall his own name.  

These two hitchhikers become companions, and continue the march north.  They have a strange series of interactions with people that I won't try to describe here and which Budrys keeps pretty mysterious, expecting the reader to figure them out based on clues or to just accept them as bewildering.  (In several ways, "There Ain't No Other Roads" reminds me of the work of Gene Wolfe.)  To put it briefly, it seems that the Good Samaritan is a robot from a Galactic Federation and has as its duty to wander the Earth, chasing down aliens who come down here to exploit or just toy with us humans; these aliens disguise themselves as humans or take over human bodies or something like that.  A bunch of these alien criminals are trying to destroy the robot, whom they call "a cop;" it was they who inflicted that head wound, and our narrator witnesses the robot's outwitting of their efforts to spring a complicated trap on him.

Budrys aims to imbue his story with pathos.  The robot has a consciousness, though either through design or because of battle damage it sometimes forgets it is a robot.  Even when forgetful, automatic systems set it on the right path to continue its mission.  When it remembers its true nature it is sad, because it has no real family, history or people.  It seems to feel some sort of kinship with one of the criminals, the ringleader, because they are both from beyond Earth and because this ringleader, in his efforts to figure out how to destroy the almost invincible robot, is the only person to really try to understand the robot, how it thinks and feels.

The theme of much of Budrys' work is the question of "what makes a man?", and we see it here in "There Ain't No Other Roads."  The robot is alien to Earth, and at least in part inorganic, but he has the attributes we associate with a good man--he is strong and a good fighter, but respectful of others, using his strength to help others rather than to abuse them.  Part of the trap laid by the villains is to leave an inoperative ray pistol in a second hand shop with a sign on it reading "THIS BELONGS TO THE MAN WHO CAN USE IT," an allusion to the Arthurian story of the sword in the stone.

Garcia is portrayed as intelligent and educated, and Budrys uses the narrator's references to history and high culture to foreshadow events later in the story and give us clues as to what is going on.  Garcia comments that the people of this Southern state are obsessed with their ancestry, and derisively suggests they can trace their ancestors back to Newgate and Tyburn, foreshadowing the importance of family and history to the robot and that the story will be about law enforcement.

Budrys gives us reason to think of the robot as an angel come to Earth to guard people and mete out justice.  When Garcia looks in a record shop window his eyes linger on "the Angel L. P. of Verdi's Requiem Mass."  At the end of the story the alien cop tells Garcia that "There is justice in this world, and everywhere else."  (These Christian overtones are of course another thing that reminds me of Gene Wolfe.)

"There Ain't No Other Roads" is a somewhat tricky and challenging story full of allusions and mysteries; we are giving it a thumbs up here at MPorcius Fiction Log, but it is easy to see why it hasn't been reprinted much--it isn't a smooth read and its rewards are perhaps elusive.  Budrys' style, narrative techniques and themes make his story something of an interesting contrast with Silverberg's easy-to-read, in-your-face-shocking, modern-in-style and modern-in-theme (sex and clinical psychology) contribution to this issue of Venture.

"Intruder" by Don Berry

Alright kids, it is time to make the jump to hyperspace and read the story that brought us here!  "Intruder" was only ever reprinted in the British edition of Venture, but let's not count it out until we have read it ourselves.

Oy, "Intruder," 18 pages, starts with a dream sequence more than a page long that is conveyed via a multitude of poetic devices: one-word paragraphs ("Fury."), run-on sentences, repetition ("Red, red, red."), ellipses, neologisms ("talldom.")  A boy is faced by his naked father, who wears an opera hat and questions and scolds sonny, and the boy has trouble speaking because his throat is filled with fire.  

The dreamer is David Saar, the lone astronaut on what he has been told is the first ever FTL flight.  Saar's ship is equipped with the new hyperdrive, and takes millisecond long trips through hyperspace, each jump hurling the ship hundreds of light years through real space.  It is apparently during these split-second jumps that he has his dreams of being berated and interrogated by his naked father.  Via hyperspace radio Saar can communicate with Earth as easily as you talk to your Mom on the phone.  The radio operator back on Earth receives all of the various data Saar collects, and keeps asking questions about how Saar feels, and if Saar has any dreams.  Saar denies he has any dreams.

The truth kept from Saar is that the radio operator is a shrink, and Saar is the third man to travel through hyperspace; the astronauts on the first two missions went insane--apparently they ceased to believe in their own existence!--and later died.   

The PsychOfficer, some military men, and the team of Chinese mathematicians who came up with the theory that made the hyperdrive possible spend the story carefully observing Saar and trying to figure out what hyperspace is all about.  Saar appears to be gradually losing touch with reality, in unguarded moments talking as if his father is out there in space with him, I guess subconsciously, but not consciously, remembering those dreams,

The plot of "Intruder" is not bad, but there are way too many long and tedious and repetitive dream sequences in which Saar is on fire and his father asks him official-sounding questions like "Name and occupation?" and "Place of residence?"  Are there people who enjoy this sort of text?  These sequences could have been severely shortened and still served their narrative purpose.  

Anyway, the shrink and the Chinese math guys theorize that hyperspace is home to or actually consists of an alien intelligence that is trying to communicate with the humans who pop into its realm, and Saar's psyche is responding to these communications by anthropomorphizing the alien entity, an effort of the subconscious to maintain Saar's sanity by translating inexplicable sense impressions into something familiar; because the alien is so superior it is only natural that Saar's subconscious represents it as his father, and Saar himself as a child.  We who are privy to the dreams realize the alien considers human appearances in its realm an intrusion and is demanding the use of the hyperdrive be suspended permanently.  The cosmic horror ending of Berry's story is the suggestion that the alien entity is going to colonize Saar and, when Saar gets back to Earth, kill us all.

I want to like "Intruder," and I think I would if the dream sequences were each a paragraph long instead of a page long--I'll call it acceptable.


Three serious and ambitious stories which pursue a variety of goals and employ diverse strategies in pursuit of those goals.  This is a good issue of Venture!  Kudos to editor Robert P. Mills and everybody else involved.

Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log for more explorations of SF of days gone by.


Friday, March 22, 2024

The Fire Princess by Edmond Hamilton

The princess of the hidden kingdom looked like some warrior maid of archaic times, imperious as a tyrant, dangerous as a leopard, wild as a hawk poised for flight.

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we love Edmond Hamilton, we love Weird Tales, and we love reading stories that are sort of forgotten, stories that were printed once and never printed again.  So Hamilton's The Fire Princess, a serial that published in three installment across the August, September and October 1938 issues of Farnsworth Wright's magazine of the bizarre and unusual, and does not appear to ever have been reprinted, is right up our alley.

The Fire Princess has almost the same plot and structure as the Hamilton Weird Tales serial we read back in July of 2023, The Lake of Life, and most of the stuff I say in my The Lake of Life blogpost applies to this story.  A cast of characters finds a remote kingdom of white people in the middle of a nonwhite region of the world, where the main character falls in love with these people's princess and gets involved in their internecine conflicts, which include a struggle between the lords temporal and the lords spiritual.  The secret kingdom is somehow connected to an ancient alien race, and poses a threat to the entire world.  The main character faces a moral dilemma, and then the plot is resolved by a deus ex machina, and our heroes narrowly escape just before the hidden kingdom gets totally destroyed.

Compared to The Lake of Life, The Fire Princess is downbeat and tragic--all the people who fall in love in the story lose their beloved.  Also curiously, the main character, an American spy, and the character readers are secondmost likely to identify with, a female British spy, actually accomplish little, and do not kill anyone--the Japanese and Russian spies do all the necessary killing, and the plot is resolved when a native of the secret kingdom kills another.  Though the threat to the world is neutralized, nobody in the story who makes any plans sees them succeed--nobody lives happily ever after.  The most interesting and active character in the story is the princess, who has a selfish, solipsistic, love of freedom, and psychopathically (or is it sociopathically?) overcomes all moral and religious obstacles to her pursuit of a life of risk and adventure and exhibits zero inhibitions about killing people and destroying entire civilizations in pursuit of her goals.   

Though I like that the story involves lots of lava, and multiple love triangles, I think The Lake of Life is probably marginally superior, seeing as it had more active characters, better fights, and a somewhat more exciting setting.      

The Fire Princess offers some interesting things for scholars.  As it involves the Great Powers meddling in the politics of mountainous Asia, there are both Yellow Peril angles and echoes of "the Great Game"--a Russian spy actually uses the phrase "the great game."  Hamilton's portrayal of a Japanese and a Soviet spy perhaps offer insight into the beliefs about Imperial Japan and the USSR of ordinary Americans; also of interest is the fact that the American agent seems to see the British agent as just as much a rival as he does the Japanese and the communist--the USA is against all imperialism, even that of our limey pals!  

Below I will provide a summary of the plot of The Fire Princess for those interested.


The protagonist of The Fire Princess is Gary Martin, an American intelligence agent who for six years has been traveling around the Far East, playing the role of a paleontologist but in reality collecting not fossils but information on the activities of the Imperial Japanese.  He meets his boss in Tientsin (we are supposed to call it Tianjin, now, kids), and is relieved to learn that he has been granted six months leave and can get back to America to watch a football game and hear people speaking English!  But the boss has another assignment for Martin--he can't order our boy to undertake it, but he thinks that if Martin hears about it, he'll realize how important it is and volunteer!  And he does!

You see, rumors are spreading among the nomadic tribes of Tibet about a woman, the leader of a reclusive tribe in the sacred Tibetan valley known as the Valley of Koom, where once lived the gods and where still rest their secrets.  This woman, Shirani, is said to be about to descend from the mountains that surround Koom to lead the people of Asia to great victories in war!  The superstitious nomads, united under a charismatic leader, could plunge Asia into chaos and trigger a worldwide cataclysm.

Perhaps even worse, Martin's boss has learned that Japan's greatest secret agent, Major Okara, has left Tokyo for Tibet--no doubt the Japanese are going to try to gain control of the Koom woman and thereby gain control of the Asian interior!  America needs somebody to get to this mysterious Shirani before Okara and make sure she doesn't come under the influence of Japan or any other great power, or, failing that, kill her, and Martin is just the man for the job!

In Chapter 2, Martin and the small party of locals he has haired are riding in Tibet, towards the mountains beyond which lies the sacred and forbidden kingdom of Koom.  They meet a determined Englishwoman, Joan Laird, who is in Tibet looking for her missing father, a missionary.  She is on foot and without supplies because her Chinese hirelings abandoned her when they got this close to the sacred mountains.  She joins Martin's party (he maintains the fiction that he is searching for fossils) and that night they see a red glow behind the forbidden mountains.

In Chapter 3 our heroes are captured by Tibetan nomads and taken to a veritable city of tents where an army of Tibetans awaits the prophesied arrival of Shirani.  Martin and Laird find that the Tibetans have another white captive with them--Boris Borchoff, a big jovial Soviet spy, no doubt in Tibet pursuing a mission much like Okara's.  The Tibetans' leader declares that all three of them will be executed on the day that Shirani comes down from the mountains.

In Chapter 4 Borchoff outs Laird as a British spy sent to manipulate Shirani in the interest of the British Empire; at first Martin doesn't believe the Red, but then he strip searches Laird (hubba hubba) and finds her British Intelligence ID card in "the silk bandeau that confined her firm breasts."  More manhandling of women follows when the captives overpower the Tibetan woman who brings them their grub and strip her so they can disguise Martin's right hand man, a Mongol, with her clothes.  The disguised Mongol sneaks off, charged with collecting horses and weapons for the spies, but a hubbub off in the camp suggests he has been detected.  Martin, Laird and Borchoff manage to escape anyway, and catch up with the Mongol halfway through the canyon into Koom, at which point the "Mongol" reveals he is no Mongol, but Major Okara in disguise!  He is about to kill the Western and Soviet spies when the Tibetan horde catches up with them and the four outsiders have to work together to escape.

An avalanche separates the four spies in the snowy canyon.  Okara is the first to make it to Koom, and Borchoff is not far behind.  Martin and Laird are tied for last place, and join forces and march up to Koom, following the course of a river of lava.  The American and British spies keep saving each others' lives, even though they are rivals in the quest to get influence over Shirani, and even though Martin keeps saying he will kill Laird if he must to keep the British Empire from dominating Asia through Shirani.  The two Anglos make their way through a tunnel full of lava and poisonous vapors into the beautiful forested valley of Koom, where they find Okara and Borchoff; Okara has incapacitated the Soviet spook and is about to throw him in the lava when he sees Martin and turns his attention to the Yankee.  The fight, and Chapter 5, end when a troop of mounted white men in mail, led by a white woman, opportunely show up.

The leader of the cavalry troop is none other than Shirani, ruler of Koom, and in Chapter 6 we get acquainted with her and her milieu.  This blue-eyed blonde is the most beautiful woman Martin has ever seen, and Hamilton describes her in some detail, stressing not only her beauty but her pride, imperiousness and mercilessness.  The four outsiders are seized and taken to the city of Koom, which sits next to a lake of lava two miles across.  We learn of the conflict within Koom between Shirani and the priesthood--Shirani thinks her people's religion is a bunch of old bunk that is holding back Koom (but mostly herself.)  In the palace, as the four spies watch, the black-garbed head priest demands that Shirani hand over the outsiders so he can put them to death as the laws of the ancient gods prescribe.  The laws of the ancient gods are all about keeping Koom isolated from the outside world, and making sure nobody gets their mitts on the tremendous power the gods left behind.

Chapter 7 begins the September installment of the serial with Shirani turning the tables on the high priest.  In the Temple is secured the key to the Place of Power, and Shirani demands the cleric hand it over so she can access the Power that will allow her to conquer the world, and the assembled nobility of Koom sides with her, they sharing her belief that "The Ancient Ones have been dead for ages--their law is dead also."  The priest is forced to leave the palace without the captives.

Okara begins scheming with Jhulun, Shirani's fiancé and the top noble of the kingdom.  For her part, Shirani takes a shine to Martin and has him brought to her room for a fancy meal.  Jhulun finds the princess kissing the American agent, arousing the noble's jealousy.  

By Chapter 8, Okara and Martin have to agree that no outsider is going to be able to control the strong-willed Shirani, and the Japanese convinces everybody that to prevent mass war in Asia they have to kill Shirani.  Martin agrees only reluctantly, leading  Laird to accuse him of being in love with the princess.  Okara, Borchoff and Martin sneak out of their cell and fight their way into Shirani's room--Borchoff dies in the melee--but when Martin has a chance to kill Shirani he can't bring himself to do it; as the brown-eyed Laird divined, Martin is hopelessly in love with the blue-eyed princess, and Shirani is just as much in love with him. 

In Chapter 9 we learn that Martin is not the only man who is betraying his duty for Shirani--a junior priest arrives at the princess's room bearing the key to the Place of Power!  The princess brings Martin with her to the Tomb of the Ancient Ones; Martin sees the centuries-old corpses of the last members of this extinct race of alien gods, who turn out to have been silicon-based life forms shaped like men but ten feet tall and with eyes like jewels.  According to Shirani, these jokers once ruled the world but then grew tired of their eternal lives and committed suicide after locking up their source of power and teaching the people of Koom to make sure no human ever got his hands on all that power.  At the locked entrance to the Place of Power, Shirani is confronted by the high priest, who has noticed his key was missing.  He whips out a dagger with which to kill the blasphemous princess, but she is the quicker and it is the man of the cloth who falls dead, slain by Shirani's dagger.

Chapter 10, the first chapter of the third and final installment of The Fire Princess, sees Shirani and Martin explore beyond the massive doors that conceal the Place of Power, a miles-deep chasm with fire and lava at its bottom.  Above the chasm is mounted an elaborate machine with eight ray projectors controlled by eight levers; this apparatus can shift the Earth's tectonic plates and cause civilization-destroying quakes anywhere in the world.  Shirani plans to use this machinery to wreck the nations of the outside world, softening them up so they will be easy prey for her army of Tibetans and Mongols.  Having confirmed that the Power is real, the princess summons an assembly of all the people of Koom to announce that tomorrow she will loose the Power and then lead them out of the valley to victory--also, that she is marrying this outlander here.  Spurned Jhulun tries to get the populace to reject Martin, with no success; Martin's efforts to dissuade Shirani from destroying civilization outside the valley are equally fruitless.

When Martin gets back to the cell, Okara denounces the American and even tries to kill him, but, before he can get the job done, Jhulun and some of his retainers burst into the room to seize the three spies.  In Chapter 11 the outsiders are carried off to be thrown in the lava, but Okara sacrifices his life to sound the alarm, so Shirani's men arrive in time to rescue Martin and Laird.  Jhulun's men are killed, but Jhulun himself escapes.  Back in their cell again, Laird tries to convince Martin to kill Shirani to save the world, and confesses her own love for Martin.  Martin--who has been letting Okara and Borchoff do all the killing throughout the story--can only bring himself to pledge to kill Shirani after determining that he will kill himself afterward--he couldn't live with himself after destroying the woman he loves.

In Chapter 12 Shirani brings Martin with her to the machine with eight levers in the Place of Power.  Martin's plan to kill her while she is distracted operating the machine is foiled when the princess has him tied up so she can focus on running the device.  She then sends away the guards, who are nervous over being in such a sacred place, which leaves her open to sneak attack by Jhulun, who has been hiding in the Tomb.  Shirani only has time to pull one lever before the scorned noble rushes her, grabs her, and jumps down into the chasm with her to be killed in now rising lava below.  Martin breaks his bonds, returns the first lever to the off position, and flees Koom with Laird--the rising lava destroys Koom behind them, but the rest of the Earth is spared.

In the Epilog, Joan Laird tries to get Gary Martin to stay with her, but he refuses--Shirani, the woman of spirit who disdained a life of "ignoble security" and was willing to kill millions and risk her own life in pursuit of "high adventure and conquest," will be his girl until the day he dies.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Merril-approved 1958 stories by P Ashwell, D Berry and R Bloch

In alphabetical order by author, we are reading stories published in 1958 that Judith Merril recommended in the back of her 1959 anthology SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume.  We started this journey with Poul Anderson and Alan Arkin, and today finish up the "A"s with Pauline Ashwell and advance into the "B"s with Don Berry and Robert Bloch.

"Unwillingly to School" by Pauline Ashwell

Merril actually has two stories by Ashwell on her list; I read the other, "Big Sword," back in 2019 when we were reading Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest's Spectrum V.  Like "Big Sword," "Unwillingly to School" debuted in Astounding; wikipedia credits Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr. with discovering Ashwell.

"Unwillingly to School" is a lot like those Heinlein stories in which a young person, often the first-person narrator, enters the wider world and receives life lessons, a story that both is focused on likable characters in human relationships that have some emotional effect on the reader and affords the author opportunities to speculate on what life might be like in the future as well as unleash some philosophy on you.  

"Unwillingly to School" is 38 pages long and the first in a series of four stories about Lysistrata "Liz" Lee; the four stories appeared together in the 1992 collection Unwillingly to Earth.  "Unwillingly to School" also reappeared in a 1986 anthology of stories considered by such people as Piers Anthony and Barry N. Malzberg to have been "neglected masterpieces" entitled Uncollected Stars, as well as in the 2019 anthology Science Fiction by Women (1958-1963).      

Liz is our narrator, an attractive teenager with blue eyes and blonde hair.  Liz is a tomboy, raised on a frontier world by men (her mother having abandoned the family when little Lizzie was three) and accustomed to working with farm machinery and domestic animals.  Dad is uneducated, and has a sort of minor learning disability that means he can't take advantage of modern high-tech learning machines and instead reads actual physical books, which takes like eight times as long.  Dad, however, has an iron will, a drive to succeed, and an allergy to being pushed around, and these characteristics propelled him to success against all odds on the frontier planet, first as a miner and then as a farmer.  Liz has inherited both her father's learning disability and his independent streak.

The plot of "Unwillingly to School" is set in motion when Dad is injured in an accident on the farm and has to be taken to the hospital in town.  This town is a famously rough place, full of miners who spend weekdays working hard and every night and all weekend getting drunk and letting off steam by fighting each other.  Despite everybody telling her the town is no place for a girl, Liz insists on staying in town to be close to Dad, who is in a coma for some days and then stuck in his hospital bed for weeks.  Like something out of a Shirley Temple movie, Liz gets a job in the toughest dive bar in the town and her charm pacifies all the roughnecks there, bringing out their natural decency.

In the course of all this, Liz meets a college professor from Earth who recruits students from all over the Terran space empire of over a hundred planets.  He is a professor of Cultural Engineering, and Liz's ability to pacify miners who are regulars at the bar suggests she is a natural Cultural Engineer.  This professor, her father, and other characters who care about her, join forces to manipulate Liz into attending college on Earth, even though she has no desire to go to Terra or attend college.  (Like in much of Heinlein's work, there is a tension in this story in regards to authority--rebellion and independence are celebrated, but at the same time wise authority is venerated.)

On Earth, Liz gets some philosophy from her room mate, a woman who thinks rules and regulations are there to be broken and that it is essential to take risks, and a black African (another similarity to Heinlein--the admirable nonwhite character), and of course the college professor.  She also discovers a solution to her learning disability, so she can now "read" as fast as anybody.  As the story ends we have every reason to believe Liz is going to have a successful college career while at the same time maintaining her intellectual independence and not just blindly accepting whatever the profs say. 

"Unwilling to School" is a fun story that is a pleasure to read.  The structure is a little questionable; the story feels like a series of episodes instead of a cohesive whole, and there isn't really a big climax.  One could also argue that Liz isn't driving the narrative, but is at the mercy of others and of circumstance.  These issues make "Unwilling to School" feel sort of like the first two or three chapters of a novel that show the character growing so she will be able to act like a self-directed hero who resolves the conflict that is at the center of in the later sections of the book.

Another issue I have with the story is that Ashwell employs unconventional grammar, capitalization and punctuation, I guess an effort to mimic speech (as opposed to composed and copyedited text) or Liz's disability or just the way language has evolved since the 20th century.  This is a little annoying, but not too bad; I got used to it, and of course it is the kind of ambitious stylistic technique that lots of critics might praise. 

So, thumbs up for "Unwillingly to School."  I'll also note that the Frank Kelly Freas illustrations for the story's appearance here in Astounding are quite fun.

"Man Alone" by Don Berry

Wikipedia tells us that Berry published nine SF stories and then abandoned the form to write fiction and histories set in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains.  "Man Alone" seems to be Berry's last published SF story--well, Berry went out with a bang, his last SF work being a cover story for Damon Knight's If that occupies 27 pages of the magazine and was illustrated by Emsh.  (This issue of If is noteworthy as "a special issue" with a silly gimmick--each of the issue's eight short stories is assigned a date and readers are enjoined to read them in order and experience them as a future history of space flight.  "Man Alone" takes place in 2110.)  

I guess Merril liked "Man Alone" because it is about psychology, glamorizes and perhaps emulates mainstream literature, and expresses skepticism of the space program.  I'm calling it merely acceptable, or maybe just barely acceptable, as it is kind of long and slow, and at times feels repetitive.

"Man Alone" is made up of five chapters.  Most of Chapter 1 takes place in a spaceship operated by a single astronaut, and we observe various strange aspects of his psychology.  For one thing, his memory and knowledge are severely lacking--he doesn't seem to understand simple English words and social concepts, "wife" among them.  He seems to operate the spaceship robotically, or automatically, like a man who has been hypnotized--he pushes buttons and dictates messages to home base in response to stimuli, but doesn't consciously will or understand what he is doing, thinks of the stuff he says into the microphone as "nonsense."  As we readers watch, he steers the ship back to Earth, lands at the space program's base in the desert and steps out of the ship, to then encounter invisible aliens--he recognizes their presence only because they touch him--and flee back to the ship.  

The remaining chapters focus on the efforts of a general of the space program and a civilian psychologist who smokes a pipe (Berry commits one of my little pet peeves in this story, writing at length about a person's smoking as a way of giving him a personality and conveying his feelings) to figure out what is going on with the astronaut.  It turns out this guy was given the job of test flying the first ship ever built that can go into hyperspace, and was indeed hypnotically conditioned to operate the vessel.  When he jumped into hyperspace he was so horrified by something that as a defense mechanism his mind made him forget anything and everything about his life and the fact that the human race even exists.  He doesn't know what the word "wife" means, and couldn't see or hear the space program personnel who greeted him upon landing because his brain was trying to hide from him the very fact that the human race exists.

The pipe-smoking shrink figures out how to get the astronaut out of the ship--he has the spaceman's wife call the ship on the radio and ask her husband again and again to disembark, and her familiar voice eventually worms its way into his subconscious and prompts him to leave the ship.  Outside, he is shot with a tranquilizer dart and put into a padded cell.  In the cell the pipe-smoker hypnotizes him, and gets some insight into what is going on in his head.  Then the shrink rereads Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature," which contains the line "...if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars."  While the shrink is away the astronaut escapes his padded room and somehow gets back into the ship.  He tries to take off, but because the ship has not been properly prepared, instead of taking off it explodes, killing the astronaut who is the "the loneliest human being who ever lived."  The general says that they will launch another mission just like this one and the shrink is certain the next astronaut to go to hyperspace will be driven just as crazy as the tragic man who was the first.

I guess people like Merril, champion of the New Wave and somebody who was always looking to dissolve the boundaries between mainstream literature and genre literature, had read so many science fiction stories in which science and technological progress were glorified, and/or in which a hero overcame some obstacle and achieved some goal, that they got sick of that stuff and became excited about science fiction stories that suggested science and technology weren't so great after all and which depicted not success but failure, like so much of mainstream literature.*  Berry's "Man Alone" is just such a story.  "Man Alone" also brings to mind the way Harry Harrison characterized the New Wave in that 1968 issue of Amazing we recently looked at, as fiction more concerned with the "inner space" of the mind than traditional SF.

Powerhouse editors Damon Knight and Judith Merril were into this story, which we might see as a precursor of the New Wave (or an indication that the New Wave wasn't all that revolutionary after all), but it seems the rest of the SF community resisted the suasion of those two cultural arbiters--"Man Alone," if we are to believe isfdb, has never been reprinted. 

*Here I remind you of Barry Malzberg's 1982 account of his 1969 meeting with John W. Campbell, Jr., printed in Engines of the Night, in which Campbell insisted mainstream literature was a literature of defeat and science fiction was about discovery and problem solving.   

"That Hell-Bound Train" by Robert Bloch

This is one of Bloch's most famous and respected stories; it won a Hugo, is illustrated on the cover of 1977's The Best of Robert Bloch, and has been reprinted in many anthologies, including Martin H. Greenberg's My Favorite Fantasy Story ("That Hell-Bound Train" is apparently Rick Hautala's favorite fantasy story) and John Pelan's The Century's Best Horror Fiction 1951-2000.  

"That Hell-Bound Train" is one of those stories in which a guy makes a deal with the Devil; the twist is that in this story the mortal outsmarts Ol' Scratch.  I generally find deal-with-the-devil stories lame, but this one is OK. 

Martin ran away from the orphanage four or five years ago to live the life of a hobo and petty thief; his father, who died when Martin was a little kid, worked for the railroad, and Martin has kept close to the rails.  He's about had enough of this difficult and lonely life, and is thinking about going straight when a strange black passenger train pulls up and Martin is accosted by a creepy conductor whom he knows must be the Devil!  Satan has been counting on Martin's soul, and doesn't like the idea of Martin getting in tune with the straight and narrow.  So Mephistopheles has come by hoping to cut a deal with Martin that will allow him to retain that valuable commodity that is Martin's eternal soul.  Martin makes a clever trade--in return for his soul, payable upon death, Martin receives a watch that when activated will stop his passage through time; he plans to arrest his journey through time at just the point that he has achieved happiness and thus make his happiness eternal.

Martin considers stopping time after eating a satisfying meal and reclining in a comfy bed, but decides to push himself a little harder, to achieve even greater happiness.  Years go by as he actually gets a job and makes some money, dates women and earns a series of raises and promotions so he can get better lodgings and even get married and father a son.  Again and again he has achieved some measure of happiness and considers stopping time so he can enjoy this moment forever, but he always opts to pursue an even greater measure of happiness.  Eventually Martin screws up, cheating on his wife, and he loses his family, ushering in a period of loneliness and poor health.  Finally, Martin has a stroke by the train tracks and Satan's train rolls up to carry him to hell.

Martin enters a passenger car full of partying sinners, and it is here that Martin activates his Time Stopper--he will spend eternity at this loud raucous drunken party and never actually be delivered to Hell.

This story is well-put together, and I can't say it has any glaring faults or is annoying, but I can't help but feel it is just a sort of filler gimmick story--it doesn't have any kind of emotional impact or philosophical core, unless we are supposed to take seriously the idea that endless drunken partying will make you happier than holding down a steady job and maintaining a family.  "That Hell-Bound Train" is fine, but no big deal; maybe I should read the Fritz Leiber and Manly Wade Wellman stories it beat for the Hugo and see how they stack up.  (I read the Algis Budrys story beaten by "That Hell-Bound Train," "The Edge of the Sea," back in 2022, and, if memory serves, it is more mature and serious than Bloch's winning story, but not written quite as smoothly.)  


The 1958 Merril train keeps a rollin'.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log to ride along with us.